Saturday, January 19, 2013

In Which Dan & Kath Make New Friends

After two and a half years, Nana and I are almost able to hold a simple conversation in Japanese. This came in handy during my parents' visit: we could order food, direct taxis, find train platforms, and read bus schedules with at least a modicum of confidence. These modest abilities were especially useful on a particular night in the middle of our trip, when we found ourselves at a business hotel near the Nagasaki airport, exhausted and in need of something to eat.

First, some background. The Nagasaki airport, as it turns out, is actually nowhere near Nagasaki. This appears to be common in Japan: many smaller domestic airports are meant to serve a whole prefecture, not just the prefecture's eponymous city. They're frequently located in the middle of the prefecture, which is more often than not also the middle of nowhere.

Nagasaki Airport is an hour's train ride away from Nagasaki city, in the town of Omura, "known" for its chickens, pearls, and bricks. To make matters worse, our hotel was in a particularly sleepy neighborhood, which threw a wrench into our dinner plans. We had planned on stumbling around until we found a sign, any sign, that said "ramen" or "udon" - standard procedure for obtaining sustenance in an unfamiliar Japanese town - but the area around our hotel was nothing but apartments and convenience stores as far as the eye could see.

Luckily, a quick iPhone search showed a "shokudo" behind the hotel, a couple blocks off the main road.

Now, "shokudo" is one of those words that covers such a wide range of phenomena as to be functionally useless. It's usually translated as "cafeteria." But it can also refer to a kind of cheap, homey restaurant with a catholic menu of Japanese stand-bys, or to more up-market eateries offering high-class down-home cooking. When I went to the lobby to ask about this particular shokudo, the younger and scruffier of the two men on duty was effusive in his praise, while the older and more genteel front desk manager had apparently never heard of the place. In any case, both of them seemed reasonably certain that the place should be open at least until eight.

I checked the clock on the wall. Seven-thirty. Time for decisive leadership. I rallied the troops and we ventured off into the night.

From the first step, though, things felt strange. We were clearly walking into a residential neighborhood, which in Japan after dark means there was no sign of life for blocks. The restaurant itself was similarly lifeless: we walked right past at least twice, thinking it was just another house. In fact, it pretty much was another house: a large first-floor great room with a closed-off kitchen in the corner and what seemed to be a set of apartments above. What's more, the place was deserted. The door was open and the lights were on in the kitchen, but half the dining area had already been plunged into darkness.

A more sensible traveller, in a more typical country, would have doubled back to the convenience store, picked up something unspeakable, and called it a night. But in Japan, lingering unease is less often a sign of impending disaster than a prelude to zany good times.

To make an already long story short: this would turn out to be the latter.

After taking our orders, the lone young woman on duty, no doubt puzzled at the sudden appearance of four gaijin in her restaurant only thirty minutes from closing, struck up a conversation, pleasantly surprised each time she found our Japanese was up to the task.

The conversation started out fairly normally. "We're from America." "Oh, no, we only speak a little Japanese." "Yes, we saw (insert local landmark here." "Yes, we can use chopsticks." "My parents are visiting - we live in Japan." "We teach at Fukuoka International School."

That's when things started to get strange.

OWNER: Fukuoka International School? In Momochi?
US: Yes!
OWNER: Do you live nearby?
US: Yes, we live in Muromi, just across the river.
OWNER: My husband was born in Momochi! He grew up in Muromi!
US: Hontou desu ka?!? (That's Japanese for, roughly and much more coarsely, "No f'n way!" To give some context for our Pittsburgh readers, this is a bit like if we'd met someone who was born in Mt. Lebanon and grew up in Sunset Hills.)
OWNER: Yes. We met in Fukuoka, then moved down here when we got married. This is my hometown. Hold on, let me call him down so he can meet you.

Thus began the slow process by which this young woman summoned, one by one, every relative in walking distance to come meet the foreigners who had stumbled into her cafe. The husband, naturally, cut right to the chase:

HUSBAND: Do you know the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks?
US: Yes - but they lost today! (The Hawks, defending Japanese champs, had only hours before been eliminated from the playoffs.) Zannen desu ne! (That's a phrase every language seems to have but English - somewhere between "I'm sorry" and "That sucks.") My dad is a huge baseball fan. We really wanted him to see a game, but there wasn't one in Fukuoka.
HUSBAND: Hold on - I have some extra jerseys. A present for your parents to take back to America.

