It’s entirely possible that the Capital Region’s No. 1 fan is not a local resident. In fact, she’s not even a U.S. citizen, but lives nearly 7,000 miles away from Albany in a coal mining town in southwestern Japan.
I met chef and restauranteur Miho Tsujio shortly after I moved to her hometown of Tagawa for an assistant English language teaching placement in 2008.
You might not be familiar with the JET Program. It places English speakers with college degrees at schools and prefectural boards of education throughout Japan, where they participate in team-teaching with local English teachers and serve as “cultural ambassadors” in underserved and rural districts where kids don’t typically interact with many non-Japanese people.
Miho owns a Tex-Mex restaurant and bar called Oldies. I stopped in for dinner one night with a Canadian friend per his recommendation. Oldies is a real culture trip – a tiny hole-in-the-wall with checkered floors and wall-to-wall Americana – where you can order cheese enchiladas and taco salad, not exactly standard Japanese fare.
Miho’s business partner Toshi is a big American rock and country music fan whose family developed a famous recipe for homemade hot dogs – served undressed – on a stick.
On my first visit to Oldies, Miho asked if I’d like to join her to see the new “Sex & the City” movie. I’d never seen the TV show, but I accepted her invitation. We became fast friends, quickly progressing to sisterhood. She introduced me to her family and local friends, and was always available to help translate when I needed assistance.
I became a regular at Oldies, often dropping in on weeknights to sit at the bar and listen to ‘80s music. Miho told me about her culture clash childhood, growing up surrounded by mountains and rice fields while watching “Full House” and “Beverly Hills: 90210” and listening to Madonna.
Tagawa saw its peak in the 1950s and 1960s as a coal mining boom town. Today, the majority of Tagawa’s storefronts are shuttered and the streets are empty. But the locals are welcoming and proud of their heritage, and a vibrant underground rock and roll culture can be found if you know where to look.
I invited Miho to come stay at my parents’ house in Niskayuna during my first visit home in the summer of 2009. We flew into Albany International Airport and my parents took us right to the Wolf Road Denny’s at midnight. The next few weeks were a whirlwind of meeting old friends and showing Miho the many earthly delights of Capital Region suburbia.
We hit up the Crossgates Commons Wal-Mart, danced at ‘80s night at Fuze Box, and ate hot dogs in Capitol Park before taking longhouse selfies at the State Museum. But Miho’s favorite part of the trip was going for routine morning walks with my mom. Everything was her favorite. The magic was contagious. We cried when it was time to leave, and I immediately invited her back the next summer.
Miho has returned several times since then, and I finally got back to visit her in Japan this past spring. I am happy to report she is still head over heels in love with the Capital Region and insists it’s heaven. I recently conducted a little Q-and-A with her to try to capture the area through her eyes.
Q: You’ve been to New York, LA, Miami – why do you love Albany so much?
A: Albany is the first place where I could experience staying with an American family where my friend grew up. They are a kind family and their house is surrounded by beautiful neighbors in the forest in Niskayuna. I loved the beautiful nature there that I’ve never seen in Japan.
There are many old European-style buildings in Albany and Troy. I learned Albany is a very old historic city and it’s interesting to me. I also liked nightlife there! The Capital Region has a lot of places to have fun.
…It’s not too big of a city and not too crowded, so I can relax while shopping or eating out. I felt people in Albany are nice and friendly. Some people talked to me nicely and recommended places to go or taught me about the area. I have felt lonely many times when I traveled alone to other cities. But in Albany, I don’t feel lonely at all. I feel like I am in my hometown.
Q: Why is your English so good?
A: I was 13 years old when I started learning English at junior high school. I studied English with American movies and American shows from NYC, listened to American music and thought: What a cool country! I’d love to visit America in the future!
Then I visited Los Angeles for the first time when I was 23 years old, and I was in happy tears at the airport.
I haven’t had a chance to learn English at school abroad, but I have made a lot of friends from overseas and talk to them. My friend from Albany was a good teacher. We hung out almost every day at my restaurant and ate out or traveled together on weekends like sisters when she lived in Japan. We talked in English all the time then, and my English conversation skills have improved a lot.
Q: What is your favorite thing to do in Albany?
A: I enjoy feeling the beautiful nature. I went for a walk with my friend’s mom every morning when I was staying there. I enjoyed seeing tall trees, pretty houses, flowers in their garden, birds and squirrels. It was very quiet and the air was so clean. I have never felt that happiness in nature somewhere else.
Q: How is Albany different from your hometown?
Everything is different. My hometown is rural with rice fields and mountains, but very small and boring. There are not many nice places to go for a walk or to have fun. Albany had a lot of events when I visited, like the evening concert by the river. Tagawa doesn’t have many events even in summer time. I have visited Albany only in summertime, but the weather was so comfortable! The summer in my hometown is unbelievably hot and humid.
Q: You are a chef who has studied global cuisine in many different places. If you could open any restaurant in Albany, what would it be?
My specialty is Mexican food in Japan and I like Mexican food. But in Albany, I would want to do sushi rolls, nabe (stew) and izakaya dishes – which is Japanese tapas. I want people there to know and enjoy Japanese taste.
Q: What is the best food you ate in Albany?
There is a lot of good food in Albany, but my favorite is pasta chips baked with cheese, olives, tomatoes, onions and full cream sauce at Delmonico’s Steakhouse and mac and cheese at Blue Ribbon Diner in Schenectady. Those restaurants are still my favorites, even after I have been to many restaurants in other states.
Q: What do you want people in Albany to know about Tagawa?
I’d love them to see our river crossing festival called Kawawatari Jinkousai…This is the biggest event of the year and so exciting to see. We don’t have anything special in my town but we are proud of this event. If you ever visit Japan in mid-May, please come to Tagawa to enjoy this event!