John Lennon Ate Here: Fabulous Feasts, Fertile Fantasies, and “Following the Pen”


I just got back from Japan a few weeks ago, my first visit in fourteen years. It may sound odd, but I’m not sure how many times I’ve actually traveled to that country since my inaugural trip in 1983. I do remember that a few months after I graduated from college, I landed in Narita Airport with a large plastic suitcase and a secret agenda: to break Japan’s immigration laws by finding an English teaching job on a tourist’s visa. For my leisure hours I had different plans—to seek out adventures with handsome young men who would help polish my Japanese communication skills, verbal and otherwise.

Audacious dreams bring big rewards. Within two weeks, I found my first job. Although it was a low-paying gig at a small conversation school that is now defunct, I met people in my classes who are still friends today. If I was never confused for a native Japanese on the telephone, I was occasionally able to trick a few door-to-door salesmen through my apartment’s intercom. And the after-hours adventures? Well, they made wonderfully juicy material for my first novel, Amorous Woman, which will finally be available on Amazon US at the end of this month. (Forgive the plug, but if you read it, you will learn a lot about the night side of Japan!)

Donna Storey 1But back to counting plane tickets. After two lovely years in Kyoto, I returned to the US for graduate school and was soon back in Japan. Evenings were for book study now, as I was happily married, if sadly separated, from my spouse. I took several trips home for lost weeks of reunion sex, but then I have to wonder: does each return count as a new “visit” or does that year count only as one? And was it four, or five, or six times I accompanied my husband to Tokyo on business trips after that? Perhaps the lack of sleep I endured raising two fussy children erased such details from my memory. I do know the kids put an end to my Asian travels.

I know—you’re waiting for me to get around to John Lennon.

And I will soon. Very soon.

The reason for my most recent return was simple enough. Every New Year I’d write my friends in Japan and tell them that I hoped to be able to visit them soon. Two years ago, my Japanese “parents” wrote back: “We’re in our mid-seventies. You’d better come soon.” Family obligation—could there be a better excuse for a trip to venerable Kyoto? Yet, although I threw myself into planning the perfect trip for the family, I was also a bit worried about how it would go. Would my kids adapt well to foreign travel? Would I remember how to speak the language at all? Would all the “truths” about Japan that I poured into my novel, in an attempt capture a land I once loved so intimately, be proven nothing more than another Westerner’s self-absorbed fantasy?

Donna StoreyFortunately my worries were more or less unfounded. Although there’ve been changes—some, like non-smoking laws, quite welcome—in all the important ways Japan is still the same. And I discovered to my delight that I am still in love.

The trip was, literally, a non-stop feast. Each day began with a lavish breakfast. My usual Spartan yogurt and oatmeal was translated into a mouth-watering spread of rice, pickled plums, and miso soup along with some combination of tiny dishes of sweet rolled omelet, grilled fish, soy beans tossed with tiny shrimp, and blanched greens in sesame and soy sauce. Some days my friends took us to fine restaurants for reunion dinners of exquisite artistry, but the rest of the time we managed to keep ourselves stuffed with goodies from the department store food floors and famous noodle and sweet shops.

Donna Storey 3One day I literally noshed my way from shop to shop along the main street of a historic Edo-era village in the mountains of Nagano. First we sampled a variety of sweets at a souvenir shop, settling on a box of faintly sweet, faintly grainy chestnut cakes. Then it was on to enjoy a skewer of lightly grilled rice crackers, followed by fresh steamed buns filled with rich Japanese pumpkin, then samples of mountain mushroom broth, rice balls dipped in the local sesame-walnut sauce, and toothsome buckwheat soba, to be capped off with chestnut soft ice cream piled in a warm waffle cone. Alas there the street ended and we had to catch the bus back to our hotel. (It should be no surprise to anyone who reads this column that about 100 of the 500 digital photos we took were of food, albeit food that qualified as a work of art.)

