“Tsujino-san. You have to go to this little tempura place I found. A pile of tempura for only 800 yen!”
“How is the food presentation?”
“Oh, pretty simple. Just a white plate filled with tempura.”
“I could not eat such food, David-san. Without elegant presentation, food is not delicious to me.”

That’s a conversation I have while living in Shimonoseki, Japan in my early 20s. A 60-something English teacher, Ms. Tsujino is an elegant woman – always well coiffed, clothes never wrinkled, hair never out of place. In her opinion, when it comes to food, aesthetics are as important as taste or quantity. As a poor, recent-college-graduate at the time, my bar, of course, is much, much lower, ie. if it’s cheap, tasty and plentiful, sign me up. Luckily, Tsujino-san and I never actually eat together.

Fast forward to the present and here I am, myself, in Ms. Tsujino’s age bracket, hungrily looking for a bowl of ramen in Kyoto, Japan. Needless to say, the options are infinite. Kyoto IS one of the world’s great culinary cities. You can find pretty much any kind of ramen you want in this town, from Michelin star quality to train-station take away. But Kyoto, alas, is not terrific when it comes to vegan food, which is why I select the amazing Kyoto Engine Ramen from HappyCow (the veg search engine).

Although not the *most* elegant restaurant in Kyoto, Engine Ramen is hardly a diner. Nor is it the most “traditional” ramen joint in town To be honest, the foreign community has well discovered Engine Ramen; at any given time, at least half the clientele are hungry gaijin in search of tasty noodle soup and a bilingual wait staff. What has drawn me here, however, is the compact menu featuring just 5 noodle soup options: 3 for omnivores, 2 for vegans – with gluten noodles free available as well.

Let me tell you, my dinner at Engine is one tasty bowl of vegan ramen, and well presented, too! It’s rich, it’s creamy, it’s a little spicy. Made from edamame, rice, daikon radish and soy milk cream, my ramen also has a lovely, chewy texture. Would Ms. Tsujino like it? Hmm. The place is modern and well kept, with jazz tinkling from the speakers. The bowl and chopsticks are stylish. Engine Ramen is certainly a step up from the tempura place in Shimonoseki which, to be honest, was kind of a dive. At this point in my life, I can see the virtues of eating in a clean, elegant restaurant, where you can count on hygiene. So, yeah, I think Tsujino-san would approve of Kyoto Engine ramen and at age 61, I approve of it, too.

(One of the greatest lessons you learn from traveling is that everyone has their own perspective, based on individual habits, upbringing, and values. Although I can present my 20-something opinion that cheap is more important than elegant, it’s unlikely that I can convince a 60-something Japanese woman to change her perspective. In the end, convincing isn’t the point. The heart of engaging conversations is sharing viewpoints and then listening to the viewpoints of others. Perhaps your perspective will change, perhaps not. But you’ll definitely learn something interesting about the other person and their “culture,” reminding you that your universe isn’t the only one out there; it’s just one universe among many equal universes.)