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Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008

JAPAN LITE

Reaping summer's rewards


In July, a package arrived on my genkan doorstep like all packages arrive at my house — with a thud. I could hear the postman grunt out a greeting before he shut the screen door behind him. I went downstairs to investigate the thud.

It was a large flat box, 51 cm by 38 cm and about 5 cm deep. Hmm.

Then I saw the noshigami piece of paper attached to it, the one with the upside-down necktie on it and kanji writing that said ochugen. A summer gift. Naturally. We all deserve a gift in the summertime. It's as if to say, "Congratulations! You've almost made it through another Japanese summer!" Ochugen is really more like a reward. And with global warming bringing on rising temperatures, I hope these summer gifts compensate by getting even bigger as we deserve bigger rewards for getting through the summers.

But the question remained. What was inside this large flat box from Daimaru department store? Usually long and flat gift boxes in Japan contain sheets or towels. Perhaps it was a "towelket," the Japanese style of summer blanket made from terry cloth. Then again, it could be a very large senbei rice cracker. Or even a Pizza Hut Pizza Supreme. After all, summer gifts are usually something edible. That's why they're called "ochewgen."

The giving of summer gifts has long been a tradition in Japan. Beer, juice, cured meat and snacks are common gifts. I heard that these gifts were originally given in July as gifts for the spirits who returned to their ancestral homes at Bon, which was previously observed July 15 in accordance with the lunar calendar. While the Bon observance was moved to August, the summer gift-giving is still in July. Perhaps in case some of the spirits arrive early? After all, they're Japanese.

How does one pick out an appropriate gift for a spirit anyway? Talk about soul food! Let me see, Grandma had diverticulitis and Uncle was an alcoholic. My great Aunt loved sweets but her sister was allergic to chocolate. My second cousin once removed was a teetotaler and my great-great grandmother was lactose-intolerant. Going through the family tree, we'd eventually eliminate all foods and just end up with just a few bottles of mineral water. Would any of my ancestors even come home for that?

It must be even more difficult to buy ochugen for other people's family spirits. Which is probably why so few people give me summer gifts. They don't know what gaijin spirits eat.

Yet this person who sent me this gift was willing to take a chance. Still hoping it was a Pizza Supreme, I opened the box. To my surprise, this large box contained 9,690 cubic cm of small, individually wrapped bite-size cakes. There were over 100 of them, all divided into groups among 18 plastic compartments. The cakes were laid out so well, you would have thought it was an entrepreneurial sales kit for a kid who was graduating from lemonade stands to bakery stands.

You've seen these cakes before in Japanese department store gift sections. Each one has its own silicon packet inside to keep it "fresh" and together they are so heavy they land with a thud on your genkan doorstep. Of course, what do you expect from something that may have to sit around for a month for Bon when the spirits come back. And this is a worry because I would doubt that any of my ancestors even know how to get to Japan. It could take them months to find this small island in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea.

And now Bon is over, and still no one has arrived yet. I've been stood up by my own ancestors. Next time I'll try the mineral water. In the meantime, I have 100 cakes to eat. Who said you can't have your cake and eat it too?



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