with Niki's Kitchen at Yokosuka」
It was Monday morning this past summer, I believe, a very hot and humid day at Yokosuka Naval Base. I had arrived earlier than I thought I would, so I was waiting outside the gate with more than an hour to kill before the cooking teacher, Scholastica Ford, was to arrive. I noticed several women waiting nearby for our instructor to come to pick us up and to register us for entry the students of her class, one of several classes held as part of "Niki's Kitchen."
I wondered up and down the road fronting the base looking for a convenience store, finding one after what seemed like an unusually lengthy walk, convenience stores being fairly ubiquitous in Japan. It was very hot that day so I finished the drink before I returned to continue my wait at the gate. As I was waiting a rain storm developed overhead and a drenching shower forced those of us waiting outside the gate under the crosswalk that passes over the entrance road. I began to review my purpose for being there.
I was there to take a cooking class, really just for fun. I thought it would be interesting to learn more (this was to be my second class with the same cooking instructor) about African cooking. It was rather odd, I thought, that I was an American living in Japan but would be visiting a little "slice of America" on a military base in order to learn about authentic African cooking. The instructor, Mrs. Ford, is originally from Africa, and she is a very knowledgeable teacher.
Our instructor met us at the gate at the appointed time. We next had to register as visitors, a process that takes a few moments, to be issued passes for the day. She led us to her minivan and, the class being small in number, we all climbed in and we driven to her residence on base. It was a pleasure for me to be in a place where I could once again here English being spoken by passers-by as we walked into her apartment building. It's amazing how different the world seems just inside those gates. Inside one almost experiences an illusion of no longer being in Japan, provided one does not examine the illusion too closely. (There are many Japanese folks working on base and driving cabs about the streets.) The illusion is further enhanced we enter her apartment.
Her apartment is large, and the dining area, the living room, and kitchen all are, as well. I noticed that all the students, as well as our instructor, removed their shoes at the door; but one becomes accustomed to doing that here. It's a law, of sorts, regarding residences, and it was one reminder that I was not inside a kind of "bubble" of America within Japan. However, outside of that, there was very little else inside the apartment to remind one that one was indeed in Japan. The television had American programs running on it, not with subtitles or dubbing, but just as they would be broadcast in America. The brand names I saw on most products, including those used in cooking, were what one might find in an American home.
The design of the living room/dining room was very Western, especially in that there was a clear separation of the two. Whereas there often is in Japanese homes, there often isn't in Japanese apartments. In most Japanese apartments I've visited, even more modern ones, the dining room more or less runs into or is a section of the living room. In most of the Japanese apartments I've been in, I noticed that the living and dining room was one and the same; one simply decided to place the table in one section thereof. From the start, right after removing my shoes Japanese-style at the door, I began to feel like I was in an old, familiar environment.
The kitchen was absolutely Western. It was wide, it had an OVEN (a "real" oven, we might say), not a tiny, little, combination microwave/convection oven. How nice it was just to see that, even though it wasn't used in the cooking either in this class or in the previous I had taken with this same instructor. Well, come to think of it, why would one teach a class involving cooking in a "conventional," huge, Western-style oven to Japanese women (and me) when the fact is that they probably wouldn't be able to use one at home? It made since that the oven remained idle during the class and that the stove top (and a microwave, rarely) was used. And, above all else, there was counter space -- lots and lots of counter space. There was counter space to spare and to waste, as one deemed fit. Why, there was room to place an ELECTRIC (yes, they really exist) can-opener and space, not just to place during use but to leave permanently, for an electric toaster. The sink was a divided sink. Amazing! The sink had two divided portions, one for washing one for rinsing. It's not so easy to find such a sink in Japan. Most sinks here are just one large basin. And then there was the electric garbage disposal. One never needed to clean out a net placed within the mouth of the sink to catch large objects that fall within the sink. Just flip a switch and an annoyingly noisy grinding sound is heard and whatever large food objects (hopefully not your silverware or ring) becomes ground into an easily "digestible" sludge that washes down the sink. I never cared much for those garbage disposal units, but there definitely were a reminder of Western culture. And learning something of a foreign culture was what the class was really about anyway, wasn't it? The Japanese students did seem interested in that garbage disposal. I thought they at least had an opportunity to learn something even in as small a thing as that.
