It has been many years since my first trip to Japan. I first to Japan went back when I was a student in the university, and now I am a grandmother. My grandchildren are half Japanese. One of my daughters married a Japanese guy. However, I still remember some things that gave me a start.
The thing that was probably the thing that was hardest for me was the food. The first semester, I lived in a Japanese home. One evening, my Japanese mother made sashimi. Sashimi is a kind of raw fish that has a special sauce that makes it taste good. I made it through with the sashimi and actually liked the taste, but I proceeded on through the evening. After dinner, it was ofuro time. An ofuro is a Japanese bath. When you take an ofuro, you soap off outside of the bath and get all the soap off before you every get in the bath tub. After that, you get in very, very hot water that comes to your chin when you sit down. It is very hard to get in because the water is so hot, but once you get in, you don’t move, and you adjust to the temperature. If you move your feet around or anything like that, you really feel the temperature. You have to just sit there and soak. I have heard Japanese joke about Americans staying so long in the ofuro that they would come out as red as a lobster. Well, my stomach was already slightly upset, and between the sashimi and the very hot soak in the ofuro, I got out of the ofuro and vomited all over the bathroom. Physically, I just didn’t do well. The slightly upset stomach may have been okay in other circumstances, but I ate strange food and soaked in a very, very hot tub of water, and it just caused all kinds of trouble!
The second semester, there was something connected to food also. The second semester, I was staying in a boarding house. There was a Japanese lady who made breakfast for us every morning. It wasn’t eggs. It wasn’t toast. It wasn’t even cereal. It was rice, soup, fish, and things like that. One day, I went into breakfast and sat down. It looked like there were a lot of little white noodles on my plate. I began eating them, and they weren’t noodles. They tasted too strange to be noodles. I looked closer at them, and they were little white fish, and I could see the eye! I couldn’t imagine that I had eaten whole fish, eyes and all!
When I first went to Japan, the food got hard at times. When I went to breakfast at Freshman Orientation and found miso soup, seaweed, rice, a raw egg, and fermented beans that stunk, that was hard too. The fermented beans that stunk smelled so bad, I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. They were called nato. My Japanese son in law tells me that the Japanese have figured out how to make the nato smell better now a days, so I should try it again some day. They had me put the raw egg into a small bowl and mix it around with my chop sticks and add soy sauce to it. After that, I was to pour the raw egg and soy sauce over my hot rice. The next step was to take the pieces of seaweed and use my chop sticks and wrap it around the rice with the raw egg and soy sauce in it. I was surprised when I took a bite because it was actually good! As far as the miso soup, I always loved the miso soup!
Another thing I had trouble with is the communal baths. The guys and the girls didn’t bathe together. They were in separate rooms. However, the very first semester I was in Japan, the university rented me an apartment and I was supposed to use the bathhouse across the street. I was too shy to go into the bath house. I ended up using the shower at an American friend’s house.
When I went on a student sight seeing trip, we stayed in youth hostels along the way. The only baths they had were the public baths. There was one big room. There were only women and girls. Along two walls, there were faucets with little wooden stools next to them where you were supposed to sit and wash yourself. After you got all the soap off, you were supposed to get into a huge ofuro that was like a small pool to soak. I tried, but it was intimidating. All the American girls had trouble going in to take a bath. We were built different from the Japanese women, and the Japanese women stared at us. We were completely embarrassed when we took our baths. I washed up as quickly as I could and got in the water so I could hide myself a bit better.
There was something else the first semester. I learned just how strict the Japanese can be. In America, when you get up in the morning, you pull your covers up on your bed and make your bed look nice and neat. You make your bed. However, that is not what you are supposed to do with the futon, the Japanese bed, and I didn’t know. I left my futon in the floor with the covers pulled up looking nice and neat. My land lord found out. He insisted that I must fold my bed up during the day and put it in the closet. He also insisted that once a week I hang my covers from my bed on the balcony to air out. At the time, I thought he was just being picky, but later, I learned there are reasons behind what he was insisting. When I was teaching in Japan, a Japanese English teacher told me a story about her brother. She said that he didn’t fold his futon up and put it in the close during the day, and mushrooms actually grew under it. Japan can be very hot and humid in the summer, and the futons lie on tatami mats. There is always a room or two that have tatami mats, straw mats. They measure their room by how many tatami mats there are in it, and those straw tatami mats make it more comfortable when they put the futons down. Mushrooms would naturally grow in a dark, steamy place on the straw.
I learned to enjoy a lot of Japanese food, but there are things that still bother me. It would be that way anywhere you lived, even in your own country. I learned to enjoy the Japanese ofuros, but I could never get used to being asked to bathe in a room that is full of a bunch of women with no clothes. I loved the futons, and it never bothered me to hang them outside or fold them up and put them in the closet. It made sense. I adapted and learned to love Japan. I even appreciate the strictness that many Japanese show. When hoof and mouth disease was going around, the Japanese never let it into their country because they are so strict at the airport. I love the cleanliness of Japan!