I looked through the window of the ramshackle onigiri restaurant, gazing upon endless rice fields tended by old, tanned Japanese farmers in dirty clothing, the sweat evaporating off of their skin as quickly as it appeared. The lack of clouds offered no relief from the sun’s rays, and the brilliant light tinged the entire scene with yellow.
“This is exactly where I need to be right now,” I thought.
It had taken months of preparation to get me to that little restaurant. It started with an application for the JET Program, then endless waiting, an interview, more waiting, a placement, more waiting. After a plane ride to Tokyo, a connecting flight to Sapporo, Hokkaido, and a two-hour drive, I found myself deep in the Japanese countryside, just outside a tiny town called Yuni at a restaurant called Takigi Kamadotaki Onigiri Osekko. My only companions, two female teachers from my new workplace, were catching up in rapid-fire Japanese while I strained to catch a word or two of their conversation.
Nakayama-sensei, a smartly dressed mother of three who instantly made me feel tall at 5’4”, turned to me and asked in near perfect English, “Have you heard of onigiri? They are rice balls wrapped in seaweed, with many fillings. Would you like to try it?”
I was embarrassed that I didn’t eat meat; I knew it would label me as the difficult foreigner who refused to honor local customs. “Yes, I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never tried them before…” I started, hesitantly. “Are there any that have no meat?”
“Of course!” Nakayama-sensei laughed. “Would you like to try ume?”
Her coworker, a history teacher with a kind smile and a very small command of English, chimed in. “If you do, you are adventurous!”
I felt a strong need to prove that I was still open to new things, so I agreed, not knowing exactly what ume was. Nakayama-sensei ordered for us, and I waited in eager anticipation until the food was finally delivered, the two small rice balls in the center of a rectangular plate a perfect symbol of Japanese simplicity.
I picked up the onigiri with my hands, the women watching me expectantly as I took my first bite. They had warned me that it would be sour, but my tongue retracted towards my throat as the first taste of the tart pickled plum registered with my brain. I must have made a face, because the women burst out laughing, instantly breaking the barrier of formality that had existed between us until then.
“It’s so sour!” I exclaimed.
“Welcome to Japan,” Nakayama-sensei replied.