Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tea Man & Tofu Grandma

January 13, 2006

What a day! Today was our last day of the Intercultural Relations classes. The first two days were boring, full of mundane details about the Navy base, but the last two days were wonderful! Eriko, our teacher/guide was hysterically funny, playing for laughs whenever possible. She's also an extremely bright woman and a fount of information. Obviously, there is only so much that can be crammed into two days, but Eriko managed to give us at least a paper-thin foundation in Japanese history, Sasebo history, the four kinds of writing (katagana, hiragana, kanji and romanji), basic phrases (and how and when to use them), instruction about Japanese beliefs (Shintoism and Buddhism, religion versus superstition), a brief bit about the area's festivals and holidays, and some cultural ideosyncracies.

For example, the Japanese word "no" (iie or "EE-ay") is only used when one is being flattered--the flatteree says "no, no, I am unworthy of your flattery." Otherwise, the Japanese rarely say "no". Instead, they will cross their arms, suck air in through their teeth, scratch their head as if thinking very hard, and say "hmmm...difficult." That means NO, but is much more polite--they are implying that of course they would go to such trouble for you, but it would be very difficult. The person making the request is expected to then say "oh, I didn't mean it" or "nevermind" or "I wouldn't dream of asking that" and not force the other to openly verbalize a refusal. They can also say (usually to strangers) "no, you can't come in" or "no, I can't help you" non-verbally, with either crossed fingers held in front (as if warding off a vampire) or crossed arms held in an X in front of the face (pretty obviously saying "NO!) There were several other gestures--the circled thumb and forefinger we use for "OK" is used here (hand held with the knuckles pointing down) to mean "money". Instead, you signal "OK" by putting both arms in a circle overhead, sort of like first position ballet arms, and nodding one's head vigorously. (Yes, that one is more of a long-distance signal, such as across a soccer field.)

Shrine guard dogIn any case, today was our "field trip." Eriko rounded us up and loaded us onto a big white bus, and out we went. First stop, a Shinto shrine--the gate, or "torii" a huge, recognizeable landmark sprouting on a busy street corner. You probably know the's sort of like a capital H with a second crossbar on the top, extending past the verticals. At either side of the torii stand two guard dogs, one with mouth open, the other with mouth closed. Usually these are dogs, but occasionally they are foxes, or Korean lions. Unfortunately, they all look like the same kind of animal to me! They're huge stone sculptures, each as big as a large Mastiff or larger, and Eriko made a point of showing us the perfect stone ball rolling loose inside the mouth of the open-mouthed dog. It had been carved from the stone within the cage of the teeth, not put in later, she wanted us to understand, so we'd understand the great skill of the sculptor.

Front of shrineIt turns out that the Japanese believe that anything worthwhile is worth climbing to up the steps we went. (When you come to visit, bring comfortable shoes for walking and climbing!) There were monuments to either side of the very wide stairs, and lots of trees and bushes. It was hard to believe we'd left the bustling city street just four steps behind us. At the top of the steps was another torii, and a long path through a serene park, ending at the shrine. (I've attached some photos of the guard dog at the entrance, and the shrine at the top--kind of grim, as it was raining, but honestly, it's much prettier than it looks!) The shrine was decorated with fluttering tassels of paper, and guarded by two colorful banners with dogs painted on them. These were not guardians like the ones at the entrance...instead, these were to represent the fact that 2006 is the Year of the Dog. Beside each banner were HUGE arrows made of bamboo. There were similar, much smaller arrows for sale, and we were told these were used at the entrance of homes to spear evil spirits trying to enter the house. At the end of the year, the arrows are ceremoniously burned (I guess along with their spitted spirits) and new arrows are purchased.

Purifying mouths and hands

Before we approached the temple, we were directed to a small shelter with a big stone trough and several long bamboo ladles. We were each to take the ladles in our left hands, and pour the cold, clear well water over our right hands, then the reverse, then ladle water into our cupped right hands, swish the mouth out to rinse it, spit in the gutter of the trough, then rinse the right hand again. After we were "purified," Eriko took us to the shrine entrance. Whoever wanted to make a wish or ask the spirits for help could do so. First, you throw a small denomination coin (5 yen) into a big wooden box with wooden bars across the top. Then you ring one of the bells (like single gigantic brass jingle bells at the top of thick ropes), bow twice, clap your hands twice (to get the gods' attention), make a silent wish or request, then bow again to say thanks. If you have a big request, you can purchase a wooden plaque for 500 yen upon which to write your request, and hang it at the shrine for the gods to read. We saw several students come to the shrine with their requests--exam time is coming up, and the new school year starts in April.

