In the year during which Mrs M became pregnant, we were living in a two-storey block of four apartments, one of which was being used by our landlord to store furniture, and therefore empty. Living next to us on the second floor (that's a Japanese / American second floor, British first floor) was a middle-aged couple who had several screaming rows during the time we were living there (the walls were thin so it was hard to ignore), and whose relationship deteriorated to the point where by the time we moved out they hardly seemed to spend any time together. Beneath us on the first floor, meanwhile, was a younger man who appeared to live alone, and was a fan of what to my untrained ear sounded like ragga music. He would play his ragga not at ear-splitting volume, but loud enough to keep me from getting to sleep at night, and to wake me up before my alarm went off in the morning. We eventually made a complaint about this via the estate agents, and almost as soon as we had done so the music stopped, although this was just a coincidence.
As it turned out, the man had a wife and baby son, who, in accordance with Japanese tradition, had spent a few months around the time of the birth at her parents' house. Once they had moved back in with the father, instead of being kept awake at night by ragga, we could instead eavesdrop during the day on the general crash, bang, wallop of a baby boy going about his everyday business. When Mrs M got pregnant (read this
if you want a detailed account of our conception-related adventures), she quit her part-time job and, particularly for the first two or three months of the pregnancy, took things easy, and it was at this point that she realised something quite remarkable, namely that the baby downstairs - and its mother, for that matter - never
left the apartment.
The father would head off to work at around 7am, and come rain or shine, whether it be a weekday or a weekend, mother and baby would spend the rest of the day indoors, until the father got back at seven or eight in the evening. By the time we moved out, the baby was about a year old and already walking - we could hear his footsteps as he did circuits of the living room - but even at this point he was never taken to the local park, or even out of the front door to look around the yard. I said to Mrs M that surely they must go shopping together, but she explained that no, once or twice a week a van from the Co-op came to deliver groceries. Admittedly, the mother didn't appear to be local and probably didn't have any friends nearby, but despite having her own car, hardly ever used it.
We weren't sure if they were from the mother's or the father's side, but every few weeks the baby's grandparents would come to visit, and they too would only ever play with their grandson inside the apartment, before driving off again a few hours later. Even more infrequently than this, mother, father and baby would get in the car and disappear for the day, but based on the evidence we had, we could only assume this was to visit the same set of grandparents at home, and certainly not to go to Disneyland or even a shopping mall. So the only time their baby was exposed to the outside world was once every couple of months, when it was carried the short distance between apartment and car at one end of the trip, and car and house at the other.
Largely out of necessity, the mother made as creative use as possible of the relatively small space - probably about sixteen square metres - she had at her disposal, turning the apartment into a kind of live-in kindergarten, and kept her son occupied with all sorts of activities: among other things, the two of them could be heard reading books, playing games, playing with toys, exercising and watching TV, and she would forever be cooing over, chatting to or consoling him.
The boy's day-to-day life was probably as stimulating as it was possible to make it under the circumstances, but if nothing else, he was in danger of contracting rickets due to a lack of vitamin D, and Mrs M said that if she were in the same situation, it wouldn't be long before sheer claustrophobia drove her completely round the bend. The most heartbreaking thing that we witnessed - or rather, that we could assume from our eavesdropping - happened in March of last year, when the poor kid wasn't even allowed outside to enjoy the first snowfall of his young life; all he could do instead was survey the scene from the living room window.
OK, so I was exaggerating when I said they never
left the house: just once, I found the mother standing outside the back door with her son in her arms (it could have been my imagination, but they both looked rather pale), as they waved the grandparents off after a visit. Mrs M, too, bumped into them on one occasion, and during a brief chat was surprised to find out that when she was younger, the mother had spent a year living in Australia. The father, on the other hand, was what Mrs M described as a chinpira
(chav if you're British, redneck if you're American). He was foul-mouthed, prone to shouting at his wife, and preferred to spend his days off (actually day off - he seemed to work six-day weeks for the most part) working out at the gym rather than playing with his son. On one occasion, Mrs M returned from our early evening stroll to find him on the warpath, having discovered a strange car parked in 'his' space. Despite the fact that the car in question wasn't blocking him in and would no doubt be gone by the following morning, and that in any case, the car park was large enough to accommodate several more vehicles than were owned by the people who lived there, he had summoned both the landlord and the police. There was some paperwork relating to a cram school visible on the front seat of the offending car, and it took a certain amount of diplomacy on Mrs M's part to convince him that it wasn't me or one of my English-teaching friends who had parked it there,
Not that this is exactly a complimentary description of them, but contrary to what you might think, I don't in any way want to suggest that the couple were bad parents. The father may have been a little narrow-minded, but he wasn't a wife beater or an alcoholic (the middle-aged guy on the second floor sounded much scarier when he got drunk), and let's not forget that according to statistics, the average Japanese husband spends just fifteen minutes a day with his children. Also, the apartment-as-prison scenario is pretty extreme even by Japanese standards, where most parents will merely shield their baby from the elements until it is three months old, and smother it in hats, scarves and surgical masks to stop it from catching a cold thereafter (they also, I was surprised to find out recently, never kiss their babies, a custom that would come as a blessed relief to British politicians on the campaign trail). Once M Jr arrived, though, the experience of having such eccentric neighbours convinced us to take her outside as much as possible, and if there is ever the slightest hint that she has acquired an interest in ragga, I shall immediately confiscate her iPod.
It has now been three weeks since M Jr was born, and as well as the usual parenting concerns – eg. How do I change a nappy? How do I tell when a bottle of formula has reached the correct temperature? Is it just me or does one of her ears stick out slightly further than the other one? – I have been trying my best to get up to speed with the various traditions and pecularities associated with having a baby in Japan.
Starting at the very beginning, here’s what I’ve managed to find out so far (although be warned, as some of these may be specific to Ibaraki, or subject to variation depending on which part of the country you happen to live in):
1) Moh-koh-han ( 蒙古斑 / Mongolian spot)
Most East Asian babies, along with a few from isolated groups elsewhere in the world – Native Americans, for example, and East Africans – are born with a blue-green mark in the small of their back called a Mongolian spot. In most cases the mark disappears over time, although it occasionally persists until adulthood, or manifests itself elsewhere on the body (if you find your Mongolian spot embarrassing, like a tattoo, it can be removed with laser treatment). According to Wikipedia, Mongolian spots are sometimes mistaken for bruises in the West, and as a consequence, at least a few expat parents have been wrongly accused of hitting their children. M Jr has a small and rather faint Mongolian spot, although given that it's at the top of her builder's cleavage, I didn't think a snapshot would be appropriate.
2) Mei-shin (迷信 / superstitions)
M Jr is both a lion and a dragon (Leo and Chinese year of the~ respectively), although we won’t know what her ketsu-eki-gata (血液型 / blood type) is for another year or so, which in Japan is rather akin to not knowing your own name. Even Mrs M, who is almost as cynical as me when it comes to things like star signs, will talk in all seriousness about how As are obsessive compulsive and ABs have split personalities, and isn’t it unusual that we ended up together despite me being a B and her being an O.
