The first time I ate raw horse in Tokyo, it was all a big linguistic misunderstanding.
I had been studying Japanese for nearing three years at that point, but I'd never been to Japan. For my first trip in April 2015, I went to meet the woman I had met online who'd become my wife. But I also wanted to begin putting my skills to the test.
I was terrified.
That was, until I stepped off the plane. After which, I was doubly terrified.
Up until then, I'd talked with my wife online, and I'd talked with a number of tutors through iTalki, a great service that enables conversations with native language speakers. But when I got to Tokyo, I found that even simple public interactions - like ordering coffee - threw me for a loop. These weren't interactions I'd had before. I had no idea what questions to anticipate, which made every request for clarification ("Would you like your latte hot or cold?") leaving me feeling dumbstruck and sweat-soaked.
This feeling would subside after a few weeks. Experience is a brutal but honest teacher. But for most of that trip, I kept close to my soon-to-be wife, relying on her as a sort of linguistic crutch. I faired well with my Japanese co-workers, but again, I'd had previous interactions and relationships with them in Japanese, so it felt safer. I didn't intentionally put myself in situations with strangers where I'd have to make conversation.
It wasn't until a subsequent trip, when my wife had plans with a friend for the evening, that I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone. My wife had told me that Ebisu, a lovely neighborhood that abuts the south side of Shibuya, has some great places to eat and drink. Being a sake fan, I decided to go out by myself and see what sort of disaster ensued.
While walking, a sign labeled "Uma-Ebisu" (うまえびす) - lettered in hiragana, one of the two syllabic writing systems in Japanese - caught my eye.
日本のお酒と馬肉料理 うまえびす (恵比寿/創作料理)
Now, let me explain precisely how daft I was. "Uma" (馬) in Japanese means "horse". However, Japanese also has the word "umai" (旨い), which means "delicious" (it's a synonym of the more well-known "oishii"). I thought the restaurant had simply dropped the -i (an inflected ending that changes to -ku in the adverbial form and -katta for the past tense) just to be cute. So my warped brain thought this meant, "Delicious Ebisu". Well, who can complain about that? I could hardly go home, say I found a store called "Delicious Ebisu", and nonchalantly strolled past it.
I sauntered in, and the 20-something waiter kindly introduced me to a seat at the bar. He handed me a menu, and spit out a few words of explanation that I thought I understood.
Now my second act of daftness came into play. I tried as best as I could to get through the menu. This has been something I've struggled with for years, as Japanese food is incredibly varied and diverse - much more so than the slimmed-down options you can usually get in the states - and thus the words won't be very familiar to you unless you've explicitly studied them. Even after a few weeks in the country, I'd eaten things like abura tofu, konnyaku, kamaboko, mentaiko, sanma, and other foods and varieties of fish I'd never knew existed. I'd discovered whole food categories - like the Japanese fondness for horumon, or organ meat - that were entirely new to me.
But my key problem with Uma Ebisu's menu? I kept seeing the Japanese kanji for horse (馬), and thinking it was the kanji for chicken (鳥). In other words, I thought I was in a place called "Delicious Ebisu", and that I had found a yakitori (grilled chicken) specialty shop.
When I tried to order, the poor waiter look a little confused. He attempted to talk me out of the idea that I was ordering chicken, and getting increasingly consternated that it wasn't working. Finally, he uttered the English word: "Horse!"
I stopped. I looked at him. I looked at the kanji on the menu again. The horror of the situation I'd found myself in finally sunk through. I hadn't prepared myself for this possibility. One, I had never heard of horse being a delicacy in Japan. Second, in American cuisine, horse isn't an animal that we're taught to look at and think, "That'd be perfect as a sushi ingredient."
It's not that horse is a staple of the Japanese diet. Consumption differs by region, but the majority of the country's almost 6,000 tons of ingested horse meat every year is eating in the Kumamoto region, where 馬肉 (baniku; horse meat) is the signature dish. The dish also goes by the name 桜肉 (sakura-niku), or "cherry blossom meat". No one knows for sure how it gained this nickname, with explanations ranging from the resemblance of horse meat to the color of cherry blossoms, to the use of the name during the period of Japanese history when eating meat was banned as contrary to Buddhist doctrine.
(JP) Link: Which is More Plausible? Examining the Origin of Horse Sashimi's Labeling as "Sakura-Niku"!
どれが有力？馬刺しが桜肉と呼ばれる由来を検証！ - 馬刺しの達人ガイド
At any rate, while not a staple food by any means, horse is regarded as a delicacy, and shops dedicated to it can be found all around Tokyo. As I had just found out.
Sitting in the shop, faced with a "do or die decision, I remembered a story the writer David Sedaris had told at a performance in Seattle. He told this outrageous tale of how, after telling an audience he didn't want his appendix removed unless he could find a doctor who'd give it to him in a jar, a woman came up to him and said, "I know a guy," and that night, Sedaris had his organ removed and gifted to him. He then remarked that, after telling that story at another concert, a fan came up afterwards and asked, "Are these stories true? How do all these crazy-ass things keep happening to you?!" Sedaris said (sic),
I replied, 'The difference between me and you [because obviously I could judge this guy after just meeting him] is that I always say yes.
So I thought, fuck it. Or, as the Japanese would say, 郷に入っては郷に従え (gou ni itte ha gou ni shitagae) - "When you go to the village, obey the village". Or as we say in English, "Do what the Romans do."
Uma Ebisu largely specializes in mostly raw or seared horse meat, so most of what was brought before me that night was some form of sushi or a variety of lightly cooked meat with sides of well prepared and seasoned vegetables. The store had a beautiful sake selection, and after loosely describing my preferences, the waiter served up three different varieties in succession along with my meal, each one more delicious than the last.
The store was lightly attended that night - it was just me and a small group of women enjoying a night out - so the waiter and I spent a lot of time talking in Japanese. He shared his passion for cooking, and how he wanted to work his way up through the industry and run his own store. His dream was to get more English under his belt so that he could eventually move to New York City, where he'd open a store and share the beauty and deliciousness of Japanese food with the wider world.
It ended up being a terrific evening, filled with excellent food, drink, and conversation. It was my first real experience outside of the Internet making a new acquaintance entirely in Japanese. It was an experience I would never have had if I hadn't swallowed my nervousness and kept saying "yes" to whatever life brought me that evening.
As for the horse? I have to admit that I enjoyed it. Sweeter than beef, and perhaps a bit closer to bison than beef, it was easy to eat and nutritious to boot. I enjoyed it enough that, the next year I visited Japan, I asked my friend Takanori to take me to his favorite baniku restaursant in Tokyo - Rocky, just up the hill from the hustle and bustle of Shibuya Station. Rocky serves horse in every possible combination, including as a yakiniku tray where customers can cook various cuts directly at the table.
While I've had many culinary and alcoholic adventures in Japan since then, this experience was the one that opened my eyes to the power of throwing myself into an experience. It also broke the fear I had of engaging with people in a language I was slowly learning how to make my own.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.