Coffee’s Comfort

Thanks for being patient with me, dear readers. New recipes and photos will be on the way soon. In the meantime, here’s a little food for thought.

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Several weeks ago, a friend brought an inspiring film to my attention. The film tells the story of Yoshi Masuda, whose singular devotion to coffee propelled him to pursue an unusual mission on Japan’s devastated northeastern coast. Following last year’s disaster, Masuda launched a mobile coffee operation, Hope Cafe, to provide victims with a hot cup of coffee, vintage gramophone tunes, and hopefully some semblance of normalcy and cheer. In the film, we see Masuda’s sunny yellow VW van making its way across the gray, rubble-strewn coast, puncturing the motionless, ruined landscape with an unexpected jolt of color and movement. He sets up shop along roadsides, in parking lots, and inside makeshift tarpaulin tents. Throughout the film, the scope of the devastation is only hinted at, but these scenes tell us everything: places of public gathering have all but disappeared, and only scraps of space remain. Given the circumstances, it is easy to imagine that the total functionality of the Masuda’s cafe – the impeccably conditioned van, the mechanical beauty of the coffee grinders and record players, and even Masuda’s own ritualized, precise movements – bring some sense of order to a place where the frailty of human structures has been painfully and violently revealed.

Although Masuda clearly takes pleasure in sharing his passion with others, he also recognizes the limits of coffee’s powers. Unlike food, coffee is not necessary to human survival; it is first and foremost a luxury, albeit one that is affordable, easily shared, and enjoyed by many. To this end, Masuda’s view of his operation is humble; besides coffee, he offers survivors a chance to return to everyday pleasures: good company, laughter, and the warmth of a newly forged friendship. Entering the cafe, customers transition from the sensory deprivation wrought by grief into a positively enlivened space: lilting notes from Masuda’s gramophone intermingle with the pleasingly rough sound of coffee beans in a manual grinder, a brightly painted red kettle offers a flash of color; watching the film, one can almost smell the heady, intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed coffee. With his perfect English, impeccably trimmed beard, eccentric glasses, and dandyish wardrobe, Masuda himself seems to bring a spark of frivolity to those whose lives have been reduced to the bare necessities of survival. Perhaps most importantly, Masuda’s “customers” receive the assurance that they have not been forsaken, and that small fragments of pleasure can still be eked out of their fractured lives. Armed with this knowledge, one hopes, perhaps the painful process of putting together the pieces can become slightly more bearable.

Finally, the film offers a personal tale of disaster’s regenerative possibilities. Through Masuda, we recognize how disaster forces us to question the purpose and significance of our daily actions. Faced with disaster, our first instinct is often to recoil in horror, thankful for our own safety. Next we give money, assuming this is the most useful way we can be of help. Unsurprisingly, these monetary gestures prove to be unsatisfying; as anyone who had ever given to charity soon realizes, the act is fraught with feelings of guilt, complacency, and denial. It is hard to argue with money’s efficiency and speed, but Masuda shows us that any passion, no matter how seemingly insignificant or idiosyncratic, can offer far more transformative potential. Although we may not all be able to follow his example, we could certainly stand to learn from it.

One Year Later

Today marks one year after last year’s disaster in Japan. At that time, I was living in Saitama prefecture, just north of Tōkyō. Although the earthquake was powerful there as well, some 230 miles from the epicenter, our lives were in no way immediately endangered by the resulting tsunami and nuclear crisis. The memories of that day are still vivid and painful, and writing about them has been difficult. In retrospect, however, my experience seems trivial in comparison to that of the thousands who lost their families, homes, and livelihoods.

Today, please take a moment to think of the people of Tōhoku and consider supporting one of the following relief efforts:

Thank you all for your support. It means the world to me and my friends in Japan.

- Emma

The Peko Peko Cookbook is for Sale!

I’m very excited to announce that Peko Peko, a collaborative charity cookbook for Japan, is now for sale!

The book, which was curated and organized by Marc of No Recipes, Rachael of La Fuji Mama, and Stacie of One Hungry Mama, contains over fifty Japanese and Japanese-inspired recipes accompanied by beautiful color photos, shot by Marc. My own contribution, a vegetarian take on unagi made from deep-fried sweet potato patties, was inspired by a recipe from Noriko Sugita-Becraft, an Oregon-based artist.

Each book costs $29.95, $11.45 of which goes to GlobalGiving. (For more on GlobalGiving and their mission in Japan, check out this page.) The remainder goes toward printing and shipping. Neither Blurb nor any of the contributors, editors, or designers will receive anything. Not a penny.

