Friday, June 24, 2016

Quest for Kunpen, Part 4: Naha by Chance

Sakurazaka Theater is a wonderful place, and after a wonderful documentary on Yomitan pottery, I walked through the narrow streets around the theater, far behind the busy Kokusai Doori, to find some Kunpen.
The covered maze of tiny shops and stalls called XXX is a lot of fun, and there are several old sweets shops that sell to the many tourists visiting from all over the world, though many of them are from Japan, China, and Taiwan.
In the covered market, I came across two shops on opposite sides of the tiny stree. At Toma Seika (外間製菓所), I got a large kunpen. It was really big for kunpen, rather flat, and just moist enough. The soft outer shell had a nice mild sweetness, and the filling was sweet and soft. Kunpen usually contain sesame, and some mix in peanuts. Toma Seika kunpen contains only sesame, but it is mild. The sesame aroma and flavor does not stand out. Comforting, simple kunpen, but not too different from others reviewed in this blog.

A little farther down and on the opposite side was Matsuhara-ya Seika (松原屋製菓). The older lady watching the store pointed to two types of kunpen - sesame and peanut. I chose peanut. Here it is:

The outer "gawa" or cookie part was crispy and just the right sweetness. Like its neighbor, though, the filling was comforting but not surprising or stimulating. It was nice, comforting kunpen.
I then left the covered market for Minamijima Seika (南島製菓), which is known for its kunpen... and there is a very good reason why.

If sentient sesame exist, this is the stuff of their tiny nightmares. Imagine "This. Is. Kunpen!" in a "300", Sparta kinda way. Huge like the sumo of sweets, with a filling that is all sesame, 120%. Compared with other sesame-only kunpen, the flavor and fragrance of the sesame filling was completely different. It was not as sweet, not as diluted by sugar or caramelized. It was intoxicatingly rich and aromatic, and the sheer volume of the sesame made the "gawa" or outer cookie-like a mild and sweet balance to the intensity of it. This is kunpen you have to try, preferably with some really nice tea or milk. After just half of one, I had to just sit back and relax. It is that "totally sated" kind of high. Great kunpen.

This is the fourth of four installments:

Monday, September 8, 2014

Okinawan Home Cookin' at Kokoro no Yado

Before I tell you how fabulous this meal was, I have to apologize for the lack of good photos. I was too busy chewin’ and gruntin’ to waste time fiddling with a camera. This food is too good for Instagram.
The restaurant is Kokoro no Yado, where sisters Sigeyo Ishigaki and Kimiko Noha cook up local ingredients with big smiles and even bigger hospitality. What they don’t grow in their own garden they get from the sea or local farms.

Sisters Sigeyo Ishigaki and Kimiko Noha in the restaurant's home kitchen
Each dish is delicious and distinct. They do all the common Okinawan favorites, but they do them really, really well. The butter-grilled fish was amazing, aromatic with garlic that permeates evenly all the way to the bone. Then there was the pork and yama-imo stir-fry, which I did not see coming. 

Pork, Yama-imo, and Nira
It was like yin and yang on a plate, the meat bold, earthy, and super-savory, the veggies bright, snappy and slightly tart. Eaten separately, they were wonderful. Eaten together, they were mind-boggling. Every mouthful made me want more, and I was happily humbled.

But the fried octopus… it should be arrested for inciting social unrest. Both sweet and savory, not rubbery at all, satisfying in both flavor and texture and totally addictive, this “taco kara-age” was so good that all eight of us at the table sat there white-knuckled, eye-balling one another as we held ourselves back from shamelessly wolfing it all down.

However, I also have to describe the atmosphere, which was equally exceptional. The place is homey. In fact, it IS their home. Kimiko Noha and her husband Munenobu have lived in the house for 30 years, but they opened it as a restaurant only 2 years ago. You come in, sit down, and either order or leave it up to them to feed you. The sisters just cook it up and bring it out with easy smiles and grace. They are sincere and warm, and you really become a guest in their home.

