Trip to Japan 2013 – Day 3

The following is a post-hoc account of the event, posted according to the date of the event rather than that of the writing.

I woke up in the morning at seven. It was cool, but not cold. The mattress was very comfortable, and I slept well. I wondered a bit about what I should do next. I decided to type up my speech on my laptop so that I could print it later.

For breakfast, I had cereal and milk. Mrs. Bindewald also cooked some eggs and toasted some English muffins. I felt good.

I met Michelle as she came out of the shower into the dining room. I guess she was asleep by the time I got back to the Bindewalds’ the night before. The image I had formed in my mind of her was a one of a quiet (since I didn’t see her reply to the email that Mark had sent earlier) brunette (her last name was Brown, hahaha) of average height. Instead, she was quite tall, slender, very social, and had bright orange hair (a rarity in Japan). Her Japanese was fluent as far as I could tell.

She had to go to the chapel early to help set up. Since I had free time until the rehearsal and thought it would be nice to get acquainted with the church, I decided to go with her instead of wandering aimlessly in town by myself, as a friend had suggested I do. Plus, they probably need all the help they can get setting the place up, so it would be a good for everyone if I went.

Mrs. Bindewald drove us to the chapel. I was still not used to being on the left side of the street. There were no curbs, so cars had to be extra careful of pedestrians walking on the shoulder. Michelle recounted to us her escape from Nagoya, how she planned a week in advance, bused to the other side of the city early in the morning on the day of departure (to minimize the chance of running into someone she knew), hid her stuff in a coin locker, and walked back to her workplace. Then after work that day, she snuck out of the unused elevator in the back corner of her building with her dress, made her way through alleys, snuck into the side exit of the train station, retrieved her stuff from the locker, and hid under the stairwell until the train came.

She called in this morning, saying she couldn’t make it, and neither confirmed nor denied her coworker’s inquiry as to whether she was sick. Another of her colleagues just had mono, and so he thought he might have passed it on to her, providing the perfect cover for her disappearance. That was indeed ninja.

We pulled into the parking lot of the chapel. It was small, which was not surprising considering that 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, if that. Praise God that there was a sanctuary here for believers, where God is worshipped and the word of God preached and studied. After greeting some people, Michelle and I went into the chapel. We had to take off our shoes and don slippers. They weren’t uncomfortable, but I couldn’t help thinking that they were a little small. We dropped off our stuff in a little office near the entrance. A woman greeted Michelle, and directed her somewhere. I just stood there, unsure about what to do next. In the U.S., one would expect a greeting and instructions. Here, I was largely ignored (to my relief, actually), probably because I didn’t understand Japanese.

Jason and George soon came in with Dave. My confused self now had company. A few of the bridesmaids soon came in as well. Jason and Michelle went upstairs after Michelle instructed George, Sambi (a bridesmaid), and me on filling plastic sleeves with Sakura (cherry blossom) petals. George, being the more social one, engaged Sambi in conversation as we filled the sleeves.

Sambi was a small girl; at first I thought she was in high school, but it turned out she was getting a master’s degree in Theology at Tokyo Christian University. She smiled and laughed a lot, noticeably every time I dropped a flower petal on the ground because I was experimenting with more efficient ways of filling the sleeves, and failing. Though she seemed uncertain about her English, she wasn’t shy to try.

When we finished, we went upstairs. Michelle and Jason were planning the program for the afterparty. Jason’s Japanese sounded like his Chinese—heavy with accent, and not the native kind either. It was funny, and he was pretty good-natured about it.

Lunch was a tray of sandwiches. Michelle called it “the cheap stuff.” Even so, each sandwich was individually wrapped. Some were ham and cheese; some looked like hotdogs but had mayonnaise and potatoes. There were also some soft buns with filling—one package with peanut cream and another with custard-like cream—apparently Chiba was known for its peanuts. They were rich and addicting. Jason soon noticed that we, being the Asians that we are (Michelle included, haha), unconsciously left one of everything uneaten. Eventually though, they got picked off.

I sent Michelle my speech, and she and Sambi worked on translating it. I asked them to try to translate the humor as well. George and I started working on the song we were going to sing during the afterparty as a skit in the program. We decided to change the lyrics to the song “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz (modified lyrics).

After a bit, George worked on his startup back in the States. Having nothing else to do, I took my camera, roamed up and down the stairs, and took photos as volunteers increasingly filled up the church. In one corner was an elderly American who seemed to be sewing tablecloths. In another corner, a young man was practicing on the piano as a young woman played the flute next to him. A row of microphones had been set up, and a group of people were practicing their music. The kitchen was bustling with women preparing food.

Around three o’clock, the families of the bride and groom came in. There were more greetings, and then it was time for the rehearsal.

The rehearsal was a bit confusing, being bilingual without everything being translated. I just followed what everyone else was doing. Fortunately, I was neither in the beginning nor the end of the procession, so there was nothing special I had to do. I just followed the person in front of me and tried to stay on beat (which I was never that good at). We had to repeat some parts to finalize the details of the order and for some minor adjustments to style. It wasn’t too bad, although by the end, we were all a little tired of standing.

Mr. Bindewald drove us through winding mountain roads to the hotel we would be staying at that night. On sharp curves, the ground seemed to be made of a different material, perhaps to aid traction. We had no idea what the place looked like. In the distance, we saw some tall buildings, and conjectured that that was where we were staying. We found the entrance to the Seimei no Mori Resort, but we drove past the hotel and ended up at a recreation center instead. Mr. Bindewald went in while the rest of us waited outside. Since it was all part of the same resort, they had Mark on record. They told us there that we were living at cabin #266. I bought into the idea that we might be lodging camp-style. I thought it was kind of strange, but maybe that was the experience Mark wanted us to have.

