Teaching In Socks


Naked and Confused
March 25, 2010, 4:02 pm
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During my “blog blackout” last month I made a short weekend trip to Kurayoshi in Tottori prefecture. Tottori prefecture is on the North side of Honshu (the Japanese “mainland”) and to get there I had to take the Super Hakuto train north, all the way across the island. I had never traversed the country from North to South before and it was quite interesting to watch the shifts in the landscape outside the window.

When foreigners list things they associate with Japan, the shifting landscape probably isn’t high on the list. This is unfortunate, because it’s kind of spectacular.  The numerous and lengthly tunnels couple with the quick progression from plains to field to mountains to coast line resembles the ride at Epcot–you know, in the good way, minus the space part and the talking Presidents.

I started in Aioi, along the coast of Seto Inland Sea, where it was cool and sunny. Within twenty minutes on the train the horizon was filled with sharp, gray mountain peaks and snow-blanketed fields. A handful of stops later, I was back again at sea-level, passing the famous sand dunes of Tottori and traveling alongside the Sea of Japan as waves crashed against the shore.

The abrupt transitions reminded me that I wasn’t in America. Back home it often always seems like you have to travel for days or jump on plane for the scenery to change significantly.

I headed to Tottori with my fiancée and her family for two reasons: Onsens (natural hot springs) and Crab meat. I can’t speak for the rest of Japan (although I think I do) but here in Hyogo, heading North to eat crab and sit in scorching hot water are a winter tradition.

Onsens have always kind of freaked me out. While Japanese culture highly values privacy, the notion of natural purity seems to supersede it. What I really mean is; at most onsens you are required to bath in them naked. There is usually a number of pools connected to the hot spring and they separate the men’s side and women’s side. Thus, when I go with my girlfriend, this basically leaves me stranded in terms of having a cultural consultant. Normally, I can hold my own, but onsens complicate the situation there is a strict code of etiquette at the onsens, (that involves bathing at certain times, not having tatoos and so forth) that is designed to maintain the purity of the water.

Now, I can get past the nudity (barely), and as you might have noticed from reading this blog, I have a wealth of experience in dealing with social faux pas. However, the one thing I dread is committing a faux pas while naked. Naked faux pas are like the sixth of Faux Paws hell (I saw six because I there must a be a seventh circle that I don’t want to–and hopefully am unable to–imagine).  Also, any transgressions is compounded by the fact that I am a foreigner– it’s not like I can blend in the with crowd or hope that an incident will slip anyone’s notice.

Now, I imagine that you, the reader, are anticipating some ripe and juicy story where I do something offensive and am chased down the streets, running to the embassy buck-naked.  Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you. I lucked out. First, we were traveling on a Sunday and Monday so the ryokan (Japanese style hotel) was fairly empty. In fact, at night I had the whole men’s side of the onsen, with four different onsens–two indoor and two outdoor, to myself. I could have swam laps ( sort of did, I ran around and jumped in every onsen for no explicable reason). The second day, I stumbled upon a poster in the changing room that outlined the proper onsen etiquette. For those interested it’s:

Step 1: Take a shower

Step 2: Get in the onsen.

Step 3: Don’t splash around or swim. Don’t eat food, don’t drink, don’t put your washcloth in the onsen, it’s uncouth.

Step 4: Chill out, you’re in mineral rich hot spring water. It’s one of the few benefits of living on top of a bunch of volcanoes.

Getting that sussed out helped make the weekend more relaxing. In between going to the onsen and eating the largest crab meal I have ever had we had a chance to go to a Yakuza-run arcade (classy and retro) and walk along the river–which held an outdoor all-male public onsen. I’m not sure what the protocol is on the outdoor onsen, but I bet it’s a bit too European for me.

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No substitutions

I suppose one cultural note that I have forgotten to manage over the last year is that ordering off the menu is completely unheard of in Japan.

When I first arrived, I viewed this as a culinary adventure (in addition to all the other adventures it is) and thus never even considered trying to ask for a dish other than how it was presented on the menu–not that I could have linguistically managed it anyway. I ordered, ate and kept my complaints to myself (most of the time). It has become such a habit that I have completely forgotten that food alterations and specifications were physically possible.  And I don’t feel like I missing some necessary meal-enjoyment tool, which is odd, because I feel like I should be. There was probably a period in my life (forever) in which "On-the-side Reilly” would have been an apt nickname (“hold the salad”and “I’ll make a PBJ” would have also been appropriate).

In a sense, the language barrier brought down a culinary barrier. Even this past weekend I discovered at both lunch and dinner that I had ordered dishes with capers in them. Privately I thought, “fucking capers” (because I was hungry and I use curses word rather liberally in my thoughts when I am hungry) but in no way did I ever consider the possibility  that I could have requested the same meals devoid of capers.

That said, being deprived of their certain inalienable customization rights seems to be one of the few drawbacks visiting Americans encounter.  In both cases where I’ve had visitors, there has been occasion where we have been out a meal and the visitor says, “can we get it without X?”. This request is always something that seems relatively logical, and uncomplicated.  Then I start to give the standard “ehhhhh” response and their first inclination is to say, “oh because you don’t know the Japanese?” and while the answer to that question is usually yes, the more important answer is that anything I say will undoubtedly confuse the hell out of our server. It likes going to the bank and asking them for haircut–they really don’t know what to do with what you’re saying.

In one instance, a restaurant we were eating at had spicy-sour shrimp and spicy-sour beef  on their outdoor menu. Inside, the menu we were given had only the shrimp. We asked if they could give us the beef (they had many other beef dishes) with the spicy-sour sauce. This seems like a simple request; they have the beef, they have the sauce and the ability ot mix the two.  The waitress first titled her head in they way that all animals do when they are painfully perplexed. After processing what we were trying to ask her, she replied without hesitation said that it was impossible. I suppose there is a small price to pay for not having to tip your servers.

The only success I’ve ever seen was a friend who studied up on the Japanese names for ingredients of a McDonald’s hamburger and then drew a diagram that indicated that he wanted only ketchup. While his method was successful, I think we can all agree that a man who goes through that much trouble to get a plain burger is mentally unstable and is most likely eating burger that contains ketchup and lugee well, they’d  They’d never do that in Japan actually, but definitely ketchup and mental lugee.