Japan. The country I live in now. It is hot and humid and my husband asks me why I sweat so much. Oh how twenty years can turn lust on its head.
Japan. Eating with ohashi (chopsticks), cooking with ohashi (I was chagrined to find myself dropping the stirring spoon in the pot, fumbling with the cooking utensils I grew up with on my last trip home. Actually thinking, "Good lord, what I wouldn't give for two fine long and straight sticks!"), gohan (RICE. Not the rice of my childhood, overdone and mushy. Not the long grain rice I grew up eating in Thai food or Chinese food in California but short grain Japanese rice, cooked in a rice cooker, rinsed and drained and soaked and steamed in our state of the art rice cooker.) My daughters bringing home a dirt covered diakon (large Japanese radish), a dirt covered sweet potato, a dirt covered potato from ensoku (field trips). I love the enthusiasm with which Saki and Reno have dragged home their vegetable trophies. The kids excitement over beetles. The Onsen--even with two children who have to be reminded again and again "this is not a pool! It is a hot spring! RELAX and stop JUMPING." DS lite software, digital cameras, plasma screen t.v.s --I can wander an electrical store here for hours, happy. Onigiri, nori (dried sea weed) on salted white rice wrapped up like an edible softball, still warm. The smell of incense lingering over the tatami in the room that houses the butsudan (Buddhist anscetstoral alter) at MIL's house.
Japan in the summer--sofuto kurimu (soft cream ice cream)kakigori (shaved ice), uchiwa (hand held fan) and mugichya (roasted barley tea). My bell crickets ringing on a hot August day, the kind of day when you step outside and feel the moisture in the air settle on your skin and roll off of your face as you wipe at it with a handkerchief. It is cold somen (thin wheat) noodles, cold soba (buckwheat) noodles, cold ramen noodles and chilled cucumber strips for dinner. It is the bags of gold fish that my daughters gleefully bring home from local matsuris (festivals), along with brilliant (very breakable) electrical swords that they brandish at one another and squeal with delight as they draw on the night sky with them. (They've already broken the light toys that we bought for them at the big Kanto matsuri this year.) It is the hanabi (fireworks) that light up the sky overhead and the senko hanabi (sparkler) gripped in your four-year-old's hand, sparkling and showing her sandaled feet on the grass poking out from underneath her colorful yukata.
The shrill cry of the early summertime semi (cicada), the dragonflies that hang on the autumn breeze, suspended over the rice fields on invisible strings, the hawk as it glides and circles close enough for me to yearn to raise up an arm and stroke it's cocoa brown chest (I would forget about those talons and beak until they sank into me--Hawks mesmerize me, I love them).
The preying mantis the size of my forefinger that defends the bush at the front of our house. First difficult to spot as she sits on a green leaf but by early October striking in her contrast with the by then bright red leaf underneath her. The fact that she eats her husband? Plucky. I like that in an insect.
The first day of winter when the vending machines switch over to "hot" drinks and I can make my favorite fall dish--butajiru (miso based soup with daikon, gobo/burdock root, tofu, carrot and konnyaku and fatty pork) with grilled sanma (Pacific saury)and a wedge of saduchi lime. As the weather chills and the temperature drops deciding that it is too cold to eat anything but nabe(one pot dishes)--Kimchee nabe, kiritanpo nabe, seafood nabe. Until January arrives and you can start to lay the slabs of homemade omochi ( pounded glutenous rice cakes that MIL sends every year) on the stove and watch them puff up. Drizzle a little shyoyu (soy sauce) on top and warn the girls for the billionth time--small bites and chew well!
The change of the seasons themselves, reflected in local decorations, culinary dishes, even the snack foods offered at the local convenience store--in the spring time, snack on ume (plum flavored) potato chips, in the fall snack on yakiimo (baked sweet potato flavored) chips. This summer I enjoyed my first Cucumber Pepsi--a Summer time seasonal drink. So popular it sold out locally within two weeks of being introduced. The seasons reflected everywhere because in Japan the four seasons are distinct. There is no such thing as an autumn like winter night or a summer like fall evening. The change in the season ("Today is the first day of spring!") is announced on T.V. not because it is fanciful to do so, but because it is a fact.
I like looking up into the night sky in Japan and seeing the rabbit in the moon. And although I have taught my children to find the man in the moon as well, we all agree that we prefer the nocturnal quiet of that bunny to the face of that man looking down on us.
Japan is a feeling, a way of being, an undertone a nuance. I love my American sense of independence and I absolutely love small talk when I return home. But for a few minutes in the airport I miss for a fraction of a second the invisible veil that I have in Japan. The space between me and those around me is suddenly consumed in the noise and the vigour of the American crowd around me. And when I am absolutely dead tired, jet lagged on my feet, I even miss the anonymity of never being expected to say more than, "Good afternoon. This please. Thank you." at the register. Reaching out to receive a gift with both hands, bowing on the phone, unwrapping the furoshiki, greeting the delivery man in the genkan (traditional Japanese entranceway) who brings you your ochugen gift (summer time gift, one of several seasonal gifts traditionally exchanged during the Japanese year) of chilled mikans (Japanese tangarines sent by MIL).
The chorus of aisatsu (greetings) that encircle life here and bind us to one another:
Inviting someone into your house : aggatte kudasai (please come in)
Entering someone's house: ojamashimasu (I'm sorry to bother you)/shitsureishimasu (I'm sorry to intrude/be rude)
Leaving someone's house: ojamashimashita (I'm sorry to have troubled you.)
Morning greeting: ohayogozaimasu
Afternoon greeting: konnichiwa
Evening greeting: konbanwa
Good night: oyasumiyasai
Before eating (when serving food) : meishi agatte kudasai (please eat) douzo (here you are)
Before eating : itadakimasu
After eating: gochisosama deshita
Excuse me (used a LOT more than in English for nearly every situation imaginable, asking a clerk to ring up a sale, after bumping into someone, when trying to get past another person, etc.): suimasen
Please: onegaishimasu (used when asking a favor)
Thanking others for their hard work: otsukare sama deshita (for instance, when you leave work to your co-workers)
Goodbye: sayonara or matta ne (the later is more informal)
Thank you for everything: oseiwa ni narimashita (I have to write this at the beginning of each note to my girls' teachers, a kind of acknowledgment for all that they do for my children and therefore for me.)
Take care: genki de ne
Get well: odaijini
Apologies: mo shiwake arimasen (kind of an "there is no excuse, I am sorry"
gomenasai (a more literal, "sorry")
Excuse me for leaving before you (when there are people still at the office working, for example) = o-sakini shitsureishimasu For letting someone go ahead of you = douzo osaki ni
Pleased to meet you: hajimemashite, yoroshiku onegaishimasu
"J" is for Japan: the country where I say "Tadaima!" (I'm home) and my children and husband answer, "Okaerinasai" (welcome home).