Year of Grace, Day 55. Futon

I first arrived in Tokyo almost half a century ago, and the feeling that I remember from that first encounter with a foreign land was one of a barely contained inner thrill. I can imagine that an explorer – of new  or unknown lands – would have a similar surge of excitement, with perhaps some prickles of anxiety thrown in, in anticipation of discovering something never seen or experienced before. I liken that sensation to having a slight case of butterflies in the stomach, but it is not an unpleasant feeling. I still get this prickle of excitement, even now, whenever I am in any place that I do not know and have never been — where everything and everywhere is novel and unknown and begs and waits to be known.

This intense curiosity to see what is out there is my earliest and most vivid memory of childhood. Just beginning to heave myself up and stand, I recall  holding myself up at one corner of our dining room table, then covered with some kind of cloth – an oilcloth most likely, called a mantel – and feeling quite aggrieved that I could not see the top of that table from where I was. It was such a strong feeling of frustration at not being tall enough, and not being able to articulate that I wished to see, to know what was up there, so near yet way beyond my reach and my eyes and my hands.

Those first few hours in Tokyo, I remember glancing out of the minivan that came to fetch the lot of us, seven new Mombusho scholars, from the airport – then Haneda — trying to make out from the misted windows what was out there in that dim, densely packed urban landscape. I remember my companions chattering excitedly all around me, but I was engrossed with what might be just outside. There was nothing much for my eyes to pick out as the minivan sped through empty streets, isolated from and elevated above the shadowy crowded structures of urban living below. It was well past midnight – it must’ve been around 2 or 3 in the morning – and all was still and, remarkably for such a huge metropolis, hushed. Our minivan seemed the only one on the road. Our flight had been terribly delayed. My impression was of a super clean, smooth, and complex futuristic road system – elevated expressways crossing each other this way and that at all angles, above and below. Such a world of difference from Manila’s gaping potholes and litter-blown streets. It was chilly too on that early spring morning.

Our first stop was to drop off the postgraduates and one of our sempai (older colleague) at what I would later know as the Komaba Ryugakusei Kaikan – the foreign students’ dorm near one of Tokyo University’s campuses. We reached our own dorm, a brand-new one as I was to learn, some while later and after being greeted by a welcoming committee and signing forms, we were shown to our rooms. I remember it as if it were just yesterday – my room being second from the left as you enter. It was on the ground floor.

My first task was to make sense of the Japanese way of bedmaking. There was a bed – familiar enough – a Western-style bed, along the inner wall. There was a pile of white – brilliantly white and precisely folded – bedclothes on them. I remember seeing a Japanese quilt cover for the first time with its round cut- out front edged with a decorative border, seemingly crocheted, and I can still hear the sharp, tearing sound – immensely satisfying to one, like me, who has fun popping the bubbles on bubblewrap — as one draws apart the layers and folds of stiffly starched bedlinen. I fell gratefully onto the bed once I had finished making it. My first impression of the heavy futon was how unwieldy it was, but I was immediately convinced of how right it was in that chilly room. How absolutely right its weight was, as it immediately comforted and warmed me as I settled in under it, snug and cozy. I fell asleep at once — it had been a long, tiring, and exciting day.

I have been in love with traditional Japanese beds ever since. It is such a comforting sight to behold in a ryokan or a minshuku or a traditional house — a set of futon all fully made up on a sweet-smelling tatami floor – the lower thicker and more solid one of the shikibuton and the fluffy top quilt, the traditional textile motifs peeking through the cut-out front panel. And the pillow! It is packed more solidly than a Philippine or Western pillow, and thus a bit uncomfortable for those who like their heads to sink into it – but when it has a panel insert filled with grainheads – wheat or rice — their rustling and that curious bumpy texture that I like to run my fingers over, strangely enough send me off into a deep, peaceful slumber like nothing else has ever before or since. There is nothing like the comfort of slipping into a Japanese futon in its starched, super white splendour. Do I sound nostalgic for the days of my life in Japan?

On this the 55th day of my gratefulness journal — things to be grateful for: I had a marvellous day yesterday – which turned out sunny despite the forecast for rain; a positive outcome for something I had hoped for; and for still being able to call back and record snippets of my childhood and youth despite a memory through which certain things slither away like quicksilver even though they took place just a few minutes ago.  Today it is a typical grey autumn day here in Bonn, and I am glad to be home, warm and dry.

On a day like this, I am reminded of autumn days in Japan. Here are some photos of a first unexpected snowfall around Lake Biwa, taken years and years ago so that their colours have faded. One of them is of a persimmon (kaki) tree  — bare but for its cheery fruits still hanging — a familiar and iconic sight that never fails to gladden my eyes in the cold months of the year.

