Today, as I write, I am sitting beside a warm fireplace at one of my favorite haunts in St. Louis Park, Panera Bread. The light is brilliant ouside, but it is absolutely freezing. It has finally gotten up to zero (-18c), which really makes me wonder why I came back from Japan just when the cherries where starting to bloom! What a contrast. When we arrived back in Minnesota the windchill was -25 f (-32c)! How living here makes me appreciate the beauty and warmth of spring!
As I reflect back on my trip, I am struck by one phrase in particular that stood out for me as I traveled with a group of completely raw foreign women – “nama gaijin”. Seeing things through their eyes, taking in their questions, and trying my best to translate from one way of being into another really made certain things stand out that I had never thought about before. The phrase that stays with me is “楽しんでください” or “please have fun”.
I never realized how much these words are used in Japanese until I had to continually translate them into English. I suppose we would say “Enjoy”, as in “Please enjoy your food” or “Enjoy your bath”. But the more we traveled together, the more I came to realize that a literal translation was actually better. “Please have fun with your food” or better yet “Please play with your food” seemed to more accurately reflect the experiences they were having with Japanese cuisine. So much of Japanese food really is fun – cooking at the table, opening pretty little dishes with nice lids, slurping hot noodles, grinding up sesame seeds and tasting beautiful dried flowers to mark a passing season. Being with a group of women who were unfamiliar with much of Japanese cuisine reminded of how fun food can be. Not only are the colors, textures and shapes wonderful to take in with all the senses but the ways of preparing food in Japan are really interactive and delightful.
This really hit home for me as we explored Kappabashi Dori – or Kitchen Ware Street – in Tokyo. The incredible range of pots and cooking implements that were totally new to them made me realize how much I take for granted about Japanese food. So much things were fascinating, especially all the ways of cooking at the table and the different kinds of pots and dishes used for specific meals. Something as simple as having fire at the table, other than for candles, proved to be very novel indeed.
I realized that when someone tells me to “enjoy” a Western meal, it really is a more passive experience. By contrast, when when I am served a meal in Japan and then left to prepare it by myself at the table, I really do have fun mixing, pouring, cooking and grinding up the ingredients. Taking part in the creation of the meal really brings it alive and adds a new dimension to a meal.
So as I sit here next to the fireplace at Panera, I wonder if it would be too much to ask for my chicken on a stick so that I could grill it myself before eating it? It would be so lovely if I could. I guess I’ll just have to wait until my next trip back to Japan to cook at the table again.