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


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.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Quest for Kunpen, Part 3: Shuri Kunpen

This is the third and final post in the series "Quest for Kunpen". Please start with the first post "Quest for Kunpen, Part 1 - Why?" to understand the what and why of the project.

I came to know of these last three kunpen through gifts and recommendations from people who heard about my project. All three are from specialty stores in the Shuri area of Naha, near the very famous Shuri Castle that was the home of the ancient Ryukyuu kingdom.

I decided to buy all of them in one trip to Shuri after bringing my family to the airport for a trip to the grandparents. I wanted to get these three makes of kunpen together and really think deeply about the kunpen - a process I will call "kunpenplation" (registered copyright).

座波菓子店 Zaha Kashiten
住所 沖縄県那覇市首里石嶺町3-6-1

The first time I had Zaha kunpen was on the way home from a trip to Naha with my family. A coworker recommended Zaha Kashiten for kunpen, so I had already registered the address in Google Maps. I was in Naha, and it was late in the evening. I was not sure if the shop would be open, so I called. A woman answered. When I explained that I had driven from Onna and wanted kunpen, she told me that she would open the store for me. As I pulled into the parking space, the shutter slowly rose and a few lights went on. She went about her business while I filled a basket with 40 kunpen to share with people at work. I asked her if she was the owner, and she said she was the mother of the current president, who is the "san-dai-me" or third generation to run the store.
The second time I visited the store, I met her son, who was just as natural and friendly as his mother.
Zaha Sandaime
Now on to the kunpen.
Zaha Kunpen
The gawa is like a soft cookie, very mildly sweet and comforting. The filling is about equal in proportion to the bun and smells strongly of peanut butter. No sesame here. The texture of the filling is pasty, with just a hint of sandy sugar. All in all, the Zaha kunpen is comforting, soft, and subtle, a delightful and simple treat with milk.

新垣カミ菓子店 Arakaki Kami Kashiten
沖縄県那覇市首里 赤平町1-3-2

Having read about Arakaki Kami on the internet, I decided to visit the "honpo" or original store in Shuri. It is not a drive for the faint of heart or those who lack a car navigation system. You go through narrow, winding roads and then turn off into a two-way street that at first glance might be mistaken for a footpath,  barely affording space for even one car to pass. You coast downhill past homes and old buildings until you see the shop, which is pretty easy to miss.
Arakaki-Kami HQ
It looks like a early- or mid-Showa storefront, with a hand-painted sign, no electric banners, and only a tiny space for customers to stand before the very old glass cases. The sliding door is reluctant and squeaky, and the aluminum and glass of the storefront seems decades away from the plate glass and faux-adobe of modern flashy Okinawan tourist traps.
Half of the Sixth Generation of Arakaki-Kami and the mother of the Seventh Generation or Nanadaime
Again, the woman behind the counter was the mother of the current president, but in this case, the current president is the "nana-dai-me" or seventh generation to run the store. This family has been making traditional Ryukyuu sweets for seven generations, forgoing fads like strawberry shortcake, soft "nama" chocolate, and the more recent goya jelly to continue making only makes fives kinds of traditional Ryukyuu ceremonial sweets. And kunpen is one of them.
Arakaki-Kami Kunpen
The kunpen looks different from others, but the flavor differs even more. There is a crack on the side of each kunpen, and they are more irregular than others. The gawa smells and tastes like a good egg cookie - wholesome, simple, only slightly sweet. Very sincere, the gawa is just sweet enough. There is very, very little filling, and like many historical, traditional sweets, it is not very sweet at all. We have come to expect the super-sweetness of modern confections, mass-produced in an age of abundant, cheap corn syrup, but this filling contains both peanut butter and sesame and has that crystalline crunchiness that you find in middle-eastern sesame sweets.

The sweetness of the kunpen comes from the bun. At first impression, there seems too little filling for size of the bun, but when you taste it, you realize that any more of this filling would be overwhelming. It really is something to experience. The filling is more smoky than sweet, with a really intense sesame flavor that fills the mouth and shoots from the nose, exploding in the short moment when you hit it. The rest of the time, you are contentedly chewing through the mild bun in high-carb bliss.

Any kunpen is a bit dry without a beverage, but with a cup of straight tea - assam in my case - this kunpen was flowery, fragrant, and wonderful.

