It has been nearly a year since COVID put a big, fat STOP sign on nearly all international travel. Being obsessed Japanophiles, Super Sake Boy and I have tried to take the travel ban graciously, while feeding our need for Japanese food, sake, culture and connection with the language. We were last in Japan in July of 2019, and it feels like a very long time ago now. We had a trip scheduled for April 2020, but of course COVID beat us to it, and our borders in Australia were firmly shut, in both directions. So, I have decided to begin the year by reflecting on how we have managed to stay connected and interested. Admittedly, many of the connections and opportunities that presented during our intense period of lockdown would never have arisen if the situation were different. As with absolutely everything in life, every experience, every trauma, every mistake, there has been a silver lining, somewhat unimaginable before this year of Coronavirus.
Firstly, the food. I have written about my ramen obsession, which you can read about here, and my conflicted struggle when we were unable to travel more than 5kms from our homes. There are no good Japanese restaurants in the forest where I live, and although I love cooking, there were some Japanese dishes that intimidated me. (None more than char shu pork, which has been a revelation). I teach cooking in a primary school, and due to the lockdown, and remote education, I began making cooking videos. Many ended up being Japanese dishes, sometimes ones that I had not cooked before. The feedback from my community was super positive. I then watched Maggie Beer talking, during a television show, about her intimidation to cook Japanese. If she is intimidated, maybe I can help people access Japanese food… one of my goals for this year is to start a cooking channel/blog about Japanese food and culture. Super Sake Boy also tried out some new recipes and jigged a couple of existing specialities. I must say his Mapo Tofu is a winner… so delicious and well prepared. He is such a details guy and his cooking is precise and well thought out, like everything he does. So despite the inability to eat out at our favourite Japanese restaurants, we were able to enjoy a lot of Japanese food and to learn some new recipes and new skills.
We love drinking sake, and we also enjoy learning more about the process, hearing different people’s experiences and expanding our sake knowledge in general. This year we have been spoiled beyond what we could have comprehended 12 months ago. Our dear friend, and sake educator and advocate, Simone, the Sake Mistress, began a series of sake events. Starting out with just a couple of breweries in April of 2020, this series grew well beyond what Simone had originally visioned. With 27 events spanning the year, and three additional Meet the Artisan events, the Taste with the Toji sessions kept us connected with like-minded sake enthusiasts from all over the world. It enabled us to ask questions of brewers that we never thought we would have the opportunity to meet. It made the breweries accessible, and we were touring breweries and tasting sake from all over Japan. Short of an extensive sake tour around the country, this was the very best experience imaginable, and such an amazing opportunity.
Remaining in touch with the language has also been challenged, with our weekly Japanese lesson moving to remote learning. Our wonderful teacher, Sakura Sensei, has made the transition seamless, and we are very grateful to have a teacher with so much knowledge and experience. She makes our lessons relevant to us and our interests and we always have fun while we are learning. She really makes us laugh and I am looking forward to starting our lessons again, after a Christmas and New Year break. We continue to watch Japanese movies and television, in an attempt, although sometimes feeling frustratingly futile, to improve our understanding, increase our vocabulary and enhance our listening skills. Japanese is a difficult language to learn, but an excellent workout for our brains. One day I hope to say that I am proficient, or maybe even fluent? It is a long term goal.
Maintaining a connection with Japanese culture when you can not travel there can only be through information and communication, in my experience. Maintaining connection with Japanese friends, reading about Japanese history, reading Japanese novelists, keeping abreast of Japanese news. I listen to several podcasts about Japanese history. We follow one about sake, produced in Tokyo, by many of the lovely people we have met through the Taste with the Toji sessions. We have even had date nights from our bedroom where we experience online exhibitions of Japanese art. Super Sake Boy organised a secret date night with tickets to an online streamed concert, live from Tokyo, of Ryuichi Sakamoto playing piano to an empty concert hall. This was one of my favourite online events. In light of the fact that we could not visit Japan, and had nowhere to go and a lot of spare time in lockdown, we decided to remodel our garden. We pulled nearly everything out and planted lots of maples and Japanese ferns, as well as a selection of dwarf Japanese conifers and some Japanese grasses. The garden is a sanctuary now, and we love being out there. It’s not quite Japanese shrine level, but it is peaceful and very relaxing. I have also found myself reflecting on previous trips, old blogs and wistfully longing to be able to return. Hopefully international travel will once again be possible in the near future. My desire to go back to Japan is intense, as always, but I have put it into hibernation for my own mental health.