Sigeyo Ishigaki, Kimiko Noha, and Munenobu Noha at the guest table

So treat yourself, your family, and your friends to some terrific food with these wonderful people. Put aside some time to try Kokoro no Yado, open 11:00-14:30 for lunch, 16:00-23:00 for dinner. 098-964-3885. For more info, visit the website at http://www.kukurunoyado.com/. You can find Kokoro no Yado (心の宿) on Google Maps here.
心の宿 Kokoro no Yado

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Urashima Taro Part 3: Wake Up with Waffle House

From an old blog, this is part 3 an account of when I visited the US in 2006, my first visit after for 9 years of living in Japan.

January 25th, 2006

After a 32-hour trip with baby, I got 5 hours of sleep in a cheap hotel and then woke up and showered. My first morning in America in 9 years, and there is no hot water. Strangely, I wasn't at all angry, since it kind of matched my mood.

The Indian immigrants that owned the Airline Blvd Econolodge were really nice. As an expat living on the skinny, I even identified with them. Having lived for 12 years in a country whose language I had to learn from scratch, I did not mind at all that the night manager was nearly incomprehensible. I thanked him for his kindness and promptness in picking us up the night before, knowing full well that it was not an exception. A cheerful woman in a sari was cleaning rooms when we left, and it was obvious that the family pretty much did everything here. I told her how much I appreciated the very late pickup, and how relieved I was to find a place to stay, and she smiled with genuine joy and said, "that's nice to hear." The motel was cheap and dirty with no hot water, but it was safe. It was a place with lockable doors and lights, and it had housed my father, wife, and son. I was truly grateful.

However, once Dad was awake and Noel was being fed, I was numb again and taking care of business, getting us in the car and on the road to Oxford. We really needed some breakfast, so Dad took us through Memphis instead of getting on the interstate right away.

Dad, in spite of his condition, was driving. He was driving because it was easier for him to get into the driver's side of the car. Simple as that. There was also my disorientation about driving on the right side of the road.

Highway 78 from Airline Boulevard was just sleazy. I chuckled at seeing a run-down building with a huge sign advertising "China Buffet Truck Parking." Just at this moment, Dad lifts his eyebrows and says "Mmm, China Buffet," and he is absolutely serious, offering it as an enticing alternative.

Driving through Memphis, I was struck by how the scenery was like the Chinese food we got in the Chicago airport - so much quantity with so little quality - so much space with so little in it.

For breakfast, we stopped at one of Dad's favorite restaurants - Waffle House. We sat in a booth because Dad needed the wider seat just to fit himself on. I was impressed by how far American restaurants have come in accommodating the disabled. The doors were big enough for Dad to get through, and even the bathroom was like a barn, or so it seemed to me, coming from super-compact Japan.

The booth was next to the grills and stoves where the food was prepared. There was a loud, young black woman who seemed to run the show. She was large, tall and stocky, and she had numerous tattoos of handwriting - in cursive, no less - up and down her neck and arms. I did not and still do not understand the significance of these tattoos, but they seemed to mean something. They were not artistic at all. She talked freely and often with the customers, two of whom were evidently regulars.

At the grill was a much shorter, rounder young black woman who seemed to be on good terms with the bossy one. She was talking on a cell phone as she cooked the food in an efficient and easy manner. It was impressive how she could get away with all this, but it was not my place to say anything.

Then there was a much skinnier, smaller black girl and a round, blonde white girl waitressing. They were obviously very scared of the boss. The blonde white girl was actually shaking very badly most of the time, but I suspect that she might have been in some kind of drug withdrawal or maybe just alcoholic shakes. Her teeth looked terrible, so I suspected it might have been meth, but who knows. I don't like to assume the worst, but she was obviously not doing well, and the teeth, the bags under the eyes, and the yellow complexion made substance abuse much more likely than some neurological disorder.

