I have a general rule that I try to follow. It is, if someone invites you to share a meal, accept. If it’s at all possible. This is with a few caveats of course, but as a general rule it has always proved to be rather fun.
Yesterday I had lunch with my Japanese counterpart at the Juku, the small after-school where I teach English. Her name is Takahashi-san and she is a friendly, lovely woman who invited me to have lunch with her in the Japanese countryside. I rode the train to the town of Atsugi, which is the name of a town in addition to the name of a nearby US Naval base. From Aiko-ishida station we drove past rice fields and community gardens to her home. She herself had a small vegetable garden, and when I say small I mean one lettuce plant and two tomato plants. Her home inside was lovely; Wood floors, uncluttered, Japanese. She had a very naughty and loud dachshund, but I found him cute anyway.
She gave me tea and loquats, a fruit whose existence I had been entirely unaware of until yesterday. I proclaim them to be delicious. I imagine they’re similar to kumquats, but never having eaten a kumquat it is just a guess. After tea, we walked along the creek in her town. Rice fields stretched out in symmetrical glory around us. As we strolled, she told me all about life in her neighborhood. Many foreigners live there because of the Nissan plant nearby. You can find a certain beautiful bird by the creek, and photographers always lie in wait to snap a photo and are highly annoyed when her bad dog barks at them. There are carp in the stream, she has her favorite cherry trees, and when she walks with her bad dog she’ll buy an ice cream at the alcohol shop, rest and walk home. I told her that her town reminded me of the place where the girls lived in My Neighbor Totoro. She is 71, but she’s seen the movie and knew what I meant. Like all Japanese ladies, you could not possibly guess her age by looking at her but if you did guess you would never guess 71.
We ended our stroll at Miyakoya, a traditional Japanese restaurant near her creek. Takahashi-san said the restaurant was famous among golfers, who would go golfing and then afterward come to this restaurant. We were the only customers for lunch, and were seated in a tatami room with chairs. The chair was just a little too short for me, and as someone who is constantly declared short by American standards, apparently I am supermodel tall by Japanese ones. I’ll take it.
We chitchatted, drank iced oolong tea, and admired the garden view with a beautiful blooming hydreanga outside the window. The owner popped in and out to chat as well, a friendly lady also in her 70’s but so active that you never would have thought so. Takahashi-san told me stories about growing up in Yokohama, about life in Japan after World War II, about her interactions with Americans and how she came to want to learn and teach English. She’s been teaching English for 20 years.
Soon, the most enormous and elaborate bento box ever contrived was brought to us. Beautiful dishes with delicate delictables, all declaring deliciousness with their bright colors despite the absolute mystery to me as to what exactly they were. I enjoy eating Japanese food with experts, because I like to watch their every move and copy it, so that if there is some secret to eating bentos I can pretend I know it too. I did learn that when it comes to bentos, even Japanese people don’t always know what they’re eating. They’ll just give it a shot anyway. I like knowing that sometimes even experts are just as much in the dark as I am. Takahashi-san did give me insider information on which order to eat things. Fresh things first, she said. It’s difficult because you are instantly overwhelmed by the gorgeousness of your lunch. But beyond being beautiful, the food was absolutely delicious. Sushi, tempura, salad with octopus, konyakku (which is like a seaweed paste cake), miso soup, egg soup, rice, pickles, mystery food – everything was just a little bite of something, but before I knew it I was stuffed. I did fit some dessert in, a beautiful matcha cake with azuki beans and whipped cream. I think this lunch was my own personal Japanese version of Babette’s Feast.
If someone invites you to share a meal, accept if it’s at all possible. I established this rule because when I first joined the military, I would work for days at a time and afterwards go home to emptiness. No roommates, no anyone. I would grab dinner and eat in the hotel. Cheaper. Easier. But very boring and lonely. I realized that so many people do this, but making friends and sharing meals was a much better option. Why be lonely? Eat with someone. Anyone. And thus doing so, I’ve had discussions about life with so many different people. You’d be surprised at how fast deep conversations can develop over food. The points of view you can access. The absolute fun you can have, all by eating with someone. Do it. Today. Or invite me to lunch, I always try to accept.