Japan Trip: Days Two and Three

Day Two—Santa Claus

When I woke up on Christmas Eve, I could clearly hear the noises of plenty of people scrambling back and forth downstairs. Having no idea how many people there were, or who they were, I was hesitant to get up and go downstairs. I was still in my sleepclothes and the shower was in the downstairs bathroom. I worked up the nerve and made my way down the stairs, where I saw only one familiar face, and it was Taka-chan. “Good morning,” one woman said with a bit of an accent. She introduced herself, but I was trying so hard not to look like a bum that I don’t even recall hearing her name. I made a bee line to the shower and cleaned up, and felt much better when I emerged. The woman I’d met, Okaa-san’s closest friend for many years, who’d spent time in London with her something like thirty years ago, offered to make me breakfast. I explained that I rarely eat breakfast. That would change for the rest of the trip.

Surprisingly, I didn’t think to ask for coffee, but after ten or fifteen minutes of watching as everyone flurried around the house to get everything in order for the day’s sales, and after helping affix stickers with store information to a couple hundred cakes, someone asked if I’d like some coffee. Taka-chan and I set to making the coffee by hand-grinding the beans in a grinder reminiscent of an old-school wall-mounted pencil sharpener, the kind that didn’t plug into the wall but instead was nailed to it. The experience was a surprising first for me after those five years working in a coffee shop, especially considering that Americans are much more devoted coffee drinkers than Japanese, who prefer nice green tea. Of course, we Americans also seem to prefer everything fast, easy, and with little work involved, so it probably shouldn’t come as such a surprise that we don’t see much hand-grinding going on. Once the beans were ground, we used something else I hadn’t seen in the US, something that probably hasn’t been common since the seventies or eighties: a drip coffeemaker. We’re accustomed to automatic drip, the type that heats the water as it feeds it into the filter basket. The type we used that morning consisted only of the glass decanter like the ones we use and a filter basket that rests snugly on top of it. We heated the water on the stove and poured it slowly in to the basket, let it filter through the grounds into the decanter, and then added more water until we were done. It’s quite conceivable that this method remained popular in Japan (or at least in Yuuka’s household) because they’re so accustomed to heating water on the stove for tea anyway. On the other hand, they also seem to love time- and energy-saving gadgets and gizmos. This might explain why they also had a hot water pot that plugs into the wall so they could store one batch of water while heating another. Anyway, there’s so much more to talk about.

Once we’d had some coffee, I was pretty much game for anything they might want to do, so when they pulled out the Santa Claus costume, I had no objections. I donned the uniform that Oto-san purchased some half-dozen or more years ago for the rough equivalent of one US dollar. In all probability, he purchased it from one of their 100-yen stores, much like our dollar stores, but 87 cents instead! A couple of the women working for the cake shop stood in front of the house exchanging cakes for purchase slips, and soon they called into the house asking for Santa. I emerged to find a young man whose eyes became immediately fixed on me. He seemed to have to work to keep the smile off his face as he examined me. He nodded politely when I told him Merry Christmas and didn’t say much of anything. He must’ve been at that age where he still wanted to believe, but didn’t want to look like a sucker by admitting it. Not to mention, I’m pretty sure the whole Santa Clause thing is less popular there than in the States. Nevertheless, Taka-chan and I soon set up a chair in front of the cake shop and got a camera ready so we could take pictures to hang in the shop later. Maybe next time I go, I’ll buy a Polaroid and charge 100 yen for shots with Santa. Then I could go to the 100-yen store and go crazy at the end of the day! I was intrigued by the fact that even most of these young children were eager to hold up two fingers up like a peace sign every time the camera is drawn. Being in Japan, I opted to do as the Japanese do for many of the pictures, but only when dressed as Santa. Upon returning home, as I reviewed the pictures and wondered if they really mean “peace” with their gesture, I began to think maybe it could mean something else entirely. Something like, “two times you bastards dropped bombs on us. Never again.” Nah.

I couldn’t tell if the children were really so amazed by the fact that I was dressed like Santa or if it was just because they’d never seen a white person before. Either way, some were fascinated and eager for a picture, but others screamed and wailed as their sadistic parents tried persistently to force them onto my lap. I can only recall one child pointing out the string holding my beard in place. I spent the entire day practicing my “konnichi wa” and “arigato gozaimas shi ta.” Occasionally I threw in “sayonara,” which made most of them chuckle even more than the rest of my English-accent Japanese.

At one point, I decided to break the news to Taka-chan of my plans for the trip. He was excited and congratulated me on the efforts, and said he wanted to see video of the proposal, even before I told him that I planned to record it. He was disappointed that he wouldn’t be around when I do it. It felt nice to have at least one person on the continent know of my plans.

Two big sushi trays were delivered at lunchtime and I eagerly sat down for some nice hot miso soup (jiro) and rolled sushi (make). Most Americans don’t know what natto (pronounced “not-o”) is, and for good reason. Natto is fermented soybeans. The beans are coated in some kind of slimy substance that most closely resembles snot, but smells almost exactly like the worst case of baby-diaper that I’ve ever experienced. Needless to say, I have never been eager to try it out when Yuuka ate it at home. She ate natto often, and I think she even convinced me once to chew on a single soybean. I felt sick to my stomach when I was done. Taka-chan pointed the natto-make out to me and urged me to try it. I preferred sticking to the tuna and the cucumber rolls, but I noticed that the natto’s smell and texture were quite well-contained in the tightly-wrapped rice and seaweed. Maybe it’d be a good chance to get a taste for the flavor that Yuuka loves so much without having to experience those off-putting characteristics? I went ahead. I dipped one of the natto-make in the soy sauce and made sure to get some wasabi, and I slowly put it in my mouth and began to chew. I could feel the sliminess working its way around my mouth, coating it like thick saliva after a long run. The taste was similar to the bad smell I remembered, but much milder and more palatable. As I continued to chew, the taste of the natto even began to seem slightly pleasant, in the way that only an acquired taste can. I quickly followed the natto-make with tuna and then cucumber, both dipped squarely in the wasabi. But before lunch was over, I ate another piece or two, surprised to find out that half the rolls included wasabi rolled in with the ingredients. I might just become a natto-eater yet.

The rest of the day was somewhat uneventful as the women wrapped up the cake-shop day. I think the final sales total was something in the neighborhood of 1400 cakes made and sold, 400 of which went through Okaa-san’s store, the remainder going through the uncle’s larger store. After they’d gone home and we cleaned up a bit, we dined on the leftover sushi from the afternoon, along with more miso soup and a plate of ultra-tasty sashimi. We had tuna and toro (fatty tuna) sashimi, and I’d never eaten toro up to that point. If the tuna melted in my mouth (and it did), then my mouth melted on the toro. It was the tastiest piece of fish I’ve ever eaten. I can hardly recall the rest of the meal. But to be fair, I was also exhausted. Oto-san offered veggie juice and seemed elated that I accepted his offer, as he seemed to have grown quite accustomed to being the only one to drink it. He recounted its virtues, one of which was helping to carry sodium out of the body, something I’ve recently become concerned about. I fear the possibility of an eventual kidney stone and it seems like less sodium might help to avoid that. Not to mention, veggie juice tastes pretty good. Taka-chan drank “OJ,” so Oto-san offered me “VG.” He laughed as his ‘J’ came out ‘G’ and corrected himself, but then we all laughed together and repeated VG. Soon Yuuka and Hiroka returned home to liven things up even more. Yuuka assured me that I didn’t have to drink the veggie juice if I didn’t want to, casting an exasperated glance across the table at her father, who apparently gets on kicks with various health- and diet-related trends after reading about the virtues or drawbacks of any particular food or drink.

I quickly realized what I hadn’t known when I spoke to Hiroka on the phone the day before: she hardly speaks English. I believe it was something Yuuka told me once upon a time, one of those bits of information that comes in while I’m on auto-pilot, and my internal answering machine doesn’t seem to take reliable messages for me when I’m out. Nevertheless, we received a proper introduction and sat around discussing the day. I showed pictures of the day’s activities along with some pictures of family and friends at home. Soon we retired to bed for another night on the tatami mats, Yuuka in Hiroka’s bedroom and Takahiro and I in Satoki’s room. I only woke up once in the second night.

