03/23/2011

Life is Good

Chiba, Japan -


My wife, daughter and I live in a small, sleepy seaside community of surfers about an hour by express train outside of Tokyo. Most of the houses around us are an odd mix of weekend Architectural Digest-type getaways for upscale Tokyo-ites or spare apartment complexes for downscale surf bums. There's not much to do here, no social scene to speak of and my communication skills remain inferior but living and working in Japan for over 4 years now, I often like to try a regrettably unoriginal yet nevertheless fail-safe icebreaker whenever I'm stuck in a conversational cluster and we've unexpectedly arrived at one of those vaguely uncomfortable yet always lurking impasses that are unfortunately familiar to any cross-cultural wanderer anywhere. I ask-

If you could choose only one meal to bring with you to a desert island, what would you choose?

I like to think of this as an especially surefire spark in a sometimes reserved society that tends to discourage spontaneous social combustion in favor of a somewhat more controlled slow roast of comfortable, evenly distributed warmth and a more strictly scheduled, temperate enjoyment of same by one and all, in their turn and according to the parameters of the shared setting. Westerners, I suppose, generally consider the Japanese as a sort of single, like-minded entity moving in an unfathomable (at least to us) direction all their own and after 4 years I both understand why we trust in this stereotype and also can see through it into a vastly complex society of individuals whose layers of social interactions and labyrinth of responsibilities I can occasionally identify correctly then adjust to clumsily, but which I, instead, still most often willingly surrender my understanding to at the doorstep of their hospitality and near infinite patience.

But the food question rarely fails me.

The reason being that the one consistent universal I do find true in this land of plenty is the unabashed, unashamed, absolutely open and near decadent daily celebration of all things edible and everything culinary.

Please imagine for a moment, my Western Friends, the most dedicated foodie you know and love.
Got 'em? Good.
Now multiply that persons passion for their daily banquet by a factor of 5 or perhaps 10 and you're looking at the average Japanese citizen.
Yes, from the growing, harvesting, catching or sacrificing of their bounty to the intensely serious preparation to the lovingly meticulous presentation and incredibly gracious serving all the way to the near delirium of the actual ravenous partaking of their daily feast the Japanese, perhaps living up to another western stereotype, take their love of and devotion to food in all its many forms and combinations and transform that ardor, as is their way in other enterprises, into a vigorous epicurean industry of shameless obsession and evident satisfaction that simply cannot be rivaled in its passionate intensity or constant, compulsive focus by those even slightly less willing to sacrifice their energies to the Gods of Gastronomy.

Yet the desert island question often illicits some decidedly surprising responses from this Nation of severe Samurai chefs and determined, demanding diners.

“I'd take some onigiri (riceballs).” I'll very often hear with the reserved tone of one whose decision is absolutely final and, more importantly, correct.

Now onigiri does come in a variety of flavors and you can, and they do, add a list of ingredients to the basic snack ranging from meat to fish to vegetable stuffings with a few different condiments also commonly available but at its heart and the most popular type, to be found at any and every picnic, most lunch boxes or hurriedly purchased when seeking to quickly stave off hunger while on the run, is the simple, classic, tennis ball-sized, triangular-shaped, plain lump of sticky white rice wrapped in an edible, paper-thin, salty seaweed.
I can, now, faithfully attest to its functional utility (child-like fun to unwrap from its plastic preserver), its tactile wonder (a pleasantly reassuring weight with a very slightly tacky skin) and the absolute triumph of its modest purpose (it subtly satisfies both empty stomachs and neglected taste buds).
Yet in my first week when I made my initial taste-test of this Japanese staple it was to less-than-rave review.
This cheap little bundle that fit so easily into the palm of my hand was just so visually plain to my eye, so bland to my taste, so.....so............well................small.
How can this.....this insignificant morsel, this soft, squishy rice mash, you know..... work?

It took me awhile to appreciate the almost elegant simplicity and blissfully comforting convenience of this reassuring mini-meal but time and perseverance were, luckily, on my side. For my Native Friends it was certainly a different story.
They had, to a man and woman, grown up happily toting these gleaming white fistfuls of nutrition to school confident in their delicious delivery from the pangs of hunger, had eagerly devoured them while cramming for exams to sustain them through the long night, had religiously packed them with ease and pleasure for road trips and holidays and dutifully carried them to their workplaces in case of lunchtime emergency.
As simple everyday food items go, these sparkling stars of goodness were near sacred in their talismanic power to quell your hunger as they fortified your strength for all of life's battles which were sure to come.

Then last week one arrived.
The earth shook with a force to strain skyscrapers and when it settled a suddenly ominous ocean reared back and slapped at the land sweeping highways, houses, trucks, cars and concrete barriers away like toothpicks scattered across a linoleum floor.
Frail bodies of flesh and bone didn't count in this violent equation of Mother Natures fury as those that remained unconsciously prayed for relief even as they realistically braced for further loss.
I cowered with them in breathless anxiety and fearful anticipation of the earth's primal and heedless wrath.

