Arashiyama, 2016

From my trip diary:

We knew it would be crowded and indeed it was. I thought that we should arrive there on the Randen, so we took the subway to the end of the Tozai Line and then it was just across the street to access the Randen which was founded in 1910 and is the only tram in Kyoto now. There was no place to buy a ticket at the very small station. It turns out it is a flat fee of 210 (in 2016) and you can pay when you get off. Indeed it was packed with city dwellers, but more so tourists. It is just one or two cars and very cute. We arrived at Arashiyama Station where there were hoards of people. I just wanted to get out.

Bamboo Forest with Rikusha

So we crossed the street and started following the crowds to the bamboo forest which was high on my daughter’s list and is very famous. To be honest, I don’t find it all that interesting or attractive and having the hoards of tourists made it even worse. The narrow street was full of people walking and taking photos but cars also came through as well as jinrikusha, which made it so that you always had to be paying attention to something other than the bamboo. We did take all the requisite photos. I’m not sure that it was the best day for photo taking, or maybe it was too early in the day to get the full effect of the sun.

Dango with coffee! A breakfast that was perfect for me.

Or maybe I was grouchy and needing breakfast! As we walked we passed many small places for snacks but I needed coffee. Finally we hit gold with a place that had a dango set with coffee. It was delicious! But all I wanted to do was separate from the crowds and I had Adashinonenbutsu on my mind.

On the way there we went into some of the smaller temples that had fewer people. Eventually we were in classy suburbs and green fields and the bulk of the tourists were gone. We passed small shops, so we knew we were still in a tourist area. And we climbed upward and finally reached Adashinonenbutsu which is essentially a graveyard. It has always been special to me both for atmosphere and the admittedly sentimental aspect of it having a festival on the date of my tanjōbi. The grounds were absolutely lovely and the foliage was amongst the best we would see during this trip. Photo ops abounded. I’d say there were less than ten people there and we were able to peacefully enjoy our time. If I had to pick one place to go for Kyoto foliage, I’d pick this place. It’s a bit of a hidden treasure.


We left silently and started to think about lunch. We knew we wanted yudōfu since this area is famous for it. The problem was how to choose the right place. We randomly chose one and had an excellent tofu lunch. It included yudōfu, yuba, some mochi-like item etc.

We chose to sit at a table rather than tatami. We had a view of the garden which was lovely. After we ate I visited the restroom hesitantly because places like this usually had pretty primitive facilities. Again I was pleasantly surprised to find a very clean and high-tech toilet facility. This is the best change I’m enjoying on this trip. It makes me wish that I could see the toilet in my old homestay; I wonder if they have updated.

After lunch we walked back the way we had came and then turned off to go to Tenryuji which is a heritage spot. I did not enjoy it very much because, again, we were immersed in crowds. How does a heritage spot beat out other spots, I wonder? We spent some time there and then exited to the main street of Arashiyama, which again was packed. I thought my daughter should see Togetsukyo since it is one of the sights of Arashiyama. We crossed over it (with the crowds) and spent some time enjoying the beautiful sunny warm day sitting along the riverside—away from most of the crowd.

  • Randen – 嵐電 a small tram to Arashiyama
  • jinrikusha – 人力車 a tourist gimmick for those who don’t want to walk and would rather ride in a carriage pulled by a real live person.
  • tanjōbi – 誕生日 birthday
  • yudōfu – 湯豆腐 a simple tofu dish. The quality of the tofu is what makes this dish. It’s all about the tofu.
  • yuba – ゆば a soybean product often called tofu skin as it it forms on the top of soy milk during the processing of tofu
  • tatami – 畳 bamboo mats

How I learned to make miso soup

A typical Japanese meal in autumn for me. Simple, but delicious.

In the late 1970’s I was living near Kyoto University in the kind of lodging that students favored. It’s called a geshuku and it was situated above the landlady’s home. There were four rooms that she rented out. My room was a 6 mat tatami room and at the entrance there was a small sink and a place to put a two-ring gas range. There was a closet for futon and that’s it. You had to buy your own small refrigerator and a gas range. The one I got came with a grill for fish that worked fairly well for toast. I didn’t buy a hot water heater, so I got only cold water. There was no heating at all. You’d have to get your own small space heater. And the bathroom, you ask? Well, at the end of the hall there were toilet facilities. The squat version. But at least they flushed. My previous dwelling was a squat toilet that needed to be cleaned out by the honey trucks every two weeks. You always knew when they were in the neighborhood cleaning out toilets; you’d have to run from the smell! Picture a huge hose all wound onto a truck that got carted into the bathroom and then worked as a vacuum. You’d avoid them like the plague.

