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Saturday, Jan. 31, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

An ode on Japanese 'mikan'


John Keats once taught that beauty is truth and truth is beauty. Thus inspired, let me now present my own beautiful truth gleaned from life in Japan . . .

Blessed are the "mikan"; they shall inherit the Earth.

Or at the very least inherit the winter. For this is citrus season, and -- whether bouldered onto wooden bowls on dining room tables, stashed in cardboard boxes in chilly family "genkan" or loaded like miniature cannonballs into net wrappings sold at train stations -- mikan are as pervasive in Japanese winter as that which they propose to prevent: runny noses. Call them mandarin oranges or tangerines or whatever, a mikan by any other name is the same, and the typical Japanese does not spend a winter's day without feasting on a lot more than just one.

In fact, I have encountered some Japanese who consume so many mikan that their palms and fingers actually turn orange. Would this be from handling them?

"No, no," says my wife, with vitamin C practically dripping from her teeth and her two palms tinted the ruddy hue of a catcher's mitt, "from eating them!"

And eating them, I might add, by the truckload.

Of course, her palms pink up again in the off-season, and I am thankful other foods -- say prunes or candy canes -- do not have the same skin-morphing effects. Yet, to properly envision my wife in winter is to envision her with a wedge of mikan in her mouth. Here's the scene:

She reclines under the "kotatsu" with the TV babbling before her. But she's not watching; the machine is only there to provide "noise to eat mikan by." Meanwhile, her captives are lined atop the kotatsu like prisoners awaiting execution. One by one she picks them off. Ripped mikan peels soon decorate -- and then obliterate -- the carpet. On a saucer on the kotatsu she places the sucked-dry inner skins, like an ogre amassing bones. On her face then stretches the sated grin of a mikan glutton -- all 40 kg of her.

Later she will drag her stuffed body to the "o-furo" for a bath, taking an armload of mikan with her. Yet . . . only she will return.

Wrapped in a towel that can barely conceal her bloated tummy, she places her orange paws on her hips and stares at me with mikan floating in her eyes. She then speaks through fresh-juiced lips.

"Just what is wrong with you?" she says.

For, you see, I do not share her tangerine passion.

This is partly because I grew up in a frigid locale at a time when most winter fruits arrived in cans. But when I reached my teens and such produce finally showed up fresh at our grocers, I learned that Florida oranges were not like Washington apples. You couldn't just grab one and cram it in your mouth. You had to peel it first. Too much trouble for me.

"But that's the beauty of a mikan!" she snoots. "The peel yanks away like . . . like . . ."

While she gropes for a metaphor, I counter with a grope of my own. She screams and dashes off, leaving her top selection in my hands.

". . . Uh, like a skimpy towel on a just-bathed woman?"

Later, wearing both woolly clothes and a glare of indignation, she lectures me at the kotatsu.

"I can't believe you're too lazy to peel a mikan. Can you tell me one thing in the world that's easier?"

"I probably could . . . if I wasn't so lazy."

"What you need to do is to make a game of it. Try to remove the peel in one single piece."

Sometimes this can be harder than it looks. Yet, my wife's skills have been honed on the whetstone of thousands of helpless mikan. In an instant, she has the peel cracked away and holds a completely denuded fruit.

"There! No one in the world has ever seen this before! Doesn't that give you a thrill?"

Which compels me to ask, "So . . . do you feel that same way in the toilet?"

She scowls. Then kicks me.

"Only you can ruin the joy of peeling a mikan!"

When she kicks again, I snatch a mikan and start peeling on my own.

"See? Isn't this fun? Now here's another game. Try to imagine what the removed peel looks like."

So I do, and am envisioning a sunburned scrotum when she announces, "To me, it looks like a flower!"

"Um -- sure -- a flower with a long stem."

"Exactly! Next comes the funnest part of all. Divide the mikan into wedges and gobble them down one by one."

Except she doesn't eat the skins. These she pushes out with her tongue and places on a dish. Only once in a month of mikan is there a seed.

"Is this another game? I mean . . . are we gonna slip the skins on our fingers and pretend we're melting?"

Her eyes expand. "Is that what you do in America?"

For a moment I am tempted to say, "Yes!" and have her try . . . but then decide I could never pull such a trick on my very own wife. Especially since I know we're out of film.

"Nah. We just eat them."

She slides me her dish of sucked-out skins. "OK, here. Help yourself."

So I am forced to remind her that I tell the jokes in our family, not her.

"Well, then stop making fun of mikan!"

She gathers the best way to shut my mouth is to fill it.

"There! You can't stop eating, can you?"

No . . . because she shoves in one mikan wedge after another.

Yet, even for non-citrus lovers, Japanese mikan are a revelation. Sometimes sweet and sometimes tangy, they have one larger merit that almost no other Japanese fruit does: They're cheap.

Which -- in high-priced Japan -- is a beautiful truth indeed.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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