Sunday, July 26, 2009

Leftovers From Life in Japan

In the kitchen of Yoshida House, circa 1990. This clown still owes Sam and me money.

Yesterday was full of errands that derailed my usual sensible eating schedule, and my lunch was late, substantial, and topped off with an ice cream sandwich (I'm a little addicted to those at the moment). So around nine last night, I found myself in need of a snack that would be substantial enough to serve as dinner without being heavy or unhealthy. In a scene straight from my teenage years, I opened the fridge, stood there with one hand on the door handle and the other on my hip, and gazed at the shelves, waiting for a sign.

It didn't take long for it to dawn on me that we have both yogurt and bread, and I happily grabbed them and found a suitable bowl. As I tore the bread up into lima-bean-sized bits and glopped yogurt on top, my mind drifted back to where I learned this combination: Tokyo. In a gaijin house in a suburb called Oizumi Gakuen, to be precise.

My gaijin house closet. That's a tiny fridge at the bottom left -- an important accessory if you want to count on finding your food where you left it.

"Gaijin" means "foreigner"; a gaijin house is a rooming house for non-Japanese, a place where nobody looks askance at tall, loud, rude people, beacuse everyone is tall, loud and rude, and taking delight in educating each other about the ins and outs of surviving in a foreign land. Ours had perhaps six 8' x 10' rooms per floor, each with a sink, and one toilet per floor. The telephone, shower and kitchen were communal. It was not glamorous, but it was fun, friendly, and most importantly, cheap. When my brother and I first arrived, there was only one room available, so we shared for a while. He still complains about the noise I made when I flossed my teeth.

Sam (not his real name) and I found that room thanks to a connection we'd made during a flight from Ulan Bator to Beijing. Our black market Trans-Siberian ticket had ended up stranding us in the capital of Mongolia, and we consequently found ourselves on the weekly flight to Beijing. It was an open seating situation, and the man next to us, who had just been filming highland games in the countryside, happened to have lived at Yoshida House, or knew the manager, I forget which. When he heard we were going to Tokyo, he scrawled a name and phone number on a scrap of paper.

So back to the yogurt and bread. I learned this combination from an Israeli man a few years older than me, fresh out of military service and engaged in the time-honored tradition of selling junky Thai trinkets on the street. I don't know if the dish is typically Israeli, or just something this one guy did, but I saw him eating it all the time in the communal kitchen, tried it myself once, and liked it enough that I still eat it.

Spot the dog in the garden at Yoshida House, circa 1990.

Just now, on a whim, I searched for Yoshida House. Not only is it still up and running, but it has a lovely website. It looks a lot cleaner than I remember it, and the people look classier, too. I'm glad it's still there; maybe I'll go back for a visit someday.


  1. Ah! The things a mother learns when she reads her offsprings blogs---yogurt with bread, torn in lima bean sized pieces, no less. If you do happen to return to Yoshida House via Ulan Bator, perhaps it might be a good idea to carry a bit of pocket money inorder to avoid a repeat midnight phone call to Mango Mama from the American Embassy---complete with tears!

  2. Yeah, I'm no hurry to repeat that scene (which will be described on this blog at a later date). And these days, I travel with an emergency credit card.


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