So, that was the apartment. To bathe I had to go to the public bath or sento. In Kyoto back then they were all over the place and in this student neighborhood I had my pick of three, which was good since they staggered their days off.

The closest one was just a block north of me. I’d grab my basin, soap, shampoo, towel, and clean clothes and choose my time carefully. You’d put everything in your small basin, with the towel on top and walk to it that way. So you always knew if someone was going to the sento when you saw them carrying a basin like this.

 It opened at 4 PM and if you went then, the water was the cleanest and you’d be with the obāsan and little kids. I taught English at night and if I went after work (the bath was open until 11 pm) it would be a different crowd. The first few times I went in the afternoon I was hesitant; what were they going to think about this foreign girl patronizing their bath? For the record, I never once saw another foreigner there; this bath wasn’t on a maim drag and there were very few of us then compared to now. And I  definitely was an object of kōkishin at first. The grannies quickly asked me where I lived and no doubt got a lowdown on me from my landlady. As they grew accustomed to me, they’d sometimes come over and scrub my back and I’d return the favor. Let me just say how strange that was to me at first! 

It was also a revelation seeing old people naked. In America, I’d never seen anyone older than me naked. It just wasn’t done. But I admit it was fascinating to see how women aged. It’s also very normalizing in a sense. After I’d washed in front of a set of faucets and mirror, I would go soak in the tubs, often with one or two others. You’d nod a greeting and then relax in the steaming hot bath. It became a routine I looked forward to and the grannies were now very comfortable with me.

Miso soup

So, one day, I idly asked one of them how to make miso soup. You would have thought I’d started a riot. Everyone had to get in on this discussion. In Kyoto there was a tradition of using white miso or lighter colored miso. Everyone had to talk about which miso and where they bought it. And then there was the issue of dashi and who was using instant (nobody confessed) and what they put in their dashi. I’d never seen the bath as lively as it was on that day. It went way beyond my language abilities at that time and all I really absorbed was what a huge topic it could turn into for the grannies. 

But even though I didn’t get any real recipes, I did learn how miso soup was truly a family tradition and just how many variations there could be. In fact, you could make it differently every day of the year by using a mix of miso, different “gu” or ingredients, and a variation on dashi. And after that, the grannies were my friends for life. If I saw them at the fruit and vegetable shop, they’d advise me on what seasonal vegetables to buy.

In the winter, I chose to go to the bath late in the evening, so I could warm up. Remember, my apartment had no heating and some days there would be snow on the ground. I’d warm up in the bath and then hurry home and dive under the ample covers. It almost worked. I’d sleep in the clean clothes I’d changed into at the bath and the next morning I’d get out of bed and quickly head out to a coffee shop to warm up. They had heat. I just had long underwear and layers.

I was young and easily adapted to this lifestyle. My neighbors now are often surprised that I will go out to the mailboxes on a cold day without putting on a coat. My mother often noted that Japanese women of her generation in New York City also would run out without a coat to pick up a carton of milk. Living without central heat makes you tough and impervious to the cold. Yes, still. To this day!

  • geshuku – 下宿 boarding house. Rare, these days, but poor students usually lived in these. It would usually be one room, a shared toilet area and a nearby public bath.
  • tatami – 畳 bamboo mats that used to cover almost all floors in houses and apartments. Sadly, they are disappearing in new construction. There is nothing like the smell of fresh tatami.
  • futon – 布団 bedding. Note this does not refer to a sofa when in Japan!
  • sento – 銭湯 public bath. I will probably talk a lot about it in this blog because it was my life for many many years.
  • obāsan – おばあさん grandmother, granny, or any old woman of this age. 
  • kōkishin – 好奇心 curiosity
  • dashi – だし a Japanese broth used for miso soup and other cooking. You can buy instant or make your own. 
  • gu – 具 ingredients

Fitting In

Clearly, I wasn’t going to fit in. I looked around the room miserably. The two other students, David and Carl, were way ahead of me in Japanese. I didn’t belong in an advanced class, but the other class was filled with students starting their second year of Japanese. I was ahead of them, but behind the advanced students. I was beginning to regret the intensive summer I’d spent at the Middlebury Japanese Summer School. Not only had I not fit in there either, but I’d hated every minute of it. I’d been in a class with a group of people who’d all used the same textbook and knew what itanda ebi were. 

Clark Hall, home to the AKP of 1976

In 1976 there were just two choices for college level Japanese kyōkasho. My college used the less popular Nakajima and Young series. The vast majority of colleges used Eleanor Jorden’s books. Though we might have learned most of the same grammar points, the two texts seemed to have used entirely different vocabularies. Only one other student had used Nakajima and Young. He was an older man from Switzerland. Japanese was his fifth language and he wasn’t having the same adjustment issues as I had. In other words, he was having no pain.

