Saturday, February 10, 2007

Birthday Izakaya & Bits of News

Menu at the izakayaI'm so sorry for the long delay between posting adventures. I've been having them, and am so behind in writing them all down, but it's just been hard to actually sit down and do it! may get several adventures in a row, out of chronological order. My apologies, but when motivation strikes, and opportunity presents itself, I have to get to writing! Current happenings below, catch-up stuff shortly. No, really, I promise!

It's been a chaotic few weeks. We got home from our 13 days in the US (three of them spent simply traveling!) in mid-January, and began gearing up to get Fearless Husband packed and ready for heading out to sea. Then, on January 20, FH's maternal grandfather, who lived with FH's grandmother and parents, died unexpectedly. So, instead of getting on the ship on January 24, FH headed home to help and support his family. We couldn't afford for me to go too, and it was a good thing, as it freed him up to be a support and a comfort to his grandmother, mom and sister, and not worry about me. Then, on February 4th, my step-grandmother died. It was not unexpected, as she'd gone severely downhill for the past couple of months and it was a relief in so many ways...but it is still sad,and I will miss her. She was a truly great lady.

But...enough of the sad news. Life is good here. I have my husband home briefly, at least until they fly him out to meet the ship next week. The big news is that the base has decided to hire me as a part-time contractor for the next 6 months! Basically, I'll continue to do what I've been volunteering to do at the base newspaper, but I'll also redesign the online newspaper, the base website, and the "welcome aboard" CD that newcomers are given. The contract is task-driven, with a list of projects, and suggested deadlines. The money will certainly come in handy, and it feels really good to have this validation of the value of my work for the base.

Kites on the walls of the izakayaI have found a small group of women with whom I like to do things. We've decided to get together every Friday night, alternating adventurous meals in Japanese restaurants with making dinner in our own homes for the rest of the group, taking turns. We're a diverse group, ranging in age from 22 to 41, and coming from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Illinois (so far!). We enjoy one another's company, and have fun talking and playing various card and board games and exploring Japan. It's great to have a group of intelligent, interesting women with whom to interact...and they understand when I need to be by myself and don't want to join them for an adventure. We had our first Supper Club gathering (three of us) at a tonkatsu (basically a fried pork cutlet, but with a whole "ritual presentation" deal..more on this later!) restaurant last Friday, and four of us gathered at K's house this evening for a wonderful meal of homemade rotisserie chicken breasts with herbes de Provence and a caramelized onion cream sauce, and a dish of julienned peppers and eggplant with herbs and olive oil. Yum! We got to enjoy a slightly abbreviated version of the nightly fireworks from Huis Ten Bosch from K's balcony, and then we played a great card game I'd never played before called "Phase 10" and simply enjoyed laughter and camaraderie. Next week, there should be at least five of us, and when B comes back from visiting the US, she'll be our sixth.

My birthday was quiet, but fun. FH wasn't able to be here, but we talked on his birthday and again on mine, and that was good. On the sixth, I worked during the day, then met Miyuki and her friend Yuri, a concert pianist who's married to a doctor and has two children. Miyuki gave me a packet of ebi wasabi rice chips that her mother picked out especially for me, as she knows I LOVE both ebi (shrimp) and wasabi (very hot green horseradish). She also gave me a stoneware bottle of shochu (a liquor made from rice, wheat or potatoes that is similar to vodka and WAAAAY stronger than sake). She said it was 200 years old, but I can't figure out if she means the actual beverage, or just the company. Regardless, I won't be opening it until a special occasion...and the grey stoneware bottle, with its painted blue kanji, is so very cool!

New friend, YuriYuri is really pretty and delicate, and speaks very little English. She really wants to learn more of the language, and is eager to learn to cook American dishes. We made a deal...she'd help me with my Japanese language and cooking, and I'd help her with English language and American cooking! She wants to get together to do something together quite often, which makes Miyuki a little nervous...Yuri can afford to do FAR more than Miyuki and I (she wants to go to a place that serves lunch for about $100 a person, for example!!) She also has a son who is one of Miyuki's students, and that gives her a certain power over Miyuki...on one hand, Miyuki can't gracefully (or politically) refuse Yuri's requests, but she also can't afford financially to go out so often, nor can she afford for Yuri to think she is not a dedicated teacher. The other teachers already think Miyuki is a slacker because she only works 7am to 6pm (though sometimes until 10pm!) six days a week, and there are some teachers who work 7am to 10pm seven days a week! I have to walk a tightrope, as I am eager to do things with Yuri, but don't want Miyuki put in a difficult position -- and Yuri wants Miyuki to go with us every time to translate. It is VERY hard for a Japanese person to say no, especially to a percieved superior.

(I actually met Yuri the night of the Bean Throwing Festival on the previous Saturday, and we went to an izakaya near the train station...more about that, including the fish head soup, complete with giant fish head staring at me, and the fried fish-bone "crackers" soon, honestly! I even have photos! But for now, this is the more recent adventure.)

