Japan: Eating in

Green river 1Many years ago, so many that the email account no longer exists, I received a message from a high school friend who was traveling in Japan. She may have been studying in Tokyo at the time, or perhaps this was one of her earlier visits before she started making Japan one of her homes away from home. In the foreground of these images, she and another schoolmate of ours stood surrounded by the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen. In my memory, the mountains were blue and green, rich with color and rising steeply around two smiling women standing on the side of winding roads.

Shirakawago 1Shirakawago 3For no particular reason, I imagined these mountains were in the north of the country somewhere, and without much more to it, I fixated on the idea that this was the place I wanted to go more than any other in the world. If ever I got the chance, I thought then and many times since, I wanted to stand in those mountains.

ArashiyamaBamboo gardenNara gardenKenrokuen 1Kenrokuen 2Kenrokuen 3In the end, since neither of us could remember the real story behind these so-formative emails, these are different mountains and different parts of the country. But by this stage, the vague but pressing idea of a trip to Japan had come to life, and we were actually there.

It was everything and more than I’d imagined, which is why it’s been hard to find the way to write about it here. I’d like to tell you everything, but let’s start at the beginning.

Kido 1One of the enduring parts of my friendship with Nell is our mutual love of all-things-food. Both of us learn about places by exploring the way people eat, so it was such a joy to share the first few days with Nell and her family. From the moment we stepped up into her beautiful house, it was like we had embarked on a three day introduction to Japanese cuisine.

Mountain potatoDinner 1Working from a small kitchen, Nell produced meal after meal that took us on a too-quick tour of what she prepares for her family with the produce and ingredients around her.

Dinner fullDinner 2Cabbage clear soupInariWe learned about the backbone staples of many Japanese dishes – rice vinegar, mirin, sesame oil, shoyu (light and dark soy sauce), cooking sake, miso and brown sugar – and she shared simple and delicious preparations of many common vegetables we were unlikely to have seen, including mountain potato, burdock root and lotus root.

When an incredible soba noodle meal and an evening in the hot springs left us too full for dinner, we were entirely happy to spend an evening snacking on our first onigiri, enjoying the sake and plum wine we’d picked up that day.

Everything we experienced during the rest of our journey was enhanced by these first days with Nell and her family. I can’t believe how much we learned in our short time together, but I am so grateful for the chance to share a kitchen for a few meals.

It’s Nell’s birthday today, so this post is in honor of her and in celebration of nearly eighteen (!) years of friendship. I hope you have had the most wonderful day. xo

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