11 February, 2008

Being Home

When I think about living in Japan for so many years, 2 + 7 as of the beginning of April, I start to wonder whether this isn't as much my home as Nova Scotia where I grew up, or Labrador where I spent 12 years raising a family.

I often wonder what home actually means. I'm not sure, but right now I think it means the place where I've lived, worked, set up a household and especially my kitchen, enjoyed learning about the local food, and just slowly began understanding the names of and how to cook many of the local vegetables that I've had the fun of discovering in the Farmers' Market. Started to learn how to cook them, I should have said, because the home cooking of Japan, though pretty simple in its use of techniques, is a little exacting when it comes to the presentation of things and the many steps required to make even the simplest dish.

Take chirashi-zushi. Its the sushi that looks easy, the one in the box with ingredients mixed in and then spread artistically, or even seemingly casually, over the surface. It subs for other kinds, especially in home kitchens where homemakers don't always have the time to roll up sushi. Especially as it takes a couple of hours to get all the ingredients ready. As I found out this morning when I realized that I've really missed sushi and other Japanese food since I've cut out gluten and had to stop eating prepared food. I started around 10:00 and I was finished around 1:30 or 2:00.

It was a nice lunch, though. With a few cups of locally grown tea, really nice.

Some of that time was setting up what I thought was a semi-artistic arrangement and taking pictures. But I've got a lot to learn both about food styling, and photography. I usually spend so much time wrangling with the light sources and angles of shots that I don't notice that the rim of the container needs to be wiped, that there is a small piece of vegetable on the rim that looks appetizingly like a little green worm crawling away.

I never notice those things until I see the close-ups on the computer; too late because by then I'm pretty tired of shooting the food, and in some cases it's snugly in my belly anyway. After all, I was shooting my lunch.

I know I need a better camera, but frankly I can't afford one. I need a photography course too. Maybe that's in my future, if I continue loving writing and blogging as much as I do now.

What I'm getting around to, and crawling all over the place, a little like that imaginary worm, is that I'm going home in two months. I've decided to leave Japan, though every morning when I wake up and look around at the Shoji paper casting soft light on the tatami, and the rich dark Japanese wood of the posts of the room, and wet my mouth with a cup of leftover tea lifted off the hori-kotatsu that I sleep beside (my dining table and night table), I wonder why I'm leaving. I feel a little sick at the pit of my stomach for the love that I've found for my home here, the mornings in the back garden filled with ornamental bushes and small palm trees, camellia, red berries, leaves coloured yellow and green, and the large crooked pine towering over all. The place I wash my clothes in an outdoor machine and hang them up to dry on clotheslines under the narrow roofed veranda.

My breath of fresh air and piece of sky in the midst of the concrete, the place where my cat friend, Mustache, often greets me as she crawls out from under the house, where she likes to sleep.

I do know why I'm leaving Japan. I've found at last that there is no way to have the family that I've realized I've wanted for a few years now. And it's too far away from the family I have left in Canada. I'm lonely and for that there is no cure here. I've got lots of students that I cherish and some acquaintances, but no deep friendships. The ones I've made have come and gone, and I've grown tired of making friends only to lose them within a year or two, as they move on.

And my Mom is growing older, and has developed Parkinson's disease. Though she has helpers come in a few times a week and her sisters live nearby, as well as my family who can take a look in on her once in awhile, I fear as she gets well into her seventies that she can't take care of herself properly. I want to be close enough to keep an eye on her.

I want to spend the big holidays with my children and their families. I have a grand-daughter that I've seen only a few times. As she heads into her third year, I'd love to be there to see some of that growing and learning that is so joyous in those first years. I'm missing that.

I've given up a lot to be here in Japan. I came for the challenge, and to get the teaching job that was so elusive after returning to school in my early forties to get my Education degree. Full of enthusiasm and idealistic as any younger teacher, I wanted to engage in my passion. The kind of teaching I found here didn't really satisfy that urge, based as it was more on the illusion of teaching and the business of getting money, rather than any real sense of mission.

