“Kaiseiki was one of the highlights of my time in Japan,” says my husband, as we make our way through ours, a seasonal twelve course winter dinner. “And now,” he declares, with not at all mock seriousness, “it’s one of the low.” Drama kinginess aside, I know just what he means. We are having kaiseki in the traditional Japanese ryokan, or inn, where we are staying in Hakone, and it is being served to us, as is traditional, not just on the floor, but right smack dab in the center of our room. The food is spectacular, but our kids, who have no interest in horse mackerel balls, and kelp and tofu cheese sushi, are all bopping about our series of mostly windowless rooms, slamming open and shut the sliding paper screen doors so loudly that our overly deferential somewhat ancient waitress who does not at all speak English miraculously bursts into it only to say, “People downstairs, they complaining.”
This is, to put it mildly, a sake buzzkill, as is the fact that while we are indeed, wild nanny-less children aside, dining like Edo-era governors, we are also doing so under the physically and metaphysically depleting glare of a high wattage fluorescent bulb.
“Next vacation I just want to go somewhere where I can go running,” says my husband, whose idea it was to come to Japan in the first place and who happens to be currently suffering from Plantar fascitis. “Somewhere I can go running and play video games. I just want to get Runner’s World magazine and look up the best places to go running in the world and then go there. Sure one of these places is probably Central Park but. . . . .”
I love my husband, perhaps all the more so for his dry, unsparing wit, but it is a wit that, at least here in Japan, seems to owe a bigger debt to the Jews, specifically the Borscht Belt, than I’d ever before realized.
One afternoon, in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, fresh off a visit to the dazzling and enormous Sensoji Buddhist temple, we find ourselves in a coffee shop which turns out to be a kisaten, a coffee house where, my husband swears, customers are deliberately charged more so that they can stay as long as they like and entertain friends since, their apartments being so small, this is something that can be difficult to do at home. All of us order drinks, the obligatory hot cocoas and teas, and then our 13 year-old, still lean and growing at 5’11, orders an ice cream parfait. “He ordered the parfait?” my husband mutters in fury as the waitress recedes. “What is he doing? We’re in the fucking Carnegie Deli of Tokyo! You don’t order the parfait!” Later, my husband will compare the aggressive solicitations of the rickshaw drivers to a Yom Kippur appeal at our synagogue.
Me, my husband and our three children are all large here, and not just physically large as compared with the Japanese, which we are, but we are all also writ large as well, as if when seen against a new, completely altered backdrop we are all swelled up to Alice-after-she-drank-the-potion proportions. Each time we ask a Japanese maître d’ for a table for five, his face falls apart a little, he gets flustered and then asks us to wait for a minute as he moves around tables, and moves them around again, in order to come up with the right configuration. “The population’s shrinking here,” says my husband. “Birth and marriage rates are falling. In Japan our family’s as big as the rebbe’s.”