Every time I mention an earthquake and how it’s the biggest one I’ve felt here so far, it seems there is another one that creeps up just to prove its worth. So there have been several since I last wrote: some little more than a hiccup and some that feel a little more intense. I am still fascinated with the sensation of them. I pause what I’m doing and I focus on the vibration, looking around the room to see the furniture, plants, dishes, walls jiggle around. Thankfully there haven’t been any larger ones around here.
A few weeks ago Beth and I attended an African drumming performance and presentation that was held at a community center just down the street from us. There is a Japanese woman who is married to a Kenyan man and they live in Kenya but were visiting Japan. We took some seats right in the front row of the auditorium. The guests came out and the lecture began. And we understood nearly nothing. The man spoke in Swahili, while two women translated to the audience in Japanese. Perfect. This is what we gathered from the hour-and-a-half lecture and Q & A: “This is a spear. Is it heavy? Yes, it’s very heavy and it’s made of something. Large animal. You throw the spear like this. Lion. These are the sounds of some animals found in Africa. This is some device that is used in Africa, and here is another device with some sort of purpose. Lion. Giraffe. This is what I’m wearing. Lion.”
The drumming, not performed by the Kenyan guest but by a Japanese man who studied in Africa, was fun and engaging. The audience was encouraged to get up and dance and sing along, and many of us did. A Japanese man in a suit who was already dancing with the crowd had encouraged me to get up, and so I did. At the end of the performance he reached out to give me a fist bump, to which I presented my open hand for a shake. He transformed his fist into a shake-ready palm, but not before I closed my fist to prepare for the bump. We did this a few times before finally having a few bumps and an awkward shake. We got to talking, and he told me he’s a city councilman and has visited Lancaster on several occasions. I wish I got that fist bump on the first try.
Speaking of drums, I recently asked my head teacher if it would be okay to practice on the school’s drum kit either before or after hours. He gave me the OK, and encouraged me to take advantage of it. I’ve only tried one day to practice and it was a bust. One of my English teachers, who I like very much and think we could be awesome pals, got the music room keys for me. I went upstairs and down the hall and around the corner and back down the hall and up more stairs and down the hall again because I realized I was on the wrong floor, and I opened the door. I felt as though I was sneaking around someone’s home without permission. It was a home filled with tubas, xylophones, trombones, flutes, and guitars, but still. I’d love to live in a place like that, provided the HVAC system is adequate and there is a grocery store within walking distance. Anyway, when I found the drums, they were in pieces and scattered around the room, so I didn’t play them. I did tap on a xylophone and a keyboard, but got scared being there alone and messing with something that was not my intended purpose. So I got the hell out of there and returned to my desk.
Beth and I went on a lovely lunch date at a place called まめのはなとうふりょり, or Mame no Hana Tofu Ryori, or something like "Faithful Flower Tofu Cuisine". I had a coworker of mine make the reservations, since they were necessary and I would fail miserably had I tried to call myself. It's a small, fancy place that is only open for a few hours a few times a week. It has a monthly set menu, which consists of eight or nine little courses. The restaurant is run by a retired couple who I guess just wanted to make awesome food from tofu. We had a private tatami room in the corner of the building (their house) which had two walls of floor-to-ceiling glass that looked out into a quaint Japanese garden. All of the dishes were outstanding, but some were just a notch above the rest. Our particular favorite was the yuba make, tofu skin sushi something or other. There was a light soup and pickled vegetables, and a tofu au gratin dish that were also pretty darn stellar. We were also served juice, fresh wasabi, hot green tea, and a dessert of fresh fruits and fruit jelly. All this and more, plus amazing service, all for under twenty bucks each. You won't find that in the States, my friends.
I'm a tea drinker, and Japan is all about tea. It's also all about Starbucks, but it's at heart all about tea. So I went to a tea ceremony to which a Japanese friend of mine had invited me. The experience was really cool, if not a bit intimidating. Everything has a purpose, and every movement has a way to be done and a time to do it. I sat between two elderly ladies, both of whom were very helpful in explaining how to do everything. The one to my left didn't seem to thrilled to be sitting next to a foreigner, but the lady to my left was sweet and smiley and talking my ear off, even though I understood little of what she said.
The same friend who invited me to this offered to take me to a tea ceremony class, taught by the same sensei who conducted the ceremony I just mentioned. I went with her and her daughter, who is also training to become a tea...person...I'm not sure what they're called exactly. Everything, again, has its purpose. Upon entering the room you are to bow and look around to admire the space and appreciate its role in the tea making process. You scoot across the threshold on your knees, positioning yourself then at 45 degrees, and rise, right leg first, to your feet. You cross the room diagonally, making sure to cross the black fabric edges of the tatami mat panels always with your right leg. (You cross with your left upon returning) Then you place yourself in front of a wall hanging, admire it, then look up to the left at some flowers, admire them, then down to the right at incense. Admire them. Bow. Lift yourself, about face, return to where you entered the room, and pivot right. Walk up to the tea preparation station, and get down to business. Awesome. There are a lot more details, but those are the bigger details of the process.
