“Countries have politics, they fight, there’s war, but the people can be friends. That is why we open our home to foreign visitors to show this and to make friends from all over the world. Team Taka has almost 100 members!” Yutaka (Taka) Ueno – Taka Homecoming – Tokyo Culture Experience.
On Saturday the 15th of February, I arrived at Omori station 10 minutes early for what I can only describe as the best authentic cultural experience I’ve had the pleasure to write about to date. As I tapped my railcard at the station exit gate, I wondered where to wait for Taka, but as I looked up and he was standing almost right in front of me with a sign saying ‘Homecoming Taka’. Couldn’t miss him.
After a quick greeting (no handshakes in Japan), we quickly fell into stride making easy conversation on the short walk through a quiet neighbourhood to his home. Keiko, his wife, welcomed us as I stepped into their neat and cosy place, filled with smart-touch-tech as one would expect in Japan. Most properties are small, due to the extortionate cost of land in central Tokyo, as Taka explained, but each inch of space is expertly utilised, optimised with clever design and space-saving storage and gadgets.
Keiko first asked about B’s health. I booked the experience, very last minute, for both of us the day before, but B returned from work that night feeling ill and I emailed to inform Taka to expect only one. Kind Keiko gave me a hydrating health drink to take home to B because the ‘magic’ water would help him. I was touched by her concern and soon learned that that’s what they’re like, not only considerate but generous too as they sent me home with more gifts for B and even matcha flavoured kit-kat for the kids.
“You must travel. It is important to make more memories”Taka – a wise man
Before I get going and share my Tokyo culture experience, I’d like to touch base on a few things learned from Taka and Keiko about how to show respect in Japanese culture. Now, I’m sure this is not even scratching the surface of a complicated hierarchical social structure, but it helps to know the basics.
First-off, adding ‘san’ at the end of someone’s name, of any age, is a sign of respect. Say Taka-san, Keiko-san, Lindsy-san, Brendan-san instead of only their name. I suppose it’s like saying ‘tannie’ or ‘oom’ in our Afrikaans culture when we address our elders.
Secondly, bowing and how you bow is a very important sign of respect. Stand in front of the person facing them head-on, not side-ways or skew and bow at a forty-five-degree angle; no more, no less. I don’t know if it’s a South African thing, but I say thank you a lot in chatter and it took me a while to realise that the Japanese bow each time you thank them. Lesson learnt: A single well-timed meaningful ‘thank you’ will be appreciated more instead of my one thousand absent-mindedly placed thank you’s, resulting in a full-on abdominal work-out by the receiver!
Thirdly, when a special guest is invited to a special meal in a Japanese home, only the best of the best is acceptable, from cherished teacups to top-quality selected ingredients. Taka travelled all over Japan, from the north to their childhood town in the south, first to learn his craft from sushi and udon masters, and then to source the best home-grown organic ingredients. I felt like an honoured guest when I sat down to enjoy the meal, knowing that the traditional feast I learned to prepare from scratch was made with superb quality ingredients, only half grasping the meaning and symbolism of true Japanese hospitality.
Taka is a retired mechanical engineer with 38 years of service, now a part-time university professor and engineering training provider, who worked and lived with his family all over the world. Once a week Taka and Keiko, a tax office worker, host guests in groups of one to four in their home.
Opening their home to travellers with this authentic experience allows them to keep that cherished connection to the outside world. Most importantly for them, they get to meet people from other cultures and make new friends.
“No mixed groups. We give one-to-one attention to teach real Japanese culture. That is the Taka way.”
Taka and Keiko make a great team. Keiko masterfully demonstrates origami, calligraphy and the matcha tea ceremony, while Taka, teaches the history and significance of it all and explains about Japanese manners and culture, old and new. He leads the sushi and udon making lessons, while Keiko makes everything come together in the background, without you noticing, so that the program runs smoothly.
PEACE & HOPE
It is believed that if you want to pray for something serious, such as a very sick loved one, you must pray while folding 1000 cranes and your prayers will be answered. That is why the peace park in Hiroshima is full of thousands of origami cranes, where even President Obama visited and folded his own cranes. It is also believed that cranes carry souls to paradise. The crane is a symbol of peace and hope.
All Japanese kids are taught the art of origami in elementary (primary) school. It’s not something children learn in South Africa, but as a little boy, B got hold of his grandfather’s origami book and mastered the art of folding a moving crane, it’s a neat little party trick that impresses even the Japanese. His crane is amazing, but his way is not easy to copy and I couldn’t even follow him step by step!
Keiko has a brilliantly simple way of teaching you how to fold an origami crane so my pink crane looked alright. She made me feel like a natural, encouraging and complimenting my amateur efforts every step of the way, gently correcting me when needed. They both quickly dispelled any nerves and doubts I had at the start. This was the way throughout each lesson; a theme they call “The Taka way”, a way that’s authentic Japanese but fun and easy to master. After the first lesson I was already a fan of the’Taka Way’!
I’m not a foodie and I cook because I have to, not for fun. But I love love love eating, unfortunately for my waistline. Although, if I eat the Japanese way, I’d probably not have the ever-expanding problem!
