Happy Chapi of Nagayama
It’s not often you get to have lunch with someone famous, but Mary and I were lucky enough to do just that, when we visited the Tsugawa Family for lunch in Nagayama. We connected with Yuko and her husband, Kazunori, through Nagomi Visit, a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to match visitors to Japan with local families over a shared lunch.
We were looking forward to meeting the Tsugawas, and their pride and joy, Chapi the beagle, who had once enjoyed a flourishing screen career, but is now leading the quiet life. For the record, Chapi has over 10,000 followers on Instagram (where she is described as ‘glutton, lonely, and an actress’), so she still has quite the fan base. Here is Chapi, taken later on Mary’s knee;
The Tsugawas met us as the station, then took us for a walk through the local supermarket to describe the different foods for us, with Chapi in a pull-along carrier on wheels. The supermarket was as fascinating a place as any. We probably learned more about Japanese food on those two floors, accompanied by Kazunori’s ‘This is…Japanese spices/sauces/noodles/rice”, followed by his details, than anywhere else.
Upon arriving at their unit (and putting on our slippers and washing our hands), we found the table very carefully and beautifully set for lunch, complete with handmade chopstick holders and menus printed on special paper. It was clear they had put in a lot of time and effort in their preparations.
Yuko set about getting lunch ready, while Kazunori took charge of the dispersion of alcohol. We had already heard about the wonders of Kewpie Mayonnaise in the supermarket, so were happy to dip our squid jerky in some, before following it up with a sip of our first drink, sake.
And so it went. A new course in another tiny dish, descriptions of Australia’s one-plate meals, a new drink (‘beer’, ‘kiwi fruit’, ‘peach’, ‘sparkling water’), the production of a wombat in a can (from Yuko’s previous holiday to Cairns), and videos of Chapi during her glory years (who spent the whole meal asleep on her chair).
Until we made it to the audience involvement part of the meal, namely the cooking of gyoza and takoyaki. Here are Mary’s hands, about to fold a gyoza. According to Yuko, we were the best gyoza-folders of all her visitors to date, however, I can’t say for sure we aren’t all similarly complimented. I do think ours were pretty good.
The gyozas folded and eaten, we then moved onto the more challenging task of the two. Takoyaki are balls made of a kind of pancake batter, that are poured into half-dome moulds, and have fillings scattered on top and pushed into their centres (octopus and what seemed like rice bubbles?, then sausage and cheese), which makes the batter overflow. The task is to turn them over when the undersides have set, thereby turning the overflow into the other side of the ball. Clear as takoyaki batter? Here, look at a picture instead.
When they were done, Kazunori popped one straight into his mouth, telling us they were, ‘Hot, but gooooood’. Mary and I followed suit, only to discover that his ‘hot’ was actually our ‘may cause long-lasting damage’, so we were madly sucking air in for ages to try and cool it down (as he laughed), lest we should have to spit it back out.
It was one of those meals where a ‘little bit of this’, and ‘a little bit of that’, soon became satiation and, may I say, inebriation, with all of the kiwi and peach fizzy drinks actually containing alcohol, and the tiny sake glass being seamlessly filled throughout lunch.
Yuko suggested a walk before dessert, which I thought sounded like a lovely idea (mainly because I was so full). If I had known she was suggesting walking four kilometres of fairly hilly terrain, I may have responded otherwise, and risked missed out on one of the loveliest afternoons of our trip to date. We saw the local neighbourhood;
And Chapi’s favourite park;
And the local bamboo grove, to make up for having missed out on the better-known version in Kyoto;
And traditional Japanese homes, set amongst the more contemporary ones;
And Mary walked the quite recalcitrant Chapi, assisted on occasion by a trail of dog treats, placed at key points by Kazunori.
And schoolchildren practiced their English on us, and we saw local shops and graves and the police station and a calligraphy school and vegetable gardens and buddhist shrines…and dog-walkers nodded to us as we passed by.
It was a beautiful afternoon.
Later, after dessert, Yuko set trays of handmade origami earrings and fabric hairclips on the table before us, and asked us to choose a gift. And we took a final selfie, with a very-unimpressed-to-be-woken Chapi.
Then we were gone, on a train back to Harajuki, to meet up with Kasumi for dinner at the Kawaii Monster Cafe, in Harajuku.
Kawaii Monster Cafe could not have existed further on the activity spectrum from our afternoon in Nagayama. A monstrosity of gaudy plastic, with a giant cupcake stage as its centrepiece, it’s the kind of place that you just know looks a little sad when the lights come on.
Our exorbitant entrance fees justified due to the oncoming show, we ate our fancy chips and waited for the entertainment to begin.
As Mary said later, ‘sometimes you remember not-so-good things just as much as the great ones’, and I think she is right. I do believe we will remember Kawaii Monster Cafe, and how much the three of us laughed after seeing the first show, looking at each other in disbelief, and shouting, ‘Is that it? Noooooooo!’
A mighty cross between Cirque du Soleil and Burlesque in a ‘luxury, cabaret-like atmosphere’? I don’t think so. More like a couple of nineteen-year-olds who did jazz ballet at school.
We cut our losses and left, making our way to Kasumi’s favourite izakaya instead, where we ordered things from the iPad and ate and drank and laughed (and bemoaned having a flat phone and not being able to take photos).
Proving, yet again, that everything is made special by people.