Japan Visit: Days Seven and Eight

Day Seven – Odawara Castle, Kamakura (Part Two), and Dinner in Tokyo

Though we made plans to try to get up earlier the following day, we woke around the same time and rushed out of the house to catch our same train. The train ride was quite similar to the previous day’s ride, the only exception being that we stayed on a bit longer to reach Odawara. We hoped to get a good shot of Fuji-san on the way to Odawara, as it was a bit closer. Unfortunately, the train route passes through a number of mountain ranges reaching from inland to the sea. Each time we passed through a tunnel in hopes of finding a better view on the other side, we came out in another valley, headed toward another range. There was still hope, though. Once in Odawara, we would be able to go to the attic in the castle, which was on a hill, and probably have a great view.

We got off the train in Odawara and began our walk across town to the castle. Sitting on an elevated stone foundation, the castle really was quite majestic. We passed a number of disappointed-looking Japanese tourists on our walk up the hill. Soon we found out why. The castle was closed for New Year’s Eve. We could still wander the courtyard and take pictures of the castle, but we couldn’t take the indoor tour. We milled around the courtyard and looked at some of the animals on display. I guess it goes without saying that if you have a castle on a hill, you need an elephant, a few different kinds of monkeys, and a few peacocks. All part of owning a castle, you know? The elephant was nearly sixty years old and probably stopped being bothered by tourists taking pictures decades ago. The monkeys basically ignored the picture-taking, too. One of the bigger monkeys was more interested in messing with the little guys in the next cage. The cage for the smaller monkeys had a makeshift fiberglass cover that seemed to be there to keep the bigger guys from reaching in their cage. That barely stopped the rowdier of the two big monkeys, whose long arms could reach out of his own cage so he could try to pull the fiberglass off. I’m not entirely sure, but I think maybe the little guys were taunting him with noises. It was amusing to watch until I began to think about how sad it must be to live in a cage.

We took some pictures of each other in the vicinity of the castle and looked from the top of the steps to the entrance to see if we could get a glimpse of Fuji-san. No dice. We decided to hop back on the train and head a few stops farther south to see if we could see. We got off the train at the stop and wandered around the station, but still nothing. Disappointed, we got back on the train to head over to Kamakura. We had to go north to the fifth or sixth stop, change trains, and then head back south, but this time more to the east than Odawara. Once we changed trains and were headed to Kamakura, we found that we would be luckier than we’d expected. This route provided us with a clearer view of Fuji-san, so we took pictures frantically from the train, trying to snap as many decent shots as we could without telephone-line/train-station/homes-and-buildings interference.

When we finally reached Kamakura, we did a fast-forward replay of the previous day’s tour and snapped as many pictures as possible. We were on a tighter timeline, reaching the city later in the day and having plans to meet people in Tokyo later. The difference in the sun’s position in the sky made for worse lighting in the pictures at the big Buddha, but we still got a few good ones. We skipped the shrine that had been our first stop the day before and stuck to the Buddha and the temple. At the temple by the ocean, we found a cat who seemed to have wandered onto the property from nowhere in particular to soak up the attention, so we accommodated. Soon we were on the train and headed back to Tokyo, but the connecting trains didn’t come as early as we’d hoped, so we were late.

The central train station in Tokyo is, as any rational person would expect, huge. The Friday evening crowds complicated our search for our hosts, but Yuuka got her on the phone and we wandered around until we found a woman talking on the phone. She greeted us warmly and we made our way to her car. We zipped across town on streets that would’ve been busier in the US, given the city’s population, and arrived at our destination: a Chinese restaurant. Yes, that’s right; we ate Chinese food in Japan twice in as many days. But it was again quite tasty, nothing like most American Chinese food. There were about a dozen of us eating together, and the waitresses just kept bringing out huge dishes that we all shared. Surprisingly enough, it was a smoking restaurant. Smoke seems so much more oppressive after growing very accustomed to living smoke-free. The only times I’m exposed to smoke anymore is outdoors, and I have the opportunity to stand at a comfortable distance. Sitting in close proximity to smokers in a restaurant with no moving air while I’m eating is much less pleasant than I remember it being back when I was a smoker. And we used to smoke like we really meant it! But while I was surprised by the smoke, it didn’t bother me a great deal. More than anything else, I suppose, I worried that it would upset Yuuka’s asthma. She seemed to remain in good spirits and we enjoyed nice translation conversation over dinner. In a pleasant turn of events, one of the people who met us in Tokyo was a white, English-speaking expatriate from Guam, which is, as I told him, “kind of like America.” He told me about feeling like a second-class citizen growing up in Guam (different color passport and no representation in Congress) and about how nice it is living in Japan. He met and married a Japanese woman some seven years prior to my visit.

After dinner, we went to a meeting attended by more people than the room could hold. I listened with Yuuka as an interpreter and even spoke up to share. She interpreted for me, and by all accounts did a good job with on-the-spot interpretation to such a large group. Talking a sentence or two at a time was somewhat disjointed, but I think the point got across: I was happy to be there.