Day Three—Christmas

I was able to sleep in later on Christmas, not lumbering down the stairs until well after eleven in the morning. Okaa-chan was working, but she still had one employee on duty to help her out throughout the day, so she was able to help Yuuka in putting together a nice breakfast. Yuuka said she was going to help her mom in the store, so Taka-chan and I took a soccer ball out into the adjacent parking lot to kick around for a while. After ten or fifteen minutes of running back and forth, dribbling and kicking the ball around, the bottoms of my lungs began to ache. We soon went back inside to find something else to do. We only found one tennis racket, but we were able to locate two badminton rackets and a birdie, so we went back outside and knocked it back and forth over a fence. After hitting it back and forth for fun for a while, we decided to go ahead and play a game to ten. It was a close match and I finally won, eleven to nine. We decided to switch sides and play another, and this time he beat me twelve to ten. Instead of playing a third to break the tie, we decided to wait until Satoki returned from his uncle’s store so we could decide the winner with some table tennis. I would have a clear disadvantage because he was once excelled on the high school table tennis team, but I didn’t mind. Table tennis is fun whether you win or lose.

We went back in the house and he asked for a little help with a power-point presentation that he was preparing for a conference in Mexico sometime in early 2007. I helped him to clear up a few minor problems with his English on his five year-old laptop computer that once survived a bad liquid spill. Maybe succumbing to the power of suggestion that came along with him relating that story, I knocked my tea mug over and spilled some of my tea on the computer. In my own defense, Yuuka had sculpted the mug herself in junior high or high school and its defective bottom left it wobbly. Yuuka had explained to me the night before that the faulty bottom of the mug was part that was crafted by the folks at the pottery shop. And it didn’t matter much how stable the mug was, considering that it stood directly in the path of my hand as I carelessly went to point something out on the screen to Taka-chan. We did our best to dry it out quickly, though what we needed was a can of air to blow out the keyboard. He turned the computer off and then back on again, but when he turned it back on, the keyboard was not responsive. He set the laptop in the window on the sunny side of the room in hopes that it would dry out and begin working again. In the meantime, I allowed him to use my laptop, and he plugged in his 80 Gb USB hard drive, which held a slightly older version of the file he’d been working on. While he went back to work on the file, I began to read one of the few English-language books in the house. I learned that Yuuka wasn’t helping her mother in the shop; instead she was sleeping. Typical. Whenever she comes home for break, her mother informed me, she sleeps a lot. Vacations are meant to be restful, after all.

When Yuuka did finally come downstairs, we ate some mochi with red beans and some with a sort of slightly sweet, slightly nutty powder. Yuuka and I went shopping at a few of the variety stores within walking distance for some last minute Christmas stuff, and when I found a mirror and bell for bicycles for 100 yen apiece, she offered to buy them for me as my Christmas presents. I wouldn’t be getting anything else, she explained, considering that the GPS device for my car had been a combination birthday/Christmas present. It sounded like a decent idea to me. We picked up some slippers for Satoki and I amused myself with the baffling English on the fronts of some of the T-shirts sold in the store. I took pictures and Yuuka said, “don’t make fun of Japanese people!” But then she read the shirts and couldn’t help but laugh along with me. We stopped by the grocery store and retrieved some ingredients so Takahiro could prepare homemade pizza for dinner. We returned to the house and I took a shower as Taka-chan began preparations on the pizza and Yuuka left with her sister.

Soon the rest of the Shimada family, Takahiro’s mother, father, and sister, arrived and quickly made themselves at home, taking seats at the table and helping out in the kitchen some. Shimada-san spoke no English at all, and seemed to speak very little Japanese as well. He was content to remain quiet while his wife and daughter did their best to regale me with all the English they knew, asking questions and trying to tell me what they could with their limited vocabularies. Satoki also arrived soon with Oto-san, and he went straight to the kitchen to begin helping Takahiro. Satomi, Taka-chan’s sister, occasionally ran into difficulties communicating with me and had to ask the guys in the kitchen for help finding a word or phrase. After Okaa-san wrapped up the cake shop again and Oto-san changed out of his work clothes, the room downstairs became a bit more crowded.

