The Noodle Nights, Part 1
I miss my noodle nights.
When I arrived in Japan, I was excited about living in the countryside. I thought it would provide me with an authentic Japanese experience. In the sixty or so years since the end of the second world war, much of Japan has modernized, and while that Japan is intriguing, I was more interested in the traditional one that lurked beneath the technological structure and neon lights. Fortunately, my little village was far from the city, tucked near the top of the mountains and spread along several slender valleys. The buildings were older and smaller and more rustic with brown tiled roofs or thick thatch with tumbledown barns attached to the side. The rice fields were more plentiful and dominated the thought and life of the villagers even to the extent that holidays and festivals centered around the cycles of the growing season. Old bicycles carried the children to school and farmers walked around in the plain, flowing older style of dress with straw hats on their heads. It was perfect, exactly what I wanted. But it was also very different than what I was used to.
I had no English speaking friends with which to process this new world and the strange experiences I was having until I met Yukie. She spoke English very well and had more energy and spunk than many of the elementary school children I was teaching. She was exuberant to meet the new foreigner and before long started inviting me out to dinner at the local restaurants to teach me all about Japanese food and to make sure I tried a large share of it.
The first restaurant she took me to was a noodle shop, where they had huge pots with steaming water and freshly kneaded and cut noodles drying on the counter. We ordered her favorite noodle combination (fresh noodles, spicy kimchee, thin slices of tender pork, green onions, and a lot of garlic) and ended talking for a long time, not just amongst ourselves but to everyone in the noodle shop. By the end of the night I was friends with everyone. The owners served me pork dumplings on the house, and all of the farmers in the shop bought me beers and clinked glasses and shared odd advice on how to date Japanese women. The noodle shop wasn’t the only restaurant we visited—indeed before long I knew the owner of every restaurant and they knew my favorite dish—but it was the one we visited most often.
When one of us was frustrated with our day, excited about a recent triumph, just wanted to spend an evening laughing, and most often when there was nothing at all on our minds except the thought that we hadn’t done anything together in quite a while, we called the other up and made plans for noodles.
Now I can’t eat noodles without thinking of Yukie and all her energy.
But it wasn’t only with Yukie. I visited three middle schools and five elementary schools on a rotating basis. By my second year in Japan I was finally considered a respected part of the teaching staff at most of the schools rather than a novelty.
In the early Fall of that year, my base school invited me on the annual teacher’s trip to Korea. There were about a dozen of us on that trip; I was friends with two of them—the two Japanese teachers of English. But when you spend time walking through terrible smelling fish and pickled vegetable markets in the hot sun, tasting wafer after wafer of salted seaweed, and climbing mountains in the rain, you learn something about each other. You learn what they are looking forward to eating that night, and how many kids they have. You learn that not all women mind the rain and that not all men are mountain hikers. You also learn who sweats a lot and who has to visit the bathroom the most. You learn who likes to buy gifts for those back home and those who like to try new things. One night we went to a traditional Korean Barbecue house where the beef was piled a foot high on bronze platters and the only thing to drink was beer. There’s nothing wrong with that…unless you try the really red and oily sauce, that if eaten, is as close to drinking gasoline and then swallowing a match as you can get. Trying to put the fire out takes a lot of beer, but at least I wasn’t the only foolish one willing to eat a whole spoonful of the red stuff before tasting it. And by the end of it all, after several nights of experimenting with new and spicy foods and having drinking adventures down dark alleys I realized that my coworkers are more than just teachers who sit across the office poring over their textbooks.
In the late Fall, when the warm grip of summer has abandoned the trees and the leaves begin to turn to brilliant shades of red and yellow, my town has a tradition of going to the local gorge. It is a fantastic place where the river babbles over crumbled rock and swirls and eddies until it tumbles over several waterfalls. A path has been cut through the forest and rock on one side so that visitors from all over Japan can trek the five mile journey along the gorge. All the schools plan trips for their students, forcing them to bring pads and bags of crayons. They hike up into the gorge for a few miles, far from the parking lots full of buses and cooking trout and chestnuts to where the rocks are perfect for sitting and drawing. But it’s not really about the drawing. It’s a time for the students to mingle together, growing closer as they appreciate the nature around them.
That’s the Japanese style. Relationships matter.
I am not sure I really appreciated the trips and parties and noodle nights until I didn’t have them anymore. And even then it took me a few years. It took me a few years of working in an American workplace where accomplishment is the most important thing. The boss always wants more of my time, and more of it spent behind my desk. My coworkers are more interested in pay raises and promotions than in catching a bite to eat.
It was easy for me to fall into the same habit. Now it is all about getting as much done as possible so that it looks good and I get a little bump in the old paycheck. Then I can get a little bigger car with a couple new speakers in back so everybody can hear me coming down the block. I can buy a nice tie and afford to take my dates out to someplace nice where the waiters wear starched aprons and desert is included in the price of dinner.
Now I am so busy that it’s easy to forget about noodle nights. I was making mad money, but it was the contact with people and the development of meaningful relationships that I needed and craved.
© Seth Crossman