15. Raw Deal

14 Apr

Chicken SashimiPoultry selection: uncooked chicken bits on the menu

I’d caught the weather on the telly last night and saw that it was going to be dry – hooray! I set out early to dispatch Ryūkōji and Butsumokuji temples, due north of Uwajima, and then turned west to rally downhill to meet route 56 once again, pausing to catch a glimpse of the coast.

Five miles up the road was my final temple stop of the day, Meisekiji, some three hundred metres up from the valley. I puffed up the steps and found a kind-faced old chap peering at me with a sort of puzzled awe.

With my non-existent Japanese and his non-existent English, communication was a struggle, but it was clear he was pleased to meet me. I established that I was from England, and he said something in Japanese about “Ruski”. From that, I assumed he was either born in Russia, had spent some time in Russia or could speak Russian. I tried to dredge up some Russian from the depths of my travel memory but could only find “do you speak English?” – of no use, as it was evident he didn’t – and “thank you”, which I trotted out regardless. From his pottering around I got the impression he worked at the temple, although he didn’t look much like a monk. He was unquestionably of advancing years, demonstrated by his shuffling actions, and it crossed my mind that his experience in Russia might have something to do with the war, yet it that didn’t add up as he had such a bright and incredibly youthful appearance (a common trait with Japanese people, who frequently look 5-10 years younger than a Westerner of the same age).

Gesturing towards the water bottle I had been clutching, he beckoned me to follow him along the path. He lifted the cover off a nearby well and scooped up a ladle of icy cold mountain springwater intended for my bottle, encouraging me to fill it to the brim. I thanked him profusely, only being able to offer up a trite “oishii” (delicious) in appreciation on tasting the water, and shook his hand many times as I said my goodbyes and set on my way again, warmed by a meeting with such a friendly, welcoming person and yet frustrated by my lack of language skills that I could not converse with him more and learn more about him.

I had a long way to go to reach Matsuyama and it was hard going. The terrain was pretty hilly and the route had a number of half a mile to a mile-long tunnels that were utterly terrifying to traverse as a cyclist. With twenty miles to go my lower back was stabbing with pain as I continued my inexorably slow and steady climb upwards; I thought it would never end, until at last I reached the mountain pass and enjoyed a long freewheeling descent down into the valley in which the sprawling city of Matsuyama was nestled.

I’d been on a day trip to Matsuyama with some friends back in 2005, and as soon as I reached the train station area, at which I had booked a cheapo hotel, the place became familiar. What had struck me back then was the grid-like streets with countless traffic lights stretching into the distance, and Matsuyama still had them. However much I enjoy exploring new places, it was comforting to be based back somewhere familiar for a few days, especially in one that was firmly on the tourist map in terms of restaurant recommendations.

An entry in my travel guide for Matsuyama had caught my eye. The Kushihide Tori-ryōri-honten – a (delicious) mouthful of a restaurant – specialised in chicken dishes, particularly tori sashimi (raw chicken). During my time in Japan I had eaten a lot of raw meat, but it was almost exclusively things that lived in the water, from salmon and tuna to the more exotic squid guts and sea cucumber. I’d seen raw horse meat on the menu, but never felt the urge to have a plate of Mr Ed yet. At this particular restaurant, the thing to have was a platter of raw chicken.

The staff were friendly chaps and seemed accustomed to foreigners; being listed in the Lonely Planet has that effect, as the great unwashed descend on your establishment. I ordered tori sashimi easy enough along with a beer, and sat back and wondered what I had let myself in for.

Ten minutes later, a platter of raw chicken was laid out in front of me, and the waiter kindly talked me through what was on the plate using simple English and gesturing to various parts of his body for reinforcement.

“This raw chicken breast. This… leg. This chicken liver. Here chicken skin and rib. This [indicating the orange splodge] … I don’t know what.”

I hoped he meant that he didn’t know the English word for the orange splodge, and not that he genuinely didn’t know what part of the chicken it was.

I thanked the chap and gingerly dabbed a big wodge of wasabi on the first piece of chicken breast to mask the fact I was about to eat it raw, something that was generally reviled in my culture purely because of the nasty diseases raw chicken can harbour, such as salmonella. I put my faith in the chef and tucked in. Delicious is not the word, but it was palatable, and certainly an experience! If you’re wondering what it tastes like, well… it tastes like you would expect raw chicken to taste like. Unlike fish, I definitely prefer my chicken cooked.

The platter was not particularly filling, and now I was in a situation whereby I had a Japanese menu and no way to know what to order. Since I was sat at the counter in front of the kitchen, I waited until the chap had just finished serving up a small plate of fried chicken and cunningly whipped out my Japanese for “one of those please”; he duly set to work serving up another plate for me, which was beautiful. I did the same with an incredibly unhealthy bacon salad too, and then satisfied for the evening, I paid up and waddled home, hoping I wouldn’t wake up suddenly in the night and run to the loo.

57 miles

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