Warning: Do not read this post if you are hungry.
In July 2008, I finally accomplished something that I’ve been dreaming about since my fourth grade Social Science Fair project (produced in conjunction with my then best friend and partner-in-crime, Burger Brain) on “Japan: Land of the Rising Sun.” Sure there was a bit of casual exoticism- kimonos, sushi and maps pinpointing the ring of fire—but I was ten and the wanderlust for Japan had officially started. As expected, my culinary experiences in Japan will leave you with the same kind of hunger you feel after watching the Food Network or Ratatouille. (Maybe not the later, rats cooking…) While most gastronomes would start with the description of the delicate ten (yes, ten) course “traditional Japanese dinner” with the private room, endless servings of meat, fish, vegetables, various stages of fish: sushi, grilled, deep fried—all artistically arranged— that I had in Tokyo, but instead I want to discuss the remarkable phenomenon of Japanese Fast Food.
This story takes place in Narita, the first of our seven city tour around Japan. We had arrived around dusk after a 12 hour flight and were desperate for food. We were staying in the business district, a close to the airport as you can get without sleeping on the runway. I’m not sure of the city planning and whether all Japanese cities divide business districts from residential districts (see my post on the Kindest of Strangers in Kyoto) but there wasn’t a restaurant in site! The Purkayastha Fam is a resilient — it is rumored we were descended from pirates, though this came from my Jetu-Uncle is close as you can get to a modern day food pirate; exploring different parts of the city for culinary enjoyments. We roamed the streets, heading over skyways, one way streets, sometimes narrowly avoiding the incoming bicyclist, until we happened on a innocuous building with a small picture of a meat & rice dish with a neon-blinking sign.
The layout was simple. There was a small rectangular aluminum counter in the middle of the room, separating the customers from the cooks. In the corner, across the sleek, polished grey tile, was a red vending machine—again with multiple small pictures of various dishes. After watching a group of women we realized, that you order the food from the “vending machine.”
You find the picture of the most scrumptious dish, press the button, insert money and then sit at the counter until the food is delivered. This is particularly helpful for tourists like myself who attempted some “Learn Basic Tourist Japanese phrases” podcasts in the weeks before the trip, and had only managed to remember basu (bus) and ohayo (good morning). Neither of which would really help in this particularly situation. The food, which sadly I did not document since I conveniently left my camera at home, was delicious—-rice, brown sauce, and strips of mouth wateringly, mouth watering beef! Needless to say, we were feed, content and ready to back and sleep off the calories!
[Editor’s Note: I originally wrote this piece back in 2008 in an email to a friend.]