Sweets like this heighten the senses with subtle flavors and mild sweetness, letting the ingredients shine through, unlike the bludgeoning effect of some more modern creations, most of which are advertised by smug-yet-inclusive voice-overs saying, "Treat your family to the new Cro-Magnon butter-scotch and fudge brownie three-scoop ice cream sundae at Fatty Fridays. Come on a weekday and get a coupon for free dialysis with every order."

知念製菓 Chinen Seika

This was the last stop on my kunpen parade through Shuri. The store is small but new, right on the main tourist street, and behind the counter was none other than the "ni-dai-me" or second-generation president, the father of the "san-dai-me" or third generation who currently heads the company.
Chinen Nidaime
The Nidaime was wily and challenging when I asked him about kunpen. He made it clear that Shuri is the place to find real kunpen and that Chinen was very popular. I asked him about other traditional sweets, and he said that when he is asked for authentic chinsuko (a kind of Okinawan shortbread), he sends people to Arakaki-Kami, but he isn't budging on the quality of his kunpen or the new mainland Japanese sweets being introduced by his son, the Sandaime. It turns out that the new young president studied Wagashi (mainland Japanese sweets) on Honshu and is introducing new items like Yabure-manju to raise the profile of Chinen even further.
Chinen Kunpen
Now back to the Chinen kunpen. Chinen kunpen are for people who love nuts. When you open the bag, you get a wonderful puff of peanut fragrance. When you cut one in half, you can see the whole sesame mixed into the filling. The bun is chewier than most others and a little sweeter than the more traditional Arakaki-Kami kunpen. With this kunpen, the filling is the star by far. First of all, there is a lot of filling in each kunpen. And then there is the texture - you can feel the individual sesame seeds, and biting down on them changes the flavor has you chew. The filling also has that crystalline crunchiness you get in middle eastern sesame sweets, and the fragrance and flavor of the peanut butter is terrific. This is very strong, flashy, bold kunpen - sweeter and stronger than Zaha or Arakaki-Kami. The flavor holds its own with pretty much any beverage. I had this with a homemade cafe-au-lait and did not regret it one little bit.

And so I conclude my Quest for Kunpen. I very much enjoyed going in deep on this easily-overlooked part of Okinawan cuisine. I hope you try it for yourself.

This is the third of four installments:

Quest for Kunpen, Part 2: Department Store Kunpen

This is the second part of a three-part series. Please read the first part of the series - Why? to get an idea of what Kunpen is and why I am doing this set of reviews.

I started my kunpen reviews by just buying whatever kunpen I could find at grocery stores, department stores, shops in tourist areas, and wherever else I came across them. Most of these easily-found kunpen turned out to be unexceptional… except for two: Miyagi and Sakumoto Mochiten.

御菓子御殿 Okashi Goten

Okashi-goten Kunpen

This Okinawan landmark is known for its purple potato tarts, but it also offers two kinds of kunpen - large and small. The large konpen is more about the gawa or bun, which is soft but flavorful, not too sweet, with a whole-grain flavor. The filling is unexceptional.

The smaller Okashi Goten konpen, which has a different package, has the same soft gawa, but the filling has more sesame flavor and is gentle and not too sweet.

サニー食品 Sunny Shokuhin

Quite hard and dry bun, with harder filling, too. The filling is a little crunchy and much sweeter than the Okashi Goten. However, other than sweet, there is not much flavor or character here. So uninspiring that I forgot to take a photo.

株式会社誠もち店 Makoto Mochiten - Beni-Imo Kunpen

Makoto Mochiten Beni-imo Kunpen
The "Beni-imo Kunpen" has a very small amount of filling for the size of the bun. No nutty smell at all, which makes sense because it does not contain sesame or peanuts. It contains purple sweet potato, and this brings up the question of whether it is kunpen or not. The whole reason I am trying all these kunpen is to find something nutty and delicious. This is not kunpen. That having been said, the bun is chewy and sweet, quite nice. And the beni-imo filling is not bad. But again, it ain't kunpen, people! Having purple potato kunpen is like having a plate of steaming non-dairy, sugarless, eggless liver and onions ice cream. It might taste good, but it ain't ice cream. It's liver with onions, dammit! I think I have made my point and will move on now.

株式会社誠もち店 Makoto Mochiten - Kokuto Kunpen

Makoto Mochiten Kokuto Kunpen
The "Kokuto Kunpen" contains sesame but no peanuts. The smell is more malty than nutty. The bun is nice, enhanced by the complex flavor of "kokutou" or Okinawan raw sugar. However, the filling is small and forgettable.

