Above: This warrior ldoesn't look convinced that being now able to buy durian in his native Japan is necessarily a good thing
I've lost count of how many times our merry crew of travelers in Japan said among ourselves, "Just when you think you've figured out Japan, it throws you a curveball".
Sometimes even a durian.
Midway through our Japan WWOOFing stint near Osaka, Nana -- our farm host's 18-year-old daughter -- pipes up at dinner and asks me if I know what a durian is.
Well of course I do. Durians are from my native Southeast Asia, I told her. Olive green, roundish and thorny on the outside. Yellow, creamy and bittersweet on the inside. Unbearably stinky to the uninitiated, a heavenly aroma to the converted. In foreigner-friendly Singapore where I grew up, they're not allowed anywhere on the public transport system or in hotels because of their smell.
Why do you ask, Nana?
"I saw doo-ree-yaan at a shop near my school. I cycled past it many times. I can smell it but I don't know what it's like. I don't know how to eat it," she said.
I chuckled, wondering how on earth durians got past customs in a land where the palette is very much about subtle clean tastes.
"So you know how to eat it? You like doo-ree-yaan?" Nana ventured again.
I love it, I told her, but I can't promise the same for anyone in Japan.
We left it at that and I thought nothing more of it, besides trying to decide if the globalised food supply system had reached new heights of sophistication or just downright silliness.
Two days later -- a public holiday in Japan -- Nana shows up while we're prepping lunch, with durian in tow.Of all the things I didn't expect to see in Japan, from to the ultimate blingbling hiphop star car, to an Obama effigy that defies description, to an army of singing mochis, a durian probably topped the list.
So durian for tea it was. Babs and I pried it open, handed sections around, and demonstrated how to nibble the creamy yellow pulp around the khaki-coloured seeds. I watched our hosts try to inhale as infrequently as possible.
And then I watched them eat durian with chopsticks.
The entire fun of being with someone when they have their first durian is watching their reactions. Shigemi, her mother and Nana, with vintage Japanese politeness, all said something to the tune of "it tastes better than it smells, but I've had enough now" -- Shigemi while offering us a third pot of tea to wash the taste out of our mouths (and her kitchen).
Yashinori -- Shigemi's 15-year-old son -- took a nibble, and then his eyes half popped out of his head. He made a loud retching sound, and then he bolted to the kitchen sink and stuck his head under the tap for a good 10 minutes.
Perhaps now was not the time to tell Yashinori that this durian was of the Thai variety -- less stinky, less bitter, and less runny than its Malaysian counterpart, and sometimes described with disdain by durian snobs as "might as well be eating sweet potato".
Later that evening, Shigemi let on that she had had a chat with Nana about the durian before Nana went and got it.
Said Shigemi to Nana: "So, you are willing to cycle all the way over the mountain and back, on a day when you don't have to go to school, and spend 1,600 yen from your supermarket part-time job pay, for something that smells funny, and that you know you might not like."
Apparently Nana's reply was "I have to find out. I have to."
A foodie after my own heart in the making.
Some photos have been removed from this post at our host's request.