Working Japanese primary schools for years has taught me two things. Requests, statements and instructions should be replied to with a resounding, “Hai!” Or, “Wakarimashita!” – I understand! And action should always be brisk, fast even, but never tekito, never random. This is a fine balance to strike – speed with precision – but it’s the expectation of a Japanese employee, and maybe even the essence of what is considered Japanese. For this reason, a lot of Japanese friends and family, when I told them I would be working in Koyasan – in a kitchen with 100% of my coworkers being Japanese – believed it would be difficult, even impossible, for a non-Japanese to cope.
Words that have chased me since I started two weeks ago came from my father-in-law. sewa suru no wa taihen to omou. It will be tough on those looking after you. The grumpy Itacho, or head chef, probably felt the same way as we were introduced. “What’s your experience?” He demanded, “Do you have experience?”
I am terrified that I will fail, and everyone will say: ahh, yappari, gaijin da. As I expected from a foreigner.
Everyday starts early, at 6:30am, or more honestly, 6:15am or so when Sen, Yuko and Fuka roll in from their dormitory. Hoku and I live on-site. My commute, once 1.5 hours one way to a school in Kobe, is now less than a minute – down the stairs, I’m done.
On my first day, Sen worked alongside me, showing me which plates to set out for the tsukemono, pickles, and where to find them in the fridge. She showed me how to set two, half-moon, yellow takoan slices, slightly offset from each other on the tiny plate, and how to shape purple, pickled eggplant in a small mound behind it – not close enough to touch. She made a little model for me to follow as I filled 25 plates.
The takoan slices are paired with eggplant on a customer’s first day. On their second they receive a different kind of tsukemono. Kids receive tsukemono, but they don’t receive sansai, a clump of green vegetables with round bamboo slices that must be placed carefully, and beautifully atop. There are three ranks of meal customer’s can receive. Most get ume – plum course – because it’s the cheapest. take (bamboo) is the next rank up, and then, most infrequently (as it is the most expensive), is matsu (pine). These require different plates, but in the case of tsukemono, the ingredients are the same. Gluten-free customers receive the takoan, but not the other tsukemono. (Don’t ask me why) That’s just two tiny plates, of about 6 on a breakfast (make that evening) tray.
(There are so many little things to remember, that even now I am only starting to distinguish the pattern from the blur of knowledge I’ve received.
I wrote the description of making the takoan tsukemono during my midday break, and only half way through the afternoon shift I realised I confused the evening plates with the morning ones. Even after a couple weeks of making the same moritsuke – arrangements – I had to stop, consider, check the fridge, consider again, then finally ask Sen what the afternoon tsukemono is. Because it would be a waste to change it, this is what I wrote. Keep in mind, this is the dinner arrangement, not breakfast.)
Placement of the plates on the trays, or o-zen, is also very important. You also need to remember that the customer is facing the tray from the opposite side to which we put the food on the tray, so we must be careful that the plates face in the right direction. Some plates are shaped like peppers, or eggplants; some have patterns on them; others have handles that must be grasped by the right hand. Chopsticks are placed facing left. Mozuku bowls with a handle slightly angled right. My spatial awareness is not the greatest and remembering which way faces what is a huge task.
As those reading this might already understand, there is also a lot of vocabulary that I have never encountered before. fuki, tanzen, mozuku, takoan, makanai, sansai, o-zen, kiriboshi, banjyu… So many words, most of them food related, to digest quickly. That mixed with kitchen slang, like oniisan, for older stock, and otouto for newer stock; ichiban for toilet; words in Wakayama dialect like hokasu instead of suteru (throw away); and words I’ve just never really used like tatamu (fold) or orosu (put down).
Sen was alongside me each step of the way however, her Japanese simple and concise, and matched often with a lot of hand-motion and gestures to ease understanding. She wore what looks like a simple, summer yukata – blue with a cute cherry-blossom pattern.
“Some people think they are pajamas,” She said. “But they are called samu-e. All the monks wear them too, and Yuko-chan. They are Japanese work clothes.”
After tsumono was finished, the plates places in their proper places on the trays, I was sent with Yuko to divide up the giant bags of sheets and sleeping yukatas that the monks brought from departed customer’s rooms.
“First we put all the sheets in a pile like this.”