吉兆 Kichimomo

Kichimomo Kunpen
Good peanut smell, but both filling and bun have the same texture and moistness, or rather lack thereof. This one somehow seems not quite cooked. It is too blonde and dull, with no edge - a pasty milksop of a kunpen. Go home to your mamma, wimpy kunpen. You are too weak for the mean streets of my teeth.

大福製菓 Daifuku Seika

Daifuku Seika Kunpen
Only five ingredients, with no unpronounceable chemical ones and no sesame at all. Decidedly peanut-rich smell, and the shape and placement of the filling suggests that it is hand-made or at least made with minimal automation. The bun is soft and cookie-like, but not pasty. Flavor is slightly sweet, making for a wholesome, filling, and inexpensive kunpen - very simple and honest.

南風堂株式会社 Nanpudo

Nanpudo Kunpen
Highest filling-to-bun ratio so far. Nutty fragrance that shows good balance between peanuts and sesame. Bun is soft and flaky, not cookie-light but crumbly and slightly chewy. Comforting and mild, it would make a suitable post-heartbreak snack.

マルキヨ製菓 Marukiyo Seika

Marukiyo Kunpen
No strong fragrance. Shiro-an, peanut butter, sesame. Bun is medium hardness with little chewiness. Filling is like bland white bean paste. The sesame flavor is stronger than the peanut flavor, but neither stand out. Average.

大城製菓 Oshiro Seika

Oshiro Kunpen
Big thick filling with slightly sweet, indifferent bun. Not much to like. Very little moisture. Very little character.

株式会社くしけんSS Gushiken SS

Gushiken Kunpen
Impressive appearance. Whole white and black sesame in the filling. Very strong sesame flavor, with good peanut flavor, too. The bun is pretty average, but on the whole, comfortingly mild.

佐和田 Sawada

Sawada Kunpen
The package seems to be a generic wrapper used by several kunpen makers. The flavor is similar, too. This is a good example of what some Okinawans told me they don't like about kunpen - a base of slightly dry anko bean paste mixed with sesame peanut butter in an unexceptional, flavorless bun. That being said, the filling is dry but tasty, with visible bits of peanut in it, so be sure to have a good beverage. Okay with tea or milk.

みやぎ菓子店 Miyagi Kashiten

Miyagi Kunpen from Ishigaki Island
I found this one mixed in with the cheap sweet breads at the Sun-A Gushikawa Main City department store, but it is anything but just another kunpen. Strong peanut fragrance. Thin bun with lots of filling. The bun is very subtle, harder than others but not cookie-like, with a hearty wheat flavor. The filling is crunchy, rich in peanut yumminess. This is good kunpen, with a nice balance of peanut and sesame. The filling has that crystalline sesame sandiness you find in some middle-eastern sweets, and it is just sweet enough. This is very good kunpen.

佐久本もち店 Sakumoto Mochiten Konpen

Sakumoto Kunpen
The other department store surprise, this kunpen has a nice, nutty fragrance and a moist bun which is like a soft cookie. The filling is like a thin ribbon, but with nice sesame and peanut chunks in it. I was very surprised by this unassuming package and the really yummy bun. The filling was a nice accent to this tasty cookie. Surprisingly good kunpen, and very similar to the Arakaki Kami kunpen. After the Sakumoto kunpen, you won't want to go back to the white characterless bean-paste type.

Go on to the third part of the series - Shuri Kunpen.

This is the second of four installments:

Quest for Kunpen, Part 1: Why

I had just arrived in Okinawa, and I was looking through some local sweets and asking the store clerk about them, "What is this Kunpen… is it like a manju?" "Kind of," she replied, "but it has peanut butter in it." I was hooked. Having lived in Japan for 18 years, a lot of me has "gone native", but I am still hopelessly addicted to peanut butter, and the prospect of a peanut-butter-rich dessert was too good to ignore.

Kunpen, also known as Konpen or Kunpin, is an Okinawan "o-sonai-mono" or offering - special foods that are placed on a family shrine as an offering to one's ancestors. During the summer observance of Okinawa's "shiimii", which is analogous to mainland Japan's "o-bon", families gather to catch up, play with cousins, and tell thread-bare stories of shared embarrassments. The express purpose of the holiday is to pay respects to deceased family members, but it is really a way to reinforce family ties. In mainland Japan, family members gather at the home of the current head of the family, and they determine that by a combination of familial arithmetic plus tweaking for circumstance and convenience. In Okinawa, families gather to picnic at the main family tomb, and kunpen is usually a part of the meal.

