We seated ourselves, poker-faced. A man came by to light the flames beneath our hot plate and our bowl of soup. The candles burned steadily, setting the soup to bubbling and the hot plate to spattering.
And as I dodged hot oil from my exploding fatty beef slices and Shimeji mushrooms, I noticed something.
Those fish... the ones near the right, the whole ones with sea salt so artfully crusted on their fins and tails...
Younger versions of them had just been hanging out with me in the river that morning.
Kawayu Onsen, in Wakayama province, is a town built along a bend in a mountain river where boiling water comes bubbling up in tiny spurts through cracks in the riverbed. The water is generally cold, but when the pebbly bottom is disturbed, either by a too-aggressive wiggling toe or by a hired hotel bulldozer come to forcibly create baths, boiling water comes shooting forth, either mixing with the cold to form a comfortable bath, or scalding whatever unfortunate skin unveiled it.
I had found a comfortably shallow, smooth-stoned lounging place with hot bubbles surrounding me and heating the water to body temperature. I was leaning back against a rock, enjoying the tingling feeling of what I thought were bubbles bursting against my skin, only to find out that hundreds of little silvery fish were darting around my limbs, trying to eat up my freckles.
It was a guilty realization for sure that night when I realized my tiny massaging friends' parents were on my plate. It was even worse when I realized the fish heads were bitter and inedible. I sucked the salt off their fins and crunched their tails, hoping that savoring at least that much of them would make my betrayal worth it.
As for the rest?
While everything we ate looked like a whimsically wrapped present, it boiled down to two basic flavors: vinegar (pickles) and soy. When food was not pickled or marinated in soy, it was left to fend for itself. This, of course, works when ingredients are very fresh, but there was no evidence that these were. (Though I will allow that the eggs were, as I didn't die after eating a big bowl of rice with a raw egg cracked in.)
Luckily (as you shall soon see), it did!