Sunday, November 05, 2006

Moonrise over the Onsen

I've talked a lot about my Japanese friend, Miyuki. She's really an amazing person and a great friend. She started out as my "Know your Cho" volunteer, but we really hit it off and became friends almost instantly. We've spent a LOT of time together...she's taken me on several "tours" of Japanese grocery stores, and I've taught her to cook a couple of American dishes. We watch DVDs together with the English subtitles on (it helps her understand what's being said) and we hit the pause a lot so I can explain nuances. We have half-day adventures together quite often, and I'm so grateful to know her!

Miyuki teaches English, Morals and "Cultures of Other Countries" at a local junior high school. She has a "homeroom" of seventh graders (ichinensei--literally "first year students") and supervises them in many activities--for example, she had to coach them in a multi-part song for a singing competition they recently had. She also must supervise a "club activity" after school, as each teacher must. Her "club activity" is badminton--a sport she claims to know nothing about, but she has the help of a student's father, who was a competition player...he takes the bus from Nagasaki every weekend to work with the children. Miyuki's day starts at 8am. Classes are over at 4pm...and she has "one-on-one time" with students who need help with studies or just need to talk. Then from 5pm to 7 or 8pm she supervises badminton. She leaves the school between 8pm and 10pm each weeknight--depending on when the principal leaves. The teachers do not leave until he does. Saturday mornings often have academic classes, and there are "club activities" for four hours on Saturday and again on Sunday. That's is 7 days a week, and even includes a week-long overnight camp every summer, supervised by the teachers. If a "club" is doing particularly well (the Hui Jr. High volleyball team is in the nationals!) they might practice 8 hours a day on weekends! Miyuki told me the other teachers consider her very selfish and "not a team player" because she has insisted on having two Saturdays and two Sundays off out of every month. Today (Sunday), when we parted at 1pm, it was so she could go to the school and spend four hours with her badminton students.

Perhaps 30% of the 7th grade students go from their club activity to cram school until 9 or 10 at night. By 9th grade, Miyuki says 90% or more of the students are in cram school, to get into a good high school. So kids go to school every day, and on weekdays are often not home until 9:30 or 10:00 at night! They choose one club activity...and that's the only one they concentrate on (badminton, volleyball, baseball, music, soccer, drama, etc.) Most do not change from year to year, so their one club activity is their only "hobby" for their entire school career. Miyuki said when she was in school, she played the French horn in the band, and went to cram school three nights a week. So...she played French Horn from 7th grade until graduation, with no other extra-curricular activities! Very different from our "smorgasbord" of kids' activities in the US. And with her crazy schedule, I am thrilled and honored that she chooses to spend her few hours off work with me!

Miyuki's family sends me little dishes all the time--an amazing beef and potato stew with konnyaku noodles (konnyaku is a sweet potato fiber/starch that can be made into all sorts of's translucent, makes great noodles, and is completely free of calories!), a plate of six delicately fried little fish her father had just caught that morning, a plate of the freshest sashimi I've ever eaten (squid, an irridescent fish that is not found in the US, a little 'salad' of horse mackerel tossed with bits of fresh ginger and green onions, and a little smear of fresh wasabi), a traditional autumn soup dish called odon (broth, konnyaku noodles tied in bundles, a whole hardboiled egg, a thick slice of daikon radish, and various shapes of fish paste in various flavors--a patty, a cylinder, etc.), and today, a little bowl of nabe. Nabe is basically a soup..but it can be made in a group situation, where a simmering pot of broth is put in the middle of the table over a heat source, and each person puts in different raw ingredients (seafood, meat, veggies). One fishes out what one wants to eat, and at the end of the meal, the now-flavorful broth is shared. Shabu-shabu is a kind of nabe, but the meat is barely swished in the hot broth before being eaten...thus the name is for the sound. Shabu shabu = swish swish, then eat! I was asking about the differences last night, so Miyuki's mom made me a little nabe this morning and sent it to me, warm, via Miyuki at 10am! It mostly looks really delicious, with carrots cut into flower shapes, meatballs, a little Japanese clam, mushrooms, greens, etc. I'm not so sure about the fish tail I see in there...but I'll try it!

I have sent them spaghetti, shepherd's pie, and smoked turkey, and they have been thrilled. We've laughed at how they crave American foods, and I crave the Japanese foods! Turkey is very hard to come by here in's sold in pieces, NOT whole, and is very, very expensive. Chicken is the same...rarely sold whole. We discussed holiday meals, and the big "meat" meal for Miyuki and her family is roast chicken at Christmas. (They are Buddhist, not Christian, but more and more Japanese are celebrating Christmas as a gift-giving, family-gathering holiday. It's also two days after the current Emperor's birthday, which is always a national holiday.) I am really excited--I've invited Miyuki and her parents for a traditional Thanksgiving spread at my house, and they are thrilled. It should be fun!

