Monday, January 09, 2006

The Japanese Dinner that Started It All

Japan has been on my mind a lot recently with the release of my story “Ukiyo” in Best American Erotica 2006. Since many new visitors are here because of my story, I thought I’d say a little bit about my relationship to Japan. We’ve been buddies in one way or another for some time.

Looking back, the first strong stirrings of interest in the Land of the Rising Sun date back to my reading of the novel Shogun when I was fifteen. Here comes the true confession—I only read it because this guy I had a bad, totally unrequited crush on was reading it and he mentioned it was great. And so began a new love, one that proved far richer in the end than my obsession with David G. I didn’t begin to study the Japanese language, however, until my senior year of college when I decided I was completely unmarketable in any of your typical eighties careers—investment banker, computer whiz, publishing, medicine or law. Instead I would teach English in Japan and hope some other idea for what to do with my life would come along in the meantime.

As a single chick in her early twenties, I had a fabulous time during the two years I spent in the old capital of Kyoto. I studied traditional Japanese dance and the tea ceremony. I made tons of friends, even had a few romances and ate some awesome food, but also came back fifteen pounds lighter. How perfect is that? In the meantime I decided that what I really wanted to do was develop a real mastery of the Japanese language and literature, and so I returned to the safety of class work and libraries in the Ph.D. program at Stanford. It was there I met my husband, an engineer who was also studying Japanese. We fell madly in love, got engaged in two months and had lots of fun speaking Japanese to each other in public when we didn’t want anyone else to understand what we were saying. (Although sometimes, when Japanese people were around it backfired).

My story of Japan the Beautiful and Myself gets a bit darker at this point. Part of my Ph.D. program involved spending another year in Yokohama doing advanced language study. Unfortunately my husband couldn’t come with me, so we made do with $1000-a-month phone bills (this was before email) and his infrequent visits to Tokyo on business. My second stay was no where near as delightful as the first, although my Japanese improved a lot…alas, my skills have only gone down hill from there.

I came back to the U.S. and married life with an actual man, rather than a voice on the phone, determined never to live apart from my husband for an extended period. This is one reason I decided not to look for a tenure-track academic job after I finished my dissertation in 1993. The other was our plans to have kids, which became reality soon after my last trip to Japan in 1994. I have to laugh now when I think back on my pre-child days. To the innocent, children are little fantasy creatures—they’ll be cute, they’ll do things that make you proud, they’ll provide you with grandchildren. Never do you imagine you’re signing on for at least eighteen years of 24/7 parental duties with no break, no vacation, nada. And it’s great, it’s worth it. On top of that, I didn’t have the courage to try writing seriously until my first son was born. In spite of the sleep deprivation and the anxiety of doing right by the helpless little guy, a new courage was born within me.

I left teaching for good when my son came down with ear infection after ear infection in daycare. But Japan is still with me. Some memories are so very vivid, twenty years can melt away and I’m back there, in my summer yukata, swaying with the crowds at the Gion Matsuri, gazing at the crimson maple leaves in my dance teacher’s garden, tasting my first blowfish sashimi—it’s really delicious and the soup they make from the deadly fish is even tastier.

Japan is very much alive in the best stories I've written so far. The foundation for my story “Ukiyo” is indeed an actual meal at a fine restaurant called Chimoto in Kyoto’s Gion in August 1984 (unlike George Orwell’s novel, the year was a good one for me). My hosts were a dentist and his wife, my English student—they spoiled me like a daughter. The meal cost about $150 a person at those favorable exchange rates of 250 yen to the dollar. We dined on a terrace overlooking the Kamo River, darkness falling around us. I wrote down the menu in my journal that night. I didn’t write down descriptions of the dishware, which is unfortunate as it was all exquisite and perfect for the season. Here is the meal—close your eyes and enjoy:

  • Miniature hors d’oeuvres served on individual lacquer trays, lit with a tiny lantern painted with the great bonfire on Mt. Daimonji
  • Chilled cherry wine
  • Clear soup
  • Sashimi (tai and hamo) served on a small boat of ice
  • Eggplant with eel
  • Kobe beef grilled on a personal hibachi
  • Cold noodles with dipping sauce
  • Miso soup
  • Rice—very, very good rice
  • Watermelon jelly with fresh lichee (crisper and more luscious the canned stuff)

At the time, I knew enough to feel blessed I had the opportunity to be in that magical place. Of course I had no idea I would use it twenty years later to write a story about a different kind of magic.

No comments: