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Photo: The abandoned house in Taura.

It’s 4:30 p.m. and the light is fading fast. I descend from my hilltop neighborhood—full of blinking Christmas lights and overly clean cars—via the bamboo grove pathway to the older neighborhood down the hill. My mono no aware reminder, the abandoned house, sits on its perch and waits either to be destroyed or to be loved anew. In Old Taura, the cars are also clean, but they look a bit more run down, a bit less conspicuously expensive. Rust appears on old metal railings. In front of slumped, two-story apartment buildings, flowers are planted in old styrofoam fish crates. I gaze at the abandoned house with affection as I take an evening walk. Suddenly, two young Japanese women scamper up to me, excited.

They ask me if I speak Spanish, which stops my brain for a moment. What? They ask me again in Spanish if I speak Spanish and I reply, “Un poco.” I ask them in Japanese why they want to speak Spanish. Are they students? They shake their heads. I tell them my husband speaks Spanish if they urgently need to speak with someone. What’s going on here? I’m noticing their clothes, all black, strangely black, like either just come from a funeral black or…I can’t think straight.

We talk about how there are many Spanish speakers both in Taura and Oppama (the town up the road) because of the many Peruvian immigrants/returnees here. My fishmonger in Taura knows exactly which local fish are best for ceviche because he has so many Peruvian customers. In Oppama, there is a Peruvian restaurant called Donde Hiro with a menu in Spanish and Japanese. It’s a hangout for the local Peruvian-Japanese returnees and for some Hispanic sailors from the U.S. Navy base 15 minutes away. The house ceviche is outstanding.

I pause and look at the Japanese women: I have run out of trivia about Spanish speakers in Taura. I ask them: “Why do you want to speak Spanish?” No, no, they don’t want to speak Spanish; they want to give people who speak Spanish this—and they hand me a Jehovah’s Witnesses tract. Ah! So! Now they are so clear to me, wearing conservative black, acting a bit nervous, too forward for normal Japanese people.

The pamphlet is in Spanish: ¿Le gustaría saber más de la Biblia? I find this hilarious because I have already told them that although I speak Spanish, my first language is English. Why didn’t they give me an English pamphlet? Why am I being so indulgent with them, whereas in the States I would have walked away long ago? They ask about my husband, and I feel my face get hard: “He’s Roman Catholic.” They murmur, “Oh.” And shut right up. Really? You give up so easily? Back off sucker Christians, my man’s an original RC. So, why didn’t they ask me what I am? Not very good sales people; they had a real live one right in front of them—a sort of Buddhist, baptized Methodist, agnostic/humanist. Now I find myself amused that they are chasing after foreigners (don’t they realize we’ve been covered?), and I ask them if they bother Japanese people with this. My tone has changed. Everything’s not so friendly now.

“Oh, yes, yes, Japanese people, too.” And I am given the Japanese version of the tract: Seisho ni tsuite motto shiritaito omowaremasenka? (Do you want to learn more about the Bible?)

I bring the conversation to an end and they get into a sparkling blue car and drive off.

In a few minutes, I reach the street of my fishmonger and I call out to him as he is closing up shop. He says, “Hey, taking a walk?” He is always relaxed and happy to talk about what he is selling. I think he agrees with me that fish purveyors should wait for customers to come to them.


I wrote this last year and originally posted it on another blog.

December 2, 2006

Once outside the local train station, I turn right to start the climb up the hill to my house. It is very late at night and I’ve caught the train back from Tokyo to the southern suburbs. The road is almost silent. The sidewalk is clean and long, neatly marking the landscaped hill, winding past the comfortable, bourgeois, modern Japanese family homes. The night is clear and crisp, and I walk slowly up the hill. My skin is cool under the full moon, but my belly is warm. Tonight was the bonenkai for my sake tasting group.

A bonenkai is a “forget the year party,” where everyone lets their hair down, reflects on the past year, and gets stinking drunk. Every group in Japan has one in December. Work for a large corporation? Bonenkai. Have a ballroom dancing club? Bonenkai. Attend a sake tasting and lecture once a month at a sake bar in Tokyo? Bonenkai.

