As I continue pushing forward to my eventual departure, I find myself thinking about some of my favorite anecdotes from my time in Japan. No wonder — despite spending a relatively short period of my life in the Land of Amaterasu, it has remained a touchstone in my life as a traveler, a historian, and a citizen of this verdant ball of life.
Our Story Begins with Misunderstanding
Keiko, my host mother, always gave me far too much credit as far as my Japanese ability was concerned. Sure, I could hold my own in a conversation and like many who grew up idolizing different parts of Japanese culture, I could espouse on the differences between the Tokugawa and Meiji periods, all while talking fairly confidently about whatever anime was playing that season. In short, being a nerd, just as I am now, helped get me through otherwise challenging cultural gaps that I managed to skip in Nagoya, but I will undoubtedly continue to face elsewhere.
My weak spot was always food. I knew sushi, I knew ramen, and that was about it. Keiko had spent everyday for months cooking just as she would for her family if I weren’t there, ensuring that every wisp of soy scented smoke that bounced across my lips as I lay barely awake each morning and as I lay down to sleep at night was authentic to her and her family. From natto, a fermented soybean and bacterium nightmare, to sukiyaki, she formed my palette in a way that still informs every bit of Japanese cooking I taste, whether it’s ramen from Rochester or a piece of tuna sliced fresh in Fukuoka.
About halfway through my first trip, my wonderful host mother took up a habit of teasing me with tidbits about the next morning’s meal. Sure, I could rely on the salty-savory blend of Nagoya’s special hatcho miso, a chocolatey, malted version of the near ubiquitous soup, and without fail, a cup of warm, white rice would be there, too, along with chopped cabbage and sliced tomatoes. The surprise was always the protein. Most mornings, it was a piece of salted salmon or a fried egg magically secured atop a ham round — to this day I’ve never mastered that particular preparation.
One evening after dinner, just before I retired for my bath/studies, Keiko began to talk of the next day’s breakfast with a look of glee dawning on her remarkably youthful face.
“Charlie,” she began, “tomorrow, we’ll have tako for breakfast!”
“Taco!” I shouted in excitement, thinking she meant some fusion of Mexican food with Japanese cuisine.
What’s in a Name?
The night peaked and fell, as it always did, with a hot bath, an endless stream of characters I struggled to grasp and, finally, sleep. I awoke at dawn with Keiko’s ever chipper, “Charlie, gohan- yo!” Breakfast! making my way to the kitchen through the muggy, juniper scented summer morning to the small kitchen where my host father, brother, and smiling host-mother waited for me to sit before eating.
Now, imagine my surprise to find nothing resembling a lovingly folded tortilla around filling. Instead, the usual suspects sat alluringly in front of me. Salted steam lifted off a bowl of carefully crafted miso, while a cup of green tea sat near-boiling inches from my plate. Where the protein normally sat on the plate, there was neither egg nor salmon nor taco — there was, however, a baby octopus.
Photo property of Flickr’s Photocapy
Rightly thinking there was some confusion on my part, I set about eating the expertly prepared food; Keiko’s cooking remains the pinnacle of Japanese food to me. With no grain of rice left to pick at, no baby clam still nestled in its shell within the rich miso broth, I reached with my chopsticks to the lone octopus resting on my plate. Observing what others had done, I placed the whole of the little beast into my waiting maw and set my chompers to work.
Crunch! the sound seemed to echo through my head, teeth chewing through elastic flesh and bird-like beak. In all truth, it was a delicious morsel that danced in textured steps across the tongue.
“How is the tako?” Keiko asked as I chewed.
Only then did I realize my ignorance. Tako, as I came to find out, is the Japanese word for octopus. Looking back on it, there is no good reason why she would have offered me Mexican food for breakfast nor is there any reason a light didn’t go off in my head to maybe look up the word “tako” in my dictionary. It was this experience, strangely, that gave me my love of the unexpected and my willingness to embrace the unknown on the road. I’m smart enough to look up strange words that sound a little too familiar now.
And to think it all came from an octopus.