A rather more obscure superstition that I became aware of just recently is the roku-yoh (六曜 / six labels for the Japanese calendar). Originally imported from China, the roku-yoh designate each day of the year with varying degrees of good or bad fortune, and while they don't really have anything to do with childbirth, I thought I'd share them with you anyway, in case, like me, you've ever wondered what all those strange kanji are next to the dates in your diary:
– Sen-shoh (先勝 / literally ‘before win’) – The morning of a sen-shoh day is lucky, but the hours between 2pm and 6pm are unlucky.
– Tomobiki (友引 / ‘friend pull’) – The morning is lucky, lunchtime is unlucky and the evening is very lucky. Tomobiki days are good for business dealings and lawsuits, but bad for funerals.
– Senbu (先負 / ‘before lose’) – The morning is unlucky and the afternoon is lucky.
– Butsu-metsu (仏滅 / ‘Buddha destruction’) – Very unlucky all day.
– Tai-an (大安 / ‘big safe’) – The most auspicious of the six, and thus a good day for weddings and the like.
– Shakkoh (赤口 / ‘red mouth’) – The time between 11am and 1pm is lucky, but the rest of the day is unlucky.
Despite being born at four in the afternoon on a shakkoh, M Jr seems to be doing well, although in future, we may decide to hold her birthday parties at lunchtime.
4) Héso-no-o (臍の緒 / umbilical cord)
Allowing a father to cut his baby’s umbilical cord is a recent development in Japan, and wasn’t even mentioned to me as a possibility when M Jr was born. A much older tradition dictates that the umbilical cord is given to the parents, who leave it to dry before placing it on the butsudan (仏壇 / Buddhist altar) or kamidana (神棚 / Shinto shrine) in the family home. Otoh-san, for example, still has both Mrs M’s and onii-san's umbilical cords, and while we donated most of M Jr’s for medical research, a small part of it now sits in a little wooden box on the kamidana.
(In contrast to this, Bobby Orgon
said recently on Sekai Banzuké
that in his home country of Nigeria, the umbilical cord is believed to possess mysterious powers, and that rather than keeping it, a father takes his baby’s umbilical cord from the hospital and buries it where there is no chance of it ever being found.)
Three days after her baby is born, it is customary for the mother to eat bota-mochi – rice cakes covered in red bean paste – and for her family to give them to friends and relatives when they pass on the news of the birth. Okah-san placed her order for bota-mochi almost as soon as M Jr had let out her first cry, and a couple of days later I took the day off work to drive okah-san around, handing out bota-mochi to our many aunts, uncles and cousins. The two main disadvantages of bota-mochi are that a) they’re not particularly appetising, and b) they’re made of mochi-gomé
(餅米 / extra-sticky rice used specifically for making rice cakes), which in the past was thought to aid the production of breast milk, but which has recently been found to do the exact opposite.
5) Mei-mei-sho (命名書 / name scroll)
Also on the third day after the birth, the mei-mei-sho – on which are written the baby’s name, its status within the family (for example, whether it’s an older brother or a younger sister), its birthday and the name of the head of the household – is displayed on the butsudan, the kamidana or even the tokonoma (床の間 / the decorative recess in an old-style tatami room, which in a modern-day hotel or B&B is often home to the TV). When Mrs M was born, otoh-san hired a professional calligrapher to write her mei-mei-sho at a cost of over 10,000 yen, whereas this time round, he typed it on Microsoft Word and printed it on a sheet of A4 paper.
6) Shussan-todoké (出産届 / notice of birth)
It is necessary to give notice at the town hall within fourteen days of a birth, so that your baby can be included on the koseki-toh-hon (戸籍謄本 / family register), and also so that you can begin receiving kodomo-té-até (子供手当 / child benefit). In the process of doing this, Mrs M and I realised that while M Jr will be registered as living at Mrs M’s parents’ address, her hon-seki (本籍 / permanent residence) is about a kilometre away, on a now empty plot of land where her great-grandparents – otoh-san’s parents – owned a house before they passed away in the 1970s.
7) Toko-agé (床上げ, aka obiaké / 帯明け or possibly obiya-aké / 産屋明け)
Back in the days when home births were the norm and the child mortality rate was far higher than it is now, a party called oshichi-ya (お七夜 / ‘honourable seventh night’) was held to celebrate a baby reaching a week old. Nowadays mothers and their babies spend that first week in hospital, and are only allowed to check out when they’ve been given a clean bill of health. At this point, however, they are expected to spend a further two weeks at the mother’s parents’ house, and this twenty-one-day period is known as toko-agé.
The literal translation of toko-agé is ‘floor up’, and refers to the practice of keeping mother and baby’s futon laid out on the bedroom floor at all times. While grandma does the washing, the cooking and the cleaning – not to mention as much of the baby-minding as her daughter is willing to hand over – mother and baby stay indoors and avoid anything that involves the use of cold water (they are seen as being particularly vulnerable to catching colds and infections). Unfortunately for Mrs M, otoh-san didn’t quite catch on to the purpose of toko-agé, and packed her futon away every morning, thus depriving her of the chance of a siesta. Also, for someone who was going for a walk at least once a day until the evening before M Jr was born, being stuck indoors felt a little claustrophobic, so she moved back to our apartment after just seven days in hospital and seven days at home.
8) O-iwai / uchi-iwai (お祝い / 内祝い)
In the UK, a new arrival is the cue for a veritable frenzy of knitting – booties, blankets, little baby-sized jumpers and so on – but in Japan, the parents will instead be granted the gift of cold, hard cash. The word o-iwai – ‘honourable celebration’ – is used to describe all kinds of gifts, but the tricky thing for the recipient is what to give in return (uchi-iwai).
As okah-san explained to us, uchi-iwai should amount to at least half the value of the original o-iwai, and it is best to go for a nice, round figure. For example, to the friends and relatives who gave us 10,000 yen o-iwai, we will give uchi-iwai to the value of 5000 yen, and for the friends and relatives who gave us 5000 yen o-iwai, we will round up their uchi-iwai to 3000 yen. Many people order their uchi-iwai from gift catalogues, but to avoid disappointment, Mrs M and I will be giving shopping vouchers instead, and okah-san has insisted that we supplement these with an extra present of something edible, meaning that in some cases we will retain just 20 % of the original o-iwai.
The shopping vouchers are from a credit card company called JCB (nothing to do with the people who make mechanical diggers, I might add), and purchased at a branch of the electronics store Yamada Denki. One of Mrs M’s great aunts lives just down the road from Yamada Denki, but when Mrs M suggested dropping in to hand over the uchi-iwai straight away, okah-san said that under no circumstances must we do so until the twenty-one days of toko-agé were up (after all, Mrs M was officially supposed to be at home, napping on her futon and with okah-san waiting on her hand and foot).
OK, so that’s the stuff we’ve already done, but still to come – in the near future, at least – are:
9) Omiya-mairi (お宮参り / first visit to the shrine)
After thirty days (one website suggests thirty-one for a boy and thirty-two for a girl, but anywhere around the one-month mark seems to be OK), the baby is taken to the local shrine so its family can pay their respects to the ubusunagami (産土神 / god of one’s birthplace). In some cases, this is done a hundred days after the birth, and known as momoka-mairi (百日参り / hundred-day visit).
