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Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011
When are we going to eat udon?
By AMY CHAVEZ
Special to The Japan Times
"When are we going to eat udon?" asks our neighbor Rikimatsu-san.
"Well, maybe in the spring," says my husband.
That was two years ago, when my husband started renovating the bathroom and toilet in our Japanese-style house. When he has free time, he works outside sanding and cutting wood, and mixing cement. Since we live on the port, where people constantly pass in front of our house, Paul's activities attract plenty of curious onlookers who wonder what he is up to this time.
This time, he is working diligently to complete an iwaburo rock bath.
Of course, it takes a village to build a rock bath. The rocks themselves came from the beach on the back side of the island, where they were first mined by "The Rock Guy" who owns the one remaining rock quarry on the island. When he was done with them, he tossed them into the sea where the rocks were washed smooth by a decade of waves washing over them. The Rock Guy also helped by cutting and polishing some of the rock panels for inside the bath. The bathroom vanity, on the other hand, was made from a large slab of a 100-year-old cedar tree, cut down years ago to build part of the temple on our island. The tree turned bathroom vanity is 8 cm thick and 60 cm wide.
Our friend Kio-chan made the stone lanterns for the tsuboniwa garden that the bath looks out onto, and the bamboo fence around the garden was cut from a neighbor's bamboo grove.
In all our renovation projects, we believe in using materials available on the island, especially recycled ones. Only if we cannot find a suitable substitute do we buy something new. Thus, the bathroom tiles for the walls and the floor were imported from Bali.
"When are we going to eat udon?" asks Rikimatsu-san.
"Well, maybe in the fall," says my husband. That was a year ago.
When we renovated our kitchen, we also turned to our resource-rich island. That was the first time we went to see the The Rock Guy. Walking into the quarry, the entire family was there, looking very much like The Flintstones as they sat around a large flat rock, using it as a table. In this usually noisy place, the machines were quiet on their lunch breaks. The silence was so loud, it echoed. The Flintstones were eating o-bento.
There, we drew out the plans for our granite kitchen counter tops choosing from his samples of already mined rock.
"When are we going to eat udon?" asks Rikimatsu-san.
"Well, how about next week," says my husband.
The bath was finally complete.
There is a tradition on Shiraishi Island: "Yubune no naka de udon o taberu to nosocchu ni naranai to iwareteimasu" (It is said that eating udon in the bath helps prevent a stroke). It's actually an old wives' tale, but nonetheless, whenever anyone builds a new bath, or builds a new house with a bath, they invite all their neighbors over for udon.
With the whole neighborhood waiting for the udon party next week, we quickly asked others the details of such a gathering. After all, we were the hosts and the only people who hadn't attended such a bath party before. We had no idea what we were supposed to do. "Just buy instant noodles," people said, giving us the modern version of this long tradition.
The idea is that people go into the bath one or two at a time and eat the noodles while in the bath.
But with over 30 people coming, that would take forever! So we scheduled our party in the afternoon between the hours of 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. It would be like an "open house" and no one would have to wait too long for a bath.
At 2 p.m. the first two people showed up. "Dozo, please get into the bath!" I said, eager to start the process. But they politely declined. We offered them a beer, which they politely accepted. We all sat in the living room staring at each other. An hour passed and no one else arrived. This was getting embarrassing.
I called some neighbors and asked them to come over. "We'll come at 5," they said. So we all sat, staring at each other, until 4:30! The party was a disaster.
But at 4:30 p.m., people started rolling in, each bringing a bottle of sake or wine, or a six-pack. "Dozo!" I said, encouraging people to start the bath process. But still people politely declined. Instead, we started drinking.
Finally, around 5:30 p.m., the first person volunteered to go into the bath. I filled his instant noodle cup with hot water and he went into the bathroom. The process continued until, by 9 p.m., at least 20 people had been into the bath. When each was finished bathing, they'd come back into the living room and continue drinking!
The entire Flintstones family came, as well as Rikimatsu-san, Man-chan, Kio-chan, the cargo ship driver, San-chan's restaurant crew, and assorted neighbors. We even had some unexpected visitors: visiting yachties who were on their sailboat in the port and heard so much noise coming from our house that they had to come over and see what was happening. They bathed too.
At 10 p.m., when everyone had finally left, I said to my neighbor Kazu-chan, "We had no idea we were supposed to wait till everyone arrived before the bathing began!"
"Oh no," she said, "It's not usually this way." She laughed. "It's your friends — they like to party!"
In true form, everyone left drunk. Clean and drunk.