In my first home-stay, I could not have been matched with a more perfect host family. Choemon and Isuana Kitcuchi have become life-long friends over the past two days, and I know I will return with Shad to visit them again. Gracious and generous hosts, they made me feel truly welcome in their home.
Kitcuchi-san tends a magnificent garden, complete with a pond, birch trees (shirakaba), cherry trees (sakura), and a statue of tanuki, a badger-like creature popular in Japanese mythology who stretches his testicles into wings so he can fly (I am not making that up). I have promised to visit in the spring to see her garden in full bloom. Kikicho-san possesses a samurai sword collection and likes to drives sports cars—we had great discussions about how fast I have driven my Subaru WRX.
Their magnificent home overlooks Miyako and exemplifies the serene beauty of the Japanese aesthetic; it evoked a meditative and contemplative mood in me due to its peaceful and harmonious design. I loved walking on the heated floors in the morning, or sliding the doors lined with rice paper as I entered and exited every room, and my cozy futon bed on tatami mats cured my insomnia.
One morning before breakfast I accompanied their daughter-in-law to the room of their ancestors, where I watched as she lit incense and made an offering of food and water. The room displayed paintings and photographs from three generations of their family. The whole slipper thing, however, continued to elude me, as I kept losing my slippers in the house as I moved from room to room. I’ll have to work on my slipper retention skills.
On my second evening we hit the town in earnest and began with a dinner at Yakitori Torimoto, a chicken barbeque. Accompanying us was Ali, a British citizen who has been teaching English in Miyako since August. He possessed that hopeful energy one only has at 21, and I enjoyed his company. He also helped me immensely with my Japanese. The chef cooked the meal at the table, and we dipped the tender chicken and vegetables in raw egg before we ate it. I drank doburoko, a milky white sake that continues to ferment in the stomach and shochu, a sweet potato based wine.
Kikucho-san decided I need to complete my Japanese indoctrination by sampling blowfish and sea urchin, so we walked to a sushi restaurant in town. The sea urchin (umi) was simply scrumptious, very rich and buttery. Next came the hire sake (sake with blowfish in it); I lit it with a match to heat it, and then took a sip. After my first sip, Ali said that if I started feeling a shortness of breath, I was probably done for. Not a comforting thought! In Japan, restaurants have to be certified to serve blowfish because of the extreme toxins it produces. Needless to say, I did live to tell the tale.
For our last stop, we walked to a nearby jazz bar as Kikucho-san wanted to buy me an Irish whiskey to celebrate. There is certainly something a bit surreal about listening to John Coltrane while sipping Baileys in a Japanese bar after eating blowfish.