Sake, Shepherd's Pie, and Sumos

By 11pm the pensioners had taken on a glazed and sedated expression. They were slightly slumped, the offending bottles of wine, beer, and sake cluttering the table in front of them.

A few minutes earlier one dinner guest had lolled forward onto the futatsu, sending glasses and rice bowls clattering in all directions, only to roll over and resume his snooze. Mrs Matsuoka, a spritely and efficient woman, moved lightly across the tatami floor, retrieving pots and mopping up spillages. She stayed engaged in conversation the entire time, seemingly undeterred by the semi-comatose guests drooling all over the place.

This was my first visit to the Matsuoka’s, but we were welcomed like old friends. Most of the couples there had known each other for many years, having lived and worked in Yamada for most of their lives. Also in attendance were four Japanese couples, three fellow ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers), the young lady who taught me Japanese, and her friend. Like many families in Japan the Matsuokas were keen to meet with the local ALTs to practice their English and learn about Western culture.

As ALTs living in Japan, we were presented with a unique opportunity to access parts of Japanese culture many visitors will never see. This had much to do with the length of time we would be staying and the fact that we were immersed in day-to-day life, but it was also a result of the importance of our roles within the community.

Celebrities and curiosities

In countryside communities particularly we were something like celebrities, or at least a source of curiosity. In these areas there’s usually only one ALT per town, and they’re usually the only foreign person to ever visit, let alone live there.

It could prove frustrating to be viewed as an oddity, but there were always plenty of people who were genuinely interested in getting to know me. The Matsuokas were one such family. They had travelled broadly over the decades and had developed a keen interest in foreigners. Mr Matsuoka in particular was always checking if we were feeling homesick, urging us to visit if we had any problems or if we ever felt lonely.

The first party was ‘bring a dish,’ which gave everyone the chance to try different cuisine. I had made a valiant attempt at cooking shepherd’s pie. My tiny oven meant I had to constantly turn it around so that as one side was browning the other didn’t cool. It went down surprisingly well, hopefully dispelling the British reputation as bland cooks.

All the guests kneeled politely around the table, faced with ceramic chopstick holders, the smell of worn tatami mingling with pickled ginger and freshly baked fish. I would never have guessed how rowdy the party would become.

After a brief speech, in which we were welcomed to Japan and their home, Mrs Matsuoka urged us to pour one another’s drinks and raise our tiny crystal glasses that would be refilled countless times over the course of the evening.

Japanese people are often portrayed as cool and reserved, so it was enlightening to see a different side of their society. Alcohol acts as a real social lubricant, allowing businessmen to freely discuss the issues that etiquette dictates should not be debated during a daytime meeting. It’s also an opportunity for people to cement their working relationships with colleagues.

Breaking the ice

The enkais (welcome parties) that I attended with my school teachers allowed me to speak with some of those who had been too busy or too shy to talk to me at school. In fact the evening saw one senior teacher become a little too uninhibited as he spent his time fawning over a bar maid, only to remain drinking alone after we left instead of returning to his wife and kids at home.

Such falls from grace remain undisclosed the following day. It’s a mercy that the Japanese bestow on each other.

So it was that the drunken dinner guest could sleep unhindered, the hostess not batting an eyelid, even though I could barely contain my disbelief. Another gentleman, Mr Nishida, became increasingly open about his admiration of European women. ‘They are so elegant, so graceful! Only they can truly master ballroom dancing,’ he told me.

Before he could drag me away to a ballroom his wife interrupted. ‘Yes, he met a young Romanian girl a few years ago. He can’t keep away from her.’ Her tone heavily suggested infidelity, which was hard to imagine when looking at Mr Nishida’s jovial, rosy face.

A week later he phoned to invite me to watch Sumo with him, his wife, and his sisters, and it made me feel guilty for questioning his fidelity. It seemed to me that he, like many people here, was simply keen to share his culture and learn about others.

That same week a man from my school office invited me to go hiking in the mountains with his family, and a female teacher took me to hear an orchestra. It reminded me how hospitable the Japanese people are, and how they have good reason to be immensely proud of their culture.