One Okinawan co-worker told me that he did not like kunpen when he was younger, but as he ages, the "soboku" or plain, simple character becomes more and more pleasing. A younger Okinawan co-worker told me that for her kunpen is comfort-food - mild, familiar, and trustworthy; when she feels down or anxious, she goes to Zaha for a kunpen (see the review below), and things just seem better.

The dependability and honesty of the unchanging, unassuming kunpen became the focus of my interest. The Japanese snack food industry is aggressive about innovation and variety, turning out new flavors and gimmicks so fast that many consumers never get a chance to try a new flavor before it disappears. And the need for variety results in some pretty wild products. A few years ago, I remember feeling ill after washing down a bag of Kalbi Wasabi Beef Potato Chips with a Cucumber Sprite, but that was still better than when I tried a Cherry-Blossom Kit-Kat with a can of Nestle Sparkling Cafe - cold, sweet, carbonated black coffee. In Japan, crazy and creative snacks, gum, candy, and drinks are debuted and withdrawn all the time, but amidst it all, traditional sweets like the kunpen stay the same. They are the rocks in the tide, the bass and drums in the jazz jam, and that is why I decided to do a selfish and subjective review of as many kunpen as I could find.

Kunpen look like large, fat cookies or baked versions of Chinese steamed dim-sum buns. They consist of a bready or cookie-like "gawa" (skin) or bun and sweetened peanut butter, sesame and/or bean paste "goo" or filling in the center.

This is the first of four installments:

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sansui Coffee Review

For the past few months, I had been buying coffee beans from the Starbucks in Okinawa City, but since that means a 30-minute drive from where I live, I decided to local shops that roast their own. I live in Onna, so no matter where I buy them, I will have to drive a while to get there. Of the shops I found, one is here in Onna - Sansui Coffee in Yamada.
The shop is off of Route 6 in Yamada, but it is really easy to miss. Use your car navigation system or a smart phone.

Like other local roasters, they have a display of green coffee beans arranged near the entrance, but behind them are the bulk roasters visible behind a window. They only do large batches, but they roast almost daily, so no matter when you visit, there should be something fresh and waiting. 
Though Sansui has other shops and is sold here all over Okinawa, this is the headquarters where they roast the beans. The owner is a generous and friendly native of Okinawa who has been roasting coffee for over 20 years. She helped me choose by offering single bean samples to crunch and taste. I took a Kilimanjaro dark roast that the owner said had been done just that day. The beans were still warm.
The moment I got home, I ground the beans and tried it out. At 1.5 minutes in a French press, it was crisp and dark… clean with good body. At 3 minutes in the press it was thick and heavy, almost overwhelming, but not sour or overly bitter.

This coffee is more than worth a trip to Yamada and navigating the narrow road and tiny parking lot. Good people, good coffee, and the price per gram for most of their coffee is the same or less than I was paying at Starbucks, so consider this a guilt-free luxury. Another good thing about Sansui is that their member' s point cards do not expire, so you can slowly build up points to get free coffee.

Sansui Coffee
239 Yamada, Onna-son, Okinawa 904-0416

サンスイ珈琲 会社概要
〒904-0416 沖縄県恩納村山田239(本社・焙煎工場)

Good Company Coffee Roasters Review

Intrigued by blog posts about locally-roasted coffee and people who roast their own beans at home, I searched the internet for nearby coffee roasters. I found a place called Good Company in Uruma City, but only by the grace of Google Maps on a smart phone. The building looks like a cottage retreat. 
Near the door was an arrangement of barrels and burlap sacks full of green coffee beans, each labeled with country of origin and price per 200 grams. Good Company is a roast-to-order coffee bean shop where you select the beans (they're actually seeds), and they roast them while you wait. 
Junko and Masaki Nakamoto have been doing this for the past 17 years. While bulk roasting with large ovens in the back of the store are probably more profitable, this single-order roasting keeps people coming back.
It is both experiment and performance art, because while you go home with any bean variety roasted any way you like, you also get to watch the owners heat, toss, cool, and clean the beans for you while enjoying a complimentary cup of coffee and a chat.
An added bonus is seeing their roasting equipment, which looks like the love child of a smithy and a steam punk barbecue grill.
I picked a Dark City Roast of their Special Blend, and it really was very nice - fresh and fruity, yet dark and smooth, with no sourness.

Good Company Coffee Roasters
1943-1 Taba, Uruma City, Okinawa Prefecture
Japan 904-2213

〒904-2213 沖縄県うるま市田場1943-1