10) Okui-zomé (お食い初め / literally ‘honourable eat first’, aka momoka-iwai / 百日祝い)
Taking place a hundred days after the birth, okui-zomé is symbolic of the move from a milk-only diet to rinyu-shoku (離乳食 / solids), although unfortunately for the baby, the food on offer is strictly for adults. A variety of traditional dishes are laid out on the dinner table and then wafted under the baby’s nose - if it’s a boy, this is done by the senior male member of the family, and vice versa for a girl – before being eaten. Presumably the baby has to make do with a jar of Cow & Gate instead.
(Nb. This isn't M Jr, just an anonymous Google picture search baby.)
11) Koku-seki (国籍 / Nationality)
While most Japanese citizens are only allowed to hold one passport, those of mixed parentage (who are referred to as haafu – ie. half-Japanese, half-foreign) are allowed to hold two until they reach twenty years of age. At that point they are supposed to choose which passport they want to keep, although some who retain their Japanese passport secretly renew the other at a later date. By the same token, some parents don’t bother registering their haafu baby with the relevant foreign embassy in the first place, effectively choosing Japanese nationality straight away.
Partly because so many foreigners went back to their home countries after the earthquake, immigration laws – or at least the way in which they are implemented – have been relaxed a little of late, so I have a feeling the one-passport-only rule may have been dispensed with by the time M Jr reaches her twentieth birthday. In any case, at some point in the next few months, Mrs M and I will apply to the Consulate-General in Hong Kong for M Jr’s British passport, which will cost about a hundred quid including postage, and last her for the next five years (by which time she will of course look utterly different from the photograph of Winston Churchill contained therein).
For the past twenty years or so, the city in which I work has been running an exchange programme with its twin town (or 'sister city', as they prefer to say here) in the States, so for much of last week I had the chance to act as interpreter, when a group of ten students and two teachers came for a whirlwind tour of Ibaraki.
Not that they were short of interpreters: at the first-night welcome party there were four of us, most of the Japanese speeches had already been translated into English, and the Americans - K-sensei and her student, er, K-san - did an admirable job of reading out the phonetic Japanese versions of theirs, leaving me with more time to relax and eat pizza (the organisers of the exchange had decided not to inflict anything too culinarily outlandish on their guests when they had only just arrived in the country).
The following day T-kun - who back home in the States is in even more sports clubs than his Japanese counterparts: basketball, athletics and American football - was guest of honour at the school where I am currently working, and we immediately put him to work in some first-grade (seventh grade if you count the American way) English classes. After a few minutes of conferring, each of the students asked him a question - Do you like Japanese food? How tall are you? Do you have a girlfriend? etc - although even with everyone speaking English, I still needed to do some interpreting, this time from beginner's English into British English, and from American English back into beginner's English.
In the afternoon the exchange students were treated to a bunka-taiken (文化体験 / cultural experience), and first up was origami, for which they didn't just learn how to make the usual birds and planes, but also a so-called kami-teppoh (紙鉄砲 / paper gun), an ingenious triangular contraption that you hold at one corner and snap open with a whipping motion to produce an impressively loud banging noise (so impressive that the boys never tired of creeping up on people and firing it off directly behind them).
Next was shodoh (書道 / calligraphy), for which they wrote the character for friend (友) over and over, until it was legible enough to be committed to posterity on a square of gold-edged card. T-kun is left-handed, and I asked the sensei if this might present him with any difficulties.
'To be honest,' she said, 'left-handed children used to be made to write with their right hand instead. These days you can use pens and pencils, so it isn't so much of a problem, but kanji were originally conceived to be written right-handed, with a brush.' (Possibly for the same reasons, Mrs M's father, who was born left-handed, taught himself to be right-handed when he was still at school.)
Last of all we donned kimono and hakama (袴 / essentially a man's kimono) for chadoh (茶道 / the tea ceremony). This was my fourth or fifth encounter with chadoh, and while I don't pretend to know anything more than the absolute basics, I did at last find out about the whole bowl-turning thing: the chawan (茶碗 / tea bowl) has a decorative front and a plainer reverse, and the server presents the more appealing decorative side to the customer (the drinker?). The customer then rotates the chawan clockwise through 180 degrees, so that the decorative side is facing away from him or her. He or she then drinks from the plain side of the chawan - thereby keeping the decorative side pristine - before rotating it anti-clockwise though 180 degrees to its original position and handing it back to the server.
'All we need now is some kertarner,' said the boys as they struck samurai-style poses for the camera after the ceremony. 'Don't they have any kertarner we can use?'
'What's a kertarner?' I asked them.
'You know, a samurai sword!'
'Oh, you mean a katana!'
'Is there anywhere we can buy one?'
It was at this point that K-sensei intervened to try and persuade them that maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to try and smuggle samurai swords onto the return flight.
After another day at school, on the Friday we took a trip to the Aquaworld aquarium in Oh-arai Town, where as the first customers of the day we were granted a glimpse behind the scenes. Our guide wore a Britney mic
and carried a portable loudspeaker, but even with the volume turned up, his voice was drowned out by the sound of the many pumps and water treatment gizmos above the fish tanks (whose perspex walls, incidentally, are a reassuringly sturdy 55cm thick), which made the experience rather less educational than it might have been.
After watching the dolphin show we headed for the food court, where I sat down to have lunch with a couple of the Japanese boys.
'So, do you want an American girlfriend?' I asked them.
'Yes!' came the enthusiastic reply, and I assume the Americans would have returned the compliment: after several days in each other's company, the students finally seemed to be getting over the double-whammy of a language barrier and teenage shyness, and had more fun skimming stones and paddling in the Pacific after lunch than the penguins did at feeding time.
In the afternoon we went to a shopping cen...sorry, I mean 'outlet mall', which on a dull weekday was almost completely devoid of customers. Still, some of the girls managed to spot a slightly scary looking transvestite (is there any other kind of transvestite than a slightly scary looking one, I wonder?), and the boys - egged on by me, it has to be said - dared each other to go into the Triumph lingerie shop, ask one of the assistants for help, and hold up a bra-and-panties set in front of the mirror as if they wanted to try it on.
After a very long flight, several days of looking after a group of rowdy kids and several evenings spent with a teetotal host family, the other American teacher, S-sensei, was in dire need of beer, so we booked a table at a nearby izakaya for a child-free evening meal. By about 10pm, S-sensei was finishing off his sixth dai-jokki (大ジョッキ / large glass of beer), and insisted on ordering 'One more!' before calling it a night - much to the surprise of his hosts, he was still able to walk and talk as we made our way out to the car park.
The following evening, Mrs M and I were invited to a barbecue by T-kun's host family, and when we arrived, the boys were having a BB gun shooting contest. T-kun managed to knock down a row of three bottles and cans in twelve seconds (it was the kind of gun you have to reload between each 'bullet'), and just as I was remarking how only an American could handle a gun so expertly, one of the Japanese boys achieved the same feat in just seven seconds.
