Mark eats curry in Japan
Don't ever let anyone tell you that it's easy to get around in Japan if you don't speak Japanese. It's simply not true. Sure, everyone learns English in school, but everyone learns geometry in school, too. That doesn't mean they can necessarily tell you how to determine the volume of a cube. This lesson was made clear to me many times in my recent trip to Japan, but never more than when I tried to find the Yokohama Curry Museum.
I was visiting the Big Empire's own Captain Japan in Tokyo for a couple of weeks. When he had time to show me around, I got along just fine. He helped me order food, knew what train went where, and generally guided me all over the place. Unfortunately, being an intrepid reporter takes up much of his time, and he left me to my own devices many days. On one of these days, I made up my mind to explore Yokohama's unique relationship to curried food, with the help of the Curry Museum.
Armed with notes from an article on the "Tokyo Classified" website, I set out early in the morning on the JR Negishi Line, headed for Kannai Station. Upon reflection, I realized that part of the problem was my notes. I wrote down, "Kannai Station - 7th-8th floor - Isezaki mall." The article says, "The Yokohama Curry Museum is a two-min walk from Kannai stn, on the seventh and eighth floors of the Isezaki Mall, which also houses a game center," and goes on to list the address, such as it is.
I concede that my notes were inadequate, but some blame definitely lay in the bizarre address system used in Japan. Rather than give names to streets, and then assign numbers to the buildings on those streets, Japanese addresses start out with a wide area, such as a city district, then narrow down to put you more or less at your desired destination. It's inexact, to say the least, and especially difficult when the signs identifying the districts, neighborhoods and buildings are printed in Japanese. To be fair, I don't expect the city of Yokohama to change its way just because I can't find their Curry Museum easily. Japanese people seem to have no trouble getting around, and they're the ones who have to live there, so who am I to question their methods?
As I stepped out of the station, I dutifully pulled out my note and read it. Then I read it again. Then I realized that I had no idea where to look for the Isezaki Mall. I exited on the South side of the station, and walked along the biggest street I could find, keeping my eyes peeled for street signs, or anything that said "Isezaki." After a couple false alarms, I found my goal. A huge archway loomed over a pedestrian pathway, and it was marked, in Japanese and English, with the words, "Isezaki Mall." Providence! I knew I was getting close.
I passed under the archway and began looking for the building. After a couple long blocks with no luck, it dawned on me that the Isezaki Mall was no mere building, it was a mile-long stretch of shops and arcades. Again, I consulted my pitiful notes, hoping that they would somehow have more information. They didn't. My only clue was the fact that the museum lived on the 7th and 8th floors of one of the buildings. Most buildings were only four or so floors high, so that narrowed the possibilities. Unlike in the U.S., where most businesses that depend on foot traffic are housed on the ground floor, many Japanese companies put their shops out of view of the street, with signs on the building listing the tenant of each floor. The fact that the museum took up two floors led me to another clue. I decided to look for signs with identical Kanji on the 7th and 8th floors. I might not know what the characters said, but at least I could tell if they matched.
I found two such signs, and eagerly rushed up the escalators, excited about what I was sure was my goal. I came to the 6th floor, turned the corner to keep going up, and found a barrier blocking the entrance to the next level. Apparently, the signs for the 7th and 8th floors said something along the lines of, "space available."
Slightly dejected, I rode down to street level and turned back toward the station. I had a vague recollection of reading that the museum was only a couple of minutes from the station, and that the article had said something about a game center. I would retrace my steps, and this time look even closer.
Just as I had about given up on finding the museum, I noticed a giant pachinko parlor in one of the first buildings along the mall. Could this be what the article meant by "game center?" Indeed it could. Right in front of the entrance was a sign, in English and Japanese, advertising the Yokohama Curry Museum, 7th and 8th floor. How I missed this the first time around was a mystery.