Last, there was Grandmaw, or at least she was somebody's Grandmaw. She was probably in her late fifties or above, and she was completely oblivious to the other workers. Of course, she coordinated orders, asked for things, and served, and she was directing the waitresses on what to give to whom and when, but she was not at all in the circuit of intimidation and fear that the boss girl had set up. It seemed almost like Grandmaw didn't notice this very palpable set of power dynamics.

My father, for his part, was oblivious, too. He ordered his favorite burger and a side of hash browns. He asked for extra pickles, and when Grandmaw brought them, he thanked her and said that extra pickles is one of those little pleasures. She told him to take his time and enjoy his food.

He replied, "Oh, I always take my time. I don't like to rush through my food. You have to enjoy life while you have it. That's what I say."

Grandmaw agreed, "You got to take each day as it comes. You take it for what it is and be grateful."

My wife looked over to me for translation, and I made a face to indicate that interpretation at this moment was not an option. The boss girl was detailing how she made so-and-so regret ever coming in here for a job, and the shaky white girl brought me more coffee. I was impressed that, 12 years after I left the USA, you can now get decaf with free refills at Waffle House.

Dad rearranged the pickles on the meat so that they perfectly cover the beef patty, giving him an ideal combination with every bite. "You know, you can have your lots of stuff, but if you can't enjoy it, it doesn't mean much. I just want to enjoy what I got and live my days as best I can." The skinny black girl drops a cup on the counter, but it doesn't break, and boss girl glances her way.

At this point, a gray-haired, moustached man of about my father's age got out of his customized pickup and came in. He was definitely southern and country, with cowboy shirt, boots and hat, but he was slender and healthy, standing on his own, looking about purposefully, and carrying a cell phone on his belt. He was independent and employed. He might have been the owner of a small business or perhaps something to do with low-level industry. He had that air about him, and he looked like Dad. Or rather, he looked like Dad would look if he were not in such bad shape. I felt guilty because I imagined what life would be like if Dad was like this - healthy, purposeful, independent, and mobile. This guy's kids probably recieve money from him, rather than the other way around. But it was not money that I envied. It was certainty, freedom from doubt and guilt.

This guy was in charge and probably carrying quite a few people on his own, both at work and at home. He was probably a good guy to go to for advice in certain things. I can't say that I would ask Dad's advice. The thing that really made me feel kind of short-changed was knowing that this guy's kids never had to ask themselves if they are doing enough for him. They never had to decide how much to sacrifice for him, what they would have to do to help him. He was strong and on his own, and his children are free. But that is rot, to think that way, and I turned my attention back to the diner drama unfolding.

Grandmaw was still serving other customers and keeping the conversation going, "That's the best way. I don't want none of them luxury things they got on the home shopping TV, none of them bags and jewelry. I like to just do my own thing and take my time."

Dad smiled in agreement, and I noticed that he was missing teeth. "Dad, you're missing some teeth."

"Yeah, they fell out, but I don't have the dental or the funds to get 'em fixed," he said apologetically.

"But Dad, those are your dentures, right?"

"Yeah, the teeth fell right out of 'em. Sorry-ass way to live, ain't it? I'm missin' teeth in my false teeth," and he chuckled. "Sorta like getting a wooden leg amputated, ain't it? You might say I done hit rock bottom. I'm mostly paralyzed in my right hand, so I can't even jerk off, I'm so fat I ain't seen my pecker in years, I can't walk, can't work, and can't get around, and I'm married to a crazy woman. But you know, there is always hope." And he leans in with a conspiratorial whisper, "I am working my way to ambidexterity, if you know what I mean." And he grinned, the missing teeth at irregular positions, suggesting some kind of meaning, like a coded message.

The door opened, and a young, plump white woman with dye-black hair, a colorful butterfly tattoo on her neck and several piercings all over her head came in. She was very fair and clear-skinned. She even looked healthy. She asked for a job application, and the boss girl gave it to her with a raised eyebrow. The butterfly goth girl went outside again, and Grandmaw was at a different table serving.

