The flight had been kind to me, peering out the window at the sunset over the Rockies, drifting in and out to a Theo Parrish mix. Los Angeles, obscure paradise of Japanese chefs, let loose to ride motorcycles, surf, and play golf. But that’s not what brought me there.
It was friendship, and my winding journey back to Japan, the country which has been revealing itself to me, layer by layer, since the beginning. Los Angeles has it: yakitori stands, sushi-ya, hidden islands of civilization floating through the smog and fog. I have in mind an idealized Japan and its full spread of cultural treasures to be experienced through LA. The city knows this, delivering some and withholding others in the most pleasant torture. Bernard, the author born in Iran who tells people he’s Swiss, knows it too. Each day he claims he just returned from Kyoto the day before. Considering it his home, he put himself on what he calls the Tokugawa diet, all Japanese food. “Don’t come,” he said. “It’s too much like Japan.” The warning rang through my ears as I passed through the final set of sliding doors.
The first breath smelled of Narita—cigarettes and car exhaust mixing with floral perfume. I took off my down jacket and threw it in the bag, 70 degrees, as usual. Could it be anything but? Bernard’s vanity plate answered HOW IT IS as he pulled into the lot. “Hungry?” he asked with a Cheshire grin, and a few minutes later we were in the parking lot of one of his places.
The indigo curtain parted to reveal a white loft dimly lit with modern paintings in red and black on the wall. Then, as if cued, the opening phrases of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue began playing in surround sound. This is a good sign. For me, Kind of Blue is Japan. They’ve claimed it. It has that playful elegance that the cooks exude, the suave movements of intricate knife work. Hearing it wasn’t a matter of chance, they listen to it every night, part of their routine, their rhythm.
Miles Davis liked Japan, he even learned a little Japanese for a girlfriend he had. My dad met him at a club in Philadelphia. “Nihon ni ikimasen,” he said. I don’t go to Japan. He couldn’t, they wouldn’t let him in because of his drug habit. Instead, he had to experience it secondhand, a feeling we understood deeply glancing down at the menus.
By the time Freddie Freeloader came on we had a couple of beers in front of us, laughing and catching up. Then the familiar melancholy of Blue in Green hit, and the mood turned on its side with a plate of thin sea bream from the far Pacific like love letters from the ocean. Each successive plate provoked a pained expression. This is the poetry of the small plate procession: a bite of sardine, a flicker of yuzu rind, nori kissed by the naked flame, the impressionistic philosophy of Japanese cuisine expressed by mono no aware, the passing of all things. Extreme pleasure recalls its impermanence, leaving little more than a pleasant memory. A plate of uni arrived, Flamenco Sketches was on, the final track.
In Arabic there is a word, tarab, which lacks any equivalent in our language, a musical term describing the sadness which accompanies ecstasy. It is on the face of Lotfi when he plays, eyes closed, and Miles Davis knew it too. I think of tarab as the mindfulness of mono no aware, the taste of uni as it fades from the palate. At its best, food can achieve this just as well as music. The next day I stopped into a record store and picked up a copy of Kind of Blue. I cook to it almost every night, somewhere between sadness and joy.