We found 266, but could not get in. Mr. Bindewald called Mark and found out we were actually booked at the main hotel (which made a lot more sense, haha), and somehow the people at the recreation center directed us to the wrong place.

Bobby was not staying overnight with us, so I had a huge room to myself. We relaxed for a bit, anticipating the “traditional Japanese dinner” we were about to have as the Stanford group. Unfortunately, around 7:08, Mark called, asking about the suits, telling us about the ride situation the next morning, and also informing us that he could not make it to dinner because he would “literally die” if he pulled another all-nighter. I was kind of saddened that we only had one night to catch up, but knew that he had to rest. Still, my appetie was dampened and I suddenly didn’t look forward to the dinner anymore.

We ate at a place called “Swiss Tei,” across the street from the hotel. Though Mark was not able to join us, Michelle was. This made me really happy, and I looked forward to dinner again. I think all of us were grateful for her presence, as she was our only bridge to the Japanese culture and language. None of the rest of us knew any Japanese, and it would have been tremendously awkward for us.

We walked as a group down a dark garden path. The light from the entrance glowed dimly through the trees. At the entrance, we had to take off our shoes, store them in little cubbies, and put on slippers. We then followed a hostess to a room toward the back of the compound. The view was very… traditional Japanese? Our room had sliding wooden doors which opened up to give us a view of a Japanese rock garden (Karesansui) outside. The lamps accentuated regular lines in the sand. Michelle explained to us that the raked sand represented rippled water, and the rocks were little islands on this sandy ocean. It was artistic, and she wanted her picture taken later holding a glass of beer and enjoying the view.

The initial food set out for us included some kind of juice, a shrimp, a snail, a small piece of fish, some seaweed-type vegetable, and an orange cube that looked like flan. As we inspected the food curiously and admired its dainty appearance, a thought suddenly hit me. Was this all the food we had? After all, there was a drink, some meat, some vegetables, and what we thought was dessert. Nevertheless, we prayed and began to eat.

The plum juice was really good. There was a green plum soaked in syrup in a small wine glass. The flavor of the plum permeated the syrup; at the same time, the plum itself was soft and tart. It was served at the beginning of the meal, so we all downed it pretty quickly.

There was snail in a beautiful shell. Michelle didn’t want hers, so I ate it for her. George tried it (surprisingly, though it took some goading) and found it to be gritty. It tasted okay; wasn’t too bad. The texture was a bit chewy. It didn’t have as much of the 螺蛳 flavor I remembered as a kid. And George was right, there was a part of the snail that had some grit.

There was an orange jello-looking cube in a small lotus-shaped dish. It looked like a small dessert. But it tasted fishy. Definitely not what one would eat for dessert. None of the foods were that bad, so I finished my portion.

We were left to ourselves for the most part, the hostess bringing a dish in perhaps once every fifteen to thirty minutes. It soon became apparent that this dinner consisted primarily of seafood. One course consisted of tuna, hamachi, and a raw shrimp. Another course consisted of a heated clay pot of mushrooms, chicken, onions, and fish. Still another course consisted of tempura.

The contrast between our semi-American goofiness and the traditional atmosphere—the incongruity of it all amused me greatly. Bobby and Alyssa ate quietly at one end of the table. Michelle was the most conversational at the other end. I was listening most of the time, while focusing on my food and trying to enjoy it. George, on the other hand, looked miserable, hardly able to eat anything, though we pressured him to try some things. I felt bad for him. The only thing he was comfortable eating was perhaps some slices of tuna (maguro) and hamachi, some onions, and the ginger ale that he ordered. It certainly was not your usual Japanese cuisine, but estimated at over ¥10000 a person and paid for by Mark’s parents, even I who usually complain about squid was willing to chew a snail or two. Shoot, even Jason deferred his repulsion to mushrooms and chomped down on some mushroom tempura.

It was great having Michelle there, as she was able to keep a conversation with the hostess as well as translate the hostess’s stories for us. The restaurant, known as “Swiss Tei,” was housed in the original building of the Swiss Embassy, which was in Tokyo until 1978, and then moved to Chiba and was reassembled here. The hostess was explaining something in Japanese to Michelle. She pointed to the doors and fluttered her hands. I heard, “… コトコト …”. Suddenly she crossed her arms on her shoulders and made a shivering gesture, making an “Ooooo” sound. As she was explaining, I heard “kowai,” so I assumed she was talking about how the doors would shake, presumably by wind, and maybe she was afraid of ghosts or something. But Michelle asserted without skipping a beat, “She tells us that it is customary as we enter the building to do a ritual dance,” she said, as she proceeded to copy the hostess’s movements and sounds, only this time in a rhythmic pattern and form. We looked at her uncertainly, but it wasn’t long before George began to imitate her. Michelle then explained to the hostess how she successfully trolled us, and would bring this topic up a few more times during our travels. We love you, Michelle. =]

Towards the end, Bobby and Alyssa left to catch the last train back to Narita (miserable fail at coordination) before the rice and miso soup came out. We were all kind of tired and restless. Jason lay down on the floor. George lay on top of him in an expression of bromance. While certainly an interesting and educational experience, I don’t think I’ve really acquired a taste for such seafood.

Somehow, we arrived at trying to learn how to sit in the traditional Japanese manner, with the knees in front, the legs folded underneath, and hands (or fists) on the thighs. It was quite painful for us who were not used to stretching much. I had a good time watching the hostess try to correct Jason’s posture, but only until she came to correct mine. Then we had her take some pictures of us.

Back in the hotel, we briefly checked out the reception hall, and then went upstairs. Jason and Michelle still had to plan the rest of the program. I was exhausted, and having nothing left to do, decided to turn in early.