Monday, October 5, 2009

Outside the Gate

This week I had a couple of adventures outside the gate. We are not locked in here on base, we can freely come and go as we please (just don’t forget your ID) but I’ve been told it is really easy to find yourself staying within the confines of “Little America.” And I can easily see how that can happen – the kids all go to school on base, the commissary is here, the Navy Exchange, there are fast food restaurants - not that we go to them but I guess if we were desperate for some high calorie low nutrient food we would have any number of choices - McDonald’s, Dunkin’Donuts, Sbarro, Subway, Long John Silvers, A&W, Cinnabon. There’s a movie theatre, a bowling alley, a dry cleaners, library. Really all our needs are right here – it’s like living in a company town – now that’s sort of scary. So after realizing that a week ago, I hadn’t been off base the entire week I decided that if someone asked me if I wanted to go on an outing my answer will always be “yes, I’d love to.”

A neighbor of ours, Charlotte, has a student, Tokiko, that she teaches English. Tokiko offered to take us - Charlotte, Judy (another Navy spouse new to Japan), and myself on a fieldtrip down the Miura peninsula to the Misaki fish market and then out for lunch. I was heading to an area where I had not yet been and I had a Japanese guide! It was raining and dreary but I did not care – I was going to have someone with me that knew the language and could explain things to me, and more importantly – I was going outside the gate. This was going to be a great day – just the type of experience I wanted to have here in Japan.

Charlotte has been here 3.5 years – they will leave this summer after 4 years in Japan. She drives like a pro, so there is hope for me yet. I was glad to be a passenger and have a chance to listen to Tokiko and Charlotte talk about the areas we were driving through – we drove by small farms that grow radish and cabbage and coastal areas – the terrain is hilly and the roads winding, except for the humidity it reminds me a lot of the west coast up by San Francisco. Tokiko grew up in the area where we were going and told us there are Mikan (Japanese tangerines) orchards that you can go and pick in the Fall – sounds like a future road trip to me.

When we arrived at the Misaki fish market it was after 10 a.m. – the morning rush was over but as you can see by the pictures there was plenty to look at. The different stalls had samples and the vendors were insistent that you try their wares. My favorite of the day was the tuna cooked in shoyu (soy sauce) – the tuna just melted in your mouth. We tried seaweed noodles, which were actually quite good, and a type of dumpling that had tuna inside. Probably the most interesting item I tried was from a little Japanese lady who was quite the sales person – she cracked me up, very insistent that we try her well, I’m not sure what exactly it was. I know it contatined seaweed and sesame seeds, the other ingredient … well lets just say the less time looking at it the better – they had eyes. You are supposed to mix it in with your rice and so, what the heck, I bought some to take home and try out on the family! Truthfully, it wasn’t bad and how could I resist the saleswoman? She was this little Japanese lady - her skin was all wrinkled and brown from the sun - very enthusiastic, grinning and just grabbed my hand and plopped down a sample in my palm and declared "you try!" After making several more purchases, we headed out of the market to a traditional Japanese restaurant. Never in a million years would I have stepped into this place on my own – it was down a small alleyway off the main street. Tokiko is a member of the Rotary in the Misaki area and this restaurant is a Rotary member – it apparently helps to have connections. As you can see by the photo, upon entering you needed to take off your shoes in an entrance area – no worries though because there were plenty of slippers to choose from lined up and waiting! We went upstairs and entered a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats on the floor and the low tables, chabudai. Tokiko showed me how to fold over the floor pillow so that I could sit up a bit and not have to fold my legs under me – good thing because I’m not sure my knees would have ever recovered. Tokiko ordered all kinds of dishes for us – and showed us how to eat some of the items – like wrapping the radish in a type of Japanese style basil leaf with wasabi and some tuna. It was all delicious – I am discovering I really love Japanese food, beyond the Americanized version I had back in the States.

When the food arrived I was the stereotypical Japanese tourist in reverse. I get it now. All the times I saw the Japanese in D.C. with their cameras taking pictures of everything, well I’ve become one of them. It’s all so culturally different, I feel like a kid walking into a toy store – I just want to take it all in. I think I amused my lunch mates since I took photos of everything before we dove in but they were good sports and let me have at it with my camera. I am continually amazed at the care the Japanese take in presenting their food. It is truly an art and being a visual person, I can’t seem to get enough. I think of my survival dinners I throw on the plates at home and cringe – there is nothing even remotely considered about presentation, just food on a plate. I may need to work on that one … someday.

I am also fascinated with this whole shoe/no-shoe experience. For instance when we arrived at the restaurant we took off our street shoes and slipped on the slippers. When we were at the entrance to the room where we would be eating you take off your slippers and walk in your socks or bare feet to your table. Toward the end of the meal I went to the ladies room – which thank goodness was a Western style toilet. I just had to crack up – you take off the slippers before entering the toilet room and put on the “toilet slippers” while conducting your business. Where else in the world would you do this except in Japan! Definitely worthy of a photo.

Tokiko was generous almost to a fault. She not only gave up a day to take three American women to the fish market she treated us to lunch as well. I was horrified that she paid for my lunch but she was insistent – and I’m starting to understand that it is their honor to do this. As my grandparents used to tell me when I’d fuss at them for treating - “it gives us pleasure.” This open generosity has given me much to consider. I think back – especially while living in D.C. – and realized that while I hope I was never rude to anyone visiting from another country, I certainly never went out of my way to help them (although I do know I helped more than my fair share of tourists lost in the Metro stations – but they were Americans). I guess the lesson learned here for me is to be more aware and helpful, to remember that nice gets nice, to be gracious and be a good ambassador. The Japanese I’ve encountered so far, live the word of being an ambassador for their country everyday. They have been helpful and generous and courteous - from the toll booth attendant in Hakone who sent out 2 different people to give us printed directions and get us on the right path, to the 7-11 clerk who fished out of my hand the correct change, to Tokiko who shared part of her day with us - giving me the gift of experiencing Japan outside the gate. And for that, as a foreigner, I am truly grateful. Till next time, sayonara.

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