Even for people like me, who are not into cooking, this Tokyo culture experience is unmissable. Together we prepared Sanuki udon noodles with medium flour, fish and beef sushi, and tempura vegetables from scratch in a fun way that even kids will enjoy. It’s so easy and uncomplicated to make all these things that I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I still to this day have to ask my mom how much water and how many eggs she adds to her easy pancake recipe! It’s not her fault and it’s a really easy recipe, but recipes just don’t stick in my head. Taka’s way of teaching is so easy and systematic that I remember most of his top tips. I’ll remember not to mix my sushi and rice hands, to rub vinegar on my gloves before starting and to shape the sushi rice using one hand into a little rugby ball (he’s a big rugby fan). “Shape is everything”, Taka said. Place the salmon and red snapper (only used on special occasions) on the rice with the same hand every time.
For those, like me, who don’t know much about sushi, it’s good to know the difference between sushi and sashimi. Sashimi is raw fish only while sushi is vinegared rice served with vegetables and fish. The surprise was how the rice is vinegared. Nigiri is just raw fish on top of rice without seaweed while Maki is layers of fish, veggies and rice wrapped in seaweed.
The women in my family have been kneading doe with their fists to bake ‘vetkoek’ or bread for centuries. Imagine my surprise when I was told to step on the udon doe, laid out in a plastic bag on the floor, and to dance on it. With my feet! I was expecting a traditional Japanese tune to fill the room next, but instead found myself wholeheartedly dancing on the noodle doe to YMCA! But think about it. Kneading doe by stepping on it is so much easier than using your upper body strength, arms and wrists. Why didn’t we think of that?
An interesting and unexpected addition to the meal was beef sushi. Not sure where I’ll get 1-2mm thin slices of beef to torch, but I’ll chat to our local butcher. Taka’s three-step sushi rolling technique is easy enough and should be effective if I’m able to replicate it exactly.
I was sent off with homework at the end of my Tokyo culture experience. I’m tasked to replicate the meal at home, which Taka will grade when I send photos. My homework is overdue and with the coronavirus epidemic in full swing, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to go shop for all my ingredients, but I’m adamant to teach it to my Mom, who loves cooking. And I want to get my final grade! They gave me a bamboo sushi rolling mat to use at home, wasabi for Brendan because he likes it hot and I don’t, and green matcha salt to accompany our homemade sushi meals. No reason not to attempt it again.
While Keiko finished the rest of the tempura and boiled the udon noodles I’d just danced on and cut into 1,5mm strips (no pressure), Taka and I sat down at the table.
Drinks in Taka’s home are free. You will be hosted as if you are a close and special friend of the family. It’s not a restaurant or like the other cultural experiences where everything else is an extra cost. I’m a special guest in their home and am being treated like one.
What to drink with my meal? Water, tea, beer, wine, saki or traditional spirits made of potatoes with 25% alcohol. Hhhhm? I’ve tasted all, except the potent potato vodka-like drink. Taka beamed when I picked it because it’s his favourite and it’s made near his and Keiko’s home town in the very south of Japan. It also has zero calories due to its manufacturing process.
Cheers in Japanese is ‘Kanpai’, meaning ‘dry cup’. They say ‘itadakimasu’ before eating to say that they humbly receive the meal and to acknowledge the sacrifice of animals and plants so that they can live.
I told them that Afrikaners say ‘Gesondeid’, wishing each other good health before we eat.
We started with sushi, which should be eaten by hand if you’re in a high-class good restaurant, mostly the expensive ones. Eat sushi with chopsticks everywhere else. If made correctly, each piece is the correct size for a mouthful. Easy. Eat two or three bites of sushi dipped in a tiny bit of soy sauce, matcha or table salt. Chew your food well. Take a sip of vodka. Sit back. Relax. This is the Japanese way.
Taka showed me an easy way to hold my chopsticks as he explained how culture is changing in Japan.
Before, when they were children, most grandparents lived with their families. They taught children their ways like how to properly eat with chopsticks, imparting their knowledge and ancient traditions. These days, grandparents sadly don’t live with families anymore and children are not interested in learning old ways. I thought to myself that this might be a universal problem.
Back to our meal. Eat a piece of beef sushi and Tempura vegetables with chopsticks. Another sip of vodka. Slowly does it. I might not make it to the station later.
Remember that matcha salt, table salt and soy sauce are there to dip sushi, while noodles and tempura are dipped in the stock. Keiko served her special recipe stock which is made over four days and it was absolutely amazing. I could drink the whole cup on its own like a soup and I nearly did take a big sip before Taka explained its purpose.
Before we took our next bites together, Keiko served the perfectly cooked noodles and joined us at the table. Dip noodles in the stock with chopsticks and slurp up. In Japan, slurping is acceptable and encouraged.
I could only take a few more sips of my potato drink. I’m a total lightweight when it comes to drinking and nothing like the three ladies who, on a previous visit, finished two bottles of saki with Taka. He was surprised that they were perfectly ok to leave at the end of the day. Must be jetlag or something.
