Aug. 23, 2006: Obon

Bread is something that the Japanese seem to eat very little of. Aside from pastry-type goods, we see few loaves in stores, and they’re rather small. Until this morning, we’d never eaten bread here at all. But this morning, we were served a rather American-style breakfast of toast, jam, peanut butter and hard-boiled eggs. The peanut butter, however, was very different from what we’re accustomed to: lighter, creamier, sweeter, less salty. And quite delicious. Dennis caused some astonished gasps when he glopped a heavy layer of the stuff on his toast rather than just a thin smearing, but he ate it all.

After breakfast, Yukari took us on a two-hour drive to see her parents. On the way, we passed an auto salvage yard, the only one we’ve seen. (Accidents seem to be very rare, despite the narrow roads and abundance of bicycles.) We commented about how amazed we were by the pristine condition of all the vehicles on the road; we haven’t seen a single “clunker”, and we’ve only seen one vehicle with a dent in it. All the others look pretty much as if they’d just rolled off the assembly line. Yukari said that yes, if someone here gets body damage to his or her vehicle, they have it repaired immediately. And we explained to her that in the States, many people let it go because auto repair is prohibitively expensive, and it’s often cheaper to buy another vehicle than fix up a damaged one. She, in turn, was amazed. (Another interesting tidbit about driving in Japan: they have traffic lights with red, yellow and green just as the U.S. does. But they refer to a green light as a “blue light”. Go figure. Well, they are a different shade of green, but to American eyes, they’re still as green as a garden hose.)

Crossing a river, we also passed what appeared to be a homeless person camped under the bridge – the first such individual we’ve seen. Even in Tokyo, we witnessed no homelessness, no panhandling, no signs of dereliction. Maybe we just didn’t look in the right neighborhoods, but we get the unavoidable impression that poverty is just not the problem here that it is back at home. Certainly, Japan doesn’t have nearly the problem with crime – it may be, in fact, the safest nation in the world.

We arrived at her parents’ house just in time for lunch, and we were met eagerly at the door by an elderly couple who displayed typical Japanese hospitality and generosity. They also lived in a typical, or at least traditional, Japanese home, including several pairs of slippers stationed in each room, waiting for feet to fill them. A different set of slippers is used for each room, so if you get a tour of the house, as we did, you’ll be changing footwear several times. The toilet, by the way, was also the more traditional style, built into the floor horizontally rather than vertically. This contrasts with the toilet in the house where we’re staying, which is more western in design except for the addition of several gizmos not normally found in the U.S.

(Public restrooms are usually of the traditional Japanese type, but restrooms having several stalls – such as at a train station, for instance – generally offer at least one western style toilet as well. All the stalls tend to be more private than back at home, with walls from floor to ceiling. Except that in the men’s rooms, the urinals are much more open, and even may be exposed to public view.)

The one room that wasn’t equipped with slippers was the living room (we would call it), which had tatami (straw mats) on the floors, which are not to be touched by footwear of any kind, except for socks. In the center of this room, of course, was a low table surrounded by pillows, at which we had our lunch.

While we were eating, a rather curious object caught our eye: just above the doorway was a long wooden “rifle”, with a rubber tip on the end of the barrel. We wondered during lunch what its purpose could be. Our curiosity soon would be satisfied.

Yukari’s father told us (with Yukari’s assistance as interpreter) that he had served in the army during World War II; he even brought his uniform out of the wardrobe to show us. We asked about his rank, and he replied that he was the fourth rank out of 14, which, on the assumption that he was counting from the bottom instead of the top (in which case his jacket would have been more adorned), would have made him about the equivalent of a sergeant – maybe even master sergeant. In any event, he had a couple of commendations displayed on the wall, as well as the wooden rifle – which, he explained, was a practice bayonet that he had trained with.

He served for 4 years, the last 2 of which he was a POW in Siberia, working in waist-deep snow chopping down trees up to 4 meters thick. There was little food, and many of his fellow prisoners died. Looking at him now, it’s difficult to imagine that he ever was sturdy enough to survive such strenuous work and harsh conditions. And meeting such cheerful, gentle, amiable people, it’s hard to believe that they ever were The Enemy.

Yukari’s mother presented Zephyr with some money wrapped in tissue paper, explaining that it was customary to give such gifts to visiting grandchildren – of which she now considered him one! She also had such packets for Keisuke and Ayaka, but Yukari insisted that they wait until they could pick these up in person. When Zephyr unwrapped his gift later, he was quite astonished to see how much money she had enclosed –for a “grandson” she’d just met!

We arrived back at “home” in mid-afternoon, and Yukari, with the aid of Dennis, began making rice balls to take along to a special event tonight. Rice, as you no doubt are aware, is the backbone of the Japanese diet just as wheat is the backbone of the American diet, except to an even greater extent. Indeed, the word for rice (gohan) is also used to mean meal, and the words for breakfast, lunch and dinner (asa-gohan, hiru-gohan and ban-gohan) mean literally “morning rice”, “noon rice” and “evening rice”. Sometimes, however, rice is replaced by noodles – either udon or ramen (made from wheat) or soba (made from buckwheat).

Anyway, rice balls are really rice triangles, unless they’re made by novice hands like Dennis’, in which case they’re more like rice fifth-dimensional blobs. They were quite a source of amusement to Yukari, who commented that nobody would have trouble telling which ones were his. For one thing, he inserted a noticeably larger quantity of filling (either seaweed, cooked mustard greens or pickled plums). Once the ball/wedge is molded into more or less the proper form, it’s partially wrapped with a thin layer of seaweed. And now you have the secret recipe!

In the course of afternoon snacking, we brought out some grapes we’d picked up on a walk to a nearby market, and it was interesting to see another food habit of our host family, if not of the Japanese in general. Namely, only the pulp of the grape was eaten; after it was extracted in the mouth, the skin was discarded.

The event for which the rice thingies were prepared was held at a nearby military base. The military outfit is called the Japan Air Self Defense Force, and our hosts explained to us that Japan does not have a regular army. We wondered, then, if the JASDF is more like a reserve unit. We later realized that in fact the constitution prohibits not only a regular military (apparently due in part to pressure from the U.S. at the end of the Great War), but Article 9 states that the Japanese people have forever renounced warfare as a way of solving conflicts. Wow. In reality, the country’s military status is too complicated to explain here.

Tonight the base was opening its doors for a Bon Dance, a festival held in conjunction with Obon. (Festival of the Dead) This celebration started out as a Buddhist ceremony to cheer the spirits of the departed, but nowadays much of its religious character seems to have given way to an atmosphere of merrymaking. Traditional music and dance appeared alongside more contemporary hokey-pokey type dancing to such songs as the American pop hit “Beautiful Sunday”, with lyrics in both Japanese and English. The logo of the JASDF, by the way, was displayed consistently in English.

The military men were dressed in sweat pants and T-shirts, and one might say that they joined the dancing, but in truth they tended to parody it and just indulge in general horsing around.

Others took the occasion more seriously and wore traditional costumes – Ayaka was quite fetching in her light blue kimono, though she refused to dance.

Dennis and Kimberly, however, had to jump in and learn some of the traditional dance steps.

They followed behind Yukari at first, and later staked out a woman in traditional attire who seemed to know what she was doing. After a dance or two, she complimented them on how well they danced, apparently unaware that they were just following her lead!

You can see a clip of us hoofing it Japanese style here.