One summer in my childhood, my grandfather on my mother’s side invited my mother and me to lunch. The restaurant’s specialty was eels. An eel is an expensive treat in Japan. We arrived at an awfully old-fashioned Japanese restaurant where we took off our shoes and sat on the floor at the low table. Except for us, only one table was occupied by a woman with a small child, who was busily stuffing the leftovers into a tin box she had brought. Every time my grandfather needed a server to come to our table, he clapped his hands twice and called out, “Hey, sister!” It was an obsolete manner no longer practiced, which embarrassed my mother and me.
When our house was rebuilt, I had my own room for the first time. That time, my grandfather took my mother and me to a furniture store to buy me a bed and a wardrobe. After we chose the items, a young salesperson calculated the total. My grandfather naturally asked for a discount but the salesperson’s offer didn’t satisfy him at all. He was an old patron of the store and had bought every piece of furniture there for my mother when she got married. He was used to special treatment and assumed he would get one there. But the salesperson declined the further discount, as he was new and didn’t know my grandfather. Even so, my grandfather persisted and decided the total amount of his own. He handed bills to the salesperson, and told him how much the change to be brought back should be. My grandfather’s way apparently perplexed the salesperson. Standing next to my grandfather, I was so embarrassed again.
Eventually, a long tug-of-war was over and the salesperson brought back what my grandfather had told him. My bed and wardrobe were successfully discounted, but I learned my grandfather’s style was outdated in the modern world…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
Marriage in Japan
I went out for lunch with my partner at a cafe the other day that stood across the train station in a Japanese desolate rural town where I live. To call it a cafe is a bit too fancy. It’s not the likes of Starbucks but rather a small old mom-and-pop diner that was built well over 30 years ago and remained as it was, which perfectly matched this old town itself.
We sat at the table and overheard a conversation from the table next to us. Three old women in their eighties sat around the table by the window. “She has passed away, too.” “This could be the last time we get together.” Although they were exchanging a downright sad conversation, they were talking in a matter-of-fact way and their chats were lively.
While we were eating a salad with watermelon that came with our main dishes of curry and rice with a fried pork cutlet, a family of three came in. A boy about ten years old and his parents in their thirties sat at the table near ours. As soon as their orders were taken, the boy started reading one of comic books that the diner placed for customers, and his father went outside to smoke. His mother was staring into space.The father came back in when their dishes arrived on the table but they didn’t talk while they were eating. Except that the parents occasionally said something to the boy separately, there was no conversation between the parents. After they finished eating, the father went out again to make a phone call, the boy played with diner’s puzzle toys, and the mother stared into space again. I saw through the window the father talk with someone over his phone pleasantly while smoking and laughing. He came back in and also began to play with a puzzle toy. I thought it was much more fun for him to have lunch with a person on his phone.
Quite too often, I see a married couple having almost no conversation at a restaurant. I wonder if people stop talking each other when they get married. While they must have clicked each other enough to get married in the first place, what makes them fall silent? Since I have never been married, I have no idea whether it’s because they have changed or they have lost interest in each other after marriage.
The closest married couple I know is my parents, which means my knowledge about marriage is a generation old. My parents are from farming villages in Kyoto that is the oldest city in Japan. According to the old custom, their marriage was arranged by their families’ intention not their own. Inevitably, they were strangers with no affection whatsoever. In my childhood, my mother used to say, “I wouldn’t have married such an ugly guy like your father unless he had money.” Times have changed, and people get married by their own will in Japan. Nevertheless, if a couple who liked each other finds it difficult to talk once they marry, I don’t understand what marriage is for. The mystery deepens still more.
The family of three left hastily after they were done with the toys and staring. The party of three old women ordered refills of their soft drinks repeatedly and lingered at the table with their conversations, as if they were reluctant to leave the diner.
A new supermarket opened one block away
from my apartment. It’s the closest
supermarket and I can see it from my window.
Since the construction started in spring,
I’d been looking forward to its opening while
seeing the progress of the construction site. I
jumped in it on the long-waited opening day
and the store exceeded my expectation.
Their prices were a lot lower than I’d
thought. They have carried the opening sale
and I’ve been there almost every day. Before
the opening, a flier of the store came in, which
said, ‘Please use us as your fridge.’ With this
proximity to my place, I thought it would be a
good idea, depending on the prices. Now that
the prices are low, using the store as my fridge
is becoming real. Because I found something
at the lowest price ever each time there and
couldn’t resist getting them, I’ve brought home
more food than I could eat. As a result, my
home fridge is packed, too.
