Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Memories of Japan: The Kaki Stand

 Kaki are persimmons
Today is Wednesday, December 11, 2013. 

Our vacation was over, and I was miserable.  My husband and I were waiting for a bus in the oppressive heat at a lonely country bus stop in Tottori Prefecture, on the western coast of Japan's main island, Honshu.  The bus stop was on a narrow country road, with no traffic to speak of.  The simple wooden bus shelter offered no protection from the heat, and there was no place to sit.  The bus wasn't due for another 30 minutes, but we didn't dare miss it, since it came only once every couple of hours.  The bus would take us to the city of Tottori, where we planned to catch a train back to our home in Osaka. I was dreading the train trip back, sitting on the old-fashioned horsehair seats of the train because of my sunburn.

My husband and I had always wanted to visit the west coast of Japan, and had decided to follow our neighbor, Mrs. Tanaka’s, suggestion that we visit her home region.  We had traveled there by local train and country bus, a seemingly interminable journey, punctuated by hundreds of stops at tiny, out-of-the-way places.  For several days we had been staying at a family-owned inn and touring the area, famous for its “sand dunes,” mounds of sandy soil that hosted onion crops, one of the area’s main sources of livelihood.  The smell of onions was everywhere.  For several days, we swam in the ocean and lay on the beach for hours, and I got the sunburn of my life.   The skin on my back was blistering badly by now, and my husband, who had spent most of the previous night holding an ice pack on the sunburn was heartily sick of my complaining.

Persimmon tree
As we stood at the bus stop, I thought idly about the city we called home.  Osaka is a busy, fast-paced, merchant-minded city crowded with millions of people.  I enjoyed living in the city, but having just spent a few days in the country for the first time since my arrival, I was amazed that the country folks around here had treated me like a regular human being.  The children didn't point fingers at me, and the adults didn't stare at me as if I was some kind of ogre.  Nobody told anybody else to look at the foreigner.  It was a blessed reprieve for me from being treated on a daily basis like an outsider, like some sort of monstrosity.  In a way, it seemed downright counterintuitive for the country people to treat me so normally, since I was even more of a curiosity out here than I was in the big city, with my light blond hair and fair complexion.  Standing here in the dreadful heat, I was just grateful that I didn't have to deal with pointing fingers and staring eyes in addition to a fiercely sunburned back. 

I had only been in Japan for two or three years, but like other Caucasians in Japan, I had was viewed by the majority of people as an object of curiosity.  I was uncomfortable being treated on a daily basis like an instant English-conversation practice doll, rather than as a human being, and I had taken to telling people who accosted me on the street that I didn’t speak English when they asked, because they weren’t as eager to talk to someone who spoke French or Spanish and they would leave me in peace.  Some of my foreign friends pretended to be asleep or absorbed in a book while riding the trains.  I did that, too, occasionally. 

Ripe persimmon: wash, cut off the leaves, and slice. 
You can peel them if you like, but the peel is edible.
That doesn't make me sound like a very nice person, does it?  You must think I was heartless and stuck-up.  The fact is that most of these so-called "conversations," consisted of the same questions over and over.  "Where you are from?  Is that near New York?  Can you eat sushi?  Do you like natto?  How long you stay Japan?  You married to Japanese guy?  You like Japanese guy?  You have baby?  Why not?"  They weren't really interested in me.  They just wanted to practice their "Engrish."

I knew that some Japanese thought of me as non-human.  I overheard children asking their parents, “What’s that?”   Not who, but what, as if I were an inanimate object.  I heard two middle-aged matrons on the train discussing where I probably came from and what my dress size was likely to be, commenting freely on the size of my breasts and hips.  I was standing right in front of them, at the time.  The women talked on and on, smug in their assumption that I couldn’t possibly understand them.

I remember hearing a child ask, “Daddy, is that human hair?” referring to my blond locks.  Daily I endured being pointed at by students of all ages, and labeled gaijin, foreigner.  Even the Japanese word gaijin was offensive.  It means “outside person.”   “Gaijin, gaijin!” they would shout, as if it were some sort of unforgivable sin to be one.   

Once I even heard a mother on the train telling her child not to cry, because there was a gaijin over there, and they like to eat naughty children.  I remember thinking, "No, lady, actually, we prefer to munch on bad parents," but I kept my mouth shut that time.  A wise choice, no doubt, but I was seething inside.

***       ***       ***

A kaki stand.  This isn't the one I went to, it looks a bit like it.
By the side of the road across from the bus stop, there was a very small outdoor café, a wooden shack, really, with a large stand of kaki, or persimmons.  Besides the onions, Tottori was famous for its persimmons in the late summer and early autumn.  There were piles of kaki lining the unpainted, rickety shelves, and bags of kaki hanging on hooks, bright orange, smooth-skinned fruit basking in the still, clear air, in the warm, golden sunshine.  To beat the heat, my husband suggested that we go to the open-air café and sit at one of the unpainted wooden tables.  We ordered a soft drink called “cider” (pronounced saidah), which turned out to be lemon-flavored soda.

I wasn’t very familiar with kaki, as it’s not a fruit that is indigenous to the area where I grew up the Midwestern United States. The taste of kaki – even ripe ones – is hard to describe.  The Japanese use the word shibui, a word that to my knowledge is only used to describe the dry, sharp, slightly acidic taste of persimmons.  The Japanese like to say that the word shibui also defines the heart of their culture, because it connotes a pointedness, a lean, spare feeling, a reserved, understated nature, the kind of inscrutability that the Japanese are so famous for.

The small, oval ones need to be
dried fist before being eaten,
or they are too astringent (shibui) to eat.
They must be peeled and hung outside
for 4-6 weeks.  Japanese hang them
from the eaves of their houses.
After we had been served our “cider,” we began to talk to the woman who ran the kaki stand, a short, round-faced country bumpkin with a sweet smile, her salt-and-pepper hair combed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck.  Not yet proficient in the language, I let my Japanese husband carry the conversational ball while I let my mind wander among my own thoughts in English.

Suddenly, I was brought back to the present by my husband, who was telling me that the proprietress was giving me a gift.  It was a large bag of perfectly ripe persimmons.  Since she didn’t speak English and I still didn’t speak Japanese very well, the little woman shyly handed me the bag without speaking, and I received it in silence, nodding and smiling my thanks as my husband uttered the usual profuse expressions of gratitude in Japanese.

In the sense that the taste of kaki describes Japanese culture, this woman was actually presenting me with a slice of her culture, something like giving an important visitor a Key to the City.  It was a key that would take me many years to process, to fully appreciate.  At the time I was merely conscious that this woman was presenting me with a gift of something that she sold to others, giving away something of value, a part of her livelihood.

I realize now that the reason this moment was so heart-opening for me was that the woman was treating me not as a “foreigner,” but as a fellow human being. But more than that, she was entrusting me with all she held true and precious, attempting to communicate with me at the level of the heart rather than by means of the intellect. That was the true gift, this heart-to-heart communication.


Sarah Holland said...

Linda, I am waiting for the day I get to read these all compiled in a book. Don't get me wrong; I am reading them now too. :) I just think they'd be wonderful in a full collection!

mettahu said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sarah! I've been meaning to write down these stories for years, now. It's just time. And yes, I'd like to see them in a book form, too. We'll see... :-)