Alex

The other day, we had lunch at Kitchen Alex, one of our favorite eateries in Sangenjaya. Alex is a long narrow establishment, maybe three yards across and ten long. There’s a curved counter flanked by a dozen stools serving as stalls where we can strap on the feedbag. It’s nothing fancy. Each day there are specials, A Lunch and B lunch, or you can order off the menu. Basically you get either the hot plate (three thick-cut French fries, a handful of wilted green beans and a small pile of ketchup spaghetti) or the cold plate (chopped cabbage, spaghetti salad and a thin slice of mikan) adorning your meat choice. Each meal comes with a plate of plain steamed rice and the best miso soup I’ve ever tasted.

Behind the counter, Mrs. Alex serves the rice and washes the dishes. The smaller of the two jumbo sized Alex Juniors (let’s call him A Junior) serves as sous chef, prepping the plates and adding dollops of ketchup or squirts of mayo as needed. At the end of the counter, Mr. Alex is lord of the six ring stove, surrounded by an array of grease-encrusted pots and pans he deftly maneuvers around the stove or piles on the rack above it. The even larger B Junior skirts behind us serving water and handing out plates and running the register. Over the years he has grown rounder and rounder; often he jostles us like a pinball against bumpers. He may have finally outsized the narrow space; this time there was a girl with a ponytail doing his job.

We had eaten there many times, maybe once a week or so for several years. Mrs. and Juniors both A and B had never spoken, but occasionally Mr. Alex would venture a comment:

“Off today?”
“Yep. It’s Sunday.”
“Yep, it is.”

But this time, when we sat down, he raised his eyebrows and said, “I thought the two of you had been murdered.”

Murdered? We laughed, pleased to have survived whatever hideous violence the poor man had imagined, more pleased that he had noticed our absence.

Nothing had changed, not one whit, except us. Somehow we were different, but there was great comfort in the familiarity of the food, the same nicks and cracks in the counter, the scowl on Mrs. Alex’s face, the TV chattering in the background. We didn’t even try to explain that it was a momentous occasion for us. Rochi had been wanting to go there since we got off the plane five weeks ago but, until a few days ago, there was no way he could have swallowed even one wilted green bean. I won’t go into the details of the medical merry-go-round we’ve been riding for so long; that’s a story for another day. Let’s just say Rochi’s finally getting better and, fingers crossed, on the road to recovery. The food, in all its greasy simplicity, was delicious and a grand reward for what we’ve been through.

Lesson learned: You rarely notice how much something means to you until you don’t have it anymore; if you are wise you will value it twice as much when you get it back.

Also, I love the Big Island, but the Bigger Island is pretty great, too.

Fitting In

On Sunday, we went to a birthday lunch for a friend. It was at Hilo Burger Joint, one of a half block of creaky wooden buildings, vestiges of Hilo’s heyday as a cowboy town. When we walked in, it struck me as the runt of the TGI Friday’s litter. It had the same kind of menu and jolly atmosphere, it was just smaller. Our waiter was perky but not festooned with buttons and stuffed toys. And it was just as loud as its Tokyo litter mates.

The Big Island seems to have everything other places offer, they’re just smaller. Instead of Kinko’s, we have Paradise Business Center, which is gray and dusty and run by an equally gray and dusty skeleton of a man, but he takes Amazon and UPS drop-off without too much complaint. Instead of Costco, we have Cost U Less, which is much more manageable in scale and has tiny birds fluttering around inside it, a delightful addition to the shopping experience. The Hilo version of the Apple Store Genius Bar is a second floor back office with two computer dudes slouching on folding chairs, but they get the job done and you don’t need an appointment. Our Walmart and Target may be smaller than some, but they sometimes have what you want. And if they don’t, there’s always Amazon, which takes a week instead of a day but where’s the rush anyway?

At the Burger Joint, I discovered that the menu carried an involved discussion about how their burgers were made with wagyu but not Kobe beef because only beef from Kobe can be called Kobe beef and theirs is wagyu from Colorado. The editor in me was wondering why they had to bring up the concept of Kobe beef at all, as I heard split hairs gently fluttering toward the floor. Their standard burgers are made with local, grass fed, hormone free, Kulana beef, which sounded lovely to me, wondering why people make such a fuss about Kobe beef anyway. It’s fatty and tasteless, but that’s just my opinion.