After dinner we grabbed some torches and headed for a nearby valley, where along a gravel track at the edge of the rice fields, a few points of greenish light were flitting back and forth in the long grass. These were hotaru (蛍 / fireflies), which for a first-timer like me were an enchanting sight, and which even Mrs M confessed to not having seen for the best part of twenty years (in a nice example of linguistic logic, the kanji for hotaru forms part of the Japanese word keikoh - 蛍光 - meaning 'fluorescence').
After a farewell party on the Sunday evening, the exchange students and their teachers began the long journey back to America, although not before expressing their continuing amazement at the fact that I don't have a middle name ('You don't have a middle name?' 'No.' 'Why not?' 'My parents didn't give me one.' 'But you have to have a middle name!' 'What's your middle name, then?' 'I'm not telling you!' etc). As well as allowing me some time away from teaching English, it had been nice to be able to see the country through the eyes of those who are experiencing it for the first time, and reminded me of how I felt on the occasion of my first visit nearly a decade ago, when - as S-sensei described it - Japan seemed like 'a magical place'.
Before embarking on my cycling-tour-stroke-endurance-test to Sado Island last summer, I decided to build up my stamina with a spot of hiking. On a typically sweltering August afternoon, I parked the car at a michi-no-eki (道の駅 / roadside services), took a precautionary photo of the route - as displayed on a nearby information board - and headed west along a narrow valley road. The footpath I wanted was so well hidden that I walked straight past it the first time, and having doubled back, found it to be overgrown and strewn with fallen branches. Fortunately, a local hiking group had been considerate enough to tie lengths of day-glo pink ribbon to trees along the way, so the main obstacle to my progress was the enormous number of spider's webs, seemingly all of them at head height. To be honest, apart from swatting away at these with a makeshift walking stick, there wasn't much to keep me distracted, and in well over an hour of yomping the only thing I found worthy of a photograph was this mushroom - quite an impressive mushroom, it has to be said, but a mushroom nonetheless.
I passed the highest point on the trail - the 275-metre peak of Mount Shirazawa-fuji - almost without realising, and soon arrived at the Shirayama Jinja (白山神社 / White Mountain Shrine), which was as shrouded in foliage as everything else in the vicinity.
While its surrounding stone walls - well, they were more like battlements - had tumbled over in the earthquake, the shrine itself was perfectly intact: originally erected in 1515, Shirayama was burned down in a forest fire in 1862 before being rebuilt in 1880, and there appeared to be at least 132 years' worth of dust on the floors and furniture inside.
The front steps were the first place I had found that offered enough space to sit down, so I dug out the carton of tea and peanuts choco
I had brought with me and took a break. And that would have been it, had I not discovered another, much smaller shrine a few hundred metres further along the trail, tucked away in the mossy recesses of a rocky outcrop.
(金精神) is a Shinto god of fertility, safe childbirth and happy marriage, and making an offering at a konsei-jinja
(金精神社 / konsei shrine) reputedly works as a miracle cure for STDs (thank you, Wikepedia Japan
). The kon
of konsei means 'gold' or 'shining', and the sei
means, among other things, 'sperm' or 'sexual stamina'. So in the same way that the kintama
are one's 'golden balls', the konsei
are, so to speak, one's 'golden tadpoles'. Not that you need to know any of this to identify a konsei shrine, as its centrepiece is normally a large phallus - or phalli - made of wood (no laughing at the back there, please), stone or metal.
This tiny shrine had three of them, and while I hadn't thrown any money into the collection box at Shirayama, I felt that this was too good an opportunity to miss, and tossed a hundred-yen coin into the cave-like cubby hole before saying a prayer.
At the time, Mrs M and I were just about to embark on our first attempt at IUI, and whether or not this unplanned pilgrimage helped things along, I don't know. Still, the coincidence had a karmic feel to it, and as if to emphasise my good fortune, not long before rejoining the main road to the michi-no-eki, I was finally rewarded with a view.
As a footnote to this story, a couple of weeks later I came within a few hundred metres of a much more renowned konsei shrine, which is apparently a short walk from the Konsei Pass between Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures. While I didn't realise this at the time, the road from the pass did take me through the Konsei Tunnel - or if you prefer, the Golden Tadpole Tunnel - an act that for its sheer Freudian symbolism must surely have done Mrs M and I some favours.
Mrs M is now seven months' pregnant (or eight if you count them the Japanese way), and we keep ourselves amused of an evening by watching Muzuhashi Junior on the move. She seems to be most active just after we've eaten and just after we've gone to bed, and like a cat in a sack, when she kicks her legs or wiggles her arms, little comedy bulges appear in Mrs M's bump. Late last year, though, when we had only just found out the good news, M Jr was a barely discernable shadow on the ultrasound scan - like the kind of inconclusive photographs people point to as evidence of the existence of UFOs or life on Mars.
No matter how apparently healthy your baby is - a couple of weeks later, and despite being just 8mm long, M Jr's heartbeat was both audible and visible - the chances of miscarriage are relatively high if you have conceived with the help of infertility treatment. So Mrs M quit her part-time job and spent those first few months doing as little as possible - not that she felt like doing much in any case, as she was queasy from morning sickness most of the time.
Before the pregnancy we had made pilgrimages to various kosazuké-jinja (子授け神社 / 'child bestowing shrine'), and as well as tossing a coin in the collection box and saying a prayer, bought lucky charms called omamori (お守り) and ofuda (お札 - in case you're thinking of buying one, an ofuda is supposed to be hung on a south-facing wall and returned to the shrine if and when your baby is born).
Once you're pregnant it's time to visit an anzan
(安産 / safe childbirth) shrine, and to observe a somewhat obscure tradition called inu-no-hi
(戌の日 / dog day). Because they can pop out a healthy litter of puppies every year, dogs have long been regarded as symbolic of safe childbirth, although as opposed to the more commonly used kanji for dog (犬) the dog of dog day (戌) is the eleventh sign of the Chinese zodiac. There is therefore a dog year every twelve years and a dog day every twelve days throughout the year,
and on the first dog day of the fifth month of her pregnancy, the mother-to-be buys a length of white material called a hara-obi
(腹帯 / literally 'stomach belt'). The hara-obi is wrapped around her belly to support her bump, protect the baby and keep them both warm, although as Mrs M discovered, having your stomach bandaged up in several metres' worth of swaddling makes it hard to breathe and practically impossible to sit down. There is a very detailed description of dog day - in Japanese only - at this website
, and judging from the diagrams contained therein, Okah-san didn't wrap Mrs M's hara-obi in quite the correct fashion.
Shrines and temples, incidentally, make plenty of money from hara-obi, ofuda and the like, and tend to be conspicuously well appointed: above the entrance to the Izumotaisha child bestowing shrine in Kasama City is this enormous rope, which despite weighing in at a quite mind-boggling six tons is replaced every year.
After dog day we went along to the city welfare department to register the pregnancy, and to take advantage of the various financial incentives on offer to prospective parents. As if to emphasise the declining birth rate out here in the sticks, when we arrived at the reception desk the lights were off and there was no one in sight. The sound of laughter drifted over from the far end of the darkened office, along with the unmistakable aroma of McDonald's french fries, and after calling out a few hopeful 'Excuse me!'s, a woman eventually appeared and led us into a meeting room to complete the paperwork.
