Rolling hills: Okayama Family

Rolling hills: Okayama Family
Rolling hills: Okayama Family

A friend put me in touch with his friend here, whom he has only met remotely — and at last, after failing to synch up during my Kyoto trip in 2019, we arranged to meet.

She and her family rolled out the red carpet (and the sushi!) for me, gently folding me into their loving, erudite, serene domestic circle. A clan of academics, the mother met the father in graduate school as a visiting student from Taiwan. He still researches plant molecular biology. Now their elder daughter investigates Scottish missionaries in Asia, while the younger sculpts heteromorphic dogs as a professional ceramicist.

This weekend, they treated me to a cozy futon, Japanese cooking, and a tour of their hometown.

Three hours on the shinkansen (bullet train) carried us from Tokyo to Okayama, about an hour south of Osaka and just across the water from Shikoku (the smallest of the main islands making up Japan). The next morning, we gathered for worship at their presbyterian church, where my trial-by-fire training on Tokunoshima served me well in navigating the hymnal.

We fueled for an afternoon of sightseeing at a noodle shop, with the classic countertop service but a lighter take on the broth. Pork dominates the cuisine of the prefecture where I lived the past two years, so the fillet of roasted chicken greeted me as a novelty. Did you know the ‘-men’ in ‘ramen’ simply signifies ‘noodles’? That means that ‘ramen noodles’… oh, no!

Braving the summer heat, my hostess escorted me to Okayama Castle: an elegantly tiered structure, with a parade of swan- and peach-shaped boats drifting on the river below. Peaches ripen this month, which I celebrated by stopping for peace shaved ice — and then a peach ice cream float, for good measure.

The exhibits within the castle chart centuries of history, starting from the clash that defined the Eddo period. I luxuriated in comparing notes with a perfectly bilingual speaker: puzzling out kanji and peppering her with questions about the incriptions.

Okayama Castle

Across the bridge, trees enclose the Korakuen, granting this sprawling garden sanctuary from the bustling city on its threshold. We sipped cool drinks on the archery range and stopped by to greet the resident cranes, who fly free once every twelve months on New Year’s.

I rounded off the outing with a giftbox of kibidango – the soft mochi that symbolize the region. The mother and father blessed my offering by providing a pot of traditional green tea.

gooey, peach-flavored rice cakes!

Today I rested and researched, mapping out my three remaining days here and the path back to Tokyo (from whence I fly to Bangkok) — a spate of screen time punctuated with strolls around their neighborhood and a visit to the sister’s workshop. There her canine companion reign supreme, in life and clay.

For dinner tonight, the father crafted sushi rolls from scratch. I documented the procedure avidly, then devoured its results. It begins with a cedar basin, a carefully concocted solution of sugar and vinegar, then at least four cups of fresh rice.

We fanned furiously when it hit the bowl, as the mother stirred in the sauce. The father moistened his fingers in a dish of what liquid remained as he layered eel and cucumber, sweet omelette and shitake mushrooms, fatty tuna and shisho leaves. He wound it all together effortlessly, then sliced it into chubby, chewy wheels, alive with flavors and a kick of wasabi.

Tomorrow I catch the train to Shikoku, for a leisurely tour of my latest frontier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *