A Thanksgiving on Planet Tokyo, 1987

tokyo_thanksgivingIt was late November in 1987, in a cramped studio apartment lost in the urban sprawl west of Tokyo, that I realized Socrates was wrong. Hunger, Cicero had quoted him as saying, was the best spice. But it was a different kind of hunger that had gathered us — a dozen odd homesick Americans — around that cobbled-together Thanksgiving dinner. It was a hunger for kinship, and for companions who shared a common bond. The turkey itself? That was just icing on the proverbial cake.

Most of us were engineering students, twenty-somethings, and we had signed on for a mysterious exchange program arranged by the respective American and Japanese Electronics Associations. At the time, we were told, American computer companies were terrified by the efficiency of their Japanese counterparts but — again, we were told — the Japanese companies were equally terrified by the creativity of American engineers. So a dozen of us proto-engineers were to be sent over for a year to work for Hitachi, Sony, Fujitsu and the like, to study how these companies worked and report back. The companies in turn would study our ostensible creativity. In truth, none of us in the program gave a damn about the politics or industrial dominance of one side versus the other: we were just kids in search of adventure, jumping at the chance to live in Japan for a year, all expenses paid.

Granted, the conditions of our exchange were a bit vague at the start — we’d each signed a contract that effectively committed us to work for a year at some as-yet-unspecified company, getting paid an unspecified amount to live and work under whatever unspecified conditions our host company deemed best. Being young and unmarried, most of the gang — Peter, Tom, Parke, Amy — found themselves farmed out as worker bees at their respective corporations and housed in company dorms. These dorms were…quaint: most had institutional meals, strict curfews, hot water only at scheduled times, and little privacy of any kind. After all, staying out late and engaging in other pursuits was not in the company’s best interests.

But Rita and I, equally young and single, hit the jackpot. Hitachi didn’t have a convenient administrative slot in which to pigeonhole us, and the closest existing structure was a “Visiting Researcher” program intended for faculty (usually senior professors), on sabbatical from their home institutions. Well, we were visiting, and we were there for research; the secretary for our lab’s director decided this was close enough, and surreptitiously promoted us far beyond our years.

The most significant consequence of this sleight-of-pen was a single unimaginable perk: our own private apartments in Hino, just four train stops from the Lab headquarters in Kokubunji. They were studio apartments, tiny by American standards, but a luxury in Japanese eyes, with a real kitchen, private bathroom, and a raised tatami bedroom separated by sliding wooden doors. Our fellow grad students crooned in envy and would often find excuses to stay over with us there at the “Hino Hilton”, as it became known, when they missed curfew or just couldn’t bear another night without a hot shower.

tokyo_thanksgiving 2We had Japanese friends as well as American ones, and they took us into their hearts as best they could. But it wasn’t the same as American companionship. However western Tokyo may have appeared in 1987, the fundamental cultural differences ran deep, even if their presence was only betrayed by faint ripples on the surface.

Take, for example, the humble ATM. Japan was very much a cash-only society then, and 1987 was about the time that automatic tellers were becoming common. Finally, it seemed, you would no longer have to run off to the bank during your lunch hour just for the money to pay your heating bill or buy groceries.

But the odd thing was that Japanese ATMs operated only from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from nine to noon on alternate Saturdays. My first guess was that the banks wanted to ease customers into the habit of using these newfangled devices, and wanted to have human staff on hand to help in case of difficulty. But when I asked, the conversation took a decidedly different tack.

“Why would you need to get money after 5 p.m.?”

Well, you might need to get groceries after work.

“Can’t your wife can get the money, and the groceries, while you’re working?”

I don’t have a wife.

“Then why aren’t you living in the company dorms? Then you wouldn’t need groceries. Besides, it’s not healthy to live alone.”

Okay, say I lived in the dorm, and wanted to go out drinking with my friends after work.

“Then you should have gotten money during your lunch break.”

We didn’t think about going out for drinks until after work.

“A last minute need for money, especially at night, is never a good thing. It usually means you’re getting yourself in trouble.”

And so on. It didn’t take many of these conversations before you began to suspect you were on the wrong planet. So we Americans would find ourselves getting together with each other every week or two, at Lollipop’s or Popcorn House, or more likely at the Hino Hilton, to commiserate and share tales of our latest anthropological surprise (“And I thought — a Mexican restaurant in Shibuya? I’m saved! But somebody needs to tell them that ketchup and salsa are not just two varieties of the same condiment…”).

By the time November came around, most of us had been in Japan for almost a year. This was well before Skype, even before particularly affordable international phone calls. Our lifelines back home were old-fashioned letters, handwritten, stamped and mailed with a few photographs tucked in between the pages. They were no substitute for real human contact, and the approaching prospect of spending Thanksgiving on Planet Tokyo stirred a realization that drastic plans were called for.

The only obvious thing at the start was that we would need to host the gathering at my apartment, or Rita’s downstairs. The questions of how we would all fit, and where we would find, for example, a turkey to roast, were left as we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it exercises.

We enlisted the help of our respective officemates in what must have seemed like an arcane scavenger hunt. Cranberries — where could we find cranberries? Pumpkin? That was relatively easy — the Japanese have a million different types of gourds, and there were more than a couple close enough in shape, color, texture and taste to fit the bill. Stuffing could be made from scratch, but the lack of an actual turkey remained our showstopper.

With about a week to go, we got a tip that there was a “foreign foods” supermarket in Shinjuku, 45 minutes away by train, that might have a stash of frozen turkeys for sale. Someone — maybe Amy — made the trip and verified the report: not only did they have a whole freezer of them, the birds were on clearance sale. Apparently the manager had taken a gamble, trying to introduce this American delicacy to the local populace and been stymied by one unanticipated complication: what passed for an oven in the typical Japanese kitchen of the era was the size of a standard American toaster. No one in Tokyo had the equipment in their homes to actually cook one of these avian behemoths.

Rita and I considered the equipment at our disposal. Each of our kitchens contained one of these putative ovens, measuring approximately 8” x 9” x 12” and more suited to browning toast than actually cooking anything of heft. The precise interior size is lost to me now, but we measured it twice and staked everything on this one point: if Amy could excavate a turkey from that frozen locker with dimensions under our spec, we might just be able to make it work.

She called us that evening, triumphant. Even better, since none of us had a place to keep such a leviathan bird on ice, she’d charmed the store manager into holding it for us until the appointed day.

Practicality dictated that our Thanksgiving would be held on the Saturday after its customary observance, to allow for a leisurely preparation of the festival meal. All ingredients had been obtained, and our plan was coming together improbably well. A little experimentation even yielded a fine improvised Thanksgiving table: if we removed the sliding door and repositioned my bed frame to the center of the tatami room, placing the door on the bed frame produced a Japanese-height table just large enough to fit the dozen of us around its perimeter. There was no room left for the mattress in those tight quarters, so we hung it out the window, three stories up over suburban Hino. I sometimes still wonder what the neighbors thought was going on.

Amy arrived in the morning with the magnificent bird, thoughtfully defrosted by the charmed manager, and we discovered ourselves confronted with a specification too well met. The turkey, as Amy promised, met our stated requirements exactly: It was precisely the height, width and depth of our toaster oven’s interior. But in our enthusiasm we had failed to account for the fact that the interior of the oven needed to contain other things as well, such as the baking tray and, for example, the heating elements themselves. In fact, even with everything removed, it wasn’t clear whether the bird would physically fit through the diminutive toaster oven’s door.

We quickly arrived at an engineering consensus: the toaster oven could be easily replaced, but this was our only shot at Thanksgiving. A screwdriver and pair of pliers were sufficient to remove the door, and the halo-shaped heating elements pulled easily out of their mounts. The baking tray, of course, was unnecessary — we could count on the holes at the bottom of the oven to provide enough drainage to keep the fat drippings from catching fire. We hoped.

