This is the final postcard of my non-fiction summer-reads food series. In Postcard #1 we sipped morning coffee in the Bosnian highlands; Postcard #2 took us to the Philippines, where we dealt with complicated feelings while drinking tanglad in the afternoon sun; Postcard #3 was from Wales and had rhubarb ice cream over dinner and life decisions. Today’s postcard begins with a bike flying between rice fields during sunset in Japan…
It’s the hour before sunset and the long, green tops of rice graze my calves in a blur as I fly by on my pale yellow bike. I pump and gasp for air as the clickety-clack, clickety-clack of my uneven spokes fills the late afternoon silence.
I shout “Gomen!”—Sorry!—for my rude speeding as I speed by old men and women bent over in their fields, disturbing this restful part of their day. You see, I need to make it to the covered mall on the other side of town to get korokke before the shop closes.
Ah, korokke (“ko-row-kay”). Korokke, or “croquettes” as we Frenchingly call them in English, are ground potatoes and veggies, mixed up, flattened, and fried. Then served with a tangy, dark brown tonkatsu sauce—one of the best outcomes of cultural exchange between Japan and the west.
Back during the Meiji Restoration, in the late 19th century, when imperial rule was restored in Japan, the shogunate ended and the country opened up to the west. It was during the Restoration that youshoku, or “Western-style cooking,” became a thing in Japan. If you’re struggling to picture what the Meiji Restoration was, the easiest thing I can tell you to do is picture The Last Samurai and you’ll have a rough idea. Imagine Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe in 1870s Tokyo trying to cook a breaded pork cutlet together, and there you go, the original “fusion” culinary.
Of course, youshoku or “Western Food” is to Japan what “Chinese Food” is to America. The kind of third-culture kids of the food world, belonging really to neither country but wholly to my belly.
Anyway—the tonkatsu sauce. The stuff that goes on the korokke. It’s brown and good and that’s all you really need to know. That’s why I’m peddling so hard.
My bike hits a pothole on the narrow, paved dyke between rice fields, and I wobble. One foot comes down and pushes off the cement to catch me, and I’m off again. To give you an idea of how narrow these paths between fields are: If you stand on them with your two feet side by side, the edges of your giant foreigner feet will be falling off. This is where I’m speeding on my bike.
I pray to the Dutch blood in me that I will make it, and that I won’t break this bike. It’s a second-hand one used by many previous exchange students like me, now in my hands for the semester. I hope for its sake I’m no longer cursed the same way I was when I was an exchange student in Hamburg a few years before and managed to break not one but two bicycles. (The first time, the tires blew—simultaneously; the second time, the pedals fell straight off with no explanation while I was going downhill.)
The long, low, golden sun stretches in beams across the fields and earth, like the long fingers of a giant trying to grasp the edge of the day as it slips away into the evening.
The agricultural backyards I’m shortcutting through melt into a slightly more urban part of town, with hairdressers and boutique clothing shops. Little Shiba Inus are walking home with their owners, tails up, assholes proudly displayed, and the first chorus of cicadas can be heard warming up for the evening.
Finally, the covered mall. A paved street about two lanes wide with small shops on either side. Mostly locally owned. This is where the korokke guy is. I get to the entrance and half-dismount, both feet on the left pedal, gliding myself into the entrance like my bike’s a sailboat. A trick I’ve learned from my classmates, balancing the need for speed with the strict no-bike-riding rule in the mall. I compose myself, walk towards the korokke stand, and—
God damn it. I check my watch. Just a few minutes too late.
Ah well, at least there’s always taiyaki.
I walk a few stalls over to where, sure enough, the taiyaki guy is still there, idly fanning himself while watching the kids walk by. This will do. I hold back my energy so I don’t scare the poor vendor. Too much Western excitement can sometimes be too much around here.
“Taiyaki wo futatsu onegaishimasu.” I do a polite little bow from the neck. Two taiyaki, please.
He asks what kind, and I get one custard cream and one with red bean paste. He turns around and slowly pours batter into a hot metal griddle mould shaped like a sea bream fish. I tell my Western self that the red bean paste is “kind of like a healthy supper” since it’s a bean. Even though here they’re sweet and a dessert.
This place does make the best custard cream, though. Hot, runny, and pale yellow with just a hint of vanilla. Like fresh tapioca pudding. Not the stale, rubbery, sad, gelled texture, or play dough-like fillings, or alarmingly “crayon yellow” custard you find in pre-made taiyaki. No, this place has the good stuff.
When it’s ready, the taiyaki man turns the soft, waffle-like fish on the griddle, scoops it up with a practised hand, and slips it into a translucent white sleeve. He does the same with the second one, then puts them both into a small, white paper bag and folds over the top, then hands the whole presentation to me. The price is foolish—not even six dollars. It pays to live out here, closer to the country. Food is cheap and I love it.
I can still feel the hot weight in my hand of a small white bag stacked with two fresh taiyaki, the corners of the paper turning just a bit see-through as the fresh heat steams off them. I always put the taiyaki bag in the external zippered pouch of my backpack so my school books won’t squash them and cause the custard to explode. (It happened once, of course.)
But today, I just walk my bike outside the shop and down the street until I find a grassy hill overlooking some rice fields with a river running through them. I’m staring right into the low sun and the river is running hot and golden into its mouth as the taiyaki custard cream is running into mine.
I’m feeling grateful. I’m twenty-two and all I’ve ever wanted was to come and visit Japan. When I was ten, I told my mom I wanted to go to private school because they “had uniforms” like in Sailor Moon. But now I’m here, and the sun is setting low over the fields. It’s around 6 P.M. I learned Japanese. I’m here. I’m doing it. I’m sitting in Japan by the side of a river sucking sweet custard out of a waffle fish like a pastry vampire, and this is the dream.
At the edge of the river, koi fish notice me and bop over, colliding against each other and gaping up at me with sucking “o” mouths. All I can do is stare out at the contented sunset, mouth full of hot custard, and wonder: “How do I get back to this?”
- Yamaguchi Kenritsu Daigaku student exchange program.
- My babe husband (then boyfriend) for understanding that sometimes I just need to go off to Japan for a few months.
- Every Japanese food and festival stall vendor. You do sacred work.
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