Friday, May 20, 2011

They are the passengers

From monday to thursday, the plan was that I would work as usual, leaving my parents to do their own thing during the day. After all the driving, sightseeing and boozing of the weekend, they were keen to just take it easy on monday. They spent the day tidying up, shopping at 100yen stores, and having coffee and cakes with Marie. Mum wasn't feeling very hungry that night, so Dad and I hit a 'family restaurant', like the one I sought refuge in on the night of March 11th. On paper, this should be an easy option for foreigners, as there is Western (ish) food available and the menu is all photographs. But there's something about these places that scrambles my brain - I think it's the sheer number of almost imperceptibly different Hamburg steak (a bunless burger)-based meals. You can have a Hamburg with two breaded king prawns, a Hamburg with one prawn and one piece of fried chicken, a Hamburg with cheese filling with two prawns, etc., etc. After about twenty minutes of deliberation, Dad went for a maverick Hamburg with aubergine, Japanese radish and beansprouts (though the aubergine was switched out for pumpkin due to quake-related supply problems). I had spaghetti.

The plan for tuesday was to take the train to Yonezawa, but it was wazzing down that day so they stayed at home and continued tidying. I must stress that I don't ask or expect them to do this, but I've found it's easiest just to let them get on with it. And I must say, they did a sterling job. That night we took a trip (in an unseasonal blizzard) to my favourite Japanese curry joint. What I particularly like about this place is that one can choose their desired level of spiciness on a 12-point scale (from -1 for the elderly, infirm, infants who have recently graduated to solid food, and Danny; to 10 for macho bellends and mentalists). I went for a 5 and spent the whole meal gulping down water and sweating rivers.

Wednesday being the day that Marie closes her shop, she and her husband arranged to take my parents for a day trip. I have only a vague idea of what they got up to, so I would like to take the unprecedented step of inviting a guest contribution to the blog from Dad (or Mum, but it seems like more of a Dad thing to do) to fill in the blanks. Anyway, that night we had been invited to a dinner party at the local Zen temple (rather like the one my friends attended last summer). As this was to be a slightly formal event, my parents grilled me with countless questions of etiquette: Is this shirt smart enough? Is this omiyage suitable? When should we hand over the whisky? This tried my patience a little, but I suppose I can't fault them for wanting to make a good impression. Of course, I had told them never to pour their own drinks, and that for bonus politeness points they should hold their glass with both hands when accepting a refill. My poor father followed this advice to the letter, but was nevertheless greeted with howls of laughter and exclamations of "Kawaii!" ("Cute!") for the childlike manner in which he offered his glass. To be fair, he did look like a 4-year-old requesting more orange squash.

Over dinner, the tardiness of the still-unblossomed sakura was lamented. Everyone felt it was a great shame that my parents would miss out on this iconic Nipponese experience, and so it was somehow decided that the following day, Shoko-chan and her husband would very kindly take my parents to Fukushima City, where the slightly milder climate had brought the flowers out already. Now, I know what you're thinking, and yes, at 60km from ground zero, Fukushima is within the stupidly over-conservative US evacuation zone. But of far greater concern to my parents was the fact that neither of their guides spoke a word of English. As we returned home that night, they were more than a little concerned at what they had let themselves in for.

Again, I'm not in a position to furnish you with the details, but apparently it went better than could reasonably have been expected (I think they made quite a lot of use of Marie as a telephone translator), and by all accounts Fukushima's Hanamiyama Park was beautiful. Thursday being their last night in Nanyo, Marie wasn't going to let my parents leave without one last party. So after she had closed the shop for the night, and I had returned from my Japanese evening class, we headed to our local izakaya (Japanese pub/bistro). Though I was fairly shattered, I managed to get into the spirit, as I was now finally on my holidays too. But fatigue was starting to set in for Mum, and I think her digestive system was complaining about the gastronomic shock it had been subjected to for the previous week. Without being rude in any way, she managed to convey that she wasn't really up for it, and Marie laid off the overzealous hospitality for once. I was impressed; I've got to learn that trick.

Returning home, we found that Blair was on Skype, so we chatted to him for a while, until I was branded a killjoy for responsibly insisting at about 1am that we call it a night, as we had a plane to catch the next morning. Sure enough, I was feeling a bit sluggish as we powered up the highway (in as much as a Wagon R with broken suspension can power anywhere) to Yamagata's pathetic little airport.

Next time: the Stewarts hit Kansai, and it rains.

Meanwhile, back in the present: Tonight I'm going to spend my first ever night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese up-market inn. The Great Quake and its various knock-on disasters have really put a crimp on the tourist industry around here, so everywhere is offering big discounts to entice the punters back. This ryokan has cut its prices by about 50%, bringing it (just) into the price range of a bunch of ALTs. I'm excited!

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