It did take a couple of tries, but we discovered that by clamping the top and bottom heating elements right up against our carefully calibrated bird and prying the front opening of the oven just a little wider (the resulting crease would be remedied with pliers), we could insert the turkey edgewise and slide it into place, plugging the elements back in as we went. We re-attached the door and marveled at our accomplishment.

Of course, we were now faced with the small matter of actually cooking the damned thing. We were so far out of spec on both the turkey and the engorged toaster oven that times and temperatures were irrelevant. We reattached the door, set the poor little box on “high” and let it sit and smoke by the open window, taking turns watching for flames.

Some time in the afternoon, the others arrived. I recall that Rita baked ersatz pumpkin in her oven downstairs. A can of cranberry jelly had been miraculously conjured up, and someone else assembled a reasonable approximation of stuffing.

Since our turkey was an American export, it was equipped with one of those plastic pop-out thermometers which — by pure luck — had been positioned high enough on the bird to be visible through the closed glass door, yet not so high as to be melted or set fire to by the overworked heating elements. When it popped, we unplugged the sputtering toaster and let it sit, regarding it as bomb disposal expert might consider a similarly smoking device for a while before deciding that it was not, after all, going to explode.

The door came off again, the oven mouth was pried agape and, with a little tugging and shaking, we regarded the prize before us on the counter: a glistening brown, steaming example of Meleagris gallopavo domesticus, a cooked American turkey. Some poking and prodding convinced us that, while there was some charring where the heating elements sandwiched around it, our turkey had in fact cooked clear through, and might even be edible.

Objectively, I’m in no position to judge how Julia Child would have rated our creation, but I’m sure we would have gotten decent marks from both MacGyver and Alexander Selkirk. We gathered around the table/door/bed and sat on the tatami matting, Japanese style. We said some form of grace and raised our glasses in a toast to tradition, ingenuity and friends far from home. Then we served the turkey.

Now, I’ve heard stories of soldiers reminiscing about sharing tinned food in the trenches, and read Shackleton’s diary journaling Christmas dinner while stranded in Antarctica (“Bovril, chocolate and Plasmon biscuit, two spoonfuls of jam each. Grand!”). The circumstances we faced were incomparably less dire, and it was not a hunger for food that had brought us together. But I have no doubts: the Thanksgiving turkey we sliced up and passed among ourselves that cold November evening in Tokyo was, and remains to this day, the finest bird I have ever tasted.

tokyo_thanksgiving 1

Note to my patient readers (hi mom!): yes, I’m still writing, writing, writing, trying to finish a rough first draft of That Damned Novel by year’s end. I promise that, when I come up for air, I’ll start posting here regularly.

In the meantime, I think I’ve given up on the traditional route for publishing stories. I like writing, not chasing down unresponsive editors for magazines and literary fiction journals, often after waiting the six(!) months they say they need to evaluate your submissions, often – in the case of litfic journals – after actually paying them to consider my submission. That’s just not fun, and it doesn’t help me write better. So I’m going to focus on writing, and will probably start putting short stories out on some non-traditional medium, maybe as a Patreon feed (for fiction), maybe on Medium (for non-fiction).

As a dry run, I’ve published a copy of this post on Medium; if you’d like to get my non-fiction stories (once I come out of hiding)  but not be bothered by more mundane what-my-day-was-like postings, it may be worth subscribing to that feed. Regardless, looking forward to chatting more with y’all in January!

3 responses to “A Thanksgiving on Planet Tokyo, 1987

  1. Great story, great writing! These postings are such a welcome sight in my inbox Pablo, so many thanks to you for these gifts you share.

    -Dan

    Like

  2. Dear David,

    My goodness. What a treat – in the story/pst and for this reader. I do remember your telling me about this adventure, so it is doubly lovely to see it all put together so well.

    Thank you. And hi back to you.

    Looking forward to more reading.

    Love,
    Mom

    Like

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