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Understanding a Culture through Food - Made With Love - My Kyoto Homestay Experience

JAPAN | Friday, 19 April 2013 | Views [1006] | Scholarship Entry

It’s custard, but not as I know it.
It wobbles in an earthenware mug and reaching from the soft yellow deep is the tip of an octopus tentacle.
Normally I’d be reaching for help with my own tentacle, saying "Get me out of here!"
But my Japanese host grandma is watching me with a sweet smile on her face, so I grab my spoon and dig in.
For the next three days of this trip with my high school Japanese class, I, an awkward, redheaded, then-fifteen-year-old, will slip off my sneakers at the door of a tiny apartment in suburban Kyoto and become a member of the Takashi family.
They call me Eriza-chan – “chan” is a term of endearment – and I call them as though they’re my own. As well as Grandma, obaa-chan, at the table there’s Grandpa, ojii-san, Mum, okaa-san, Dad, ojii-san, and my “little sister”, thirteen-year-old Hana-chan.
The most memorable moments of that trip distill into flavours. There’s okonomiyaki, a delicious noodle pancake obaa-chan serves up as the family gushes about my chopstick skills. Even if they’re just being polite, their words seem sincere; it’s the same when they compliment my schoolgirl Japanese.
There’s the tangy citrus soft drink, made all the more bizarre by the name, Pocari Sweat, which quenches my thirst atop a mountain overlooking Kyoto, after a spritely Grandpa and I hike through five thousand bright orange Torii gates which, superstition has it, will make our dreams come true.
There’s the ubiquitous kaiten-zushi, or sushi train, at which Hana and I pose for photos with the V-sign and cheesy grins of genuine excitement.
Then there are the adaptations of Western food Japan does so well. They have a whole separate alphabet for words from other languages, katakana, and they’ve embraced foreign food as their own: from the squirt of chocolate custard from a fresh, warm crepe at every tourist site, to a tasty breakfast of pain au chocolate at the local konbini, to the pasta restaurant with plastic models of each dish out the front – which makes up for a menu with hilariously misleading “Engrish” mistakes like “fried cock”.
I take one spoonful of obaa-chan’s seafood custard. It’s hot, savoury comfort food, the octopus deliciously tender. Amid the bilingual banter, Dad Takashi jokes “we are fatt-o family!”, clutching his belly. Grandma – who speaks no English – hugs me the tightest when it’s time to say goodbye, even though we barely understand each other. They are far from fat but with each meal, it’s clear these people are full of love.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2013

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