January 8th was the 2-year anniversary of my move to Japan. Because it’s my third January here, I can now notice the common signs of the new year in Japan: bright and nippy weather, massive New Year’s sales, giggling 20 year-old girls clomping down the streets in vibrant kimonos on Coming of Age Day, bamboo and pine needle Kadomatsu gracing the entrances of nearly every home I pass. In a couple of weeks it’ll be Setsubun, and the supermarkets will begin stocking red devil masks and fuku mame beans. By now, I know that the giant sushi rolls sold around Setsubun are a traditional holiday treat, eaten after someone’s donned the devil mask and suffered rains of beans to ward off bad luck in the coming year. You eat beans, too; as many beans as you have years. Eat one more for luck. Again? Déjà vu.
While I’m pleased that I’ve come to know the culture well enough to notice things like this, January in Japan inevitably reminds me of my first weeks here, when I existed in a daze of wonderment. So far away from anyone or anything I’d ever known … the freedom was enough to make me feel like anyone but who I’d been back home.
I discovered 99 yen stores. I learned to dodge kamikaze bicycles on the sidewalks. I tried to make sense of cooking in a one-burner kitchen. I learned that Japanese children could be as horribly behaved as any American brat. I learned that luscious sushi rolls involving avocado and vegetables were a Western invention. All Japanese writing was a maddening blur and nearly all new foods had to go straight into my eagerly waiting mouth. Like a toddler, I had to taste everything.
It was only a week or so before I discovered onigiri; those ultra cheap mainstays of hungry Japanese lunchers. I vividly recall standing on the street corner outside a conbini with my training group, the proud owner of my most recent 120 yen seaweed-wrapped rice ball. Convenience store onigiri are wrapped in an ingenious system of cellophane layers that are designed to keep the seaweed and rice apart from each other so that neither component gets mushy. While the rest of my training group argued about where to head for dinner, I attempted to peel open my prize. Unfamiliar with the system, I only ended up mangling it. Standing there – dumbfounded, my hands covered in sticky rice and tuna – I wondered where I’d gone wrong. Then Meir showed me the directions on the packaging.
Peel the center strip down, then pull the halves of the packaging apart. Like so:
Or not like so, I guess. They’re really meant to be opened with both hands.