In January of 2007 I moved into the little house on a 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 returning to her homeland after nearly 20 years away, back to her hometown to open her own pottery studio. My mind went to the great potential and pressure of finding my way in a new land, in 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.
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 the most, principally spending time with my mother-in-law Kuniko in her kitchen. Peeling, chopping, and simmering at her side I felt grounded in something tangible and productive.
Those early years in Kuniko’s kitchen sparked a fascination with Japanese cuisine. The ingredients, the seasonings, the beauty and flavor in every healthful dish were astonishing. And the ease with which she could put together such a spread from scratch, night after night, astounded me. I watched diligently and copied verbatim. I borrowed her movements and measurements as my own and learned to make her dishes just as she did.
So much has changed in the many years since we moved here. Our floorboards are worn, the blond cedar beams have darkened and cracked, and the house is now properly heated. Somewhere along the line I learned the language and slipped into a vocation shaped by those early years. And my time in the kitchen with Kuniko has taught me much more than simply how to cook. It has taught me how to eat and in doing so, how to live.
The heart of the countryside still pulses to agrarian rhythms. We measure time in micro-seasons and eat according to what they offer. Living close to the land settles the mind and slows us down. It reminds us to look at the world that surrounds us and consider our place in it. We watch the trees, the plants, the bugs and the birds plotting their course through the seasons. A shift in the light or a waft in the air reminds us to pause and glance at the sky, to study the clouds and listen to the songbirds, to measure the temperature of the air on our skin. We heed these moments that carry us forward, as though observing landmarks along the road to a new destination.