The author makes mochi — and contracts something horrible.
In my first few days in Japan, I ate plenty of interesting mouthfuls: rich Hakata-style pork ramen, oden (fishcake stew), mochi (rice taffy), okonomiyaki (Osaka’s delightful savory pancake), sashimi, and many more.
Unfortunately, one of those bites contained a population of norovirus, invisible but virile enough to decommission me for more than a week. My fever hovered around 103° F, and I had barely enough energy to crawl to the bathroom every 10 minutes.
Which meal harbored the microscopic bad guys? The advice nurse I called back in my hometown of Seattle fingered a suspect.
Nurse: Did you eat any raw fish in Japan?
Me: Sure. About 10 minutes before I got sick.
Her: Well, that was probably it.
It wasn’t: norovirus has a 24- to 72-hour incubation period. I blame the mochi-pounding party, where I wielded a wooden rice-pounding hammer along with dozens of children and adults, many of whom had their fingers in the food at one time or another. But we’ll never know, unless the CDC decides to get involved.
Green-tea mochi. Photo by Soon Koon
Getting sick at home is no fun. Getting sick on the road is much worse. No one is there to tuck you in, to do your laundry, to treat you like the child you’ve become. I huddled in my fifth-floor walkup in Fukuoka, running out of Tylenol and failing to stay hydrated. After several days, I dragged my skeletal body downstairs and took a cab to the hospital. Cabs in Japan have passenger doors that open and close automatically. I was too sick to be impressed.
The norovirus god of lightning
The hospital was dim and full of crying, feverish babies. I filled out paperwork and saw a doctor who told me what I already knew. He gave me an antidiarrheal and an antibiotic. Doctors in Japan are, in my limited experience, as quick to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics as American doctors.
One difference between the American and Japanese hospital experience? The bill for an emergency room visit and two prescriptions was $100 — cash only. I didn’t have enough cash on hand, so the cashier told me to call a friend.
It was 11:30 p.m. I took a deep breath and called Emi Lightning.
Emi Lightning is not a Norse goddess. I call her Emi Lightning because her husband writes a popular Japanese-language ramen blog under the name Johnny Lightning. I met the Lightnings by Googling “Fukuoka ramen blog” and leaving a comment on Johnny’s blog.
In addition to eating massive amounts of ramen, Johnny Lightning races small motorcycles, plays the ukulele, and wears a hoodie with his name and caricature on the front. He and Emi and their 10-year-old daughter post videos on YouTube rocking holiday songs on the ukulele, melodica, and tambourine.
Emi and Johnny picked me up at the hospital, paid the bill, and refused to return me to my apartment. Instead, they set me up in the upstairs tatami room at their suburban house. I slept in front of a space heater, wrapped in blankets and the smell of fresh tatami.
Dust to dust
I lost track of how many days I spent at the Lightning house. They took me to their local doctor, who gave me more prescriptions, this time with a handy color printout showing the appearance, dose, and indication for each drug. I took more antibiotics, a fever reducer, an ulcer drug, and a foul-tasting powder called Enteronon-R whose purpose I never figured out.
When I was well enough to join the family in the living room, we watched their daughter’s favorite boy-band DVD and a TV show about an apartment full of cute animals, including a tiny white flying squirrel that made the young Lightning and me squeal “kawaii!” in unison.
Eventually I was ready to try a little food, and Emi whipped up miso soup from scratch, with fresh Japanese leeks and fried tofu. Later I joined the family for a hot pot of udon, soy milk, chicken, and vegetables, being careful not to dip my chopsticks into the communal pot and turn it into the next disease vector.
Let’s tally up my debt to the Lightning family: I made them drive across town at midnight, put them at considerable risk of contracting a disgusting virus, and inconvenienced them in countless other ways. They cooked for me, did my laundry, and sat with me in the waiting room. I wasn’t even an entertaining guest, unless you count my numerous Japanese-language blunders, or the time I taught myself to play the theme song from My Neighbor Totoro on one of Johnny’s many ukuleles. They did all this for some foreigner they’d just met, possibly a traveling axe murderer.
By the time I reunited with my own wife and daughter, who had arrived in Tokyo from Seattle, they’d already been in touch with the Lightnings on Facebook, but I’m not positive that they believe the Lightnings exist. Were they my family’s fever-dream doppelgängers? Am I Johnny Lightning?
Nah. That guy can eat way more ramen than me.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer covering food and personal finance. He has written for Gourmet, the Seattle Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and writes a weekly column for Mint.com. His new ebook, Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo is now available.