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Sunday, June 4, 2000

JAPAN LITE

It's the season for cool drinks and hot talk


Right now it's 28 degrees, sunny with a light breeze. It couldn't be a more perfect day on the island. Yet when I went to the post office this morning, Mr. Saito said, "It's hot!" When I stopped by the supermarket, Mrs. Amano, the store owner said, "It's hot!" When I stopped by the ferry port, Mrs. Amano, the port manager said, "It's hot!" No one has noticed that it actually isn't hot. That's because they're speaking "Summer Japanese."

Summer Japanese has nothing to do with the temperature. It has everything to do with the season. Signs of summer are everywhere: The ants have started holding their regular conventions in my sink, insect legs and lizard tails are lying around the house that the cat has dismembered from her victims, and the first centipede just tickled my foot. All because it's summer.

Summer Japanese is like a cold pizza. Remember when the pizza delivery person arrived with pizza, and your mother would take it and then announce, "Let's hurry up and eat before it gets cold!" As if the pizza was going to shed it's double cheese right there and start shivering. There probably wasn't even snow in the forecast. But still, you rushed to eat the pizza before it got "cold."

I was never so acutely aware of hot and cold before I came to Japan. In Japan, people who find it difficult to eat hot soups or beverages are said to have "cat's tongue." They don't have a word for people like me, who eat food while it's still too hot and burn their tongue. I suppose I have "black panther tongue."

In Japan, they like to keep hot and cold very separate. This is why hot food and cold food should not share the same "to go" sack at McDonald's. One bag holds the hamburger, another bag holds the cold drink and they're both put into a larger bag that, surprisingly, does not keep the two sacks inside separated with drywall and insulation.

Despite my protests to put all the food together in one bag, the workers at McDonald's still insist that these two temperatures should not, under any circumstances, come in contact with each other. Why not? If the bad spirits of cold and warm mix, the sky will darken, lightening and thunder will ensue. Civil wars will break out in China.

Or maybe they're just trying to avoid that in-between temperature called tepid. In Japan, red and white wine are both served chilled. Sake is served either hot or cold. Keisuke, the young Buddhist priest on my island, told me that it can be rude to serve very cold drinks to guests because, "If you drink a very cold drink, the body might get surprised." In Japan, the stomach is considered the center of the body, so traditionally, you're supposed to keep this area warm. So don't go around surprising people's bodies with frosted mugs of beer and drinks chock-full of ice.

Green tea should not be served too hot either. (Notice I have changed paragraphs to talk about hot for fear of any more thunderstorms or civil wars.) Japanese tea cups don't have handles, so very hot tea would make the cup too hot to pick up. Macha, the green tea used in tea ceremony, is also served only warm. Tea masters are very aware of the temperature of the tea and the bowl so you don't get black panther tongue while drinking your tea in the allotted three gulps.

Although hot coffee is unthinkable in the summer time in Japan, a very hot bath in 40-degree water is OK. There's nothing like a hot bath in summer that raises your body temperature so high you get dizzy. When you get out of the caldron, you cool off by lying on the cool tatami mat.

I tried this only once when I was at a public bath where they encouraged this procedure (perhaps designed to create a oneness with your stomach). I was lying on the tatami mat, cooling in a different way -- I was sure I was dead. Just as the guys with surgical pincers and Swiss Army knives were coming in to take out my body parts to donate to science, I was revived when I heard the lady lying on the tatami next to me say, "It's hot!"

And it really was hot.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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