Overwhelmed by the beef dispute, I focused instead on the company, which proved to be well worth the drive to Hilo. It was a jovial groups. I counted two sets of hearing aids, one cane and more than a few age spots. When we were done, it took all of us a moment to leverage our creaky knees off the hard wooden chairs, but everyone was alert and eager to communicate. It never really sank in when we decided to move here that we didn’t know a solitary soul, but over the months, we’ve birthed a litter of our own, all interesting people who’ve done interesting things with their lives, all coming from Somewhere Else and now coming from Here. Local people are called kama’aina and we’re included. I’ll never be Hawaiian any more than I’ll ever be Japanese, but I do feel welcome. I feel at home. We’ve been lucky, I guess, or maybe the Big Island just attracts the sort of people we want to know. Part of our continuing adventure will be finding out more about that.

Soursop

Our neighbor Jimmy has been described as an 85 year old hooligan. I can’t comment as to his hooliganism, but I do know that he’s appointed himself the local fruit distributor. He has trees of his own, and friends with trees, and checks on the trees belonging to people who aren’t here all year. A couple of times a week, he pulls into our driveway in in his creaky old Toyota, his creaky old dog Peanut perched on the seat beside him. He climbs out of the truck on his creaky old hips and hands us a paper bag containing that day’s loot. Sometimes it’s a cutting of green bananas. Or maybe sweet Meyer lemons. It could be papayas, a deep orange variety that giggles its way down your throat. Or a pineapple that fills the kitchen with its perfume. He sometimes brings the creamiest, smoothest avocados I’ve ever tasted.

And one day he brought a soursop.

They’re odd, lumpy looking things, discolored and prickly, which rather appeals to my own odd, lumpy, discolored and prickly self. Just as you mustn’t judge me by my foul mood, you mustn’t judge a soursop by its cover. The magic is on the inside. But getting to it involves peeling off the skin, removing the toughest of the fiber and squeezing out the slippery seeds. The first time I did this, I used a fine mesh sieve and a suribachi pestle and was ready for a massage and a long nap when I was finally done.

The second time around, though, I discovered that my friend Leah, who has excellent taste in kitchen ware, had a food mill she was willing to lend me. This is also brings back childhood memories of old ladies processing fruit for applesauce and I think my hippie aunt used to use one to clean the seeds out of her her pot so I am in good company. I did have to drop by the University of the Internet and take Cuisinart 101 to figure out how the spring load mechanism worked, but I learn fast and was quickly on my way.

In two shakes of a gekko tail, I had a bowl full of creamy pulp, both tangy and sweet.

Now, what would I do with it? Most of the recipes I found were Jamaican in origin and involved sweetened condensed milk. While this was interesting from a cultural perspective, it was not what I wanted to do with my soursop.

And so we hop onto the limited express bound for Smoothieland. I’ve been making these for years, long before the word Smoothie became part of the popular lexicon. I always called it Super Juice and it was really just a sensible way to use up borderline bananas. Since moving to the tropics, though, my Super Juice has moved into the big leagues. The current batch in the fridge is a blissful blend of papaya, pineapple, mushy nectarine, coconut milk and a touch of turmeric for color.

I used to be an Olympic sleeper, perfect 10’s across the board, neither night owl nor early riser. I just prefer to be in bed. But over the course of the past year, I have morphed. I go to bed early because I am sleepy and I get up early because I want to. I never before lived in a place where the sounds of morning could entice me out of bed, where the list of things I need to get done seems less daunting because I want to open my eyes and see what the day has in store. Tomorrow morning, the sun will rise, the birds will sing and, among other things, I have soursop to look forward to. I can think of worse ways to start the day.

365 Days

Today, August 4, 2019, marks the one year anniversary of our move to the Big Island of Hawaii. I look back on the past year with wonder and awe: the things we’ve seen, the people we’ve met, the new sights and sounds and tastes and genuine sense of aloha all come together to assure me, again and again, that we made the right choice.