Japan has a large ageing population and a small young population because young people are leaving. Not enough workers mean that farms can’t function. Japan’s had to open doors to workers from other countries, especially Asia. As a result, traditions are changing. The Sumo wrestling (a deeply traditional sport) champ is for the first time, not Japanese. Eighty per cent of rice is imported from Australia due to the dwindling agricultural sector, but Taka only uses organic homegrown Japanese rice. The good stuff.
Eating slowly fills you up faster. I couldn’t finish it all leaving only a piece of sushi on the plate Keiko cleared away. I don’t eat raw fish and I never have before, but everything was absolutely delicious and surprisingly easy to eat. The sushi didn’t taste or smell like raw fish at all. I was truly impressed by the delectable and aesthetically pleasing meal.
DESERT & TEA
A delicate pink flower treat is placed on a plate in front of me.
“Eat sweets in other parts of the world and your tummy will blow up.” Yes, Taka, I know this from experience. “Not in Japan”, he continued. Taka explained that the main ingredient of traditional Japanese treats are usually natural like black or red beans and does not contain nearly as much sugar as Western sweets.”
The rose treats are bought for special guests at the best candy store in Tokyo, situated in Ginza, a luxurious shopping district. It was yummy, sweet enough not to taste red beans, but not too sweet either. Definitely tasted miles better than the cheap version I bought from a street vendor near Ueno park.
Before I forgot my manners and asked for more, Keiko served green-powered matcha tea. “If green tea can be compared to regular coffee, Matcha tea is like espresso, much stronger”, Taka explained. Drink tea straight after the treat to rinse the sweetness from your mouth and you won’t crave more, plus it is “better condition for your mouth”. How cleverly disciplined!
So far, everything about this experience has been outside the comfort zone of my westernised tastebuds but I knew it would be before I booked my Tokyo culture experience. I decided to try it all, no matter what. Despite the fact that I don’t eat or even like raw fish or beans, I loved what they gave me, but the big challenge still lay ahead. Will I get the matcha down when I deeply dislike the taste of green tea?
There is a very definite ritual when it comes to drinking tea as a special guest in a Japanese home. Taka demonstrated and explained it twice before I had a go. Luckily for me, although the tea is served in a big cup, there’s only a tiny amount of tea in it. Concentrating hard on getting the cup turn right, thanking and complimenting (very important) the hosts, turning the cup back again and bowing at the right time, I didn’t even notice the taste when I took the three sips needed to clear the cup. I did it!
THREE IN ONE
Keiko unpacked her calligraphy set as Taka explained how the Japanese language is written. Made up of three different sets of writing formats with each thousand of sounds and meanings, the Japanese language is a complicated thing, slightly more so than the twenty-four letters in our alphabet.
Taka guided me through the basics before Keiko showed me how to write both my and Brendan’s names in Japanese with the calligraphy brush. I practised writing both until I found my own semi-confident brush stroke. Keiko expertly wrote our names on canvas as a permanent keepsake.
To end of this awesome Tokyo culture experience, we took a photo for the Taka Team Wall of Fame of the three of us together. I was given a copy and the other was added to the wall. Now I was officially part of Team Taka, a growing tribe of nearly 100 members, who they try to stay in touch with and many of whom return to visit Taka and Keiko. They’ve even been invited to weddings!
I highly recommend Homecoming Taka. If you have to pick one Tokyo culture experience, this is the one.
BOOK THIS EXPERIENCE. You should also find this activity on VIATOR
An After Thought – In The Eyes Of Little Beholders
Bear in mind that my observations are my own, wrong or right, and we’ve only spent a short time in Tokyo, so I stand to be corrected on all points. But, I’ve never seen such a strong community parenting culture as I’ve witnessed in Tokyo. I’ll give you an example.
A strong sense of respect for all is clearly evident and demonstrated everywhere we went; from walking into a shop to being on public transport. Taka says that it’s the Japanese way and it’s taught to children from a young age in school.
Children are everyone’s responsibility. That’s why they can safely walk or take a train to school on their own from a young age. I saw children as young as five with their cute hats and leather backpacks cross some of the largest city intersections on their own. That’s why almost everyone, young and old, will wait for a traffic light to turn green before they’ll cross the road, no matter if there isn’t a car in sight for days or if there are children amongst them or not. Everyone does the same thing to teach kids not to cross unless the light is green to avoid accidents. They recognize that children learn and copy adult behaviour and collectively educate them by showing rather than telling and setting an example. It’s actually so simple, but why aren’t more cultures like that?
This mindset, to do what is best for the community or team as a whole, instead of what you selfishly want to do or feel like doing, is admirable. It’s something I’d like to learn from, even try to make part of my own way of thinking, although it’s much easier said than done, isn’t it? We can only try.
More about my one week spent in Tokyo including
- An unforgettable day trip to Mount Fuji
- Guided Walking Tour of Shibuya and Harajuku with local guide Sena
- Rickshaw Tour in Asakusa with the funny student, Hiro