Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Mr. Yamada’s Bento

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

I moved to Japan in January 1978. In June 78, I went to Thailand and Sumontha, my long time sweetie-pie and I got hitched. She followed me to Japan in July.  I believe when you are somewhere, you learn about the flora, fauna and humana of the area.  Japan was no different.  I also need to exercise my selling gene, so, I really worked on my jewelry making and stone cutting while I was in Japan.  This resulted in some very nice contacts within the local community. There was an old man and his wife, the Ishimoto’ who did the same sort of thing we did.  Artists who work in the same mediums express themselves differently. Even though we competed for the same general market, we really augmented one another giving people interested in jewelry a couple targets to visit.  Another good relationship was with Mr. Yamada, an antique dealer.  I bought a small piece here and there while we were there.  There were other contacts who plied the military post bazaars with whom we socialized and visited.  Through my contacts on the base and church activities, we enjoyed expanding our cultural knowledge and experience.  Torinaka the chicken farmer from whom I purchased chicken manure by the delivered 5 yard truck load (for 25 dollars!) was one.

Over the next year and a half, we became familiar with many things Japanese including lots of different Japanese foods.  For Sumontha and I, Japanese food was generally bland, but we learned to eat many things out of politeness.  Into this category were most kinds of sushi.  Now, it was not our dislike for fish that played here, it was our liking for COOKED fish. Many centuries ago, the Japanese had a very bad balance of trade payments problem.  Then, as now, they had to reduce the amount of oil they imported. The huge amount of cooking oil necessary to feed a growing and hungry population was a significant cause in the imbalance.  Under the 5th Tokugawa Shoganate, an edict was promulgated directing the population to figure out how to eat raw foods.  (No doubt the ancestors of today’s climate change scientists got their start in population control with statements of settled science extolling the virtues of raw food.)

Over several decades many attempts were made to change the cooking habits of the Japanese population. Unfortunately, pork, beef, chicken and other real foods just did not make it raw. Fish on the other hand, if not delicious, were at least chewable.  So over time, the population gradually reduced the amount of tasty foods they ate until it was just the few stubborn who continued to consume these foods.  The refusal to change their eating habits lead to their isolation from the rest of the population and the derisive term  “Eters” being applied.  Meanwhile, the rest of the population gradually morphed into the sushi eaters they are today and were 30 years ago when we were there.  I have to say, they really worked at making sushi palatable by mixing in different sauces, seasoning, horseradish, seaweed and rice.  In the end, you still had to deal with raw fish, cold, clammy, bloody in many cases, raw fish.  We prevailed!  No cultural incidents!  No strained international relations! No hurt feelings.  I will say, the dearth of great food lead to other avenues of entertainment.  Halfway through our sojourn, my wife announced the pending 33 percent expansion of our family.  That was great news!

So, finally our time was drawing to an end. A month before we left, we went out to visit with Mr. Yamada, the antique dealer.  I had about 1500 dollars I wanted to invest in Japanese antiques before leaving.  So, after a couple hours of picking through everything, we had it all laid out.  The 100 year old porcelain with blue and white urinal with matching squat toilet; several sets of very nice painted porcelain bowls and plates, a couple nice wood block prints about 100 years old, one of which, I still have.  A very nice picture of Japanese Ladies in their beautiful kimonos enjoying Ueno zoo in Tokyo.  There were many things long since sold and forgotten, but, the great time visiting, bargaining and laughing and joking still remain sweet.  Finally, the day was done, the business was finished and it was time to go.

Mr. Yamada insisted we stay for supper.  He called up his favorite sushi-ya and ordered food for us all. I know we were honored because what came was obviously expensive stuff.  Expensive and good are not always synonymous. He had ordered quite a bit of the ten kinds of fish sushi bentos.  This was a box about six or seven inches square.  The box was beautifully lacquered with very pretty designs on it.  The chopsticks likewise were delicate and nice.  The bottom half of the box was filled with rice, delicious, steamy hot white rice. The top half was filled with expertly sliced fillets of ten different kinds of fish.  I no longer recall which fish–tuna, porpoise, white meat fish, probably eel, maybe whale, certainly a big spoonful of fish eggs and who knows what else.

Sumontha looked at it and said, I am a day short of nine months pregnant, I can not eat raw fish and happily began working on some nice miso soup. Feeling honored, and even though I looked a little pregnant and had a share in my wife’s pregnancy, I knew there was no escape.  So, I gallantly worked me way through the rubbery inch and a half by seven inches square thanking my (truly) generous host all the time.  Finally! Salvation! Pure sweet rice. I was so happy.  As I finished, my kind host said, “Please” and handed me my darling’s uneaten bento!

Thanks for spending a few minutes with me as I remembered a very happy time in my life, 1978-early 1981.  From time to time, I will try to add another note or two. Many of the names are long forgotten, but, the faces are still clear in my mind. The wonderful shared experiences likewise make me smile as I write this.  Bear with me as I occasionally make things up (cooking oil shortage for example) and enjoy.

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