The entrance to the bar has a display of sake casks. These traditional symbols of plenty and spiritual blessing contrast with the hyper-modern wood and stainless steel interior of the bar. As we turn the corner and see the casks with their festive kanji and artwork, my friend girlishly exclaims, “Ah! Look at this one!” I am delighted with her delight. After admiring a tiny figure of a deer on one of the small casks, we enter the familiar modern and welcoming space.

Directly ahead is a huge arrangement of bare tree branches and fall flowers. The glass vase itself is three-feet tall. Beside the massive arrangement is Mori-san, the bar’s handsome young sake sommelier, who takes our names and our money for the tasting and dinner. He hunches over the list in the happy-to-be-organized manner of some Japanese men. But Mori-san is unusually tall for a Japanese man, and has the build of a wide-receiver. I wonder at this while he marks down our payment. Then, I am distracted by the display of the treasures: the brown sake bottles lined up behind the bar, dressed in labels of shiny gold and silver kanji, or in simple black ink calligraphy on buff, hand-made washi paper with ragged edges. Above the bar is a cool swath of white, back-lit, semi-transparent panels, like the cool light of joy glowing over my upcoming inebriation.

We greet John, the American sake expert who holds the sake tasting dinners each month. John has been given awards from the Japanese Central Brewer’s Union for promotion and knowledge of sake. He has the sturdy, reassuring build of a comfortable, satisfied middle-age; it is a body well-loved by a fellow human being, well-fed by decades of Thanksgivings and bonenkai, and a body which moves with the confidence of a man who knows what he wants and does what he loves.

My friend and I sit down and greet others we have met here before. I am thrilled to see Patricia, an attractively mussed and casual woman who always has an interesting story to tell. John leans over our table and tells us about a tasting game where we must try three sakes and answer questions about their provenance and characteristics. Patricia and I jump up to drink.

The sakes are in katakuchi, or oversized red lacquerware pouring bowls. I pick up the first bowl to pour for Patricia and my hands feel electrified and my mouth is watering. There’s a particularly Japanese delight in reminding one of the touch of material to skin, the intimacy of hand-drawn ink on paper, the thumbprint pressed into rough clay, the warmth of lacquerware in the hand and on the lips. We taste the three sakes one by one; I furiously write some notes. Which is a junmai daiginjo? Which was made from the softest water? Which is the most expensive/least expensive? The paper lists ten impenetrable questions. I sit down with a small kikijoko (tasting cup), of mystery sake B and mull it over. The genius of this game is we are forced to be in our mouths for a moment. There’s only the sake and me.

Patricia shows me some photos off her digital camera. She has been taking photos of old wooden signs and has some shots of a trip today to Kamakura to see the Great Buddha. One of her photos was taken inside the body of the huge bronze sculpture. In the photo, two lovely Japanese girls look up at light pouring in from a hole in the side of the Buddha. Their cheekbones are round and pink with youth. Patricia is telling me some stories about her collections of photos, of aprons, of classic Japanese literature, of trips to sake breweries. I suggest I might be a good luggage porter on her next trip and she laughs. As she looks me over, I realize that I have been collected.

Tonight John is not lecturing about sake; tonight we gather to celebrate. Our group is half Japanese and half ex-pats, mostly Americans. We fall on each other’s company like long-lost friends, even though most of us are strangers. Japanese etiquette requires one to pour from small pitchers for other people; this has the effect of an introduction. The first of tonight’s six tasting sakes (the high-class escorts to our happiness) is placed on the table. I hold up the tokkuri of sake, turn to a young man near me, and say, “Ready?” Like most young men I meet now, at first his eyes elide right over me. I see myself in his eyes: I am unremarkable and nearing an overripe middle-age. But later he will find himself laughing with me; he will see past my outside. He will have the dawning of an individual on his consciousness. What is first another animal, a challenge to one’s space, can become, with sake, the sudden light of the familiar, the recognizable.

Mori-san, with his shock of a young body, brings the second, then the third sake along with each course of dinner. On one of his visits to our table, Patricia teases him about his blue denim apron wondering if she can buy one like it. He smiles briefly, but moves on. “You sure it’s the apron you want?” I mutter, and Patricia laughs out loud. When Mori-san returns with the fourth sake, Patricia says to Mori-san in Japanese, “She really likes you.” He glances at me, lets his mouth curve up only enough to be polite, and pulls some bottles off the table. I scold her, “Now you’ve embarrassed him.” She just gives me a rumpled and wanton laugh and doesn’t apologize; this pleases me.

