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An American in Kyoto

Victoria Abbott Riccardi describes her life in Kyoto, engulfed by the tastes and customs of Japan.

July 3, 2004

Victoria Abbott Riccardi describes her life in Kyoto, engulfed by the tastes and customs of Japan.

To the right of the entrance stood what looked like a bamboo music stand holding the menu, ten vertical rows of Chinese characters penned in black ink on expensive white paper.

If you tipped your head slightly, you could see the delicate silvery-white bamboo leaf design that had been pressed onto the sheet.

Behind the menu was a window looking into the restaurant, only it was angled so as to reveal nothing more than a beautiful turquoise vase displayed in an alcove along the back wall.

To discourage people like me from fogging up the window to decipher the kind of food the restaurant served, someone had cleverly erected an artistic bamboo blockade.

Still unsure of the restaurant's cuisine, I tentatively slid open the door and stepped in. Several Japanese patrons glanced over from their seats at a polished cypress counter.

There were no tables. Two sushi chefs yelled out their greetings and looked up at me. I thought I saw one of them wince before lowering his head back down toward his work.

Suddenly, the room grew hushed and I realized people were staring at me. My very presence had punctuated the room's stillness, as if I had cannonballed into a private pool and splashed water all over the club members who were quietly reading on lawn chairs.

Just as I was contemplating leaving, a young male waiter gestured for me to sit down at the counter. He handed me a washcloth and then a menu — his hands trembling slightly. I tried to offer him my most relaxed smile and then looked around.

On my right, two women were plucking at small tangles of what looked like daikon radish strands, tossed with creamy pillows of sea urchin and peppery red sprouts.

One had several gold cocktail rings on her slim fingers, which twinkled as she used her chopsticks. The two women hardly spoke, but delicately ate and sipped sake — like two shore birds pecking along the ocean's edge.

On my left, two men were drinking beer and waiting for dinner. One had loosened his tie and slung his tweed jacket over the back of the chair. His companion, who had rolled up his shirtsleeves, leaned forward and nodded a rosy-faced hello.

I smiled back, then looked down at my menu, blankly staring at the flourish of indecipherable characters on the lavender sheet.

Soon the waiter came around with a porcelain mug of brewed green tea and put it down. He started fidgeting with his apron strings. "You speak Japanese?" he asked, his lip quivering.

"No, not really," I said, shaking my head, "Do you speak English?" He blew out a stiff laugh. "Little."

At that moment, the door slid open and in walked an elderly couple. They bowed to the sushi chefs, who looked up and called out their greetings. "Moment," said the waiter, dashing off to fetch the couple's menus, visibly relieved to leave his post.

With nothing else to do, I sipped my tea and watched the sushi masters. With quick precise strokes, they transformed glistening blocks of fatty tuna and gray mullet into smooth neat rectangles.

The morsels shone like jewels — the color, cut and shape perfectly showcasing the seafood's freshness.

The two men snatched handfuls of rice from a wide wooden bowl and shaped them into ovals as if preparing for a snowball fight.

They say the most talented sushi masters can form their rice so that every grain points in the same direction.

The two men worked rapidly, wiping the starch from their hands on a damp cloth on the counter, before placing thick strips of fish over wasabi-smeared rice bullets.

Their actions were clear, smooth and Zen-like in their economy of movement. A woman's hands are supposedly too hot to make sushi, which is why sushi masters are always men — a convenient bit of folk wisdom for this male-dominated profession.

Overcome with hunger, I realized the only way I was going to get dinner was to ask for what I hoped lay in the fish case.

How much could ten pieces of sushi cost? Twenty dollars? Thirty? I figured ten pieces was a reasonable amount to order.

The waiter returned with a small pad and stood silently with downcast eyes. "Sushi," I announced, hoping to set him at ease. I then proceeded to tick off my favorites — chutoro (fatty tuna belly), hamachi (yellowtail), anago (conger eel) and uni (sea urchin). I then added on saba (mackerel).

Aside from being cheap, it has a luscious metallic tang — like the blood-dark portions of bluefish and swordfish. The waiter nodded, handed the order to the sushi chefs, then hurried off.

I slipped my chopsticks out of their paper wrapper and then broke the top portion apart. I had heard that Japanese men twitch with pleasure every time they snap the sticks open.

New chopsticks are said to be like young virgins: The snap symbolizes their deflowering.

What I didn't know then, but would discover years later, was that there are approximately 50 different types of chopsticks in Japan — made of wood, bamboo, ivory, bone and various metals — and that numerous 'Dos' and 'DON'Ts' have arisen regarding their use at the table.

One of the more notorious taboos is to rub those disposable wooden chopsticks together. This implies the chopsticks are cheap and therefore so is the restaurant — which could insult your host and/or the chef.

Another no-no is to drag a bowl or serving plate toward you by hooking your chopsticks over the edge of the dish.

It is also impolite to stab an item — perhaps a slippery mushroom cap — with the tip of your chopstick.

You should avoid holding your chopsticks midair and hovering over a variety of dishes while you try to decide which delicacy to pluck as well as making a drippy mess when picking up a morsel of food covered with sauce or in a soup.

If you wish to help yourself to a communal dish after you have begun eating, you should always use the serving chopsticks.

If there are none, you should turn your chopsticks around and use the clean tops to grasp the food.

This sanitary practice is derived from the Shinto belief that one's spoiled spirit can be passed on to others through shared foods.

Instead of resting your chopsticks on the edge of your plate or soup bowl, you should place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest. If there is none, you should make your own from the paper wrapper.

Thankfully, I knew enough to do that while the sushi chef prepared my meal. He kept his head down the entire time, then — after about ten minutes — placed a white stoneware rectangle holding ten pieces of sushi on the flat top portion of the glass fish case.

Only after bowing did he quickly look up, then utter something. I held my hands in a prayer position and bowed back. The waiter brought over a cruet of soy sauce.

I could feel the chef's eyes boring into me as I poured way too much soy into my saucer. The Japanese use a minuscule amount of soy to accent — not overwhelm — the delicate flavor of the fish.

With my chopsticks, I transferred a nubbin of wasabi — about the size of a raisin — into the salty brown sauce and swirled it around until it dissolved. Mistake number two. I looked up at the sushi chef.

He produced an expression that hovered somewhere between curiosity and doubt. Would this nice — but verbally dumb — Westerner ruin his fine work? Would she know what to do? And do it well?

I glanced over at my dining companions, then suddenly got all tangled up in my chopsticks.

On my right, the elderly woman with her gentleman companion was eating sushi with her fingers! And instead of dipping the rice portion into the soy — as I had always done — she grazed the fish end.

Not only that, she bit the oval in half and discreetly chewed with her hand across her lips in a gesture of politeness.

The men on my left were doing the opposite. With their chopsticks, they were picking up pieces of sushi as big as Devil Dogs, dragging them through the soy and cramming them into their gaping mouths. Their cheeks puffed up like trumpet players as they vigorously masticated their food.

Maybe chopsticks are for men and fingers for women? I wondered. That doesn't make sense. Then again, neither did many things in Japan until I took the time to figure them out.

Years later I would discover that eating sushi with your fingers is an old Tokyo tradition. Chopsticks are for sashimi.

Back when Tokyo was called Edo, sushi connoisseurs used to eat their fill of fish, then wipe their dirty fingers on the short split curtain hanging over the door of the sushi shop. The more gooey the curtain, the better the shop.

Adapted from Untangling My Chopsticks by Victoria Abbott Riccardi Copyright