But this book is not about me, nor is it about any of the other contributors (wonderful writers, cooks, and photographers though they may be). It is about Japan and its people, and about showing our support for them in this time of need.

You can preview and purchase the book here.

I’ve bought my copy.  Have you?

Peko Peko: A Charity Cookbook for Japan

Hello all!  I’m very excited to announce a wonderful new fundraising project I’m participating in. Peko Peko: A Charity Cookbook for Japan is a collaboration among three very talented food bloggers: Stacie of One Hungry Mama, Rachael of La Fuji Mama, and Marc of No Recipes. My contribution to the book, a recipe for fried sweet potato and nori patties, will be in great company thanks to dozens of other contributors from around the world.

The book is still in development, but the finished product is sure to be a knockout, packed with delicious Japanese recipes, not to mention gorgeous color photographs. Better yet, one hundred percent of the profits will go toward relief efforts in Japan (though the charitable organization is to be determined).

In the coming weeks, I’ll provide more information on where you can purchase the book, as well as on the recipient of the profits. In the meantime, please check out the website, PekoPekoCookbook.com, or e-mail info@pekopekocookbook.com for more information. Thanks!

- Emma

Aftermath & Afterthoughts

Dear friends, family, former teachers, and those I haven’t met: thank you all for your kind, heartfelt comments and e-mails over the past week. They have helped me cope as I watch this incomprehensibly catastrophic situation unfold. I’m now back in the States for a few weeks, biding my time, so I thought I’d write an update about life near Tōkyō in the days following the earthquake.

*****

Even several days after the initial quake, the ground swayed almost continuously, giving everyone the feeling that we were on a very large ship, riding swells on the open sea. Although both the strength and frequency of the aftershocks seemed to be declining, everyone was gripped by dread. The stress of seemingly endless tremors was compounded by fears of blackouts, water shortages, and nuclear contamination. Many were still waiting to hear from relatives in the north, even as it became apparent that there would be thousands who would not respond. The strain showed in my colleagues’ red, tired eyes; in the crowds of nervous smokers gathered outside shuttered train stations; and in the sleep-deprived faces of government officials on TV.

Even before TEPCO announced its plan to implement rolling blackouts, rumors had been circulating that there might be power failures and water shortages. On Saturday night, one day after the quake, I sped off on my bike toward the supermarket. By the time I’d arrived, all the bottled water had sold out, as well as most dried and instant foods. I bought a few liters of apple juice and a lemony sports drink, the closest things I could find to plain water, plus some canned food and energy bars. At another store, I picked up candles and a tiny 100 yen flashlight, to supplement the small but powerful light on my cell phone. The store was out of batteries, leaving me with only the test battery that came with the flashlight. The candles turned out to be practically useless, both for safety reasons and because I had nothing to hold them in. In other words, I was still woefully unprepared for a second potential disaster, with no radio, no fire extinguisher, no supply of fresh water, and not nearly enough food.

By Sunday, it was clear that the situation in Fukushima had become more dire. The information coming from government press conferences seemed to contradict what the foreign press was reporting – a discrepancy that would become even more troubling over the coming days. Paranoid about the prospect of radiation in the air, I shut off the air conditioner, my one source of heat. After spending the morning glued to the computer, I went to the office, hoping to get some work done. Over the course of seven hours I accomplished very little, mostly watching NHK World broadcasts and obsessively monitoring the location and strength of aftershocks on the Japan Meteorological Agency’s website. At some point, I had to stop watching the news. The footage was simply too heartbreaking. Seeing old women wrapped in blankets, sobbing over the loss of their husbands, children and friends; a grown man weeping as he recounted a narrow escape… To have been so present – to have heard the sounds of twisting metal, cracking wood, rushing water – must have been truly horrifying.

On Sunday evening, TEPCO announced that it would begin rolling blackouts throughout the Kantō region early Monday morning. I woke up early the next day – 5:45 – to beat the first blackout, which was scheduled to commence at 6:20 in my area. Outside, the usually noisy train tracks were silent, the stillness of early morning only intensifying the eerie quiet. (The blackout was later canceled, but many trains remained out of service.) Despite the lack of rail service, those who were able to come to work did. One doctor, arriving at noon, announced that it took him eight hours – by train, bus, and foot – to get to the hospital. Another biked one and a half hours from a neighboring prefecture, and yet another took an extremely expensive taxi from southern Tōkyō. Driving was still possible, though it became less feasible in the coming days, as gasoline rationing was imposed and blackouts wreaked havoc on traffic signals.

