By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterPretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo
By Matthew Amster-Burton
Mamster Books, 255 pages
Soaking in an onsen hot spring bath should be relaxing, but American writer Matthew Amster-Burton couldn’t sit still. Visiting an onsen in Tokyo, he hopped from tub to tub and wound up admitting failure at “the existential challenge of the onsen: to really enjoy it, you have to be surrounded by people you want to talk to or be very comfortable with your own thoughts.”
His thoughts were probably about what his next meal was going to be, because the real reason he had come to Tokyo was to eat. The American author moved his family to the city for a month to get to know Japan through its everyday cuisine. He describes the experience in his book, “Pretty Good Number One.”
He left few culinary stones unturned, but he has an obvious soft spot for B-kyu gourmet “second-class” dishes, from convenience store snacks to izakaya pub fare to mochi doughnuts.
His 8-year-old daughter Iris seems to have similar tastes, as he says the surest way to get her to eat her vegetables is to put them inside gyoza dumplings.
But she’s more adventurous than that makes her sound: She loves anago eel skeletons tied in a knot and deep-fried.
He doesn’t like everything — a slimy vegetable called junsai ranks high on his hate list — but his reaction to barley tea is more typical of his take on Japanese flavors: “I found mugicha perplexing at first and then proceeded to drink gallons of it.”
He says mugicha tastes “ever so slightly like coffee,” a statement with which some might agree. He also thinks natto tastes a bit like coffee, but admits being an outlier in this regard: “I’m unusual, I think, in finding natto neither delicious nor terrifying.”
While the focus is mainly on food, he describes many other aspects of life in Tokyo, which he finds consistently delightful. (One understandable exception is his visit to a pachinko parlor, which affects his eardrums like a “firing range catering to AK-47 enthusiasts.”)
If you like the conversational writing styles of the amiable Bill Bryson or the self-deprecating A.J. Jacobs, you’ll probably enjoy Amster-Burton’s amiable and self-deprecating ruminations as well.
Moreover, if anyone ever decides to put out a boxed set of humorous Japan travelogues, “Pretty Good Number One” would fit comfortably into the slipcase along with “Dave Barry Does Japan” and Tim Anderson’s “Tune in Tokyo.”
You may notice that none of those are cookbooks or guidebooks. That’s because “Pretty Good Number One” is neither: Instead, it’s a memoir that engagingly captures the joy of eating one’s way through the culinary wonderland that is Tokyo. Reading this book will remind residents of the metropolis of how lucky they are — and it will make everyone else jealous.
The book contains no addresses or phone numbers, and only one recipe (for spicy udon noodles).
However, Amster-Burton does name most of the places where he ate, and his descriptions are detailed enough that anyone with a general knowledge of Tokyo and access to the Internet can easily track many of them down.
He ends on a wistful note, describing himself back home in Seattle enjoying memories so perfect that he is “torn” on the idea of ever coming back to Tokyo again, lest he spoil them. Then he adds an epilogue in which he comes back.
But can you blame him?
Where to read
Crouched on the sidewalk outside a convenience store, with the book in one hand and a fresh onigiri rice ball with a crispy nori wrapping in the other. If anyone stares at you, just smile and offer them a bite.