Monday, August 20, 2007

"j" is for . . . .

"J" is for Japan! I first came to Japan as an exchange student in 1988. I didn't eat sushi, I couldn't stomach natto (fermented soy beans) and I disliked even ramen! I lost a lot of weight and looked fabulous when I returned to the states. I also seriously fell completely in love with my husband. Although we had met the year before in Oregon at my university, being an exchange student here in Japan just made the love affair all the more intense. I still remember how he looked when he would crawl through my window at the seminar house (where all the exchange students stayed) late at night. He was working at a juku (cram school), so it would be maybe 11, or midnight, he would be in suit and tie, his crisp white shirt loose, half unbuttoned, his tie stuffed in a pocket. I loved watching him concentrate on levering himself up and then the moment our eyes would meet and he would freeze there on the threshold to my room. It was a hot and humid summer and I didn't care. I couldn't get enough of him. I cried ceaselessly for days after returning home. Still have no idea how I was able to get on a plane and put all that distance in between us. I felt like I had ripped my heart out and left it on a bench in Narita (large international airport in Tokyo)!

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).


Lily said...

What a warm fuzzy post, I felt all natsukashii for *gasp* Akita. Probably the first time that has happened since I left. There is such a charm about the Matsuris there, the Crickets sound different and the cooler summer eveenings looking up at an unpolluted sky is missed. This winter I am destined to miss the snow and kiritampo.

Lily said...

OH- did you know that you can watch PBS's frontline documentaries online?

I was hooked on "Country Boys". If you have a chance to watch it please do.

The Cheney one was nuts- I watched another one on CBC about him and almost smashed my Haliburton mug (DH "scores" all these oil company mugs when he does business with 'em) but its the largest mug I own.

Also- for me (one of these I will write a blog entry about this) the Mormon documentary was interesting. So many of my best friends are Mormon and I almost married one but the religious thing seemed like it would cause a problem in the future (sorry maybe too much info).

Anyways- there are a number of interesting documentaries to watch.

Sheri said...

That's such a beautiful list of Japan and things from Japan! :)

Sheri said...

lol-somehow got it worked out. I have been catching up on your posts, you write soooo beautifully and I don't know how you can write so much about MY life, too! The whole workaholic thing-oh boy, I know. My hubby and I are living tanshinfunin, so we don't see much of him, either. I realized just how little he knew of routines etc after leaving him to watch DS one night and he ended up being angry at me because I hadn't put out pjs and toothbrush etc for DS-he didn't know where it was. Sad. I don't think that would change if we were living together, though.
Keep writing and keep taking deep breaths-that works for me, too.
Hugs to you!

Nay said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your comment on my blog!! I also am an avid reader of your blog. I just love the way you can express your feelings! Although I wasn't in Japan for long, I embraced Japanese culture, so I can relate to what you say!
I'm in Brisbane! I can't believe you lived here! What suburb did you live in? What did you think of Australia? What did you do here?

Nay said...

Hi Laura,

Just answering your questions, lol. When I first came to Japan I lived in Fujinomiya with my fiance's parents. Then my fiance and I moved to Omaezaki. Both are small towns in Shizuoka. I also, don't like big cities. I am a country girl at heart. Because you lived in Brisbane for 2 years, maybe you heard on the news in winter about a place called Stanthorpe? Well, that's where I grew up... a REALLy small town. LOL!!

Trisha said...

You said exactly what I felt, but so much more beautifully than I could have done it.

Vicky said...

I have been reading your blog even while in England, but couldn't be bothered to comment with my Dad's rather wonky computer and him hovering over my shoulder, wanting to type for me, virtually!

I am loving this series and am wondering what the next letter will bring....

Christelle said...

Hi Laura,
It's been a while since I've been able to leisurely read my favourite blogs, or even keep up my own for that matter. I hope everything is ok with you because it seems that you haven't writting a new entry in a while. Oh well, it'll give me a chance to catch up on your blog- haven't had a chance to read it all yet, but I always enjoy it when I do.

Thanks for commenting on my wedding blog. I'll answer your questions here too: my husband and I met in a town an hour away, although our homes were only five minutes from each other. I believe it was destiny. I went for a drive, walked into a store where he was working part time, we chatted a little, I thought he was good-looking and went back the following month. He told me I looked beautiful (had come from an onsen the first time I went, second time made sure my hair and makeup looked nice), I told him where I worked, found out he lived right near me; went back a third time with friend in tow to try and ask him out, didn't, but at least got his name; he called me a month later at my school and invited me out to dinner. We first met in September and our first date was in December. He gave me a bracelet that he had made as a Christmas present in the parking lot at the end of our date. I knew within a month that he was the one. I think he knew even sooner. But we didn't rush things, I wanted to enjoy all the stages of the relationship from dating to (in our case) living together, to being engaged to being married. I even did a trip to Europe on my own and left Japan for four months before coming back to settle down. We did the legal registration of our marriage on the third anniversary of our first date.

Our Japanese wedding also worked out with the help of destiny- everything is so connected in life, especially mine. I taught English to the wife of a Buddhist priest of one of our local temples. Thanks to her, he agreed to marry us at his beautiful temple surrounded by cherry trees. I had studied kimono for two years a while ago and my teacher dressed me for the ceremony. The winter was mild and the cherry blossoms threatened to blossom early, but a cold, cloudy spell delayed them so that there were perfectly full and the sun finally came back out on the day we were married.

As for the Canadian wedding, it was only supposed to be a party, but I knew my mum was going to be feeling down the day my sister also left to come and live in Japan (how weird that I was there to see HER off at the airport this time). So we went wedding dress shopping, just for fun, ended up finding my perfect dress and then needed to plan an actual wedding around it. That was a good thing though, it gave my mum a project and something to look forward to which helped her through the first year of my sister living abroad. Having two weddings was exhausting and expensive. But get to say that I married the same man three times :)
I think I may win for longest comment ever. Sorry!

azumarisan said...

You mentioned rice in your post, it struck a cord with me. My husband is Japanese too and he is very particular about rice. He can't stand long grain rice because he says it's smelly! He also doesn't like short grain rice, and he bought me a Japanese rice cooker so I could cook the rice exactly the way he wants it to be!

Your post reminds me of all the great things in Japan that i miss, such as konbini, those vending machines that are somehow in the middle of nowhere, and the hot sticky summers where everyone is waving fans! I love your blog :)
Mind if i blogroll it?