Eventually I made the teaching more of what I wanted, getting jobs where I had the freedom to set up my own curriculum. I've enjoyed that quite a lot, but eventually the lack of progress of students, mostly because of the very restricted time you can spend with them, meant that most classes are at such a low level that enormous patience is required to teach them. In only a few could I broach the big questions that were on my mind or introduce small snippets of the texts I was longing to bring them.

I love literature and poetry and the music of language. I wanted to bring them great writers and philosophers and big ideas, make a great big soup of our ideas and creative energies that would swirl us into that plane of magic that sometimes happens in a class when everyone is engaged and inspired. Occasionally it happened despite the limits of my teaching and the barriers of our communication. But there were inevitable disappointments, ones that made me long for a change.

Then there is the political environment. Disappointingly, the government seems to be stepping backward into a scared and defensive stance in dealing with its non-Japanese residents and visitors to Japan. Maybe they are only following the United States and if the government gets a change there we can look for some more forward-thinking policy. And they might finally pass human rights' legislation. I hope that's the case, both for people like me and the Japanese as well. I think this country could benefit greatly from a real mix of people and ideas and more active democracy. That could only freshen and strengthen Japan, if it were embraced.

So, though I know why I'm leaving, I find that I've become a little Japanese. The culture has seeped into me deeper than the skin that looks different from those around me. Perhaps that's why I resent and am surprised when people still stare at me as if I were a visiting giraffe. I feel in some ways as Japanese as they. Why can't they see that, I wonder.

I love many things here and will miss them dearly when I return to Canada. The elegant arrangements of seasonal flowers in every train station. The ease of bicycling to do my shopping. The convenience of train travel. The rice fields and vegetable fields of the countryside, with their changing colours, season by season.

The exquisite tea cakes that one of my students brings to class at the change of the seasons.

The small shop around the corner with lovely green tea and strawberry manju (tea cakes), seasonal manju, and the next-door family-run coffee shop, guarded by two enormous twin Dalmations, that makes smoky flavoured, freshly roasted coffee every week for sen sambyakku-en for 300 grams, about $13.00, worth every yen and maybe a few more besides.

Obviously I could go on a lot longer. Japan has a lot of things to love. I think those that have founded families here are the lucky ones. They can stay forever if they like. Japanese families are by-and-large very supportive. If they accept you and you can accept Japanese ways, you will find a network of arms that can hold you up forever.

Even a lone teacher can feel this kind of support, in perhaps a more limited but also freer, way. I have a lot of affection for those of my students who have been with me for years. Many of them have supported me through deaths in my family and the birth of my grand-child, in their quiet way.

We've seen the seasons come and go together and talked about everything from the special colour of cherry blossoms at night, to the grave washing rituals of o-bon. We've dressed up and designed and carved "American" pumpkins at Hallowe'en and had a regular Christmas party at a nice restaurant every year I've been here. They have never allowed me to pay, and given me a gift besides.

I'll remember this kindness forever, and though I grow indignant at political policy, and sometimes impatient with citizens who never seem speak up about what they think is wrong, or question too much the racism here, except in rare instances, I know I have grown to love them and Japan with a love that will never fade.

So when I sit in my mother's house in Nova Scotia a few months from now, looking at the sunrise over the the ocean surrounded by the sea air and pines that I love and have longed for, wondering what my life is going to be like from now on, and while I go on to live that life, hopefully amid family and friends, I know that while I may be gone from Japan, perhaps forever, at the end of that life be it short or long, the feeling of home that I found here, I will never have forgotten.

Note: The recipe for Green Worm Chirashi-zushi, will be up pretty soon.


Cha-chan said...

Wishing you well in your farewell to Japan. I came across your blog some time ago and peek in now and then. I'm a vegetarian and lived in Japan for seven years (not all at once however). I understand about making friends, but still not making many (or any) close friends in Japan. The only place I lived in Japan where I did not feel lonely was Okinawa, where the people are so warm and open and make you a member of the family right off the bat.

Anyway, I've been away now for 20 months and am longing to go back. All the little things you mention in this post are so special. I love the way the Japanese celebrate the seasons in everything.

That said, the more I live overseas, the more I appreciate my family. I hope you have many wonderful days with them after you leave Japan!

Ruahines said...

