“Eat Your Greens”
Pshhooo! The loud blast of the hydraulics woke me with a start.
“Where am I? What’s going on? Oh, now I remember. I think I’m in Japan,” I thought to myself in a groggy mental voice. “Wait, is this real? Maybe I’m still dreaming.”
It wasn’t a dream. The chartered bus I boarded at Haneda Airport arrived at our destination – somewhere in the mountains of Japan. The bus ride was a long three or four hours. It was the middle of the night. It was drizzling outside. I had no idea where we were and I didn’t care. Just show me my bed, please.
Morning. I opened my eyes. All was silent. A window above my head revealed a gray, but bright, overcast sky. I sat up in my bed and peered out the window. The rain had stopped. Steep mountains densely packed with Japanese pine and wooden buildings roofed with thick clay tiles hinted that I wasn’t in California anymore.
Along with about 100 other student missionaries (aka English teachers) from all over the United States who were on their way to various parts of Asia, I had been transported to Amagi Sanso, a Christian retreat in the mountains of the Izu Peninsula. We were spending the next few days here getting oriented to our year-long experience in the Orient.
After breakfast and introductory meetings, we were given our first free time. So a group of us decided to explore our surroundings.
Before this journey, my image of Japan was very urban and crowded – big cities like Tokyo or Osaka. I never visualized a rural, mountainous Japan so green and lush. But now here we were in the middle of a Japanese rainforest.
No towns, villages, or shops were in sight. One road wound down the mountain where we had come from. The same road continued up the hill. We chose to explore higher ground.
After climbing the road a few hundred feet, we discovered a little path that ventured off to the side. We followed the path down the hill through the woods. Suddenly the path opened up to a beautiful waterfall that poured into a small pool which streamed down into the valley. We were awestruck. All at once, like a group of Japanese tourists, we pulled out our cameras and started taking pictures.
After we had our fill of this beautiful sight, we hiked up another path. Along this path we stumbled across a bit of civilization. A few makeshift tables were set up along the side with local elderly people selling various handcrafts, souvenirs, and foods.
One of these vendors caught my attention. An elderly woman was selling some kind of vegetable. It was a bright green reed-like grass. In a small bowl, she had some chopped samples to try. Never one to refuse a sample, I took a piece and tossed it in my mouth. It was a little crunchy and…aaahhhh! My mouth and sinuses burst into flames. It was fresh wasabi (Japanese horseradish), the green paste used to spice up sushi. If I thought I was dreaming before, I was now wide awake.
The little old lady selling the wasabi began talking to me in Japanese. I had no idea what she was saying, so I just smiled then spoke to my friends in English, “Hey, try this stuff. It’s good.”
As I watched my friends getting their first taste of Japanese culture, I noticed from the corner of my eye the old woman tilting her head to the side and staring at me. She mumbled something to herself as she saw me speaking with all of these foreigners. Perhaps she said to herself, “Why don’t they buy some of my fresh wasabi I just picked this morning instead of just eating all of my samples?”
But she continued to gaze at me with this look of wonder. Perhaps she was asking herself, “Who is this strange Japanese boy out of whose mouth come these foreign sounds?”
It was Kakure Gaijin, just beginning to wake up.