At the iconic Zen rock garden of Ryōan-ji, I was meditating on a koan: “How do they manage to sweep the rocks and leave no footprints?” (The answer that kept coming up again and again was jetpack.) Lost in irreverent thought, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
Now that was something to which I had an affirmative answer and immediately I was surrounded by uniformed Japanese high school students assigned to find English speakers to whom to ask a few questions.
Many of the questions were straightforward. Where did I come from? What did I do for a living? Why was I in Japan? (I had practiced these answers with customs officials previously so I was well prepared.)
There was one hard question. What message would I like to give to the high school students of Japan? Feeling the weight of being some sort of cultural and adulthood ambassador I tried, each time, to come up with something pithy: Study hard; Eat your vegetables; Do your English homework; Use all of your vacation time. The kids nodded reflexively with a sympathetic understanding and reverence I assumed they reserved for their elders.
I answered one question well. When asked what my favorite food was in Japan I answered “Soba,” and the kids were immediately transported to some far off noodle shop, their eyes glazed over with delight, and they gave me a universal acknowledgement of, “Ooooh, soba,” that suggested that I too was in on the secret. The answer to everything, it seems, is soba.