This weekend, I got to spend a little time with Miyuki's parents, and with her sister and brother-in-law and their 18-month-old son. They invited me to join them on a family trip to an onsen--a Japanese traditional bath house. I have to admit, I simply am not confident enough to do the public nakedness thing yet, even with the sexes separated, so I told Miyuki I would love to join them, but I was too embarrassed. She assured me that I could have a private bath if I wanted to...that it was ok. She told me to bring a towel and some face soap, and clean underwear...and laughed when I tentatively suggested a bathing suit.

They picked me up and we drove for about 40 minutes to the onsen. It was on the same grounds as a lovely hotel, with grass-surface tennis courts and a golf course, all overlooking the harbor. The sun was beginning to set, and the light was golden and rich. In front of the onsen was a long, rectangular "pond" about 18" high, with wooden plank seating around the rim, and round stones sticking up out of the bottom surface. It was a traditional footbath, and we all shed our shoes, pulled up pants or skirt hems, and stepped in. The mineral water was hot. REALLY hot! I didn't know if I could take it at first, but got used to it quickly. We nodded and smiled at the others sitting around the tub, each of us gently rubbing our feet over the smooth river stones sticking up from the bottom surface specifically for foot massage. As her parents chatted to the other people, Miyuki told me that the footbath outside and the baths inside were traditionally social gathering places for the Japanese, as they rarely have social events in their own private homes.

After our legs were good and red, we dried off and slipped our shoes back on temporarily to go inside the onsen. Off came the shoes again (of course) and we all padded into the airy reception area. LOTS of people were completely barefoot, so I felt a little better about my habit of wearing sandals. Miyuki's sister, brother-in-law and little nephew had reserved one private room, and I had another one. A silent man handed us each keys, and showed us to a flight of stairs that went outside and down to the building housing the private baths (we got leather slippers to make the trip from building to building). Miyuki showed me my little private room, with sink, bench, shelves for my clothes, a hook for my towel, a teeny closet with a toilet, and the bath....oh, the bath!!

The bath room was stone, with a place outside the tub to shower off (you are expected to be completely clean before getting into the water!) with two stools, two water basins and a hand-held shower head. The bath itself was completely made of stone, with a step inside because it was deep! It was filled to the brim, and when I got in, the displaced water overflowed through a channel at one end of the bath to a drain. If the water in the bath dropped below a certain level, more hot water came in automatically, in a waterfall from a corner opening. The wall along the bath was a block of windows overlooking the harbor, and the flowers on the grounds below, with wooden "wings" to give privacy from the other private room windows, and they slid open completely, to allow the cool breeze and birdsong into the room. The bath itself was big enough that I could sit in water up to my neck, or float stretched out without touching any of the four sides! Again, it was very, very hot. I had to get out twice during my 45 minutes and rinse off with cool water--which I discovered afterwards is also traditional. I am not sure if the water was "natural hot spring" heated or not...many onsen in Japan are, due to all the volcanic activity, but I think the ones in and around Sasebo are manually heated. The water is full of minerals, with the percentages posted on the walls (couldn't tell you WHAT minerals, as it was all in Japanese, of course) but it's supposed to be very healthy. My skin does feel good today!

I hope I can get to the same point as the Japanese women, who are oblivious to the differences in the human body. The very young, the very old, the wizened, the stick-thin, the really fat, those with terrible varicose veins, those with big scars or birthmarks--they all bathe together, sitting in the hot water up to their necks and socializing. No one cares how fat or thin or wrinkled or hairy or whatever you're just a human being. The men (from what I'm told) do the same on their side. There is a large indoor bath on each side, which leads to an outdoor bath for each on deck overlooking the harbor. At this onsen, men and women are completely segregated (unless a couple or a family wants to share a private bath) but that is not always the case...some onsen are mixed use, and no one cares.

After I luxuriated in the water and watched the moon rise over the harbor, I got dried off and dressed and headed to the common room to wait for Miyuki and her family. There was a big tatami-floored room for bathers to relax in after their baths, complete with coin-operated massage chairs. It's traditional to drink milk after a bath, but I have no clue why...especially as so many Asians are lactose-intolerant. Odd. I sat on a little outdoor deck and watched the almost-full moon over the harbor as gentle music played softly, then joined Miyuki and family inside. Her parents used the massage chairs briefly, and I enjoyed playing with Miyuki's nephew and getting to know her charming sister and brother-in-law. We had a light supper at the in-house restaurant (I had green tea, edamame, and pink rice studded with tiny azuki beans and bits of octopus--delicious!) before heading home.

Oh..the name of the onsen and hotel was Japanese for peacock, as there are many on the grounds. When I spelled out the hiragana and asked Miyuki for a translation, she said "Ummmm...the bird with fancy wings...a cockroach." Her mother doubled over with laughter in the front seat--she may not have much English, but she knew "cockroach!" Miyuki corrected herself, "oh, not cockroach--peacock!!" and we all had a good laugh. But all the way home, every few minutes, we heard from the front seat "hee hee hee...cocka-roach onsen....cocka-roach hotel...hee hee hee..."

More soon...