Donna StoreyMy body was well-fed (although, magically the bathroom scale back home showed no sign of it), but my mind, memory and spirit were nourished as well. Just as the numerous tiny dishes of a traditional Japanese meal offer a balanced combination of the five tastes and five colors, prepared five ways, to appeal to the five senses and the five philosophical outlooks on life, each moment of my visit was enhanced with at least five layers of meaning and flavor. The intense sweetness of my first years in Japan when everything was so new mingled with recollections of later visits, tinged with faintly vinegary disappointment I could never be as intimate with the country as I’d hoped. But there was the tongue-prickling freshness of watching my children discover the place, and the bittersweet pleasure of seeing the country in its most beautiful and transient dress, the snowy pink of cherry blossom time. All of this was seasoned with a subtle yearning to come back soon. I had devoted myself to the study of Japan for twenty-five years. Finally the investment was returning a dividend of unexpected bounty.

Now I get to John Lennon—and sex.

My Japanese “parents” were treating us to lunch at Sumiya Kiho-An, a hot spring inn to the west of Kyoto near the farming hamlet where I lived during my first stay in Japan. The epitome of Japanese grace and hospitality, I knew my hosts had chosen this place because my boys mentioned they liked rotemburo or outdoor baths. It was only as an aside that my “mother” mentioned John Lennon had dined at the restaurant back in 1977.

I stopped in my tracks. “Oh, really?”

I’m not usually the drooling, fawning celebrity hound type, but for John Lennon I make an exception.

One of the receptionists, a somewhat older man, confirmed that he was working at the hotel when John Lennon was there. He pulled out a 10” x 10” piece of stiff Japanese paper protected by a clear covering and handed it to me. It’s a Japanese custom to ask distinguished guests to write a message on this kind of paper for posterity. Not surprisingly, John Lennon had scribbled a self-portrait in a few artful strokes with a small Yoko at his side. His signature with the date was at the bottom, along with hers in Japanese.

Donna Storey 5I admired the picture for a few moments and politely handed it back to the staff. I’d ask more questions now, but at the time I just followed my hosts to our private dining room. Still, the meal taken on new meaning. John’s ghost seemed to hover at my side. Not that I was in any way walking in his footsteps. The hotel had clearly been rebuilt since 1977 as is common in Japan—the photograph of the lobby here is not what he would have seen. Very old things are venerated, but that middle ground of “dirty” old tends to be razed and renewed with dismaying speed. So I couldn’t visit the room where he slept or sit at the table where he dined, but I could savor a few more surprising tidbits of memory from the past. My past.

“Who was your favorite Beatle?” is a question that might be more telling than any Rorschach test. I was a “John girl,” although I could see an argument for George in his gorgeous Help! phase. But John was the one who spoke to me, the intellectual, the visionary, the troubled soul who could be saved by a woman who understood him. Me, for example. But then a Japanese avant-garde artiste came along and snatched him up. Strangely enough, I didn’t mind. I always understood Yoko’s off-beat appeal. And they seemed so deeply in love, who was I to intervene?

The reality of his relationship didn’t stop me from fantasizing like crazy about sex with John. He starred in some of my earliest full-fledged erotic fantasies. Even in my imagination, I knew he’d be a challenge—a jaded, emotionally complex superstar who could only be thoroughly seduced by a woman of formidable intellectual and sexual skill. John tested my limits, forced me to try new things, urged me on to exotic tricks and subtle sensations. This adventurous spirit came in handy when I started to write erotica. For that, as much as his music, I owe him a bow of thanks.

Donna StoreyAnyway, lunch at John Lennon’s restaurant was delicious—I show a few courses here for your delectation—and I can only hope the meal he ate was as good. I found it uncanny, but satisfying that I would come so close to him in this far-flung and unlikely place. Japan was always full of small surprises for me, and our relationship still holds plenty of mystery. I mean, I’m not even sure of something as simple as how many times I’ve been there. Not to mention I have no good answer to that other question I’ve been asked so many times—why did I choose to come to the Land to the Rising Sun at all?