When the meeting was over, we returned to the train station and headed back to Yuuka’s place. We were worn out from another long day on the trains. When I hooked up the camera to download the day’s photos, I took extra special care not to erase them until I was absolutely sure that they were on the computer. I didn’t use the file-download utility on Picasa; I opened folders manually and copied from one to another. I went through the day’s pictures, deleted some and cropped others, and then prepared the slideshow for the family. The number of pictures remaining: 187—the same number that had vanished the day before. Strange.

Day Eight – Making Mochi and an Anniversary Dinner

We planned to wake up earlier the next morning, but it didn’t work out as planned. We were supposed to join the Uncle and Grandma at the farm to make mochi from scratch. I’d only eaten mochi once or twice before coming to Japan, usually in the form most popular among Americans—mochi balls filled with ice cream. I’d eaten more mochi in Japan than I had in my entire life beforehand, and we ate it with sweet red beans or a nutty/sugary powder that’s sweet but not too sweet (like the red beans). Mochi is actually rice that has been compacted into a doughy form. That’s it. Rice. But I think it might come from a stickier, slightly sweeter rice than usual. I’m not entirely sure. But they take the rice and cook it over a fire, and instead of being combined with water like regular rice, it’s only combined with steam. But I didn’t know any of that when I got up. I came downstairs and ate some breakfast with everyone. Okaa-san told me that it is okay to eat eggs that aren’t completely cooked. I felt like an idiot, because I’d mentioned something to Yuuka the day before about by scrambled eggs being very, very runny. And it wasn’t like they were raw or anything. It was more like a steak cooked medium or medium rare—done on the outside with a little bit of undone on the inside. Yuuka had obviously mentioned something to her mom about my comment. Now this woman who had been waiting on me hand and foot since the moment I arrived got the impression that I’d been bitching about her cooking behind her back. Great move.

After breakfast, Hiroka came through with some postcards, which apparently she had received or was preparing to send out. She and Yuuka started talking, but it quickly degenerated into an argument, the two of them yelling at each other, speaking the fastest Japanese I’d ever heard. Everyone else went about their business, watching with stunned silence and interest. Finally they stopped arguing and Hiroka went upstairs. At least once during the exchange I expected I might see one of them bitch-slap the other. But it didn’t happen. After everyone had mellowed out a bit, Yuuka, Satoki, Oto-san and I went to the farm to make some mochi. Yuuka apologized to me on the way for the fight. I think she worried that she’d spoiled the day for me or made me feel completely awkward or something. In truth, I was impressed that they had gotten so far into the vacation without some hint of typical family tensions. The fight only confirmed that her family is made up of humans, albeit outrageously healthy and well-adjusted humans. Yuuka and I discussed the difficulties that face people in their early twenties and how that sometimes makes it tough to deal with them. And the situation is complicated by the fact that Yuuka wants to come home and solve the family’s problems in a brief holiday visit. Sure, they don’t have lots of problems, and the ones they have are relatively minor, but still.

It wasn’t much later that I began to experience my own bit of tension from the visit. It must’ve been the day for that sort of thing. I got to meet Obaa-chan (grandmother) and the great aunts, but our focus was the mochi. When we first arrived, Oto-san jumped in and made the first batch. The job of the mochi-maker is to take a big wooden mallet and grind and pound the rice until it becomes one big mass of sticky dough. The process looked fairly simple from watching Oto-san. Satoki followed and seemed to do a fairly decent job, himself. Oto-san gave him a hard time, saying that the sound made by the mallet when he brought it down on the rice wasn’t quite right. It should’ve been a “thump” sound, but instead it was more like a “squish.” The critique seemed like typical “Dad telling artistic son to be more masculine” stuff. I’m not a tough guy by any stretch of the concept, but I’m also a little stronger than people usually expect me to be, I think. I began to feel a little bad for Satoki, thinking that I was going to show him up with my mochi skills.

Then my turn came. The beginning part of the process is the complicated part. It’s a lot of pushing and grinding of the rice, not pounding. I gave it a good ol’ college try, and quickly found myself growing tired. I felt like I was doing okay, though. Oto-san and Yuuka exchanged a few words, and soon she told me to let him take over for a second, to finish “the hard part.” I passed him the mallet and felt like saying “screw it, do it yourself. I didn’t want to make and damned mochi anyway!” Here was the weak, overweight American who couldn’t make mochi to save his life. How cute, he’s making an effort. But he’s gonna screw this stuff up, so I better step in and rescue him. I suppressed my irritation and watched as he mashed the rice. Then the time came to swat the rice with the mallet and he passed it back. After a few swings, Oto-san gave me a couple of pointers on how to hold the mallet. I grew more frustrated and reluctantly took his pointers, which didn’t seem to help a great deal. I swung hard and pounded the rice as best I could. Finally I finished. My hands and forearms were weak and sore from gripping the mallet. We took a break to eat some lunch. Mochi. Some with a miso-like soup, some with red beans, and some with powder. It was all great. But my hands had a hard time working the chopsticks because they were so tired from gripping the mallet. I did my best to keep the evidence of my weakened, shaky fingers hidden.

