Growing up in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania, it had been my dream for many years to visit Japan, half a world away. In college, I enrolled in some Japanese classes on a whim, not thinking that it would lead to much. It did; I eventually spent a summer there, studying abroad with some classmates. I finally had found my ticket.
We were 9 or 10 Americans, new to the country and everything in it. Aside from some language courses and a vague interest in all things Japanese, we didn’t know what we were doing or what to expect. Every day was an awkward, fun and enlightening adventure that summer. Our first surprise was when we arrived at our dorm late at night. After removing our shoes and donning the provided slippers, 3 or 4 sizes too small, we found our way to our rooms.
(These photos are from 2002, before I knew a damn thing about photography, so bear with me here)
A floor. 4 walls. Futons for sleeping. We didn’t know what to make of it, but we got used to it quickly (it would become a common pattern over the next month and a half). I even grew to like the little beds, with rock-hard pillows made for sleeping on your back, and only that.
Discoveries were everywhere during our time in Japan. The language, the people, the food and the culture were all so new to us that even the relatively small, sleepy campus outside Nagoya was like diving head first into a tornado of culture shock for us. From the night we arrived in darkness to the clear morning when we left, it was confusing, unpredictable, wonderful fun.
In some way I felt totally alone for the first time; we were isolated from home, and for quite a long time. The internet was almost unusable (I guess the smaller university had not yet caught up to modern connection speeds, which I had enjoyed and properly abused at college in the States). I was surprised to discover that I didn’t mind. I’d often walk alone around the campus in the evenings, simply breathing, observing, pondering, thinking about how I had made it, finally, to Japan. I almost didn’t believe it. Other nights I spent with the people who would become close friends, my fellow American students, and our Japanese friends, joking and laughing and generally living it up.
It’s funny how the fondest memories are often born from simple moments; a laugh over a mispronounced word; our friend Yasuo talking about his band, Bag Worm; an impromptu car ride with some new friends to pick up sake and beer at a nearby konbini; a heated race of Mario Kart in the dorm lounge; a walk down a dim stairwell at night on campus. The times were good. We laughed, we learned, we explored, but mostly we just soaked it in and enjoyed simply experiencing all of this. I often thought about how lucky I was and vowed never to forget it.
How young we were. There was no question that we were all changed by the end of that trip. I know I had changed.
I returned to the U.S. that summer with a sense of melancholy. I had been through so much, I felt like an adrenaline junkie coming down off of a huge high. After the whirlwind of new experiences in Japan – everything from appearing on Japanese TV, to watching a live sumo tournament, to listening to and, God help me, performing late-night karaoke in Kyoto – coming back to what I perceived as my sheltered, boring life at home in Pennsylvania seemed almost unbearable. I didn’t want to leave.
And it was hard to come back. Being home felt different as soon as I got off the plane. I clearly remember walking down that grey, lifeless corridor, the customs agent in New York’s JFK airport grimly stamping my passport with a grunt, chip clearly visible on his shoulder. How could things be so different back here at home? Was it really so damn depressing around here? I went home to my parents, glad to see them but dreaming of my return to Japan already. A lot happened after that. Life got complicated. I didn’t get back to Japan for 9 more years.
But… I got back. In 2009. A bit older and not quite as green, but with every ounce of curiosity, and wonder, and amazement. Even better, this second time I knew how to take photographs (and will have to share some of those here on this blog, some time).
And I will be back again. Japan’s just too damn cool not to visit regularly.
Was this post supposed to be about food? The food certainly is fantastic and widely varied in Japan. Katsu donburi is crispy fried pork and rice with a little egg, onion and broth. We’d often eat it for lunch while traveling there. It’s simple, nourishing, and takes me back to those good times spent with friends. It took me a few years before I started to make it at home, but it’s not too difficult.
You’ll want a good quality pork loin chop for the best result when making katsu donburi. Also, use the real Japanese panko bread crumbs to get an authentic golden brown and crispy fry. They are easy to find just about anywhere these days, check the Asian markets if you have trouble.
You’ll also want to get some Japanese dashi no moto powder to make dashi (bonito) stock for the sauce.
Katsu Donburi (Pork and Egg with Rice)
My own recipe, adapted from a few I’ve found here and there.
- 4 cups cooked white rice
- 4 3-oz pork loins
- Oil for deep frying
- 1 small onion
- 5 eggs (1 beaten for breading, 4 for sauce)
- ~3/4 cup flour
- ~3/4 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
- 1 1/3 cups dashi stock (made with dashi no moto – or “bonito” – powder)
- 6 tsps soy sauce
- 6 tbsps rice wine
- 1 tbsp sake (if you have it)
- 2 tsps sugar
- 1 spring onion for garnish, chopped
- Slice onion into thin slices. Trim the pork cutlets and cut into the fat every inch or so along the border, which will make the fat tender and crisp and prevent curling. Tenderize the pork and season with a little salt and pepper.
- Heat frying oil to 330 f. Put the flour, beaten egg and bread crumbs into separate dishes. Dredge the pork in the flour, then egg, then bread crumbs and add to 330 f hot oil. Deep fry until golden, floating and crispy. Remove to paper towel lined plate.
- Heat a saucepan and then add the rice wine and sake. Bring to a boil, then add sugar and soy sauce.
- Add the dashi stock and bring to boil, then add sliced onion. Simmer until transparent, about 8 minutes.
- Beat 4 eggs in a small bowl, then add to simmering liquid. Simmer until egg is set.
- Slice pork cutlets into strips, then place on top of bowls of rice. Add egg topping and liquid over each cutlet. Garnish with chopped spring onion.
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