The Fine Art of Slurping

Some tasty noodles with fresh veggies and a fish cake. Yum!

Some tasty noodles with fresh veggies and a fish cake. Yum!

             I was aware before coming to Japan that noodles were a staple food source here, but my previous conception of what noodles are has been completely dispensed of.  Noodles are not served as pasta, nor are they some plain and boring affair simply served beneath the main dish or on the side to provide carbs; noodles here are served in a variety of broths with a mix of veggies and sometimes meats.  It is best likened to chicken noodle soup, but with a much more intriguing mix of flavors and textures provided by all the seasonings, somewhat chewy seaweeds or greens, crunchy stalk vegetables, and of course the soft noodles themselves.  These noodle soups do have one thing in common with all other noodles dishes though; you can’t fit their expansive lengths in your mouth, so you are left with slimy tentacles plastered to your chin. Fortunately, in Japan, the age old dilemma of whether to awkwardly chew off the ends of the pasta or suck them up and sound like a dying vacuum cleaner has been decided for me!  In fact, enthusiastic animal noises while eating your noodles are considered a sign of appreciation and it is rude not to make them!

            Despite manners no longer inconveniencing my noodle consumption, this noisy technique is not without its pitfalls.  Over-aggressive slurping can turn your eating companions into a confectionary splatter painting, while too much caution can result in an wholly underwhelming performance.  I have thus decided to describe a few different strategies for producing appropriate slurping noises without creating the messy catastrophes that likely prompted the Western ban on such.

We all sit down to some noodles at a temple. Not some expert use of chopsticks in preparation for slurpage.

We all sit down to some noodles at a temple. Note some expert use of chopsticks in preparation for slurpage.

            First, simply drinking the simple act of drinking broth straight from the bowl is an easy way to produce pleasing slurping noises with minimal risk.  I think my proficiency with this technique arises from years of not so subtly downing all of the milk in my cereal bowls before anybody could stop me. With just a little more finesse, I can apply this to my broth drinking and effectively show my gracious host or chef that they have the best noodles this side of the Pacific (or anywhere really).  Of course, there are some pitfalls to such slurping that one must be aware of.  Multiple times now I have taken on a bit too much broth and incidentally reversed the roles of my trachea and esophagus. Don’t do this, it hurts.

            If the broth is too hot to risk pouring the whole bowl down my throat, or I am just not feeling very adventurous, it is not out of the question to use a spoon (the spoons here are much deeper and hold more liquid).  While not as dramatic, this safer approach still allows for a short slurp that gets the point across.  You really can’t go wrong with spooning.

A nice bowl of Curry Noodles.

A nice bowl of Curry Noodles.

            Of course, slurping the noodles themselves is the main event.  Mastering the art is actually fairly tricky.  Simply creating a vacuum and sucking up the noodles creates a crazy daisy situation complete with wildly thrashing noodles and showers of hot, salty broth.  On the other hand, attempting to collect the noodles into your mouth using your tongue is both slow and sadly insufficient in the slurping sound category, even with some lip-smacking accentuations.  Rather, I have found that a practiced slurper alternates between these methods to achieve the full effect whilst still maintaining some dignity.  Having figured all of this out, I believe that my noodle consumption has become an enjoyable event for everybody involved, which is good because I have eaten a lot of delicious noodles and plan to eat a lot more.

Aightowa-An Inspiration in Living Sustainably

Aightowa

Welcome to Aightowa

            Our first full day in Kyoto we took a trip to visit Professor Armstrong’s host parents from her time as a student in the city.  The visit to Aightowa (the name of their property) turned out to be my favorite event of our tour of Japan.  Morisan Sensei has spent over fifty years creating a sustainable lifestyle that I found truly inspiring, and has further developed theories to apply his philosophies to communities and businesses.  His wife is a master doll artist and not only sells some of the finest dolls in Japan, but runs classes and doll making groups.  Between the incredible stories this couple had to share, the beautiful property they lived on, and the stunning landscape surrounding us, I would venture so far as to say this day changed my life.

I love being in the mountains. A lot.

I love being in the mountains. A lot.

            I was first struck by the beauty of where we were on the walk from the train station to Aightowa.  Getting off the train was the first time I felt like we were actually in the mountains, and immediately I felt at home. Ahead, the earth sprawled majestically skyward, while behind us the valley revealed terraces of rooftops extending toward more mountains in the hazy distance.  The neighborhood we were passing through was a bit more suburban then the densely packed concrete and neon jungles we had previously spent much our time in, and I found myself highly appreciative of the more traditional architecture and more frequent appearances of nature. Along the way, we ventured through a small bamboo forest, and I found myself completely shocked at how tall the stalks grew!

