Okayama by Mandy Choie of JETAANY

okonoName: Mandy Choie
Location: Okayama JET, 2009-2011

From July 2009 through August 2011, I was fortunate enough to be a JET in the idyllic, rural town of Yakage, about 15 miles west of Kurashiki, in Okayama prefecture. It is everything an inaka town should be: full of lush greenery, fields of rice paddies that mirror the sky, quaint but grand traditional houses, and friendly elderly people on bicycles. The town is so quiet you can hear your neighbor shuffling around as she hangs her laundry.

Within Okayama prefecture, Yakage is known for hosting an annual Daimyo Gyoretsu procession, a parade that celebrates when the feudal lords (daimyo) of Japan regularly stopped over in Yakage during the journey between their villages and Edo (present-day Tokyo). While this event is a sight to behold, I can’t help but be more compelled by gustatory delights; luckily, one of the true gems of Yakage today is Takigawa, a do-it-yourself okonomiyaki restaurant that feels more like an old friend’s kitchen rather than an established eatery. The first time I visited Takigawa, I was with a group of fellow JETs who did not know how to properly say okonomiyaki let alone what the dish entailed. We sat at an open stove and, after briefly eyeballing the handwritten menus that were dotted with caricatures of a woman in a ‘do-rag winking and pointing at various food items, we were wordlessly handed bowls of yellow batter topped with cabbage and a runny egg as well as a big plate of raw sliced meat. The server – who was also the cashier, cook, proud owner, and cartoonish face that graced every menu – had seen this before (JETs have long been placed in Yakage-cho) but was still delighted by our ignorance. She proceeded to gesture, point, and yell at us with playful force. Though it was much more confusing at the time, it went something like this: mix batter rapidly, plop contents onto grill, pat into a circle, lay meat on top, have patience, flip theatrically, slide onto plate. It did not seem possible, but that unassuming bowl of raw mishmash ultimately produced the steaming, savory pancake I would soon start eating on a weekly basis. While okonomiyaki is the signature dish of Hiroshima and Osaka prefectures, I can confidently say that Takigawa’s version is better than any others I had tried throughout Japan. With a healthy stock of okonomiyaki sauce (its actual name; the sauce is intended just for this dish), Kewpie brand mayonnaise, dried seaweed flakes (ao-nori), and dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) at each of the three small tables, extra toppings – mochi and cheese were my favorite – available for your indulgence, a TV quietly playing the newest Japanese game show, and a self-serve frozen yogurt machine for dessert, it is difficult not to fall in love with this quintessential small-town, independently-run establishment that makes for a delicious home away from home.

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