House Photo by Kenji Miura
Japanese farmhouses are built with a series of posts and beams, though one main post is the center of the structure. The post that runs through the living room up to our bedroom is made of keyaki (zelkova). When Tadaaki was a boy, he remembers his grandmother rubbing the post with sesame oil to enhance the grain of this treasured post that held up the house. While the rest of the beams and posts are typically made from rougher cuts or recycled wood, the Japanese carpenter selects a particularly beautiful piece of wood with a distinct personality for the main bearing post of a house.
I often feel like that post is the backbone of our family and the house is the frame that keeps us together. So when I go away from the house, in some sense I am without my center.
Now that does not mean that I experience some wrenching sensation when I finally heave myself onto the bus bound for Narita airport, bags stowed and airplane sandwiches on ice. Strangely, I leave easily. It is the coming back that is hard.
Funny the words used to describe this process. I am a “registered alien” and have a “re-entry permit” to come back into Japan. In many, many senses of the word, “re-entry” does prove to be a jarring transition.
The house almost seems to have spurned me. Somehow life has gone on without me, there are changes that Tadaaki has effected in my absence—some not so subtle. The clutter has grown, and the same things that were on the counter when I left don’t appear to have shifted position. In some sense, life has stood still, but in another sense it has taken another direction and my space has closed up, leaving me almost an outsider.
Ace Hotel, Portland
This fall has been a particularly busy one for trips abroad. I spent a couple weeks “interning” in the kitchen at Chez Panisse in September, ten days in Italy for Slow Food in October, and then two weeks in California to visit family and attend a Japanese food event at the CIA in Napa this month.
When I got back from Italy in the end of October, I found a dog in my kitchen. Tadaaki had decided to give himself a dog for his birthday. Never mind that I strongly (and continually) vetoed the idea when Matthew began lobbying for a dog a few years ago. The morning I arrived home, my mother-in-law slid silently into the room and hovered as I unpacked.
“The kids were lonely,” she informed me.
“I doubt it,” was my reply. At 15 and 13 respectively, Andrew and Matthew don’t really hang on my coattails.
Not one to give up, “Japanese mothers and fathers don’t leave their kids while they are still in school,” she continued.
Rather than say what I wanted to (“I’m not a Japanese mother.”), I got up and walked upstairs where I promptly got under the covers and tried to forget about the dog and the mother-in-law. Re-entry is not without decompression pains as one passes from one world back into another.
So why go? Why court this bumpy re-entry?
Hachisu Family Pottery: La Libera, Alba, Italy
When the boys were small, the need to get out of Japan mounted like a pressure cooker. The longest time between trips was an unbearable 18 months. In those days, the stress of running a small business, demands of farm life, bringing up bicultural children, and living as a foreigner in Japan was sometimes too much to endure. These days, I’m older, perhaps wiser, but certainly more prosaic. I don’t “need” to get out of Japan anymore, but I am pulled by the feeling of being connected to a larger world food community and those bonds do draw me to Berkeley or Portland and sometimes to the countryside of France or Italy. In those places I am quasi-normal and don’t stand out (much).
A few years ago Christopher told me he was done going to Italy or France because we only “moved house” so to speak. We had the same daily life in Italy or France that we had in Japan: hang around the house, read, watch videos and eat good food. The big difference that he overlooked was that although this was his daily life in Japan, mine was not one of leisure, so for me this routine was heaven. I’m not one for sight-seeing, I go abroad for the chance to eat a favorite cook’s food and a chance to use a foreign language (other than Japanese). And I go for the guilt-free ability to hang around and be lazy.
Though these days, I often write all day, and I don’t feel guilty being lazy.
Now that the boys are all in school, I miss that they don’t come with me, though I carry the memories I had with them. This last trip to Italy was the first without any of the boys, but I retraced our steps, staying in our favorite room in the castle and eating at our favorite restaurant, La Libera. In my transits between Pollenzo and Alba, I often found myself taking a wrong turn. But with those wrong turns came an accompanying feeling of warmth from that familiar feeling of getting lost in the same spot. That feeling of “I’ve been here before.”
This last trip to Italy was for Terra Madre, a meeting of world food communities organized by Slow Food. As usual, I booked a room at the Albergo dell’Agenzia but assumed I’d be getting a smaller room as I was alone. When Liliana brought me up to the room it was the same oversized corner room with vaulted windows opening up to the garden where Christopher and I stayed each year while attending Terra Madre and the room where Andrew, Matthew and I spent a week watching ER on video waiting for a flight home after Tadaaki’s father died. Walking into that room on my first morning in Italy triggered those memories and brought tears to my eyes. And I felt the strange feeling of “being home.”
I have been thinking about this feeling over the course of these last few weeks and realize that despite my visceral connection to the old Japanese farmhouse in which I live, I also have a few other spots in the world that conjure up in me a different feeling of “home.” And all of those places are where I spent time with my boys, away from Japan and away from being Japanese. I will always be the odd one here in Japan, and maybe I will always be the odd one in other countries, but somehow in California, Italy or France, I introduced another world to my boys and we shared that world in a different way than we can ever share Japan. Because in Japan, their father is the conduit to how they enter society, but in foreign countries I am. And I liked that feeling of being in charge and that feeling of being completely comfortable in the outside world. My outside world.
But now I’m back. Installed in the house. Writing in the changing room outside the bath or snuggled in my covers, facing the center beam of the house, laptop propped on my knees. I’ve taken back possession. Sick of the dog dishes sloshing water on the floor, I moved them out of the way, but when no one is looking I give the jouncy bouncy black lab of Tadaaki’s a surreptitious pat. Her name is Hanako, but for now I call her Dog.