As anyone who’s worked at a small restaurant can tell you, living in the moment is par for the course. Indeed, it’s often the case that things never quite come together until the last minute. Whether it’s a pre-service dash to the deli to pick up soap or a moment of utter terror in which you realize you’ve forgotten to order extra fish for the Saturday night special, life in a tiny kitchen rarely provides time for introspection. This is simply the nature of the work, which is dependent on one’s ability to completely detach from larger life concerns. Once you’ve been on the other side of the wall (or counter, as the case may be), it can be hard to eat at any restaurant without feeling a profound sense of respect, patience, and appreciation for the unseen effort that goes into every refilled glass of water, gracefully opened bottle of wine, and perfectly executed quenelle of ice cream.
Just over three years ago, I was sitting in a frigid living room in central Japan, pondering the prospect of starting a blog (and struggling to find a fitting name for said blog). Six weeks into my new life there, the pace of discovery had been both exhausting and exhilarating. In that span of time, I had marveled at urban farms abutting highway exit ramps, transmission lines cutting through graveyards, utterly peculiar English signage, fanciful mash-ups of Western and Japanese architecture in Hakodate and Matsumoto, breathtaking rural scenery, and small slices of mundane beauty at every turn.
Yet what fascinated me most — and continues to hold me in thrall — was Japanese food. Everything, from the hearty rice bowls served at highway rest stops to deceptively simple soups, was prepared and served with a level of craftsmanship that is, I suspect, difficult to find anywhere else in the world. Despite Japan’s reputation for punishing work schedules and a general obsession with timeliness, there are places where the heartbeat of the culture slows just enough to remind you that time and our perception of its passage is entirely mutable. Food made with the degree of care lavished on it in Japan has a similar effect, momentarily expanding the relentless flood of minutes and seconds into hours. Although three years have flown by, there’s still a lot more to discover. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.
Several years ago, I spent a summer working at a small garden in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The work was sweaty and strenuous but also remarkably satisfying. My days were mostly occupied with transporting and turning compost, starting seedlings, mixing soil, watering, harvesting and drying herbs, and tending to vermicompost bins. One task that didn’t figure prominently into my daily routine, however, was weeding. Rather than spending hours uprooting every last foreign shoot from the beds and mulched paths, I took some advice from my supervisor, Martha, and let them take root. She taught me which varieties were edible and suggested ways to cook them. Lambs quarters, she warned, should be blanched first to remove any traces of toxic oxalic acid; amaranth leaves were better when young and tender. Armed with this knowledge, I returned home every week with armfuls of greens: peppery wild arugula and delicate lamb’s quarters were sautéed with garlic and plenty of olive oil before being incorporated into frittatas, blanched amaranths got tossed with spaghetti and salty cheese, and juicy purslane found its way into countless tomato and herb salads.
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.
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.
Ohisashiburi desu ne. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It feels good to be back, though in some sense I’m not really back but rather away. Pieces of this post were written some time ago, but as usual I let them languish in some dusty corner of my computer for weeks. Then in October I left Japan and embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, and now, France. (Next: Iceland.) Rest assured, though: I expect to resume a more normal posting schedule once I return to the States at the end of this month. Until then, here are some snapshots and musings from a very memorable meal.
Ohisashiburi desu! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It feels good to be back, though in some sense I’m not really back but rather away. Indeed, much has changed since my last post here. On October 24th, I boarded a plane at Tokyo’s Narita airport and bid a very teary farewell to my friends, colleagues, and adopted home for the past two years. Deciding to leave was not easy, and in the process I found myself grappling with many questions of belonging and place. Although my time in Japan was relatively short, much about my personality – and my way of viewing the world – has changed. Japan and the people I met there deepened my appreciation for community, trust, persistence, mutual respect, and teamwork. And although my family and upbringing in America taught me to be receptive of these values, Japan truly instilled them in me.
For now, however, the time has come for me to return to my family and friends in the States and pursue a new path. Please be assured, this does not mean Shichimi will become inactive. Although I will no longer be writing to you from Japan, I plan to continue exploring this marvelous cuisine and culture from afar. So please stay posted for more musings, photos, and recipes, and thanks for reading, as always.
For a long time, I fantasized about traveling past the sprawling metropolitan areas of Kantō and Kansai to western Japan, which I’d hoped would be less developed than the densely populated and heavily industrialized area I live in north of Tokyo. Perhaps it’s something in my Scandinavian-American blood, this incessant urge to go west and explore unseen lands. (Admittedly, the promise of new and interesting food factored into my thinking as well.) Having already seen two of Japan’s least populous prefectures, Shimane and Tottori, I decided to swing south to the Sanyō coast and travel west along the Seto Inland Sea, which some have called “the Mediterranean of Japan.”