It all started with a fairly innocuous question. “Hey Dad, what do you want to do for your birthday this year?”
His answer – “go to Japan” – led to an 11 day, four city adventure in late March last year, which coincided perfectly with Sakura, the cherry blossom season.
Those of you who know us, aren’t going to be surprised by this. It’s how we roll. Nor will you be surprised by the fact that the trip had to be timed around spring break because after 60 years in university lecture halls, and what amounted to about 3 hours of “retirement” in 1999, Dad is still imbuing his passion for Microbiology among upperclass college students. Fortunately it worked out – spring break, birthday, Sakura- check, check, check.
My first and only visit to Japan was a short-lived one, nearly 17 years ago. I needed to attend a breakfast meeting in Tokyo on behalf of The Anderson School at UCLA, where I worked at the time. I made a quick side trip to Kyoto – which was decked out in vibrant autumn colors – and I was home again before our then 7 and 10 year old kids required me to carpool them to the next bi-weekly soccer practice.
Not so for my dad. Drafted by the army from graduate school and thanks to some quick thinking on his part, he was dispatched to Japan. He worked in a medical lab and as a chaplain’s assistant on the base at Camp Zama, 25 miles southwest of Tokyo. Camp Zama would go on to receive dignitaries such as Mother Teresa and Michael Jackson, and to this day, houses an emergency shelter for the Emperor. (It was also once home to the Imperial Japanese Army.) Dad has a full arsenal (no pun intended) of great stories from his Zama days – including quite a few clever pranks he co-engineered, all of which support his hypothesis that “there is a right way, a wrong way, and the Army way.”
My father is drawn to Japan (and Berlin) the way humpback whales retrace their migratory paths every year. I relate completely to this inner sonar; I experience the same powerful pull to return to Vienna, Austria and Pontresina, Switzerland. I believe we are predisposed to seek to return to formative places and reclaim parts of who we once were. I take great comfort in knowing that this is still possible (ok, temporarily not so possible…), even if many of the local features have changed over time.
So off we went. For me, who normally creates and executes all the travel experiences for my family and small groups, it was a welcome treat to have everything organized for me. Airplane and bus and bullet train tickets, hotels, itinerary – all done! All I had to do was research foodie havens, shopportunities and cultural do’s and don’ts. This last component proved to be quite rich in content. Don’t put your chopsticks standing up in your rice (this is a funeral ritual.) Don’t wear your shoes inside a home, and especially not on a tatami mat. Don’t give a gift of anything numbering four (it’s an unlucky number).
When visiting an onsen (Japanese bath), don’t let soap or your towel touch the bath water.
Don’t blow your nose in public. Don’t pour soy sauce directly on your rice (you will spoil the beauty of the natural rice). And so on.
In 11 days, we managed to only break the rules a couple of times. Instead of dwelling on the horrifying incident of stepping, fully-shod, on the tatami mat, I’d rather focus on all that we did correctly. We DID try to speak as much Japanese as possible (a few clutch phrases go a long way). We DID accept and offer things with both hands. We DID eat with chopsticks. We DID visit a traditional sukiyaki restaurant where we dined while sitting on the floor.
We DID taste new things, including aloe, bracken starch dumplings, soybean cereal, burdock root,
okonomiyaki (giant pancakes with cabbage, cheese, mochi and sauce) and umeboshi (salty plum).
And we tried, wherever possible, to demonstrate the Japanese qualities of graciousness and generosity. In the hotel breakfast room one morning, we watched as a Japanese women worked diligently to remove
a fresh stain from her husband’s starched white business shirt. This went on for quite some time, without success. Eventually, I went over and proferred my Tide Stain Stick, resulting first in an expression of relief, then a small bow and when the shirt was clean once again, the woman reached inside her purse, removed her very own beautiful fan from its case, and presented it to me with both hands. There is nothing I could have purchased which would have provided a more poignant memory of Japan.
But of course, we still acquired plenty of tangible “memories”. After all, who in her right mind could pass
up the sheer beauty of how things are packaged in Japan? I didn’t buy the boxes (and boxes) of sweets for their contents (ok, maybe a little bit, but most of the time I had no clue what was inside!) – it was just that the stunning gift wrap called out to me like a Siren’s song. The packaging is art. The cuteness factor is off the charts. The items are clever. The aesthetics are incomparable.
And if these ubiquitous items weren’t enough of a feast for the eyes, the cherry blossoms had just burst open. At the sight of the first blooming Sakura tree, I actually gasped out loud. There really aren’t words to describe the beauty. We had just strolled on over after a serendipitous experience in the
Emperor’s Garden in Kyoto. Sitting quietly at the edge of a mirror pond, we watched a painter sketch a lovely old wooden building. Storks were commuting from the ground to their treetop nests. Occasional bell sounds emanated from the temple behind us while a grey and white cat lazily made its way to the water’s edge. All those yoga classes, trying to be fully present? My Zen experience happened here, effortlessly.
