Having come here knowing actually zero Japanese words, I am pretty proud of myself that I have since mastered: basic counting, basic greetings and obscure foods (my true point of interest). At the office, my lack of Japanese language puts me at a disadvantage, and I spend a lot of time communicating (or honestly, miscommunicating) with coworkers through nods, points, laughs and smiles. But hey — what counts is that I’m trying…right?
Through all of this communication/miscommuncation, I have actually been able to develop different relationships with quite a few coworkers. Some more strained and difficult than others simply because of the language barrier, but some thriving and continuing outside the office on day trips to Nikko, Mitaka, a summer elementary school festival, and Studio Ghibli (Hayao Miyazaki, the beloved Japanese animator’s studio and museum). The relationship that stands out most in my mind, however, requires absolutely zero language to work and transcends a friendship created through speaking, as this relationship is based solely on a weekly exchange of vegetables.
This coworker, Akaike-san, brings me freshly harvested veggies from her garden, freshly cut from the vine every Wednesday. From cucumbers to peppers to pumpkins to eggplants to okra to mulukhiyah, my backpack is filled with delicious, homegrown food for the remainder of the week. She speaks hardly any English, I speak hardly any Japanese, but we are able to have a thriving friendship based on our shared love of food, cooking, and the desire to cross any boundary that language may propose.
I wish that I was able to further the exchange by providing my own food to share with her, but she insists that I do not need to get her anything with a shake of her head, a wave of her hand, and a smile that shows that she is getting just as much out of the exchange as I am, but without the physical product.
As a way to ~further~ my experience here in Japan and truly understand the simplistic, less cluttered lifestyle that many Japanese people lead, I watched Minimalism: A Documentary on the Important Things at the beginning of my stay. It follows the path of two men who are attempting to change the way the world looks at consuming and living, by only buying and keeping things that specifically add value to their lives.
Wanting to embrace this idea during my 7 week experience here, where people often live in 8 sq. meter apartments and have a staple wardrobe of around 30 items in the heart of bustling Tokyo, I feel spoiled and luxurious in my larger than 8 sq. meter space.
However, I have made an effort to engage this Minimalist lifestyle through my grocery shopping and homemade bento box lunches I bring to the office everyday. Simplifying my purchases and only buying food I will need for the next three days allows me to eat truly fresh food, save money and focus on deliciously simple flavors.
Below I have included a typical grocery haul. Bringing this minimalistic lifestyle back home with me will be difficult, but knowing that I feel more refreshed, calm and together while living this way will be a great incentive.
Tofu and two types of miso paste
Greek yogurt for breakfast
Sushi to make my bento with
The way that humidity, noodles and generosity have intertwined has led me to have arguably the most life changing experiences of my 19 years of life.
My first three weeks in Japan can be accurately summed up by the title of this post. While all seemingly independent things, the way that humidity, noodles and generosity have intertwined has led me to have arguably the most life changing experiences of my 19 years of life.
The weather app says that the temperature is a mere 89 degrees. This temperature alone is not the issue, having spent summers in Tennessee and sweaty places like Indonesia and Madrid. However, when the humidity index raises and is between 70% and 85% on a day to day basis, solace is nowhere to be found (except stores — reason #1 for the unnecessary amount of pens, stationary and washi tape I have purchased). Trekking across Tokyo with my trusty Fjallraven Kanken backpack, hair stuck to my forehead and friction blisters on my heels, I have stumbled on the most amazing food and people.
I’ve known for a while now that kindness and heat kind of go hand in hand. Years ago as a family we were in a bazaar in Marrakech, Morocco, a maze-like covered shopping arena, filled with loud noises, strange-smelling food, yelling people and meandering donkeys. My 12 year old self went into shock, likely sparked by heat stroke and an interaction with dried hedgehogs that looked as if they’d been through a flower press (4 years before I had written Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a letter asking him to legalize hedgehogs as pets in California after I had a life changing week at Zoo Camp. He said no). I immediately started sobbing, and was swept into the home of a very caring woman who wiped my face down with a cold towel and made me drink water, as my family stood confused and idly by. While I will never know her name or even how to find her again, she changed my life and showed me true kindness.
So, as I was sitting on the JR Yamanote line, sweaty, hot and tired and attempting to get back to Shinjuku my main station, I experienced this type of kindness again. I was staring and fretting at the chaos of the map that is the Tokyo Railway system (see above), a voice leaned over at told me that I should get off at this next stop, Shibuya. Her name was Maki, and fast forward she is walking me through the station to show me which gate to use. She handed me her business card (which I graciously accepted with two hands. One of the few lessons I learned in my limited research before coming to Japan) and told me to contact her if I needed help with anything. Incredible kindness on her part to extend herself to the lost 19 year old with no other contacts in Japan (she was my first friend here!).
Fast forward again, and we are at a small restaurant in Asakusa eating noodles, escaping the summer heat and making plans for the future. I’m telling you, the tangle of humidity, noodles and generosity is one to be reckoned with.