It would appear that Mother Nature is a tad pissed off. In a little more than a year we’ve seen a devastating earthquake in Haiti, unbelievable flooding in Queensland, the recent earthquake in Christchurch, and now the earthquake plus tsunami double whammy in Japan. Oh yeah, and the threatened nuclear fallout. And now the snow there, which is NOT helping things.
What is going on? Is Mother on some weird crash diet that’s making her grumpy? I found all of these events both shocking and slightly awe-inspiring at the same time – old Mother Nature has some serious power. However, the situation in Japan has hit me a little more personally. Here’s a little story for you…
Once upon a time, way back when sometime around the dawn of time (well, about 21 years ago to be more exact), a young couple looking for adventure thought they’d try their hand at teaching English in Japan. They applied with a teaching programme, were accepted onto it, and eagerly awaited news of their postings. Would it be Tokyo? Kyoto? Okinawa and its beaches? Sapporo? Well, not quite. They were assigned to schools in a prefecture (geographical area similar to a province/county/state) called Fukushima. Where? Fukushima. They hurriedly found a map (back before the days of widespread internet) and located it. It was about 250km north of Tokyo, in the region called Tohoku (northern Japan). It looked quite – ahem – rural. Ok, so it wasn’t Tokyo, Kyoto, Okinawa or Sapporo. For the young couple, it would be an even more “authentic” experience.
They lived in a small city in Fukushima prefecture for 2 years. They were 2 of the less than 10 foreigners living in this city at any one time, and got used to the pointing and stares that they met as they walked down the street or did their shopping. They discovered that this part of Japan was a region that people came from, not necessarily a place they typically aspired to end up. The two twenty-somethings worked in their schools, made friends with colleagues, went to sleep to the chorus of frogs from the rice paddies behind their apartment, and just lived. Sometimes they loved it, sometimes they found it all a bit much, but it was an unforgettable experience. When life in the countryside and cravings for cheddar cheese and foreign chocolate got to be too much they would often go a city called Sendai, less than an hour away by Shinkansen (bullet train). You’ll likely have heard of Sendai by now. It used to be a green, modern city with lots of cultural activities, English bookstores and foreign food shops. And it wasn’t the total sensory overload that Tokyo was. It seemed liveable – they liked Sendai.
You’ll have guessed by now that the young couple in question was the man & I. We left Japan, moved on with our lives, and I hadn’t thought about it too much in recent years. Until last Friday. I spent some time this week looking through old letters/souvenirs/gifts from our time there - things I hadn’t paid attention to in years; many of which I’d forgotten even existed. I admit I was sitting there with tears in my eyes.
One particularly poignant memento was a gift that a student had given to me. I can’t remember her name, but can remember her face, her mannerisms. Her written English was excellent but she was painfully shy and was very reticent to speak it. Yet every so often she would visit me in the staff room and try to initiate conversation, or show me something she’d written. I remember she was an avid bird watcher. One day she gave me a small box filled with the tiniest beaded figures – animals and other things – that she’d made for me. It must have taken her days and days to make them. Was her name Reiko? I think it may have been.
As I walk around the house I see reminders of our time in Japan: the laquer vase on the mantelpiece, many of the dishes we eat from, the odd trinket here and there. And of course there are the memories, very random but memories nonetheless:
- People so eager to share their culture with us, and to have us appreciate it
- A fierce national pride in everything Japanese
- The colourful (some bold, some very muted), ornate, incredibly beautiful kimonos worn by the women on formal/ceremonial occasions
- The interesting use of English in advertising – I will never ever forget the jeans that purported to make the wearer “sexy like a pig”
- Students so intrigued by the foreigner in the school – desperate to know more about me yet generally so nervous about speaking English
- The unbelievable conformity
- Gaggles of school girls, all giggling
- Little children (ok, adults as well) openly staring at amazon woman and the very blonde guy as we walked down the street in our provincial city
- Trains that you could set your watch by (and this is not an exaggeration)
- 4 distinct seasons, all celebrated and embraced with different festivals, rituals, foods
- An incredibly driven, hard working culture
- A school trip to an amusement park; being given the seat of honour at the front of the roller coaster; screaming my lungs out as it plunged downwards
- A younger generation torn between culture/history and progress
- The incredible beauty and feeling of peace in the thousands of temples and shrines
- Parks full of cherry blossoms, and people celebrating the cherry blossoms, in the spring
- Being forced to sing karaoke – I hate karaoke!
- The most incredibly generous gifts we were given when we returned to Canada, some from people we hardly knew
And this wouldn’t be a food blog unless I shared some foodie observations with you – some good, some bad, all memorable:
- Steaming bowls of ramen to help stave off the bitter winter cold
- Discovering edamame, the best bar (and non-bar) snack ever
- Bags of persimmons, fresh off the tree (and wondering what we were supposed to actually do with them!)
- Nashi – the Japanese “apple pear” – so wonderfully crisp and juicy
- Being served steaming bowls of stewed locusts the first time we were invited to our landlord’s house (I just couldn’t bring myself to eat them; the man, to his credit, managed it with the help of large quantities of beer)
- Cycling to the tonkatsu restaurant in the middle of winter for the most amazingly succulent pork cutlets & rice
- The lightest, most ethereal vegetable tempura
- The simple perfection of a bowl of miso soup
- Natto: fermented soybeans with the consistency of phlegm
- Mochi pizza (pizza toppings and cheese cooked on a thick crust of rice paste) – you could chew this stuff for 10 minutes without breaking it down at all
- Pickles, pickles and more pickles – mmmm
- Food so beautifully presented it was like an art form
- Being told over and over again “you use chopsticks very well”
For me the best Japanese food was the simple stuff – the food people made for us in their homes. It wasn’t necessarily elegant, but it tasted great and was prepared with extra helpings of pride and love.
The Japanese people will get through this awful time just as they picked themselves up after another dark time. Their culture and work ethic will permit nothing less. But they could use some help, some support. There are loads of ways we can all contribute – this site gives a good comprehensive list of the options.
And really, Mother Nature, enough is enough. Forget this crazy crash diet that’s making you grumpy. Diets don’t work. It’s time for you to chill out, have a cup of tea, and a cookie or three. Cookies always make things better.