While the goth girl was outside filling in the form, the regulars at the bar got more coffee and asked if it would take long to teach her who is boss. Though she had been talking almost non-stop up until this point, the boss girl's tone quickly changed, and she was quiet "Won't take long. Never does," she answered and started silently wiping the counter as though it were part of her reply.

Well-oiled and queazy, we made our way back to Oxford. I drove, and it was difficult to stay awake on those straight, deserted country highways. I swerved a couple of times, but there was nothing to hit, and everyone else was asleep.

When we arrived at Dad's house, we went in to greet my step-mother B. She had taken an interest in decorating, and there were wooden posts of technicolor deer and gnomes stuck in the lawn. Each one only cost 2 dollars at Walmart, and it made her feel happy. She had succeeded in purchasing. She was an agent in commercial transactions. She was participating in the world.

The white front door to the house had "NO SMOKING - OXYGEN" written in flourescent orange block letters in the middle. The letters, however, were partially obscured by plastic vines and artificial flowers that had been nailed to the outside of the door. More decorating. She said that the vines really "bring out" the front of the house.

Wife and the baby stayed in the car for the time being because the baby was still nursing and half-asleep. I tried to help Dad out of the car and to the house, but Dad told me to go on ahead, that he would take his time. My stepmother was eager to see me, he said.

So I opened the door, and then it really got weird.

Urashima Taro Part 2: Cold Water in Memphis

From an old blog, this is part 2 of an account of when I visited the US in 2006, my first visit after for 9 years of living in Japan.

January 24th, 2006

On the flight, everyone slept but me. The video screens kept me awake the whole time, watching movies I didn't want to see.

We got to Chicago, and everybody is hungry. We needed to find something the baby could eat, so we went to a Chinese place because they had plain rice. I asked the people behind the counter if the rice was plain, and the servers were openly hostile. When I finally order, the woman waiting on me literally tosses the styrofoam box on the counter. Welcome back to American customer service.

Our flight to Memphis was delayed several times. While I knew that flights were sometimes delayed, I did not expect that the gate would be changed "on the fly," but when I finally figured out how things worked, I called Dad to tell him about the delays and left a message with my stepmother.

When we finally got on a plane headed for Memphis, it was almost 11 at night, and we got to Memphis near midnight. The airport was empty, and the other passengers left quickly. The stalls were closed, and even the security guards were gone. There was one passenger there waiting for a hotel shuttle to pick him up, and then there was us. After he left, we were alone. I gathered the bags near the door and scanned the parking lot.

So there I was with a wife who doesn't speak English, a baby in a sling over my shoulder who doesn't speak much of anything, a backpack, and two suitcases, and no one was here to pick us up. I called my Dad's home, but there was no answer. When I called from Chicago, my stepmother B had told me that Dad would wait in the car in the handicapped section. There were a lot of handicapped spaces, and I ran around between them trying to remember what his car looked like.

I was caught in a dilemma. If I went to a hotel, it would be like abandoning my father, because he would be left there waiting for us when he arrived, and we did not have a way to contact him. He is handicapped, so he would be sitting there looking for us. However, it was 1:30 in the morning, and I was in a seedy city, loaded down with luggage, and I had a 1-year-old baby strapped in a sling on my chest. I felt vulnerable, and I was responsible for all three of us. R did not even speak English well-enough to recognize threats, and I had to make a decision. This was the beginning of a change in my self-image, particularly regarding my feelings of responsibility for my father's welfare. I was a father now, and that takes precedence over being a son.