There were exactly enough chairs in the house for all ten people, and we put them around the table. They pulled out a portable gas range and set it on the center of the table. Oto-san explained that they call it a “gas station.” I got a good laugh out of the idea of having Christmas dinner at a gas station. The hose from the range plugged right into a handy outlet in the wall (Oto-san had designed the home himself), and we boiled miso, vegetables, pork, and mushrooms that we all helped ourselves to periodically. Oto-san and I enjoyed some Veggie Juice (VG he liked to call it) together again. We had more sashimi (only tuna this time) along with some salad and eventually some pizza. Takahiro had run into a problem as he prepared the dough for the pizza. Where the recipe called for mixing the yeast with “tepid water in a bowl,” he thought he saw something about bringing the water to a boil. The boiling water killed the yeast so the dough never rose. Still, considering that, the pizza was actually quite tasty. He’d even included carrots in the sauce, which I believe might’ve been a first for me.

I wondered when Yuuka and Hiroka planned on joining us. I was having a decent enough time and wasn’t feeling uncomfortable alone with all of these people I’d never met, but I worried there wouldn’t be any food for them when they returned. I refrained from eating the last piece of sashimi and the last of the food at the gas station, and soon they arrived. Yuuka made a bee-line up the stairs, where she was presumably wrapping the presents. Her sister joined us at the table and began to eat, and eventually Yuuka made her way to the table as well. When they’d eaten and we were all quite full, we cleared the table and prepared for tea service. We turned off all the lights and lit candles on one of the store’s trademark strawberry cakes to celebrate Okaa-san’s fifty-fifth birthday, which had been three days earlier. Oto-san did what he apparently does at nearly all family occasions and holidays: he read a short speech/letter regarding the circumstances. I didn’t understand it, and Yuuka said she’d translate it for me letter, but we never got around to that.

When we were finished eating our cake, Yuuka went upstairs to retrieve gifts for everyone. I followed suit, going up and getting some of the stuff I’d brought for her family. I was even able to swing gifts for the Shimada family, with the exception of the father. I gave Satomi and her mother gifts that I’d originally meant as supplementary gifts for Okaa-san and Hiroka, and I gave Taka-chan a book I’d finished reading on the flight. I asked Yuuka to grab the book out of my backpack for me as I carried my other stuff down the stairs, and at the last second I remembered: the ring was in my backpack! “Wait, don’t!” I was too late. I went into the bedroom and she said she’d already looked. I pretended it was no big deal and asked her if she thought it was a necklace or earrings, a profoundly lame attempt to throw her off the scent.

We sat around the table with everyone, opening gifts, and I found that Yuuka had tricked me. In addition to the bicycle mirror and bell that we’d picked out together, she and her parents had apparently picked up a refillable pen and had it engraved with my name. Mitsubishi Pencils made the pen with a wooden exterior made from a barrel in which whiskey aged for fifty years. A bit amusing that they chose something alcohol-related, but the pen has a nice smell, nothing like whiskey. In addition, they picked up a deck of playing cards, and on the face of each card is a unique print of Hiroshige or Hokusai, two classic Japanese artists whose woodprint paintings are quite well-known. Many of the pictures feature Fuji-san or Edo (old Tokyo). Yuuka’s family seemed to appreciate the gifts I brought, though they didn’t seem to have anticipated much. Yuuka tried to explain to me that Christmas there is a bit different than over here, and generally I think each person receives just a couple or a few gifts, and nothing terribly extravagant. Not that my gifts were extravagant, but simply the fact that I’d been so sure to get a couple things for all of Yuuka’s immediate family seemed to surprise them.

We drank more tea and chatted until it was time for the Shimada family to depart. Takahiro wished me luck and I told him that it had been very nice to meet him. I gave him my card and perhaps we’ll get on opportunity to meet up when he flies into San Diego in preparation for the Mexico conference. Satomi was apparently going to spend more time with all of us, so she said good-bye as well. We gradually made our way back into the house and then off to bed.

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