Japanese 101

My wonderful Japanese friend Kimi opened her home to our Rotary group last weekend for a brief training on Japanese culture. She prepared a “sushi buffet”—temaki—where we rolled our own sushi using dried seaweed wraps, an assortment of fish and vegetables, and rice. As she explained, making sushi can be a time consuming process, so a temaki party is common practice as it’s a lot less work. We sipped genmai cha (brown rice tea) and nibbled on delicious mochi (sweet pastries made from rice paste).

During the meal, Kimi and her husband Richard gave us pointers on Japanese etiquette and also tips on what dishes we might wish to avoid; natto, fermented soybeans, ranked high on the list. To be fair, we all did try the natto. Although it’s supposed to be quite healthy, the strong flavor and slimy texture makes it truly an acquired taste (though I doubt I will ever acquire it). After lunch we had a field trip to Tokyo Fish, a Japanese grocery store in Berkeley, where I stocked up on tea, Pocky, and mochi.

Later that evening, Kimi and another friend, Rosemary, treated me to a Taiko drum performance by the Japanese ensemble Kodo at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. I watched the performance in awe, struck by the contrast of the athletic effort exerted to produce the thunderous drumbeats and its oddly relaxing and meditative affect. In one composition, the artists used small drums and mimicked the sound of falling rain, producing soft footsteps and working up to a crescendo of a deafening downpour. What a beautiful ballet of dancers and drums.