Kia ora VegetableJ,
What a moving and thoughtful post. I think perhaps a part of you is, and always will be home in Japan, your beautiful recipes, descriptions of your environment, and photos lead me to believe that. Yet you are still pulled by the call of your other home and family.
After 15 years here in New Zealand I too still feel that pull strongly. A few times a year almost overwhelmingly so. Having my wife and sons here, and being accepted as part of her family, as you allude to in Japanese culture, has been a great gift. The Ruahine ranges have been a place that fills an empty part of me, another great gift. And my own humanistic and political leanings are better served here, for the most part, than they ever were in America where I often felt a stranger. But it is still my original home and what I have missed with my family there can never be replaced. My nieces and nephews growing up, loved ones getting old, some passing away, events I have missed. New ones here and new memories but always that slightly melancholic twinge. I understand your decision completely, and how hard it must have been. You will always be in both places I am sure. I hope you continue your blog back in Canada. Please have a great day.
Ka kite,

bee said...

thanks for dropping by and for adding us to your blogroll. you have a lovely site here. that last pic is breathtaking.

Martin J Frid said...

Hi there, what a surprise. I realize I don't even know your name! I enjoyed reading your blog a lot. As a vegetarian in Japan (who also have returned here a second time) I guess you touched on a lot of similar issues - not to mention your delishious foods. Take care, hope you'll keep on blogging back in Canada!

vegetablej said...

cha-chan and Robb:

Your comments are so appreciated, along with the encouragement I feel from them. I am or am going to make my way to your sites to respond properly, so here I'll just say a heart-felt thank you. Wish we were closer together; I have the feeling we could be great friends. :)

vegetablej said...


Thank you. Glad I happened on to your wonderful site. (And cute monkey smile.)

The last picture is a sunrise on a small cove in rural Nova Scotia in March I think, with still some ice on the water. It was taken from my mother's back deck. It really _is_ that lovely there. :)

vegetablej said...


Thanks! I guess I prefer to be anonymous because of all the details of my life I write about, plus the slight trepidation I feel while I still remain in Japan. That might change at home, not sure yet.

I plan to keep on blogging wherever I am, and please keep coming back-- I'm here for another month and a half and I intend putting up a lot of posts and recipes, including some Japanese ones. After all, I think I'll be cooking them when I go back to Canada and this is a convenient place to collect the recipes so they're accessible from wherever I happen to be.

And I'll continue to read your blog for the latest and best news from Japan, of course! :)

Autumn Moon said...

I hope you are able to keep your blog going, in whatever form it may take. I can understand some of your frustrations, from personal experience. Good luck and peace to you!

Ginger said...

this was so beautiful to read veg.j. i don't have anything thought provoking to respond with, it just seems like you have so many mixed emotions surrounding this and your writing put me right there with you.

your photos are wonderful just the way they are, japan sounds a lot like america, i hope your mom is doing well and i can't wait to read about your new adventures when you move back home.

thank you ~

Ruahines said...

Kia ora VJ,
It has been, is, great to connect with you. It is amazing to make contact with a few people in this way with so many millions of bloggers and blogs out there. I guess I owe Pohanginapete a big thank you. In any case I left a note on my blog in regards to your last comment there.
Today I was driving in the country and passed a vege and fruit place, and my recent forays in the kitchen made me stop. I bought heaps of fresh veges and tonight made my boys and I a huge stir fry with bok choy, mushrooms, broccoli, and cashews, with black bean sauce and rice. I was inspired by your recipes, and it was yum. I also bought two big beautiful egg plants, because they were so much cheaper than the super market mainly and they looked so nice. I have no idea what to do with them. Please help with any suggestions! Have a great day VJ.
Ka kite

vegetablej said...

autumn moon:

I just left a couple of comments on your blog. Thank you for the kind words. I will be either continuing this blog or a sister blog in Canada; seem to be hooked on it now. :)

vegetablej said...


Thank you so much! Yes, I do have conflicting feelings. It's _hard_ to leave home. :)

Thanks for the encouragement also to keep blogging. You can be sure that I will. :)

Autumn Moon said...

cha-chan, my Mother-in-law is Japanese, and she takes her eggplan and washes it, then sprinkles it with sesame seeds, and nukes it for a few minutes, very easy and it come out really well, good for when you are in a hurry!

vegetablej said...

