Cultivated Days | Epicurean Ideals from the Heart of Japan
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Japan will do that to you

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Ten years ago this week I moved to Japan, into the little house on the hill that Hanako had built for us. We’d wake in the mornings under a mountain of blankets, our breath visible in the frigid air and spar over why the other should be the one to dash out to turn on the kerosene space heater. Whomever was tagged would just as quickly dash back and we’d wait for the chill to subside, quietly staring up at the big cypress beams overhead. Hanako’s mind mulled over the great potential and pressure of independence, of operating her own pottery studio and running her own business. My mind went to the great potential and pressure of finding my way in a new land, a new language, within a new family. What we shared was a mild disbelief. The reality of it all was just a little beyond comprehension.

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While Hanako dove headfirst and single-mindedly into her career, my path was more laborious and uncertain. Without language, community, or connections, there were dark days when I didn’t know which direction was up. In the absence of clarity about the long term, I tried to focus on what interested me like spending time with Kuniko in her kitchen. There at least I felt grounded in something tangible and productive. Working beside her one day she told me of someone she admired, a man who years beyond when most choose and pursue a profession had meandered, doing this and doing that but always doing what he loved. One day, at an age not so far from the age I am now, all of those interests and experiences coalesced rapidly into a vibrant and unique line of work. I listened intently and prayed that I too would get there.

So much has changed in these past ten years. Our floorboards are worn, the blond cedar beams have darkened and cracked, and the house is properly heated. Hanako’s career is robust and with stability has come more time to find focus in her work. And like the man Kuniko spoke about all those years ago, my interests have coalesced into a vocation far more interesting than I could have planned for in those early unknowing years. Our life today feels very real, hard won for sure, and uniquely ours. What a fine way to open this tenth New Year in Japan.

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In the days leading up to New Years, Kuniko prepared traditional fat sweet black beans and kazunoko (herring roe). Hanako, her sister, and I gathered at her house late morning on the first and spent the entire day eating and drinking. Hanako laid a fire and set the table with a selection of Nakazato family wares. My sister-in-law presented a beautiful spread of New Year’s dishes while I prepared the omedetai sashimi arranged with mitsuba, suizenji nori, and wasabi.

The fishmonger supplies larger Tai (red snapper) than usual (at three times the price!) for the holiday. We buy one and eat it for days and in many ways. On the second we grilled the fleshiest cuts of bone around the fins, ribs, and cheeks. The remaining fillet was sliced and marinated overnight in soy and sake. On the third day we celebrated with omedetai chazuke.

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Chazuke is green tea poured over rice. It’s the ultimate Japanese comfort food, a sort of articulated porridge that warms the soul and fills the belly. In this gourmet version the marinated Tai is placed atop a bowl of white rice, topped with a dollop of wasabi and heaped with koumiboshi nori. For Tai chazuke you want the tea good and hot to parboil the slices of fish and dissolve the wasabi. But very hot water is an insult to good sencha so forgo the best grade of tea here.

Hanako has seen me relish more than one bowl of Tai chazuke before but she is perpetually surprised at how much I love it. Chazuke is so very Japanese, she says. But I love many things that are so very Japanese, I reply. Ten years in Japan will do that to you.

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