From Letter #3, December 3, 2000
New experiences this week:
Drove up to the mountains with my cousin to deliver some old furniture to our mission language school at the resort town of Karuizawa, Japan's answer to Banff. It was a rare perfect day. The temperatures were mild, at least until the mountain winds began to blow at noon. The winds from the night before had blown all the smog and clouds away from the whole area.
We were able to spend the entire 2 1/2 hour drive on the toll highway ($80 US). Along the way there are rest stops with biffies, standup noodle bars and vending machines. Neither my cousin nor myself can have caffeine so we drank cans of hot corn chowder while Dell imbibed his usual Royal Milk Tea. Why can't Canadian vending machines dispense HOT canned drinks??
Half way to Karuizawa we looked to the west and there was a ( rare,we were to discover), perfect view of Mt. Fuji. It is a gigantic show covered volcanic cone rising majestically out of the mist below. As we were to learn, the peak is nearly always covered in smog, fog and mist. The low (by Canadian standards) red rocked mountains have saw toothed peaks which are extremely noticeable set against the treeline of conifers only 1/2 mile below. The trees are so thick and so green they make the mountainsides look like softly moulded velvet....like the artistic bent of a bonsai pruner gone berserk. In among the pines are clusters of red and orange leafed deciduous trees so it is a most beautiful sight. After completing a couple of minor repairs on some missions retreat cabins we were able to tour the town while my cousin was in a meeting. Many of the stores are newly winterized and are open year round selling knockoffs of American name brand clothing, hiking gear, watches and jewellery. Apparently the police here are not as strict as in Tokyo for checking on product authenticity.
For our lunch treat we chose a restaurant featuring the latest rage here in Japan: the Japanese interpretation of Italian food. It is a grubby little place we wouldn't have stayed in for more than 10 seconds at home, but in Japan it is just one more new experience for us. The 50's style diner upholstered bench seats were torn and filthy with soot just like everything here and the washroom was blacker than most Canadian service station washrooms, with no soap in the authentic American dispenser someone had tried to pull out of the wall at some point.
We ordered chicken and shrimp parmesan and a side of spaghetti noodles. Despite the bit of soy flavouring that must be a law for inclusion in all food here, the dish had the other proper herbs and necessary melted cheeses to suit the Canadian interpretation of Italian food. The noodles were well cooked in tomato sauce, just like at home. We thought we had discovered a true attempt at ethnic food by this Japanese establishment until we looked under our meat and cheese: instead of a bed of pasta our Italian delight was nestled into a bed of RICE! Delightfully Japanese.
Dell ordered Ocha (good quality green tea), even though it was not on the menu, because he assumed it would be available. The tiny waitress looked shocked and kept asking him over and over if that was what he really wanted. He finally convinced her he really did want ocha and she disappeared into the kitchen. Instead of reappearing with his tea she got into a heated sort of discussion with the owner of the restaurant. We heard him leave the kitchen finally and to upstairs to his living quarters. A few minutes later he reappeared with 2 steaming mugs of his own private stock and a most sincere apology for having only American handled mugs to serve this Honorable Tea in.The waitress was not used to having North Americans request proper green tea instead of coffee or bagged tea from the USA, and when Dell asked inadvertently for the highest grade of green tea it caused a major furor as they had none in stock. To save face in front of their visitors the good ocha had to be produced. Aiiiii yiiiii.....what would happen if Canadian restauranteurs were so polite and accommodating to customers as to bring the requested edible from their own home kitchens?????
Over the next hour the rest of the kitchen staff snuck out one by one to peer at us. It was hilarious. It was only our 3rd experience in a Japanese restaurant and we are still learning so much about correct procedure, how to order, what to order....will we ever get a handle on it? We feel so incredibly ignorant. And now rather embarrassed by the performance we forced on this restaurant owner without meaning to.