September 9, 2020 – Roger W. Lowther
One of the joys of living overseas is being able to experience different parts of the world. There are times when I think, “Wow, that’s exotic.” Sometimes it’s a smell in the air. Sometimes it’s a sound that I hear. Sometimes it’s the feel of the atmosphere.
When we first moved to Tokyo, I had such an experience every single morning as I took my kids to school. We had to pass by some traditional wooden houses that always had an interesting smell coming out of them. My kids asked me, “Daddy, what is that smell?” but I couldn’t tell them. I didn’t know.
So one day, I decided to find out. The door was open as passed by, and I popped my head in. An older woman behind the counter beckoned me to step inside.
“What does this store sell?” I asked, feeling pretty dumb because I could see the objects right there in front of me. Various small brown things were lined up in neat rows behind the glass counter.
“Let me show you,” she said and gave me one of the little brown things to try. I popped what looked like a small fish in my mouth, and was surprised by its strong but pleasant taste. It was a little bit salty and a little bit sweet. I still had no idea what this food was even called, so I asked. And she told me that it was called tsukudani and that it had a very long history in the neighborhood.
Clearly, I needed to learn more about this food, if for no other reason than the fact that I live in Tsukuda, the area after which the food is named. It is a very small part of Tokyo at the mouth of the Sumida River, where it pours into Tokyo Bay. It only takes 5 minutes or so to walk across Tsukuda.
Apparently in the 17th century, there were some fishermen in a small part of Osaka called Tsukuda. When Ieyasu Tokugawa, the famous general who gathered all the areas of Japan into one country, was escaping another army, these fishermen gave him and his men some boats and preserved fish. As a reward, Tokugawa invited these men and their families to move to Tokyo to provide food and fish for his castle. The island in Tokyo was renamed Tsukuda after Tsukuda, Osaka, and the connection between these two cities continues today. My children at Tsukuda Elementary had already met students from Tsukuda Elementary in Osaka from field trips and other fun activities.
These fisherman invented a food called tsukudani (literally “simmering Tsukuda”). In order to preserve fish and other seafood from going bad, they simmered it in salt, sugar, and soy sauce. Food in Japan quickly rots because of the high heat and humidity, but tsukudani can preserve this food without refrigeration for over a month. It was a creative act deliberately designed to bring beauty to a world where everything is falling apart. As I thought about it, I began to think about the wider implications of this. Our bodies are always falling apart. Our relationships are always falling apart. We’re always so tired and so stressed. Is there a process that can preserve us from the rot and stench of death?
“We will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (1 Corinthians 15:53)
I continue to pass by this shop every morning. Looking up at the storefront, I see the Japanese characters for tsukudani written right there. The Japanese character Tsukuda (佃) is made up of a person standing next to a rice field. But the way the rice field is portrayed, I can easily imagine the shape of a cross in a box. When I see the Japanese characters for tsukudani, I think of the cross. Amidst all the threats, accusations, curses, and brokenness of this world, we can stand next to the cross. Just as the process of tsukudani preserves the fish, we can be preserved and changed from the inside out. This is the gospel.
To be preserved in this world, to be “clothed with the imperishable,” we need to be simmered. We need to be simmered in the gospel. We need to be simmered by the cross. And by the grace of God, it protects us from the rot and stench of death.
God is our nourishment. God is our sustenance. I believe we can know something about God through the food we eat, that it shows us in deeper ways what his sustenance is really like. And in heaven, we will enjoy God forever. On earth we cannot possibly know all the different smells and tastes of this world, and in heaven we cannot possibly know the depths of God’s goodness to us.