Nov 3

The Rice Cooker Chronicles is a series of essays by JETs and JET alumni on the theme of cooking/eating and being alone in Japan. The brain-child of JETwit founder  Steven Horowitz (Aichi-ken, Kariya-shi, 1992-94) (and inspired by the book Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant), this series is curated by L.M. Zoller (CIR Ishikawa-ken, Anamizu, 2009-11), the editor of The Ishikawa JET Kitchen: Cooking in Japan Without a Fight. A writer and translator for The Art of Japan: Kanazawa and Discover Kanazawa, ze also writes I’ll Make It Myself!, a blog about food culture in Japan.

New submissions always welcome.  Just e-mail it to Leah at jetwit [at]


“My Rice Ball World”

by Meredith Hodges-Boos (ALT, Ehime-ken, 2003-2005).  Please visit for more essays on her time in Japan and current literary projects.

I dragged my tired body into the entryway and found just enough energy to pry off my shoes.  The door rattled on the track as I slumped into the main room of the house my husband and I shared as Assistant Language Teachers.  “I’m home,”  I muttered to Greg and I blinked into the bright light of the room.  The glare and blare of the used Playstation we’d bought at Hard Off lit up the tatami in a rainbow of colors.

“Hey, welcome back.”  He nodded over his shoulder then proceeded to pound the opposing character on the screen.

He’d been home for three hours…the same amount of time it took me to get back from my farthest high school. I tried very hard to not hold it against him.  It wasn’t his fault I had eight schools or that I hadn’t eaten anything other than a piece of toast at four that morning.  The busy schedule of the day hadn’t given me time to eat anything else.  I didn’t want to break taboo of eating on the bus yet again.

But that was okay.  Everything was fine now because I had a sweet, delectable, frosted cherry Pop-Tart waiting with my name on it.  I’d spent the long bus ride home imagining the taste of the overly sweet jam on my tongue, the gentle crack of the sugared sprinkles against my teeth, and the homey smell of the soft cakey back.  My stomach growling hard enough to cramp, I headed for the kitchen.

Pop-Tarts were one of the few comforts I had from home.  Mom didn’t like paying $12 to ship a box of $1.50 snacks to me.  Although I did get a lot of care packages, the Pop-Tarts were a rare treat.  People back in Tennessee didn’t seem to understand that I desperately needed other foods that didn’t contain something raw, fishy or some sort of innards.  Pop-Tarts were safe, they were sweet and they were something I’d eaten since I was in grade school.

Yawning and still blinking, I grabbed the blue and pink box and reached inside, the stress of the day sloughing off my shoulders as my fingers sought out the shiny wrapper.  The box was strangely light.  My fingers hit the bottom.

Inside I found nothing.

It was empty.

There were no Pop-Tarts in the box.

I glanced into the other room.  Next to my husband’s rear was a shiny wrapper with the words “Pop-Tart, do not microwave in package” written on the front.  I twitched.  Other than the crumbs on the tatami, the pouch was empty.

In the three months we’d been married, we’d avoided the fabled first real husband versus wife fight.  Three months was a good amount of time, my mind whispered, no shame there.  Yeah, three months was a very satisfactory span, I nodded my head.

Then I yelled, “You ate my Pop-Tarts!”

Greg cringed and turned to me with that guilty grin of his, “Oh, was that the last one?  Sorry about that.”  He turned back to the game.

I threw the empty box at his head.

Again, this may have seemed extreme, but remember, there are no Pop-Tarts in Japan.  And it would take over two weeks to get more.  And it had taken me three hours to get home.  And I was hungry.  And my husband had eaten the very last one!  And he’d left the empty box as evidence!

So I did what any newly wed woman would do after a one sided fight, I left.  I went out the door, slipped on my worn out tennis shoes and grabbed my bike.  Greg would follow me eventually.  But for now I was still hungry and I wanted time to be alone.  The wind cut bitterly across my cheeks as I pedaled out onto the main street.  Passing the small shops that lined our road, I swerved around the kids walking home and the old women on their mopeds.  I kept my head down so I wouldn’t have to explain why I was crying.  It didn’t matter much though; blonde hair flying at you on a bike in rural Japan was tantamount to a buffalo driving a clown car.  So I waved half-heartedly to the people who shouted hello and nodded to those who bowed their good evenings.

