Thursday, October 21, 2010

Already I Miss This Place

Only seven days and then a travel day until I return to Arizona. The routine I'm living here has grown on me so it's kind of an umami amai (savory sweet) kind of feeling. The thing that is depressing right now is scheduling those things I want to do before I leave. Not that the timing is difficult but that I'm doing it with an end in sight.

One small example is the bag of rice I have in my kitchen. I keep trying to figure out if I will be eating in the apartment enough nights to finish the bag. It's the fourth 1 Kg bag I've gone through since I got here and I don't want to waste any of it. I also worry that I'll finish it too soon and then I'll have to cook noodles or go out to eat. Most of the meals I've cooked have been stir fried vegetables with fish in a sauce eaten over rich. I haven't grown tired of eating that at all.

During the day I eat a lot of fruit because it's been so good here. It has been one of the surprises of the trip and one I wouldn't have predicted. The kiwi fruit is extremely tasty. I bought a bag of about eight pieces the other night for about $4 US. I cut them in half and scoop their green translucent flesh out with a spoon standing over the sink because they are so juicy. The other fruit that has been on the shelves a lot lately is the Mikan, the Japanese name for what we called Japanese Oranges when we were kids, now often called Mandarin Oranges.

They are small, easy to peel, have no seeds, are sweet and used to show up in our house around Christmas. My mother would buy a box of them and we'd keep them out in the porch area at the back door to keep them cool. They were individually wrapped in a piece of orange paper and we would strip the paper off and put it back in the box rather than carry it in and put it in the garbage. As time went by and you went to get an orange you had to feel around through all the papers and you didn't know how many oranges were left. Your heart would sink as you reached around through the paper expecting to feel the weigh of an orange and only hearing the rustle of orange papers. You'd go into all four corners and then criss-cross through the middle while you began to panic at the thought of not getting to eat that sweet deliciousness and then, plunk. You found one and it was all yours and when your older brother went to the box to get an orange later you knew he wasn't going to find one so this last orange was going to be the sweetest orange you ever ate. Well, all the oranges I've been eating here taste just like that last orange that my brother didn't get to eat.

If I'm not off meeting friends or sight seeing, in which case I would be doing a lot of walking, I take an exercise walk through the neighborhood around 5:00. I walk for about a half hour and I move at a pretty good pace. I like the 5:00 time because there's usually some activity out on the streets and it hasn't gotten dark yet.

I used to walk to the nearby park. It takes about five minutes to get there and then I follow different paths to see the various parts of the area. After a while I'd seen it all so I began to stay out on the streets, going in different directions. I've written about the difficulty of walking the streets when there is a lot bicycle traffic so I started ducking into the narrow neighborhood streets and found that the bicycle traffic was significantly reduced.

I had wanted to explore the neighborhood to see what kind of housing the Japanese people lived in so this was a good way to see it. There are of course many apartment buildings and they are big blocks of concrete with stairwells and doors. The apartments are very small in most cases so there are a good number of apartments in each building. They do not have an abundance of parking space for cars and most buildings are surrounded by bicycles. As I wrote in an earlier post, Mitaka has a very high number of bicycle parking spots near the station. It is a town where bikes are king.

Most of the buildings in the area are single family dwellings. They are certainly different from the districts in Phoenix where there has always been a lot of land and not too many people. In Japan you have the polar opposite situation. The plots of land are small. There is usually no yard or garden. If there is then the space is usually used for parking a car. If there is space for a garden it is usually well kept with nice ornamental trees and some small boulders. Occasionally you will find a much older house with a larger area of garden but these are few and were built many years ago.

The older buildings have dark brown wooden sidings and wooden posts for support beams. The back of these houses are long and have wooden verandas running the full length of the house looking out onto the garden and they are usually one story buildings.

The newer buildings are small but usually have two or three floors. Obviously once you've bought the land building up is less expensive that building out. Most of the buildings have Japanese styling elements with upturned corners on the roofs and most have the rounded dark ceramic tiles on the roofs with decorative endcaps.

Not all of the buildings are on the street either. I mentioned the house next to my apartment that is surrounded by buildings on all sides just like my apartment building is. To get to it you have to walk the same narrow pathway off the street to get in behind the surrounding buildings. This is true out in the district as well. Houses will be lined up with access down a four foot wide path.

There are some very large houses on some of the streets. Some are older Japanese style houses; others are newly build Japanese style houses while still others are very modernistic in style. It has been very interesting to see where the people actually live.

One of the surprising but welcome benefits of going for a walk at around 5:00 is that there is something cooking in most of the kitchens I walk by. The smells are delicious and quite varied. Grilled fish that's been basted in a savory sauce (some of which has hit the grill and created an additional tasty aroma), curry (very popular in Japan), stews and grilled vegetables. Generally I take this all in before I've eaten so I'm a little crazy and impatient for food when I'm done and I still have to go shopping.

