According to our original itinerary, the day following our perfect Obon experience in Matsushima had been set aside to visit Yamadera. But when faced with the prospect of having to actually climb up 1000 steps to visit the mountain temple there, we realized that not only were we absolutely EXHAUSTED, but the reality of having a private room was just way too decadent for us to pass it up. At $105/night, this was one of our most expensive lodging options and we figured we might as well get our money’s worth. For us, this meant, sleeping in, relaxing, enjoying a leisurely hotel buffet breakfast, and oh yeah, our first round of sink laundry:
When we first conceived of this trip, we really approached it the way we had our previous vacations, which is to say that we planned to have our days jam-packed with activities because we wanted to maximize our limited time in Japan. I don’t know about you, but we have always come home from vacations more tired than we left, and we assumed that the adrenaline of being somewhere new would keep us moving at a breakneck pace. But we are coming to realize that this year of travel will not and cannot be like the travel we have done before where at the end of a punctate period we would return to our regular lives. No, instead we must find a way to travel in a way that is sutainable and balanced, because this is our new life for the next year or so. We need to take time to blog and read books and watch some tv now and then, because these were all things that we enjoyed in our life pre-travel and when you strip us down to our basic needs and wants, these things are important to us, just as seeing the world is.
So we gave ourselves the day off to lounge about in bed, enjoying the air conditioning, and we didn’t feel the least bit guilty about it. Not even though the only time we ventured out of our room was to grab some dinner.
Because really, what a dinner it was!
One of the fun things about traveling in Japan for foodies is that most cities have local specialties. Of course, we try to make it a priority to try as many of these dishes as we can. In Sendai, the local specialty is gyutan, or in English: grilled cow tongue.
Having done our due diligence, we knew that one of the best places to check out some gyutan was the third floor of the Sendai train station. There are approximately 10 -15 restaurants up there that specialize in cow tongue, some of them quite famous (and with rather long lines), but we decided to just roll the die and pick whichever one looked best to us.
We didn’t know whether splitting meals is something that is commonly done in Japan, but we seeing as we had already flouted our own itinerary for the day, we figured we could continue to live life on the edge and share a larger gyutan set meal. We’ve been told on countless ocassions that most Japanese people turn a blind eye to baffling “gaijin” behavior as they figure we don’t know the rules anyhow, so we might as well use that to our advantage every now and then. As it turns out, our waitress wasn’t phased at all when we only ordered one set dinner and a small soup to go with it, and even brought out a second plate for me (without us having asked), so it seems that sharing meals, while uncommon in Japan, is not actively frowned upon.
I know for most people, the cow tongue (or perhaps the ox-tail soup) would be the clear adventurous aspect of this meal. But Tony & I already have a long-standing love affair with tongue: my parents used to serve it to my brother & me when we were kids (calling it “tender beef”… we didn’t realize until years later what it was we had been eating second and thirds of!), and one of Tony’s favorite Mexican joints in Nashville did an amazing “lengua” taco. So unlike some of the daring meals we had tried in Japan, this one was well in our comfort zone. True, we had never had tongue grilled before, but really, the weirdest and riskiest dish for us that evening was probably the weird gloppy yam mixture that came with the set meal. It had a pretty slimy texture, was served nearly ice cold, and tasted like not much of anything. While it didn’t offend us, I can’t say either of us really understood the point of it! (I’m guessing that it probably is meant to aid in digestion, but I shall wait for someone who knows for sure to weigh in on this!)
As for the star attraction, the gyutan, it was very good, though certainly more chewy & crispy than the slow-cooked versions of that we’ve experience before. Truth be told, however, I think the real unexpected hit of the meal was the braised ox-tail; it was incredibly rich and unctuous and practically fell apart in our mouths. It was packed with great, meaty flavor and was a carnivorous delight. The gyutan was good, but it’s that ox-tail that we would go back for if we ever pass through Sendai again some day! It definitely made us happy that we splurged a bit and got one of the deluxe set meals, as not all of them included ox-tail in any capacity other than the soup, and this was far better than that.
I suppose that’s the nice thing about being on the road: even when you give yourself time to breathe and take a time-out from playing super tourist, you find that even in the seemingly mundane actions of life, such as having dinner, adventure and the opportunity to learn or try something new can still be had.