I love being in forests. A lot.  I now know that bamboo forests are no exception

I love being in forests. A lot. I now know that bamboo forests are no exception.

            When we arrived at Aightowa I instantly felt like this was somewhere I belonged.  The seamless integration of nature with the living space was exactly what I had envisioned when I thought about sustainability in Japan and was inspired to apply for this trip.  As Morisan Sensei described to us his vision and how his property reflected that vision, I was constantly reminded of the life my Mom created for my sisters and I at home and became increasingly convinced that this was the lifestyle I wanted to return to.  The general idea is that one produces as much as possible to meet his or her own needs.  Morisan Sensei was the first Japanese citizen to purchase solar panels for his own personal use nineteen years ago (an act that first brought him into the spotlight as a pioneer of sustainability).  A moderately sized, self-tended garden provides a significant amount of the food consumed at Aightowa, some of the plants are used to shelter the car port, and other deciduous trees are used to provide shade in the summer and sunlight in the winter.  Dead or trimmed logs are used in the fungal garden or as seats, multiple compost piles allow for disposal of all wastes effectively.  Everything has a purpose.  The woodstove provides heat for the house as well as cooking, although it does not live up to Mother’s six stove top woodstove.  I wish I could list all the incredible innovations Morisan Sensei had come up with to create and reuse as many of his own resources as possible, but it would take hours (our own tour took nearly two hours, and that was with visual aids)!

A portion of the vegetables grown at Aightowa.

A portion of the vegetables grown at Aightowa.

            What I can do is relay some of the philosophy Morisan Sensei shared with us as we gathered in the house.  The key to sustainable living, he claimed, is combining older modes of living as generalists and in strong communities with modern technology.  I have always envisioned Japan as the epicenter of such blending of ancient tradition with modernization, hence my interest in traveling there, so I was taken aback to learn that Morisan Sensei is unique among the Japanese for having such views.  To demonstrate how his style of sustainable living makes sense, Morisan Sensei divided human history into three ages: Primitive, Agricultural, and Industrial.  He had a lot to say about each of these ages, but the takeaway point was that in the industrial age we had developed the technology for mass production, but no longer held regard for the finite resources provided to us by the earth that we had in earlier ages.  He posited that if we re-attained an appreciation for and cognizance of these limited resources, we could combine that with modern technology to enter a fourth age, which he dubbed the Age of Awareness.

The Shinto religion worships the myriad Gods that exist throughout the natural world

The Shinto religion worships the myriad Gods that exist throughout the natural world

            The way Morisan Sensei proposed this society shift should take place is what really changed my outlook on life.  Simply put, he suggested that if we began to draw our happiness from what we create, rather than what we consume, we can reach the age of awareness.  This seemingly simple idea seemed to sum up a philosophy I have been trying to form for years, but was unable to put into words; our standard of living has far exceeded what we need to be comfortable and happy, but we remain dissatisfied because of our need to consume more.  Of course, such a shift in perception in impeded by layers of media portrayals and corporate motivations plastered on so thick it is hard to see the other side, but I believe it can be done.  I can look up to my mom, and the happiness she draws from her small farm, even when it requires five hours of her attention after a nine hour workday.  I can take ideas and inspiration from Morisan Sensei and his wife, who use profits from selling dolls (some of which go for upward of $10,000!) to become more sustainable, because it is artistry and self-reliance that make them happy. I can make changes to my own life and share it with others and start making these societal changes.

Some Beuatiful dolls wave hello or farewell as you enter or leave Aightowa

Some Beuatiful dolls wave hello or farewell as you enter or leave Aightowa

            Ok, so maybe I am being a bit idyllic, but these ideas really gel with my life philosophies, and have helped me to solidify some of my beliefs, and I really do intend to start living by some of them.  I have already reached out to my friends Tara and Craig about their work with eating healthier and more sustainably (you can go read their awesome blog The College Greens).  I probably won’t go vegan as they have, but I can certainly start finding foods grown locally and by companies not driven by profit to the cost of the future (Craig and Tara, hold me to this).  Anyway, I wish I could convey everything I learned in my five or so hours at Aightowa, but I hope I was able to convey how cool this lifestyle is and how it has influenced me in this (somewhat) short space!

Looking down the mountain from Aightowa provides a host of stunning views!

Looking down the mountain from Aightowa provides a host of stunning views!