Last May, we flew to southern Japan after spending some time in Tokyo. Our accommodation was a traditional Japanese house attached to a 100-year-old Zen Buddist Temple of which my husband Dale’s host father, Mr. Michihiro Takebayashi, is the retired priest. The instant his host mother, Mrs. Takiko Takebayashi, saw little six-month-old Christian, she whisked him into the house while we followed Mr. Takebayashi around the temple so he could light incense to celebrate our arrival. And so began our four days in a remote paradise called Amakusa.
A lot of our time in Amakusa involved trying traditional Japanese foods, which, if you’ve ever been to Japan, you know can be an interesting adventure . The first morning, though, Mrs. Takebayashi served a Western breakfast of toast, eggs, ham, and other standard foods because she was concerned about my willingness to eat a traditional breakfast. Being uncertain about my proficiency with chopsticks, she also provided cutlery. By our third morning, Dale convinced her I was up for the challenge, so we enjoyed salted salmon, pickled ginger, salad, seaweed, and miso soup while dazzling her with our chopstick skills. This food combination sounds bizarre for first thing in the morning, but it actually works!
One evening Mr. and Mrs. Takebayashi treated us to dinner at a Japanese fish restaurant. These restaurants are rare because you don’t order from a menu; you receive what the chef chooses to prepare. For our experience, this included sashimi, a whole baked fish for each person with the head and tail still intact, sea urchin, and numerous other delicacies. It was initially a bit unnerving to see parts of my meal staring back at me, but I managed to pull through, eating everything placed in front of me. True, raw squid will never make it on my list of favorite foods, but the rest of the offerings were delicious and unique.
We also found a restaurant that served okonomiyaki, a savory “pancake” we cooked on a grill at our table. We selected tuna, cheese, bacon, and kimchi (Korean-style fermented vegetables) to be mixed with the batter, then topped the finished product with fish flakes and mayonnaise. It was a like a massive tuna patty with other things thrown in. I loved it and wished my stomach was large enough to eat the entire pancake.
On a non-food note, one day we dropped Christian off at the daycare operated by Dale’s host family so they could watch him while we went sightseeing. Our day outing involved taking the car on a ferry from Oniike to Kuchinotsu, then driving to Unzen, one of Japan’s most active and dangerous volcanoes. A short hike rewarded us with views of a new mountain created when the volcano erupted in 1991. We did not realize we would also be treated to a dazzling display of wild azaleas in bloom up the mountainside. The color was so astounding, it looked as though it was painted.
We purchased some fried octopus balls (“takoyaki”) to munch on during the hike, but should not have bothered. We were offered dried apples and Japanese chocolates by people along the trail who were thrilled to see Americans hiking beside them.
We ended our day by walking through sulfur pits where we purchased hard boiled eggs cooked in the pits, and relaxed in a traditional onsen, a hot spring with water naturally heated by local volcanic activity. There are specific steps you must follow to use the springs, as illustrated on a sign for visitors. This includes, among other things, sitting on short stools to clean yourself before entering the spring and rinsing off afterwards, not taking wet towels into the changing area, and not wearing clothes in the spring. I know I accidentally violated at least two of the rules, but lucky for me, I wasn’t tossed out.
We’re hoping to return to Japan next spring to enjoy more time with Dale’s host parents who are eager to immerse Christian in the Japanese culture so he can speak the language with Dale. I’m not sure if I’m up for the challenge of tackling the language, but that’s okay. My boys can translate for me!