To make matters worse, we were only to speak Nihongo, even outside of the classroom. This was a Middlebury rule, but the other language students were required to have three years of the language under their belt to even apply for summer school. It made sense for them. For us, not so much. My roommate and I cheated like crazy to stay sane.

Our director that year was a hard-nosed Japanese academic and she was determined to run things the Japanese way. We would all need exercise and she declared that volleyball practice was mandatory. I don’t do sports. I skipped. And she put her foot down. I immediately jammed my yubi during the next practice. It swelled up and a faint purple line appeared. Naturally, I asked to go to the clinic and naturally she told me it was fine. The next day she succumbed to the obvious and indeed my finger was broken; no more volleyball for me. 

There was just a week between the end of Japanese summer school and the Associated Kyoto Program that I’d be participating in. I knew I wouldn’t fit in because I was not a student at any of the elite schools that made up the consortium. However, one of my sensei had served as a director for the program two years previously and he, well, pulled some strings. On the flight to Kyoto, students from each college sat together. I sat alone. 

Still, though, I hadn’t anticipated that there wouldn’t be any other student at all at my level. I thought I’d finally be in a class where I could dig in and learn. No more “thirty kanji a day” memorization like I’d struggled with during the summer. I’d study hard, but it would be at a more normal pace. Meanwhile, David and Carl were already deep in discussion with our Sasaki-sensei, who was practically drooling over their linguistic magnificence. I hardly got a second glance. The textbook was boring. Did I really need to know how to say “feudal system.” (Unfortunately I still remember this word. See below for proof.)

I wasn’t fitting in at my homestay either. The Inoue family was nice enough, but they had two small otoko no ko and had always preferred to have young men stay with them. They ended up with me because at the last minute I got nervous about getting motion sickness during a bus or train commute and asked to be near campus. They were just around the corner and being able to walk to school in just a few minutes was great. Oddly enough, I never got motion sickness on the buses or trains of Kyoto, but I loved the neighborhood. The little boys were like aliens to me as all I’d ever experienced were my three younger sisters.

I had gotten sick though, the moment I arrived in Japan. It could have been the heat and humidity, the totally strange food, or the long plane ride. Before I knew it, I hadn’t really eaten in over a week and I ended up in the hospital. Looking back, I know there’s a word for it. Natsubate is what I had. 

After spending a day or two in air conditioning and a day or two under the care of my director’s wife—who was Japanese-American, but knew darn well that chicken noodle soup would cure me—I moved in with the Inoue family. My director’s wife had kindly hinted to them that I could do with some American food to start with. 

For mayonnaise, it didn’t taste all that bad. But still.

That first dinner I was served two small hamburgers and a side helping of frozen peas and carrots. And given a pair of ohashi. I looked around the table to see how I was supposed to manage the vegetables. Luckily I was an old hand with chopsticks so that wasn’t the problem. But was I to eat one pea at a time with them? The answer to that was, no. And for the first, but definitely not the last time, I was introduced to Kewpie mayonnaise in its convenient tube. Apparently we squirted it onto the vegetables and mixed it up a bit. It was then possible to eat the vegetables more easily with chopsticks. Unfortunately, I hate mayonnaise. I somehow ate the vegetables. Maybe I was offered a small fork. I don’t remember. But what I do remember is that there was no way I could eat two hamburgers. So I ate one of them and apologized and said I simply couldn’t eat them both. Mrs. Inoue was unfazed.

“That’s fine. You can have it for breakfast tomorrow morning.”

I smiled. Nice joke, I thought.

The next morning I got a piece of toast for breakfast on my plate next to the hamburger. Which was stone cold. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who eats cold hamburgers for asagohan? Friends later declared my homestay family as weird. But dinner leftovers often appeared at breakfast at any temperature. Eventually I even learned to eat curry for breakfast. 

Mrs. Inoue was determined to have me eat a good breakfast. I’d come downstairs in the morning and cheerfully greet her saying, “No egg for me this morning, please” and go into the bathroom to wash my face. When I walked back into the kitchen she’d have a plate waiting for me. With a barely cooked fried egg on top of some even less cooked bacon. It was an impossible situation. It made me gag everyday. I got up earlier and earlier hoping to sneak out of the house without eating her breakfast. Yes. We were in a battle. 

