On the morning of July 4, my family and I checked out of our hotel in Kyoto and boarded the Shinkansen for Mishima. The Penpal (who as you all remember is also my girlfriend), and her family wanted to show us around their hometown of Numazu in Shizuoka prefecture.
On the train, I told my family that The Penpal’s parents were traditional Japanese parents and couldn’t speak any English. It was going to be their first time spending the day with foreigners. My family is usually very polite and friendly, so I wasn’t terribly worried. However, my parents are huggers. I reminded them that Japanese people aren’t big on physical contact, so they might bow or shake hands as a greeting, but hugs were right out.
The Penpal and her parents were waiting for us at Mishima station. She introduced my family to her parents, who proceeded to give the Penpal’s family big Canadian hugs. Urgh.
The Penpal’s father drove a small Nissan, which was not big enough for the 7 of us. We divided up our group – the men went in the Nissan, and the women all piled into The Penpal’s tiny Honda. The idea was that we would have one translator in each car. We took off towards our first destination – Izu Mito Sea Paradise.
The ride to Sea Paradise took about twice as long as it should have due to Sunday traffic. I have never understood why every Japanese person with a car decides to go for a family drive on Sundays. The narrow streets end up looking very much like parking lots. During the long ride I did my best to translate between my father and The Penpal’s father. I did remarkably well considering my limited vocabulary.
When we got to Sea Paraside, The Penpal’s father opened his trunk and pulled out a couple of cans of cold Yebisu beer for my father and I. My dad was confused, so I explained that drinking in public was allowed in Japan. He still seemed a bit hesitant, and waited for us to get a seat at the dolphin show before drinking his beer.
My father and The Penpal’s father were both wearing a nearly identical hat and pants (slacks for you British people who are now giggling). During the dolphin show, the Sea Paradise staff brought out a large trained walrus. As the giant walrus got close to the water, the staff announced in Japanese that the first few rows would likely get wet. My father and The Penpal’s father, with no communication between them, both stood up at the same time and stepped over their seats to the next row, both stepping with the same leg first. It was like watching a bizarre mirror image.
After Sea Paradise, we all loaded back into the cars and drove to Uobun, a Numazu tempura restaurant that has been in business for 100 years. The restaurant was exactly the kind of place that foreigners would avoid; there were no models of food outside, no English signs anywhere, and the menu was all written in Japanese on the wall behind the chef. The Penpal’s father ordered tendon (天丼) for all of us. Don’t be confused by the spelling – in this case tendon is “tempura donburi”, not tissue that connects muscle to bone. We all got a big bowl of fish, shrimp and squid fried in delicious tempura batter served over rice. Lunch was fantastic, and before we knew what was happening, The Penpal’s father had snuck away to the cash register and paid for everything.
We thanked him for lunch and then piled into the cars again. Our next stop was The Penpal’s house. This was my first time to ever visit her house. We all sat into the living room and The Penpal did her best to translate conversation over tea. The parents swapped stories about when we were kids, and then The Penpal showed off her piano skills for my family.
We spent a few hours at the house and then decided to go out for dinner. By this point in the day, the Penpal’s mother was a big fan of my sister because she was “kawaii”. They sat across from each other at the table, and The Penpal’s mom started trying to teach my sister some Japanese by pointing out items on the table and getting my sister to repeat their names. Hey, whatever gets my girlfriend’s family to like my family is a good thing.
While we were eating, I leaned in and quietly told my father that he should pay for dinner. The Penpal’s family had driven us around all day and treated us to lunch and I wanted to even the ledger a little. Like most Japanese restaurants, the bill is left at the table when the food arrives. I created a distraction and sent my father running for the register with the bill. There was the usual polite protest, but I insisted that it was the least we could do. It’s much easier to be generous with other people’s money 🙂
Outside the restaurant my sister asked me to teacher her some Japanese to thank The Penpal’s family for showing us around all day. I was about to teach her how to say “domo arigato gozaimasu” (a polite thank you), but instead I got her to practice “watashi wa okii neko desu” (I am a big cat). My sister has an amazing ear for language, and was able to pick up the phrase and correct pronunciation immediately.
The Penpal’s family dropped us off at Mishima station. Everyone started saying their goodbyes when my sister walked up to The Penpal’s parents and used her new sentence “I am a big cat”. She smiled and bowed while saying it. They looked confused. Worried that she had pronounced it badly, she tried again, speaking slowly and clearly. The Penpal, looking confused, explained “Lisa-chan – you just said that you are a big cat”. At this point I cracked up laughing while my sister started yelling at me. Being a big brother is awesome.
I am very happy that my family and The Penpal’s family got along. Most tourists only get to see famous places in Japan, but thanks to The Penpal’s family, we got to drive around, visit a Japanese house, and eat fantastic food at places that tourists would usually avoid. For the wonderful day we spent together, I would like to say 私は、世界最大の猫です。 I assume it means thank you.