As you might expect, little work was accomplished on Monday. Minds were distracted by the bleak news from Tōhoku, few patients came, and many appointments were canceled. We spent our hours in limbo, the uncertainly becoming ever more oppressive, unsure of even when the lights would go out. Many of my colleagues left early, rushing home to eat before the next blackout. More importantly, they wanted to be with their families – some lived with elderly parents, and many had young children. I envied them, thinking about my boyfriend in Nagano, his relatives in Hokkaidō and Oregon, my family in New York and elsewhere.

Another sleepless night. I woke up twice, bed shaking and walls creaking. The second time, I rolled straight onto the floor and under the table. I considered sleeping there, then thought better of it and returned to bed.

When I entered the office Tuesday morning, I ran into my boss. He had been remarkably calm for the past few days, but now he seemed genuinely worried. The situation at Fukushima seemed to be deteriorating rapidly, and it was unclear what would happen next. He urged me to leave Tōkyō as soon as possible, recommending that I take the shinkansen to Ōsaka and fly out of Kansai airport. Go home for a while, he said, but please come back. I promised I would.

The scene at Tōkyō station was not comforting. Long lines snaked around the ticket counters, anxiety etched into the faces of hundreds of people hoping to flee west. Reserved seats were selling out quickly. There were many mothers with young children and grandparents, but husbands and fathers were few and far between. On the train, I sat next to a woman with her son, perhaps around three years old, and daughter, a year or two younger. They were well-behaved children, enjoying the ride, oblivious to the threat their mother was trying to save them from.

*****

Following the emotional and teary goodbye with my coworkers, I immediately felt a crushing guilt for leaving them behind. I was being a selfish American, thinking only of my interests while they forged on together. Furthermore, I was lucky enough to have somewhere else to go. Many of them had no choice but to stay, either because of family and work obligations, or due to a larger sense of social responsibility. This sense of solidarity – of individual sacrifice for the sake of the group – is often cast in a negative light outside Japan, but its importance in this crisis cannot be understated. Without it, panic would surely have descended over Tōkyō, which would be a disaster in its own right. (Can you imagine how different the response would have been had a similar crisis occurred in the States?)

Some might argue that Japanese citizens have been too passive in demanding facts about the spread of radiation, given the seriousness of the situation at the Fukushima power plant. While I acknowledge that the Japanese government has been less than forthcoming in its briefings, I also believe that the disconnect in reportage between Japan and America can be at least partly attributed to differences in communication between the two cultures. Forthrightness and directness are not as highly valued in Japan as they are in America – it is better to accept bad news gracefully, and a smile can mean many things. Furthermore, it may be that the Japanese recognize that the implicit purpose of these vague reports is to maintain calm and order.

Although the American media’s inflammatory and sensationalist reporting on the crisis is not surprising, I still can’t help but wish it were more balanced, with less focus on the situation in Fukushima. While the threat of a meltdown is certainly terrifying (and attracts viewers), real problems remain in the earthquake and tsunami-ravaged regions. Besides the unimaginable destruction and loss of life, what is perhaps most tragic is that many of these towns have been literally wiped off the map. Like much of rural Japan, the population of the hardest-hit regions was largely elderly and thus even more vulnerable to disaster. Moreover, these towns were likely facing the threat of extinction even prior to the crisis. As more young people flee to Tokyo, Osaka, and other large cities, the future of Japan’s small agricultural and fishing communities becomes ever more uncertain. While physical rebuilding is possible and will not doubt proceed, these towns will be shadows of their former selves.

Ultimately, the earthquake reminds us of our deep attachments to and identifications with places, revealing the raw psychological damage that is incurred when those places cease to exist. Japan is no stranger to annihilation, but this does not make the experience any less painful.

*****

The decision to leave Japan was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Although I hope to return in a few weeks, I am ashamed that I fled so easily. Peace of mind is no substitute, knowing that so many continue to live in fear, lacking food, water, and warmth. There’s also the fact that Japan is home (rather, one of many), and the first home I’ve really made for myself as an adult. To see this happen to your home… Well, it makes your heart hurt like nothing else. But I’m here now, trying not to dwell on the guilt and doing my best to spread awareness of the continuing humanitarian crisis in Miyagi, Iwate, Fukushima, and elsewhere. In that spirit, I’d strongly encourage you to donate to the relief effort, if you haven’t done so already. Although deliveries of supplies are slowly increasing, the need for blankets, clothing, food, and many other goods will remain for months to come.

If you can, please consider donating via one of the following organizations. Thank you.

Japanese Red Cross Society

Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund

International Medical Corps

The website New York Cares for Japan also has an extensive list of organizations you can donate to, as well as fundraisers and events in the New York area.

