Crafting Connections while Visiting Shikoku
Among the great highlights of GeoEx’s Journey Through Ancient Japan trip to Kyoto and Shikoku are its culinary adventures in off-the-beaten-path hamlets and intimate, home-style restaurants. Over the 10-year history of this trip, a few of these feasts have accumulated especially moving back-stories that make the meals taste even better. This tale is one of those.
In the town of Kochi, on the island of Shikoku, after spending the morning visiting a wonderful workshop and museum devoted to the art of Japanese washi paper, we stop for lunch at a three-table Italian-Japanese restaurant called Al Pascia. The first time we went there, in 2013, we were greeted at the doorway by the chef, Naka-san, and his two lovely waitresses, and we had a fabulous meal that was a fusion of Japanese and Italian cooking: the freshest salad I’ve ever had, a beautifully prepared pea soup of unbelievable depth and taste, exquisitely seasoned grilled chicken, and delicious Italian wines. While we all agreed that it was a fabulous feast, with flawless service, Naka-san and his two helpers were extremely reserved and nervous throughout, all wanting to make sure the entire meal went perfectly.
We returned the following year and again had a wonderful feast and told the chef and waitresses how much we appreciated the great cooking and service. As we came back a third year and a fourth year, we began to converse more easily with the chef and waitresses. We began to joke with them, and to ask questions about their lives, and year by year, we began to get to know them. By the fifth year, the chef told me that they all were so excited that we were coming that they hadn’t been able to sleep the night before.
At one point during that fifth visit, Saori-san, one of the waitresses, motioned for me to come and talk to her and said, “Don-san, your group has given me so much courage to speak English, and to meet Americans, that I have decided to visit America this summer!”
I announced this to the group and while Saori-san smiled and blushed, we all told her how delighted we were to hear this and what a great time she was sure to have.
The next year when we returned, Saori-san told us that she had spent two weeks in Minnesota and had had a fantastic experience. She had been able to speak English with people, she said, and they had understood her! She had been so impressed and moved by the warmth of the people and the expansive space of the land, she said.
Suddenly Saori-san was speaking English easily and readily with us, smiling and laughing and recounting encounters from her Minnesota trip. She seemed like a flower that had blossomed, and at one point she knelt by me and whispered, “Don-san, I feel like that trip changed my life.”
When we returned the following year, Naka-san was as gracious as ever and the food was as wonderful as ever, but Saori-san wasn’t at the restaurant. Naka-san explained that she had entered a special study program and wasn’t able to work at the restaurant because of that.
Then the pandemic came and we weren’t able to return to Kochi and Al Pascia for four excruciatingly long years.
When we were finally able to return, in the spring of 2023, we were delighted to discover that Saori-san was working there again, and we had a grand reunion with her and Naka-san. Our lunch was once again an amazing feast, including the freshest salad and freshest, most delicious soup ever, and then a beautifully prepared sea bream, as well as lots of hugging, laughing, and catching-up stories.
About halfway through the meal, Saori-chan motioned for me to come to a corner of the room. With a big smile, she took my hand and said, “Don-san, I want to tell you something. I married an American last year!”
“Wait, what?!” I exploded in Japanese. “You married an American last year?”
“Yes,” she said. “His name is Schuyler and I met him because after I returned from my trip to the States, I joined an English conversation club here in Kochi. One day when I went to our monthly meeting, Schuyler was there. He was traveling through Japan, and happened to be in Kochi on the day of our meeting. He found out about it and came there.
“When we met, we looked at each other and there was some kind of special feeling there. In the months afterwards, we continued to correspond and found ways to see each other. Our relationship just grew and grew — and finally last year we decided to get married!”
She had the biggest smile.
Then she continued, “I want to say thank you. I can’t tell you how much I owe to you and to your group. Every year when you kept coming here, you opened me up to speaking English and to meeting Americans. And now I am married to one!
“Thank you, Don-san. I truly feel like you have changed my life.”
I hugged Saori-san and then called for everyone’s attention and told our group this amazing story. Of course we ordered more wine, and then, for the first time ever, Naka-san and Saori-san accepted our invitation to share a toast with us. We celebrated Saori-san’s marriage and the bridges that we had built between Japan and America.
And I realized once again how travel truly is a two-way street: When we venture abroad, we bring back life-changing gifts from our travels, the life-expanding meals we’ve had, places we’ve seen, people we’ve connected with. But we also bring gifts and bestow special gifts as well, gifts of courage and intercultural connection, seeds that sometimes blossom, as they had for Saori-san, into an inexpressibly beautiful flower.
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