03 soup kitchenSpeed Eating in a Tokyo Subway Station
In a brief passageway between two halls in a subway station, where a staircase leads up to the street behind me and other steps to the left lead further underground, a tiny kitchen-for-one has scored this small hovel in which to exist. I am hungry, and this looks straightforward and easy.

I put money into a vending machine and choose what to eat from 30 buttons of which only four have pictures. The pictures look like noodle soup. A warm soup would be welcome on this cool December day, so I select one.

The machine ejects a ticket, which I hand to the cook. The cook says something to me. I smile and nod. The cook opens his little fridge and shows me a bowl of thick white noodles. I smile and nod. The cook grabs a bowl of thin brownish noodles from his crowded countertop and shows it to me. My light bulb bursts on, and to his obvious relief I finally point out which noodles I want. He prepares my soup and places the bowl and a set of chopsticks on the counter.

At the end of the line of elbow-to-elbow patrons who are eating from the narrow shelf below the kitchen window, I hunch down like the rest. Unlike them, I poke, flop, dribble and drop, struggling to eat the slippery noodles and soup with the chopsticks, without slurping.

A mere waif of an elderly woman squeezes in between me and the top edge of the steps and places her order. She keeps looking up at me but I refuse to make eye contact so I don't have to face her ridicule, because I am, truly, pathetic at this. I try to pick up speed without forgoing my attempt at grace. It's impossible, but I want to finish my soup before she finishes hers so I can pretend that I don't look as incapable as I am.

The cook hands her her bowl. I have a five-minute head start. She slurps and shovels expertly even though she doesn't know about our race, and she leaves me in the dust without a splash or a dribble. My sweater does not fare as well. When I eventually finish, I'm alone at the soup bar except for a couple of new arrivals.

There is no room for pride when travelling. Maybe an ascent up the nearby Tokyo Skytree, built in 2011 to be the world's tallest freestanding broadcasting tower, will help me forget this subterranean failure, or at least to put it into some perspective. Sigh...

© Elizabeth Willoughby 2015

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