I Don’t Speak Japanese. I’m Going Anyway

At precisely 5:25 PM, the Boeing 777-300 woke with a beastly rumble and backed away from the gate at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. As we taxied toward the runway, the setting sun hung low on the horizon, searing my retinas through the starboard window adjacent to my seat in row 10. 

The massive jet eventually came about, aimed her nose at the glowing orb, and then paused. Expectant. Waiting. The least of pregnant pauses, but perceptibly there. And then we sped up, forcefully, inertia pressing me back into my seat as the cylinder of metal around me lunged forward. The ride was rough for a few seconds as the concrete runway grabbed possessively at the rubber of the tires, but then the air and wings won out, and we were aloft and on our way to Japan.

Yes, my friends, I’m off to Japan. I’m traveling with P, and neither of us speaks any Japanese, so this could get interesting. Last night a student with whom I was working was aghast that I might be going to Japan without speaking the language. With concern in her voice, she pointed out that the Japanese don’t speak much English, “Not even in hotels!” I shrugged at her and said “I downloaded a few language apps. It’s a 13 hour flight. It’ll be fine.”

This trip has not begun without a few bumps, in any case. Our flight was delayed one hour, then two hours. Then one of the many sites reporting on flight status erroneously reported a pending near-on-time departure, so we hurried to the airport, only to discover the error. After more delays (thanks, United!) we finally left Flint almost 3 hours late. Fortunately, the 8 hour layover in Chicago gave us plenty of buffer with which to work.

I’m flying on ANA for this leg and the service is assiduous. Yuki is my flight attendant, and is very good about explaining things to me. Immediately on boarding, I notice a few differences from other airlines with whom I have flown. For example, rather than socks, they give us slippers and a shoehorn with which to slide them on. 

Once airborne, it isn’t long until the flight attendants bring us dinner menus, which quickly drive home a point – this is going to be different. Beyond the wine list there are sakes, shochus, and umeshu. I have only the vaguest familiarity with these things, so Yuki guides me to the first sake on the list to pair with the amuse bouche of roasted duck with orange, shrimp canapé, and nuts.


There are two menu options, the Japanese menu and the international menu. I don’t know what to make of salmon head cartilage, but know I must choose the Japanese menu. And when the food comes, it is different. It is profoundly different, and I have to closely analyze the menu to figure out what I am eating. It is, for the most part, deliciously different.

For this course, in the upper left corner of the frame you can see sashimi: seared tuna and poached squid with salmon roe. Toward the right is octopus, taro, and pumpkin. And lower, centrally, is grilled rockfish, deep fried ginkgo nut on pine needle, salmon head cartilage with soy gelee, and a chestnut shaped confection. 

It was a meal that in many ways went well beyond my experiences or expectations. First, yes you can eat fish on a plane. And in case you’re wondering, the salmon head cartilage was indeed fishy, but in a good, fresh, Japanese fishy way, not in a “this fish is rotting” way. And the octopus was meaty, not rubbery.


Next was miso-grilled sablefish, with miso soup and Japanese pickles. Something I’m immediately noticing is that the fish they have served so far isn’t flaky – it’s substantial. It has body, and I think this must be a function of the preparation – perhaps a marinade of some sort? And regarding those Japanese pickles in the upper right corner – I don’t know what exactly was pickled, but I ate them anyway.


After a dessert of dorayaki, which is basically red beans sandwiched between two sweet pancakes, I finished the meal with my traditional in-flight cognac (or armagnac on Air France). Then I took a melatonin and slept for 6 hours or so.



On waking they brought us a second meal. I again chose the Japanese meal, which was once again a fantastic choice. The fish, mackerel simmered with plum in a soy-based sauce, is once again remarkable, a revelation. 

With that I am preparing now to land at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. I never launched those language apps (I’ve had them for months). I’m not too concerned. It’ll be fine.

This is going to be a fascinating trip, I think.

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