This is perhaps the seventeenth time I have been thanked profusely: for having a boarding pass, for entering the plane, for entering the economy class cabin, for having my tray table up, for taking a customs form, for handing her back a used hot towel.
When she thanks me for taking the dinner platter she hands over a few minutes later, though, I want to jump up and out-thank her, bow deeper, turn the tables.
Because it's actually edible. I'm on an 11 hour trip and for once I'll be able to eat something I'm fed.
Five bowls adorn the tray: a fruit cup, a Caesar salad, unagi (eel) slices over rice adorned with peas, a tangle of noodles tossed with egg, ginger, and clear sauce, and a pillowy fold of smoked salmon atop a bed of marinated beans and onions.
My uneasiness at eating close-to-raw fish on an airplane evaporates when I taste the lox. With my eyes closed, my ears plugged, my sense of touch dulled, and my inner ear masked, I could easily be sitting in a frou-frou Scandinavian breakfast cafe. The bean salad it sits on has a light vinaigrette; subtle, but not exactly mild. The grapefruit in the fruit bowl bursts with juice.
As I start eating the the unagi bowl (sweet, but fresh, and better than half the donburi places in the states), my seatmate leans over to me. "If there's one dish you have to try in Tokyo, it's this," he says. "I know this sounds crazy, but you have to buy the eel rice bento at the bullet train station on your way to Osaka. It's not just good for train food. It's actually good. You pull a lever and the food heats up like it's been freshly cooked - it's amazing."
"You're laughing now," he continues, noting my face, "but you're going to buy it and think, 'that random Asian kid on the plane was right!'"
Little does he know, I'm too cheap to take the bullet train. We'll be taking the cut-rate highway bus. But for now, the airplane eel more than gets the job done.