  • itanda ebi – 痛んだえび Apparently this was taught in the textbook written by Eleanor Jorden that was more popular than the one I used. Itamu is the verb for spoiled (when applied to food) and ebi means shrimp. Itamu is in the past tense here and modifies (OMG, I’m doing grammar!) ebi, so the sentence was about getting food poisoning from shrimp at a restaurant in Ginza. Seriously? Ginza? The most high-class restaurants are there. Why not Shinjuku with its wealth of cheap eateries? I consider this a Jorden fail.
  • kyōkasho – 教科書 textbook
  • Nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
  • yubi – 指 finger
  • sensei – 先生 teacher. It’s also used as a suffix after the family name for teachers, professors, doctors etc.
  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters. If you learn them, it will help you slightly in a Chinese restaurant, too
  • hōken seido – 封建制度 feudal system. Make sure you memorize this entirely useful phrase.
  • otoko no ko - 男の子  boy or boys
  • Natsubate – 夏バテ A special word used to describe suffering in the summer due to the oppressive heat. When you get natsubate you don’t feel like eating and you can quickly succumb to the heat. Natsu means summer and the bate comes from the verb bateru which means to be exhausted.
  • ohashi – お箸 chopsticks
  • asagohan – 朝ご飯 asa means morning and gohan is meal, so together it means breakfast.

Summer is so hot!

I think July was the worst month for humid heat when I lived in Kyoto. That’s not to say that August was much better, but by the end of August you could feel a whispering of aki in the air. I wonder if that still holds true.

Of course I had no air conditioner in the 1970’s. I depended on a fan kept within a foot of me when I was in my geshuku room. And I’d hightail it out to get some kakigōri at the peak of the day. Back then there wasn’t the enormous variety that you see now. It was simply strawberry, lemon, and a Kyoto speciality of Uji green tea with either dango or anko or both. That one was always more expensive and seemed very extravagant to me.

A few of my well-worn hankachi from many years ago.

I also was grateful for all the hankachi I had to daintily (?) pat the sweat from my face. I never once had to buy a handkerchief because they were such a common gift. You always had to carry one because public bathrooms had no paper towels or other devices for drying your hands. For that matter, toilet paper could be iffy as well, so you’d always have both a hankachi and a packet of tissues in your bag. Since tissue packets were given out at train stations with ads written on them, you never really had to buy those either… at least not in Tokyo.

Towelket for a child. Snoopy was and is always popular in Japan.

Commuting to work by jitensha was definitely a plus in the summer. Kyoto is pretty flat and you’d feel the wind on you as your pedaled. And upon arriving home, I’d head for the public bath each night and then turn on the fan and lay out my futon, of course with just a taoruketto in the summer.

I still love my taoruketto and think it is one of the better ways to sleep on a hot summer night!

  • aki – 秋 autumn
  • geshuku – 下宿 boarding house. Rare, these days, but poor students usually lived in these. It would usually be one room, a shared toilet area and a nearby public bath.
  • kakigōri – かき氷 shaved ice. Nothing like a snowcone though. We’re talking major upgrade from that!
  • dango – だんご dumpling. In this case they are small white mochi-like dumplings.
  • anko -あんこ red bean paste
  • hankachi – ハンカチ handkerchief. Very popular in Japan. I wonder why we Americans don’t use them as much.
  • jitensha – 自転車 bicycle
  • taoruketto – タオルケット a summer blanket made out of cotton towel material. They are wonderful on a hot summer’s night and are often given as gifts.

My Generation

I am from the generation who grew up with the mantra “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” (It was a little bit shocking when we all turned thirty and realized we could no longer trust ourselves! ) But I quickly learned that in Japan, oyako could be friends.

Generations at the Kamo River

Take Rie, one of my students who was just a year younger than me. She spoke Eigo well and I’d inquire about her weekend. One day she told me she’d been to a hosuto kurabu. I was immediately intrigued. Japan was pretty well known for hostess clubs where women in beautiful or sexy gowns would coyly entertain otoko as they plied them with drinks. They weren’t prostitutes but they weren’t lily clean either in some cases. Hostess clubs could be very expensive. They were the domain of business men who tended to entertain clients there.

From Wikipedia Club district in Kyoto

But what the heck was a host club? I’d never heard of them, and Rie was happy to fill me in. She said that these clubs were for women and had handsome young men who would dance with them and shower them with attention. Rie then casually dropped the bomb that she had gone to the hosuto kurabu with her mother! Her mother!

Picture me really shocked at age 22. I went nowhere with my mother if I could help it and I couldn’t imagine hanging out with her outside the home and, well, a host club? I was startled by Rie’s casual comments and dug for more. Rie said she liked her mom and they hung out regularly, like friends. Unheard of; her mother was over thirty, after all.

After some time in Japan, I began to see the relationship between parent and young adult child was totally different. Japanese parents respected their young adult children and saw them as complete adults–adults who sometimes knew more than they did. To my own parents, I was a “kid” until the day they died. In fact, they always said that I’d always be their “child.”