Man Against Palm Frond

Just the other day, we were walking through a parking lot and a rogue palm frond launched itself toward Rochi’s head. It missed, fortunately, and before you could say Kamehameha, a man had jumped out of his car and two other people came running from shops in the strip mall, all intent on capturing the offending frond and making sure Rochi hadn’t been decapitated. I was relieved, of course, and also deeply moved.

The Chicken Coop at Tim and Dottie’s

Later that same afternoon, we stopped by a friend’s place because we’re chicken-sitting while they’re back on the mainland. One chicken was roosting when I entered the coop and she gave me a fierce scolding fortified with a flurry of flapping wings and angry clucking. I could only smile and make my apologies. Two of the eggs I collected from the nests were still warm. I felt their warmth radiate from my palm directly to my heart. There’s an experience I never had in Japan, or anyplace else for that matter.

There have been so many new experiences that it’s hard to list them all and impossible to rank them in order of wonderment.
– I bought a car, learned to drive it and got a Hawaii driver’s license, in that order.

Lil Six


– We both took on, and conquered, the taiko drum…until it conquered us. But we were not too proud to admit defeat and took some valuable friendships with us when we left.
– I worked on costumes for the Kamehameha School’s production of Hairspray and then the U of Hawaii production of Rent, making more friends along the way and being grateful that my life experience came together in a way that made those experiences possible.
– I started to establish a credit rating even though I’m not sure I need one and took on the American medical establishment, which I wish I didn’t need, but not every day is rainbows and unicorns.
– I took a class in basic maintenance at the community college and learned a lot, earning along the way a renewed sense of empowerment, a very nice wooden tool box and more lovely friends.

Melissa the Welder and Teacher Extraordinaire

We’ve been to mountains and beaches and farmer’s markets and craft fairs. Food adventures are myriad, from the 85 year old Dutch Chinese man who brings us avocados and soursops to the barefoot hippies who harvest organic honey destined to sweeten my tea to Sunday breakfast and Friday night fish fry at the VFW to tomatoes and peppers and beans and pineapples and lemons and lemongrass all growing in our garden before my eyes as my fingers type these words. Just thinking about this bounty makes me smile, maybe even gloat a little.

It’s been a momentous year, challenging and exuberant and hard and thrilling in turn but all bringing out the best in us and helping us see the best in others.

I am practically drowning in gratitude.

Homemade Frozen Treats chez Leah and Mick

Going Green

After a mere seventeen months and a rather impressive stack of paperwork, Rochi finally got his green card. We were disappointed to find that it isn’t actually green, but let’s not quibble. The little card represents freedom for both of us. I no longer have to nag him to behave himself and he can get into as much trouble as he likes; I have the option to bail him out or let him stew. Either way he probably won’t get deported.

We had to go to Honolulu for his final interview, something neither of us wanted to do. It seems to me that the process should be more perfunctory for people who have been married as long as we have, but America is the Land of One Size Fits All Legislation (unless you’re very wealthy) so we both adopted a “Sir, yes, sir!” attitude toward the whole thing.

Two things I learned:

Judging by the limited bits of news I see, the official policy of the Tangerine-tinted Buffoon and His Propaganda Machine is that all foreigners including toddlers are highly suspect and America hates anyone who wasn’t born here unless she has very large breasts. But as it turns out, the official stance and the reality are different. The officer who did the interview was perfectly civil. Rochi didn’t have to sing God Bless America and I didn’t have to swear to what brand of toothpaste we use. The officer even showed some interest in us personally, which leads to the second thing I learned.

Japan has taken on some sort of mythical, mystical status here. Again and again, baffled faces have asked why we left Japan to move to Puna. My equally baffled answer has been that Tokyo is noisy and crowded and smelly; Puna is paradise. The immigration officer, of Okinawan descent by the way, went one step further, asking why we chose Puna instead of the razzle-dazzle of Honolulu. We both snorted, respectfully, saying, “Why not just stay in Tokyo? Last night, we went to sleep listening to Honolulu traffic. In Puna, we sleep to a chorus of coqui frogs. We were at the center of everything for years and years and both avoided the razzle-dazzle. Puna is exactly where we want to be.” I don’t think we convinced her, but if she drew the conclusion that we’re both a bit batty, she’s probably right.