I dress in a workout shirt and workout shorts to take my walk and I always put a few coins in my pocket to buy some beer and a rice ball for a snack at the 7Eleven. As I walk along taking in the delicious aromas I'm reminded of the old fable of the eel that lived next door to the unagi (grilled fresh water eel) restaurant. He would never go eat at the restaurant but he loved the wonderful smell. Well, each time I smelled something that made my stomach growl, a delicious meal's scents wafting out of a kitchen operated by someone who knows how to cook delicious smelling food, I did what the eel did, I rattled the change in my pocket to pay with the sound of the my coins for the smell of the food.

My longest term friend here in Japan knows what I mean. I mentioned in a previous blog post that he wasn't a fan of unagi but the smell of it grilling coming out from the restaurants when we visited Kawagoe made it impossible for him to resist. I think he's glad he didn't.

I have to start making some last rounds to some favorite places so last night I went to eat at one of the izakayas I've gone to a number of times. I wanted to say goodbye and let them know I wouldn't be coming by for a long time. They serve yakitori that includes a number of internal organs cooked tender and sprinkled with salt. I had five various sticks and a bowl of some type of innards soup that I had eaten there before. It is a tasty hearty soup and now that it has cooled down somewhat it was good to eat a thick soup. This place servers Kirin beer on tap and I found it to be the coldest and tastiest tap beer in all the places I went to during the last three months and I told them so.

They said good bye and gave me a souvenir sake drinking box and I went out to walk in the Harmonica streets of Kichijoji. I had made it out the door and down the block when I remembered that I had forgotten my umbrella. I turned to go back then stopped myself. I was leaving soon and I wouldn't be taking the umbrella with me. I'd found it on the train so I decided to practise the catch-and-release policy of Japanese umbrellas and I let it go.

At the Harmonica streets there is a small Chinese dumpling food stand at the end of one of them right across from the train station. I had wanted to try them and I felt I could still eat a little so I went and bought a package of four.

These dumplings are the Shanghai soup dumplings. The dumpling is stuffed with soup that has been jellied so that when cold it is solid when you wrap it in the dumpling. In this case there was also a ground pork meatball inside. They are the size of a billiard ball and after steaming are very hot. To eat them you pick them up and bite a small hole in the dumpling dough to let the steam out and to cool the now liquid soup inside. It is a clear red soup and you slurp out its goodness being careful not to singe your tongue. Full meaty flavor is your reward. Then the tasty meatball and the tender dumpling, both saturated with the satisfying flavor of the pork broth.

I walked about through the thin alleys filled with many small bars. People sat on chairs that partially blocked the alleys drinking beer and eating from small dishes. I stepped into one alley and there was another non-Japanese person standing there. I nodded and said hello and went to pass by. I came to Japan to meet Japanese people and to speak Japanese but I'm not adverse to meeting people from other countries. Quite often they are non-Japanese and don't speak English so I have no method to communicate with them anyway.

This gentleman spoke English and returned my hello and asked where I was going. We began a conversation, introduced ourselves and then he introduced me to his friend, a very beautiful Japanese woman. He said she had never been to the Harmonica streets of Kichijoji so he was showing her around and then they were going to go to a stand-up bar to have a drink. They asked me to join them and I did.

He is an assistant professor at one of the many small universities in Tokyo and has been living in Japan for ten years. She was born in Tokyo and worked as an accountant. I told them of my interest in all things Japanese and that I was learning the language so they decided to test me and they tested me pretty good. They confirmed my own evaluation of my Japanese skills. I can speak it well enough to get my meaning across but I look dumbfounded when they speak Japanese back to me.

He was from New Zealand so no question about his English. She spoke very good English as well. They tried to keep it Japanese for me to practice but for clarification we used English. I asked how well he spoke Japanese when he arrived and he said not at all. He learned on the job and in bars where you learn a different Japanese than the language I'm learning from books and audio lessons. The books and tapes teach proper Japanese using perfect grammar but on the street there are many short cuts. I listen for certain key sounds when they speak to me but they don't use those sounds. They also have different endings when they conjugate their verbs. What a nice new difficulty to realize.

He gave me his email address and said to make contact the next day and we'd get out for a drink again before I leave. He's a nice guy and a good exercise for my Japanese Language learning. If I don't see him again before I leave I will certainly keep in touch and try to see him on my next visit. He's also only the second non-Japanese friend I've made in Japan. Making a new and interesting friend with just eight days to go before my departure also made me a little sad. I'm sure I would have learned a lot more about living in Japan if I'd met him earlier in the trip. Next time.

As usual, a reminder that if you are interested in finding out more about Japan check on my author page at my publisher's website,

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