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 noodles

jugatsu 24 (oct)
Last month I felt as though I had just stepped off the train briefly and stepped back on again to complete the end of the school year; life at the university is a continuum with the same students as spring semester and a familiar curriculum that picks up just where it left off. I must admit, it has lost its challenge, but is still a pleasant way to spend my workdays and the students make it worthwhile. Several of them went abroad for English study in Oxford or Vancouver over the summer, and had exciting stories to tell. I haven't traveled out of the metro area this fall, content to hang around my town and go into Tokyo to meet a former colleague or two, or for museum visits or just wandering.

A Japanese friend led me through the beautifully kept Japanese style Hararikyu Beach Pavilion gardens, once the family garden of the famed Tokugawa shogun. A narrow wooden zigzagged bridge spans a large pond, passing through a teahouse at its center, so the cottage-like building hovers out over the water. Although it's been reconstructed several times, it still emulates the classic ancient original, like so many historic sites in Japan.  The Tokyo skyline lurked in the background of every view, but it wasn't hard to imagine the open horizon of Edo days. Across the park was the dock for the water bus. Surprisingly cheap, we bought tickets and made it onto the boat just before it pushed off. The ferry made a stop to the south first, in sight of the Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba, an island spot known for its amusement park and upscale shopping center, then headed north, passing under no less than 13 bridges - modern, old, blue, yellow, red, green, wood and metallic, with notable Tokyo structures flowing by.

We disembarked at Asakusa, a famous temple I had visited several times before, surrounded by shops and restaurants reminiscent of Edo times, the heyday of Tokyo culture when the shogun ruled. After dropping into several kimono shops for my friend to peruse delicate woven cloths for a possible handkerchief to use with her simple but lovely hand-me-down family kimono I had seen her wear several times, we set about looking for a soba restaurant. Cold soba, buckwheat noodles resembling pasta, are served on a square box lined with a bamboo grate, and are eaten, or to be exact, slurped, after dipping in a type of soy sauce. She had read about one place in particular but we couldn't find it, so at this point we were looking for any likely candidate. As we stood in front of a men's kimono shop, a man came out to rearrange his wares on the racks in front of the shop.

My friend asked, "Excuse me, can you recommend a soba shop?"
He replied, "I can't answer because I have my favorite, but I don't know yours."
She countered, "I like Edo style. Please answer."
And smiling warmly, obviously enjoying the conversation, the man proceeded to describe the very restaurant we had been looking for and gave us directions. It seemed like a polite dance; it would have been too direct to answer immediately, or a test; perhaps he wouldn't have sent us if we hadn't proven we were worthy. My friend later described him to me as Edo-ko, or Edo-people, a long-time resident keeping up the aged traditions.

Another friend invited me to a crafts exhibition with her pottery teacher and another woman student; I had met them both before and enjoy their artistic taste and gentle sense of humor. The 57th annual Japan Traditional Art Crafts Exhibition was held in the elegant and historic Mitsukoshi department store. A smartly dressed young woman with a scarf draped around her neck, a hat a little like a beret, and black gloves operated the elevator, stepping outside to announce that it would be leaving, last call to board now, as if we were about to take a long journey. She pulled closed the elevator door, accordion style metal bars covered with glass, and announced every floor and its attractions. The pots on the huge 7th floor exhibit were large and in all genres, most often traditional shapes with more modern decoration. Sensei (teacher) commented on clay-working and glazing techniques as we considered each piece. My friend pointed out the ones from pottery towns that I had visited; I could recognize the styles.

There was a restaurant on every floor! We chose one in the first basement, less expensive, serving udon, a thicker type of noodle, and curry sets. The curry plate was sprinkled with flower petals, edible - they laughed when I asked to confirm. The udon arrived and the other woman gestured to someone eating at the next table and asked me, 'Can you do it?' They all watched me eat first, and laughed again when I could only slurp a few inches of noodle, then had to use my chopsticks to push the rest in, instead of sliding it all into my mouth like they do - almost inhaling it smoothly and noisily. Oddly enough, it's actually not polite to make noise in the bathroom, people flush first so the sound will mask their bodily functions; but it's appropriate to make noise when you eat noodles, as a compliment to the chef.

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