“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to choose. Is there anything you can recommend?” I looked up at the waitress from the new ramen restaurant. I hadn’t realized it, but Minami had brought me here without any advice; she took me to this place where we sat at the counter facing an open kitchen. Around us, restaurant-goers licked their chopsticks watching a chef throwing his arms over a hot cooktop stir-frying ingredients in no particular order. He announced each ingredient as he added it, starting with garlic and onion, then cutting up green beans and tossing them into the pan before using his bamboo spatula to scrape rice oil onto whatever happened to be left on the pan’s surface.
“What do you recommend?” I repeated my question again. The waitress looked lost for words. Eventually she let out a forced laugh and said something about how there were lots of choices and that it was all good — or maybe I wasn’t understanding her because she was speaking too quickly in response to my having repeated my question. “We have sweetened fish bone broth with soba noodles…”
Minami cut her off: “I’m sorry; we’ll just have what everyone else is having.” She turned around and gave me an apologetic smile before turning back towards the waitress who nodded slightly. Then she started writing down our orders before scurrying away from us on clacking wooden geta sandals precariously fastened onto blue socks tucked into her black hakama-inspired trousers.
“So, I guess we didn’t have a choice,” Minami said before looking down again and opening her candy-colored menu to look at it a second time. “I guess I just jumped in without really knowing what the food was.”
The waitress placed two cup-sized bowls of soba noodles, cooked and swimming in an amber broth, next to us with cups of green tea on our tray. She introduced us to the soba classics: shoyu (soy sauce), sesame oil, radishes and lemon slices. The soup was made from fish bones and simple; there were no pieces of meat or vegetables floating around — only buckwheat pasta wrapped up in what seemed like dried seaweed squares.
“Is this all there is?” Minami asked the waitress who nodded slightly before scurrying away again … albeit more slowly than earlier. We both stared at our dishes of steamingNumazu Soba soup for a full minute trying to figure out how to eat them since neither one of us had ever eaten soba noodles before — beans were still new territory for me as well. “Wait! How do you eat this? We don’t have chopsticks!”
“I’ll just try this,” I said, as I took the bowl on the palm of my head and chugged its contents into my mouth in one swift head motion.
The broth was still extremely hot. Tears started welling in my eyes. I tried to swallow it but the liquid shot right up my nose and out of my ears.
“Ohhh,” I said as I stood up, then coughed and spat into the ceramic bowl in front of me. Minami looked at me like I had just been struck by lightning — which was probably fairly accurate since she saw on my left temple what appeared to be a mini-explosion: a hot red patch where the broth had apparently marked its temporary territory before sliding down the side of my head and ziggle-zagging its way down the back of my neck all the way down through every slit, orifice and opening/closing muscle available for passage. There were patches of boiling soba sauce on both sides of my mouth and everywhere else in between. “Sorry.” I felt bad that Minami wasn’t able to eat her soup properly because she was too busy laughing at me instead.
The geta sandals came clacking towards us hurriedly. “Are you okay?” The waitress looked at Minami and then at me. “Can I help you?”
Minami was still laughing so hard she couldn’t speak well. She shook her head slightly and looked at me. I nodded slightly back at her, trying not to laugh because my face felt paintbrush-stiff already from the scalding soup running down it like a cranial waterfall … or tear ducts in fast forward.
“You probably need to see a doctor, sir.” The waitress was still standing there looking at me with her large brown eyes.
“I’m fine, really,” I said to her before consulting with Minami again who nodded and smiled slightly and crinkled up the right side of her mouth in a wry good-natured way. “We’ll be okay.” And then we weren’t, as it turned out.
My stomach started cramping. I tried to stand up, but the pain got worse. “Ow!” I said loudly as it felt like an invisible hand had just jammed a red hot poker into my intestines. Minami got up too.
“What’s wrong?” she asked me as I held on tightly to her arm for support.
“I think you were right, Minami.” The words came out of my mouth slowly and made her smile slightly, but that was all because I could tell she didn’t understand me since she saw the pain on my face and couldn’t really see anything else in that moment but that, especially because within seconds — almost instantaneously — my intestines had been stripped clean of their contents by … well by something: a horrible gastronomic experiment done by either chefs or scientists who would probably name it later Sichuan Soba if they published their results in Nature or Science Magazine … At best, it could be described as an intensely painful gastronomic experiment (a few drops being enough to stun pepper-eating animals like camels) that would leave anyone regretting ever having dared signature sumptuous hand-rolled Japanese buckwheat pasta again; at worst it would make them wish they’d never been born in the first place.
“You probably need to see a doctor,” Minami said as she watched me suffer. “We’re going home now!” She grabbed her yellow leather purse and started putting away her things before looking at me again. I nodded slightly, still clutching my side tightly. “Can you walk?”
“I think so,” I said, but thought better of it as the pain was becoming unbearable. “You’ll need to carry me.”