I have developed a theory about the Hawaiian attitude toward Japan. In the late 19th century, waves of Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii to work the sugar cane fields. They thought they would make good money they could send back to their dirt poor families, eventually returning home themselves. The reality was that the guys were put to back-breaking labor for which they were paid pennies. But mostly they stayed, married and propagated, harboring memories of Japan as a sacred homeland where all men are equal and mice never raid the rice bin. Japan hovers just past the horizon, the gleaming ideal of all that is just and good. The bad things that happen here never happen in Japan. This is classic Japanese willful naivete, a cultural characteristic that hasn’t changed much to this day.

Vestiges of Japanese culture remain, mostly in food. By far the best supermarket in Hilo is KTA, started by a Japanese couple in 1916. It’s the best because it has a wide variety of food, American junk, of course, but also Asian and European and Hawaiian and almost any Japanese thing you could want, although it sometimes has a Hawaiian twist. They have kamaboko (steamed fish paste), for example, but it comes in a surreal shade of pink. (There are also sureally-colored hot dogs. Both make me a bit nervous.) There’s a nice selection of expensive European-style gourmet cheeses and meats in the deli section but in the dairy section, they have processed cheese and cheddar–only cheddar. This is just like KTA’s Tokyo counterparts, where most stores have processed cheese and Gouda–only Gouda. There’s also a Safeway in Hilo but it only offers bland Americana.

(I have discovered that Safeway has $5 Fridays. I was warned to stay away because of the terrible crowds. But being ornery, I had to see for myself, and when I did, I nearly wet myself with giggles. If that’s crowded, I’ll eat my flip-flops. Anyone who thinks $5 Fridays at Safeway are crowded has never been to a Tokyo supermarket in the final days leading up to the New Year holidays, when normally polite and gentle Japanese people turn into shopping maniacs foaming at the mouth as they fight over the last package of sweet beans or fossilized fish eggs. But I digress.)

I met a nice lady who works at Bank of Hawaii. I would guess she’s in her mid 60’s. She has a Japanese name but told me she’d never been to Japan and was very excited about her upcoming first visit. I returned to the bank a few months later and asked how the trip had gone. She sighed, disappointment written all over her face. “There was a lot of walking,” she said. I felt really sorry for her. Imagine the expectations she’d built up in her head, possibly based on stories heard at her grandmother’s knee, compared to the reality of modern Japan. A friend once said to me, “If you don’t have any expectations, you can’t be disappointed.” Wise words.

The long and short of all this rambling is that Rochi is finally legal. Ironically, this means he can visit Japan if he wants to, but he doesn’t want to and neither do I. Nor do we want to go back to Honolulu. Nor do we want to go anywhere, really. It’s just so darned nice here.

Maintenance Ms.

I had an appointment with my new PCP–that’s Primary Care Provider–who is a Nurse Practitioner. She’s very nice but I can’t figure out what to call her. She’s not Dr. Fields. Nurse Fields sounds condescending. I’d feel like I was back in high school if I called her Ms. Fields. The receptionist said I should call her by her first name, but I can’t do that, not after so many years of living in Japan. I really want to call her Sensei, which is a grand title: respectful, applies to anyone in a position of knowledge and you don’t have to remember an actual name. But If I call her Sensei, people will either think I’m showing off or that I’ve been watching too many Karate Kid movies. So I guess I will stick with mumbling.

At any rate, she gave me dire warnings about my A1c level. I am tempted to blame this on Hawaii and the enticing variety of colorful, sugar-laced delectables available here. To be honest, I have consumed more sugar in the past six months than I did in the previous three decades. Sweets were easier to avoid in Japan; they look pretty but don’t taste very good.

