Monday, January 16, 2012


On Saturday evening I had dinner with the International Budo University’s Kashiwazaki Sensei and Kokushikan University’s Nakajima Sensei. Kokushikan University is another very well-known martial arts University here in Japan and both Sensei hold eighth degree black belts in Judo; Nakajima Sensei also carries an eighth degree black belt in Aikido. Needless to say, spending the evening with the two Sensei was quite the honor. With each such experience, I find my ability to understand Japanese improving greatly. Despite this, however, it is still a challenge to follow the conversation when two old friends—as Nakajima Sensei and Kashiwazaki Sensei most certainly are—begin drinking. The best I can do is to describe the situation as I myself understood and experienced it.

The occasion for our evening together was the annual kanchuusuiei (winter swimming) of the Tokyo dojo where Kashiwazaki Sensei and Nakajima Sensei jointly teach. The swimming was to be held the following morning, though, and as Kashiwazaki Sensei said at dinner, “Tomorrow? What’s happening tomorrow? We’re not thinking about tomorrow, we’re enjoying tonight.” So I will leave talk of early mornings and cold waters for another blog entry and focus on great food and happy company.

Nakajima Sensei took us to a small, three-star Korean restaurant near his home in Setagaya. The restaurant is somewhat famous as it has appeared on Japanese television and won the respect of Japanese food critics. The owner is an eighty-year-old Korean woman who normally prepares and serves the food by herself. On nights such as this, however, when the small room is packed full of people, another—ahem—oneechan “older sister” comes to help.
Taba, as I believe the restaurant is called, is somewhat dark and dirty in appearance. “How do I know this,” you might ask? Two reasons; first, Kashiwazaki Sensei described the place as having walls that practically shone and tables plated with gold and, when Kashiwazaki Sensei tells you the girls are wearing bikini and the floors are spotless, the girl’s probably have armor on and the floor is filthy. A second hint as to the relative cleanliness of the restaurant came in the form of garbage bags we were given upon entering. The garbage bags were for our coats… to protect them from the smoke.

We began the meal with our toriaezu-biiru “for the moment, beer,” which is a typical way of beginning any meal in Japan. A round of beer is ordered to get things started and is referred to as “toriaezu” or “For the time being” beer. After this first glass of beer was finished, however, Kashiwazaki Sensei ordered us all a round of Korean Jinro: a distilled spirit made from sweet potato and similar in flavor to vodka. The Jinro was not served in the small glass one would expect, but rather in the sort of portions you might drink cola in the United States. We were drinking the super-sized Jinro.
Our food began with a round of pickled vegetables and Korean kimchi (a spicy sort of fermented cabbage). This was followed by pig’s feet, served cold with a spicy Korean sauce. I have eaten pigs feet once before when I lived with a Colombian family in Spain and I found the gelatinous meat to be disgusting. The Korean style of preparing pig’s feet, however, is much different. The meat, while being served cold, maintains a nicer texture and the spicy sauce for dipping is delicious. Following the pig’s feet, we ate a particular cut of meat from the cow’s stomach. Though I am unsure of the name, this was also served cold and with spices.
Finally, we began with what might be considered the more typical style of Korean cuisine: the yakiniku or “Grilled meat”. In Japan, Korean restaurants are famous for having grills at each table where raw meat can be prepared. The meat is cut thinly and cooks quickly on the hot metal grill. We ate two types of grilled meat: tontoro (fatty pork from the neck or shoulder) and horumon (intestine). Believe it or not, thinly sliced and grilled cow’s intestines can be very oishii—delicious—if you just don’t think about it.

Over dinner, our conversation passed along many topics. AS the restaurant was very small and little separated us from our neighbors, sometimes conversations would spill from one table into another. One man, seated behind me, commented that my Japanese was quite impressive for a foreigner. Nakajima Sensei then proceeded to tell the neighboring table about how I had come to Japan, alone, and was practicing Judo and Aikido.
Kashiwazaki Sensei then told me about how he had doubted that a visually impaired person could ever make it at the Budo University. When Nakajima Sensei first told him that I was interested in attending the bekkasei program, he was incredulous. Nakajima Sensei assured him I would be fine, though, and Kashiwazaki Sensei decided to give me the chance. Now, he says, he doesn’t believe I have a disability. My blindness isn’t a disability; it’s just a part of who I am. In fact, Kashiwazaki Sensei continued, his receding hairline was more of a disability for him than my blindness is for me. He then grabbed my hand and ran it along the top of his head to show me his receding hairline. When I said, “Ah yes,” he hit me upside the head. “No, when the Sensei says he has a receding hairline you tell him “No Sensei,” and you tell him he’s handsome”
Throughout the evening, our conversation kept returning to one important topic: the importance of a happy life. More than once we raised our glass to “Shiawase” or “happiness”. Being with friends, drinking together, it is a part of happiness. I tend to smile when I’m utterly confused and, well, on Saturday that was all they wanted. A smile and one more person to raise a glass.

I learned many things about Japanese culture over dinner and even more over the wine afterwards. I was smacked in the head more than once for being a stupid foreigner who didn’t understand Japanese customs and, when I told Kashiwazaki Sensei that I had learned more in this one evening than in the entire year of Japanese classes, he said, “Of course, there are some things you can’t learn in a classroom. You have to learn in the…”
“Izakaya,” I provided.
“Yes,” he replied.

“It’s 飲むnication,” Nakajima Sensei explained. 飲む—read “nomu—is the word for “to drink”. What you do in the izakaya (bar) isn’t your typical communication. It’s “nomunication.” It’s the language of drinking and being with friends.

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