Despite managing to avoid the enormous expense of IVF, we were still entitled to most of the money back for our three courses of artificial insemination (which I have been reliably informed is referred to as IUI - intra-uterine insemination - in the UK), along with a large chunk of what we will pay for scans and antenatal care. Once M Jr is born, as well as child benefit (jidoh-téaté / 児童手当) we will get a nappy allowance every month for the first year of her life, although a cut-price car seat is one of many expenses to have been trimmed from the council budget due to the financial burden of the earthquake.
A couple of weeks later we went back for a Baby Welcome Class, which was mostly for the benefit of us dads-to-be. Using a life-size and life-weight baby doll, we were shown how to change a nappy (the midwife's advice was to avoid lifting the baby's bottom by grabbing hold of its ankles, as this can put unnecessary pressure on its lower back) and how to bathe the baby (for this we kept a towel draped over the baby's body help it feel at ease). The dads were also asked to wear a pregnancy simulation suit, so that we might better understand what it is like to use a Japanese-style squat toilet, for example, or lay out a futon, when you have acquired what is effectively a 10kg beer gut. In fact, the limit on weight gain during pregnancy - strictly enforced by most doctors - is a mere 7kg (just over a stone), and when Mrs M attended a separate antenatal class at the maternity clinic, most of the time was taken up with warnings about how bad it is for an unborn baby to be subjected to a diet of fatty foods.
At the Baby Welcome Class we were also shown an old NHK educational film, in which an expectant father - replete with eighties side-parting and large-framed, Buggles-style specs - was subjected to various tests and experiments. In one rather surreal sequence, a researcher swallowed a small, waterproof microphone and the father talked to the researcher's stomach as if it were his pregnant wife's. The resulting recording was played back to show how clearly an unborn baby can hear what is going on in the outside world, although in this case it was merely a rather stilted 'Hello? This is your dad. How are you?'
While babies can't see or smell anything when they're in the womb, their senses of hearing and taste are already developing, and a recent TV programme put forward the intriguing theory that up until they are three or four years old, about a third of children retain memories stretching back until before they were born. Of the children who were interviewed for the programme, several recalled the food their mothers craved during pregnancy, as welll as the moment of birth itself: one talked about the taste of a particular melon-flavoured ice cream bar, and another described the feeling of being popped out of his mother's stomach when she had a Caesarean, information they (probably) wouldn't have heard about second hand. (Apparently, such children are less likely to open up to their own parents, so the next time you meet a friend's or relative's toddler, try asking them what they remember and you may be surprised by the response.)
Other than the Baby Welcome Class, the only research I have done into becoming a parent is watching The Back-Up Plan on DVD, a thoroughly unremarkable film notable mainly for J-Lo's hairstyle, which looks as if she has been in head-on collision with a steamroller and a tanker full of industrial-strength bleach. Something tells me that the time has come to start reading Mrs M's ever growing collection of baby books and magazines...
The kocho-sensei at my junior high school was originally a science teacher, and under his guidance, the four special needs students do more gardening and botany-based activities than anything on their official timetable. A few weeks before Christmas I joined them in the school allotment to help harvest the soba (蕎麦 / buckwheat) crop, which was then left to dry in the sun. A few days later the soba seeds, which are wrapped in shiny black husks, were separated out and spread out on a tarpaulin on the classroom floor, and come the spring term the laborious process of transforming them into soba flour will begin.
The next step – known as soba-uchi - is to make noodles from the flour, but with barely enough seeds to produce a single portion of noodles, kocho-sensei went to a nearby farm shop to buy a job lot of flour (which incidentally is expensive stuff: a kilo will set you back more than 1000 yen / £5). With the students still on their winter vacation, he then invited the staff from two nearby elementary schools to join us for a kind of soba-uchi group bonding day.
When I arrived in the morning, kocho-sensei already had a towel tied around his head, something that seems to be a pre-requisite for any activity that might be considered bloke-y. A towel is the headgear of choice for most builders and carpenters, for example, not to mention anyone firing up a barbecue, mowing the lawn or taking part in those festivals where groups of men march through the streets carrying extremely heavy replica shrines. S-sensei - who is my point of contact at the elementary school where I teach once a week - turned up similarly attired, and turned out to be something of a soba-uchi expert.
‘What ratio are you using?’ he asked kocho-sensei.
’Go-wari,’ replied kocho-sensei (go-wari means 50%, and while you can buy juu-wari - 100% - soba at some restaurants, those in the know say that if you mix in a certain amount of wheat flour, it makes the noodles easier to make and tastier to eat).
‘Go-wari?’ said S-sensei. ‘That’s not soba at all, it’s udon!’
‘I’m just trying it out to see what will happen.’
‘Well, it’ll certainly make the dough easy to work with. Not sure what they’ll taste like, though. How much are you making?’
‘500 grams of soba flour and 500 grams of udon flour, so that makes a kilo.’
‘A kilo? That’s way too much!’
‘Don’t worry, I’m going to divide it in half before I roll it out.’
We were soon joined by kyoto-sensei (教頭先生 / the deputy headteacher) and both the kocho and kyoto senseis from S-sensei's elementary school, and for the first half hour or so I hovered in the background while they got a production line up and running. S-sensei had finished a pristine batch of noodles within about fifteen minutes, and I was surprised to see kocho-sensei struggling somewhat with his, despite being in possession of a brand new soba-kiri hoh-choh (蕎麦切り包丁 / soba knife - these are similar to a meat cleaver but more rectangular, with the handle in the middle as opposed to at one end).
‘Nice knife,’ said elementary kocho-sensei. ‘How much did that set you back?’
‘It was supposed to be 25,000 yen, but it was the last one in the shop, so I managed to haggle him down to 15,000.’
‘I’ve got to go to the staff room and meet someone from the board of education,' said kocho-sensei after completing his own batch of noodles, 'so it’s your turn now. Do you fancy having a go at foon-zuké (踏ん付け)?’
‘What’s that?’ I asked him.
‘You put the dough in a plastic bag on the floor and knead it with your feet.’
‘I don’t think we’ve got time for that,’ said S-sensei.
‘True. Well, I’ve measured out a nana-wari (70%) mix, so have a go at that.’
Once you've measured out the flour and sieved it into a wide, shallow lacquerware bowl, you gradually pour in one part water to two parts flour and work this in with your fingertips (in this case we were using 250ml of water to 500g of flour, which appears to be the standard amount, and produces enough noodles for about five portions). The mixture gave off a tremendous earthy aroma, and while at first it resemled breadcrumbs or the topping of a fruit crumble, once all the water had been added it soon congealed into a lump of dough about the size of a grapefruit.
The uchi part of soba-uchi means ‘hit’, and I assume refers to the next stage of the process. While you don't leave the dough to rise as you would for bread or pizza, it still needs to be softened up, which means repeatedly turning it over and squashing it with the heel of your hand: kocho-sensei said that about four hundred ‘hits’ is about right, which takes about ten minutes and requires a fair amount of elbow grease. (The owner of a restaurant in Hokkaido once demonstrated the process to me, and after years of making soba by hand, his forearms resembled Popeye’s in their post-spinach state.)
