After graduating from Temple, I took a trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima with my parents and my grandmother. The plan was that we’d return to America together, but I regretted that I wouldn’t be able to have a going away party with all my friends.
My parents agreed to change my ticket, so I could stay a couple weeks longer. I had my apartment for as long as I wanted, and there was nothing in particular for which I needed to hurry home. So once I finished my exams, we took off for Kyoto.
I was pretty worried about my language skills, because I had been told repeatedly that Kansai Japanese is totally different from textbook Japanese. I spoke fine back then, but I wasn’t fluent. I had nightmares of not even being able to order food. When we got off the train in Kyoto, I asked a lady at the station information desk how to get to the New Miyako Hotel. Of course, I asked her in Japanese.
She wrote the name of the hotel in English. I stood there for a moment. I looked at her, and then I looked at the paper. Then I looked back at my parents, who were standing near the doorway. I looked at the station staff member, and I asked, “Where?” in the local tongue.
She was pretty embarrassed, and she drew me a little map. She also pointed and told me, “You can’t miss it.”
We checked our bags in at the hotel because our rooms weren’t ready. In defense of the New Miyako, it was morning, and we arrived early to get on a tour bus. We rode through the city, and out to Nara, where we saw a giant Buddha statue inside an even bigger wooden temple. Outside of this temple, Todaiji, you can buy some kind of crackers or biscuits which are meant for deer. Once you get your hands on some, you have new friends.
These deer will stick their faces in your ass. They’ll try to open your bags. They’ll peck at your rig. They’ll try to bite off your hand when you feed them. They’re not particularly violent, they’re just hungry. Of course, I bought a bunch of crackers, or biscuits, or whatever they were. I feel like my dad took some pictures, but I don’t remember seeing any.
The bus took us around to a few more sites and I became acquainted with wisterias. The wisteria is a beautiful flower. It’s no wonder that its Kanji symbol is used in seven out of every three Japanese surnames. We stood under a canopy of them on some forgotten path in the Nara woods of April, and I thought to myself, “When I go home in two weeks, there’s no way I can let it be my last time in Japan.”
I had very little trouble ordering food that night, but I didn’t know exactly how to read the menus. We ate ramen in a truly diminutive shopping mall. I think it consisted of like six restaurants, a travel agency, and a place to take passport photos. I had to point to the pictures because I wasn’t familiar with the type of ramen. Kanji symbols aren’t so simple to read. There’s no inspecting letters, no sounding it out phonetically. It was really embarrassing to have my family see that. I swore to myself that was the last time on the trip. I made a point of impressing them with my ability.
That leads us to the next night we went out in Kyoto, which could have been the following evening, or it may have been a couple days later. There was a day trip to Hiroshima mixed in there somewhere, and that night, we just went to a chain izakaya and had Ramune sours with egg mayo pizza.
The night I’m talking about, we walked the streets of Gion, and were lucky enough to see a sampling of three different types of Japanese performing arts. We watched Noh, Kabuki, and one other thingy. We’re open-minded folks, but when we walked out of the theater, we didn’t really say much. I don’t remember who broke the ice, but someone said, “Was anyone else kind of creeped out?” We had a pretty good giggle.
Gion is absolutely marvelous, but it wasn’t my favorite spot in Kyoto. Kiyomizudera is right up there near the top of the list of most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. So, aside from that, a night on the streets in Kyoto’s geisha district is most apt to have you re-thinking what you’ve made of yourself. Just try to avoid going in late April, May, June, July, August, September, or maybe even early October. The main shrine was adorned with lit red lanterns, and for some reason, nobody else was there. We did a lot of staring. That was all after dinner though.
Before all that, we took a taxi straight from the hotel to a small restaurant just down the street from the shrine, near the theater we’d eventually walk to for the Kabuki and stuff. The driver dropped us off right at the door, and he may have even walked us in and introduced us. I might be filling that in with my imagination, though.