John grades our scrawled answers to the test. I am delighted to have five correct answers. I glow knowing I am beginning to understand the pleasure of sake. Pleasures must be known with knowledge and history. As one ages, one loses some of the body’s acute awareness, but the mind fills in the present with the delights of what has come before. The mind feels the warm alcohol and whispers to me of every drink I’ve had before. My mind tells my body how it is alive and reminds my body of every place it was ever touched. I have learned to taste the sake with memory.

Once we have eaten the dinner and have tasted most of the sakes–with refills–John comes and sits with us. We discuss the current market for sake, which is dwindling in Japan. The Japanese youth see sake as an old man’s drink; whereas for all of us ex-pats, finely made sake is a new and exciting pleasure. I keep pouring. They keep pouring. Our hands are a little shaky now. John is talking in semi-mournful tones about the state of the sake industry. He loves his sake and the brewers he knows as friends. I look up at the rows of the brown bottles. These are not industrial sakes, churned out with mechanization. John serves us the sixth sake made with the shizuku technique, which requires the patience and expense of allowing the fermented rice and water to drip through cloth, instead of pressing it quickly. The slow drip of the sake preserves more of its flavor and essence. We drink this and wonder at the goodness of art.

And then it is time to go. I feel the inebriation passing from pleasant glow to sloppy fatigue. My friend and I walk to the train, follow the patterns of stairways at station changes. The fluorescent lights and the train’s movements do not seem real. In my mind, I am still back beneath the flower arrangement with Mori-san bringing sake. At my stop, I say goodnight to my friend, and step off the red train.

Now I am half-way up the hill, and my sake level is back to a pleasant buzz. I pass a neighbor’s house with bonsai trees in the front yard. He has them arranged in three rows of six, perfectly manicured and tended. I crave more wildness than those cambium sculptures. They strain at their little pots and urge against the wires that bind their branches into accepted aesthetic forms. Finally, I reach the street light nearest my house, the one to whose public light I must close my bedroom curtains. I stand beneath the light and look up at my house. My husband will be home soon from his voyages at sea. I have so many things I want to do. I will have so many things to tell him behind the curtains.

But I won’t sleep tonight; I’ll probably check the computer in our home office. I’ll probably find a newly released acoustic version of a song by a musician that I enjoy. I’ll listen to the song, an old protest song first recorded the year I was born: this birth song will be transformed by his familiar voice. And like the sake and the friends in the bar, my pleasure will be compounded by the new sensations becoming familiar and amalgamating with what I have felt before in the washi-paper blues texture of this stranger-friend’s voice. I’ll have six different dai-ginjo sakes in my blood. I’ll have my familiar things about me and my familiar body and my familiar thoughts. And the peaceful suburban night will pass into the day. The Japanese call it the breaking of the night. I shall not be broken, but something will be glowing, circling the Earth to greet me, to dawn on my extraordinary happiness.

On October 14th, a Sunday evening, we met our friend Patricia and headed to downtown Yokosuka for the Kakeda Shoten Sake Tasting, held at the Saikaya meeting hall. Kakeda Shoten is a well-respected sake store in Oppama (near my home). It’s a magical place with a wall of premium sakes behind the glass doors of the fridges. A friend tipped me off that there would be a tasting in my area (usually I have to shlepp up to Tokyo), so I was excited to have a tasting so near our home. When I bought the tickets at the shop, Kakeda-san proudly told me there would be 50 different brewers represented.

When we arrived there were many speeches and a formal introduction of the kurabito (sake brewers) that had travelled from about 30 different prefectures from 50 breweries to represent 81 different sakes. The room dividers were removed, the sakes revealed, with their happi-coat-wearing brewers behind many of them, and the crowd got pushy in the rush. In a two hour period I was able to taste about 20-25 sakes (I went back for seconds on some favorites, and we weren’t spitting). I’m still deciphering the kanji for some of the ones I enjoyed. Although I can discuss sake at a very simple level in Japanese, it’s very hard in an increasingly inebriated crowd to ask every single brewer for his name and the yomikata (how to read) of the name of the sake. So, I have my printed list and will work on it. There may be updates. But the photos of brewers holding up their creations make my heart glad.