I called the first hotel I could find at the free hotel phone at the airport. The night manager answered the phone, and though his English was barely comprehensible, he agreed to come and get us. The hotel was owned by an Indian family, and the night manager was probably the father. His English was probably too poor to do the day shift, but he was gentle, quiet, and direct. I thanked him, paid the bill in advance, and got R and the baby settled in the room. I had only 12 USD, so I called Dad's house to see what was up. According to my step-mother, my father had left an hour ago, and he was on his way. As we left the airport in the hotel shuttle, I remembered seeing a small red light in a parked car far from the handicapped spaces that I had checked. I wondered if Dad was in that cold car, waiting in his silent, gentle way, eating vanilla wafers or fig newtons from a zip-lock bag.

After getting R and the baby settled in, I talked to the night manager, explained the situation best I could - that my father had come to pick us up but that I could not find him - and told him that I need to go and look for Dad. He misunderstood and thought that I was trying to cancel the room. I assured him that I was not asking for my money back. I just needed a cab.

The cab cost 10 USD, leaving me 2 USD... not enough to return to the hotel. I decided I would have to walk back to the hotel if Dad was not there, so I tried to remember the way we took to the airport.

I arrived on the upper parking lot, but there was no one there, so I went down to the lower floor, near arrivals, and there was a car waiting right by the doors in a handicapped space. I did not recognize my own father at first. I could not believe it was him sitting in that car.

It was not just age but also the injuries and the increased weight. His white, curly hair had grown down to his shoulders, and his beard was wispy and long. He was patiently sitting at the wheel. Understandably, he did not get out of the car to greet me.

Our greeting was brief and practical, even dry. I was under too much stress and trying to manage too many things to be affectionate. There was just too much to do. I had to find the way back to the hotel, which was not easy, and I was trying to accept my father's present condition, but the shock was so great that I just put feelings aside and managed the situation.

When we arrived at the hotel and Dad shuffled in with his walker, R had cleaned and fed the baby and was waiting for us. This always amazed me about her. She was from a nice middle-class family, and as our relationship progressed, I let her into the Faulkner-esque stories of where I was from, and she never flinched. She never looked down on me for it. She never ran away. And now, in this situation, she had everything set up for grandpa to meet the baby for the first time. The lights were on, she was smiling, and the baby was happy and bright-eyed. It was as picture-perfect as it could be.

We introduced the baby and held him up so Dad could put his arms around him. While Dad's hip injury was very bad, his increased weight complicated the matter, making moving around and even sitting very difficult. We helped him hold the baby, and my son pulled his hair and beard.

But Dad was tired, and it was "time for my pills". The hotel bed warped under him as he rolled back and forth, slowly moving himself to the center of the bed.

I was past 3 in the morning, and the room had double beds, so I asked Dad to sleep there with us. He called his wife, and amazingly she insisted that we all pack up and go back immediately so that Dad could be there to take care of her. His wife B was like that. She was the stone around his neck, and much of the things I have had to overcome began with their marriage when I was six. Life could have been much different for everyone had they parted.

But Dad refused her this time. It was better for all of us to go back to Oxford together the next day. Dad asked me to bring his bottle from the car, a wide-mouthed milk jug. He found it difficult to get to the bathroom sometimes.

My wife and I sandwiched the baby between us. For the first time, there were three generations of my family in the room. I felt pitiful and rushed, because in spite of having lost 10 years supporting my father, he was in this state, barely shuffling around the room and peeing in a bottle, and he was not even 60 years old yet. I had made very little of my ten years, professionally, and Dad was barely living, too. Not much for me to feel proud about there. But Dad was simple, honest, and direct. Above all, he was kind and good-natured. The pain he was in never came out as anger or even grouchiness. He told me what he needed, and he did what he could. Now he was twitching as he slept, and his breathing stopped and started in fits.

I had arrived in America for the first time in 9 years. I had brought my son back to my roots and my family for the first time. I had come full circle, and as I lay in that dark room, listening to the sounds of my father struggling to breathe, my son suckling and cooing, and the heater murmuring, I felt like I was performing a kind of ritual. This was certainly not a happy homecoming, and it was definitely not a vacation. No one would call this restful or fun. This was a right of passage for me, bringing my past into contact with my present, and in doing so, helping me to realize how far I have come and then let go of the past altogether.

