The dish that arrived on our table was met with confused feelings of fascination and disgust. Dressed in our yukata, sitting cross-legged under the low Japanese table, we’d enjoyed round after round of incredible food – thin, oily slices of beef that sizzled on a tabletop grill and melted in our mouths; chilled tofu with vegetables and pickles; grilled fish and crispy chicken karaage.
But when the abalone arrived, we watched aghast at its preparation. A humungous sea snail in a half-shell the size of my entire hand was placed on a small grill, whilst a fiery hot barbeque bead flamed below. With horror, we watched as we realised that this mollusc was being cooked alive, fixed to the shell but writhing, squirming and trying to save itself. It jerked and curled with surprising force as bubbles formed along its edges, and the meat began to change colour.
In five minutes, the creature was dead and still, and it was time to try this delicacy. We weren’t thrilled to eat it after the show we had just witnessed, but we couldn’t pass up the chance (and I must admit, it was quite tasty).
This was a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse, and the large meal is part of the experience. While we ate in our private dining room (like a wooden-walled cubicle all to ourselves), staff were busy transforming our room by removing the coffee table, unrolling the futons on the tatami mats, and making the bed. After dinner, it was time for the onsen, which many ryokans have built-in.
We were in the tiny town of Izu. The Izu peninsula, about 100km south of Tokyo, is a relaxing getaway town for locals, and we visited on a wet and rainy weekend. During the day, we explored, admiring hand-made pottery in gift shops, and taking pictures of the pretty red bridges the jumped over the small river passing through the town.
It was our last stop and we were going to miss Japan – smiling for purikura photos and ordering vending machine coffees, feeling the cold of the winter through the floorboards under our feet as we explored cavernous temples, ringing bells to keep bears away on rainy mountain hikes, munching on takoyaki as our shinkansen zoomed across the countryside. But it wouldn’t be for long, as we were already full of ideas for our inevitable return trip!