Honestly, I didn’t know where I was going.  A restaurant was out.  The owners all knew me since I couldn’t cook.  And if they saw me this upset then who knows who else would know by the next day at work.  The last thing I needed was for my superiors chastising me for making the town worry over something as silly as a Pop-Tart.  The grocery store was just as bad since the cashiers knew me too.  So I compromised and pedaled towards the setting sun and the safety of the blue and white sign with the milk bottle and English name:  Lawson.

Lawson is a chain of convenience stores found all over Japan.  To someone as gastronomically challenged as myself, the store was like a second home.  They stocked most of our dinners in a week, from fried rice boxes, to dried squid legs and beer snacks, to specialty ice creams.  Greg and I had agreed that even if I had cooked more, it would have been next to impossible in Japan.  Both of us spoke some Japanese, but when it came to reading labels in the grocery, we were hopeless.  Not that I cooked that much to begin with.  Cooking had become something of a phobia for me.  In junior high, I’d been shuffled into the Home Economics class with the other girls.  I’d burnt every dish without fail.  My teacher took pity on me and my less than savory dishes and gave me a chance for extra credit.

At six thirty in the morning, I stumbled into the Home Economics room with its line of angry ovens and glaring pots and pans.  My task was to make sugar cookies, the most simple of all recipes.  It was such a foolproof assignment my teacher let me do it completely by myself.  I found out later she’d been asleep in the staff room.  I did my best.  I mixed and followed the order of ingredients to the letter.  With the oven pre-heated and the cookie sheet greased, I slid my cookies in with the conviction that this time would be different.  This time I’d make something edible at least.  Then the bell rang and I headed to class and left the cookies to bake.

Five hours later as we filed out of the school, the fire alarm echoing in the halls behind us, I remembered said cookies.  Smoke billowed out the window of the Home Economics room like an angry finger, pointing me out.  Sniffling and sobbing, I walked up to the vice principal and said, “I’m so sorry.  Those were my sugar cookies.”

I was transferred to Wood Shop the next day.  A week later I cut off the tip of my ring finger.  The study hall teacher was very worried when I showed up in her class after that.  Luckily, I survived that class without so much as a paper cut.  Anyway, after that cooking was very low on my list of priorities.

The door to Lawson swung open into a warm, overly bright line of foods and drinks.  On the far side of the store some of my students were looking at the naughty comics.  They looked up, blushed and quickly scattered to the fashion, automotive and, ironically, the cooking magazines.  I simply grumbled and headed to the safest food in the store, the onigiri rice balls.

I grabbed the first three I came to, their wrappers crackling in my hand.  Without another thought, I set them down on the check out counter and waited, not daring to look up.  Setting my students straight was one thing, but facing the concern of our usual cashier was another.  “Meru, is this all?”  She asked, her dark hair swinging into view of my lowered gaze.  I muttered something that must have sounded like a polite yes and nodded.  My own blonde hair was a tangled mess from the day and the wind as it slid over my red eyes.  “Okay, 315 yen please.”  She said.  I forked over the money, thankful that I had enough after the bus fare that day.  The coins clattered as I missed dropping them into the cashier’s hand.  They fell to the plastic sheet covering Lawson’s new ad for their late fall products.  Ah, I thought, they’ll have oden again soon.  I should tell Greg…

Biting my lip, I took my receipt and darted for the door.  I didn’t want anyone to see me crying.  Outside the last light of sunset faded away behind the mountains and the ships in the bay lulled in the waves.  The wind had turned cold now that the sun was gone.  I sighed and leaned up against the cigarette machine, clasping the rice balls in my hand.  After three deep breaths I straddled my bike.  Tossing the onigiri into the rusty basket, I tried very hard not to shiver.

“Meru!”  The attendant had followed me.  I ran my fists over my eyes and looked up.  The cashier handed me a small can of hot cocoa.  She knew I didn’t drink coffee and I didn’t even know her name.  “Here.  It’s warm.”  Thank God for the Japanese and their wonderful warm cocoa in a can, who needs hand warmers when you got hot chocolate?  Without another word, she smiled and went back inside.