Urashima Taro Part 1: Platinum Smiles

From an old blog, this is part 1 an account of when I visited the US in 2006, my first visit after for 9 years of living in Japan.

January 24th, 2006

We woke up early to get the cab to the airport. The apartment had been prepared for departure, and our luggage was logically grouped so that we could concentrate on the baby and leave. Before we left, R had the idea that we should measure ourselves and write a little goal for the trip. I wrote that I would look into graduate schools; R, that she would eat something really delicious. We gave N the goal of having fun with his American relatives.

While waiting to board, I saw the pilot at Miyazaki airport open the window to wipe the windshield with a little spray bottle and rag. In system administration, there are people using paper clips to patch cables and fix keyboards, but I thought jet planes would be more... high tech and careful. Is opening that window a good idea? I thought that aviation would be an alchemy of momentum and thrust, balance and lift, but there is the pilot leaning out the window of the cockpit to clean his windshield.

We are heading to Tokyo on a plane with what appears to be about over 100 students from Nichinan Agriculture and Forestry High School. For most of them, this is probably their first trip to Tokyo and maybe even their first time on a plane.

As we waited at the gate to board, the baby was a big star. Some of the female students asked to have their pictures taken with him. I don't blame them. He is terribly cute.

In the cabin, businesspeople, jaded to the whole act of flying, read the news of the arrest of Livedoor's president Horiuchi as we lift off. Most closed their eyes or read their planners while right past their elbow was the miracle of flight. The high school students squealed and applauded at liftoff, as well they should. They have much to look forward to, both long- and short-term, as they are on their way to Tokyo, Japan's Land of Oz.

It is a shame that the business commuters continued to be unimpressed with flight, even as the shadows of clouds majestically drifted across the sea. In contrast to excited teens and jaded commuters, my 1-year-old son nursed a bit and then went right to sleep. He had no idea that we are aboard the grand machine he loves to point to in picture books. We live near the airport, and he loves to find airplanes when they pass overhead, pointing to them and saying, "airplane" and "hikouki bun-bun." Before boarding, he was enthralled by the sight of real airplanes dwarfing the people scurrying about below them. However, he did not realize that he was in one, probably because we boarded through a tunnel, not seeing the outside of the plane. It does not look the same from the inside.

As for myself, I was in another state, another place of mind. While I was enjoying the novelty of my first trip home in nine years, I was not thinking of myself or my interests and desires at all, only of the wife and child that I had to care for. I would be responsible for navigating and translating the whole time, and I had to get my mind in order.

I like to watch people, though. The business flyers carried on with their newspapers, and it was fun to catch the flight attendant reading the front page of the man in the first row... a glimpse of the human behind the uniform. I am always pleased to find these moments, to peek through the role at the person playing it: the extra dab of foundation to cover a pimple, the note written on a backhand or thumb, the fashion magazine clipping sticking out of a uniform pocket.

The fashion magazine clipping was a fun discovery. I was on a business trip to Fukuoka a long time ago, looking at Epson printers at the showroom there. The woman attending to me was perfectly ordered and polite, extremely businesslike. I was impressed at the time, because this was the big city of Fukuoka, and she was perfect - conservatively beautiful and poised, never stuttering, never pausing from her perfect speech rhythm and polite Japanese. But then I noticed a face sticking out of the pocket of her uniform. I made a joke about it being a lucky charm or photographic proof of ghosts. It turns out that she was considering making this her next hairstyle for her sister's wedding the next weekend. It was a wonderful moment, as she blushed and suddenly became a person, not a function. Her tone changed, and her polite Japanese become a little warmer, her movements a little more casual. A few levels of politeness fell away like someone peeling back layer after layer of lace curtains.

The flight attendant on the Japanese domestic flights were like that, too. They are completely immersed in their role, and finding that person behind the role, the human being performing a function, is very difficult. Catching a flight attendant reading a passenger's newspaper made me feel somehow privileged.