Contrary to S-sensei, kocho-sensei preferred to add warm water to the flour instead of cold, which made the resulting dough comparatively easy to work with, and I was soon ready for the next step. Again using the heel of your hand, you roughly flatten out the dough on a large chopping board – about 75cm square – and roll it out using a long, thin rolling pin called a menboh (麺棒). Getting the dough down to the correct thickness is easy enough; the tricky part is rolling it into a square instead of a circle.
Elementary kocho-sensei was the expert at this, and explained that once your dough has reached about half the size you want to end up with, you wrap it around the menboh, roll both across the board six times – gently so as not to flatten the dough too quickly – turn the menboh through ninety degrees, unroll the dough, wrap it around the menboh again – this time from the next ‘corner’ of the square – and repeat the process. At least in theory, this should stretch the four corners of the dough and leave you with a square that is slightly smaller than the chopping board.
Using the menboh to lift up one edge of the dough, you then fold it in half, fold it again lengthways, and once more end-to-end, leaving you with an eight-layered rectangle approximately thirty centimetres long by fifteen centimetres wide. The important thing at this stage is to to sprinkle some uchiko (打ち粉 / spare soba flour) over the dough before each fold – something that I neglected to do on my first attempt, and which resulted in my noodles sticking together in the way that spaghetti can if you forget to stir it as it’s cooking.
Now it was time for the fun part, namely getting my hands on that hefty soba knife. As a rule, Japanese chefs wield their kitchen knives slightly differently from us Europeans, so that rather than using the point of the knife on the chopping board as a pivot and lowering the blade in an arc towards the body, here you hold the knife above and parallel to the chopping board, and keep it level as you cut downwards and slightly away from the body.
To cut noodles, you also need something called a koma-ita (小間板), which is a kind of wooden paddle with a handle on top and one straight edge. Being careful not to exert too much pressure, you place the koma-ita at one end of the dough with a millimetre or two of dough exposed. Using the straight edge as a guide, after each downward cut you keep the blade on the chopping board and lean the soba knife slightly to the left, nudging the koma-ita ever so slightly in the same direction, and leaving it in just the right position to guide you for your next cut.
‘You cut fifteen times for each portion,’ said elementary kocho-sensei. ‘Then you slide the noodles to the edge of the board and pick them up gently with your right hand. Tap them on the board like this’ – lowering one end of the handful of noodles onto the board not only got rid of any excess flour, but also separated any noodles that hadn’t been cleanly cut – ‘then hold the other end in your left hand and do the same thing again. Give them a bit of a twist before you lay them out,’ he said. ‘Makes them look more appetising, doesn’t it?’
At the other end of the kitchen, the tea lady, the school nurse and the home economics teacher had been cooking away for most of the morning, and just outside, the elementary kyoto-sensei was simmering the noodles for a few minutes at a time over a gas burner in a huge cooking pot. They were then rinsed in cold water and arranged on large, flat, basket-like trays before being carried into the next room, where tables had been laid for the forty or so teachers, who by midday had begun to arrive for lunch.
A posse of them soon crowded round to check on my progress, and having concentrated so hard on trying to produce the perfect soba, I was exhausted by the time I completed the final cut.
‘Full marks! Very good!’ said elementary kocho-sensei, and while my noodles weren’t as uniformly slender as S-sensei’s (who did, I was interested to see, have at least one mini-crisis, when a batch of dough became irreparably creased as he was rolling it out and almost forced him to start again from scratch), they didn’t look quite as flat, wide and tagliatelle-like as some of the others that were on show.
As well as being comparatively low in calories, the completed noodles have an attractive, speckled appearance - the tiny black dots are leftover fragments of husk - and today we had a choice of hot miso-based soup with pork and vegetables (kenchin soba) and cold, soy sauce-based soup with wasabi and spring onions (zaru soba) in which to immerse them. One of the teachers at my table told us about a restaurant in Mito where you can order soba sushi, soba dumplings and even soba ice cream, but for the moment at least, I think I'll stick to good, old-fashioned noodles.
Many Japanese still have rice for all three of their main meals, and while Japan's food miles are some of the highest - if not the highest - in the world, rice is one of the few foodstuffs in which it is completely self-sufficient. What this means is that almost every square metre of arable land is given over to rice farming, and it's fascinating to watch the process unfold, from ta-ué (planting / 田植え) in the spring to iné-kari (harvesting / 稲刈り) in the autumn.
There is a character (played by Harvey Keitel) in the Wayne Wang / Paul Auster film Smoke, who walks across the road from his shop, sets up his camera in exactly the same spot, and clicks the shutter at exactly the same time each morning. As well as being a metaphor for the the random and yet cyclical nature of life, the resulting photographs demonstrate how one can find beauty and significance in the seemingly inconsequential, and inspired me to do the same thing for rice farming in rural Ibaraki that Keitel's character does for pedestrians and passing cars on a New York street corner.
So, every weekday morning and afternoon from the beginning of May to the beginning of October this year, I stopped to take a photo of the tambo (田んぼ / rice fields) on my way to and from work. Sometimes the weather was beautiful, sometimes there was - quite literally - a typhoon passing through, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, the sky went a kind of purple-y colour. Whilst I would like to have created a proper video that can be viewed full-screen, for the moment you'll have to make do with this Weebly slideshow. As you'll see, it took me a couple of weeks to settle on the ideal spot from which to take my twice-daily photo, and there is a break of about a month during which the rice grows noticeably taller and yellower (I was on my jaunt to Sado Island at the time), but hopefully it will give you a pretty good idea of how the tambo go from mud to rice and back again, in the process providing the Japanese with a large proportion of their daily carbohydrate intake.
To view the slideshow, hover your pointer over the photograph below and click on the 'Play' icon. It's about three or four minutes long, and there is a special bonus prize of, er, a bag of rice for anyone who spots the microlight.
(Incidentally, for some proper 'rice field art', take a look at this post from Pink Tentacle
The obon festival happens in mid-August, when most people take two or three days off work to return to their hometown and – more importantly – to pay homage to their ancestors at the family grave. Practically speaking, this usually means many hours stuck in an expressway traffic jam, followed by a day or two of over-eating and allowing the grandparents to spoil the grandchildren rotten, followed by many more hours stuck in an expressway traffic jam (some of this year’s were up to 70km long). Fortunately, Mrs M’s parents live just 12km away along a quiet country road, and they don’t as yet have any grandchildren to spoil rotten, so our obon was a pretty relaxed affair.
On Saturday evening we went to the local obon festival, which included food, drink and amusement stalls (hoopla, catch the goldfish and so on), a music stage, a taiko
(太鼓 / Japanese drumming) contest and a procession of omikoshi
(お神輿), which are the sometimes large and sometimes heavy portable shrines that groups of people in traditional costume carry through the streets, chanting as they go.
‘Occasionally,’ otoh-san told me, ‘the omikoshi get dropped. A few years ago one of them landed on that shop over there.’
