Day with Mr. Iwase

Whenever I think of Oshima, my mind invariably wanders to the days that we spent with Masao Iwase. Mr. Iwase worked with my husband Tyler at Oshima Kaiyoukoukusai High School from 2007-2009. He was one of Tyler’s best friends, due largely to the fact that he was one of the only people on the secluded island that spoke English. Tyler always referred to him as “Mr. Iwase” and never just Iwase, which I found unusual at first. Once I met him in person, however, I understood why anything less would be inappropriate. 

From the moment you meet Mr. Iwase, he puts you under his spell. His incredible life energy is infectious, his personality so calming, and his life so intriguing, that you cannot do anything else other than be present and enjoy the moment with him. Mr. Iwase and his wife Chizuko live a few minutes from the beach on a winding forest road behind the small village of Kudachi. 

Finding Mr. Iwase was an ordeal. Eight years of separation from the island left Tyler unable to remember the difficult directions to his house. He attempted to get contact him by email for weeks prior to our coming to the island, but to no avail. Tyler was understandably a bit nervous – after all, a large storm caused a series of landslides a few years ago that left nearly 100 people dead or missing. Tyler’s “Oshima dad,” Chubei, attempted to help us find Mr. Iwase by going to a police box and calling the police on the island. The police officers were (not surprisingly) unhelpful, and would not give us his information.

Just when Tyler was about to give up on finding Mr. Iwase, he had an idea: he remembered that the geodesic dome coffee shop in the island’s main village was the workshop of one of Mr. Iwase’s best friends. He supposed that the owner might know where Mr. Iwase was. Lo and behold, he asked, and the man gave us his phone number. Mr. Iwase was incredibly surprised that we were there, and explained that he had not checked his email in the last few months. He said he would be over in 45 minutes. 

He arrived with Chizuko exactly 45 minutes later – the two of them invited us to spend the next few nights with them in their house and we enthusiastically accepted the offer. We had dinner and then parted ways, bound for our guesthouse for the evening.

The next day we arrived at their house quite late at night; Mr. Iwase greeted us silently so as not to wake Chizuko. We tip-toed into the house, gently placed our luggage on the floor next to the entrance door and took a look around us. In the dim light we could make out that the interior of their home was small yet comfortable, and built completely out of wood. The next day he explained over a cup of coffee that he built the entire home and most of the furniture by himself. A wood-fired stove in the center provided the heat, while a massive rough-wood dining room table dominated the kitchen.

Mr. Iwase is an incredibly talented craftsman. Working with wood is a way for him to create and express the rich history of Oshima. He has his own way of doing things, all based around the island and the ocean. He takes the most ordinary and simple pieces of driftwood and creates rough-hewn picture frames, shelves, hooks, and sculptures. Every piece of his home, down to the kitchen table and its chairs are art pieces in and of themselves. On each side of the table he added a few wooden drawers where he keeps small ceramic plates and chopsticks. 

We spent a few moments admiring the hand-crafted interior, after which Mr. Iwase invited us to the guest room. The room was a stark departure from the rest of the cabin-like interior of the home. The sliding door revealed traditional Japanese homemaking at its finest - tatami floors with shoji doors and comfortable, pre-made futons on the floor.  Despite how tired we were, a large smile lightened Tyler’s face as he surveyed the room – he has always told me that he loves the smell of tatami mats because it reminds him of his time in Japan. We collapsed into the soft cotton comforters and the futons and comforting aroma of tatami beckoned us into sleep. 

We woke up refreshed to the smell of food and light clinking of dishes. Mr. Iwase and his wife were already in the kitchen preparing breakfast and irresistible aromas had begun to creep into the room. We hurriedly put on fresh clothing, crossed the tatami mats, and expectantly slid the door open. The large table was already adorned with steaming green tea and homemade sourdough bread he had prepared the night before with his own yeast starter. Chizuko welcomed us with plates adorned with homemade jams, apples, and steamed broccolini from their garden. The real treat was a warm ashitaba salad tossed with sesame oil and chili flakes - an incredibly soothing combination of flavors.

After such a nourishing breakfast we were ready to start the day. We knew that we would do some normal sightseeing of the island, but we had no idea that the day would transform into such a culinary adventure. First we were headed down the street to the retirement home that Mr. Iwase owns and Chizuko manages. They invited us to a Hawaiian dance performance that they prepared for the residents. After the show, the sounds of a busy kitchen piqued my interest, and I peeked in to see a young woman preparing lunch for all the guests. She was making gyoza – the famous Japanese pork and cabbage dumplings. She glanced over her shoulder and saw how excited I was to be there, and asked me if I wanted to learn how to make them. Heck yes! I called for Tyler, and we both washed our hands in the kitchen sink with dish soap and were ready to receive instruction. 

Neither of us had made gyoza before, but after a few failed attempts we were able to assemble them in a few seconds! Mr. Iwase let us know that he already planned a homemade lunch for us, so we wrapped a few gyoza dumplings to go. We arrived back at Mr. Iwase’s house and I waited at the door while they unloaded the car. “Go on inside,” Tyler urged, “Mr. Iwase and I can get all the food.” “Okay,” I replied, “can you toss the keys over here so I can unlock the door?” Tyler and Mr. Iwase laughed, “On the island, we never lock our doors. Everybody knows everybody, and if anyone were to steal anything, it would bring their friends and family lots of shame.” I smiled, turned to open the door, and the comforting smell of steamed rice wafted over me. I was a bit surprised to smell the rice as no one was home, but Mr. Iwase had put some rice in the steamer before we left so it would be ready by the time we returned. 