These moments remind us that people performing these functions are just that, performing. We call them occupations because they occupy our time. The actions and functions inhabit our days, hours, our entire lives. But we also "occupy" a job or position in the same way that we occupy space or a home. We learn the content of that position and fill that space. The flight attendant occupies her rear-facing chair, her perfect make-up and poise presented to the passengers as a human interface to the airline itself. Not even the most traditional old-world gentleman would offer to help her serve apple juice and chilled green tea, because she occupies that role. She has filled the position, and the position is full of her.

Besides, we are too busy being passengers. One of us may be an engineer reviewing Mitsubishi mechanical notes, another a restaurant franchise district manager preparing for an orientation, another a high school boy deciding how he will present himself, and there I was being a young father and inexperienced traveler who had no idea of what he should do when.

The transition from All Nippon Airlines to United was a culture shock. ANA flight attendants are like precision instruments: even if the attendant is not young and beautiful, she (always she) is perfect and poised in her role, with no self-consciousness about performing a job. In Japan, even young hooligans with pierced noses and dyed blue hair are perfectly-mannered when on duty at the fast-food shop or pub. The individual never interferes with the role. No matter where you go in Japan, clerks, waitresses, and attendants are their roles, and little evidence of their individuality is visible when they are on duty. The Japanese do not seem to have the same embarrassment about being absorbed by a role or job.

The United flight attendants, unlike the All Japan stewardesses, were male and female, and they were older than the All Japan stewardesses... much older. They were stately, round, and mellow, and their approach to the job was not one of filling a role and becoming the job. They were doing the job, and they were doing it well, but they were bringing their own style to it, making each attendant different, with a distinct character. Each one of them brought a part of him- or herself to the job. and each colored the job itself rather than blending in, chameleon-like, to the color of the job. One matronly attendant had a broad Massachusetts accent and gave passengers suggestions like she was giving advice on good living. Another was a precise older man with a mid-Western accent, and his style was matter-of-fact and clean. In this paradigm, you are doing the job because you have chosen to do so.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Overheard

Our NTT landline phone almost never rings. We use our cell phones for everything, so a landline call means something out of the ordinary has happened. My wife answered the phone, and I heard her say "Yes?" and look for me. Something was up.

It was my mother. My stepfather had died only 10 minutes ago. He had been unconscious for a week before that, "So it's not like it was a surprise." She would call me when she had more information, but what more information could there be?

After she hung up, I checked Skype. Mom had been trying to get me on Skype and had left me a voice recording. "It's your mother. Call me when get this," and then there was a rustling and a thump, and then her voice was farther away, muffled. There was a rhythmic, repetitive whining and hissing, like the beginning of a techno track. I could hear her in the background, "I knew I wouldn't be able to reach him. He must be at work or something. He lives in Okinawa Japan, so he's in the middle of the Pacific. Might be something with the connection." And then a man's voice, very close, grunting in agreement, and then another man's voice, farther away, near Mom. The close grunting continued, out of sync with Mom's voice. I recognized him. It was my stepfather, unconscious. Mom had left Skype recording and dropped the iPad onto the bed. I looked at the screen. The message was 10 minutes long, the limit for Skype.

I almost stopped the playback. No one intended for me to hear the rest, but I continued to listen like a morbid voyeur, eavesdropping on him. Mediated by technology and shifted in time, I was lying next to a dying man, and I could hear him groaning and mumbling like a sleep-talker. His verbalizations were a strange, rhythmic commentary to the conversations in the background.

The man talking to Mom had a deep voice and a Louisiana accent - probably my step-brother. I haven't seen him for twenty years, so I don't know his voice, but that was probably him, behind the air pumps and the sudden gasps. Mom continued, "It sounds like he's tryin' to wake up, but I don't think he's in pain. We gave him so much morphine."