Popular in Japan, even today

Post-war Japan brought so many changes and at a high speed. One of the more difficult ones for older folks was the profusion of “katakana words” or English words for things. New things often had English names and the older generation couldn’t keep up. So it would be the younger generation that would help them with the bombardment of change and new words such as: shanpū, nekutai, makudonarudo, arerugī and hundreds more.

I’m close with my own daughter now like Rie was with her mother. It’s a different relationship from the one I had with my mother. I wonder if it is because of the technology boom that has made her sedai the ones with the—for example—phone knowledge. I do turn to my kids sometimes with questions about my overly-intelligent phone. To me, they are fully adults and have knowledge that I do not have.

So here I am comparing the relationship between generations citing post-war Japan and new-tech America. If this makes any sense at all. Dō omoimasuka?

  • oyako – 親子 parent and child. There is also a rice dish called oyako donburi, which is chicken and egg on rice. Get it?
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • hosuto kurabu – ホストクラブ host club
  • otoko – 男 man or men
  • katakana – カタカナ syllabic alphabet. Compare with hiragana. It is used primarily for borrowed words like the ones below.
  • shanpū – シャンプー shampoo
  • nekutai – ネクタイ necktie
  • makudonarudo – マクドナルド McDonalds (hamburger chain). It’s a mouthful in Japanese! Which is why it gets shortened simply to maku マク these days.
  • arerugī – アレルギー allergy. I bet it took you a minute to get that one!
  • sedai – 世代 generation. Used to specify a certain age range.
  • Dō omoimasuka - どう思いますか? “What do you think?” A question hardly ever asked in Japan.

Summer Tofu

Kyoto has the best tofu in Japan. No joke. There are still plenty of mom and pop mise that make it each day and even more resutoran that feature tofu. I’m guessing it would take over a year to try them all out. Maybe five years. I’m surprised that nobody has written an in-depth book on Kyoto tofu. It could probably be an hyakkajiten.

At my house. Hint: using a serrated knife to cut the tofu helps it hold the soy sauce.

For summer, the obvious choice is a dish called hiyayakko. It is simply cold tofu (a soft kind) garnished with green onion, katsuoboshi, perhaps a bit of shōga and eaten with soy sauce. There are a lot of variations with the point being that cold tofu is simply so refreshing on a hot day. Needless to say, the quality of the tofu counts big time here!

One summer day when I was riding my jitensha down some side streets in Kyoto, I noticed something curious at a small tofu shop. It was obviously tofu, but in a shape I’d never seen before. (Wikipedia calls it “dome-shaped.”) The top of it was dusted with some green flakes of aonori. I wondered what it was and asked the shopkeeper who told me it was called karashidōfu or mustard tofu. He also told me how to eat it.

You take your ohashi and gently cut it in half. That exposes the dollop of mustard inside of the tofu. Next you add soy sauce and swirl the mustard into it. And eat! So refreshing!

I wondered about the yurai, but I didn’t find much information from Ms. Google. It may have originated in Gifu Prefecture about seventy years ago. So it isn’t all that old. But if you should ever be in Kyoto during the summer it is worth looking out for.

And of course, here is where I get to gripe about modern times. I bet you can find it in a sūpā and I bet you can find it in many other cites in Japan. I hope you don’t find it in the winter. But we humans are now so intent upon getting what we want when we want it and where we want it. Kind of takes the “special” out of it.

I have not seen this kind of tofu in America. Yet. Have you?

  • mise – 店 shop or store
  • resutoran – レストラン restaurant
  • hyakkajiten – 百科事典 encyclopedia. Literally “100 category dictionary”
  • hiyayakko – 冷奴 cold tofu dish
  • katsuoboshi – 鰹節 bonito flakes. Used in so many dishes and also to make dashi.
  • shōga – 生姜 ginger. Please note that you can’t use this for the pickled ginger served with sushi. Sushi has its own vocabulary for things.
  • jitensha – 自転車 bicycle
  • aonori – 青のり green seaweed flakes. Often used on okonomiyaki. What does it taste like? Nothing really. But it looks pretty.
  • karashidōfu – 辛子どうふ mustard tofu. A speciality food of Kyoto in the summer months
  • ohashi – お箸 chopsticks
  • yurai – 由来 origin, roots
  • sūpā – スーパー supermarket

The Carrot

This is a story I have told often. It is a story that brought an aha moment. Not just an aha moment, but an aha moment when I realized that I’d wronged someone else. Most aha moments seem to be about a self-realization, or an intellectual or philosophical revelation. This one was an aha moment with deep remorse. Those are the ones that stay with you.

