Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Culture Share: Japan - A Banquet by any other name...and Cormorants!

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture ShareJuliette Wade discusses the city of Kyoto, Japan.

When I was in Japan last month (the jet lag is just wearing off!), my family was invited to a banquet. It was such an astonishing experience, and so entirely escaped my default vision of a "banquet" that I thought I should share some of it with you. It just goes to show how, when you change the underlying cultural values and assumptions, lots and lots of little attendant details change as well.

I'll tell you about the evening and how it happened.

We had gone to a lunch restaurant run by one of my friends - a friend I have had for 22 years, now (yikes!), ever since I was attending my senior year of university in Kyoto, Japan. It was my first chance to introduce my kids to my friend, and she was as always extremely welcoming and the best cook I can think of (the kids are still raving about her donburi). She asked us if we would like to go out to dinner with her the following day, and to do X. Never having heard the vocabulary for what X was, I asked her to clarify, and she said, "We're going to watch the birds eat." My husband and I both agreed that dinner and watching birds eat would be wonderful, and made arrangements to attend.

We had no idea what "watching birds eat" meant. However, we are always ready for new experiences. Also, we know there are many seasonal activities in Japan which happen in conjunction with eating and drinking in some way. Hanami, for example, is when you go out and eat and drink under the cherry blossoms in April. Tsukimi is when you go to an evening party in the autumn and watch the moon.

Note for people writing Japan-based stories: always, ALWAYS know what season it is during the story you are telling. And do a bit of research on that season and what it signifies in Japanese culture.

So the following day we met my friend and took a taxi out to the far northwestern district of Arashiyama. Arashiyama is famous for its hills covered with maple leaves which turn red in the autumn. This particular area is also known for the monkeys which come down from the hill to drink and play by the riverside, and for the temple that the monkeys visit. We didn't see any monkeys while we were there.

The banquet was in a big formal restaurant. This is the approach to the restaurant after dark:

We went in, removed our shoes, stepped up into the slippers provided by the restaurant, and were led upstairs to the room where the banquet was to be held. First to arrive in the room was my son, and he received a round of applause from the people assembled there - I assume because my friend had been telling stories about us and announced that we would be attending. This group is made up of about eighteen to twenty people, a group of friends who have been getting together for events like this for quite a number of years.

The room was rectangular, with one of the short ends of the rectangle (and the corner) all in windows looking out onto the river and hills. The people were arranged in two parallel lines. Each person attending the banquet got an individually sized table about two feet across, and these tables get lined up in two facing rows, each with its own high-backed chair. This was not a tatami room (i.e. with rush mats). I suspect that in one of those, the tables would be of the same size but far lower height so people could sit on zabuton cushions on the floor. In between the two rows of tables was a staging area for the servers, who wore kimono. On my table as I sat down was a copy of the evening's fixed menu, which had been originally written in near-illegible (for me) calligraphy. I could read just enough to get a vibe off of each entry and know when I'd be seeing fish, or meat, or something boiled or fried etc. I was sitting beside my friend on one side, and my family on the other, and my first impression was that I probably wouldn't be speaking to anyone else for the duration of the evening, since the people who would have been across the table from me were actually about eight feet away. Here's a photo which shows many of these details:

If you have ever eaten a traditional Japanese meal, you will know that it often has many small dishes with different little things in them. In the photo above, you can see that my kids were served special bento boxes, and also plates of tempura with dipping sauce. And tea, of course, and an orange soda (the label reads, "Kirin Drink up! Enjoy refreshing times."). This was the children's meal option. The adults drank mainly cold tea or beer, and our own meal came in waves, most of which involved only a very few bites of food. This was fortunate, because there were so many of them. Many of the things which I hadn't figured out on the menu were just as opaque to me when they were put in front of me, and a few remained mysteries even after I had eaten them! The theme of the evening's menu was dishes appropriate to the Gion Festival season in mid-July. One example of a dish was a single mouthful of minced beef with seasoning on it, which came in a tiny glass bowl just the size for the food it held. Another was a red flower that looked almost exactly like a small red pepper, which when you opened it contained a single yellow-dusted bead of gelatin candy, only mildly sweet. There was also a banana leaf that had been curved up into a boat shape and had three individual bites of different foods on it. Here was another item, somewhat resembling a miniature shabu-shabu, thin slices of pork over bean sprouts that cooked on the table before you, and which you could dip into one of two dipping sauces:
The tiny dish in the foreground holds a pinch of grated daikon with red spice on top, and some finely sliced green onions, to be measured as needed into one of the dipping sauces. You can also get a glimpse of the menu there behind the cooking dish. The quantity of dishwashing required after a meal like this is prodigious.