Not long after lunch, we got back into making some more mochi. Yuuka’s uncle did a batch. They told me how many batches he’d done himself in the last couple of days, and I was astounded. I don’t even recall now, but I think it was at least a dozen. Making mochi was a family tradition for this time of year, and they made mochi for each household in the family, as well as a bunch to give away to people outside the family. They make less each year, as Obaa-chan grows older and the family becomes more extended. She’s in her mid-seventies and is still the matriarch. She runs the farm and the family with more energy than a lot of thirty year-olds have. She’s the only one in Yuuka’s lifetime who has done the tough job of manipulating the mochi in the barrel between swats of the mallet—another very demanding role in the process of making mochi. I watched carefully as Yuuka’s uncle manipulated the mochi, taking note of the way he stood and the way he held his arms. Seeing him the first time, I never would’ve guessed that he was strong. He seemed like a soft, slightly pudgy sort of guy. He is short and has a bit of a beer gut. But to watch him go to work on that mochi, I realized that I was horribly wrong. He was incredibly powerful, working the rice like soft play-doh, making it look easy.

The very last batch was a little more than a half batch, and they told me that I could have another shot at it if I wanted. Of course I did! My pride was on the line. I watched Oto-san do a batch too, and again watched carefully. He didn’t do it with quite the ease that the Uncle did, but he’s also thin as a rail. He still did it much more easily than I did. When my turn came again, I put all of my effort into doing it right. I used my body, not my arms. I put my weight into it. They were things that I had to do in order to understand what it really meant. The words themselves didn’t have a lot of meaning to me. They’d told me before the first time, but it was only after I’d paid very close attention to the old pros—guys who’d done this every year for decades—that I really began to grasp the concept. They raved at the sharp improvement in my skill, but I felt like maybe it was a lot easier not doing a full batch. Maybe they were just trying to soothe my bruised ego. Either way, I did a better job. The mochi turned out nice. Oto-san told me that when I swing the mallet, it makes a “thump,” not a “squish.” It’s a good sound, the “thump.” They let me have that last batch of mochi to bring home with me. I didn’t think I’d know how to prepare it, and I wondered whether or not they sell the red beans or special powder in the Asian markets in LA. I’m sure they do, but when I flew back to LA, I left the mochi in the freezer in Japan. When we wrapped up our mochi-making experience, we returned home to chill out for a little bit.

Not long after we returned to the house, we headed out to the steak house to celebrate the parents’ November anniversary, their thirtieth. The kids, including me, all split the bill. Yuuka explained to them that I wanted to take part in making the dinner happen to show my gratitude for their generous hospitality. I didn’t really bring a lot of money, considering how long I was staying and how much stuff we were doing. Sure, we saved quite a bit of money by eating most of our meals “in,” but still the trip was going exceedingly well for me. If I’d been spending the typical allotted per diem for the trip, I would’ve been out of money days ago. Instead, I ordered a bigger steak than anyone else at the table and didn’t feel bad because I knew I was paying my way, for at least one night. The steak only amounted to about $40-$50, and that included all the fixings, as well. Even a glass of tomato juice, which they served on the rocks. Tasty.

Apparently this particular restaurant was renowned nationwide for their sauce, a thick concoction of onions, garlic, and who-knows-what-else. Everyone, including the waitress, warned me to hold up a napkin between myself and the skillet when they set our meals on the table. The waitresses then scooped hefty spoonfuls of the sauce onto the sizzling skillets, where it boiled and spit and produced smoke that hovered around us. It smelled great. We dove in. The steak was tender and delicious. The distinctive flavor of the sauce, though, made it difficult to judge the quality of the steak against the best steak I ever ate stateside. I paid $60 in LA in April for a steak and mashed potatoes and nothing else, but the steak was a mood-altering experience. The flavor was unlike any other steak I’ve ever eaten. I didn’t regret spending that much on it. This Japanese steak was different. The steak was high quality, but I wasn’t just eating the steak, I was eating the sauce (which was also very good). All in all, I’d have to say it was an equally great experience.

As usual, we ended the night with a slideshow around the dining room table. It was another nice day. I had an opportunity to use the computer before bed to get online and send an email, which was a very rare event during my stay. Her parents use the internet rarely enough that they are content to use a charge-by-the-minute dial-up connection. I jumped on quickly and sent a note to the payroll person at work to let her know that I’d forgotten to turn in a time card but still wanted to get paid. By the time I finished on the computer, everyone had gone to bed except for me and Okaa-san. Before going to bed myself, I asked her if I could talk to her and her husband the next morning, alone. “Yes,” she said. “Is everything okay? Is there something you need?” I’m okay…I just want to talk to you and your husband. Privately. Yuuka and I had planned to get up at 7:45 to prepare for our trip into Tokyo, so Okaa-san agreed to wake me up at 7:30.

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