Kyoto is a university town. It is often compared to Boston, and they have a shimai toshi relationship. Kyoto values the students because so much of their income comes from these students. The school I was teaching at catered mostly to college students, but had a unique set-up that brought in all types of people, mostly mavericks. There were no real classes at REC. We taught conversational English through having conversations. There were kyōkasho, but the teachers were free to go off on tangents, and only used the kyōkasho with very low level students, or when met with a wall of silence. Students came in anytime during the day, signed in with their names and English level, and then took a seat in the waiting room. REC was first come, first served. We teachers took a look at the sign-in sheet and took in either one student or a group up to four, if they were at similar levels. A lesson with just one student would last for 20 minutes. The time increased depending on the number of students one teacher took. All lessons were together in a big room with round tables. It looked a little like a kissaten without coffee or snacks, and there was a comfortable noise level.

Sakamoto-san and I at a holiday party.

Sakamoto-san was an unusual student. Most of our students were college-age, or college graduates. We had shūfu and older women coming in early in the afternoon or morning. We had a few elementary school age kids, and some very enthusiastic junior and high school kids. They were mostly onna no ko. And we had some otoshiyori, who amazingly had learned their English solely from watching NHK public television English lessons and broadcasts. Sakamoto-san stood out purely because of his educational background. That is, he appeared to have almost none at all.

In 1979 English was a mandatory subject in junior and senior high school. Anybody who had graduated from high school would have had six years of English. This did not mean they could speak it but it usually meant that they had a rudimentary grasp of bunpō and we could—by speaking slowly and writing down words—communicate with them. I suspected that Sakamoto-san had gone to a technical school, or had stopped his education after graduating from chūgakkō, which is when gimu kyōiku ends. He was in his late twenties and he usually came in after work, still wearing his suit. Yes, a suit, but a cheap one. I guessed he worked in some kind of service industry.

Sakamoto-san’s English level was the lowest of anyone I had taught. Though I would try to make conversation with him, it simply wasn’t possible to get very far. I would usually give up after five minutes, and turn to the kyōkasho. He simply needed practice and repetition. It was interesting that he’d chosen to study at a school like ours which was geared towards conversation, because he wasn’t at that level.

That night, we struggled to have a friendly conversation. I liked Sakamoto-san. He seemed nice and funny. I thought I’d enjoy his company if only we could communicate. I think he was amused by my efforts to communicate with him, and appreciated the effort. But soon enough, we got to the textbook.

After checking the notes on his records, we started a new chapter. I was happy to see that it was on colors. Everyone knew colors. This couldn’t be too difficult a lesson and I knew how I could jazz it up. So we started out with some sentence repetition, and color identification. Then it came time for me to ask him questions:

"What color is the sky?” I asked.
“The sky is blue,” answered Sakamoto-san. 
“What color is grass?”
“The grass is green,” came the answer.

This was going well, and I continued in this vein. When I came to the color orange, I asked an obvious one:

“What color are carrots?"
“Carrots are red,” said Sakamoto-san, stammering a little over the r sound.
“No, carrots are orange,” I said, since they are. (This was 1976.)

I wondered why in the world he’d said red. That had seemed like an easy one, but after correcting him, I moved on to another question.

The thing is, I remember something in his eyes. It’s something that others probably saw in my eyes over and over again, as I struggled to learn Japanese. It’s a reflection of the inner struggle and frustration that a person feels when they have something to communicate but realize that they are unable to do it because they don’t have the necessary language skills. I saw that moment in his eyes but I ignored it. Had to get through the lesson. And so we continued.

A couple of weeks later, on a free shūmatsu, I was riding my jitensha through a yet unexplored area of Kyoto. Kyoto is one of the easier cities to explore in Japan. It’s flat, and it is built on a grid. Even without a map, it is hard to get lost. I simply started out on a big street near my house and went north.

Eventually I came to what looked like a big farmer’s market. It was right on the street, so I hopped off my bicycle, and walked through it. I was always interested in finding new take-out foods, since I wasn’t doing much cooking in those days. And markets usually had take-out stalls.

The market was crowded, but not so crowded that I couldn’t leisurely stroll and stop to look without blocking the way of busy shūfu who tended to rule in these places. I was struck by all the yasai. So many shades of green, and they all looked so fresh. I couldn’t even imagine what kind of vegetables they were. Living in Kansas had given me no great wealth of knowledge to draw on, and I wasn’t any kind of cook at all. As I walked and marveled at the variety, I suddenly saw something red amidst all the green. In fact, it was no wonder I was drawn to the baskets of ruby red vegetables. The color and brilliance of it is almost indescribable. Ruby red said it best. Ruby red carrots.