As the meal proceeded, people began talking more and more, and several members of the party got up and walked around the tables (both outside and inside) to chat with other people while they ate. In fact, by the time we were all finished eating, the atmosphere had become a lot less formal and more friendly. People were joking and talking, and my daughter was exchanging waves and signs with some ladies across from her.

Before we left on our trip, my husband and I had decided to teach our kids some short Japanese songs to sing while we were in Japan. We proposed, toward the end of the banquet when everyone was feeling more comfortable, that we might like to sing them. This suggestion was enthusiastically accepted, and the four of us got up in front of the windows and sang "Haru ga kita" (Spring has come) and "Mikan no hana" (The Orange Flowers), to rousing applause. Several people even sang along with the first song. Of course, they weren't suited to the season of Gion festival (oh, well) but everyone really appreciated the songs. Time and again during our trip we were shown that this was a really good thing to have done.

After dinner we all came back down to the front of the restaurant, passed by a beautiful arrangement of flowers which are only displayed during Gion Festival season, and crossed the street to the riverside. There we walked down a gravel area to the river's edge, where a boat was waiting for us. We boarded one or two at a time by getting into the stern of the boat, taking our shoes off and putting them in plastic bags, then stepping over a little bench into the flat center section of the boat, which was covered with tatami mats. The boat itself had a roof over it, hung with white lanterns. Each lantern had pictures of cormorants on it. Once we had all gotten settled into places on the mats, the boat pushed off. It was poled out into the middle of the stream and then came to rest against a set of small pilings that separated one level of the river from another (with about a step-sized waterfall). There we rested and watched the cormorant fishing.

I struggle to describe what this was like. There are moments when you realize that there is magic in the world, not as it exists in stories, but as it exists in the atmosphere of experiences that you have not anticipated, had never imagined, and may never experience again. It was dark, except for the dim white lanterns and the lights of the Arashiyama buildings reflected on the water. Then from further up the river came wooden fishing boats, each managed by three men. One of the men poled the boat, another carried an oar, and the third (who wore a straw skirt) held six cormorants on rope leashes. These birds apparently are not fed the morning of these excursions, so they will fish avidly. They have rings around their necks to prevent them from swallowing the fish they catch. There is an iron basket of burning firewood suspended over the water from one end of the boat, and its light attracts fish. The cormorants are released into the water, where they dive after fish. When the bird-handler notices that one of the birds has caught a fish, he reels it in on its leash, wrestles the fish out of its throat while it flaps its wings indignantly, then tosses the fish into the boat and the bird back into the water. My kids were rather indignant on behalf of the birds, but we were at least assured that once they are finished fishing, the cormorants get to go home and have a big meal of their own. We watched this process for about twenty minutes before returning to shore. This is the best photo I was able to get of the fishermen.

I hope this gives you some ideas for stories, some thoughts about different ways of life and different definitions for familiar words, and maybe the idea that you should visit Japan someday. Not just for Pokémon and Studio Ghibli, either.


  1. My eyes teared up at the description of the magic in the settings - in real life.

    I can't but help thinking of the people who do the dishwashing, and the enormous amount of hand labor that goes into having everything be just so. Even as a labor of love, it takes healthy people working long hours - and less healthy ones even longer.

    I'm so glad you shared - I probably won't get to experience something like that directly, but your words - and pictures - provided a banquet for my mind.

    1. ABE, I'm glad it spoke to you. Yes, there is a lot of hand labor involved. When I lived in Japan, in a homestay, I was frankly shocked by the amount of commitment required on the part of (usually) the mom to produce a full elaborated meal. Mind you, this was not nearly as complex as the banquet meal I described, but my host mom sometimes never even sat down at the table. You can imagine that this distressed me.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. It's really neat to see the details of how different cultures approach banquets.

    I'm glad you and your family had a wonderful time in Japan.

    1. Thanks, E.L. It was a very memorable trip.