I am currently writing this entry sitting on a shinkansen heading back to Tokyo from Shizuoka Prefecture, where I spent a close to perfect day seeing castles, art museums, and splendid temples. I woke up bright and early to catch a train to meet up with my friend and former tutor student, Yumiko. Yumiko and I worked together for my entire freshman year of college, when I tutored her in English at the Nationalities Services Center in Philadelphia. We were an odd pairing indeed—me a red jeans-clad, skull wearing 19-20 year old and her, a Japanese woman in her thirties who had just moved to Philadelphia with her husband so he could do research at UPenn. Shaky lessons of me talking too fast and having no idea what to do soon transformed into excellent conversations and lessons on idioms, colloquialisms, and grammar and we bonded over shared interests in our weekly lessons. Unfortunately, they had to move back to Japan in June 2013, and I was left saddened by the thought of never seeing her again. We kept in touch via email for the past year, and our continued contact helped spark my interest in Japan and learning Japanese. When I found out I would indeed be coming to Japan, Yumiko and I set a time to meet up. She lives in Shizuoka Prefecture and she offered to show me around. I was more than happy to get out of the city for a day.
A slow, uncontrolled smile crept onto my face as I disembarked the shinkansen at Shizuoka Station. It’s been over a year since Yumiko and I said our last goodbye in Philadelphia, and over email she had promised a day full of sightseeing and the chance to pick our own tea leaves. Unfortunately, the tea leaf picking was rained out, but we visited Kakegawa Castle and made up for the rainy afternoon with a visit to the Shiseido Corporate Museum and Art House and the Hattasan Soneiji Temple, all after a delicious lunch of grilled unagi. Unagi, or eel, is particularly famous in Shizuoka and while I inwardly cringed at the thought of eating eel for lunch, I didn’t want to say no. Well, I’m glad I went for it, because unlike the eel sushi I’ve eaten in PA, fresh, grilled unagi is quite oishii* and not chewy whatsoever.
The rainy afternoon was spent poking around Kakegawa Castle, a reconstruction of the original 15th Century stronghold from the Bunmei Era. We befriended a ninja, inhaled the fragrant smell of tatami, and took in the incredible views both of and from the castle before venturing the the Shiseido Museum and Art House. As you probably know, Shiseido is the largest cosmetics company in Japan, as well as one of the oldest. The Shiseido Museum provided an interesting visual and audio history of the company from humble beginnings to cosmetics empire. The presentation and content were, at least to me, quite interesting, although I’m sure many a male visitor may not have thought the same. The Art House is a gallery-like museum filled with paintings and sculptures from various well-known contemporary Japanese artists.
We finished off our sightseeing for the day with a visit to the beautiful Hattasan Soneji Temple, a Buddhist temple set in a gorgeous, mountain woodland, before heading back to Shizuoka and a sushi dinner. When Yumiko suggested sushi, my American mind immediately pictured a couple of tuna rolls and instant happiness. My American mind was a little off the mark. This sushi was the real deal. Chefs directly in front of us at the counter expertly sliced, diced, and served up ultra-fresh cuts of everything under the sun. From squid tentacle, which is not bad-tasting but just too chewy, to the most heavenly tuna and mackerel, it certainly was an experience to remember. I swallowed several bites of slimy baby sardines and while the taste didn’t bother me, their judging little eyes made it difficult to want to pop them in my mouth. The chunk of their mom that came later in the meal, however, was delicious, and in my sick sense of humor I made sure to acquaint parent and child before devouring the delicious former. I enjoyed all the different types of fish, most of which I’d never eaten before, and even managed to tolerate the chewiness of squid. The one exception to the tastiness of the meal came in the form of the expensive delicacy that is sea urchin. If you’ve never tasted sea urchin before, it is impossible to describe. It’s not fishy. In fact, it doesn’t particularly taste like any sea creature I’ve ever eaten before. The flavor is decidedly…”non-Western,” and even Yumiko, who loves it, admitted it is an acquired taste. I regret to say I have clearly not yet acquired that specific taste, but determined to at least try everything, I choked down the orange-y blob as best I could. Despite the unfortunate flavor of my formerly spiky friend, the sushi meal was a well-enjoyed and exceedingly memorable end to an excellent day.
The sights and taste of Shizuoka Prefecture are wonderful, but the best part of the day was reconnecting with an old friend. I hope to see her again someday soon, either here in Japan or back in the states. Seeing her brightened the end of a stressful and exhausting last week of classes and provided a respite from the hustle and bustle of both Tokyo and academic life. We may have been from completely different worlds when we met in October 2012, but despite our apparent differences, all it takes to reconnect with someone you care about is a little grilled unagi.
Like I said, unagi is eel.
A shinkansen is a bullet train. They really are fast.
* Oishii is the Japanese word for delicious