Japan is a curious country to be an outsider. The people are polite but distant, and it seems that in preserving a proud heritage, they have largely resisted globalization. I have not found a single shop selling ingredients to make Middle Eastern food, which I love to cook. The last time I had Lebanese bread was when I brought some back from Lebanon last summer. The vast differences in language and custom are strange at first – you have to remember to take your shoes off before entering a person’s home – but the beauty and richness of the culture make it a fascinating place to live.
I was born in Hadath, Beirut, Lebanon in 1977 and lived there for 18 years. I went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1995 to visit my aunt and decided to stay. I met my husband, who is in the United States military, and got married in 1998. We have a son Jean-Baptiste, who is now 14 years old, and a daughter Nour who is 11 years old. During our time in the military we have traveled to many locations throughout the United States and the world. Some of the locations that we have been stationed in were different states, from Georgia on the east coast to California on the west. Worldwide, we have been stationed in Germany in Europe and are currently in a suburb of Tokyo in Japan.
As I do with each new location that we are stationed at, I always look to see if I can find the closest Lebanese community that is near by. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to find a Lebanese community here in Japan. This may be because Japan is said to be disconnected from the rest of the world due to the fact that it is an island. Rarely do you find people that are just passing through, as is the way in many other locations that we have been stationed in.
So far I have been unable to find ingredients for Middle Eastern food. Some of the vegetables and fruits that I am used to are available, such as persimmons, figs, chestnuts and loquat. However often they have a Japanese flavor, the apples and pears that are grown locally that have a distinctly Asian taste. Here in Japan the diet consists mainly of rice and fish. Many Japanese will get fast food “bento boxes” that consist of rice, fish and seaweed. If you want to go to a sit-down dinner after work you can go to an “izakaya” to unwind. These are restaurants that are favored by the working class who go there after work and let off steam by eating sushi and sashimi and drinking beer and saki.
The Japanese often hold festivals that can be attended by everyone that lives in the area. Vendors provide delicious food that is cooked in small kiosks, set up for the events. One of the dishes typically served is rice balls cooked with a coating of flavor that is put on the outside with a brush. These festivals provide the Japanese with an opportunity to wear the traditional dress that is often associated with Japanese culture, like the kimono that women wear with the obi, or stylized silk that is tied around the midsection. Most of the Japanese in Tokyo usually wear Western-style pants and shirts.
Japan is a country with many mountains and valleys.
From where we live in Tokyo one of the most prominent features that can been seen is Mount Fuji. Like much of Japan this volcano has a majestic beauty that is hard to put into words. It is nicely contrasted by the Tokyo metropolis. Tokyo as a city is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, during rush hour driving even small distances can be time consuming at best.
Many Japanese do not speak English. There is a small amount of people that do speak English, however often they are reluctant to try for fear of making a mistake. The Japanese that I have met are often very polite in their mannerisms and speech, often using the term “domo arigato goziamas” repeatedly during a conversation, which is a very formal way of saying “thank you very much.”
One instance of their hospitality is when we were invited to a Japanese friend’s home, for a traditional Japanese dinner. Most Japanese live in small homes and when you go there the first thing they do is greet you and bring you into their house and have you remove your shoes. My friend Toshi was extremely hospitable, and served my whole family his homemade sushi, which we would make at the table. During the meal he also served Japanese beer, wine and saki (fermented alcohol made from rice). One thing to remember is that in Japan the host will be the one that pours the drink for the guest and Toshi, being a good host, would not allow our glassed to ever be empty, that night my husband was never able to have an empty glass and eventually gave up on trying. The whole night was a very pleasurable experience even though I had to drive home as my husband ended up having little too much saki so as not to offend our host.