I frequently have unexpected ‘Hold on! What? We live in Osaka?!’-moments, i.e. sudden realizations that we live in a new place. And I’m sure most expats new to their country occasionally feel like that. These moments of realization are usually followed by disbelief that you actually live in those surroundings – that you are not just visiting and that somehow you have a better understanding of your city, its culture, and its people than just a random tourist.
Even though I have those moments of realization, I have never felt like I was becoming part of the community in Osaka – probably largely because (a) I don’t speak Japanese yet (weekly Japanese classes start this Friday!) and (b) I am not married to a Japanese person. But a couple of days ago, for the first time, I felt like I as part of the community in Osaka.
A Japanese friend has invited the children and me for a day out (my husband is currently in England). She explained it was a big kite-flying event. A big kite-flying event? I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but to me a big kite-flying event sounded like a big Monster Truck type event with (semi)professional kite flyers, presenters with their microphones, music so loud that I could barely hear my 3-year old’s desperate pleas for the toilet, women dressed to impress, hotdogs and hard hats with beer compartments from which tubes lead to the wearers’ mouths. And I figured that my children, especially my 7-year old son, would love it. So on Sunday morning we met our friend and her son, and another Japanese lady and her son at a tube station in Osaka and headed to the event. When we got there, the event was not quite like I anticipated (see photo below).
The kite-flying event turned out to be a community affair for local families and pensioners, organized by the council at an old knackered school playground. Not quite the monster truck type event I was (for some bizarre reason) expecting.
But not to worry, as an expat in a country whose language I don’t speak (and as a mother of two) I’ve learned to be very quick to adjust to unexpected situations. Thus, I went and picked up one of the kites that the council had provided for the children to play with and offered it my son.
My son was not too keen to start with to try – he was worried that would look as professional in kite flying as Donald Trump’s hairdresser does in keeping Donald’s hair in check. But one of the organizers encouraged my son to try, spent about 45 minutes running after him and his kite, and helped him get the kite in the air time after time after time. My son loved it! And I loved to see how friendly, helpful, and welcoming the Japanese stranger was (see photos).
My daughter was not as interested in kites. She settled with one go with the kite and then retired on the benches with the other spectators.
My son ran with that kite for about 2 hours, after which he was starving.
Amazingly, the council had provided some (free) food for the crowds. And several strangers walked up to us and encouraged us to go and have some. I felt like a pig, but I had to go for some seconds because I couldn’t explain to one lady that we had already had some; I didn’t want to come across as being a rude foreigner refusing what they were offering.
The dinner ladies had prepared deep fried tofu in stock with giant radish (see photos).
The radish over here is not as bitter and peppery as the European radish. Over here, radish tastes more like swede or even potato. To confess to some pretty desperate parenting, I actually told my children that it was potato soup (not radish) and neither of them raised an eyebrow.
The deep fat fried tofu, on the other hand, didn’t agree with my children’s palates. And to be fair, (a) the texture of it is similar to that of a wet wooly mitten, and (b) the taste… well… most of you who have tried tofu know that in general tofu has as much flavor as an old washing up sponge. Consequently, my main function at the kite flying event was to eat those leftover wooly mittens as I could not bin food that the lovely dinner ladies had piled on my children’s plates expecting the little western kids to wolf down.
In addition to the radish-tofu soup, some other volunteers (I suspect) had made a little fire in which they baked sweet potatoes wrapped in foil.
The council of the city known as the ‘Kitchen of Japan’ did not stop at providing the main course only – it also served a dessert. The dessert was zensai with mochi, i.e. a sweet bean soup with sticky rice dumplings (see photo).
My son was not that keen on having the mochi to start with. Don’t get me wrong, mochi is delicious and we all love it! The problem with mochi was that my son remembered that in January, his school celebrated New Year, and a traditional New Year thing in Japan is to have some mochi-cake. Before the school had offered the cake, the students were warned that they needed to eat the mochi very slowly and chew it extremely well. The reason being that every year (particularly around the New Year’s celebrations) several people in Japan die of choking in mochi. It can be very sticky and it seems that in particular old people get into trouble with a big lump of sticky rice being glued to the inside of their throat. Should you ever find yourself in a situation with some mochi in your windpipe, I’ve heard the best way to get rid of it is to shove a vacuum cleaner hose in your mouth and suck it out.
In any case, my son decided to have the mochi regardless of it being a potential chocking hazard. But it might be worth noting that he ate it with concentration comparable to that of a chef preparing a dish of blow fish (see photo below).
Even though the big kite flying event wasn’t a big monster truck type event, it was actually one of the best days I’ve had in Osaka, largely because I felt like we were part of the community here. (Although, I am not sure if the local people felt that we were part of their community.)
I feel that we experienced something very authentically Osakan such that a tourist would be unlikely to experience. I mean, not many tourists would find themselves at an old school yard flying kites and eating wooly mittens. Most tourist would find themselves at a big monster truck type of an event eating hot dogs and drinking beer out of silly hats.
And just thinking about that makes me smile.