Several of us bought good luck charms from one of the shrine maidens..a young girl in a white kimono who assists the priests of the shrine. Though none of us did it, visitors can also purchase a fortune for the coming year...if it is bad news, you tie it to something there at the shrine to leave the bad luck there...but good fortunes you take with you! We didn't visit a Buddhist temple, because Eriko said Buddhism was only about death, dying, and ancestors. The Japanese mix both sets of beliefs, and turn to the shrines for help with exams, business, etc. New babies are blessed at the shrines, and marriages are usually performed at the shrine (see the photo with the intricate wedding kimono--such kimono are usually rented instead of bought, as they begin at $10,000 and go up from there!) Once we were aware of their existence, we saw little shrines everywhere we went, each dedicated to a particular river god or mountain god, with greenery and often oranges placed on the altars. There is no "bible" or specific set of written rules for Shintoism, and most Japanese mix Shintoism and Buddhism. There is also no "day of worship" or "sabbath day" as there is with Christianity and Judaism. The Japanese seem quite casual about their beliefs, and Eriko told us several times that the Japanese are not religious people at all, but are extremely superstitious.

After we left the shrine, we went to the Sea Pearl Resort, with the pier and aquarium and boat tours to the "99 Islands" available (really there are 208, depending on the tides, but it's more poetic the other way, I guess!) Fearless Husband and I hope to take one of the relatively inexpensive boat tours. (If you've seen the opening 30 seconds of "The Last Samurai", you've seen the 99 Islands--they're really lovely.) We passed one of the area's famous hot springs, and were given info on how to enjoy these particularly Japanese "baths". We drove past the train station (huge, with lots of shopping in the building, including a great big grocery store--this seems true of most of the train stations in the area) and the bus station, and Eriko's teaching again showed its value as most of us were able to recognize the three kanji for Sasebo and the two for Nagasaki. I thought it would be very difficult to learn the various symbols, but it's surprising how many kanji we can already pick out on street signs. LOTS more to learn though!

The tour took us to Hario Base, which is where the majority of the Navy families live. There is a larger commisary on Hario, but it's about 35 minutes from the main base. The view from Hario is of Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch amusement park (!!!) and it was odd to see the European rooftops and the big bell tower against the misty Japanese mountains.

On the way home, we stopped at Jusco, a huge Japanese department store. First stop for us all--the food court. With the help of Eriko and a special translator provided by the department store, we all ordered and ate. I enjoyed a bowl of the donburi, which was sliced pork on hot, sticky, short-grain rice, with a raw egg broken on it. The egg was softly cooked by the hot rice, and one is supposed to mix the whole thing together with hashi (chopsticks) before eating it. It was not slimy, as you might expect, but instead was delicious. FH got a bowl of spicy ramen, which he slurped happily, and an order of four octopus balls--no one can say he's not adventurous!! The octopus balls were not exactly what either of us expected. They were golden, fried-looking balls, about the size of golf balls. But instead of being the texture of conch fritters (which I think we both expected), they were very soft and runny inside, and tasted strongly of egg custard. The piece of octopus was a little chewy nugget in the middle, bright magenta and delicious, but the custardy texture was really not FH's style. He manfully swallowed the one he'd bitten into, and I got the rest. We'll both do our best to try lots of new things, so we can guide our guests when they visit! (3/31/06 note: we discovered that the octopus balls SHOULD have been more solid like hush puppies! We were so early that perhaps the deep fryers weren't up to temperature--and what we were served was quite undercooked. So I will definitely try octopus balls again!)

FH went off to explore the electronics, books and toy selections (of course) and I wandered through the store's three floors of clothing, electronics, toys, groceries, appliances, dishes, etc. EVERYTHING was available! The displays of dolls for the upcoming Doll Festival were really fantastic. I meant to take some photos, but forgot! I will get a photo or two though, I promise...maybe of a set-up in a Japanese friend's home!