“And the yukatas over here. We’ll tie them like the sheets. The tanzen (a heavier blue yukata jacket) we’ll put here to be folded.”
“Pillow cases in one bag. Bath towels in this bag. And we’ll roll up the sashes together with everyone.”
“Feli, honto ni sugoi ne. You’re amazing! You have a spirit like Japanese.”
“The work is a lot more physically tiring than you expected, right?” She asked, “For me too! I hurt my back. It got so bad for me that I couldn’t move!”
“I’ll have to be careful then. My back flares up really easily. I guess I’ll have to do a lot of yoga…”
“Oh, Fuka’s a yoga teacher.”
“Really?! Excellent!” I had images of us doing yoga stretches together in our break-times.
We worked from 6:30am to a little after 7:30am. The monks carried the breakfast trays out at 7:30, and we set the big, wooden table in the kitchen for their breakfast. They bowl back in again once the trays are delivered, and fill cups of tea for each other, and pass out rice, as we carried our portions of rice, miso soup and tea back to our small room. Again Hoku collected all her okazu from the fridge and laid them out to share.
Break-time is from end of breakfast until 9am. Sen shooed me off to rest.
From 9am, we wash plates coming back from the rooms. I stood next to Hoku, clearing the trays as they came in. Sen came over several times to offer advice.
“Try and clear plates of the same kind first. It’s much faster. Momoka-san always says so…”
It felt like a game. Trying to be speedy, faster and faster, without breaking anything. Left-over umeboshi, pickled plums, and unopened packs of dried seaweed are collected into a plate for us to eat later. A lot of food goes uneaten. The temple I work at is popular with foreign tourists who might be leery of the strange green, black and pickled foods, no matter how nicely presented. (One day, later on, I cleared 38 breakfast trays, all uneaten. The chopsticks not even removed from the paper, the miso soup bowls not even opened.) These all go into a basket in the sink. Rice-bowls into a separate bucket, and the rest over to Hoku’s sink to be rinsed and loaded. Hoku is a washing machine, and would sometimes stop to help me clear plates before continuing her own task. Towers of the cleared o-zen trays teetered as Fuka wiped them down, and moved them back into a separate store room to be re-set for the dinner course.
Sen showed me how to clean the soy sauce bottles. There are about 20 of them to collect, fill, wipe, and place back on the small tray.
Sen lived in England for a year, so I said to her in English, “This might be a very gaijin question to ask, but can I sit down?”
“Well, today there’s enough space, so yeah, sure.” She replied. Then came back a few moments later, “But usually it’s probably not a good idea.”
Halfway through my cleaning, the boss walked through and said something to Sen.
“Sorry, sorry, Feli!” She said rushing up to me, “Yappari, it’s not ok. I’m really sorry.”
“No worries.” Feeling a bit stupid, for a lot of reasons, I pushed the bench in and stood.
10:30am and it’s break-time again for a half-hour. We sit and share tea and senbei, toasted rice biscuits, from a huge stash in the corner of our room.
“Customers are always bringing omiyage souvenirs for us.” Yuko said, “We get to eat specialties from all over Japan. Stuff I never knew existed!” Today is a kind of octopus senbei, and chesnuts in tins.
11am to 12 midday is toilet cleaning. There are three main blocks. Honban, with the newest toilets and closest to the entrance is the most “heavy”. Sen and I are neither particularly good at folding the toilet paper into triangles – and they are definitely more isosceles than equilateral. I figure in my Australian way that the person on the toilet is not really going to care how beautiful their triangled toilet paper is.
Honban’s toilets are very technologically advanced. They open automatically as you enter the stall, and spray a sheen of deodorant over the water inside. Unfortunately, the act of scrubbing the floor around its base also is enough to trigger the open, spray function, over and over and over again as your face is only a few centimetres away.
Shinkan has the oldest toilets – three floors worth, though they are the least used. No one really enjoys using squat toilets when automatic opening, spraying, flushing, shiny ones are just downstairs.
My favourite toilets have become those in hanare – the seperate building – partly because to reach them I get to go outside, see the sky. Partly because it’s quiet and I almost never have to dodge desperate customers (especially fun when I’m cleaning the men’s toilets).