The sea had broken open the best and worst that we had built and the most that we needed. There was no rest to be found and our errors multiplied as the rubble settled and the digging began.
Days crawled by and the land we stood on continued to bide the time before, once again and then again, rocking us to our knees just as we thought it might be safe to exhale and regroup.

Yes, it was We now.

The day after the big one I got on my bike and pedaled around the neighborhood to assess the damage and gauge our options.
I had already heard reports of gai-jan fleeing Tokyo by the thousands and native Tokyo-ites frantically rushing to the south and west and, it was believed, safety. In the days to come there was multiple reactor failures in Fukushima (about 170 miles away) and the emergency crews sent to the rescue seemed clearly overwhelmed and frighteningly unprepared. Video footage of the carnage to the North and the eerily quiet, empty streets of the capitol played repeatedly on every now 24 hour news cycle on all channels and did nothing to calm the fears that were flaring all around us.
As the multiple disasters worsened friends and family from home frantically facebooked me to-

“COME HOME NOW!”.

But as I rode my bicycle that day I witnessed sights that didn't fit this fractured frame.

My sparsely populated, weekend vacation neighborhood next to the ocean had clearly dodged a bullet. While we and 5 or 6 dozen of our neighbors had spent a few hours in an evac center the night before now the streets I pedaled along were, once again, calm, clean and mostly empty. There was some minor flooding near a river inlet about 10 minutes from our door and as I pedaled past the ramen shop we'd often visited I saw the Oba-san (Old Lady) who cheerfully ran the place sweeping out some debris and carefully asked her if they were alright.
She smiled brightly and heartily informed me that all was well, no problem. Her stout and fearsome looking husband/Ramen Master waved and smiled (the first time I'd ever seen him do so) also as I pedaled away to witness similar scenes throughout our area.
Old Grandmothers cleaning and gardening, children on break from school helping out, housewives walking their dogs, construction workers working and as I passed I saw cars parked along the beach (as I usually do) with their drivers watching the waves come and go.
OK, I thought, now for the true test.

Like many a seaside suburb we have our share of restaurants, surf shops and cafes here and there but these mostly close early and the true focal point of the area becomes the local Family Mart convenience store.
Brightly lit 24/7 and 365 it attracts the odd hour shoppers, the hungry truckers, the weekend surfers and the few neighborhood school kids from all around. There really isn't much of anything else open at night and I sometimes frequent it just as an excuse to stretch my legs and take the night air.
Spotlessly clean and staffed by an array of enthusiastic, energetic teens and twentysomethings it is generally a mild pleasure to visit with one corner of its space (as in all japanese Konbinis) faithfully dedicated to a smart display of rows upon rows of fresh onigiri in all their unassuming glory.
Normally.
But on this day the store gave every appearance of having been emptied in a hurry.

Not looted exactly, because there were still the sundry junk items familiar to any convenience anywhere, make-up and magazines, plastic toys and styrofoam coolers, candy and chewing gum and surprisingly, at least to me, there was plenty of beer, wine and cigarettes but as to any real food of any type...nothing.
Most shockingly of all the onigiri display was picked absolutely clean and scotch-taped to the front was a hasty, handwritten, sad little sign apologizing and asking for patience with the resupply.
The 2 girl day staff, usually so bright, vivacious and eager, seemed dejected and embarrassed as I walked out empty-handed.
They weren't the only ones.

The days that followed were filled with eruptions from the earth of diminishing intensity but equilibrium shattering regularity. The news from the North spiraled downward as a wounded nuclear giant loomed over us all. Embassies emptied, train service stopped, rolling blackouts commenced and the shelves remained as barren as our forecast of the future as we hung on and hoped for a break.
Yet each day I saw Grandma's gardening, housewives strolling, workers working, children playing and the Ramen shop was open for business. The mail was delivered, garbage hauled away and the blackouts weren't all that difficult of an adjustment.

Then yesterday I walked over to the Konbini for the exercise and just to look around and there it was.
The onigiri corner wasn't fully stocked but there was a selection with plenty to choose from and the sad little sign was gone. Maybe it was me but even the girls looked happier and more confident.

If asked to describe me at a glance most people might use words like- stern, somber and stoic and although I myself might laugh at that appraisal perhaps they'd be more right than wrong.

But standing there in that store I felt like bursting into song and dancing down the aisles.

There was onigiri and that was enough.
We had food, we had life and right there neatly stacked on that convenience store shelf was all the proof I needed.

Like everyone around me, I don't know what going to happen in the days to come and I'm not at all sure what the right thing to do is or even if there is a right thing to do. The foreigners who fled to their homes seem prudent and I know that my friends and family mean well with their understandably panicky admonitions to run.
But my neighbors are still here and I suspect that many don't have anyplace to run to nor any desire to do so.
They're home.

For now, and the fragile land beneath us continues to assure us that this is all we have, so are we.
The mail is delivered, garbage hauled away, children are playing and grandmothers smiling.
There's onigiri on the shelves so I am too.
posted by Billy at 17:47 | Kyoto (Japan)
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