I explored the grocery floor wide-eyed, trying to guess what was inside each brightly-wrapped package. Near the entrance to the grocery section, several "booths" were set up by independent entrepreneurs. The first was a table spread with beautiful sealed packets of tea, and a man behind the table revererently offering tiny cups of strong, freshly-brewed tea. He spoke almost no English, but eventually I understood (he showed me photos) that he and his wife grew this tea themselves, picked it, packaged it and sold it--and it was organic (which was very important to was the only English word he knew.) I bought a bright red packet of tea leaves (more for the experience than for the tea!) and he was pleased. He followed me around the corner to the next little booth, and either told the tiny, gray-haired proprietress that I was a nice girl, or that I was a sucker American--I don't know which! She insisted that I try her wares, which were three different kinds of tofu with a sesame sauce--one savory, one sort of bland and one a dessert. Both she and Tea Man seemed astonished and pleased that I liked tofu, and were delighted when I bought a little container of the dessert tofu (about a dollar's worth).

Tofu Grandma then grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the next table, which was also hers. There were wide baskets like bowls, filled with something sort of silvery, like wood shavings. She peered up into my face as if judging me, then grabbed a little pinch of the silvery shavings, grabbed my right hand with her free hand, and placed a little pile into my palm. Turns out the silvery shavings were dried, whole fish (eyes, tail and all), kind of like fish jerky, I guess. I ate them, because I didn't want to be rude or gauche. They weren't bad actually, sort of chewy, and I could not differentiate bones or anything squishy. Tofu Grandma and Tea Man were goggle-eyed--the gaijin didn't squeal, and actually ate the fish jerky! So Tofu Grandma decided I just HAD to try another handful of the fish, this time marinated in some sort of sweet soy sauce. Luckily, they hadn't rehydrated much, and I liked the saucy fish better than plain. Meanwhile, Tea Man rummaged in what I assume was his own lunch bag, and brought out a container of something golden brown and wrinkly--maybe preserved monkey ears or something. Who knew?

He thrust them at me, taking one himself and chewing, making "yum yum" noises to encourage me. Turned out to be sliced, salted and pickled daikon radish, with a really surprising, squeaky crunch. Beaming, both Tea Man and Tofu Grandma hauled me around the corner to their buddy...the pickle maker! Pickle Chief was a HUGE man, like a Japanese version of an old-fashioned butcher in his navy blue apron and round cap--and he knew several words of English. He was thrilled to get to practice them on someone, and Tofu Grandma and Tea Man left me there, both beaming at a job well done, I guess! Pickle Chief proudly began to try and name each of his preserved wares in English--each vegetable/seaweed/fish was salted or vinegared or both, and it was all very colorful and pretty in the various barrels--including cream-colored garlic cloves pickled with something bright magenta. I bought some of the salted daikon, both because I liked the crunch and because I could see Tea Man sort of hovering in the background, glancing over to see what was going on. I also bought some white bulbs that looked like small onions--Pickle Chief called them Japanese shallots. I finished my purchases, having spent about five dollars total at the three booths and gotten to try several distinctly Japanese treats...and all three proprietors came around their tables to bow to me and thank me sincerely. I bowed back clumsily, delighted with the whole thing, the air ringing with "domo arigato gozaimasu," sort of like those cartoon chipmunks--"thank you!" "Oh no, thank YOU!" "No, really, it was my pleasure--thank YOU!" Luckily, I didn't crack skulls with anyone.

After a much-too-short Jusco visit, we headed home through the rain, past shiny car dealerships, flashy pachinko gambling parlors, rickety houses clinging to hillsides, twisty alleys filled with rusted railings and laundry, and sign after incomprehensible sign. What an experience! FH and I had about two hours to recoup before going on the first of our house hunting expeditions.


Anonymous said...

I saw your blog roll up on the recently posted thingy at blogger and clicked on it, since I'm fascinated Japanese culture and have been particularly interested in Americans' experiences of living in Japan. I could not have been luckier! Thanks for writing this blog. I'm sure it's good therapy for yourself, but you do have a "fan." I'm enjoying your writing tremendously!

Carolie said...

Wow...thank you! You make me blush. I've got more to post to "catch up" to today, but you've energized me to get more posted!

Thanks again :)

Mary Witzl said...

I really enjoyed this too, Carolie, and it brings back fond memories of the Jusco I used to shop in, when I lived in Yokohama. I love going into Japanese department stores and smelling the new tea, the different kinds of miso, pickles, and dried fish. I love those little silvery fish (chirimen-jako, they are called) and takuan, the daikon radish you ate. The only problem is that daikon really has a powerful smell, and if you forget you've got it around, you almost start eyeing people with suspicion, wondering who the guilty party is.

Have you tried unagi yet? I'll bet you have! That, and ikura temaki are what we all four of us dream about. I love donburi too, but at least I can make that. You really have to be in Japan to enjoy unagi and ikura.