There's no such thing as a bad meal in Japan. That's always been my mantra. Whenever there's a moment's hesitation on ordering, whenever I start to suspect that the thing I'm going to ask for might be a bit weird or not taste very nice, I remind myself: there's no such thing as a bad meal in Japan.
Everything there is so good. All of the food is so carefully and skilfully prepared, so perfectly thought out and executed, so passionately developed over hundreds of years, that you really can't go wrong.
The Japanese know their way around a kitchen. They know their own food, and they know foreign food. You can order anything in Japan – from ramen noodles to roast chicken – and you can be confident it will taste extremely good.
So that's why I wasn't bothered by the girl's friendly warning.
I'd just sat down in an izakaya, one of those countless dens of sake and good food in the Ebisu district of Tokyo, ready for a meal. I'd been shown to a seat at the long wooden bar overlooking the kitchen, handed a menu and given time to peruse.
Only there's not much point perusing a menu you don't understand. It was all in Japanese, and, sensing my confusion, the girl sitting next to me offered to help translate.
"These are all snacks," she said. "This is edamame, and sashimi, and Japanese omelette, and grilled meats, and udon noodles, and salted squid."
"Thanks," I said. "I think I'll try the omelette, and the salted squid."
The girl looked concerned. "I don't think you will like this. It's only for Japanese people. It's salted, but it's not dry. It's like, wet."
Hmm, wet squid. Still, I had my old mantra to go by, and also a reckless desire to prove that anything the Japanese like, I like too. Telling me something is "only for Japanese people" is pretty much the same as telling me I absolutely have to order it. And so I did.
I've eaten dried squid in Japan before, and it's been delicious. It's sold in pretty much every convenience store: flossy, shredded squid meat that tastes salty and yet still of seafood. It's good. I figured this "salted squid" at the bar would be similar.
And besides, it's always good to take a chance when you're travelling. It almost always works out well.
Yet, this did not work out well.
A few minutes later I was sitting there at the bar, large, delicious beer in hand, watching the kitchen staff at work, when the small bowl of "salted squid" – which to the Japanese, I later found out, is known as shiokara – arrived. It was not flossy, like the packet stuff at the 7-Eleven. It had a glistening wetness to it, a pile of chopped squid bits swimming in a pool of thick red paste.
The old mantra: there's no such thing as a bad meal in Japan.
So I grabbed my chopsticks, pinched a healthy portion of squid, and put it in my mouth.
I don't want to exaggerate this. I don't want to overstate shiokara's true disgustingness. But it is the work of the devil. I've never tasting anything so bad.
Of course I couldn't show the girl next to me how I felt about shiokara. I couldn't show the chefs. I couldn't show the waiters. So I took another bite. It was slimy. It was sour. It was salty. It tasted powerfully of rotten seafood.
I later found out that that is essentially what shiokara is. To call it "salted squid" is a misnomer. It's fermented. Rotten.
To prepare shiokara, you take a squid, slice up the raw meat into small chunks, and then mix it with a paste made from the squid's fermented viscera – or, guts. That's the dish: raw squid mixed with fermented guts.
To the Japanese it's a cherished snack, perfect izakaya fodder with a beer or a glass of whiskey. To me it's a heinous crime against culinary goodness, a shattering of the illusion that everything the Japanese like, I like too.
I battled my way through as much of that bowl of shiokara as I could; which, admittedly, wasn't very much. I forced down two or three mouthfuls before the omelette arrived and I peeled off a small section of eggy deliciousness and laid it over the top of the squid-and-guts combination to hide the evidence of my failure.
I remain, to this day, an advocate of taking chances when you travel, of trying new things. Is usually works out well.
I have also, however, had to rethink one of my mantras: there's (almost) no such thing as a bad meal in Japan.