Akebono sake from Fukushima: Tenmei (Turtle’s Tail) junmai bin hi-ire (bottle pasteurized). The orange calligraphy on the label is the kurabito‘s son’s finger painting. The handwritten note on my program says, “Yum.” Sorry. I’ll have to buy more to give more technical details.

Kyokujyou junmai daiginjo. This was unusual and tasty; it seemed to have a slight effervescent quality on the tongue. The kurabito was a woman, which made her stand out in the room. [For some reason my staff photographer neglected to take a picture of her.] The bottle beside the sake bottle is a bottle of the actual water used to create the sake. I tried several of the waters with the sakes; they were absolutely delicious, of course.

And from Fukui prefecture, the fat, round, delicious Fukuchitose yamahai junmai daiginjo. This was my favorite sake of the evening, although at this point I was all red in the face and about to start singing “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything.” Plus, the kurabito was just so huggable and kind of reminded me of the owl on the label. I am a particular fan of kimoto and yamahai sakes (so far). They have the funky undertone of the long fermentation process. They are like the washed rind cheeses of sake and I love them.

There were some other delights that evening. Kakeda-san and his staff were very welcoming. The proprietors of Shuen Kawashima izakaya came right up to me and said hello. But then we three stood out on Sunday; we were the only foreigners at the tasting. Oh, and I won a bottle of sake in the raffle.

[For information about sake terminology and types of sake, start with John Gauntner’s Sake World site.]

I have been to numerous sake tastings and there are several things I can count on: (a) delicious sake, (b) a group of interesting ex-pats who are passionate about drinking it, and (c) a moment of anxiety when I see a sake label. I cannot easily read the labels and so to remember a favorite sake from a certain kura (sake brewer), I must take a photo of the bottle. My photos of sake labels are often blurry, because I am myself, at that moment, a little blurry.

Sake bottle labels are designed with a range of graphics styles from hyper-modern to reproductions of traditional art. Many labels feature the simplicity of beautiful shodo (calligraphy) on washi paper. All of this one can appreciate without reading the text. Still, there’s a lot the illiterate foreigner is missing. I have taught myself some of the vital label kanji that state the grade of sake (junmai ginjo, honjozo, daiginjo). It would be anti-social to have my nose in a kanji dictionary all night at a sake tasting, so I just take the photo and move on. Even if I had the dictionary, however, some sake names are written in old kanji that is not listed in basic dictionaries.

So much for the pity party. Here’s how I battle my illiteracy in general: today I spent two hours deciphering the entire recipe for an eggplant dish. Two hours, a cooking magazine, a Japanese-English dictionary, and a kanji dictionary to painfully translate how to make “lightly fried eggplant in broth.” No kidding, just when I was about to throw the magazine across the room, I came across a sentence that I could read without the dictionary. I stared at it with tears in my eyes. If you think that must be hyperbole, then you have never studied Japanese.

If you are one of the select few that read this WTF blog, you’ll have noticed I’ve been a little perezosa in my duties. All I can say is, I got lured (see photo).

Just sent off houseguests on the Narita Express this morning. The visit from my husband’s cousin and her husband (both from Spain) consisted of 10 delightful days speaking a bizarre mixture of English, Spanish, and Japanese, which led my poor confused brain to make me say things like, “Oh, que bueno sake, es como ringo.” (ringo being Japanese for apple).

After I saw off los primos, I went to the Machida shrine sale (a Japanese flea market—yes, those very attractive, hyper-expensive Japanese tschotkes, old kimonos, pottery, etc., are sold here in flea markets for a pittance) and bought some 80-year-old Japanese cut glass glasses. I have a new fondness for Japanese glass, Meiji cut glass and modern hand-blown. Then I went to an antique shop where I bought a Kutani ochokko (sake cup) that took my breath away—a wee gaggle of one-inch-tall scholars adorning my drinking vessel.

The hated month of August is over and I leap into the embrace of September. I resolve to (a) eat less, exercise more, (b) study Japanese with more diligence, and (c) remember to write on my blog.

Hasta la vista, tomodachi!


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