Mr. Iwase had been busy that morning – he cooked our breakfast, washed all of our laundry, and ran his daily 5k, all before we woke up! He has been running every day since he was 30 years old, even during typhoons. He has literally not missed a day of running at least three kilometers a day in ten years. Nothing have ever stopped him – he once even told the story about how he was hospitalized after being stung by three giant Asian hornets. He snuck out of his hospital bed, and escaped down the street to get his run in. He is now around seventy years old and extremely efficient, organized, punctual, and probably the most energetic man I have ever met. In those few short days that we spent with them my beliefs on aging were challenged time and time again – how is it possible to have so much life energy and stamina at his age? His answer to this was daily running, highly nutritious food, and a peaceful mind, the latter being the most important of the three. 

Mr. Iwase opened the lid on the rice cooker with a satisfying “pop” and a rush of steam. With the completion of the rice, we were ready to prepare some “onigiri,” triangular-shaped rice balls often stuffed with fish or “umeboshi” (fermented plums) and wrapped in dried seaweed. Onigiri is frequently prepared for lunches in Japan, especially for schoolchildren. Mr. Iwase slid two fresh salmon flanks into the small oven, which was big enough to broil only two fillets at once. He then guided us to the back room of the house where he kept his clay pots for fermentation. He brought one with him into the kitchen and opened it to reveal a beautiful sight of purple-violet umeboshi plums. These fermented plums are sweet, salty, and sour all at once – an acquired taste for for the uninitiated, but a staple in Japanese homes. His backyard is home to a stately old plum tree that provides summer plums. These plums are fermented with red shiso to bless the umeboshi with its unmistakable purple hue. 

Mr. Iwase carefully arranged the ingredients on the homemade kitchen table, turned to the sink, and sprinkled some water on his hands. He retrieved a handful of cooked rice from the steaming pot and deftly molded and pounded the mass into a triangular shape. He plunged his thumb into the center of his creation and took a pinch of salmon from the table with three fingers, which he pushed into the hole. Once more he molded the rice into a triangular shape, closing the hole. His fingers found a sheet of nori seaweed, which he wrapped around the rice, completing the onigiri. He repeated the ritual, this time with umeboshi plum spiced with shaved bonito flakes. “Okay, it’s your turn!” he told us cheerfully. We fumbled around with the wet rice, making total embarrassments of ourselves. “Ah,” Mr. Iwase observed, “The trick is to keep your hands wet and gently form the rice to the shape of your hands. Use your index and middle finger to shape it into the triangle.”

We kept up our attempts, each onigiri better looking than the last. By time we finished, there were a dozen onigiri ranging from our pitiful first attempts to the much better final products. Our host slid open a drawer on his table and retrieved three ceramic plates, cups and chopstick holders. “These were all crafted on the island by renowned ceramic artist Tokiwa Kawanami,” his voice tinged with a hint of pride. He arranged the items on the table purposefully, and put a kettle on the stove for green tea. Fresh vegetables from his garden appeared as if from nowhere, and he poured the tea for us. Mr. Iwase’s attention to the detail, appreciation of artisanship, high quality ingredients, and genuine hospitality created an inimitably special atmosphere. He takes time - time to plan, time to craft and create, and time to enjoy and savor the fruits of his labor. Our day was one of self-reflection, learning, and observation of what is possible when one acts with purpose and intention in everything they do. 

We washed the dishes, put on our shoes, and went to Mr. Iwase’s car to head to the onsen. Onsen bathing is an ancient activity on Oshima, as the volcanic origin of the island has blessed its inhabitants with an unending supply of natural thermal baths. The most popular of these baths is Hamanoyu in Motomachi. A journey to Hamanoyu is a journey to a different world – the onsen is on the westernmost point of the island, overlooking the sharp obsidian-hued rocks below and the ominously inky-black ocean. The majestic peaks of the Izu Peninsula tower over the dozen or so shipping and fishing boats making their way down the strait. On a clear day, Mt. Fuji is visible over all else, dwarfing the rest of the mountains. These views combined with the heat from the mineral water entering our bones whisked me away to another time – a time when I would soak in the thermal baths of my childhood hometown in Slovenia with my family.

Pleasantly drained from the experience, continued our afternoon drive around the island. At Tyler’s urging, Mr. Iwase pulled over near some park benches, where he wanted to visit a Shinto shrine that he would frequent. Flanked by huge, ancient trees, we climbed nearly a hundred rough-hewn stairs, and emerged in an emerald-green clearing nestled in the dense green forest in the shadow of Mt. Mihara’s volcanic peak. In the center was a temple surrounded by mossy boulders, downy ferns, and dozens of small stone “kami” (spirit) homes. This was a very magical place where time stopped. Only the conspicuous silence of the forest and whispers of the kami accompanied us. 

Japanese hospitality exceeded all my expectations. On our trip across Japan we stayed with many different families and each experience was more amazing than the last. Our final night at Mr. Iwase’s house turned into a big feast and party with friends that we met during our time on the island. Mr. Iwase ordered lavishly filled plates of fresh sushi and sashimi, I tried (fermented soybeans) for the first time, and the local specialty kusaya (you can read more about my experience with this fermented fish here), and ashitaba tempura. His grandchildren laughed and played while we enjoyed good food and sake to excess. Mr. Iwase, Tyler, and our friends exchanged stories of the island with much good cheer. The experience was so rich and powerful - it filled my soul with warmth and a longing to never leave.