A Japanese girl wrapped in a Sari saw me coming and asked, "Curry Museum?" She showed me the elevator and even pushed the button for the 7th floor. She must have seen me walking around looking like a complete idiot and wanted to leave nothing to chance.
The doors opened on the 7th floor, and two more Japanese girls dressed like Indian princesses greeted me. They handed me a paper with huge letters spelling out "Welcome," and, "Yokohama Curry Museum, The World's First Deliciously Enjoyable Theme Park!" It went on to list the museum's attractions, and even included a handy floor plan, so I would know what I was looking at.
My first stop along the Curry route was the replica of the Queen Pia, a luxury liner which might have, at one time or another, taken travelers between the port of Yokohama and India. Or it might have ferried curry and other spices along that route. Captain Japan could have translated for me, but since he was off investigating hostess bars or something, I couldn't do much more than admire the structure. Similarly, I admired the faux curry-shop, "foreigner town," and the many displays of curries from around the world. I even pushed buttons on some of the interactive displays. I believe I got an answer correct on the curry quiz, because the machine beeped at me pleasantly. I didn't learn much about curry, or Yokohama, but it didn't matter. Reading isn't the only activity at the Curry Museum.
According to my English brochure, the honorary park director, Kazuhiro Ono, visited over 1,000 curry specialty shops in Japan, and he selected seven of them to serve curry to museum visitors. Restaurants inside the park offer up four varieties of Indian curry, one Thai curry, and two different Japanese flavors. The description of the Hanuman Indian Curry sounded the best, but I figured that since I was in Japan, maybe I ought to try out one of theirs. I selected the Pakumori, because the brochure gushed, "Behind the homemade flavor lies the exquisite touch of a mastermind."
I stepped up to the Pakumori shop and tried to make sense of the posted signs. In Japan, no restaurant is without wax models of the food, or at least photographs with prices printed on them. I must have looked spectacularly confused as I stood there trying to decide which of the photos looked most appetizing, because a girl came out of the restaurant and asked me, in English, "Can I help you?" I told her that I wanted curry, something she probably already knew, and she guided me to the ticket vending machine.
These machines were one of the customs in Japan that made my life much easier. Rather than announce your order to the person behind the counter, you simply deposit your money in the machine, push the button with the picture of the dish you want, and it spits out a ticket. You hand the ticket over and soon you're feasting on a plate of hot food. The whole transaction occurs without ever having to speak a word.
The girl helped me get my money in the machine and then announced my choice to the cook. I wanted to ask her if he was the mastermind described in the brochure, but she had other matters to attend to.
A few moments later, she handed me the plate and watched as I dug in.
The curry was quite good. It was hotter than the other curries I had eaten in Japan, and the sauce was slightly thicker. I didn't detect any exquisite touch, but the meal was definitely enjoyable.
"Oh yes, thank you! Arigato!"
I figured the conversation would end there, but as I ate, she asked me where I lived. I told her New York City, and got the standard post-September 11th response - a big gasp and the words, "It is very difficult now," accompanied by a grim look.
"Yes, very difficult."
She must have told the cook and the girl washing dishes where I was from, because I could see their heads begin to shake slightly back and forth and their expressions turn grave. Suddenly they all seemed to have an interest in watching every bite I took. I asked the first girl to explain to them that I actually lived about eight miles from the World Trade Center, and that seemed to cheer everyone up a bit. Soon they were laughing at the site of me wiping my runny nose.
"Yes, but very good."
I cleaned off my plate and thanked everyone at the counter for the meal. I was truly grateful for their concern and interest, and I left to a chorus of "thank you" and "goodbye" and lots of bowing.
Full of curry, I headed for the elevator, but was directed instead to a set of escalators. It seems you can pass by the pachinko parlor and slot machine rooms on the way up, but you must face the temptation on the way out.
Back on the street, I took another look at the brochure and saw a warning, in tiny letters along the bottom, "We regret that you may not be able to enjoy some attractions due to the Japanese language format." No single sentence could possibly have summed up the afternoon any better.
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