I hadn’t realized how much of my weekly routine was anchored on eating out. After a year and a half I had settled on a handful of restaurants to visit every week or so, rotating as I saw fit. Eating out on the island is a good way to branch out. You’re likely to see a familiar face, and you never know when an invitation might come your way. But it’s also a solid way to stave off loneliness, a feeling that doesn’t quite lack on the island.
Of course, the pandemic laid this all bare for me to see. I’m no cooking whiz. I’m too impatient. I usually start cooking when I’m already a few magnitudes hungry, so I end up eating things as I prepare them. There’s never a dish with rice, meats, and veggies set on the table. I eat the broccoli first because that cooks the fastest, then the meat, and finally the rice that finishes cooking after an hour. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to stop once begun. So I often opt for single-piece meals like spaghetti or curry, which to be fair have increased in quality over the past few months. The habit is a holdover from college. Back in Isla Vista and Santa Barbara, I could grab something to-go pretty easily. My relationship with restaurants was nothing special. I needed them and they needed me. But the meaning of a restaurant changed for me after moving to Japan.
What’s a restaurant? Like I said, it can be a place where you go in and out in a matter of minutes, something Americans have seemingly perfected in the past decades. It can be a cozy diner with a waitress that knows your name and comes up and asks if you want “the usual.” It can be a rest spot where you put in your earphones and work on whatever needs working. And it can be what it’s been for me the past year: a nexus for memories.
My eating-out regime on Iki eventually included visiting a pizzeria, a Jamaican-themed coffee bar, a curry lunch house, and an 居酒屋 (izakaya), a type of traditional Japanese restaurant open at nighttime and popular for after-work drinking sessions.
I remember I was nervous to go out to restaurants by myself during my first months in Japan. Thinking about interacting with people with my level of Japanese gave me anxiety, and there were days when I got to a place but decided to turn back because that was easier. One of the first places I went to was かおる (kaoru), an izakaya.
Kaoru is tucked away from a main road. It’s small—it has two tables and a bar counter that forms a right angle. You sit on a tatami floor if you’re at one of the tables and on some high-legged chairs if you’re at the counter. The walls are are covered with local advertisement posters and handwritten menu items. The menu itself is a laminated sheet of paper with items written on the front and back. There are decorative things like charms and fans scattered around. The counter wraps around the kitchen, so the cooking is not hidden away. There’s a small transparent fridge next to the counter with all the different yakitori available on display. In other words, it’s discreet. If you’re familiar with izakayas and can conjure up an image in your head, it very well might look something like Kaoru.
The establishment is run by an older couple. When they first introduced themselves to me they said their names but told me to call them “Master” and “Mama,” two common methods of referring to restaurant or bar owners in Japan. They were approachable and tried their best to talk to me in English. I kept going after that. And as I saw them more and more, their personalities became brighter. Master is a performer, always capable of making you laugh with his gestures and surprising knowledge of English idioms. Mama is an excellent conversation starter. She always has some questions on-hand and usually helps me learn new restaurant-themed vocabulary. Kaoru is staffed by Master and Mama on weeknights, but for the busy weekends their daughter and son-in-law come to lend a hand. The atmosphere is the best whenever it’s a full-house.
And the food? Quintessential Japanese cuisine. I’ve been to eleven prefectures in Japan, and I’ve tried their tastes. I’ve yet to come across a better gyoza than Kaoru’s. Gyozas are a type of Japanese dumpling that are commonly filled with minced pork and veggies. They are grilled and steamed for a few minutes. Whenever I go to Kaoru right at 6 p.m. (their opening time), Mama is busy wrapping gyozas with what I can only assume is a secret recipe for the filling. I’ve decided I’ll ask for the recipe as a going-away gift for when it’s time to go.
My other go-to dishes include 砂ずり (suna-zuri/gizzard), 豚キムチ (buta-kimchi/pork-kimchi), and their おでん (oden). Oden is a dish made up of several boiled ingredients like daikon, egg, konjak, and chikuwa. The ingredients are kept soaking in a large basin with flavored broth. The best seat in Kaoru is next to the oden pot. The steam is constantly rising, giving off a comforting vibe be it summer or winter.
My first birthday in Japan was in Kaoru. I’ve read a lot of books there. I’ve studied Japanese in there. And it’s been a reliable pit-stop for drinking nights. The strongest friendship I’ve made here developed over countless late dinners there after calligraphy practice. Eating together with someone has a profound bonding power. Even if it’s in silence, sometimes the flavors can do all the talking. It’s no surprise to me that the easiest memories to recollect include moments like that. And Kaoru has some of the best flavors.
Kaoru closed for two weeks this month because of the pandemic. It recently opened up again. I messaged Master to see if they were げんき and luckily everyone is healthy. They are doing takeout. I’m planning on getting some gyozas this week.