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Saturday, Sept. 18, 2004

JAPAN LITE

The perfect touch for fall: Christmas


Every eight years, our neighborhood has "matsuri toban," or festival duty, which means we are in charge of all the island festivals for the year. One house within that neighborhood volunteers to set up decorations, receive guests at festival times and host the Shinto gods for the year.

But this year marks the beginning of a dying tradition, because for the first time, our neighborhood didn't have anyone qualified to host the gods.

I volunteered to take on the task, but didn't qualify. Like a yearlong VIP home stay, you must commit yourself to being home every day of the year and putting out offerings to the gods. Furthermore, the islanders probably knew that my "gaijin" offerings would not be traditional sake and rice but rather beer and potato chips. As well, the designated house must put up a large sum of money for the offerings, which would surely be such a stress on my grocery budget that I'd starve to death.

A compromise was finally reached when someone offered their relative's house in Tori no Kuchi (Bird's Mouth), a neighborhood on the other side of the island. This is few kilometers away, so not ideal, but would allow the tradition to continue.

Recently we had a neighborhood meeting to talk about preparations for the upcoming Fall Festival. We all sat in a long, narrow room no bigger than a bus. I live on the port, next to the fishermen's co-op. Because of the proximity of the port, most of my neighbors are fishermen. When I first moved into my house, I was warned that I'd be awakened every night by the fishermen coming back with their catches. There is always activity on the port, no matter what time of day or night. But after seven years of living here, the noisy fishermen returning in the wee hours of the night, the fishy smells that pervade the port and the gentle creaking of the docks outside my house are sources of comfort for me. And all day long there is a parade past my living room window as boats of all sizes and shapes come in and out of the port. This is port life.

And tonight, these fishermen, a strikingly handsome set of 70- to 80-year-olds, sat in front of the long narrow room while their wives sat in the back laughing and chattering with an irreverence usually reserved for those in the back of a school bus.

Our neighborhood spokesman, a seaweed cultivator, called the meeting to order -- with his eyes closed! I had never seen someone call a meeting to order before with his eyes closed, except maybe a priest. "What shall we do about lunch during the festival?" he asked, opening his eyes a few seconds after the question as if this was an indication it was OK to answer.

"Mendokusai!" ("A burden!") yelled an "o-baa-chan" from the back. One tradition gone out the window -- bentos would not be hand-made by the o-baa-chans this year but ordered and delivered instead.

I was surprised at the spunk of these o-baa-chans, usually subdued behind bonnets all day long as they work in the vegetable gardens and help their husbands carry fishing supplies back and forth from the port in squeaky carts.

One of the men in a straw hat and rubber boots stretched out his legs. I recognized him as the man who I had heard scraping out his octopus pots that morning, an indication that octopus season was right around the corner.

"Who wants to give out 'o-meeki' sake offerings?" I waited till the spokesman's eyes were fully open and raised my hand. But the o-baa-chans disagreed: "She's too young!" A chorus of female laughter, accompanied by polite covering of mouths, indicated consensus.

Anyone under 70 would be needed to help pull the "mikoshi" (portable shrine). Instead, the job went to a small man with beautiful white hair who docks his boat in front of my house. I am familiar with the clanking sounds as he clambers in at 6 a.m., unties the ropes and starts the small 9.9-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor, which makes a soft purring sound. The murmur of the engine lulls me back to sleep as the sound grows quieter and quieter as he goes farther and farther away, out of the port and out to sea.

The spokesman closed his eyes again: "Who wants to be in charge of driving the supplies from the house at Tori no Kuchi to our neighborhood?" There was a long silence as everyone looked around at each other, then a burst of laughter. "No one here knows how to drive!" yelled one of the o-baa-chans. The whole bus convulsed until finally someone volunteered a relative.

"What about the gate to our neighborhood? We need to decorate it and give it more presence this year, since we have festival duty."

The o-baa-chans were stumped for an answer to this one. The spokesman closed his eyes again until suddenly one of the o-baa-chans said: "What about Amy's lights? The ones she puts up in her window in December?"

"You mean my Christmas lights?" I said.

"Yes, they're so lively, they'd be perfect!"

So in a unique blend of Shintoism and Christianity, my Christmas lights would grace the Shinto gate at the entrance to our neighborhood during the Fall Festival.

When the spokesman closed his eyes to adjourn the meeting, and we all got off the bus to go home, I couldn't help but think that perhaps we shouldn't be worried about the traditions going out the window, but those coming in.

Get "Amy's Guidebook to Japan: What the Other Guidebooks Won't Tell You" at the One Dollar Bookstore at the Web site www.mooooshop.com/ MooooBooks/order/index.htm


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