In the middle of your low table is a bubbling cauldron of water, with what I think was some seaweed thrown in for flavour. You are supplied with various vegetables and the like to cook in the pot: carrot, onion, shiitake mushrooms, tofu, and so on. You get special massive chopsticks for this task. These things are put in to boil away for a while, and then whenever you feel like it you dip in with your chopsticks and fish out something which you then dip in some soy-based sauce and eat. The tofu, being mushy, requires a skillful touch.
But the veggies are just a side show to the meat. We had thin slices of Yonezawa beef, a local delicacy that is apparently famous throughout Japan. You dip a slice in the boiling water, swish it around a bit ('shabu-shabu' is onomatopoeia for the sound this makes), and then pull it out after maybe 20 seconds. This is dipped in a creamy sesame sauce and eaten immediately. I cannot describe how delicious this was; it was literally the best beef I have ever tasted. Japanese for delicious is oishii, but it's a word that gets bandied around a lot: whenever someone gives me some weird Japanese food to try, they eagerly ask 'oishii desuka?' ('is it delicious?'), and to be polite, if it's even vaguely palatable I'll say, 'hai, oishii desu' ('yes it is'). Now, this devaluation left me nowhere to go to describe this incredible beef: 'totemo oishii' ('very delicious') didn't really cover it. So I just made lots of 'mmm' noises and eagerly took another slice.
There were other treats accompanying the shabu-shabu, including eel and beef-liver yakitori (I think yakitori only actually refers to chicken, but whatever, it was grilled meat on sticks). But most notable was the beef sashimi. That's right, little slices of raw beef (I think - I wouldn't rule out the possibility that it was equine rather than bovine in nature). I was initially taken aback at this development, but I manned up and had some. It's eaten just like its marine counterpart, i.e. with wasabi and soy sauce. It's actually really nice, with a tender, melt-in-the-mouth kind of texture. However, today my digestive system seems to have taken a minor dislike to something, and I'm treating this as the prime suspect.
Eventually, udon (think Japanese noodles) was (were? I'm not sure whether noodles are a count or mass noun, and Japanese cheekily sidesteps the issue by not having plurals) put in the pot, and once this were served up, the meal was concluded. All the while we had been knocking back beer like there was no tomorrow - we had nomihodai, or all-you-can-drink for a certain period of time. This, I'm learning, is quite a popular way of doing things in Japan. I'm still struggling to get my head around this concept; people would literally die if we had this setup in the UK.
Next stop was karaoke. Everyone was keen that I sing a Michael Jackson song (again), but I manage to talk them round to the Beatles. Perhaps unwisely, I went for 'I am the walrus'. I was terrible, but for some reason my companions demanded an instant encore.
The karaoke bar also appeared to be operating on an all-you-can-drink basis, with endless refills of shochu (like vodka, but weaker) being the order of the day. These refills were administered by provocatively dressed flirty female waitresses. I quickly realised we were in some kind of hostess bar. My town has an almost unbelievable number of these 'sunakku baa's (snack bars), as they are euphemistically called, but this was my first time inside one. It made me feel pretty uncomfortable, and I was glad I didn't speak enough Japanese for it to be worth the hostesses' effort to talk to me. This didn't stop them from trying some non-verbal flirting by getting all up in my personal space. Depressing.
After that, we went for some ramen, which I think is the Japanese equivalent of an end-of-night donner kebab. After the shabu-shabu I wasn't even slightly hungry, so I left most of mine. And then for some reason, we went for more drinks at a fourth place. By the time we left there, my colleagues were properly mashed, and in full-on "I love you, man" mode. At this stage, a remarkable level of touchy-feeliness emerged, with man-hugs a plenty.
I've just about shaken off my hangover now, and not a moment too soon - I'm about to head off to some mysterious party in the middle of nowhere with other ALTs. Bye!