When I returned to Kyoto in 2016, I made sure to take a photo of the red carrots

The minute I realized that these ruby red vegetables were carrots I stopped dead in my tracks. I was looking at red carrots for the first time in my life. And I was mortified. All I could think of was the look on Sakamoto’san’s face when I blithely corrected him about the color of carrots. Why hadn’t I stopped to give him the benefit of the doubt? Why hadn’t I asked him why he thought they were red? And mostly, who was I to assume that everything in Japan was the same as it was in the United States? I was deeply embarrassed and felt like the biggest fool in the world. I’d thought I was a relatively sensitive person.

Obviously I was a total idiot.

Packaged curry made with Kyo-yasai

So, the red carrots are something I have never forgotten. That moment of seeing them, and the aha moment when I realized that I’d made a wrong assumption. Years later, I was still wondering. Red carrots were a specialty of Kyoto. They are in a category of vegetables native to Kyoto called kyo-yasai, or Kyoto vegetables. Orange carrots are the norm in Japan, too. So, why did Sakamoto-san say red? Had he grown up on a Kyoto farm that grew red carrots? Was he from a traditional family and was he proud of kyo-yasai?

Back at work, I anxiously awaited Sakamoto’san’s next visit. It took a while before our paths crossed again, and we sat down together at a table to begin our lesson. I was eager to tell him that I knew why he said carrots were red, and I knew that I had been presumptuous to tell him he was wrong. I wanted to apologize to him. I needed to apologize to him. And as I sat there, I realized that there was no way to explain this to him in simple English. I could only give it my best try. And, so I did. I told him I’d seen the red carrots. I told him I was sorry that I didn’t know that carrots could be red in Japan. I told him it was the first time I’d seen a red carrot, and that I was so very sorry for presuming that carrots were orange. I explained over and over again. Sakamoto-san smiled. He wasn’t understanding a word of it. But he was smiling because he could see that something was important to me, and he wanted to give me some assurance that he was listening. It was a moment that I could not undo, nor make up for.

Sakamoto-san continued to come to REC to study English. He didn’t improve much at all. But he was a constant reminder to me to slow down and take the time to listen and ask questions. I tried to throw my
presumptions out the window and I think I became a better person for it.

***And as I write this in 2022, I see all kinds of carrots; my Trader Joe has purple ones, white ones, etc. But at the time, it was as surprising to me as it would be to see a purple hamburger…. (which I hope I never do see….)

  • shimai toshi – 姉妹都市 sister city. Kyoto has a number of these relationships. For the US, it is Boston.
  • kyōkasho – 教科書 textbook
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop
  • onna no ko – 女の子 girl, young girl
  • otoshiyori – お年寄り senior citizen
  • bunpō – 文法 grammar
  • chūgakkō – 中学校 junior high school or middle school
  • gimu kyōiku – 義務教育 mandatory education. In the USA, it is until age 16. In Japan it is until the end of junior high school. This makes a lot more sense, right? Think about it.
  • shūmatsu – 週末 weekend
  • yasai – 野菜 vegetable(s)
  • kyo-yasai – 京野菜 a term for the speciality vegetables grown in Kyoto which include round eggplant, red carrots and much more. Google it.

Would You?

On one of her visits to Japan, my mother made the following comment: “If I lived here, I’d never cook.” As a New York City dweller who always cooked, this is kind of funny because NYC certainly has its share of take-out available. Or delivery. But it is simply nothing compared to the huge variety that Japanese depachika and shopping streets provide.

Persimmon and turnip salad next to chicken liver.

Yet, I hardly availed myself of this option, either. Because Japanese cooking uses the same seasonings over and over, each household develops their own ofukuro no aji based on the proportions used. I’ve already talked about the difference in flavor between Kansai and Kanto, but it goes further than that. In my own household, I tend to season in a Kansai type way, but perhaps a little sweeter than most. So that’s what my kids are used to as well.

And then there’s the whole discussion about whether takeout food is even healthy. I think Japan fares better in that respect, if only because there are so many options. Take a look at the makaroni sarada pictured below. That’s the label on it, but can you even see the makaroni? Proportion wise, I think it has less macaroni and more healthy ingredients than a macaroni salad in the USA would.

Macaroni salad at Nishiki market

One thing I WOULD buy eagerly in Japan would be deep-fried items. Often I’d see venders right outside a supermarket doing the frying right before my eyes. So, I’d know it was freshly fried and hadn’t been sitting there for a few days. A sure hit with customers. Pictured below is a chocolate korokke. A novelty item, no doubt. Nope… not interested!

