Oh Fish Sticks: Misadventures In Matsusaka
October 31, 2009
The city of Matsusaka, in the middle of Mie prefecture, prides itself on its beef production, boasting that “Matsusaka beef is better than even Kobe beef.” You can imagine this is a controversial declaration (at least amongst meat-making circles) what with Kobe beef being one of the most famous delicacies out of Japan and part of the best item available at the Cheesecake Factory. I’ve never eaten Matsusaka beef – I’m not a rich man – but I say let Matsusaka have the beef win. Because this city has absolutely nothing else going for it…and I’m not even knocking it for just being boring. No, after my first trip to Matsusaka, I regard the place as the 10th Circle of Hell where I experienced my first mini Dostoyevsky-ish episode of suffering.
JET folks planned on throwing a Halloween party in Matsusaka the night before the big scary day, and having heard how fun said shindig was, I decided to go. I donned my Mr. James garb (now with nametag!) and met up with the rest of the Nabari crew. The night started off well…our costumes (super detailed zombie, viking, pregnant Britney Spears, post-pregnancy Britney Spears) grabbed the attention of every Japanese person who had the fortune of crossing our paths. The convenience store workers enjoyed our get-up while the people on the train threw subtlety to the wind and straight-up went to another car when we sat down. Things were highly entertaining.
We arrive at Matsusaka and moseyed on over to Hunky Dories, the venue for the night’s party. The bash itself was cool, the only gripes I can think of being the usual “I’m a total dick when it comes to music” DJ criticism (but seriously, who starts a party with “I’m On A Boat?” Even my friend who used to have the Pashmina afghan bit as her GChat status like everyday admits she doesn’t really listen to “I’m On A Boat” anymore) and the fact the dancefloor was more like a groovin’ nook. One girl dressed as a fish (this is important, and serves as some eerie foreshadowing) threw up early on. For the most part, good times!
Like all things, though, the party eventually burned itself out. That, and the joint kicked everyone out at two in the morning. Which brings me to the turning point of the story…a twist that, admittedly, could have been snuffed out well in advance. Nobody from Nabari really figured out our overnight plans. The train system in Japan overall rocks, but they do stop running relatively early (11ish), making the likelihood of being stranded in whatever city you’ve traveled to a strong possibility. Knowing this, we still didn’t think out the after-party situation.
So, closing time came and everyone split off into smaller groups bound for various other places. I stuck with the two Britneys, as we are all first-years and thus equally lost. We did have a very loose gameplan…we had been told that there was an Internet cafe open 24 hours near the train station and that we could probably lounge around there until the first train rolled in at 5:30 a.m. Unfortunately, this meant we would need to walk half-an-hour in the frigid Matsusaka air…until someone with a car volunteered to drive us. Joy!
Our plans disintegrated, though, when the driver told us the Internet cafe didn’t exist anymore. It had shut down. We had no other place to stay. But the driver said there was an option…right near the train station was a hotel that, instead of paying for a room, we could hang out in the lobby if we were really discreet about it. Alarm bells should have gone off in my head at this point – how would loitering in a hotel lobby for three hours possibly work – but I was tired and cold (Mr. James doesn’t wear a jacket) and even a potentially unlawful bed sounded wonderful. We got to the hotel, the driver dropped us off and we went into the barely lit lobby. We saw nobody in sight. We quietly sat down on a nice sofa and prepared to nap for a few hours.
A minute into our snooze, a lady appeared at the front desk looking quite baffled. She started asking us things in Japanese and her tone grew aggravated with every new, alien-to-us sentence. We got up and left, having no idea what to do. Back into the cold night we went.
Unsure where to go now, we decided to check out the train station, hoping there might be some sort of moderately warm waiting room we could huddle in. After a brief walk through a creepy underground tunnel that seemed way to fitting for Halloween, we reached the station. Nothing was open. A few people were packing trucks in the general area, someone else refilling a vending machine (at 3 a.m.?). For a moment we considered sneaking into the pitch-black station, but decided the darkness was way too creepy and we’d already fought the law once and lost spectacularly. We decided to take our chances walking around the streets of Matsusaka.