3.25.11 UPDATE: Fellow blogger Tokyo Terrace also has a good list of organizations accepting donations.

The Morning After

I’d like to preface this post by saying that my thoughts and condolences are with all those affected by the disaster that struck yesterday. What follows is an account of my earthquake experience, though it seems trivial in comparison to what many others are facing.

*****

It’s not quite 8:00 AM on Saturday in Japan, and I’ve already been awake for at least two hours. Last night’s sleep was fitful, restless – more like a series of short naps than a long, continued rest.

4:30 AM: My phone issues a frightening alarm, warning of an earthquake in Tochigi prefecture. Already half awake, I leap out of bed and open the already-unlocked door, in case it should become jammed. Standing in the threshold, I stare out the hallway window into the dark – the view shifts with the building, streetlights united in a jerky dance. An eerie alarm sounds throughout the neighborhood, the word jishin echoing into the night. Thirty seconds pass, and I return to bed.

6:30 AM: Another alarm, this time for Nagano prefecture. NHK reports the quake was magnitude 6.7, centered in the northern part of the prefecture that borders on Niigata.

Lying awake, I listen to the building creaking, faint little bursts of movement manifested as sound. If I weren’t so petrified by the thought of another aftershock, I might be able to focus on how amazing our earth is, how energy transmits through the mantle to the crust, how we’re just floating on the surface. As it is, I remain frozen, waiting for the next alarm.

*****

Yesterday, my colleagues and I were in the pleasant daze that often settles over the office after lunch. The room was quiet, and there was a sense of productivity in the air – fingers tapped away lightly on keyboards, people shuttled off to the outpatient area to deliver files, phone calls were fielded and directed.

I don’t quite remember when the shaking began, perhaps at around 2:30 PM. From that point on, though, I lost all track of time. The tremors worsened, rattling the framed accreditations on the wall. We gripped the desks, moving away from the towering bookshelves packed with medical textbooks and old computer equipment. The hospital’s public address system sounded into the office. The woman on the other end, usually calm, was clearly disturbed. The choking sound of fear crept into her voice.

At some point, someone opened the door. She noted that the heavy fire doors had already closed, blocking access to the elevator and wards. It was now difficult to remain standing, as the desk jerked violently back and forth. Unsure of what to do, I looked to my colleagues – most were standing in the center of the room, trying to remain calm. An iMac came crashing down from a bookshelf, prompting us to cry out. My manager looked at me, her face pale and eyes wide, and told me to go under the desk. I was already halfway there.

Gripping my head, I began to imagine what the building would look like collapsed. There would be no hope for us, crushed by the weight of the six floors above us. Should we all go outside? Stay here? Will I be able to reach my parents, my friends? When will this end? Someone whimpered from a corner.

At some point we reemerged, looking to each other for reassurance that the worst was over. No one was panicking. It was as if people had been preparing their entire lives for this one moment. In some sense, I suppose they had. Shaking, I bent over the desk, unsure of whether the ground was in fact still moving below me. Someone had turned on the TV; a map of the country was flashing, highlighting coastal areas at risk for a tsunami in red, pink, and yellow. Saitama prefecture and most of Tokyo appeared to be at low risk. A hospital guard wearing a white helmet came by to make sure there were no injuries. We assured him all was well and he continued his rounds.

A strong aftershock prompted me to dive under the desk again, this time gripping the legs for support. Thankfully, it was brief.

Finally, someone made a pot of strong tea and opened a box of cookies. Gathered around the television, we sipped nervously, gripping the cardboard cups with white knuckles, watching as rice fields were devoured by muddy, debris-strewn water. A ship floated inland, and houses were on fire. Cars and trucks continued to drive on nearby roads, oblivious of the threat or unable to make it in time. Soon, they had been swept away like toys. It was awful to watch.

*****

Later that evening, I went to dinner with a few colleagues at a local sushi restaurant. Grates had been pulled down at both train stations, leaving hundreds in the cold. Some waited patiently for local buses, while others simply sat on the ground, trying in vain to reach friends and relatives. The local convenience store was doing brisk business in onigiri and sandwiches. We quietly passed through the crowds, heads slightly bowed, as if in acknowledgment of the tragedy.

The mood at the restaurant was jovial, full of relief. We toasted our survival with wine, feeling guilty nevertheless. Silently, we wondered if relatives and friends in Ibaraki, Hokkaido, Niigata, and elsewhere were okay. Throughout the evening, the lights hanging from the ceiling swayed ominously.

*****

As I type this, there are nearly constant tremors. At this point, it feels more like the gentle swaying of a ship than an earthquake, but that’s no reason for complacency. Soon, I’ll take to the streets for a walk, trying to process what has happened, feeling closer to everyone in Japan as a result.