Toilets finished, we pan-pan towels from the washing machine. Each towel gets a good hard flick, then is laid down, one on top of the other, in exactly the same way, so that patterns match. Thus arranged, we carry them upstairs to the second floor where the monks’ rooms are, and the roof for drying the towels. Belongings spill out of the rooms onto a narrow walkway. The drying area is cluttered with ash-trays, and exercise equipment. Paper doors are the only walls on this side of their rooms, and most of them are ripped. One door is penetrated by what looks like finger holes.
“Do you know the kanji 高? ” Sen asked indicating a symbol on the towels, “Place that exactly over the drying rack, and both sides will dry at the same rate.”
When we finished, she came to inspect my work, and readjusted a row of towels which, lacking the symbol 高、were not exactly halved.
“I guess going to that extent is Japanese.” She said, half-apologetically.
Below, Fuka and I folded baskets of dried towels to fill in the time before lunch.
“You do yoga?” I asked.
“Yes, for most of my life I’ve taught yoga. I studied in Canada and actually I wanted to live overseas for a long time.”
“That’s great!” I said, “I love yoga!”
“I’ve had to give up for a little while.” She said, “For the baby.”
“Oh!” Ok, that explains the diet and Sen’s reluctance to go more into it the previous night. “Omedetou gozaimasu. Congratulations.”
She smiled contentedly.
After lunch we get a break until 2pm. Depending on the day I am either energetic enough to work on some creative project – blogging, video editing etc. If the weather is nice, I might go for a ride. Those days are usually just after having had a break. By the third or fourth day of work, break time is usually a nap, or some lethargic phone-scrolling. I am lucky, my room is just above the kitchen, so I can lay in my own bed. Sen, Fuka and Yuko lie down on the flat pillows in our little staff-room, turn off the lights and sleep.
2pm to 3:30pm, we set the dinner trays. While the morning tray is a single, evening trays are at least two, maybe three trays high, depending on the course. Cold plates are prepare first: the tsukemono I described above; a black seaweed called hijiki, which is delicious, but is actually full of inorganic arsenic, and really should not be consumed; another kind of seaweed called mozoku which is very healthy, but looks slimy; and a shukan which is a plate of various foods arranged together. Sen showed me how to fill the hijiki bowl with short, black pieces of seaweed, and how to arrange a slice of carrot and two or three soybeans on top “beautifully.” Atop mozoku goes two thin slices of cucumber, laid at just such an angle, slightly overlapping each other. Yuko looks over my shoulder.
“A little less.” She said, “At the point when you think, sukunai! That’s too little! That amount is elegant. Too much, and you give the impression of a school cafeteria plate, overflowing, without thought.”
We line up the various yellow tubs that make up the “shunkan set”. Kouya, a spongy, yellow square; konyaku, a rubbery, grey square; floating, shredded carrot; green beans cut diagonally; round slices of sweet potato; and kazarifu, wheat molded and dyed in the shape of an autumn leaf. I dislike kazarifu, based purely on hand-feel. It slides and slithers, and never sits right in the shunkan.
Itacho – the head chef – comes out to inspect the shukan set to make sure nothing has gone off. He and another chef , Yoshida, are in their 70s. Mori-san is the other, the maker or our meals, and general kitchen assistant. He is tall, a looks a little like pirate with his flamboyant headscarf. He is young, maybe in his 30s, complains about the cold a lot, in his strong Osaka accent. He likes to come out and talk to Sen, setting her off in peals of laughter.
Yoshida likes to come out of the kitchen to talk with Hoku.
“I finish on the 18th. I just have to endure a little more.”
Itacho too comes out of the kitchen, but usually to berate Sen and Hoku for something that’s been done wrong.
“This is not the first time I’ve told you! Why can’t you understand? I’m speaking Japanese! Do you understand?!”
“Hai, hai, eigo shika wakaranai~” Sen replies, “I only understand English.”
When the three chefs are all in their kitchen together, we can finally turn to the business of arranging the shunkan.
“Today there’s only 24 customers! You’re so lucky Feli. I’ve never heard of such an easy day for a new person.” Sen says, “Since we have time, why don’t you try doing the carrot? It’s really high level, but it would be a good chance to learn.”
