Dinner in Gion


A memoir by R. Szalapski

For friends both named and unnamed.

They call us gaijin.  In Japanese it means other people.  To our American culture, where we stress the individual, it seems insulting.  In Japanese culture you are foremost defined by the groups to which you belong and secondly by what you do; the concept of individuality is as foreign as the gaijin.  So, is the expression offensive?  Like so many things in Japanese culture, this is a subject of great ambiguity.

I never dreamed that I would be a foreigner living in Japan.  I had grown up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota – Minneapolis.  For graduate school I made the four-hour journey to Madison, Wisconsin, where I attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  I had considered distant and exotic places like Berkeley or strange lands like Texas.  In fact, there was a $10 billion physics project in Texas that nearly insured my future as an academic physicist including many trips to that destination.  After all, the Phenomenology Institute in the Department of Physics in Madison produced the best doctoral theorists in the area of computational particle physics.  It appeared that I would be able to write my own ticket, and places like California and Texas would be on it.

But, this was the Clinton era. In a random act of lip service, the program was cancelled, and calamity befell the world of physics.  Yet, every calamity is a source of opportunity for some.  I realized at once how bleak the domestic situation had become for me.  And, while I had lived the nearly thirty years of my life in a sub-region of the Midwest, graduate school had opened my eyes to so many things.  I was feeling a bit cloistered.  I turned my eyes to Japan.  To summarize my feeling on the matter I will skip ahead to a quote I often borrowed from Dorothy while living in Japan.  “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”  It’s not that I ever spent any time in Kansas.  It’s that, when viewed from Japan, every other place looks very much like Kansas.

Having turned my eyes towards Japan I sent my Curriculum Vitae to Dr. Sugawara, the Director of the National Laboratory for High Energy Physics in Tsukuba.  Tsukuba is about thirty-five miles from Tokyo.  This was not a random choice.  I had co-authored several papers with Dr. Kaoru Hagiwara, one of the professors at the laboratory.  The words in brief being a significant understatement, I was hired, and I found myself as an Associate Professor in the Monbusho, the Ministry of Education of Japan.

In Japanese the lab is known as the Ko-enerugi Kenkyujo, or KEK.  At KEK I had a colleague, an office mate, a friend and a fellow gaijin named Seong-Youl Choi.  Seong-Youl is South Korean, but our paths crossed for a few years in Japan.  In my first year at the lab I had exhausted my annual research and travel budget, as I always did.  Seong-Youl, while an excellent physicist, did not perform due diligence towards the exhaustion of his budget.  This state of affairs was quite distressing to our senior colleagues who manage budgetary matters, so it was determined that I should come to the aid of my colleague, Dr. Choi, and I would assist in the spending of his budget prior to the close of the fiscal year.

So, it came to pass that a representative of the KEK travel office arrived at our office with two envelopes, one for Seong-Youl and one for me, each containing cash.  In Japan this is simply the way things are done.  For my first international trip the same gentleman had handed me an envelope with a thick wad of cash and airline tickets.  If somebody in the United States handed me an envelope with a thick wad of cash and airline tickets, it would be the opening line of a really exciting story.  In Japan it’s just every day business.  Seong-Youl, two envelopes of cash and I caught the bus to Tokyo where we boarded the Shinkansen, the Bullet Train, to Kyoto. Kyoto is a marvelous city.  The kyo in Kyoto is the same as the kyo in Tokyo, and it means capital.  Kyoto was the capital city of Japan for roughly a millennium before the Tokugawa Shogun moved it to the new eastern capital Tokyo around four centuries ago.  Yet the emperor remained in Kyoto, and many consider it to be the cultural capital of Japan.  While Tokyo is concrete, automobiles, neon lights and all business, Kyoto has ancient wooden temples, more of the traditional paper windows and lights, tranquil Buddhist gardens and a sense of culture and identity that has lasted for millennia.  It also has a marvelously efficient public transportation system which works in harmony with the rest of the city.

Seong-Youl and I caught a subway from the train station to the Yukawa Institute which is named for an important and famous Japanese nuclear physicist. We arrived to the reception, and just after check-in a colleague approached me with an envelope of cash.  Apparently the conference organizers insisted upon paying my expenses since I would be one of the speakers.  I inquired with Hagiwara San as to how I should deal with two envelopes of cash.  With pleading eyes and equal emotion in his voice he said, “Please don’t try to give one back.” With just a hint of humor creeping into his voice he added, “You cannot imagine how much trouble it would make.”  Japanese culture tends to be very inflexible, and surprises are rarely appreciated.