Somewhere around here the situation escalated quickly. Our food arrived - delicious, and we were ravenously hungry. And a cousin or brother in law - not sure about the words for either. Nana and I each fell into separate conversations, translating for Dan and Kath as we went. All around, a noisy, cheerful hospitality.

Then, as we started to eat, a sleepy toddler appeared from the kitchen, obviously just roused from bed.

Of course, Dan's night had just been made. He immediately perked up with his own questions, which I rushed to translate - though it quickly became apparent that, like many young Japanese people, our hosts could understand more English than they could speak. We quickly covered all the most important bases: while the kid was too young to have started playing baseball, he already loved soccer, but alas he was not left-handed.

Around this time the scene started to settle down a bit. We tucked into our dinners, chatting idly, watching the scramble over, under, and around the empty tables. Occasionally, the kid stopped to stare at one of our beards, then refused our invitations to touch them.

Then, without warning, all glorious hell broke loose. The owner had at some point slipped upstairs again, returning with an infant of about eight months (I think). At which point my father - I'm sorry, Dan, but there's no other word for it - squealed with delight. Seriously: squealed.

Of course, before long, the cameras came out. Thus the four of us found ourselves immortalized in the lore of one young Omura family. I give you: Baby's first gaijin.

Monday, January 14, 2013

PaPio Ice Skating in Fukuoka, plus Nana Drinks Weird Stuff For Your Entertainment: Azuki Latte

Our co-worker Brooke had a birthday recently and organized a skating party to celebrate. I'd actually been to PaPio two years ago for a Student Council activity, but I wasn't paying close attention to how to get there, so I hadn't been back since. I'm so glad Brooke rediscovered it, because we had a such a good time that I wonder if there's more skating in our future. The price is reasonable - 1600 yen ($16) for unlimited time, including (lousy but good enough for me) rental skates. The downside is that the ice is gouged and snowy, and on a Sunday afternoon it's like skiing in Korea: you spend more time dodging people than you do actually engaging in the sport. (Side note: I had totally forgotten about that random group of Korean children who imprinted on me and decided to follow me all over the ski resort. The human brain can only hold so much weirdness). 

Speaking of weirdness:

So graceful.
And more weirdness! It's an unstated law of urban Japan that you shall never be further than two minutes from a vending machine. You just take it for granted that if you're walking around and thirsty, a vending machine is just around the corner. Doesn't even matter which corner. They're outside the bottom floors of apartment buildings. They're in parking lots. Even temples have them. Blue buttons indicate cold beverages, while red buttons indicate hot, which might include cans of coffee or hot bottled teas.

PaPio had the standard vending machines, and also ones which make hot beverages by the cup, the sort of machines you see in the US at gas stations or in highway rest stops. I love decaf coffee, but they don't really do that here. I've never seen decaf coffee even at a coffee shop (including Western chains like Starbucks). Therefore my default drink is hot chocolate, which the PaPio vending machine offered. But then I read this button:

I bought this because I knew that "Azuki" (あずき) is Japanese for "red bean," and that therefore the drink was a) something I hadn't tried before and b) not caffeinated. Sometimes I'm so excited to have learned a bit of Japanese that I get overconfident. Yes, I understood that this beverage would have red bean flavor and milk in it, but that's like understanding that the 2-14 Kansas City Chiefs roster features 5 Pro Bowlers. You're not technically wrong, but you're massively missing the point.

Pictured: the wages of hubris
The smell of the Azuki Latte was really terrible, so much so that it took me maybe five minutes to work up the nerve to take a sip. Red beans have a dry, sour sort of smell. It's still in red bean ice cream as the rough-textured taste which underlines the milk and sugar. I tried really hard to convince myself that this latte would taste like melted red bean ice cream, which I actually kind of like.

Unfortunately, no. If you've had the aforementioned rest-stop hot chocolate, you know there's a strong chemical aftertaste, probably caused by the massive quantities of preservatives needed to keep a machine drink from giving you botulism. I drink it anyway because the sweet chocolate front taste overwhelms it enough. Not so with the Azuki Latte. It was like drinking a shot made of expired soy milk with a chaser of liquid laundry detergent. Never again.