In Kentucky we used to walk a mile to Kroger’s grocery store to buy Soy Delicious peanut butter chocolate swirl ice cream. We would bring our own spoons and eat out of the pint on the way home. We didn’t keep soda in the house so that I could take thesis writing breaks and walk to the corner store. Earlier on than that, a few friends and I walked to a creek 15 miles outside of town. We packed olives and bread and apples and forgot to apply sunscreen to the backs of our necks. Our long hikes on the trails of Mammoth Cave National Park and through Daniel Boone Forest changed what we considered “walkable.” When Emmett and I worked in New York, I once walked from 72nd and Amsterdam to 14th and Lexington while on the phone with my mom.
Emmett and I believe that walking around where you live helps you know a place better than driving or even biking does. When we visit a new place, we immediately try to explore it on foot. Last February, we flew into Rome for the first time and ate dinner with a tour group. As everyone boarded the bus to drive back through the city, Emmett and I, jet lagged and warm from the wine, told the guide that we would walk back to the hotel. Flavia said, “Okay, try to make it back before we leave at 6:30 tomorrow,” and away they drove. It took us two hours, lots of pictures, and a little back-tracking before we saw the Villa Borghese gardens and knew our hotel was down one of those alleys. In Japan we bike everyday and we take trains to nearby and faraway cities. We admire the rice fields, the mountains, the Shou River, and the various smaller towns we pass on our frequent train rides to Toyama city. Takaoka, like many rural cities in Japan, is really something like 14 small towns grown together. Without a car to aid our exploration, there is a lot to our little town that we have yet to discover.
On Sunday, we started after breakfast. Saturday night’s two hour walk through the city center and then through the park on our way to a birthday party had been inspiring. There’s something very centering about walking. You feel at home in your location, at home in your body, and you can easily step into any store or look into any window. You have time to orient yourself and form a mental map, make sense of your position. We’ve been doing more of this lately because of the snow and ice and because biking doesn’t let us talk to each other as easily.
The weather was unseasonably warm but turning cold (and today it is snowing). We started on a walking mission to a yet unvisited grocery store as we are still mourning the closure of the one in our neighborhood. We walked to Jusco, past the school where I work and just after the underpass of Route 8. We surveyed the scene: decent produce, okay dry-foods, strange clothing section, and a 100 yen store. We weren’t feeling like shopping at the moment so we bought some pre-cut pineapple, already hungry from the walking. As we prepared to cross the underpass, this time toward home, we remembered our second month in Japan when Emmett’s co-workers had whisked him away to a Pakistani restaurant a long way down Route 8. He believed he would never see it again. He had come home starry eyed and told me the place didn’t even feel like it was in Japan, that they served basmati rice and sold raw spices. But there was no way we’d get there without a car. Or a long walk.
Feeling good and dressed for the weather, we saw that the highway had a side-path for bikes and walkers. We started our walk to Kashmir with scant but essential information of its whereabouts. We knew it was on Route 8, on the left, in a used car lot, about one-quarter of the way to Toyama city. When I’m taking a walk that has a destination, not a large loop that ends at home, the destination is almost always food. Emmett had monthly mentioned his exquisite dining experience at Kashmir as this phantom untouchable that promised a bag of precious, floral basmati rice if only we were ingenious enough to find a way there.
When you step off the main streets, the magic of Takaoka’s more obscure neighborhoods is immediately apparent. On our way to Jusco we had spotted a lone older house with a second storey room looking over the tiled roof. But on the highway, farther out from the center of the city, there was a different scenery entirely. We saw large houses with careful Japanese gardens and ornamental fish mounted on roof corners. As we walked on, we passed grocery stores, coffee shops, pachinko parlors, and neighborhoods we had never seen before. Then, just before we crossed the river, we saw a large white house that looked like a castle.
Crossing the bridge, the Shougawa looked especially beautiful on this fine day and we could spot old men wade fishing in far flung coves. Finally, on the far bank, we exited Takaoka proper and walked on along the road with the mountains towering ahead of us.
Our progress was marked by suburbs in all directions. We were getting hungry. Every time we passed a used car lot with signs in Russian, I said “Is it this one?” Emmett would look at the shacks of corrugated metal and say “Maybe … No. I think it’s the next one.” They looked like tiny offices, bathrooms, or storage sheds, not restaurants. Finally, we passed an especially unwelcoming lot fenced and barb-wired. “It’s this one!” Emmett was sure.
He had warned it didn’t look like a restaurant. There was just a tiny sign in katakana bolted to a dejected air conditioner. It read: “Kashimiru Resutoran.” We looked at our watches. It was almost three. We had been walking for over two hours and had forgotten to consider that, on a Sunday past lunchtime, this joint was likely closed. However, looking closer into the window, we saw the tiny dining room was half-full. Gloriously, food would be ours! But how to get in? We walked around the building and saw the patrons’ entrance.
This place was looking better and better. Having grown up in San Antonio, Texas, where the less inviting the exterior of a restaurant is, the better the Mexican food, I was pumped! As much as I appreciate the unrivaled customer service of Japan, the careful presentation, the immaculate cleanliness, something less refined from my past calls to my stomach when I think of the chipping paint on the converted family house of Taco Rellendo, the dingy windows on the converted gas station of Panchito’s, or the lopsided roof of Ruth’s Diner.
Speaking to people whose native language is also not Japanese always brings a little genial awkwardness. We started with greetings and welcomes and thank yous and “table for two” in Japanese, and then they (a waiter, an owner-type, and some cooks) tried a little English on us to see if we were that sort of foreigner, and delighted that we were. They were proud they could offer English as a measure of their hospitality. The entrance was also a shop with two shelves stocked several layers deep with grains, curries, rice, chutney and ghee. Boxes of basmati rice were stacked on the floor. The waiter seated us in the adjoining dining room. He was from Nepal, had a sweet smile, good English, and he let us take pictures of the restaurant. We had a greasy feast to refill our stomachs from the journey there and then more to prepare for the walk home. We ordered vegetable pekoras, aloo gobi, bhindi masala, basmati rice and naan.
There are two restaurants that serve delicious Indian food in our prefecture, Santoshi in Toyama and Shangri La in Takaoka, and they are both easily accessible. Kashmir is different. Not only is it in the middle of nowhere, it’s not Indian. The names of the dishes are the same, but the name of the place, the Nepalese waiter, the Pakistani flag hung in the dining room and the smokier, spicier flavoring points to a more northern culinary influence. Young Japanese families trickled in and out as we savored our food and rested our legs. Dads and seven year old sons with cool haircuts laughed and tore naan with moms. The restaurant owner’s relatives relished the dishes and dishes of food that were served continually the whole time we were there. Through the window we had peered into and hour earlier, we could see the wind had picked up. The front was moving in. We paid, bought basmati rice, raw cardamom, fennel, and nutmeg. Then we zipped up our sweaters and started the walk home. After a couple of minutes, we noticed the sign for Etchu-Daimon station. We had walked to the next town.