One other thing that caught my eye immediately was the refrigerator. Yes, it was huge in comparison to the typical refrigerator in Japanese homes. Even the space allotment in the wall where one is expected to place a fridge told you that it would be. That was not what caught my eye; it was what covered the refrigerator. The refrigerator was almost covered from top to bottom with little photos of the family and especially of their daughter. There were various kinds of decorations (not just "cute," store-bought magnetic items) that were hand-made or that were made by their daughter in school. I laughed within myself when I saw those little decorations running from top to bottom of the large refrigerator. Yes, that looked exactly like mine did at home in America and exactly like the ones I saw in most American homes. I enjoyed seeing that refrigerator looking as it did, but perhaps the subtle differences between what is stuck to a fridge in a Japanese home and these were unnoticed by the Japanese students in the class.
Regarding the class instruction itself, Mrs. Ford is very good and very polite in her teaching manner. She began by laying out the ingredients and explaining what each would be used for and how. She carefully showed in a step-by-step process how to prepare the ingredients and then how to prepare each of the dishes. One humorous point I might add is that I noticed that she was very good at answering all my questions. She was polite, and she enjoyed talking and chatting about the cooking and about her experiences as she went along. The class was taught in English, so most of the students knew English very well and had no perceived difficulty in understanding her speech. Well, no expressed difficulty, and that's the other point.
I seemed to be almost the only one ASKING questions. I recalled somewhere in the middle of this second class what my own daughters were experiencing as they have been attending schools here in Japan, learning in Japanese and experiencing the educational process as most Japanese children do. The students here are NOT encouraged EVER to ask questions during classes. They simply don't do that. In America and in many Western nations, students are expected and encouraged to raise their hands during the class and to have questions answered as they come up. That's just not done here in Japan. It's done in "school-after-school" here, which is known as "juku." In juku students ask questions and receive more individual training, but in regular day school, no, they don't. They teachers talk, the students listen. Even though many of the students in the class had lived briefly overseas, they seemed reticent with regard to ask questions. They didn't want to speak up or to speak in what might have seemed to them to be an out-of-turn fashion. I think that Mrs. Ford and Niki's Kitchen might want to consider emphasizing to the students that they are encouraged (where they are in fact encouraged) to speak up and to ask questions more boldly. I felt as if I was asking questions they wanted to ask because after I asked them and when our instructor answered the questions, the others seemed very interested in her answers, almost as if they had wanted to know the same thing. I was happy to see a few of the students speaking up and asking questions as we went along, but I felt as if they were hesitant to do so.
Regarding some of the special ingredients that were not easily available in Japan, Mrs. Ford told us what ingredients would make suitable substitutes for the hard-to-find ones. She also recommended a few special import shops where we might find some of those rare ingredients. I was happy to learn about those places. They are rather hidden about Tokyo in some cases, and it's was good to have some advice as to where to look for such items.
The dishes were prepared quickly in a step-by-step manner with several going at the same time, of course. Students took pictures of the preparation process and of the finished dishes once they were set out on the table. Many notes were taken as well, mostly by me. Papers, instructions, and recipes had been sent to all students prior to their attending the class, but all those papers were written in Japanese. I was just the tiniest bit weak in that area, "weak" as in "functionally illiterate." So, I just scribbled and typed in the non-qwerty, popular "Morse code" fashion into my cell phone, notes regarding what was transpiring. I also took many photos.
The aroma of the dishes filled the room and the dishes as prepared were arranged nicely. The students set the table, and we all sat and enjoyed the dishes. After we had tried all the dishes, the students were encouraged to take home some of the leftovers. Every student (except one, and yes, it was I) brought some plastic containers in order to bring home some leftovers. Mrs. Ford very kindly gave me some anyway and one of her Tupperware containers. That was very nice of her. My favorite was the plantains so I brought back a few of those. From my two experiences with her, I've learned that my favorites among her dishes are the fruit and dessert dishes.
we had finished all, we went downstairs to her van and were driven back to the
gate. The experience overall was a very positive one. I would recommend it to
anyone interested in learning to cook foreign dishes, and I would recommend it
to anyone foreigner living in Japan who wishes to learn to cook something different
and who wishes to see a little reminder of a Western style of life. Both experiences
are enjoyable and make for pleasant memories.
My name is Logan Davenport. I'm an American living Japan.