Year of Grace, Day 49. Little Manila on the Mediterranean

While happily taking photos of fruits and other attractive produce in Old Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, I heard a voice  call out, “saluyot!” I turned to see where it had come from and it turned out to be a potherb seller, smiling broadly at me. From his deep-set hooded eyes that reminded me of those on Orthodox sacred icons, I assumed he was Ethiopian. (Several waves of Ethiopian Jews known as Beta Israel or Falasha had migrated from Gondar, Tigray and other states to Israel in the 80s.) There,  nestled among mint, basil of several kinds — Italian green and purple and royal Thai, dill, parsley, lemon grass, and the more common Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano, was indeed a mound of fresh,  inviting saluyot. This humble potherb beloved of Ilocanos is equally highly esteemed in Egyptian, Syrian, and other Middle Eastern cuisines, where it is known as molokhiya or molokheya. In Japan too, this green vegetable (Corchorus olitorius) whose leaves become silky when cooked and impart an unctuous slipperiness to broths and soups, has had a run of popularity for its health-giving properties, and is known there as moroheya. Its thickening property is so highly regarded that molokheya leaves are commonly dried for use as a staple during the winter months and throughout the year when the fresh leaves are unavailable. A chicken and molokheya stew sharpened with lemon is a Syrian specialty. Regretfully I wasn’t up to buying any saluyot from the engaging Ethiopian potherb man, as I hadn’t intended to do any cooking, Ilocano or otherwise.

The Filipino population in Israel is currently estimated at 100,000, the largest group of migrant workers in the country. (In recent years, workers from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh, Nepal have swelled migrant numbers to over 300,000; workers from Africa also come in as asylum seekers through Egypt.) I say estimated because of these about 31,000 Pinoys are legally registered to work as caregivers, mostly to older people, or domestic helpers. Other than the diplomatic corps, spouses of Israeli citizens, and a few members of the religious orders (priests and nuns), the rest are spouses, children, and other relatives and illegal workers (those whose contracts have expired and are without current registered employment). To cater to their penchant for familiar foods, Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market (named after its site on Carmel Street) has several stalls with fresh tropical vegetables, not only saluyot, but also bitter melon, small Asian eggplants (unlike the huge fat Mediterranean ones), diverse gourds (patola, young tender loofa), and several kinds of squash. I also saw shallots, green unripe mangoes, Malabar spinach, wax gourds, and long string beans. A big sign announced enormous squashes as malagkit (waxy). Shelves held Silver Swan soy sauce, patis, rice vinegar, bagoong, alamang, Mama Sita flavouring packets for sinigang  – almost all the condiments to satisfy an overseas Pinoy’s nostalgia for the tastes of home. There were even cans of sardines and corned beef.

Carambola (balimbing), anona (atis), guava, pomelo, mandarins and clementines (dalandan, dalanghita), as well as mangoes are currently in season, and in quality and sweetness equal if not surpass those that are to be had in Manila. Carmel Market itself looks much like Quiapo’s Quinta Market, but with a more international clientele. Aside from the locals who are themselves from all over the world, there were Pinoys, Ethiopians, Sudanese (who have come as refugees from the civil war in Southern Sudan in recent years), Vietnamese (also refugees who came in the 70s), and Russians busily shopping – a veritable United Nations of food culture and foodstuffs. There were lots of tourists speaking English, French and even German but the majority were a big group of Russians.

There was one enterprising young man (not of any detectable Asian descent) who had set up a temporary stall, labeled Carmel Dimsum, and there was quite a crowd of curious tasters standing having a quick lunch. There was an impromptu cooking lesson going on in front of another potherb seller. A woman was explaining how to prepare mangold or Swiss chard to a crowd of women unfamiliar with this European winter vegetable. It’s a pity I didn’t understand the finer details of the open-air cooking lesson, and the potherb seller, obviously not a believer in the virtues of free  promotion for his goods, shooed her away from standing in front of his stall and obscuring his wares.

Further along there were huge trays of baklava and other Middle Eastern sweets, while towards the end of Carmel Street near the huge parking lot, a bakery had shelves stacked with tempting glistening fresh-baked rugelach, cinnamon rolls, sweet and savoury croissants, and diverse European-style breads of all kinds, whole meal loaves, baguettes, croissants, and rolls. Some were topped with seeds — poppy, sesame, sunflower, and squash – looking very much like the typical rolls in Bonn. The pita here are fluffy and chewy, perhaps due to a longer fermentation period, unlike the flat ones we get in Bonn from the Turkish shops or those we had seen in the Arab community of Jaffa near the marina in Tel Aviv, or those we had eaten in the Arab restaurants further north.

As in all markets everywhere, the operative words are caveat emptor:  a lovely pile of fresh figs set within a foil tray turned out when purchased to be mushy, a few were half rotten. As the seller was weighing it, I asked the tray to be removed, but he said, it weighs nothing at all. I wanted just half a kilo, and he removed the lovely ones from the top of the pile, leaving the scruffy ones at the bottom, well hidden within the tray. Tsk tsk. Not very nice. There is a similar strategy in the Bonn market — the perfect-looking produce is piled close to the customer, but the seller takes from a pile just behind, and what you get are bruised, low-quality produce that look nothing like the display. Be warned!

This part of Tel Aviv reminds me so much of downtown Manila — in particular Avenida Rizal, as it was called in my youth. I don’t know if Avenida Rizal is still called that – so many street names in Manila have been changed in the last 40 years. Allenby Street has the same scruffy, dishevelled, neglected look – many buildings along it have quaint balconies and facades adorned with the taste of bygone architectural fashions. The charm of these historical curiosities lies hidden under urban grime and dust and the dense shade of overhanging leaves. Even the trees, age-old sycamores and ficus, with massive trunks and branches, look tired and care-worn.

