Dining with Ben’s Japanese friends at their restaurant was a wonderful experience. We arrived and were immediately presented with very large beers and presents (a common theme in Japan). Sitting down at the bar where we could watch Keikochan and Kochan cook we settled in for what would clearly be a very fun night. Keikochan and Kochan are good friends of Ben’s, sort of like his Japanese grandparents. Keikochan, the woman, has a wonderful sense of humour and makes very dry jokes in both Japanese and English. As well as Keikochan and Kochan we dined with Orakisan, the supermarket prince (a friend of Ben’s who owns a supermarket chain) and Sato Sensei and his wife. Sato Sensei had coxed Fi and me in the knuckle four and spent most of the night celebrating our win and ordering us more drinks.
Presented with endless plates of food we ate everything from raw tuna jaw to tempura to a type of Japanese salad and a “challenge” food. The challenge food was a deep fried ball of something that was only presented to Ben, Fi and I… Biting into it the ball immediately oozed. With a relatively thick liquid pouring down my throat I knew what I had just eaten… Sperm. Sure enough, it was revealed to us that we had just eaten the sperm of a blowfish. What was actually really cool about it was that, that is a dish that requires a licence to prepare because if it is prepared in the wrong way it is poisonous and can kill you (like The Simpsons episode). While happy to have tried it, Fi and I stopped after one ball, Ben on the other hand went in for round 2. We also got to drink some very expensive Japanese sake, this was actually really delicious and very easy to drink, unlike sake that I have tried in NZ that tastes like gasoline. At the end of the night, when all other patrons had left the restaurant, Keikochan and Kochan came and sat with all of us and we spent an hour sitting round joking in a hybrid of Japanese/English with translations being made where necessary/possible. As we all got more comfortable around one and other Keikochan decided that Fi and Ben were more neiko types (cat types) and I was more of an inu (spelling unsure) type (dog type) which we all thought was very accurate. The dinner was one of my favourite experiences in Sakata (although it’s very hard to pick as it was the best week), being able to sit for four hours with people you have only just met and don’t completely share a common language with, and laugh for four hours straight was an enormously pleasing experience.
The next morning we caught the train out to Fukura, about 25 minutes away from Ben it is a small coastal town where there are 16 Buddhas carved into stones. Walking around the rocks/beaches on a crystal clear day it was hard to believe we were in Japan (barring the Buddhas), the water was a crystal clear blue and the sky very clear.
We jumped around the rocks for about 40 minutes and then had to run back to the station to ensure we made it for the train back to Sakata. Back in Sakata, we biked around to Keikochan and Kochan’s for afternoon tea and cakey.
Keikochan and Kochan’s house is amazing, it is a very traditional 80 year old house. Arriving we removed our shoes, walked into their personal shrine where we performed the ceremony as instructed…. As a dog type I somewhat butchered the ceremony, much to Keikochan’s amusement. Once inside their house we sat on the tatami around their fire pit (I don’t know the Japanese name for this)… This is a square pit which they place coal in and have a cast iron teapot that hangs over the pit.
While we did not have a full tea ceremony, there was a lot of method to how Kochan prepared the tea. The Japanese never use boiling water for tea, so once the water was boiled it was poured into a bowl to be cooled. From there a pot of tea is made and everyone is served very small cups of tea. The same tea leaves are used 3-4 times before the pot is completely emptied and you start again. While being served endless snacks and tea Keikochan continued to provide us with insights about ourselves by giving us our Japanese names. Keikochan revealed that I have a beautiful voice (I’m sure all persons reading will agree), like a little bird that goes “Pee pee, pee pee” and therefore my Japanese name is “Peepee”. For Fi she said she was tall and beautiful like a Lily and so her Japanese name was “Li”. Our topics of conversations covered quite a broad range of subjects, from taking the piss out of Ben, to Hiroshima and the G7 summit that had just occurred. Again I was amazed at the ability to communicate in absence of a completely common language.
Our day ended with not one but two trips to Kappa Sushi!! We first went with Ben’s friend from NZ, Katie who is living in Sakata as an English teacher. We had an enjoyable time and left to the supermarket. However once at the supermarket Ben realised that he hadn’t quite eaten enough and I decided I could squeeze more in so we went back in for round 2. We are unsure if the people who served us realised what had happened but we found the whole thing highly amusing, especially imagining the conversations they were having about us in Japanese.
Ben’s friend Umetsu Sensei, asked Fi and I to go and speak to her class at Koryo Koko (Ben’s school). The class were the NZ equivalent to year 13 and were the quietest class I have ever encountered… After speaking to them about India, in English, I was unable to get a reaction and therefore favoured showing the photos of things from India like cows inside and my bucket for a shower which at least got some laughs. Fi then spoke to the kids about NZ and what she thought of Japan… Again to a completely silent room. While Umetsu Sensei asked us questions the class just sat in silence. Finally, with some coaxing one of the boys got up and spoke briefly and then challenged Fi to an arm wrestle.
Much to my surprise Fi lost the arm wrestle but it was at least a way to get some animation out of the children. We then spent a fair amount of time walking around the school and meeting various other teachers/friends of Ben’s.
In the afternoon we went out to watch Ben take a coaching session down at the river. There is a fair amount of time spent “faffing” with warm up, preparation, cleaning etc… However as Ben acknowledged, these kids don’t really get any free time, so being able to just hang out with their friends at rowing means these activities are actually some of the only time they have to be kids. Watching the rowing and listening to Ben coach was pretty cool, he has to do all his coaching in Japanese and has a lot of crews to coach. This means that he has to really think about what he wants to say and ensure that the kids understand what he is talking about each time he sets them off. Fi and I were very impressed at Ben’s Japanese abilities! The training session was cut short due to thunder and lightening some returned to Ben’s apartment to yet again cook up some delicious and not particularly expensive fish, veggies and rice!
Our final day in Sakata saw us travel with Umetsu Sensei to Yamadera and Yamagata – about 2 hours away from Sakata. Yamadera is a big shrine complex with lots of stairs. Surrounded by massive trees and hills it was a very cool place. All around there are statutes of Buddhas that Ben explained to us get clothed for what is appropriate each season e.g. Warmer clothes in winter. Climbing up to the top shrine we got great views of the surrounding greenery and also witnesses some very dangerous tree felling which involved one man balancing on a ladder cutting through a tree trunk while someone else held it.
We then trained to Yamagata where we more or less spent 2 hours hopping between food shops. Starting at a bakery where Fi and Ben were able to enjoy real coffee (a rarity in Japan) then onto a soba noodle shop. Yamagata is famous for its soba noodles which can be served either hot or cold. The soba noodles were delicious, while Ben and I opted for ones with mushrooms, Fi chose tempura and I really think she made the better decision!
We then took Umetsu Sensei out for dinner to say thank you for all her kindness. She chose to go to okonomiyaki, which is basically considered to be Japanese pizza. Thank god we had a local with us because we were presented with bowls of uncooked, chopped vegetables and raw eggs and sat around a hot plate. Ben, Fi and I were somewhat perplexed. Umetsu Sensei explained that we were to mix everything together in a bowl and then pour it onto the hot plate and basically cook it like a pancake (only slower)….
Sadly our time in Sakata came to an end much faster than we all wanted. With Fi and I both in love with Japan it was a no brainer to me when Ben and I started talking about climbing Mt Fuji that I would come back…. Turns out I could get really cheap flights in September so looks like I will be back before the year is out!! Fi and I headed out by bullet train to Tokyo (which was not as fast as we anticipated) early Thursday morning for the next leg of our Japanese adventure to begin in Tokyo!