This is when the true shittiness of Matsusaka becomes clear. I’d heard nice things about the city…that it has lots to do and a very nice Italian restaurant. Walking around, though, I see none of the positive qualities apparently present in Matsusaka, instead only seeing an extremely boring collection of drab apartment buildings and foreboding industrial zones. I realize three in the morning isn’t the optimal time to explore a city, but we were wandering major streets right near the city’s major train station…and the most thrilling find was a Circle K. Nabari’s no New York, but it’s got a good amount of food places, bars, 24 hour karaoke and other all-night activities. Matsusaka had ominous refineries.
Well, it also had…a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl. I’ve never been to a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl before even though they are pretty common in Los Angeles, so this seemed like a good time to experience Japanese fast food. Plus, that “24 Hours” sign looked mighty welcoming. We went in and ordered…the Yoshinoya menu seems to only have one food (beef) with slight variations on the side items you get with the mystery meat. I went with rice and a salad. Much like Burger King, Yoshinoya Beef Bowl’s food satisfies a deep craving late at night when you are drunk, but I would need an intervention if I caught myself eating here during the day by choice. The meat tastes…off. Like, it looks like beef but doesn’t really taste like any beef I’m used to. I ate the whole thing.
The original plan was to stay in the fast food establishment for as long as possible. This plan failed when we realized the average person spent about seven minutes in Yoshinoya Beef Bowl before jetting out. I hypothesize that this happened for two reasons…one, a lot of people were stopping in to get morning breakfast before heading off to work (more on that in a moment) and, two, the average Japanese person eats incredibly fast. So, since most customers were in and out in ten minutes, it seemed highly suspicious for us to be still hanging out after 45 minutes. Afraid to push our luck any further, we left and returned to the streets.
With an hour-and-a-half to go, we though about going back to the station and just waiting it out. En route, though, we noticed what appeared to be a bonfire in the middle of the street. A few people seemed to be loitering around it. Not wanting to walk near any fires or any fires surrounded by creeps out at 4 a.m., we took the logical step of walking down a back alley. We soon discovered a Blade Runner-esque world full of…dead fish.
Unlike the rest of Matsusaka, these streets were teeming with life – the glow of lights coming from storefronts, people walking about and the pungent odor of fish hanging in the air. This was the part of town where fish for the day were prepared, explaining why it was so buzzing at four in the morning. Through the windows, one could see the carcasses of fish, both small and huge, sliced up on tables. Boxes lined the street, presumably full of that day’s fish bound for all different parts of Mie. People gave us strange looks, looks we probably deserved as we were definitely out of place amongst the fish stores and fish bodies.
We navigated out of the stinky fish district and ended up back at the station. The doors were still locked. We spent the next hour sitting on a bench outside the station freezing to death. It was one of the longest and most uncomfortable stretches of time I’ve ever experienced. It was really cold out. I tried to get my mind off the pain by reading music reviews and hamburger blogs on my iPhone, but the cold cut through all my distractions.
Finally, the station opened up at ten until five, and the first train arrived at 5:22. At this point, all I really remember is a lot of fish people getting on the train carrying boxes of fish with them, and seeing a few junior high students going to school. On Saturday. Ouch. I promptly fell asleep on the train, woke up at our station, went home, and passed out again.
Maybe I need to go to Matsusaka during a summer day and with a hotel booked. Maybe then I won’t look down on it as a desolate, cold place where fires burn in the street and the Yoshinoy Beef Bowl staff seems eternally anxious for you to leave. But until that day, the only thing I can think of when I picture Matsusaka is stretches of darkness and the sickening smell of dead fish filling the air.
But hey, they might have good beef, I’ll give ’em that.