It was a small place. When you entered through the sliding wooden door, which faced the sidewalk, you could reach the bar if you had arms. I noticed three or four salarymen sitting on bar stools to the left of where I stood. The master welcomed us and motioned for us to sit at the one table which had space for four. It was to my right. That’s all that this restaurant was. Four stools and a four-seater table. The hotel called ahead for us that day or maybe one before, so we were expected.
I surprised the master, his wife, and the few other patrons at the bar with my language ability, which was petty bull compared to what it is now. Nonetheless, it was a spectacle. We made small talk, and I told them about my studies, my family’s visit, and our plans for the evening. We were the toast of the tavern, at least for a moment.
We had some options. They asked me if there was anything we couldn’t eat, so I said, “Peaches,” and all the salarymen laughed. I asked the big kids, and my mom said, “Octopus and squid, and stuff like that.” My grandma seconded.
The master’s wife understood what they said, so she checked with me, and I affirmed. I think I also added something trivial like mustard. She relayed the information to the master, and he muttered benevolently that they “don’t usually serve octopus or squid anyway.” The bar crowd chuckled.
Now, Japanese culture is what is referred to as “high-context”. A brief example to help illustrate what that means is the issue of my inclusion in a school field trip. In 2011, I was working at two all-girls high schools in Ishinomaki City. One of them was totally destroyed by a tsunami. As a gesture of support, the city of Osaka arranged for transportation, lodging, and a stipend for that year’s trip, so long as the trip was to Osaka. Perfect. They probably would have gone there anyway. When I first heard about this, I was very happy for my students (a group of around one hundred girls, aged sixteen and seventeen). The dream of most teachers in my program was to go on a school trip with the students. My partner teacher, Erika, said, “Hey, why don’t I ask the principal if you can come with us?” I was shocked, assuming that it was out of the question. She had been at the school for ten years though, and she thought it was a good idea. Now, in a low-context culture, the principal would say, “No. Are you kidding?” Low-context people use definitive statements and provide little room for interpretation. Japan, though, is not one of those cultures. So when Erika asked the principal about taking me, he said, “Absolutely not. That will not work.” Not very Japanese of him.
Back to Kyoto. The master and his wife (or the master and her husband, either way) started planning the meal, and I heard the words for squid and octopus again. My mistake was that I dismissed it as chatter. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d not mentioned my own distaste for blobby weirdfish with a million legs. Then, the master told the other gents that they didn’t usually serve it.
Being the high-context culture that Japanese is, when I confirmed that the ladies were the ones who didn’t want squid or octopus, I was, by proxy, special-ordering it for my dad and myself. It didn’t hit me until they brought out our appetizers. The ladies got something that looked very nice. It was thickly-sliced ham with a mustard sauce.
The owner (the female one) brought out two bowls and placed one in front of each Corbett man at the table and walked away. In perfect synchronization, we looked down, looked straight ahead, turned to each other, and made the “Oh shit!” face. Three thumb-sized, purple and white squids were sitting intact, on rice in each of our bowls. I think I saw one move, and they were definitely looking at me. When I picked one up to inspect it, some grains of rice stuck to the thing, and I thought about coating the whole guy with a rice layer. I decided that would slow me down, and my best bet was to maximize efficiency. I felt some cultural insensitivity coming on.
We ordered more drinks.
I had one specimen, swallowed it whole. I thought of my stomach as a miniature sea, and of the creature as an old, old wooden ship. When I stood, the ocean was upright and the U.S.S. Diversity sat floating near the top of my midsection. As I fell onto the firm bed at the New Miyako, rogue waves splashed the little guy around so he touched all my inner walls. He righted himself just under my abdomen, and enjoyed a moonless night on soft seas. For the next few days (until I was sure he had been passed), I repeatedly cringed, kicked, and writhed at the thought of what I had done.
Mr. Corbett was much better about it. He had two.