Hoku showed me how to catch the carrot strands with my chopsticks, swish them around, until they form a smooth parabola, slide them off the chopsticks and squeeze the water out. It’s meant to look like a delicate orange flame when its finished. An expressionist’s brush stroke. Mine falls apart. But we have time. I find that if I squeeze the life out of the carrot strands using both hands that somehow they stick together enough to stand up on the plate.
“Feli sugoi, sugoi. You’re amazing!” My coworkers are consistently supportive, even when my carrots are knobbled with the impressions left from my fingers crushing them.
The fruit plate goes in after the shunkan, prepped by the chefs. The seasonal fruit of autumn is kaki – persimmon. More of an old fashioned flavour, even in Japan, but juicy. I like it, but it often comes back untouched. The final plate is tempura. Renkon, lotus, sliced and placed diagonally, supports pumpkin which must be placed the right way up.
“There is a wave pattern, see?” Sen flipped the pumpkin slice. I can’t see the difference.
“This?” I ask.
“Um, maybe this way, aree?” She flipped over the piece a few times, “Maybe this way.”
“What happens if I get it wrong?”
“Itacho will be angry, and then we fix it.” She laughed and shrugged.
The moritsuke arrangements are generally finished by 3:30, and we break again until 4pm.
From 4pm til 5:30pm is when the pace speeds up. Goma dofu, Koyasan’s signature sesame tofu, must be scooped out with “gentle hands”; a slice of radish arranged on top, with a mound of wasabi, and a dash of soy sauce (criminally, this too often comes back untouched); Soba noodles, on ice, are rolled onto a wide, red plate; numbers of customers are counted, and recounted to be certain; alcohol and drinks are prepared; rice is scooped into large, lidded containers; tea is poured into pots of varying sizes depending on the amount of people in a room.
At 5:30pm all the monks roll in yelling, dashimasu! We’re taking it out!
A senior monk calls each customer to check if they are in and ready for dinner while we scurry back and forth ferrying soup and soba hot from the kitchen to the correct trays. It’s exciting, confusing and terrifying, but luckily everyone but me knows what they’re doing.
Dinner is yakiniku, BBQ beef, and amazing. Yama-chan, the girl we met at the temple the previous night popped in to take her meal. She wore the same jet-black, folded yukata as well, and nodded awkwardly, but politely, resisting offers to join us at the, admittedly crowded, table.
“Oh, she works here too?” I asked.
“Yes, she was in the kitchen with us for a month, but, now she has a different job.”
Aha, that’s the girl who quit after a month, I thought, weird that she’s still here. She must be doing something else inside the temple.
“Time for the grand finale.” Sen said.
The grand finale is the final clean-up, between 6:30pmish, to 7:30pmish. It is intense in its speed and activity. All the staff, both men and women, join to clear the sky-scraping towers of trays as they return. Hoku manned the sink, and I stood alongside her again helping clear trays while others ferried dishes back and forth to the table to stack in a blur of steam, and packed them back into their respective spots. Yuko flung plates out of the dish-rack, without even wiping them, as the intense heat from the dish-washer vapourises the droplets into steam almost as soon it exits. Two tall, shy looking men with white tags that say, “INTERN” in English on their chests, dabbed at the plates with yellow towels. I finished clearing plates, and went to help Fuka and the others wipe down the food trays. Fuka pointed to a short, smiley monk, “See him. That’s my danna-san.” She said using the Japanese word for husband.
“Oh nice!” I replied, then, unwisely, “How long have you been married?”
“Oh we’re not. Not yet. That will come in time.” She replied, patting her stomach.
Once the trays were emptied, and the dishwasher wiped down, the boys go super hyper. Grabbing at, and and chasing each other around, dodging mops, and giving high-fives. Then they click out their time-cards and exited in one great, noisy group, yelling, “otsukaresama deshita~!” Thank you for your hard work.
A quieter monk, tall, and serious, in a black yukata similar to Yama-chan’s, remained behind with the two interns to help us finish the final touches – emptying rubbish, collecting towels, and switching off machines.
The monk, Aya-san, lingered for a moment as the two interns departed.
“Feli, speed ga ii ne.” He said. You move really fast.
I am happy. I am proud. His words stay with me, even two weeks later. I managed to prove to myself, and at least everyone in that kitchen, that even on the first day, a gaijin can hustle just as well as a Japanese can.