June 03, 2023
This Smells Delicious!

And other misadventures of a meat and potatoes girl in Japan

By Shauna Billings

“This smells delicious,” I said, before asking my Japanese host-sister, “What’s in this soup?”

“Shark fin,” said Shoko. “It’s a very special dish.”

This was the first course of a banquet at a fancy Chinese restaurant, where my Japanese host family had taken me to celebrate my arrival.

Spoons poised, they waited for me, the guest, to take the first bite. As an unworldly suburbanite, I’d been expecting the Chinese food I knew and loved at home. But if everyday Japanese food was appalling to my Irish meat-and-potatoes palate, this meal was over the top.

I pulled up a mucousy yellow broth that had what distinctly looked like hair in it. I swallowed the sour soup, and the short, bristly potential hairs, and flashed a big smile.

“Oishii!” I said, trying desperately to remember if sharks even had hair. “Delicious!”

I managed to eat everything set before me on that day. The family looked thrilled. The nausea I felt all the next day was worth it.

We were 11 American students on a sister cities friendship visit between my town of Salem, Mass., and the Tokyo suburb of Ota. My host family, the Abes, lived in a nine-room, three-story townhouse in Ota’s Kamiikedai district. A home of that size is practically unheard of in Tokyo. I slept on a futon on the tutami mats in the ceremonial tea room downstairs, separated from the Western-style living room (with its giant karaoke system) by shoji, or sliding rice-paper doors.

My host father, Ken, a CEO of a sound system company, spoke only a few words of English and would change into a comfy white tracksuit whenever he returned home.

Michiko, my tiny, smiling host mother, spoke only a little more English than Ken and was never without her dark hair perfectly curled and her lips carefully painted red. Their three children, 16-year-old Toru, who wanted to be a DJ; 25-year-old Shoko, who was always smiling but posed stony-faced in photos; and 28-year-old architect Junko; all spoke English beautifully. But I knew only 10 words and phrases in Japanese.

On my first night in their home, Michiko carefully prepared a traditional Japanese dinner with steamed vegetables, rice and raw beef and fish. I filled up on the delicious vegetables and rice and, so as not to offend the family, ate what I though was an acceptable amount of the beef and sashimi. I followed my rule of eating half of everything put in front of me for the remainder of my stay.

I thought I’d pleased the family until one day Michiko pulled me aside.

“You have anorexia?” she asked me in careful English. “You eat little.”

Toru later explained that his mother thought all American girls had eating disorders, a point the local media insisted on. My eating half of my portions was proof of the U.S. anorexia epidemic. I hoped my performance at the restaurant had redeemed me.

I saw both modern and traditional life during my weeks in Tokyo. Some days, I would visit arcades, stand high atop the city in Tokyo Tower or race Toru through the obstacle courses in the fitness parks. Other days, I watched kabuki theater, attended ceremonial teas and toured museums, like the Folk Museum in Ota-ku.

Often, I was homesick, and there existed the constant reminders that I did not fit in.

In one museum, while walking through exhibits of traditional dress and the ancient tools of seaweed farming, I noticed an elderly man, not more than 5 feet 3 inches tall, peering at me through thick, gold-rimmed glasses. The man, a noted Japanese historian and one of the country’s official national treasures, adjusted his tie, clasped his arms thoughtfully behind his back and approached me.

“You are very interesting to me anthropologically,” he said in amazement, as he looked up at all 6-foot-1-inch of me. He asked if he could take a picture with me. Afterward, he strolled out of the room.

My height also made me a minor attraction in the streets, especially among young schoolgirls in plaid jumpers. They would stop me with the request, “May I?” and then stand beside me, fingers making a peace sign as their friend snapped a picture. Then they would run away, giggling nervously into their hands.

On our last night, the mayor of Ota invited us to participate in the Peace Day, an annual August jazz celebration to promote world peace. We were taught two songs in Japanese and told we’d also be singing “I’m On Top of the World.”

“The Carpenters are wonderful!” gushed our translator.

It was assumed that we, as Americans, would naturally know the words to all of the Carpenters’ songs.

On the day of the festival, the women of Tokyo were dressed in stately silk kimonos, their tiny waists wrapped in thick satin obis, and their hair twisted into chopsticked chignons.

The smaller American girls were dressed in dainty wooden sandals and brightly patterned kimonos. Those of us too tall for the floral robes, namely me and the males, were given extra-large T-shirts with the phrase “Ota-Salem Exchange” printed in English and Japanese across the front.

Just before the elaborate display of 5,000 fireworks, Mayor Yoshio Nishino invited us onstage before hundreds of thousands of people. Like a sea the crowd stretched east, west and north, until the eye could see no further into the darkness. The spotlights flicked on, and the music cued up to the first Japanese song we’d learned.

“Oh my God,” said my friend Marina, in her blue and white kimono and yellow crepe obi beside me. “Are we supposed to sing all by ourselves?”

As the crowd began to clap and sway, we exchanged confused glances, shrugged and began to belt out the lyrics we’d been taught.

“Ue o muite aruko, namida ga kobore nai yoni Omoidasu haru no hi, hitori bochi no yoru.”

Our host families joined us on stage, hugging us tearfully as our voices limped through the final song. The hundreds of thousands of voices in the crowd then joined in:

“I’m on the top of the world, looking down on creation/ And the only explanation I can find/ Is the love that I’ve found ever since you’ve been around/ Your love’s put me at the top of the world.”

Sunbursts lit up the sky like the Fourth of July as the fireworks sizzled over the last notes. The crowd oohed and aahed. And suddenly, I was home.

2 comments about “This Smells Delicious!”

  1. shobha says:

    good article ….gave a sweet insight into a cross-cultural experience.

  2. Michelle says:

    Great essay! I feel you on the kimonos- I’d be too tall, too. :)

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