Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In Which We Eat Eel Then Save a Child...

Yesterday was a national holiday here in Japan, so I didn't have to work. And I'm glad because it was warm, windy and sunny. Instead of being cooped up in my classroom all day, I went with this girl I'm seeing lately to an unagi restaurant near Hamamatsu Station.

Unagi is Japanese for eel... and eel is good eatin'. It's the local specialty here around Hamanako (that's Lake Hamana to you and me, Russ!) and in its classic form, is grilled in a tangy barbecue-like sauce and served over rice in a small rectangular box. It tastes a little like smoked mullet but the meat is much tenderer and isn't as fishy. The grilled-on sauce is a little sticky, though.

It's pricey. Our lunch sets... which consisted of unagi on rice, a clear soup with a single eel liver floating near the bottom and some pickled vegetables cost us about 24 bucks each! The staff were friendly and of course, talked to my date exclusively although they were all smiles when I finished my meal and declared it to be "oishii!"

"She is happy now," my date told me. "They were worried. Sometimes foreigners think Japanese food is strange."

Afterwards, we walked around downtown. Our original plan was to drive out to the Nakatajima Dunes, but we decided it would probably be a little too chilly out there exposed to the sea wind. The direct sunlight was nice, but in the buildings' shadows, there was a noticeable drop in temperature.

So we rode the bus back up to where she parked her car and went bowling. The bowling center was a madhouse. Every mom in town seemed to be there trying to burn off her children's excess energy through healthy sports competition. And some poor mom were stuck with gaggles of little genki lunatics, tear-assing around the bowling ball racks with a reckless disregard for sharp, metal corners and people lugging around heavy bowling balls.

It seems that the default mode for groups of 3 or more children here is to play kamikaze-style games of tag until someone gets badly injured. Although one chubby kid was getting the ol' sandwich treatment from a couple of his pals over on one of the benches.

All the noise and crazed energy really got to my date, and she bowled the absolute worst games of bowling I've ever seen her roll. She even failed to break 100 once. And this is a girl who routinely tops 160 and spikes as high as 210 on occasion.

Meanwhile, I ran up the scale from 110 to 134 to my new all-time high of 189.

That was a beauty of a game. During the middle frames I rolled nothing but spares and strikes, including my second-ever turkey. I finished the bonus frames with a spare and a strike. It felt good. It felt like real bowling.

Exhausted, she drove us out to the mall at Shitoro... the massive Shitoro Aeon/Jusco shopping complex. En route, she kept us on a steady audio diet of dance pop and r&b, some of which I admit was pretty tasty.

After hanging out at Starbucks for an hour or two, we went magazine shopping. Then...

As we were aimlessly walking about on the ground floor this round-faced little tyke came running by in a panic, his face read and streaked with shiny tears. He ran smack into two very kind women who knealt outside a clothing store and tried to calm him. Lost kid, on the run.

"We should do something. Let's go back and keep an eye on him at least," I suggested, and my date agreed. A few months ago, I was the nearest Jusco and saw a kid in tears, sprawled on the floor because her mother had vanished. Not a shopper stopped to help her, and as a non-Japanese speaking foreigner there was nothing I could do. It haunted me all that night... so I wasn't about to let another opportunity to help go by.

Plus, my date works at a pediatric clinic where she routinely deals with frightened toddlers. As I hoped, she involved herself and soon had the boy's panic dialed down to at least a manageable level. And she did the most sensible thing I've seen in a long time- the first question she asked him was his name.

He wasn't able to tell her, but he did try to say something intelligible. She kept cooing to him in Japanese, then succeeded in picking him up, when the other two women, as nice and gentle as they were, failed. All of us as a group took him into the clothing store, where the staff called information.

Several times, the boy tried to escape, running off crying, "Mama! Mama!" but my date safely brought him back each time, telling him we were going to find his mama and everything would be fine.

The women quickly developed a plan that entailed toting the poor kid upstairs to the information kiosk. We all trooped down to the escalator and about the time the shopgirl was halfway up with the boy in her arms, two frightened women came running towards us, rolling a baby carriage, another small child jogging along beside them. Looking in all directions, their eyes always pointed approximately toddler-level towards the floor, their faces pale. One of the women in our group saw them and ran towards them, made contact and pointed out the child on his was to the second floor.

Mission accomplished. But I couldn't be satisfied until I actually saw the boy safely in his mother's arms again. I had to have closure. The mother child reunion was only a motion away, but I had to view it. I had to.

"Let's wait and see," I said, following the woman with the carriage. Something about my own OCD, I think. If I didn't see it, then even if I accepted it intellectually, I couldn't believe in it emotionally. In my secret heart, that kid would be forever lost.

And finally, there was mom, holding the rescued child, his face still red and puffy from crying. I felt relieved, and so did they. I know they were also embarrassed for having lost the boy in the first place.

"Arigato gozaimashita," they told my date in quavering voices and she waved and cheerfully told them no problem in Japanese. Even the boy waved as we all said, "Bai bai!" in the sing-song way of Japanese-English farewells.

After it ended, I was able to relax and feel good about what we accomplished. The sickness I felt when we first saw the kid was fading, and a much warmer feeling was replacing it. I heaped praise on my date for her quick thinking and calm command of the situation. I was proud of her... and everyone involved.

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