We covered a lot of ground in a relatively short time. Dad selected 4 very different locations – Tokyo and
suburban Kamakura (home of the Giant Buddha), Hakone, Kyoto, and Shizuoka. I never would’ve known about or considered Hakone,
whose topography and feel was reminiscent of California meets the Swiss Alps and where we discovered a local specialty, the Hakone rusk. A close cousin of the zwieback, it’s the perfect light crunchy bite and comes in flavors like maple and cherry (exclusively for cherry blossom season). Hakone also surprised us with an outstanding exhibition of Impressionist painters at the small local art museum.
In Shizuoka, where we did not see a single other Westerner for the
entire 3 days, we visited the zoo where we got up close and personal with red pandas and tapirs and hyenas and we continued to indulge in delicious “French” pastries which were prevalent everywhere we went in Japan.
And then there were the incomparable views of Mt Fuji from our bullet train ride back to Tokyo. (Despite my dad’s quip, “He who never climbs Mt Fuji is a fool, he who climbs Mt Fuji more than once is a greater fool”, I was not inspired to try the ascent.)
Instead, I opted for a foodie workout in Kyoto, which exudes charm. The pull of Kyoto is unmistakable, with its many temples, the Nishiki food market (known as the “kitchen of Kyoto”), geishas, and hidden gems –young Japanese schoolchildren sketching in a city
park, seniors practicing Tai Chi outdoors in the early morning, and a stunning cherry-blossom-bedecked temple which we nearly missed as it was almost completely obscured by an office building Starbucks.
Kyoto also has the best food. I came to love the local specialty Yodofu for breakfast; it’s a soft, creamy
tofu in hot broth to which I added citrusy ponzu, sesame oil, greens, radish, burdock root and what has become my favorite all-time seasoning- shichimi togarashi. ST, as I’ve come to call it, contains 7 different spices including chilies, sesame, orange peel, and ginger. Also, a rare ingredient called Sansho, a type of spicy peppercorn, known as prickly ash.
Kyoto’s most surprising and delicious taste came when we needed to call a Time Out from jostling amidst the hordes who were ascending a steep hill to visit Kiyomizudera temple. We escaped by ducking into a matcha café and I devoured an ice cream “Parfe” which was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten and wound up being my best bite in Japan. The Parfe featured soybean ice cream, bracken, green tea jelly, some red beans and crunchy seeds, and a plump, moist chestnut where the proverbial “cherry on top” might have been. I know this doesn’t sound all that enticing in print, but trust me, it was divine.
The other culinary discovery which I mentioned earlier and recall with great fondness was Okonomiyaki.
Known better as Japanese pizza, these savory pancakes warm you up and are fun to eat. We had the additional treat of getting to watch our okonomiyaki sizzle and cook, as we were seated right up at the counter in front of the steaming hot cooktop or Teppan. Like much of the food in Japan, there is typically some seafood component in Okonomiyaki – bonito flakes, dashi broth, or Aonori, dried green seaweed powder. But given my avoidance of all things from the sea (other than pearls), I can attest to their tastiness even without.
And now here it is, another Sakura season, and the world has changed beyond what any of us could have envisioned. I cling to my travel memories even more than usual right now as I am forced to let the travel plans for 2020 slip away.
It reminds me of a German saying I heard so often in my childhood from my wise Mom. “Man muss die Feste feiern, wie sie fallen.” In other words, if you get the opportunity to celebrate or take advantage of something, you should do it. No regrets. You don’t know if you’ll get the chance again.
Here’s to the day when we can once again travel to seek out fascinating new places, meet locals, and eat endemically. In the meantime, let’s be grateful if we are in good health and pay closer attention to the beauty in our own corners of the world. We may not have Sakura, but Spring is giving us quite a performance with birdsong, colorful blooms, and cleaner, more precise landscapes than we’ve had in a long time.
Ok, that’s all well and good – but you want to know – where is the recipe? Well, the bottom line is that there won’t be one today. Originally I wanted to share how to make okonomiyaki or another Japanese dish, but given the circumstances, those ingredients will be mighty hard to track down.
Then there was the brilliant idea to share a recipe for…wait for it….Hermits! (get it?) Hermits, which I recall fondly from my childhood, are a time-honored spice bar that New England wives used to give their fishermen husbands before they left on long fishing expeditions, because the bars last a very long time. But honestly, after making them a few times, I couldn’t bring myself to suggest that you use your extremely limited supply of flour and butter in this way. To say nothing of the fact that they feel too autumnal right now, with all the clove and nutmeg and allspice. But fear not, more recipes will be coming your way – and likely even some online cooking and baking classes too!
To your good health! And to all the good travel and good food that awaits us! Kanpai!