Chocolate korokke which I never tried
  • depachika – デパ地下 refers to the basement of a department store. There you will find what amounts to both a supermarket and a food hall. Not to be missed.
  • ofukuro no aji – お袋の味 the taste of mom’s home cooking
  • Kansai – 関西 Western Japan
  • Kanto – 関東 Eastern Japan
  • makaroni sarada – マカロニサラダ macaroni salad
  • korokke – コロッケ croquette

Recipe Day

Japanese katei ryōri can be as easy or as difficult as you choose to make it. Cooking Japanese food outside of Japan means either substituting for many items, or limiting what you cook. And, if like me, you don’t live near one of the big Japanese markets, you’re out of luck, though I do have a small Japanese grocer an hour or so down the highway, so it’s not all bad. And in the summer there’s a Japanese farmer who sells at my local Japanese farmer’s market. Rakkī !

Today I have aspara. Coincidentally it is aspara season in Japan as well. How do I know this? Because I’m a long time reader of Japanese cooking magazines like Orenji Pēji and Retasu Kurabu. And there are always seasonal themes.

These magazines give you a good picture of what’s popular each month

The easiest thing I’m going to do with aspara is to grill it in the air fryer with shio/kosho and maybe a bit of remon. The second easiest is to grill it and then put katsuobushi on top with a little shōyu. Katsubushi keeps in the pantry and can be used in so many ways. The next easiest thing I’m going to do with grilled asparagus is to cut it prettily into inch-long pieces and pour a mixture of 1 tablespoon of dashi and 1/2 tablespoon of shōyu + 1/2 a teaspoon of mirin over it. And garnish with some ground sesame.


There are plenty of Japanese cooking sites out there that can do recipes better than I can. And if you have shōyu, sake, mirin, satō and rice vinegar, you’re pretty much set!

  • katei ryōri – 家庭料理 home cooking
  • Rakkī – ラッキー Lucky!!
  • aspara – アスパラ asparagus
  • Orenji Pēji – オレンジぺーじ Orange Page. The name of a popular women’s magazine that comes out twice a month. It’s fairly cheap and geared towards housewives and mothers.
  • Retasu Kurabu – レタスクラブ Lettuce Club. The name of a popular women’s magazine that comes out twice a month. It’s fairly cheap and geared towards housewives and mothers.
  • shio/kosho – 塩・胡椒 salt/pepper
  • remon – レモン lemon
  • katsuobushi – 鰹節 bonito flakes. Used in so many dishes and also to make dashi.
  • shōyu – 醤油 soy sauce. You need to memorize this term if you haven’t already. It’s a must know!
  • dashi – だし a Japanese broth used for miso soup and other cooking. You can buy instant or make your own.
  • mirin – みりん Is there English for mirin? I don’t think there is. It’s a kind of sweet sake used for cooking.
  • satō – 砂糖 sugar

I think it’s alive!

That’s what I thought the first time I saw the katsuobushi dancing!

The first time I ever saw and ate katsuobushi was the first time that I had okonomiyaki. This is a Japanese food that has recently appeared in America and is gaining some popularity. I guess you call it a savory pancake. Back in the day, some called it a Japanese pizza. It comes in all sorts of unGodly combinations now, but in the 1970s there were really only four kinds: pork, beef, shrimp, and squid or octopus. You’d sit at a table with a griddle in the middle and your waiter would bring you a bowl of ingredients with a tamago cracked over it. You had to mix it well before pouring it on to the griddle. Then you had to patiently wait until the right time to flip it. That was the hard part and required some bīru… because you’d be getting hot from the griddle no matter what the season.

When I went back to Kyoto in 2016, much had changed but this shop where I first ate okonomiyaki in 1976 was still there! Kind of amazing, really!

After you flipped it, you’d paint it with sauce, flecks of green seaweed and then the katsubushi which would immediately begin to dance. So, you know it is fish and surely it isn’t alive, but why the heck is it DANCING! It’s odd. The seaweed and sauce are content to just “be” but the katsuobushi dances for a while before settling down. It’s a little bukimi if you aren’t used to it.

It’s something to do with the heat. The daintily shaved flakes of bonito just can’t help themselves. Sprinkle them over any hot food and they will be dancing away, much to the amusement of children.

Since they keep well in the pantry, they are an essential and staple food in any Japanese household. Most people buy them in packs, but people used to shave them themselves, or get them freshly shaved from a vendor. If you ever can get them freshly shaved it is a real treat!

  • katsuobushi – 鰹節 bonito flakes. Used in so many dishes and also to make dashi.
  • okonomiyaki – お好み焼き a savory pancake that you cook on a grill. Osaka and Hiroshima are both famous for their versions.
  • tamago – たまご egg
  • bīru – ビール beer. If you don’t draw out that i sound you’ll be saying building instead of beer!
  • bukimi – 不気味 eerie, weird