She grabbed onto one arm and tried to pull me up from the chair, but couldn’t because I was a lot bigger than she was especially since most Japanese girls at that age were about five feet tall. They simply weren’t built for carrying men who were taller than six feet.
Minami looked at me worriedly: “We need an ambulance!” she said almost louder than anyone else in the crowded restaurant. “Please help us.” She turned back around to look at others and repeated her request again: “Can someone please call an ambulance?”
The restaurant was empty all of a sudden. It was as if everyone — waitresses, customers and all — had been sucked out of the place. And then they came back in again, crowding around us instead of the ramen chef throwing his arms over a hot cooktop stir-frying ingredients in no particular order.
“Ohh!” I said loudly before clutching Minami’s arm tightly. “Ow!” The pain was becoming unbearable. She nodded slightly at me to try and reassure me that everything was going to be fine … but it didn’t feel like it considering the fact that three men were struggling to lift me on a stretcher and up into an ambulance waiting outside for us because no one wanted to pick us up inside because we had just made such a scene ― which ended up with my accidentally dropping my pants in front of everyone while being lifted on the stretcher when they thought I had defecated myself instead of experiencing extremely painful bowel movements caused by accidental self-inducement through Sichuan Soba ingestion.
Which really sucks when you consider how good every single Japanese signature dish we’ve tried so far had been ― sushi, tempura and ramen ― except for this one: buckwheat noodles sautéed in a spice hotter than magma from Hades’ kitchen, also known as Sichuan pepper.
“Ow!” I said again, clutching my stomach tightly. “Ow!” I was almost crying in pain now. The EMTs lifted me up on the stretcher and strapped me down onto it to prevent me from falling off while they took me downstairs during an earthquake (literally; there was an earthquake). Immediately afterwards, they jolted the stretcher as they placed it into the ambulance ― miraculously still standing despite the shaking ground where we had just been standing a few seconds before — with both Minami and me on it. She sat at my feet looking very worried about me indeed … even more so than when she thought she might have accidentally broken both my ribs when she punched me in the chest after being informed for the first time that men in Japan often wore bras under their shirts to support their nipples because otherwise they would get injured upon impact with anything hard at high speeds (considering how much running Japanese carpenters do every day).
The ride to the hospital seemed short despite all of the chaos that erupted outside of our apartment building during rush hour traffic following a magnitude 7.0 earthquake: buildings leaning precariously over streets, torn up sections of roads and sidewalks like giant mouths opened. Cars and bicycles overturned or smashed like toys outside of temples, shrines and storefronts. People running around in all directions screaming from the top of their lungs.
Our ambulance finally made its way slower than usual through the earthquake wreckage towards a hospital about 20 minutes away ― if one could even call it that since it was more like a taxi stand outside of a large building with no windows on any side ― where I remained for several hours as my intestines were pumped clean of Sichuan Soba-infused excrement via an IV needle placed into my left arm connected to a large black plastic bag filled with yellow liquid hanging above me by metal hooks attached to my stretcher.
I had never considered myself someone who was afraid of needles, but lying there hooked up to this contraption reminded me just how much I really hated needles … especially after being poked, prodded and punctured so often already during medical examinations over the past few weeks by different nurses, doctors and EMTs each trying to find out what in the world — besides eating an entire bowl of buckwheat noodles sautéed in red chili pepper (which can make food taste fiery hot) — could have possibly caused such intense abdominal pain in someone otherwise deemed relatively healthy after a complete battery of thorough medical tests.
What they didn’t know was that the real cause — other than Sichuan Soba noodles sautéed in red chili pepper oil — of my ailments were two extremely rare, life-threatening conditions that no one had ever heard of … and possibly never would again (or at least not in my lifetime): acute anarchistic gastronomic interpretation disorder and post-traumatic anarchy stress gastronomic adaptation syndrome … both of which were very serious indeed, especially when one considered how many possible combinations there were for the creation of particularly nasty gastronomic experiments like Sichuan buckwheat noodles sautéed in fiery red chili pepper oil.
But I digress…
At any rate, the doctors and nurses eventually gave up on trying to figure out what was wrong with me and just pumped my stomach clean instead ― which, as it turns out, was the best thing they could have done for me. Within a few hours, I was feeling much better and was released from the hospital late that night.
“I’m so sorry,” Minami said as we walked home together in silence. “I had no idea that would happen.” She looked down at the ground as we walked. “I thought you liked spicy food.”
“I do,” I said. “But that was just too much.” I shook my head slightly. “We’ll have to be more careful in the future.”
She nodded slightly before looking up at me and smiled weakly. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said. “You didn’t know.” I put my arm around her shoulders and she leaned into me as we continued walking home together in silence … except for the sounds of our feet stepping on broken glass and other debris from all of the buildings that had collapsed during the earthquake earlier that day.