Then there was a woman's voice, and that of a child, a girl. It must be the daughter of my step-sister. They had come to see grandpa. "I never saw him hit his children, or mine, either. He didn't throw chairs or punch holes in walls, never hit a child, or me. More than I can say for a lotta men." Then the rising tone and languid pace of a child's timid questioning, and Mom replies, "Gotta let him rest, honey. Gotta let him rest." More inaudible, distant talking, and then, "No, he wasn't angry at you all that time. He was just hurtin'."

I have never seen or heard my mother cry or break down, though I am sure she must have at some point. I was waiting to hear her choke up, to weaken. I thought I would hear her voice drop as she started to cry, but no. Not in the recording, at least. She was as she had always been - deadpan, matter-of-fact, and unsentimental... resolved. "There's some bad people in this world, and sometimes bad shit happens, but you gotta just keep on keepin' on." That was her outlook on life. Life is hard, and perseverance and dignity in the face of misfortune is the measure of a person's virtue.

At some point, I could only hear distant thuds, and then the voices went away. I was left alone with him, just the two of us. I could imagine him there, inert but for the movement of his chest and throat, and next to him, I am craning my ear close to the PC speaker, listening intently. In that moment, we are in his time, and I am a ghost, eavesdropping from just a few hours in the future, when he no longer will be. I listen with a mixture of shame and duty, like a time-shifted priest or an archeologist, until the recording ends, and he is silent.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hihachi Never Again

This is Ms. Shouko Toma. She raises vegetables and plants and sells them at Onna No Eki. She is delightful and friendly.

There are many small farmers like Ms. Toma who sell their plant products at Onna No Eki, and I really enjoy asking them things like, "What on earth IS this, and how do I eat it?"

That is exactly what I did with the red seed pods she is holding in her hand. They are called "hihachi", and she told me to throw them in some broth with meat and veggies. I asked her if I can eat them as-is or if I have to cut off the little stems, and she said no, but she did say, "They are a little spicy." I was very intrigued, and being a native of Louisiana, I am no stranger to spicy.

So I also bought some unusual leafy vegetables that I had been curious about. This is つるむらさき or Malabar Spinach. The leaves are thick and fragrant. It has "character" and a lot of nutrients. Probably anti-oxidants, too.
I also bought this. It is シビラン, also known as African Spinach, according to Google. It is also very fragrant.

The next step was to get 鶏ガラ (chicken bones) from the supermarket, make a broth, and then chill it overnight to remove the fat. I kept the heat low and ended up with a near-ideal clear chicken broth. No fogginess at all.

So I heated my broth and then added garlic, onions, and minced chicken that I found in the freezer. It was a nice broth, rich but subtle. I carefully added salt to get it just right and then cut my Malabar and African spinach and washed my Hihachi. I was ready.

In went the Hihachi, then the exotic greens. I didn't want to overcook the leaves, but I was distracted by by a strange smell coming from somewhere. It smelled like old incense and forgotten shame, like wood shavings in a poorly-written, under-researched short story. I assumed that my kids has spilled something, and then I realized it was my soup.

So here is the result - chicken and hihachi soup with African and Malabar spinach... 

and it had a great deal of character, so much, in fact, that I had to throw it out.
I also had to run the kitchen exhaust fan all night. And apologize to the wife. And cook up some gyouza to make up for the lack of a main dish. Still, it was fun, and we had a great laugh.

The "little spicy" of which I was warned should have been more like, "These red seed pods are dried and ground for use as a substitute for pepper." Eating the actual hihachi is not recommended... at all. I ate one. That was enough.

Another problem was that I couldn't get the smell off my hands. They smelled like poorly-conceived fiction or expired wood polish. I think it was a combination of the fragrant greens and the hihachi, a failed experiment.

And yet, I will return to Onna No Eki and thank Ms. Toma for my adventure, and I will buy other things from her if I have the chance. I should have been more conservative and researched before jumping in the soup pot. The fault was all mine, but still, it was a very fun failure.

That being said, no more Hihachi. Never again.