Alas, I have no one to blame but myself for the pickle I’m in, so I decided it was time to learn about food, to figure out the difference between fad diet miracle supplements and real food. I looked around locally, but this is Puna and all I found were Keto Paleo Earth Worship Vegetarians, which is all well and good but I refuse to be the sort of person who has to hide her Mac and Cheese mixes in the back of the closet.

Plan B: Check the Hilo Community College website, but all they offered was a medical nutrition course for nursing students. Plan C: Consult Mr. Google. What I found was what I already knew. Eat real food, food that comes from the earth, not from a can or a plastic package. Stick with the outside aisles of the supermarket. Don’t fall prey to shiny packages; if a color doesn’t exist in nature, it’s probably best not to eat it.

Along that journey of discovery, I came across an unexpected opportunity.

Well, fancy that.

I have always been a big fan of new experiences and the past few years have excelled in that department. Among many others, I bought a house. I’ve never owned a house before; I’ve never owned much of anything. Until now, when the toilet acted up, I called the landlord. Now I own the toilet, and a whole bunch of other stuff, and I should probably know a little about how these things work. So I pulled up my big girl underpants and registered.

At $75 for six weeks of instruction, 8 hours a week, the class is certainly a bargain. We have two evening lectures along with four hours in the shop on Saturdays. Our teacher is terrific. She has a lively wit and an interest in pretty much everything. She’s one of the only female construction workers in Hawaii, a licensed welder currently working in drywall. We will spend a few weeks on basic carpentry and then move on to plumbing and wiring.

The other students are there for the same reason as me: we all want to have more control over our living spaces, and thereby, more control over ourselves. Yesterday, in our first shop class, we started making a sawhorse. I used a circular saw for the first time, and it was way more of a thrill than I expected. Then I learned how to pound in industrial grade nails. I’m proud to say I only whacked my knuckle once.

My First Cut

I now own leather work gloves, safety glasses, and a pair of ever-so-cute canvas work shoes. I’m loving the class, soaking up new vocabulary and touching things I’ve never touched before. At Home Depot, unlike at the supermarket, my eyes would slide along the rows of shiny tools appreciating their aesthetic beauty but having no further interest. It’s a whole different kettle of nuts and bolts when you’re running a tool yourself. This is power, in every sense.

And you can call me Maintenance Ms.

Jammin’

Facebook reminds me that two years ago today, we went mulberry picking along the Tsurumi River under the brave leadership of the inestimable Rodger Sono.

Well, to be honest, Rochi went mulberry picking. I sat under a tree and rested, but when we got home, I made jam, some of the best jam I have ever tasted.

(Rodger later asked me if I’d taken the time to remove the stems. “Nah. Too much trouble. I just bunged the whole mess into the blender and it came out great.” Trade secret, that.)

Looking back through old Facebook entries trying to find that picture brought back a lot of memories, some nice and some not so nice. It’s funny how we can forget the things we don’t want to remember and focus on the good. At least, I hope that’s where 2017 left me. My PT in Tokyo, Dr. Joey, said he’d seen two types of cancer survivors. Some are bitter and angry and just waiting for recurrence. Others are like me: Let it go. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Not everything is small stuff, but even the big stuff is only as big as you let it be, unless it’s a Mack truck about to run you over. That’s pretty big. But don’t waste your time worrying about Mack trucks either.

I watched an old episode of Cheers last night. A guy asks Coach the classic question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a noise? And Coach asks: If nobody is there to hear it, how do you know it fell?

Precisely. Why worry about something that doesn’t matter?

Yesterday I made jam again, my first since that day in 2017. This time it’s cranberry rhubarb, made with cranberries from a friend who had to empty out her freezer and fresh rhubarb from KTA supermarket, a rare treat I only found once in all my years in Tokyo. I jazzed it up with ginger and lemon zest and cardamom and cloves because it deserved no less.

I didn’t deserve to get cancer any more than I deserved to survive it, but I look at those two photos of jars of jam, different jars, different contents, different kitchen windows; so very different and yet so very much alike. And I look at me and the two years that passed between those two batches of jam and I wonder. Am I the same? Did the pain and strain and stress and damage make me a better person, a stronger person?

I really hope so.