I have never been accustomed to being flush with cash. Suddenly I was holding two fat envelopes of cash, one because my colleague was less skilled at spending his travel allowance than I, and one for some other inexplicable reason.   It was a trip where, no matter what I did, matters insisted on working out well for me.

And so I resolved to take Seong-Youl out to dinner, and I promised that it would be a special dinner.  The conference was splendid.  I could go on at great length about our site seeing to the Ryoan Ji, the Kinkaku Ji and the Nijo Jo not to mention our day trip to Nara, the even more ancient capital of Japan.  On the final night of our trip we caught a bus to Gion, the district which is the cultural center of the cultural capital of Japan.

Gion is as fabulously beautiful as the rest of Kyoto with additional flourishes. In Gion it is possible to see fully attired geishas walking about.  Shop keepers are more likely to be attired in the traditional kimono.  It is upscale and more expensive.  We walked about until after dark.

When at long last we decided that we should have dinner, we turned down a street so narrow that it would be difficult to traverse with a Volkswagen Beatle.  Nevertheless, we remained alert for cars. While walking down this narrow street we discovered a fabulous sushi restaurant.

Sushi actually means rice treated with vinegar in a customary Japanese fashion. It does not imply fish, though thinly sliced raw fish is oftentimes served upon sushi.  In this particular restaurant one could sit at the bar and order from a sushi chef who would hand compress the rice into the little cakes, and upon the compressed cakes of rice he would place whatever was requested.  My absolute favorite is the maguro which is a beautiful ruby-red tuna.  Seong-Youl and I each ordered a few items of sushi.  The ebi, or shrimp, was fabulous.  We were not presented with a menu, but we assumed that it must be terrifically expensive.  But, having many ¥10,000 notes in my wallet, I assumed I could cover it.

While we ate we began to speak with a silver-haired Japanese gentleman sitting near to us.  I would guess that he was about sixty or so.  He had a flair about him, a confidence, and he was charming.  He seemed exceptionally pleased by my attempts to exercise my pathetic Japanese in order to communicate with him.  Fortunately Seong-Youl was able to speak more Japanese than I.

We ordered miso soup. This miso soup was made using a red soy paste, and it had clams in it.  Now I had eaten miso soup often, almost daily since I had been in Japan.  I liked miso soup. But I had never tasted any soup like this before.  It was wonderful.  I held the bowl in my hands and drank the broth in small, savoring sips.  With my hashi, my chop sticks, I would lift the clams to my mouth.  They too were exquisite.  This food was wonderful.  I was almost looking forward to receiving the check and learning the prices.

We were beginning to learn more about the elderly and silver-haired gentleman.  He was a businessman.  He owned a kimono shop, and this indicated that he was quite wealthy.  He was seated with two young women who worked in his shop.  I would be surprised if they were twenty years old.  The young woman who was seated nearest to me, precisely between me and her boss, appeared to be his young mistress. There was something about the way in which his body was angled towards hers and by how close she sat to him that suggested an intimate familiarity.  Such arrangements are assumed normal in Japan.

The young mistress was also attired in a manner that she would not be able to afford on the salary of a young shop girl.  He filled her sake cup from a bottle of very fine sake.  It was clear that she very much enjoyed certain aspects of being his mistress.  Soon he obtained empty sake cups for his gaijin dinner companions, and he filled them quite generously. I’ve had sake often, and usually I could take it or leave it. But this sake, served from fancy little cube-shaped bottles, was exceptional. I assumed that it must be very expensive.

The silver-haired gentleman drained a few of the frosted bottles.  I decided that it would be rude not to reciprocate, so I ordered one bottle and then another.  I was positively in stitches wondering about the bill, and it briefly occurred to me to be cautious. Yet, we were having a splendid time.  The warmed sake was having an effect upon me.  It was also having an effect on the young woman next to me.  Despite becoming sloppy drunk she continued to consume, and it was a certainty that she would spend a significant portion of the night in an unconscious state.  It was clear that she did not much enjoy certain aspects of being the young mistress.

The evening continued until we had eaten all we could, had drank all we could and had spoken all the Japanese we could manage.  Our Japanese companions got up to leave. Finally the waitress arrived with bill.  She set it in front of me, but before my line of site was clear, the kimono-shop owner took it and paid it. It was a trip where, no matter what I did, matters insisted on working out well for me.