Sunday, March 13, 2011

Some Peace Among The Madness

I had to take a day off from the "Cry every time I pass a TV" routine I've been in since Friday afternoon, so that's what the wife and I did.

I know that while people in the north of Japan are still suffering, are still searching desperately for their loved ones and mourning their dead (a list which has surpassed 10,000 souls), it is pure selfishness to want to stop thinking about it. I, who have the luxury of being able to do just that, should not. But sometimes people are selfish. I know I certainly am.

Indeed, apart from cash donations (Have you? Can you? Please do, if you can: How To Help.) I don't really know what at all I can do. My tears and my frustration certainly aren't helping anyone, so I figure it's about time to stop that. I guess it's thin justification, but that's all I've got.

And so today, my wife and I got out of the house into the warm March sunshine, and enjoyed as much of our time together as we could.

We left our home in Hikari and drove toward the center of Yamaguchi prefecture, to a place called Akiyoshidai. The side of Japan on which we live, the one facing the Pacific, is known as the "Sanyo Coast", and is the more heavily populated and industrialized side of Japan. The other side is called the "Sanin Coast" and is cleaner, quieter and more relaxed. The two coasts are separated by the mountains that make up the majority of Honshu's landmass.

Driving into these mountains from the factory-filled Sanyo coast is a joy. The bamboo and pine covered slopes rise gently, and hide little villages lining streams and rivers running clean and clear. On a day like today, with not a cloud in the sky and the winter chill all but gone, they were perfect.

The drive was about 2 hours, as we made it intentionally long. Akiyoshi is a famous place here in Yamaguchi. It's a small town, surrounded by unusual mineralogical formations. There are three large, rather lovely caves in the area, as well as our desination today: Akiyoshidai.

Akiyoshidai is a valley, or series of hills, or a mountain...I'm not really sure. But it's covered with these rather striking rock outcroppings called "karst". Apparently they're rare, these huge chunks of stone emerging from the soil like this. I'm not sure that they are enough of a draw to become a real tourist attraction, but apparently enough people come to warrant a small gift shop and restaurant.

And people were there. We weren't the only ones who felt the need to get out and away from the constant rush of pain coming through the wires. Here they are, laughing and taking pictures and eating soft-serve. They way it's supposed to be.

And here I get the real story about today.

One of the main activities, simple as it is, at Akiyoshidai, is eating Summer Mikan Soft-serve. Summer Mikan is a type of small orange, similar to a Clementine or Mandarin, that is particularly famous in Yamaguchi. And Akiyoshi, being a Yamaguchi landmark, makes a big deal out of this by pushing the Soft Serve Ice Cream they make with it. So we decided to get some, just to fit in.

There are two shops selling Yamaguchi Summer Mikan Soft-serve at Akiyoshidai. One is right on the way in, and is marked by a mannequin in a China dress. We passed this one because the line was very long--it's right in the entrance, and everyone has to pass by it so it gets all the foot traffic. The other is further up the hill, attached to the restaurant and a little out of the way. This place had a shorter line, and we got our Ice Cream there. I got the Mikan, of course, but my wife got Strawberry--her reasoning was, there's no reason for us to get the same flavor, we can share.

So we got our ice cream, and made our way back toward the car. On the way, we decided to sit in the sun and eat, so we stopped at a nice warm bench. We didn't pay attention, however, to the fact that we were right in front of the other Ice Cream shop.

The crowd had dispersed, and as we sat eating, the little old woman manning the counter (well into her 70s, I think) called out to my wife and motioned her over. We were both a bit surprised, but when she brought out a small spoon, we thought that she was just offering one to my wife. So she went over, and then another gesture beckoned me over as well.

When my wife reached the counter, instead of offering her the spoon the woman held out a hand for her cone and started gently berating her. "What are you eating? Strawberry!? This is Akiyoshi! You have to eat Mikan!" And taking my wife's cone, replaced the half-eaten strawberry with a big dab of Mikan ice cream. Then she took my cone. "Oh, this is terrible. You shouldn't buy this crap, here let me..." And taking the spoon from before, she scooped out most of my ice cream and refilled the cone with her own Mikan soft serve.

(Photo from wikitravel here. That's definitely the stuff, that's the cone she uses.)

"That place up there, it's terrible. They just add flavoring to the vanilla to make their Mikan and Strawberry. We make it all from scratch, and use real fruit. Even our vanilla is better!" With that, she took my wife's cone again. "Here, try the vanilla." she said, and topped my wife's cone with said vanilla, making a triple cone of strawberry remnants, mikan and vanilla. When we tried to pay her, she waved us off and said "What? No, no, if you try to pay I'll just get angry. I want you to have the good stuff!" So in lieu of payment, we thanked her and asked to shake her hand--a big thing in Japan. She laughed, embarrassed, and said "Oh no, not this wrinkled old thing!" My wife shook her head and said "Your hand is beautiful" and we shook it.

Bowing and thanking her again, we backed away.

As we took our leave, another crowd of people had gathered behind us, and we overheard one young woman saying "Oh, I want a triple like her!" We rushed away before we were forced to explain our mistake.

In the car, we finally ate our new Ice Cream. And you know what? That old woman was right...Of course, the line wasn't just because of the foot traffic. Hers was so much better, with fresh fruity flavors and rich, natural vanilla.

And, of course, the kindness with which it was given made it all the sweeter.


Mr. S. said...

Thank you for reminding me that type of thing does happen here more often than home. I am sure I get gaijin-privilege, especially when with my 9 month old hybrid, but I've seen them do it for each other. Something to remember next time I want to kill a salaryman on the train.

JimR said...

Mr. S.,

Thanks as always for your comment.

I definitely hear you about Gaijin privelege, but since my wife was called first, and she's Japanese, I'm going to put this down to good old fashioned kindness...and pride.