‘I suppose it must be difficult to keep it upright if you’ve been carrying it for a long time,’ I said.
‘Ah, but that wasn’t an accident. The guy who owned the shop wasn’t very popular. He was always complaining about his neighbours, so they got together before the festival and planned the whole thing!’
When I asked if otoh-san had ever done any omikoshi carrying himself, he said that no, he wasn’t really interested in that kind of thing – in fact, this was his first visit to the festival since Mrs M was in kindergarten, and once we had jostled our way through the crowds for half an hour, he was keen to get away. With no fireworks either – many local councils have been trying to save money after the earthquake – this meant that much to Mrs M’s disappointment, instead of sticking around for some festival food (the whale meat shish kebabs were sold out, I noticed), we had a sit-down meal in a nearby restaurant, before rounding off the evening with a spot of karaoké.
The local karaoké box is under new management, and otoh-san complained that on their newly installed machines, the enka
(演歌 / traditional ballad) recordings were all slightly flat, although you can of course adjust the key and speed of any song, and the volume and reverb of both the vocal and music tracks. There is also a new feature – or rather, a souped-up version of an old feature – that monitors your voice and gives a percentage score based on factors like timing, vibrato and whether or not you’ve managed to stay in tune: the aim while you’re singing is to keep the undulating line of your voice as close as possible to a scrolling graphic of the song, which looks like a cross between Wii Guitar Hero and proper musical notation. Okah-san was either too shy or too tired to join in, so I had the chance to murder several Beatles and Sinatra numbers, and when I attempted to sing my favourite stirring Japanese rock ballad
, to realise that my ability to read Japanese subtitles is still a little too slow to enable an error-free karaoké performance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mrs M – who used to be the lead singer in her high school chorus club – got the highest score of the evening for her rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place On Earth.
The next morning we headed over to the local temple, whose earthquake-damaged ceramic tiles are in the process of being replaced with a less fragile – although probably even more expensive – copper-clad roof, which is still gleaming now, but which after a few years of oxidisation will apparently turn a dull dark green. A black granite tablet about two metres wide by one metre high, on which the names of everyone who contributed money to the building of the temple are carved (including otoh-san), had toppled over in the quake and smashed into pieces, and in the cemetery behind the temple, many of the gravestones have yet to be re-erected.
‘The one next door fell over and hit ours,’ said otoh-san, pointing to a large chip in the pedestal of the family grave.
‘The top part didn’t fall over, though,’ said onii-san. ‘It just rotated slightly until it was pointing north instead of east.’
This black granite obelisk, which is about a metre high and must weigh several hundred kilos, shifted even further during the aftershocks, although it has now been repaired to supposedly more earthquake-resistant standards.
The grave used to be a lot more basic, but when his barber shop was at its busiest in the early nineties, otoh-san shelled out a large sum of money to have it upgraded. There are now three or four steps leading up to the obelisk, which is flanked by two stone lanterns, and surrounded by a bed of gravel and a low stone wall. To the right is a black granite tablet that lists the names of those whose ashes have been interned there: in this case, otoh-san’s mother and father, the baby that okah-san lost to a miscarriage between giving birth to onii-san and Mrs M, and the beloved family pet Nana-chan, a fluffy-haired shitsu who died about four years ago. On the top step is an ornamental stone box in which to place incense sticks, although a small family of bees had recently taken up residence there, so we had to chase them off and prise their nest from the box before we could put our hands together in prayer.
On the way out, and before pausing to lay the remainder of our incense sticks in front of what is effectively a pauper’s grave – a corner of the cemetery for those people with no relatives to pay for a permanent memorial – otoh-san pointed out an inscription on one of the more ostentatious gravestones that read kuinashi
‘No regrets,’ I translated.
‘Me too! No regrets!’ said otoh-san, and chuckled to himself as we made our way back to the car.
As they do every obon and new year, the following evening a car-full of relatives stopped off for dinner, which for okah-san’s sake consisted of several large platters of takeaway sushi and agémono
(揚げ物 / deep fried chicken, prawns and the like). Noriko oba-san is otoh-san’s younger sister, Nobuaki oji-san is his younger brother, Nobuaki’s wife is Yoko oba-san, and Gen-chan is Noriko’s grandson, who is now eight years old, but was the only guest under the age of about eighteen at our wedding, where he sported a particularly endearing combination of jacket, shirt and tie, shorts and Mohican haircut.
The four of them had driven from Tokyo that morning, all the way to Iwaki in the north of Ibaraki, where another of otoh-san’s brothers owns a fish restaurant and sandwich shop on the coast road. The first floor of the restaurant was inundated in the tsunami, and while it has now re-opened, the road itself is still under repair.
‘The customers have to use a car park nearby and walk all the way round to the front of the shop,’ said Yoko as she passed round a box of sandwiches freshly made that morning.
While Genji watched TV and played his Nintendo DS, we worked our way through most of the food, several large cans of Asahi and a couple of bottles of saké, and once otoh-san and Noriko set about putting the world to rights, it was pretty hard to stop them. Noriko became particularly passionate about the merits of British English over American English, although this was, I suspect, mostly for my benefit, and while I tried to join in with the conversation as much as possible, Nobuaki played the role of diplomat, and Yoko chatted to okah-san about less controversial topics than the economy and race relations.
Gen-chan, who had been too shy to talk to anyone for most of the evening, suddenly came to life when they were about to leave, wolfing down some leftovers, shaking my hand and saying ‘Goodbye!’ before he ran outside to get in the car. As the only adult left sober, it was Yoko’s turn to take the wheel for the drive back to Tokyo, and the four of them headed off into the night with two large watermelons from okah-san’s allotment as a parting gift.
Every New Year’s Eve there is a programme on TV called Kohaku-Utagassen (紅白歌合戦 / The Red and White Song Contest). It’s like a longer version of Christmas Top of the Pops, in that it showcases the best and / or most popular songs of the past year, and the big talking point on 31st December 2010 was the song Toiré No Kami-Sama (トイレの神様 / The Goddess of the Toilet) by Kana Uemura (Tokidoki Tokyo has also written about the song here
The unedited version of Toiré No Kami-Sama is nearly ten minutes long, and Uemura was asked to cut this down for Kohaku-Utagassen. On another programme broadcast more recently, she performed it with a full country and western band, and this worked rather well, as it is reminiscent of those oddball country ballads with resolutely down-to-earth lyrics (eg. ‘The fan belt on my truck done gone and broke on me / So I cain’t drive to the liquor store and buy me no beer’ or similar).
Toiré No Kami-Sama tells the story of a Uemura’s relationship with her grandmother, and has spawned several spin-offs, including a non-fiction book, a TV drama and a commercial for toilet cleaner. The moral of the story turns on the word kirei (奇麗), which means both ‘beautiful’ and ‘clean’, so the line, 「トイレには それはそれはキレイな女神様がいるんやで」 can be translated as either, ‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet,’ or ‘There’s a beautiful goddess in the toilet,’ and the aspirations of Uemura's younger self can be interpreted as both the desire to become a beautiful woman, and the desire to become the kind of wife who, whether she’s beautiful or not, will keep the family home spick-and-span.
