Post Course

Our last day was incredibly clear so we had an unobstructed of Fuji in all of its glory. Everyone was snapping pictures. It is an important Japanese icon.

We started the day with the usual morning exercises. Because it was our last day at the center, I had to stand up in front of the 100+ others to introduce myself. The students in the class laughed good-naturedly at my hesitant greeting in Japanese. It turns out that they were delighted by my daily participation in the morning stretching routine. Japanese are all about respect. Being the owner and medical director of WMA and their teacher placed me on a high pedestal. That I would put myself out there only added to their collective pleasure. Many of the students wanted to have their picture taken with me. Accepting this attention rather than struggling with it is good for me. I hope that this is as close to karaoke as I have to get.

After packing up, Chizuru, Isamu, Tak, Toyota and I headed for a final celebratory sushi supper. The food, of course, was wonderful but it was the style that was the really fun part of our night out. As most of you know, at a traditional sushi restaurant, you sit at a counter and are served your food as soon as it is made. The purpose of this system is to avoid any time delays. Delays compromise quality because the food dries out. In an effort to increase business, restaurants set up tables. The problem with that setup is that despite the wait staff, there is an inevitable time delay between production and delivery. Over the years, one solution was to introduce conveyor belt trolleys. In this system, large varieties of dishes are circulated amongst the tables, the patrons being free to choose what they want. Although the food only stays out for a limited time, one still needs to be concerned about freshness as well as contamination by others.

The restaurant where we ate took the trolley idea to a new level. It has one long conveyor that winds around the restaurant in a glassed-in tunnel. Each table is serviced by its own branch conveyor angled at 90° to the main belt. Orders are entered on a touch screen menu. As soon a selection is made, the order time is noted on the screen and the prep process begins. Once complete, the food migrates around the restaurant on the main conveyor and is sidetracked to the correct spur for the table that ordered the dish. You add selections as you like. The wait staff removes used plates and brings really large dishes and drinks. Finding the correct table is the magic. The delivery plates (like a flat car on a train) are uniquely colored and marked on the side with some figures (code?), all apparently corresponding to individual tables. I couldn’t figure out how, but our plates knew when they arrived at our table. It may be that there was a scanner that recognized the code on the plate as ours and somehow levered it into our siding. Maybe it had something to do with shape. Certainly not a purist’s experience but it was fun. Regardless, the freshness was incredible and food wonderful.

Which brings me to food in general. The Japanese enjoy food as much as anyone. They pay attention to freshness, quality, preparation, and the experience. Sure, there is fast food/junk food for convenience and I suspect like other places they are gaining a foothold here. Still we got to enjoy some wonderful stuff at reasonable prices. I already mentioned the sushi. The Japanese eat a lot of fish. We had excellent quality several nights. Noodles – ramen, soba and udon – are also important. Apparently there are some regional variations of each either in how they are made or what they are cooked with. The udon we had was cooked with vegetables including squash (a local favorite) in a cast iron bowl. The noodles were thick and hardy and the broth itself was scalding hot. It was said that a local samurai believed that his foot soldiers (ashigaru) fought better when well fed. Our meal certainly fulfilled that criterion. In addition to chop sticks, we used a wooden ladle in the other hand to hold the noodles and broth out of the bowl so they could cool enough to slurp up. I always laugh to myself when I eat here, thinking back to our mother’s scolding about noisy eating. Here it is a sign of pleasure and appreciation.

That night we stayed in a hotel that had an onsen (actually, probably technically a sento or bath house). As it was open from 1500 (3 PM) – 1000 AM, I decided to partake when I woke at 0400. For me, they are another one of the pleasures in Japan. In one form or another, they are everywhere – freestanding, at sport centers and in hotels. The really authentic ones are hot springs. Like many things here, there is a ritual involved. They are segregated by sex. After undressing completely, you sit at your own station complete with a shower nozzle, a bowl, soap and shampoo. Most people scrub thoroughly twice, rinsing either with the shower nozzle or by filling the bowl with water and then dumping it over oneself. The hot bath follows. There is usually one main pool large enough for at least 6 people. Sometimes there is a sauna (I am sure they call them something else). Some also have smaller baths that have a variety of herbs. In one, it smelled like I was steeping in a large vat of miso soup.

The next 2 days we went to Mt Fuji and areas around it. We spend part of one day about 2/3 the way up the slope and another in a cave around its base. The cave is in an area known as “the sea of forest”, a heavily forested area known for lost hikers. Apparently people become disoriented there, in part because of the effect that volcanic rock can have locally on compass readings. It is also a good place for people to commit suicide in private. They are often not found for months or years. Suicide is a big problem for Japan.

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