By Anna Mindess
My teenage daughter Lila criticizes my driving, rolls her eyes at my questions and spends her free time texting or hanging out with friends. The sweet memories of mother-daughter bonding, rubber duckies in the tub, teddy bear tea parties and trips to the zoo, seem long gone. So when I get an invitation to give a few lectures in Japan and Lila wants to accompany me, I am cautiously optimistic.
For months before our departure, I practice my Japanese language CDs on the drive to work and read a stack of books to prepare for our adventure. Occasionally, I share some bits of wisdom with Lila, as a good parent should. She discounts whatever I say as only a 14 year old can.
“You have to take off your shoes when you enter someone’s house. Remember, never leave your chopsticks sticking upright in your rice bowl – that’s only for funerals. We might sleep on futons on the floor.”
“Oh Mom, stop making such a big deal! It won’t be that different.”
“Okay, Lila. We’ll see…”
When I explain how important communal baths are in Japanese culture, Lila says she will bring her swimsuit.
“Uh, Lila… they don’t wear swimsuits in the baths. They don’t wear anything.”
“ Naked! With you? Forget it!”
“Okay, Lila, we’ll see…”
Finally, our plane lands and we’re on a train to our Tokyo hotel. As we look out the window, Lila points at orderly clumps of long green grasses in the wet fields flanking the train tracks.
“ What’s that?”
“I think it’s rice, rice paddies.”
“Really? Wow! Cool!”
The small, semi-traditional hotel lies in a tucked away corner of Tokyo. No Americans (or English speakers) in sight. Our room is filled with puzzles: Turn on the lights? We search the four walls for a switch. I am ready to give up and tramp downstairs to the front desk with my Japanese phrase book, but Lila discovers the solution – slip the room key into a slot in the wall and — ta-da — lights. Then we tackle our toilet, a complicated contraption with a built-in bidet and a spaceship’s control-pad. By trial and error, with yelps and giggles, we eventually decipher the various icons for temperature, water pressure and action.
That night, I tell Lila, “I am going down to the second floor to relax in the women’s bath.”
She hesitates, “Well, maybe just once…for the cultural experience.”
We pad into the women’s bath area in the yukata (cotton pajamas) and slippers provided in our room. After Lila figures out how to punch in the code on the outer door, we enter an empty dressing room. We remove our clothes, stow them in a locker and stand naked, awkwardly clutching only a tiny hand towel. Through the thick glass doors we can see the stools, buckets and water faucets where we are supposed to wash ourselves and beyond that the serene, steaming pool. I try the door handle. I push. I pull. Nothing happens. Then I notice a big green button with Japanese characters and press it. Again, nothing happens…until the woman from the front desk dashes in looking worried, breathlessly asking us something in Japanese. Standing there nude and embarrassed, my few words of Japanese desert me. It seems that the button says “in case of emergency.” Bowing, she lets us in and after washing off, we slowly sink into the penetratingly hot water, chuckling over our embarrassing moment. Soaking neck-deep in the steamy bath, I steal a glance at my lovely daughter and savor the moment of our shared intimacy. I realize that we might have taken off more than our clothes — perhaps our constricting poses as teenager and parent, as well. Later, we lay in our futons, a pair of clean, limp noodles, who have both fallen in love with the ritual of the bath.
“Promise we can do this every night, okay?” mumbles Lila as she drifts off to sleep.
We make a good team. I am grateful to Lila for figuring out the subway map and ticket vending machine. She is impressed that I can ask for directions in Japanese and actually understand the policeman’s reply. We stumble upon enchanting shops with stickers and stationery, cookware and candy. We each have our “must-see” – Harajuku, the teenage clothing street for her and Tsukiji, the Tokyo fish market for me. Lila doesn’t complain about getting up before 6:00am to watch the fish sellers in action. We thread our way through alleys, peering into boxes packed with baby squid, and duck as knife-wielding professionals slice filets that will end up on Tokyo’s dinner tables. Finally, we share a breakfast of sushi so fresh it wiggles in a tiny café with eight seats.
On our last day in Tokyo, I assume Lila wants to go shopping again, but surprisingly, she suggests visiting the zoo. After peering at the panda, we reminisce about our favorite things at the Oakland zoo (flamingos and hot-dogs), and compare lunch at the Tokyo zoo: buckwheat soba noodles and melon flavored soda.
On the plane home, I realize that leaving our familiar world let us drop the roles of individuating teenager and advice-dispensing parent. This left us open to renew our closeness through a mutual adventure of companionship and shared discovery. For that chance, I say a heartfelt arigato gozaimas.
About the Author:
Anna Mindess writes about her passion for exploring the connection between food and culture in her blog, East Bay Ethnic Eats. She is also a frequent contributor to KQED’s Bay Area Bites, Oakland Magazine, Alameda Magazine, The East Bay Monthly, Berkeleyside and other local publications, as well an adjunct faculty member at The California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where she interprets for deaf students who are pursuing careers in the food industry. She lives in Berkeley with her husband, and Skypes with Lila, who’s attending college in Vancouver.
Photo courtesy of Anna Mindess