My elementary school kids continue to make me happy. Seriously, if I don’t end up adopting like fifty little Japanese kids it will be a miracle. I am delighted to see them every week, yet just as stressed out creating lesson plans, as I’m always concerned I’ll have a bum lesson and they’ll be bored or uninterested. I should ask my friends who are teachers back home, at what point do you stop caring? I think that’s the key to making it easier. But I don’t know if I have it in me.
The other week I watched a documentary called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It was released in 2011 and follows then 85-year-old Jiro Ono through his days at his $300-a-plate sushi restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. I’m a little late to the game; I’d been familiar with the title but had not made a point to watch it until this month. I found the film to be adorable, charming, sad, funny, and an interesting look into some of the many facets of Japanese culture. If you have 81 minutes and nothing to do, you can find it on Netflix. And if you want to eat at his restaurant, you’ll have at least a month wait.
This past Saturday our neighbor and friend LeeAnne hosted her annual Thanksgiving dinner. I should say, this woman is an incredible example of all the things I’m not capable of managing, such as planning, preparing, and cooking for 30 or so people, or having already mapped out what Christmas movies she’ll be watching this year, schedule and all. I admire that. She’s also been a great friend, and she’s a genuinely caring and kind person. Those are the kinds of people I like to be around. I hope I’m invited to her Christmas movie-watching. Anyway, the dinner was fun and we got to meet a lot of nice people, as well as spend time with other folks we’ve been getting to know.
On Sunday, Beth, LeeAnne and I took a trip to Tokyo to do some shopping and to visit some of LeeAnne’s friends. Our mission was simple enough: Visit a bookstore, visit a stationary store, visit a ramen restaurant. The bookstore we visited is several stories high – maybe seven or eight – and it has a foreign section, which was our target. I ended up purchasing two books, both by Japanese authors. One of them was recommended to me some time ago by a friend of mine, and the other was small and cute and pretty affordable so I couldn’t pass it up. I’ll give my review once I read them. The periodical section was a bit lacking, but I guess I can’t really fault the bookstore. It had a lot, but not the kinds of publications I’m interested in. I was on the fence about buying a copy of The Nation or a special edition of The Economist, but I chose neither, as both had sticker prices in the $20 range. $20. For a magazine. I’ll stick to the internet in that case.
On the way to our next destination we stopped at a guitar shop, which has a giant Fender Stratocaster propped in the store window. It has to be at least ten feet high, and the strings on it are as fat as my thumbs. (disclaimer: my thumbs aren’t unusually fat, but they’re the plumpest digits on my hands) LeeAnne helped Beth get a cell phone set up while I perused all the things I want but can’t afford or justify buying. Music shops in Japan are a bit frustrating, as all the instruments are locked or tied down to the display stand, and you have to get someone’s attention to have a look at a guitar, and that’s a process as they’re all busy doing guitar store stuff. But then they eventually come over, and they unlock the guitar you want to see, tune it, wipe it down, and prepare a stool for you and position it just so and they get a little amp and cable and all these other courteous things which really just make you impatient and sap your energy. Then they stand there and watch you while you play or inspect the instrument. So I didn’t bother to ask to see anything at this particular store. I let my imagination do the playing for me.
Itoya, the stationary store we visited, is located in a major shopping area in Ginza (I think) and is an astonishing twelve stories high. I was not prepared for the enormousness of this place. Nor was I prepared for how crowded it would be. The flow of shoppers funneling in and out was enough to make my head spin. The first floor was beautifully decorated with bright, cheery, encourage-you-to-spend-money holiday spirit. This floor had mostly greeting cards and seasonal items for sale. Each floor had its own theme: Home. Desk. Travel. Craft. Fine Paper. The selection of writing utensils was mind blowing, but in the end I walked away with only a handful of postcards and a few greeting cards. Send me your mailing addresses, please.
We made our way to Tokyo Station, part of which is housed in a beautiful brick building dating back 100 years or so. Inside this massive transit hub are a variety of shops and restaurants. LeeAnne found out about a ramen house which is completely vegan, and so we set off to find it somewhere within the tangled spaghetti hallways and mobs of people who abandon Japanese courtesy to rival the aggressive shithole that is New York City. Here we were met by LeeAnne’s friend Ben, an American who has been studying Japanese for a decade and is living in Yokohama, and Hokuto, a Japanese guy who has several successful business ventures including some sort of magician service.
The restaurant is apparently really famous or popular, as the line extended well into the station. We stood in the cue for not quite half an hour before being seated in the small but well-lit and chic cavern. Our orders were taken promptly and our food arrived remarkably fast. We were sitting side-by-side at a counter-style table, so none of us faced each other. Hokuto sat in the middle and he entertained Beth and I with some impressive coin magic. His sleight of hand is top notch, and he continued to make coins disappear in my hand only to reappear in another hand or on my shoulder. Japanese and magic. Who knew.
Well my friends, below you can see some shots that go along with this story. And on your Thanksgiving Day, just when you're waking up at the crack of dawn, I'll be in South Korea. More later.