The Banquet

An adventure in Tokyo

It had been three days since I arrived and I was trying to work out how the worlds of systems biology and Asian travel sit together.  I sat in a lecture theatre and concentrated on bioluminescent probes; I stepped outside and was enticed by curtain-doored restaurants down back alleys serving noodles and tempura (I inferred from the smells; the alien looking menu boards gave nothing away).  My question was could these two worlds meet?  Well, as such things in this world often seem to be, once the question had been given a form, in no time at all, I was given an answer: yes.  It came on a plate.

Ueno by day: the streets

and the other side of the park

On this fiercely cool Tokyoan evening, we guests were led across the busy spaghetti intersection in Ueno district, up over the train station and into the sudden quiet of Ueno park. It was hard to glean much information about the restaurant we were led to from its exterior, tucked amongst trees in the unlit park. Inside, it was definitely Japanese. We took our shoes off and walked (several of us stooping) down a matted corridor to a private room where our table was laid. I was slightly disappointed to see a normal dining table and chairs, having been rather looking forward to siting on the floor. Then again, our meal lasted for hours. I’m sure by the end I would have been dreaming of a nice chair.

I sat with my sake, acclimatising.  The conversation drifted between sightseeing in Tokyo and somebody’s spat with an apparently hostile journal editor.

The first course arrived. I was struck by the delicacy with which each morsel had been placed on the plate. In such stark contrast to a plate of fish and chips say, or a pasta bake. It is true that in many British restaurants courses will be plated well — a bit of food arranged with decoration — but that is just it: in these cases the style is additional, a sprig of green or a drizzle of sauce. The Japanese mouthfuls I am presented with now need no dressing up. They themselves are the show.

Appetisers ...and an egg

Our host sits to my right two places down. I lean onto the table to steal glances his way; my motive being that letting his behaviour dictate my own regarding when, and how, to eat will minimise my chances of banqueting faux pas.

The starters were sometimes strange, most times tasty.  A bowl with a raw egg broken into it sat at the edge of each place.  I noted it, with curiosity and a little trepidation, but then moved on. There were too many things to try to dwell on any one.

Having had a couple days to get into the swing of no cutlery, I was feeling much more nimble fingered with my chopsticks than I did upon arrival. There is a certain extra satisfaction that comes with eating food this way: that successful plate-to-mouth manoeuvre.  Quite a distinct way of eating than using the more brutish fork.

A miso soup arrived next, followed by chicken wings that were succulent and delicious.  Amidst these dishes I described to one of the speakers from the conference how I study images of stem cells that glow red by virtue of a fluorescent protein tag and how we seek to use such data to understand why these stem cells function correctly in some places of the body and not in others.

But back to the food.  The small plates were cleared; a gas hot plate was brought out and placed at the table’s centre and beside it a large platter of meat and vegetables. As directed by a waitress, it was time to

       Ladies and gentlemen, whisk your eggs!

An inward grin grew over me as I looked around the table at the scene. Each of us holding our little bowl with a raw egg inside, whisking with our chopsticks as demonstrated by the waitress, obedient yet ignorant.  Once the beef strips were fried we handed over our egg bowls to be returned to us with pieces of the meat inside. I ate mine quickly, thinking perhaps it better not to give it a chance to cool. It tasted good, not as raw as I had feared. Back again and again our bowls were passed and filled, until the egg mixed entirely with soy broth and there was no more danger of rawness, and until we were full beyond full.

When the hot plate was finally done, soup was brought out with (frankly to our horror) rice. Though we could eat no more, eat we did, relishing the last of the sake to wash it down. Suddenly I had a small moment of internal panic. Stay calm, I encouraged myself, you will remember what you did with your shoes. I began feeling around in socked feet at the peripheries of my legs’ reach and then in relief I remembered, ah yes, we are all in our socks.  This is as it is supposed to be. It was the upright table I think, and the British/American company that jolted me into a place of thinking that I ought to be shod. Another grin befell me. Here we are, a table of researchers and professors, all eating rice soup in our socks.

Deliriously full now, desert came. Thankfully it was small. A gooey glutinous rice flour ball filled with sweet bean paste: azuki shiratama. The first time I tasted this pulse-based pudding I was quite unconvinced. Having given it a fair run however, I can say that it has grown on me considerably, into a very respectable sweet option. In complete repletion, there is nothing left to say about this meal except oyshi katta!

Although after counting the energy I needed to expend digesting there was really not enough for any other activity, it was time to rise and depart. The freezing air hit me in welcome waves. The pleasure I take in slow walks after a big meal is great.  After all those tastes I welcome the inhalation of air’s clean nothingness.  We meandered back across the park towards Ueno, mostly in content silence.

Reservoir Dogs of Systems Biology

By now, 10.30, I felt slight discomfort at the idea of waking up at 4.30, and at eating again not long after that time, and it being sushi, for breakfast. Nonetheless I was excited in anticipation of Tsujiki fish market.  But that is another day.

First a pause, a bed, a moment to breath the foreign air alone. In those last few seconds of consciousness, I smiled to myself. And then nothing.   


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