For my birthday, we went to a local izakaya (sort of a Japanese tapas bar -- small, local and relatively traditional) and it was really fantastic. We walked in the (sliding, of course) front door, pushing through head-sized flaps of dark blue cotton fabric at the doorway. To the right was a very cramped bar stretching the length of the equally cramped, but impeccably clean, kitchen. The bar had maybe seven seats, specifically for single men. We turned sharply to the left, kicked off our shoes in a 24" x 24" square of tile, then stepped up into a narrow tatami room with three very low, relatively small tables. Other than a kerosene heater, that was it for furniture! The walls were hung with painted, dusty paper kites, an odd print of a fish, and some dusty wooden shelves holding various vases, knick-knacks, and a clock. It didn't feel like a restaurant or bar to me at all!

Sweet potato steak, onigiri, tofu and egg in the backgroundThere were a couple of laminated menus on the tables, entirely in Japanese, with no photos, and no rubber food in evidence anywhere. Luckily, the menu was pretty simple, as most izakayas specialize in one or two types of food. I was able to slowly spell out a little of what was on the menu, which thrilled me to pieces! I felt like a little kid, so proud of myself for stumbling through "Yaaaaaa... maaaaaaaaa... eeeee... mohh..., yama imo! Sweet potato! Suu.... tehhh... ki.... Steak! Sweet potato steak?? What the...?" Turns out they were well known for their sweet potato steak, which ended up coming in a small, rounded, rectangular cast iron dish. It was soft, and a little glutinous, and looked like a plate of melted cheese, but it was mountain potato (sweet potato) mashed and cooked into a flat serving. It was the furthest thing from a "steak" that I've ever seen, as I could've eaten it with a spoon (and had trouble with chopsticks!) but it was really delicious--savory, very slightly sweet, with all the pasty chalkiness of the starch cooked away. It was topped with pieces of lettuce, and slivers of nori. I know, it doesn't sound delicious, but it was! In the picture, the sweet potato steak is in the foreground, and Miyuki's nori-wrapped onigiri (rice balls) and her tofu with egg is in the background.

I also had a circle of burdock root that had a chicken sausage spread on one side before the whole thing was skewered and grilled...a charming cast iron pot of a sort of rice porridge, made with thin slivers of green onion and plump, insanely fresh whole oysters, the ubiquitous homemade Japanese pickles, and the best squid tempura I've ever eaten in my life. We three sat at one table, talking and laughing, while three Japanese women and an absolutely adorable moon-faced toddler with handlebar ponytails ate at one of the other two tables. The bar in the other half of the tiny restaurant catered to a very slow, but very steady stream of single male (mostly older) customers the whole time we were there.

Red lacquered sake cup and iron pot of rice porridgeThe izakaya served hot tea, water and sodas, of course, but was primarily for customers craving food accompanied by one of three alcoholic beverages. The first and foremost was, of course, sake. There were many brands available, most to be served warm, but a few designed to be served cold. The customer can always choose to have just about any sake hot or cold. I prefered it cold when I first came to Japan, but have found I'm developing a taste for it served quite warm. In this case, a little glass sort of like an old-fashioned juice glass was brought to me, literally brimming over. The hot glass was set inside a little square cup made of very small, relatively thick pieces of wood dovetailed together to make it watertight. The wooden cup is a traditional sake cup, but it's very odd to drink out of a thick-sided wooden box! You can pour the sake from the glass into the wooden cup, but the glass really is hot, so it's best to carefully lift the overfilled glass to your mouth using the wooden box. After you've drunk about half of the sake from the glass, you can pour the rest into the wooden cup box (to join what's already spilled over when it was brought out to you!) and sip it until it's gone.

Sake is made with pure, clear water, cooked rice, and yeast. That's it. It's similar in strength to beer or wine, but is not really either one. Shochu, as I already described, is more like vodka, and can be made with rice, wheat (Miyuki kept saying "made with flour" and I kept thinking "but which flower?" until I realized she meant wheat!) or potatoes. It's clear, just like sake, but exponentially stronger. Shochu is used to make chu-hi. These are like a cross between American cocktails and a not-very-sweet wine spritzer. Shochu is mixed with soda water and a flavoring -- sometimes slightly sweet, sometimes a little tart -- and with the alcohol content of a wine cooler or spritzer, not a highball. Chu-his come in cans in various convenience stores, like sodas, and in flavors like lemon, grapefruit, lime and ume (Japanese plum or apricot, rather tart) and occasionally seasonal flavors, like the current strawberry flavor. It's traditional to bring a salty snack with sake, like crunchy rice-cracker-paste-coated peanuts in flavors like bonito and wasabi, but in this case, they didn't bring anything to accompany my single sake, as we had ordered lots of food.

Afterwards, we hiked back up a considerable hill to Miyuki's car, with the still-quite-full moon hanging in the sky, the air uncharacteristically warm for February. I marveled at the difference in my life and my experiences, even just since last year, as I talked with Miyuki and Yuri, using my few words of Japanese, able to understand a few more as they talked, and realizing I could actually read several of the signs in katakana, hiragana and kanji around us. I was replete with good food and great companionship. The only thing that would have made the evening any more perfect would have been having Fearless Husband with me to share the adventure.

More soon!