Journey To Japan

Before going to Japan, our group was advised to buy omiyage (souvenirs) for our hosts to engage in Japan’s deep tradition of gift giving. As a New Orleanian, I felt that the best way to introduce my host family to New Orleans was through our food and culture. I bought them beignets, Zatarain’s jambalaya mix, various Zapps potato chips, Crystal hot sauce in lieu of the internationally known Tabasco, Abita Beer, red beans, as well as nice throwing beads, and a few Jazz CDs from our local artists. Once settled, I returned downstairs with these items and presented them to the family. They beamed and seemed equal parts excited and cautious about the prospect of consuming the goods (perhaps in part because customs did their best to smash the containers). Grandma Setsu, as I took to calling her, began prepare sencha tea as she usually did around dinner and Yutaka shared his evening Asahi Super Dry Black with me. Natsuko took the liberty of opening the “Voodoo” Zapp’s for the family to try. Meanwhile, I waited breathlessly as everyone took their first bites of the Zapp’s, anxious and hopeful that the chips suited their palette. It did! Before long, the kitchen was alive with laughter and spirited conversation as we discussed our cities, our cultures, and our lives. It’d be a family ritual that we’d practice every night over the course of the trip.

Sensing my fatigue, Yutaka kindly offered me the bath in their home before himself—which is a bigger deal than it might initially seem. Japanese culture is built on a system of rank and status that goes back thousands of years and under normal circumstances, the head of household, who may or may not always be the oldest, would bathe first. As a guest in the Suzuki home, I was allowed to take a bath first, which mean I’d have access to the cleanest and hottest water available for the night in the deep hot-tub or ofuro. Before getting into the ofuro however, one must clean oneself by showering thoroughly in order not to dirty the water for those coming after you. Using the detached shower (the tub and shower aren’t connected like they are in the U.S) I got clean and then melted into the waters of the ofuro after my day’s long journey.

After my bath, I returned to my room and cracked one of the windows which slid open after applying a little muscle.  I could make out Yutaka taking a drag on a cigarette in the backyard to the adjoining house where he and Natsuko resided, the crumbling red ash glowing brilliantly in the wet night air. The autumn breeze blew in gently and cooled the room quickly and everything was still and quiet. In the years preceding, I’d dreamed about being in Japan often, my brain projecting the amalgam of years of images and stories into something loosely based in second and third hand accounts of what Japan seemed like. Lying down and pulling the futon over me. I don’t remember what I dreamed about just like I don’t much remember falling asleep.  The one thing I knew for certain is when I woke up, I would be in Japan and finally, it would be real.


0600 JST.

I was wrested from my sleep by a sharp, piercing cry. Years of “hood trauma” and the resulting PTSD had made me into a light sleeper. Hearing the noise reverberate throughout the room, I sprang from the bed in full on disoriented “fight or flight” mode. In an irrational, brief moment of panic, I thought Grandma Setsu, who was an early riser according to the family, had somehow injured herself and was in writhing in pain in the room over. My body told me to “save Setsu!” but my mind urged a moment’s patience for there are no heroes in Japan—except maybe Ultraman and I’m no Ultraman. Listening to the cadence of the noise more closely, I concluded it was a crow, albeit an obnoxious one with its deep, resonant caw. Bewildered and annoyed, I cursed the crow under my breath and returned to sleep.

The next time I woke up, the crow had left but the house was no longer quiet. Slightly before my alarm, I heard the familiar muffled clank of pots and pans being moved, running water, and the gentle commotion of a family preparing to go about their day.  I got prepared briskly, knowing my day would be busy too. I grabbed my belongings and made my way downstairs to the kitchen where I found Natsuko preparing breakfast: miso soup, daikon salad, softly scrambled eggs, sliced ham, steamed rice, sencha tea, and the incomparable Okayama grapes. We greeted each other and Natsuko beckoned me to the table, where she made a plate for me. The amount of preparation had taken me by surprise because I hadn’t considered how I was going to eat in the morning. Typical me. The food was delicious and obviously made with a mother’s touch and care (all of which Natsuko denied and deflected when I complimented it, exercising her excellent Japanese etiquette). Before long we were off and I could get my first true look at Matsue.

Aerial view of Matsue overlooking the Ohashi River.

Matsue is a “water city”. Outlined by mountains in seemingly all directions, there are a number of rivers, lakes, and even the Sea of Japan which contain the city, like a sort of provincial Atlantis. The locals take pride in this. They say that the remarkable quality of the water makes their rice and fish unusually good and their sake, like world renown Rihaku, even better. When driving, you’re likely to see local fisherman out for the day’s catch, casting nets and thrusting giant crabbing spears into the waters below. There’s a rustic and rugged quality to Matsue. The people I met tended to work with their hands to support agriculture or light industry in the area. As is the case with a blue-collar population they tended to be more laid back and willing to laugh and share themselves honestly. One TOMODACHI on the trip even noted that she was forced to do chores, which delighted her because she felt included. Matsue is a small town with lots of heart.