Once I decided to move out my
apartment, this nice supermarket appeared.
Leaving the store behind makes me feel
hesitant to move…
Episode From Surviving in Japan / Hidemi Woods
Curry rice is the most popular dish in Japan. Probably people have it at least every ten days. It’s a thick curry stew put over rice. It’s regarded as a kid’s favorite, but I used to dislike it most when I was little.
My parents were busy for work as farmers and cooking was my grandmother’s task. She was as stingy as my grandfather was and she would thin curry powder with water as much as possible to save money. As a result, the curry of our family was like curry-flavored hot water that drowned rice.
When I got older, I realized that I’d had the wrong curry rice and the right one existed, and it became my favorite. Today, I cooked curry rice. For dieting, and saving money, I put it over barley instead of rice. Rice is ironically expensive in Japan because the government controls its price. Yuck. But barley didn’t fill my stomach so well and left me hungry. So I ate some snacks after finishing it. Am I really dieting…?
At the end of the last year, I won a prize drawing of a snack company and got a boxful of potatoes. I was very pleased to receive it but I had forgotten that I wasn’t a frequent cook. I finally found time to cook potatoes yesterday. The potatoes have already begun to bud. I’ve heard that a potato’s bud is poisonous and I was afraid enough to decide to eat them as soon as possible. I cooked them into tempura. The whole dinner was potato tempura. It was delicious, but eating from a mountain of potato tempura, it looked more and more like a confrontation. The leftovers still sit in the fridge and there are a lot more potatoes in the box waiting for me. They should have been a prize, not a punishment…
New Year is the biggest holiday in Japan. There is a traditional meal for it, which is called ‘osechi’. It’s assorted foods of beans, boiled vegetables, boiled fish, and steamed fish paste, boxed in layered containers. The kinds of an assortment are slightly different at each family according to the family tradition. My family’s traditional ‘osechi’ was absolutely terrible. The assortment consisted of only three kinds of food. Boiled carrots, boiled burdocks and black soybeans. That’s it. We even didn’t have to buy them except for black soybeans because they were grown in our family’s field. It was accompanied by miso soup that had sticky rice cake and big taro in it. Big taro was grown in our front yard and my family held a superstition that you would become a head of something by eating it in the New Year. Unfortunately, it’s huge and painfully tasteless. As a child, I always wondered how they could call them a New Year’s special feast since our daily meals were better. To conclude the ‘feast’, we drank special tea. A cup of Japanese tea with a pickled plum sunk in the bottom. As another superstition, my family believed that it would bring happiness, but it tasted horrible and made me unhappy right away. And then, what I thought couldn’t be any worse hit the new bottom. On one New Year’s Day, there was a new addition to our traditional meal. It was called ‘kuwai’ and looked like a chestnut with a sprout. My mother heard that eating it in New Year made you ‘sprout’ to the world. It became her new superstition and my father began to grow it in the front yard. It tasted utterly awful. If primitive people found it in the woods and tried it, they would certainly dismiss it as inedible. Although I had endured the terrible feast until I left home, I’m not a head of anything, nor don’t sprout to the world…
A new restaurant opened one train station away from my new place according to the Internet. It seemed an American cuisine restaurant which specialty were a cheeseburger and a waffle, which is rare in this area. There are many other restaurants on the street where the new restaurant opened and I’d wanted to stroll along it sometime. Most restaurants there were introduced with the pictures on the Internet and looked neat enough. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t disappoint me this time around, and went there for lunch. But, sadly, my jaw dropped yet again. It was as if the pictures I’d seen on the Internet had been taken 30 years before or something. All the restaurants were rusty and shabby. The street looked deserted with nobody strolling along. I spotted the new American restaurant among them and a man dressed in a white cook uniform was sitting in a chair in front of the place looking at his cell phone. The door was left open and I glanced at the inside. There was no customer in a cramped restaurant. The online photo of the place was far better than the actual one. Whoever took the online photos of the restaurants on this street must have a genius for making dreadful sights look beautiful. As I was starving, I entered the least unsightly restaurant where some customers had just come out. They served the meal twice as much as an ordinary restaurant and it was so delicious. Unexpectedly, It was a pleasant eating experience. I went home feeling like trying other restaurants on that street as well. As for the American restaurant, I’m still not sure if I have the courage to go in…