When I moved to Japan a few years ago, I expected to engage in local tourism: visit thousand-year-old temples and castles, take in a bit of sumo or Noh, ride the bullet train to the far reaches of the country, have my fill of sushi and kaiseki, et cetera. But before I had that chance, the pandemic hit, and like pretty much everyone else in Japan, I gave up on my grand plans for fun and adventure.
Although I have now received three vaccine shots, I continued to heed the advice of Tōkyō governor Yuriko Koike and others to “stay home.” Fortunately, I have a day job that works well with telecommuting. But we all get lonely sometimes. So, when a friend asked me to join him at a chic restaurant in the heart of the city, I demurred but ultimately accepted the invitation.
And then the anxiety began. What am I doing? There is a pandemic going on, and Japan is experiencing one of its worst infection waves right now. When I agreed to the outing, only about a third of the population had received their booster shots, meaning that most people I would encounter would be woefully underprepared for Omicron. And then there’s my own feelings of hypocrisy, since I am one of those people who muttered under his breath that so many people were exacerbating the pandemic by eating out with friends instead of cowering in fear under their futon covers. Woe is me!
On the planned day, Tōkyō’s infection rate was around 300 people per 100,000 population per week, which meant that one out of every 2,300 people or so was getting sick each day. I ran the numbers constantly in an attempt to justify my frivolity. If I took trains at the right times and avoided crowded areas, the chance that I would bump into a contagious person would be small. The restaurant itself was tiny, only allowing a dozen patrons during the two-hour window I would be there. Surely, Mr. 1-out-of-2,300 wouldn’t be dining there that night, would he? The guy who invited me would never be friends with Mr. Infection, right?
Despite my qualms and my better judgment, I boarded a sparsely used train at mid-afternoon on a Tuesday and headed to Gotanda Station, halfway between Shibuya and Shinagawa on the Yamanote Line. The shop is called Shokudō Todaka (食堂とだか), a tiny kitchen crammed together with one or two dozen other hole-in-the-wall places in a nondescript building right along the Meguro River. If you are a fan of the TV show Solitary Gourmet (孤独グルメ), the protagonist ate there in Season 6 Episode 12—which means you have to reserve at least a year in advance!
During the two-hour meal, a dozen courses and unlimited fruit-and-sake drinks came our way. The recipes were tasty and unusual, with the final assembly and plating done right before our eyes. The staff at Todaka puts on a good show, but they can’t take away that gnawing guilt over how carefree I have become since just a day or two earlier, especially with the complete lack of plastic barrier between us and the chefs. Sure, they are all wearing masks. But are we? No! For one evening of gluttony, we are willing to forgo all of the safety precautions of the past two years!
Despite the stress, I actually enjoyed the evening. I got to experience some uncommon food with an old friend. The cherry blossoms were just getting ready to flutter off the trees along the river. And enough time has passed since that night that I no longer worry about post-meal COVID.
Was all of my worry necessary? Humans are not designed to live in endless crisis. Scientists have done a good job at mitigating this virus, and Omicron is only doing a half-hearted job at making people sick. The United States has already abandoned masks, social distancing, and a modicum of common sense. Should Japan do the same?
I don’t have a good answer to that question. But my excursion did remind me that life is not just about my personal safety, but about the time we are able to spend with others. I will probably venture out more boldly—though still with some caution—in the coming months. While these trips will be mundane compared to the fare at Todaka, at least I will be able to experience both the everyday joys and ordinary perils that humans have always encountered.
[Image Credits: りっくん/photo-ac.com]