Dumbfounded and touched, I waved to her as I peddled out of the parking lot.  She bowed.  The cocoa was a warm weight in my pocket.  Still I had no idea where to go.  Across the street was a small shrine.  It seemed as good a place as anywhere so I parked the bike again and went under the tall red gate.  Two stone foxes watched as I shuffled through the fallen leaves.  I headed for the wooden steps of the main building, my supper stuffed in my pockets.  The cold seeped in through my coat as I sat down, chilling my backside and shoulders as I leaned against the stairs.

There’s a scene in one of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movies, Spirited Away, where the main character eats rice balls after losing her family and getting lost in a strange world.  Huge, round tears drip down her cheeks as she stuffs the onigiri into her mouth between sobs.  I spent the next few minutes eating the first rice ball reenacting that particular scene.

By the second one, I’d calmed down.  The silence of the shine took the edge off of my anger and hurt.  It occurred to me then that this was one of the first meals I’d eaten alone in Japan.  All the others had been with co-workers, or friends, or with Greg.  Even my traveling meals had been secretly scarfed down with people all around me on trains or buses.  Alone now, I took a moment to look at my meager dinner.

Okay, so it wasn’t a Pop-Tart.  But if I’d been in America…would I have been this angry over not getting an onigiri?  Pop-Tarts were all sweet, inside and out.  It reminded me of how it had been in college and home.

Things had been so easy then.  I had my family around me, including Greg of course, and everything had made sense.  I knew what to expect.  There was a plan, a rhythm so familiar I didn’t even notice it anymore.  It hadn’t taken me days to figure out what a sign on the road meant.  I understood every part of a conversation without having to guess about certain words.  It was the sweet cake-like bread backing, the sugary coating and the sublime delight that was the jam in the center.

Japan was not sugary…not a piece of cake at all.  I glanced down at my onigiri.  There was a gap in the nori seaweed covering where I’d bitten into it.  The taste of it was bitter and crunchy and soggy all at the same time.  It was something I’d never tasted in America.  But it wasn’t bad, just different.  Inside was full of sticky rice.  Each grain was the same size, the same color and had the same taste.  The unity and subtlety of it was suddenly astounding; like the people around me in Japan.  Everyone worked together.  No one wanted to stand out because the group was more important.

I sniffed again and took another bite.  In the middle of the rice ball was a burst of taste, tuna and mayonnaise.  It wasn’t sweet, but there was something just as good.  It was like the tiny victories of my time in Japan.  It was when a student finally understood, the light in their eyes that lit up.  It was like finding the street we’d been looking for without getting too lost.  It was pushing the stop button on the bus at the right time and having the driver grin.  It was making a home here, far away from everything I knew and thriving.  It wasn’t sweet, it was filling.

“Hey.”  Greg ducked under the gate, holding my coat under his arm.

“Hey.”  I looked up, blinking and smiling a bit.

He sat down beside me and draped my coat over my shoulders.  “You okay?”


“You mad?”

I shook my head.  “Nah, not anymore.”  I handed him the last onigiri and opened the warm cocoa.  “Here.”  I drank half of it and gave him the can.

“Thanks.”  He ate them in silence beside me his eyes glued to the stone foxes surrounded the waving rice ropes and folded white papers whispering in the wind.  “You ready to get out of here and go home?  This place is spooky.”

I stood up and offered him a hand up.  He took it, relieved.  “Nah, this place is like a rice ball.”

Greg raised an eyebrow but said nothing.  We walked to my bike.  I was kicking back the stand when he finally said, “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah.”  I grinned up at him.  We’d survived our first big fight and I’d handled my first solo meal as well as could be expected.  Across the street I saw the cashier at Lawson peeking out the window.  I held Greg’s hand and made him wave as I did.  She smiled and went back to work.  “I’m fine.  But don’t you dare eat my Pop-Tarts again.”

We walked home to our rice ball world hand in hand.



Comments are closed.

Page Rank