Hi again Robb:

Glad to her you are keeping up the healthy cooking. Aren't fresh vegetables great? A farmer's market is a wonderful place for both kids and parents. You can let them help you shop and maybe pick out some things they want to eat. The next step is getting them in the kitchen helping you make something easy. Pretty soon they will be cooking for you.:)

Eggplants of the big kind you are talking about are a bit different from the tiny tender Japanese ones, but eggplant, peeled if it has a tough skin, is great diced (about an inch in size) and sauteed in olive oil, which you have first toasted a few cloves of whole garlic in, removed and chopped to be added back in later. A cast iron or other sturdy pan is good for this.

Just stir and toss the cubes around until they have picked up some bits of brown and and are tender. Throw a little salt and pepper on and they can be eaten as a side dish, with a bit of parmesan on top if you like.

Those same cubes, uncooked, can be thrown into any curry, and will cook into and deepen the flavour and texture of the sauce.

Eggplant is wonderful cut into thickish slices(maybe 3/4-1 inch) and grilled. In that case you can brush the grill or the eggplant with a bit of olive oil. After it's done it is just wonderful layered in a pan with the tomato sauce and parmesan cheese and lots of black pepper. If you want a chewy version that cooks quickly try just one layer on a cookie sheet. Top with more cheese and bake in the oven until it's heated through and the cheese is golden on top. The kids will like this one, probably.(Nod to Book of Yum for the original recipe.)

Happy cooking! :)

Lucy said...

I can see why you're torn. Those images could be taken nowhere but in Japan - how amazing that life and nature mirror Japanese Art so closely. But home, well, it's a confusing notion when you've had so many experiences in two vastly differing cultures. I'm looking forward to seeing how you'll bring what you've learned to your life back in Canada.

By the way, you don't need to take photgraphy lessons. Quite obviously, you have a clear and beautiful eye! And as my photography lecturer once said, it's not the quality of the camera that counts, it's the quality of the photographer...well done.

Good luck with the move!

vegetablej said...

autumn moon:

Thanks for the tip from your mother-in-law for fast eggplant. Sesame seeds sound like a good addition to eggplant. I'm not much of a "nuker" but I'll try adding them the next time I pan fry. :)

vegetablej said...


Thank you so much for the encouragement, both about blogging and my photos. I think it's easy to see, though, from your amazing pictures, that you had a course and I didn't.

I'm not very good at the technical end and I'd love to learn to use a camera with more control of the result. Right now it's more of a fumble in the dark, and compensating for bad technique with editing.

What will I do in Canada with what I've learned here? An interesting question, one that gives me something to think about. Right now I'm investigating permaculture. I'd love to do some experimenting if I can find a little patch of land.

Thanks again for your kind comments.:)

Sea said...

I was just thumbing through my copy of Haru-mi and feeling nostalgic for Japan and wanted to join you over on your blog.

I understand the natsukashi-sa of saying goodbye to Japan all too well... warts and all, something about the place gets inside you and even when you've left, keeps a hold on you... I think in some ways, even though I was there with my DH, my life in Japan was the loneliest time I ever spent. It made the moments of connecting with someone seem all the more poignant, but ultimately- as much as I love it there, I don't know that I could ever settle there permanently. There's only so much of being a perpetual outsider that I could take. And yet... and yet... I dream of returning.

I hope your new life brings you much happiness and joy, and that after you leave, only the good things you got from Japan stay with you.


vegetablej said...


Thank you so much for your thoughtful empathy. People's comments have been very kind and are helping a lot.

Leaving is a strange experience. At the same time that I feel no less frustrated with some parts of daily life here, I appreciate the ones I love more. I am trying to stock up on dried Japanese food before I leave. I know it will be so hard not to have the fresh produce market so close and the difficulty of getting ingredients, not to mention good brown rice, means that my diet will have to change a lot. I am starting to look around my kitchen and decide what things( utensils) I really can't live without to take back. So far I have identified the daikon/ginger grater and the screen on a handle for integrating the miso into soup.

Having gone through the whole thing yourself, and cooking Japanese food in America, do you have any comments about things you wished you had brought back? I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Thanks, again! :)