May I have a fork, please?

In June 2009 Dave and I were sent to live and work at Misawa Air Base, Japan.  We were given two months of lead time to get our household goods in order, sell cars, rent our house, dissolve my personal training business, and report to our new duty station.  The Air Force issued us military orders to live in the far northeast corner on the main island of Honshu for 3 years.  If you put your finger on the United States on a world globe and spin it nearly 180 degrees you would find our new home.  As a newlywed couple of one year, I couldn’t imagine a place farther away from our support network of close family and friends.  However, as adventure seeking, lovers of the unknown, Dave and I had stepped off the plane into our nirvana.  With luggage hanging off of every available limb, we were enthusiastically welcomed by his new co-workers as we disembarked the airplane in Misawa.  In our jet-lagged, semi-comatose state we were asked what we would like to see first.  As we generally align ourselves with the motto of “when in Rome, …”, we voted for eating sushi.

We weren’t sure what to expect at a real Japanese sushi restaurant.  I imagined several Japanese men would be standing behind a windowed counter cutting up fish with panache as you ordered.  They would be wearing robes of some kind and wraps around their foreheads like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid movie.  Perhaps I have watched too much television.

We walked in the door of the restaurant and were taken aback by a loud shout of “IRASSHAIMASE!” as the waitstaff all yelled at us in unison.  Our new friends explained that was their way of saying “WELCOME!”  We were soon ushered to a large booth, not a counter with a window, where we sat in front of two TV screens with pictures of food and strange writing.  To one side of the booth was a conveyor belt with different colored, little plates of sushi, sushi rolls, and tiny desserts slowly cruising by.  I saw no men with head wraps anywhere.  Our new friend, Jamie, ordered our meal by pressing a few of the pictures on the screen.  We thought it probably best to watch her first and then try it ourselves.  She took little tea cups that had been placed in front of us, scooped a little green powder into each cup, and filled them up from a tiny hot water faucet attached to our table. Voila, green tea.  Next thing you know a little train came zipping up to our table on a higher conveyor belt carrying the plates she had ordered.  She took the plates, pressed a button, and the train zipped back to the kitchen.  There was absolutely no human contact involved in the entire process.

Then out came the chopsticks.  As you can imagine eating at a restaurant in Japan you are required to possess a small amount of skill in the use of chopsticks as your primary eating utensils.  I had not mastered the use of chopsticks at this point and I did not intend to make a fool of myself on my first day in country.

I waved down a nice looking hostess and politely asked, “May I have a fork, please?”

To my shock she turned around and ran away from the table!

I leaned over to Dave and whispered with embarrassment, “Mark that down as international incident #1.”

However, she was quickly back at the table bowing in front of me.  She was holding a tray with a fork nicely displayed on top of a clean white towel.

As I took the fork she said, “sorry took long time” as she bowed and walked away.

“Excuse me, Jamie.”  I said in confusion.  “What just happened?  Did she actually mean to apologize that it took her a long time to go get me a fork?  If I had clocked her it would have been 8 seconds, but instead she was apologetic for not breaking her personal record of service?!”

“Welcome to Japanese customer service, Carrie.”  She said as she shrugged her shoulders.  “It’s pretty impressive.”

We woke up in our hotel room the next morning to bright sunshine and enormous black birds loudly cawing outside our opened window.  I watched them gathering in the lawn outside.  They were at least two and a half times the size of any crow I have ever seen, with a beak so big and powerful, I was sure they could break through metal.  I glanced at the clock and was very confused that it only read 3:45 in the morning.   At the relatively northern latitude and no daylight savings time, by 3:45 A.M. the day had begun whether we were ready or not.

We got up and went for a jog to explore the area and discovered that Misawa is a very isolated and small farming community.  Misawa Air Base sits about 6 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and about 30 miles east of the beautiful Hakkoda mountain range.  Prior to World War II, Misawa was a Japanese Air Base where their long range bombers would engage in target practice using the shallow waters of the adjacent Ogawara Lake.  It was the practice ground for the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor.  Later it was the base of training for the kamikaze fighter pilots.  During the war, Misawa Air Base was mostly destroyed by US forces and later rebuilt to house American and Japanese troops as a joint base of operations. I was glad to get the lay of the land and an idea of what was around us.  I felt honored and humbled to be living in a place with so much history.  I also felt obligated or maybe it was a sense of responsibility to be very respectful and conscientious of the Japanese people that we were now living amongst.

We chose to rent a house about 3 miles off base within the community of Misawa.  We were told before we arrived to pack with the expectation that our living space would be about 1,000 square feet or less.  We did as we were told and packed the bare minimum.  Our house, on the other hand, was bright mustard yellow on the outside, two stories tall, 4 bedrooms, and over 2,500 square feet!  I called it our “Chateau Dijon.”  It was situated among a few other western style homes and Japanese residents.  We were surrounded by open fields of rice, carrots, cabbage, rape seed, and a large, white root vegetable called a daikon.

Our “American” pace of life and sense of urgency at all times came to a screeching halt in our new environment.  The calendar year in Japan revolved around the rice harvest and moved only as fast as the rice can be planted and harvested.  There was no sense of “keeping up with the Jones’.”  I couldn’t keep up even if we wanted to, there were no western style shopping malls for miles around.  Everyone drove an older “piece of junk” car because there simply were no other choices.  Cars were passed along from one military family to the next.  We weren’t allowed to bring our cars to Japan since they drive on the left side of the road.  It was also tough to find American stores online that were willing to ship goods to middle-of-nowhere, Japan.

Dave and I agreed the lack of American luxuries would do us some good, slow us down, and help us gain a new perspective on consumerism and what is really important in life.  For the first time we were living without a dishwasher or a microwave.  I cooked on a gas stove for my first time and we didn’t have central air conditioning.  We had all hard-wood flooring throughout the house with a few space heaters and heat that came from underneath the floor, which turned out to be quite fabulous.

My favorite features of the house were our own Japanese toilets.  I was told that the Japanese have the best toilets.  I had no idea how to take that tidbit of information before arriving, but I now agree 100 percent. The advice was, “When you arrive at the Tokyo airport go to the bathroom, you will enjoy it”.  No doubt I would have to go anyway after the 13 + hour flight, but what treat was I in for?  First you opened the door to the pleasant sound of birds chirping!  Then you sat down on a delightfully heated toilet seat.  There was a control panel of buttons to choose from during your stay with little pictures to clarify.  You could change the bird sounds to that of a toilet repeatedly flushing.  There was a bidet feature that sent a shocking spray of warm water back up at you for a squeaky cleanse. Finally, you could choose an air dry and a “puff of scent” with one press of a button.  I was thrilled to walk through our house in Misawa and notice each of our bathrooms possessed these very same toilets!

Note:  We are currently in possession of a Japanese toilet seat.  We purchased one as a personal parting gift as we left the country!