Donna Storey 7Why indeed? Out of polite necessity, I’ve worked up a few pat answers over the years. I read James Clavell’s Shogun and was intrigued. I saw an ad for English teachers in Asia outside my Renaissance Poetry class and thought—I have no prospects in the US, what the hell? Yet I still don’t have an answer that satisfies me, and sometimes I’ve felt this to be a lack, as if my love of Japan is less valid without a reasonable explanation. Fortunately, as I was writing this essay and thinking about John Lennon, I had a sudden flash of enlightenment. The questions of “why” and “when” are unimportant. What matters is that when I came to the country, it spoke to me intellectually, sensually, spiritually. As so I stayed in Japan for a time and Japan has stayed inside me ever since. Like the marriage of John and Yoko, the doubts and questions of the outside world are beside the point. We were meant to be.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with a small souvenir of Japan especially for writers—the literary convention of zuihitsu [zoo-ee-hee-tsoo] or “following the pen.” Personal essays have been an esteemed art form throughout Japanese history, but unlike the West’s preference for logical outlines and cogent argument, Japanese essays tend to be free-flowing meditations that meander without apparent structure or intent. And yet, by the end of the piece, the stream of images and reflections seem to circle back to a conclusion that ties everything together, loosely, but effectively. I’m told my essays resemble this style, which I consider a compliment.

My lunch with John Lennon reminded me of another benefit of this “formless” Japanese approach to writing. Taking an uncharted path can be the best way to reach your intended destination. I began this essay merely wanting to write—not to say brag—about breathing the same bit of Japanese country air, dipping in the same volcanically heated water that John Lennon did in 1977. Somehow, along the way, I found an answer—or rather something better than an answer—to a question that’s been nagging at me for a quarter of a century.

And so I urge you to try to follow your pen some time—sit down to write with no particular plan and see where it takes you. I suspect you’ll find yourself in a land worth exploring.

May’s culinary offering is, naturally, a dish from Japan.
Asparagus with Crushed Black Sesame (Serves 4 to 6)

This recipe is taken from Elizabeth Andoh’s wonderful cookbook Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen. It’s one of my favorite Japanese cookbooks because it’s lovely to look at and delightful to read, plus it explains ingredients and techniques clearly and is full of fairly simple, delicious and healthy dishes. I noticed in Japan that black sesame is very popular as part of the trend toward healthier eating for an aging population. This recipe is a great way to enjoy fresh, seasonal asparagus and the benefits of “kuro goma.”

12 oz. asparagus, preferably pencil thin
2 Tablespoons black sesame seeds, freshly dry-roasted (heated and stirred in a small, dry skillet until they let out a fragrance, but don’t burn)
2 teaspoons mirin (sweetened rice wine available in the Asian food section of the supermarket)
2 teaspoons light-colored soy sauce (regular okay)
1 to 2 teaspoons dashi or water

Snap off the woody ends of the asparagus. Slice the spears on the diagonal into 1 or 1 1/2” lengths. Set aside the tip pieces.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add all the asparagus except for the tips. When the water returns to a boil, add the tips and cook for another minute or two. The pieces should be bright green and still crisp.

Drain the spears but do not refresh under cold water. Instead allow them to cool to room temperature.

To prepare the sauce in a Japanese style mortar and pestle (a ridged clay bowl called a suribachi): Put the warm sesame seeds in the mortar and crush and grind, tapping the bowl as needed to concentrate the seeds in the center. As the seeds become aromatic and slightly oily, add the mirin and soy sauce drop by drop, continuing to grind and crush the seeds. With a rubber spatula, follow the grain of the suribachi grooves, scraping in downward motions to concentrate the sauce in the bowl. If the sauce seems thick, add a few drops of water or dashi. The final sauce should have the consistency of moist sand.

If you don’t have a suribachi (what, you don’t?), you can double the quantities listed and transfer the warm sesame seeds into the bowl of a mini food processor. Pulse to crush and crack them, stopping the processor as needed to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Drizzle in the soy sauce and mirin through the feed tube, pulsing briefly once or twice to blend. Add a little dashi as necessary. Reserve half of the sauce for later.

To finish the dish, toss the sauce with the asparagus to coat well. Divide into individual portions, coaxing each into a mound or stack the sauced vegetable either tepee style or pyramid style. Serve at room temperature.

Note: You can also use white sesame seeds for this dish.

Donna George Storey
May/June 2008

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2008 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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