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Saturday, Jan. 1, 2005

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Bless your house, TV for the new year!


A male voice called out. I ran downstairs and there was a Buddhist priest, dressed in full robes, standing in my genkan. At first I panicked, "Am I dead?" No, that's what Catholic priests do, not Buddhist priests. He smiled and looked at me expectantly. I smiled back, wondering why in the world a Buddist priest was standing in my genkan.

"Ninogyo," he said, attempting to relieve my confusion.

Ninogyo? Ninogyo! It was one of those words I should know, but for the life of me I couldn't remember. It was probably one of those special Japanese words used only once a year on a special occasion which I conveniently forget until the next year when I need to use it again.

Then it hit me: ninogyo! Yes, it was the end of the year so the priest was going around to bless the houses for the new year. Ninogyo are the prayers he chants to invite gods into the house to protect us for the next year.

"Chotto matte," I told him and left him standing in the genkan while I quickly cleaned the living room by throwing everything into the adjoining room and closing the door, a technique I learned from my parents.

When I was finally ready, I invited him into the living room and he made his way to the tokonoma, the alcove area in a Japanese house reserved for displaying Japanese treasures such as a scroll or ikebana.

This is when I realized that what I should have been cleaning was not the living room, but the tokonoma. When I looked at the tokonoma, I was shocked at what I saw inside it -- the TV! I had completely forgotten. Not that there was a TV there, but that there was a tokonoma there.

The tokonoma stretches from floor to ceiling but varies in width depending on the house. In older houses like mine, the tokonoma takes up two thirds of the wall on one side of the living room.

Since the tokonoma is set about 70 cm into the wall, I have always found the urge to place electronics inside there irresistible, and thus stored the stereo in half of my tokonoma. In the other open half, for many years I kept an imaginary tiger. This worked out well since the priest could not see the imaginary tiger, so he could pray in that open space of the tokonoma.

When my imaginary tiger passed away, I replaced him with the TV. So now, the tokonoma is full. The priest paced back and forth in front of the tokonoma a few times, finally settling down in front of a small 10 cm gap between the stereo and the TV.

He lit a candle and sat in the seiza position. For the next 15 minutes, he chanted ninogyo, inviting the good spirits into the house and jingling his staff in such a way that would make Harry Potter jealous. It seemed to me that he was rushing the ninogyo a bit, but then again, he is a busy priest with many houses to bless.

When finished, I served him Kaluah and coffee while he explained the fuda, the strips of paper to be hung at certain points in the house to keep out back luck.

"What about this one?" I inquired about the one with a picture of a boat on it.

"That is for your boat, to protect it. Put it somewhere safe inside your boat."

When he looked down at his G-shock watch, I knew it was an indication that he must be on his way. There were many more houses to bless. I ushered him to the door, thanked him and gave him an "Orei" envelope in exchange for the blessings.

As he was leaving my genkan, he turned to me, smiled and said, "That's the first time I have ever prayed to a TV."

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