The whole area would look quite distinguished, I muse to myself, with a little sprucing up, and would make a genuine tourist attraction. Much as many historical buildings being demolished in Manila today probably would, but no one in current political or tourist promotion circles neither in Tel Aviv nor in Manila, sees the underlying beauty of these old forgotten buildings. A few of the more elegant ones closer to one of the side streets of Carmel Market have been registered as historical properties and have been faithfully restored. They are truly spectacular, especially in the pedestrianized squares surrounding Carmel Market and just behind Allenby Street, parallel to it. Some attempt has also been made to introduce flowering trees, in particular Brazilian Bombax, with their huge, pink, eye-catching blooms like orchids, protected from being stripped by avid collectors with sharp bristly spines circling the lower part of their trunks.

One can sit in the shade of trees or large parasols outdoors and enjoy a delightful cup of kafe hafukh (the second word is pronounced by locals without the initial “h”). This aromatic plain coffee is known in Bonn as crème café, though curiously despite its name it comes without cream or milk. I made the mistake of thinking “Black Coffee” on a menu was coffee without milk or sugar: it turned out to be Turkish coffee, otherwise known as botz (mud) in local slang, or more conventionally kafe Turki. I was duly corrected that what I should say when it was plain coffee I wanted was kafe hafukh, literally “inverted coffee.” I had my coffee with a decadent self-saucing chocolate cupcake, the thick chocolate sauce oozing out as it came, warm and fragrant. I sat in the shade of a large parasol, surrounded by British tourists also enjoying their afternoon cuppa with ice cream, and admired some lovingly restored buildings across the square.

On Allenby Street itself very close to the market are several used book shops, from one of which, Hazak Books (Sifrei Hazak) at No. 48, I’d bought three books. These bookshops cater for all major languages and even some obscure ones. One, aptly called Bibliophile, was so crowded with books there was hardly any room to move between the tall shelves. The man who ran it was very nice though, and said if there was anything I saw that I wanted, he would happily pull it out of the towering piles. Otherwise, he said, it was likely they would collapse and fall on my head and feet.

Cafes, restaurants, pubs, trendy boutiques, souvenirs, home furnishings, antiques – all manner of shops line Allenby Street, though the truly trendy ones are on Dizengoff Street. One pub, called Little Prague, had excellent European dark beers, and their food was amazingly good for a drinking place. A “Carnivore Platter” held pork chops, sausages, skewered lamb and chicken atop chunky fried potatoes. Obviously this was not a kosher place, as besides pork chops and sausages, it also featured calamari and prawns.

I thought it would be wonderful if all of these structures, even the smaller ones, could be preserved all along this quarter of Old Tel Aviv. Somehow the entire area reminds me of a once-glamorous lady, now getting on in years, who has become slightly neglectful of her appearance and dress. All she needs is a bit of cajoling into putting on some foundation and powder, perhaps a bright red lipstick and mascara, an elegant silk dress, and dressing her long, neglected hair, and she could be once more the femme fatale that she was in her heyday.

For a Filipino overseas nostalgic for tastes and reminders of home, Tel Aviv does offer some familiar treats in surroundings that are curiously similar to some that can still be found in Old Manila (that is, if they haven’t pulled them all down, as they seem to be doing lately with a vengeance). I was surprised to be served by a Pinay-looking young lady at an Italian ice cream shop not far from Tel Aviv port. Do you speak Tagalog, I asked in Pilipino. She shook her head and smiled apologetically. I was born here, she said. There is even a posh restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter (Kerem HaTeimanim) called Maganda. Pity I didn’t check out its menu, but who knows – it may even offer some adobo.

I am immensely grateful that it was peaceful throughout our two weeks in the country. I am thankful that the Mediterranean sea in its beauty and its bounty did not disappoint. The sun in the morning and late afternoon put on such stunning displays I couldn’t keep my eyes off them for a second. The Arab seafood restaurant, Hazaken ve hayam (The Old Man and the Sea) in Old Jaffa near the marina and the seafood bar at the Tel Aviv port market had the most memorable seafood meals I have had in many a year.  I am also immensely grateful for the gracious welcome we received everywhere we went and the overwhelming generosity of Arab villagers who gave us freshly pressed olive oil free and shared their lunch olives with us. I am also thankful that mangoes, anona (atis), persimmons, carambola, and feijoa were in season and that I was able to enjoy these to my heart’s content. Another thing I am grateful for is the range of excellent dairy produce — all at different percentages of fat, so that one can have 1%, 3% or 5% cottage cheese, and likewise of yogurt or sour cream. Far from its usual image as an arid country, Israel indeed has a good claim on the name “Land of milk and honey.” (Honey in this original sense may have referred originally to dates, of which I also tasted some excellent ones, but bee honey is today also widely produced.)  We were truly blessed with much grace throughout our stay in the Holy Land, and to have a bit of Manila there was the cherry on top of the icing.