Tuesday, April 1, 2008

My trip part 3

Here is part 3 of my trip. When I'm done with the essay, pictures will follow.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early to the sound of a dog scratching at my door. While I could think of more pleasant ways to rise, I can certainly think of worse ways too. I joined the family as they were discussing what to eat. They decided on natto, a fermented soy bean dish known for being unpopular with foreigners, combined with mochi, a doughy substance made from rice that I’d only eaten sweetened as a dessert. While I honestly enjoy natto now, I wasn’t quite sure how it would mix with sweet mochi. I was aware that not all mochi was sweet, but I couldn’t picture it, so I was anxious but nervous to try. The night before, there had been some confusion about bathing, as I said I was used to showers in the morning and this got mangled into “I don’t want to take a shower at night”, so the mother told me that she was making fresh mochi which would take a while, so now was the time to get clean. She pulled out a mochi maker, which was also surprisingly a bread maker.

I was told the bath was warm and ready for me, with bath salts added in to make it a more pleasant experience. Bathing in Japan is totally different than America. In Japan, you shower before you bathe, and in the tub you just soak. You do not, by any means, go in the tub dirty, and it is not strange at all to have an entire family use the same bath water. There is a shower right next to a tub and they had a plastic device that rolled over the tub to prevent water, soap, and any dirt from getting in before they bathed. Thankfully I knew enough about Japanese faux pas to not dive right in.

For the second time in my life, I was in a bathroom and unsure about how I’m supposed to clean myself off. There were two different sets of nozzles, one obviously just for the bathtub and one for a showerhead and water spigot. The showerhead had a total of three knobs. One seemed to be for the temperature, but the other two I wasn’t sure of. There was a small metal knob on the left and another knob with Japanese characters that I didn’t recognize in the center. The center knob seemed to be fixed in position, so I turned the left knob and water came shooting out, like it was a pressure relief valve or something. Sitting naked in a cold room not knowing how to do anything is a bit of a humiliating experience, but I didn’t know what to do. Out of desperation, I tried the center knob and it moved, producing the desired result. The problem was it just required more force then I had expected.

After showering, I got in the very delightful warm tub, enjoying myself very much. I heard a clacking sound coming from somewhere in the house. I dried myself off and after some insistence from the sister, blow dried my hair. The clacking I heard as I approached the kitchen was a visiting monk who was either blessing the house or warding away bad spirits, I’m not sure. I was really anxious to see what I was doing, but as I’m not Buddhist, nor do I have a good understanding of Buddhism, I felt like I would be intruding.

The family really wanted to get a picture of me next to the monk, which I happily but awkwardly obliged. The monk was an older man, quite rough around the edges, wearing some very dramatic ceremonial garments. He sat down on the family’s pillow next to the family altar and I sat next to him for a picture. I didn’t know what to do, so the family using their camera and mine, we got some pictures of me with my hands behind my back and a big goofy smile.

After the picture, we all sat together at the kotatsu with the sunken floor below it. I watched as the monk was discreetly paid by taking an envelope placed on the table before his arrival. We drank some tea, and I heard about how he was the head of the local temple and had been for quite some time. The family explained that I went to an American school in Tokyo and the confusion of the name “Temple University” was repeated. I was used to this by now, but adding a head monk into the process kind of made it a bit awkward.

The monk left and the family told me part of the awkwardness is they think that he was losing his hearing. Shortly afterwards, several people arrived, some were relatives and some were friends. I didn’t quite get all the relationships figured out, but it was like meeting anyone else’s aunts and uncles in America. They were all significantly older than me, yet warm and accepting. It is customary to give gifts upon arriving at someone’s home, so when I arrived, I gave the family a gift of “Tokyo Bananas”, a treat that somehow became synonymous with visiting the city and a bag of handmade candy from my new favorite candy shop in Nakano. When these people arrived, box after box of miscellaneous treats were piling up. It was pretty unbelievable exactly how much stuff arrived.

One of the relatives was a teacher in the art of the tea ceremony. She brought us this really thick green tea and instructed me to hold it at head level with the palm of my left hand, turn it twice towards me with my right hand take a small bow and sip. This was so we could admire the tea bowl’s lovely design, and apparently the bowl is the proper way to serve it. I found the tea to be really good, and I was eager for seconds, which seems to have been a bit of a surprise, as most people seem to find the taste a little bitter. Apparently, I was told, that snacks are as equally important to the tea ceremony as tea was. After a few bowls of tea, I got to see how it was made, which was ridiculously simple. There was this special type of powder you put into a bowl, and with a special bamboo whisk, you stirred it and that’s all. It came out really foamy and creamy.

Shortly after the tea, we went out to lunch. We drove up to this fairly tiny restaurant and took our shoes off and entered a small room. There were trays already made up and ready for us and we just had to sit down and eat. It was a bit odd to just sit down and start eating with no ordering or waiting. This was, without a question, the most elaborate Japanese lunch I’d ever had. There were several small dishes with pickled radishes, a type of light Japanese kimchi, some sprouts, a slice of what I assume was a piece of very expensive melon, and large dishes of sashimi (slices of raw fish) and tempura. There was also a bowl of miso soup, a bowl of rice and this container of something that looked like pudding but was fish based. I’m not sure what it was, but I had the same pudding-like dish in an izakaya and I hated it, but at this place it was much better, and I actually enjoyed it. Next to all these elaborate dishes, there was this type of fish and rice dish. When we sat down, we lit a fire beneath the dish and near the end, it was fully cooked and really hot, but delicious.

Even before I sat down for that massive spread, I was still full from an overwhelming breakfast. Even before breakfast began, I was not at all hungry from the massive dinner a night before. As if lunch wasn’t enough, when I was finished, people wanted to give me more tempura or whatever they had left. To avoid being rude, I tried to say no, but after the second offering, I said yes and just gorged myself. Throughout the meal, I was getting really thirsty. I drink a lot of liquids with my meal in general, even for an American, and often times in Japan you get very little to drink or nothing at all. At the end of the meal, they offered more tea, which I anxiously took. Without thinking I took a sip and burned the hell out of my tongue. While I was in terrible pain, nobody else seemed to mind.

As awkwardly quick as the meal had started, it ended just as abruptly as it began. We all got up and left in what seemed to be a rush. We climbed into our cars and drove to another parking lot across the street. It seems that some of the people we were with had tickets to a play by a troupe visiting from Tokyo. After they left, we all went back to the family home and me and the sister were going to explore what this area was all about.

So, what was this area all about?

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