Last night, my landlords invited me to their apartment for dinner. About a month ago, before they took their vacation to Russia, I had been over to their office for tea, and it was determined that I had not had sukiyaki. This would not do. I had to have it before I left Japan. Thus, my farewell party.
At 7:00, I went across the street, bearing NC taffy in a tin I had cleverly covered in origami paper so it didn’t say it was oatmeal anymore. It’s amazing what one can do in 5 minutes with paper, scissors, and tape when attempting to be creative. Presentation is half the gift in Japan, and unfortunately, the original box had gotten rather squished. Apparently, I chose well, because my landlady seemed to like it.
When I came in, she did the modest housewife thing, which must be scripted the world over. “I’m sorry, it’s very small, not much to look at, please come in.” Really, their apartment is very nice. My estimation of “small” has become somewhat different after living in my apartment all year. I mean, they have a whole actual kitchen! Amazing. The living room is full of displays of things they’ve picked up in their travels around the world, but unlike many Japanese homes, it manages to not seem overly cluttered.
On the coffee table/kotatsu in the middle of the room, a feast was set up. Sukiyaki is made in a kind of cross between an electric frying pan and a crock pot. First, Mrs. Watanabe greased the bottom of the pan, then added soy sauce and sake. When it had heated a bit, she started adding the main raw ingredients set up on a platter on the side; cabbage, about 4 kinds of mushrooms, konyaku noodles, tofu cubes, and very thinly sliced beef. She then cracked a raw egg in each of 3 small bowls, set them at our places, and bade us dig in. Everyone just took what they wanted from the pot in the middle with their own hashi (chopsticks), dipped it hot into the egg, and ate. I was kind of wary of the egg, but I swear Japanese eggs taste far less strong than eggs in the US, so it was good. I also haven’t died yet, so I don’t think I got salmonella either, despite the horror stories of my childhood.
But wait! There’s more! In addition to the huge amount of food cut up for the sukiyaki, which was quite filling on its own, there was also preparations for homemade sushi rolls. Each of us had a plate with small squares of nori (seaweed paper). There was a large bowl of sticky rice, and then various sushi toppings. Or middles, I guess, since it got rolled up. You can figure it out. There was cucumber, miso pickles, salmon, tuna (“sea chicken”), caviar, eggplant, umeboshi (pickled plums), and natto (weird sticky fermented beans). We spread rice on the nori, added whatever else we wanted, rolled it up, and ate. Very good. Do you see now why I want a Japanese wife? Really, I want a private Japanese chef.
During the course of the evening, we talked about all sorts of things. We compared the US and Japanese high school educational system and determined that the Japanese do math really well, whereas the US does far and away better with foreign language. I don’t really know about any of the other classes. We talked about their trip to Russia. The brought back 5 sets of the little nesting dolls, and told me to pick the one I liked best to have as a gift. My landlady won their bet about which one I would pick, when I chose the green one with white flowers. My landlord’s favorite was the natural wood one with gold painting. Their pictures are still being developed, so there isn’t an amazing scrapbook yet, so we had to make do with the picture calendars they got. They had traveled the Golden Ring, which they said was beautiful, but did not find the Russian people to be as friendly to lost tourists as people in other countries. My landlady then found the set of Japanese traditional prints she had been looking for last time I was in their office, and told me to pick out two. They give each ALT they get to know their choice. They were all lovely, but eventually I chose one of a woman combing her hair, and one of two women by the ocean.
For dessert, Mrs. Watanabe and I had red tea from one of their Middle East trips, grapes, and cookies from Hokkaido. Mr. Watanabe declined his cookie and most of his grapes, because he was drinking alcohol. We decided that I would eat his cookie for him, because he was drinking my alcohol for me. Then we got into a discussion about the food in America and in Japan, particularly serving sizes. The Japanese interpretation of American steaks is that they are as thick as mattresses, and nearly as big. I said that many people in the US get too big because they eat too much, and I liked Japanese portions better. But I added that Mark eats and eats, and stays really skinny. My landlady said, “Ah, he gets (consult electronic dictionary) very bad mileage. Like an American car. Much fuel, few miles.” I laughed a lot. It’s probably the most original, and accurate, way of putting it I’ve ever heard. I, on the other hand, am like a Japanese car, small and able to run on little food.
When they tried the taffy, they thought it was good. They said when they were growing up, there was no candy in Japan, except what the US soldiers gave out to children. Now, children in Japan just think candy is normal. Then Mrs. Watanabe made me little boxes of rice and sushi toppings, plus some nori, and gave me instructions on what to refrigerate and what not to. I made myself a little feast for dinner tonight, too. Yum, yum, yum.