Sobremesa in Japan I: Why We Travel

Today's post marks some new beginnings. 

This is the first bilingual English-Spanish Sobremesa post; I am very excited to reconnect with my readers from Spanish-speaking parts of the world, whom I reluctantly left aside for a while when I put Desayuno con guisantes on hold to dedicate more time to my newer baby, Sobremesa. Welcome back, bienvenidos de nuevo! 

I have so much to say about the life-changing, mind-blowing time I recently spent in Japan, that I will have to break it down into several posts; today's will be the first of more to come. This also implies a promise of more regular blog posts, which is something I've been yearning to go back to. For years, blogging was a weekly ritual for me, a practice; then, in early 2014, with our move to California, life abruptly took over, and writing was pushed aside. Well, I'm back! I hope you will indulge. One of the big takeaways from my time spend in Japan was to try to relinquish the discourse of busy-ness that is so prevalent, here in the Bay Area especially, and maybe all over as a sign o' the times. We are as only busy as we decide to make ourselves; time is finite, and we must prioritize accordingly. 

Visiting Japan had been my lifelong dream; throughout my 30s, I envisioned the trip to Japan happening to celebrate my landmark 40th birthday. Not only did that not happen, but 3 months after I turned 40 we moved to the US, i.e. in the opposite direction. My sweet family, to make it up to me, simulated a trip to Japan on the day of my 40th birthday in Barcelona: they decorated the house with Japanese paper props, made a Japanese dinner, and even sat me in a chair and made me close my eyes and pretend I was on an airplane headed straight to Kyoto. 

As we slowly settled into our new life in California, Japan seemed ever farther away. However, life has a way of surprising us when we least predict it, and 3 years after that pretend trip, the actual one came along in a magical, unexpected way.

I spent a few months putting our itinerary together. We were going to be there during cherry blossom season, so lots of places were already booked; people really do plan ahead. Things came together and in late March, I boarded a plane SFO-Fukuoka; the family was to meet me 5 days later in Kyoto. I called home from the airport, nervous as hell. What if things didn't turn out? Holding high expectations is not a good idea; better to flow as water and let things take their course. 

"Bruno, can you believe it? I'm almost on a plane to Japan!! Remember my 40th birthday?"

"Yes," Bruno said, "you were alone on the plane then, too!" 

My first 5 days in Japan occurred in retreat mode, at a ryokan or traditional inn in Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu. The months (years?) leading up to the trip had been quite hectic, and a few days removed from civilization was the perfect way to begin. I soaked twice a day in the volcanic natural springs, absorbing the healing waters along with the fact that I was finally in Japan, nourished by the most delicious food I've ever eaten (more on this in future posts). Those of us with extremely active minds benefit enormously from the perspective and pause retreats provide. The ryokan's charms -its light, so different from the light I've witnessed in other lands; the presence of nature in combination with the traditional Japanese architecture; water and wood;  the gracious, attentive, and yet utterly discreet service of the staff- moved me to tears. Sleep was not something that happened for me too much those first few days, due to jet lag but also not wanting to miss out on a single moment of being there. One afternoon I called Israel, my husband, in an emotional crying fit. I felt blessed and didn't want it to end. Ever. 

One of the big surprises was the ability to establish connections with people in spite of not speaking a word of the same language. I had been told people didn't speak foreign languages much, due to the country's long history of isolation from the world. In any case, I don't like the ethnocentric attitude of traveling around assuming people will speak to me in English everywhere. Although I am fluent in five languages, Japanese is unfortunately not one of them. When Israel and I traveled to Vietnam in 2004, we had our first experience of communicating via facial expressions, hand gestures, and our best intention. We managed to get along fine, but I can't say we had that many meaningful exchanges with locals. This time around, however -also thanks to the help of Google translate, which didn't exist in 2004- there are a few people with whom our interactions made up some of the most memorable moments of our stay. Takako is at the top of that list. 

In Kyoto we stayed at a lovely Airbnb, a machiya or traditional wooden townhouse. The owner had a small antique shop in the front room, which we had fun perusing late at night. In the shop hung, among much brick-a-brac, a single flowered pink silk kimono. I inquired, as I had always dreamt of having a real kimono. He responded (all of our email exchanges via Google translate), asking about my preferred brands, colors, style. Oh I just want a traditional Japanese kimono, I said.

"My mother is in charge of those," he said, "and she has over 500. She'll get back to you briefly".