Ｗhen the title トイレの神様 came up on screen during Kohhaku-Utagassen, I burst out laughing, and told otoh-san that you could never get away with releasing a song about cleaning the toilet in the UK. Nobody would take it seriously, I said, at which he was rather offended, and explained that in Japan, keeping your house clean is considered to be very important – a tradition, even.
Indeed, as I watched Uemura's performance of the song, my cynicism began to waver, because as well as being a tuneful little ditty, it's actually rather moving. Uehara seemed to be on the verge of tears by the time she got to the last couple of verses, although I’m not sure if my translation of the lyrics will have quite the same effect – I haven’t, for example, tried to make them sound poetic – so you may want to check out the original to get the full emotional impact:
The Goddess of the Toilet
Lyrics: Kana Uemura / Hiroshi Yamada
Music: Kana Uemura
When I was only three, for some reason,
I lived with my grandma.
It was next door to my parents’ house,
But I lived with my grandma.
I helped her very day,
Played Othello with her,
But the only thing I was no good at was cleaning the toilet,
So my grandma said to me:
‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet, you know.
So if you clean the toilet every day, like the goddess, you can become a beautiful woman.’
From that day, I cleaned the toilet till it was sparkling.
I scrubbed it every day because I really wanted to become a beautiful woman.
When we went out shopping,
The two of us would eat duck soup with noodles,
And when grandma forgot to record my favourite programme from the TV,
I cried and blamed her.
‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet, you know.
So if you clean the toilet every day, like the goddess, you can become a beautiful woman.’
When I had grown up,
I argued with grandma,
And I didn’t get on with my family.
There was nowhere for me to go.
In the holidays I would go out with my boyfriend and not come home.
I wouldn’t play Othello and I wouldn’t eat duck soup with noodles –
Those things had disappeared from between us.
Why is it, I wonder, that people hurt each other?
Forget important things.
I went away and left my grandma – who had always been my friend –
On her own.
It was two years since I had moved to Tokyo.
My grandma went into hospital.
She had grown thin.
I went to meet her.
‘Hello grandma, I’m back!’ I said.
I tried to say it just like in the old days,
But even though we had only talked for a little while,
She said, ‘You can go home now,’ and sent me away.
The next morning
Grandma quietly went to sleep.
It was as if she had been waiting for me to come.
She had brought me up as best she could,
And even though I had never returned the favour,
Even though I had not been a good grandchild,
She waited for me.
‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet, you know.’
The words grandma said to me,
I wonder if they are making me a beautiful woman today?
‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet, you know,
So if you clean the toilet every day, like the goddess, you’ll become a beautiful woman.’
Because I always dreamed of becoming a good-natured wife,
Even today I clean the toilet deftly, until it shines.
だから毎日 キレイにしたら 女神様みたいに
だから毎日 キレイにしたら 女神様みたいに
まるで まるで 私が来るのを
だから毎日 キレイにしたら 女神様みたいに
Okah-san grew up by the seaside, so from an early age she would go foraging for shellfish and crustacea, an activity that is known as shiohigari (潮干狩り / literally ‘tide hang-out-to-dry hunt’). While the in-laws live a few miles inland these days, okah-san still tries to go shiohigari-ing at least once or twice every summer, and last week she took Mrs M and I along to show us how it’s done.
With their combination of rock formations, pebbles, sand and not too many concrete breakwaters to disrupt the natural order of things, the beaches between Ajigaura and Ooarai are an ideal spot for shiohigari, and okah-san said that today’s tide would be unusually low (I once heard from someone living in a coastal village in Hokkaido that when the tide is pulled way out before a tsunami hits, brave and / or foolish locals will use the opportunity to grab whatever seafood is left exposed, although given recent events, I can't imagine this story is really true). When we arrived there were only four or five people on the beach, and the attendant at the public loos near the car park said that during Golden Week the place is normally packed, but that things were different this year because everyone was worried about radiation travelling down the coast from Fukushima. Okah-san isn’t too fussed about radiation one way or the other (when spinach from Ibaraki was banned from sale at the end of March, that was exactly what she served us for our welcome meal), and quite frankly, the longer I stay here and the more I read, the less concerned I have become, so we went ahead and clambered down to the beach with our shiohigari gear. This consisted of wellies, plastic bags, buckets, rubber gloves, cotton gloves, udé-nuki (腕抜き / tubes of material with elastic at each end that are worn on the forearms to stop your cuffs from getting grubby) and a selection of tools, including something called a kumadé (熊手 / bear's hand – if you look at a picture of a kumadé
, you’ll see how appropriate the name is) and kama (鎌), small sickles that have recently become a trendy gardening accessory in the UK. The kumadé is used for raking away pebbles and sand, and the kama for prising shellfish off rocks – particularly limpets, which Mrs M and I were keen to try again, having eaten them in Madeira a couple of years ago.
The key to bagging a limpet, we soon realised, is speed: as soon as you touch one, the limpet will squirt little jets of water from the sides of its conical shell and sucker itself to the rock even more firmly than before, so you have to slide the kama beneath it quickly or you’ll be hacking away at the shell for the next five minutes. Also clinging to the rocks were bunches of blue-black mussels, and beneath the loose stones at our feet were crabs no bigger than a commemorative Royal Wedding coin, which at the first sign of daylight would scuttle off in that ever-so-slightly sinister sideways way that they have. While okah-san had never bothered with these before, I figured they might be good deep fried (soft shell crab are often used as a filling for sushi) and braved their little pincers to capture a few. There were starfish in the rock pools, too – bright orange on one side and a glowing ultramarine on the other – along with large, slug-like umi-ushi (海牛 / sea cow) and uni (sea urchin), which are a delicacy, but which like the mussels were not yet big enough to eat.
We reconvened after an hour or so to compare catches, and okah-san pointed out that several of the spiral shells in my plastic bag contained hermit crabs – good for lining up on a rock and watching as they come alive and run for cover, but not much else. Over a packed lunch of nigiri (握り / rice balls), we watched as a woman walked away with a large bag full of brown seaweed, one family put their more interesting finds in a mini-fish tank for taking photos, and the mother from another family arrived wearing a huge golf visor-style hat, surgical mask, calf-length blue plastic mac and red wellies, as if we really were inside the Fukushima exclusion zone.
While okah-san would happily have stayed there all day, we compromised on another half hour or so, during which she decided to look for asari – small clams that are often served as an ingredient in miso soup. Following her lead, I worked my way inland from a rock pool, setting aside any larger stones and digging into the sand to a depth of ten or fifteen centimetres, and by the time we finished I had caught about ten: not bad for a beginner, and probably worth a couple of hundred yen on the open market.
Okah-san rinsed the worst of the sand from what we had caught, and we filled a couple of bottles with fresh seawater, as the trick with shellfish (including shop-bought mussels, seafood fans) is to leave them in salt water overnight before you cook them, thus ensuring that the rest of the sand gets filtered out and you are not crunching away on grains of it as you eat. As expected, the asari were the most edible, but the limpets in garlic butter weren’t bad at all, and deep-fried crabs make a decent bar snack, even if they can be a bit prickly when you crunch into one.