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Saturday, Aug. 11, 2007


Laughing it up for the Mountain God

I woke up at 6 a.m. to laughter coming from outside my window. Why would people get up so early to laugh? Then it hit me — I was supposed to be out there too.

The neighbors had gathered to set up for a ceremony for the Mountain God. Twice a year, we pray to the mountain God who lives in a shrine behind my house.

People have prayed to the Mountain God for hundreds of years, only 10 years of which I have been around for. They always start with this early morning laughter, and the laughter continues for a couple of days in front of the Mountain God's shrine. I have to admit, I never understood what the laughter was all about. It was like a secret laughing society.

I have participated in the Mountain God ceremony, but just on the periphery. But I find that the longer I live here, the more people expect me to participate in neighborhood functions. And I am happy to participate. There is much joy to be gained from being around these Funky Old People.

By the time I jumped out of bed, the whole neighborhood was already chanting the no-rito prayer. People were reading from accordion-type paper backed with cardboard and printed in 24-point type so that all the old people could read it, even those who forgot their glasses.

Everyone was facing the mountain where, stuck into the side of it, stood the shrine for the Mountain God laid out with offerings in front of it. I never imagined it would be so easy to appease the Mountain God: imported bananas, two freshly dug up daikon radishes, two garden carrots and two freshly caught, but dead, fish. Just looking at the giant boulder up on top of the mountain makes me think he might be a little more demanding. Perhaps the offerings should include a souvenir replica of the 10 commandments, for example. Or how about copies of old Flintstones episodes on DVD, a postcard of the Rock of Gibraltar, a free all-expenses-paid trip to Uluru, or even a poster of Elvis.

Then again, maybe that's what the stack of money in front of the shrine is for — sometimes it is necessary to bribe the gods. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. . .

After the ceremony, I had the obligatory o-meeki (toast to the gods) and went off to work. "Be sure to be back here by 6 p.m.," said the neighbors, laughing.

At 6 p.m. there was another reading of the norito, and another o-meeki, but after this, beers and dried squid were passed around. The party had begun!

I noticed the newspaper man sitting among the neighbors, a spry 72-year-old whom I see every morning but don't know very well. I don't even know his name, because everyone calls him shinbunya-san (Mr. Newspaper Man). I thought now would be a good time to sit down and get to know him.

As we sat there talking, I got the feeling that Mr. Newspaper Man was perhaps older than I thought he was. I did notice when he collected newspaper subscription money that he had the telltale sign of an old person: He used a plastic bag as a wallet.

At one point, Mr. Newspaper Man looked down and noticed a piece of squid on the ground. He picked it up, and despite all the sand stuck to it, put the whole thing in his mouth! Then I knew that he was not that old, just very drunk. And this made me laugh.

More beers and squid were passed around, and the neighbors all engaged in stories and jokes and soon the laughter was loud and raucous. When Mr. Newspaper Man decided to go home, he stood up and teetered. I jumped up, took him by the arm, and told him I would walk him home. It was a long walk due to the circuitous path we took, but eventually under a full moon, we located his house hidden behind rows of tomato plants taller than myself.

When I returned to the Mountain God shrine, some neighbors were heading home while myself and others moved the party to the other side of the island to an empty beach, opened fresh beers and watched the full moon.

The next morning we assembled again at 6 a.m. for another prayer and o-meeki. After that, the beers and dried squid came around, and we all started laughing again.

But I couldn't help notice the absence of Mr. Newspaper Man.

But when I got home, he had not only delivered my newspaper, but also a large bag of ripe tomatoes.

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