So she did. Takako showed up at our door that same afternoon (they lived just across the street), loaded with packages of tissue paper-wrapped goodies. I thought they would be kimonos to choose from, but no, there were only two pre-selected sets of everything that goes into a traditional kimono, which was much more than I had expected: layer upon layer makes up the outfit, in addition to the straps, belts, and adornments. The price she quoted us for the whole set was ridiculously affordable compared to similar things I had seen in the West, so I agreed to buy one for me and one for Olivia, which she will grow into. But little did I know that a traditional kimono is so complicated! Takako, I said into my faithful phone app (which, by the way, supplied some very poetic translations that made the whole exchange even more fun) I need you to teach us how to put these on. 

"Tomorrow," she replied. "After I inquire with some friends, I'll let you know what time." We felt bad for imposing on her plans with her friends for the next day.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Oh no, I thought, she realized she's made a mistake in the pricing. But no, Takako came back to invite us to dinner. Come to my house in one hour, we understood, I'm making gyoza

We showed up at the hour on the dot, and sat down with Takako and her sons to a feast of egg drop miso soup, pickles, onigiri (rice triangles) filled with tuna, and about 300 gyoza, which were cooked on an electric grill at the table. There was also beer, tea, and sake. And there were only 7 of us, though there was food for an entire army of hungry soldiers. How she managed to put that together in an hour is beyond me. Although a verbal language was not shared, a sense of intimacy and camaraderie developed thanks to sobremesa, sharing food at a table. We learned that her daughter lives in France and, we think, is married to a French guy, though Google told us something like "the other half of my daughter's face is France" (pure poetry, I tell ya).

This is why we travel, not for the shrines or temples or plastic souvenirs. We travel for experiences and for human connection.  We crossed the street satiated, happy physically and emotionally. 

Takako-san, on the left.

Takako-san, on the left.

Surely enough, the following day, while we were sightseeing in Nara, an email arrived letting us know that she would be there at 4pm to teach us about the kimonos. We hopped on the train to Kyoto and made it back just in time. At 4:00 there was a knock at the door, and when I slid it open, Takako was there with two other women (one of them, half my height -I'm only a bit over five feet- and at least twice my age). Her friends! It wasn't that she had other plans, she was consulting the time with friends who were going to help doll us up. 

Takako and friends spent the next 2.5 hours meticulously dressing us. The kimono-sensei put on a delicate, lavender-colored linen apron for the task, and for the most part sat on the futon and gave orders to the other two, getting up every now and then to accommodate a belt or pull a strap tighter ("suck in your stomach, hard!" was the gesture I understood as she pulled with all her might). When she was really focused she would break out into song, complementing the Japanese tune with affectionate slaps on my butt. With Oli they took a very long time, as they had to figure out how to make a full-size kimono fit a 10 year-old body and still look just right (there was no question of that not happening). 

Details of our kimonos. 

After 2.5 hours we were all exhausted and hungry. The women's time was a donation, there was no way to pay them for it and they did not expect or want it. I have rarely encountered this type of generosity (people tend to be very protective of their time in the Bay Area, and I have grown used to it too). I'm not sure whether this occurs with all the Airbnb guests; I think it has more to do with the fact that I tapped into something, they appreciated my appreciation for their culture. 

All dolled up, on our way to dinner. 

All dolled up, on our way to dinner. 

We insisted on asking them to join us for dinner at the neighborhood okonomiyaki joint we had been wanting to try out. They found this hilarious; I guess it's like going out for a burger in your wedding dress. Takako ran out mumbling something, and kimono-sensei shuffled down the street mumbling something else. We later (there was definitely communication, albeit delayed) found out that she was going to hold the only table at the okonomiyaki joint, where we met up; Takako had gone to grab a pile of towels from her house, which she proceeded to wrap around Olivia and me, so that we wouldn't stain our new outfits with the splatter from the on-the-table grill. 

At one point Olivia begged me to rush her home. "I can't breathe," she said; the straps holding the obi or kimono belt were way too tight, I was feeling it too. Poor geishas, how did they do this regularly? Rushing was not really a viable option in those wooden clogs, either. 

Takako and I both had tears in our eyes and knots in our throats when we said goodbye the next day. I promised her I would visit again. 

I always joke that I must have been Japanese in a past life;  many aspects of its culture -gastronomic, aesthetic- have always touched me so deeply. Now that I've been there, I know it's true. In spite of my high expectations, Japan did not disappoint; quite the opposite. I can't wait to go back for more. Who knows, maybe there's a Sobremesa Culinary Tour to Japan in our future, what do you think?