Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paying it Forward

Hi Everyone,

I am so stuffed.

Today, my new student Onosan and his wife invited our whole family to an outstanding sushi bar in Miura, a small coastal town south of Yokosuka. Onosan is a gentleman in every sense of the word--modest, kind and generous. He opens doors for ladies, does his homework diligently and teaches me about sake. He is 75 years old but has the looks and gait of a man of sixty. He brings me or the girls a present, usually some Japanese sweet, every time he has a lesson. I would like to tell him to stop because I feel guilty but I think it would hurt his feelings. He just loves giving gifts. He was referred to me by Akiyamasan, my first student, whose self-professed hobbies are beer drinking and sleeping. I am thankful for having met both of them.

It took us about 45 minutes to follow Onosan by car to the sushi bar. At first glance, it didn't seem like much. You must know that most Japanese restaurants, especially those by the sea, look like dives. Usually I pull up to some dull concrete building with ancient water stains and two parking spaces and think, "I'm eating raw fish in that place?"

This bar had the prerequisite plastic food display outside. After oohing and aaaahing over the life-like sushi (Good God, that salmon should not be out in the sun all day!), we proceeded up the steps of the restaurant. On each side of the bottom step, there were two tiny hills of salt. Just like at the beginning of sumo matches when the wrestlers throw salt to purify the ring and protect themselves from injury, the salt outside restaurants welcomes guests by purifying and protecting the premises. Although I am not certain, I think this is a Shinto tradition. Odds are, if it's a bit wacky and totally charming, it's Shinto. Deeply meditative and serene? Probably Buddhist.

Upon entering, I wasn't too impressed with the atmosphere but I didn't expect to be since most Japanese restaurants tend to be shabby (but immaculate). Down one wall was a long sushi bar, bordered by glass cases full of sea creatures, with 6 chefs at work behind it. Five tatami rooms with large, square, sunken tables made up the other side. We all sat down at the bar and Onosan started ordering from the 2 chefs in front of us, releasing a veritable tsunami of food. First came 3 full plates of sashimi (raw fish, no rice), miso soup and an egg custard dish. Then came all kinds of sushi (raw fish on rice), tempura (fried vegetables and shrimp) and crab legs. And sake. And beer.

I quickly got impressed. I have had many types of sushi, in Japan and the states, and I thought I had tasted some primo quality fish. Nothing compared to this. The tuna was so fresh and tender, it practically melted in my mouth. I didn't even have to make the effort to chew. I try not to be snobby about this kind of stuff, but the sushi in the states compared to this place can best be described with this analogy: Dreaming about sex and actually having sex.

I looked down at Claire and Lily to see how they were doing. Lily, who loves sushi, was chowing down as fast as she could. Claire looked like the Speak-No-Evil Monkey in the picture above. Right in front of her, behind the glass case, was some sort of shell fish. The chef poked it and it faintly shuddered. (Lily said it did The Wave.) The scene was somewhat akin to watching a small child run into a sliding glass door. You know you ought to feel more empathy but it's just too darn funny.

On account of being invited by them, Onosan and his wife payed for everything, of course. This is Japanese traditional hospitality. After leaving the restaurant, we went next door to the fresh fish and vegetable market so Onosan's wife could do some shopping. I filled my basket with some rice, veggies and some snacks for the girls and Onosan offered to hold the basket. Next thing I know, he is insisting on buying my groceries! I protested vehemently but he wouldn't hear of it. At some point, you can't duke it out with a 75 year old Japanese man in public. "The sushi was my present, this is my wife's present," he said. I couldn't believe it. We brought them small presents for hosting us but it seemed so trivial. Is there any way for us to "repay" the incredible kindness we have witnessed here?

Good people, like good sushi, are hard to find sometimes. But I know in my heart that if I keep looking, there will be an opportunity to "pay forward" what I have been given. I just hope that I will recognize it when it happens and be as honorable in my intentions as my role models have been.


Andrea said...

I LOVE reading your blog. You write beautifully and I can't get enough of it!! It is with sweet anticipation, everyday, that I look to see what gift you might have left for us, your readers...your fans.

Nancy, I am honored to call you my friend.

Oh, and by the way, your analogy was spot on. I have been searching, nearly a year, for the "Big O" in the world of American Sushi with no luck. I did find some tasty seaweed salad, but have yet to find sushi worth talking about, let alone worth eating more than once.

Love and hugs to the family!! ;-)

nancy b said...

Andrea, you are the sweetest. I loved your "Big O" comment--HA! I guess I better get my fill of them here before going back to the states. Wish I could send some your way...would plastic be okay?

Andrea said...

Thought of you when I saw this quote. That movie Pay It Forward is one of my favorites.

"Remember that if the opportunities for great deeds should never come, the opportunities for good deeds are renewed day by day."

-- F.W. Faber