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Japan Part 12, Part 2: Rice-Planting Ceremony

Breakfast was nice today – a sort of buffet-type thing where I could just grab as much as I wanted and my host mother wouldn’t be offended. So, I snagged some pastries and some grape juice for breakfast and then hopped in the shower – Japanese people have a real love for bathing. Often.

Host mama explained that Asuka would be participating in a rice ceremony today, but I was a bit unsure what that meant. She said we’d go later, at any rate, so I figured I’d just wait to find out. In the meantime, while Asuka was getting ready, I sat on the floor with Ayane and Yuma and watched them play “speed,” a card game where there are no turns. All you have to do is play a card that is the same number or one greater or less than the card showing. You don’t have to wait for the other person to go. The first person to get rid of all her cards wins. Ayane seemed quite good at the game.

Unfortunately, they didn’t get to play for long, as Asuka was ready to go and had to be to the temple at a certain time in order to begin preparing for her ceremony. Tetsu was going to take Ayane and Yuma to volleyball practice while I went with mama and Asuka. When we got to the temple, Asuka left us to go join her teacher while mama and I wandered around the temple.

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She taught me how to properly wash my hands in the purification fountain: pick up the bamboo bowl with your right hand and rinse your left. Then, transfer the bowl to your left to wash your right. Transfer the bowl back to your right and pour water in your left hand to drink. Put the water in your mouth, but do not swallow; rinse and spit at the base of the fountain, not into the pool. Rinse your left hand again.

She also took me to the front of the temple and gave me a coin to toss in for the offering. She taught me the traditional way of praying: begin by bowing deeply two times. Then, clap your hands twice. Then, bow deeply again and pray with the hands in the typical prayer position. We bowed again afterward, and we did not sound the gong before praying because someone else had already done so – the gong is to get the god’s attention so that he will hear the prayer.

On the way back from the temple, host mama and I talked. I was surprised at how much my Japanese proficiency had increased over the course of the trip; both my comprehension and my speaking abilities had improved. Host mama talked about how Asuka dressed Anzu up in human clothes and then couldn’t get them off, so they had to cut Asuka’s clothes off of the dog. Apparently, Anzu also went to obedience school with a great dane but was not too cooperative. We laughed as we talked about our dogs, and I explained about the dogs in my family as well. Once we were home, we continued our conversation, and I surprised myself about how much I could actually communicate in Japanese. Host mama gave me a newspaper and I started pointing out all the kanji that I knew, much to her surprise and entertainment. After that, she got out Ayane’s picture dictionary and we flipped through that, pausing to talk about the things we were interested in. When I noticed a page about birds, I stopped to explain to her about the bald eagle as the national bird of America. I got out a few dollar bills of various denominations, and we had fun together finding all the places that we saw eagles on the bills. I also told her about how a relative of mine owns peacocks and how a close friend’s neighbor also has one that responds when you call to it.

It was enjoyable to share laughs in this way, and I appreciated how much host mama cared about what I was talking about and made an effort to make me feel welcomed and important.

We’d spent all of our resting time talking, so before I knew it it was time to go and pick up Ayane from volleyball practice.

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I watched them play for a while, then they invited me to play dodgeball with them. I didn’t have gym shoes, so I couldn’t play. When I spoke to them in English, they got very shy very quickly, much to the amusement of their parents who had been helping them do their English homework.

The rest of the day was a blur of visiting many places – host mama and Tetsu decided that we should go shopping around Hikone, so we went to a small mall and found a Studio Ghibli store, where I bought a Totoro plush (one of my goals while in Japan!) and a small dragon Haku statue.

I had never been to a mall with parking on the roof, so Tetsu drove all the way up there to park just for me.

After that, we made a short stop at a 100 yen store, then we went next door to a McDonalds. As soon as I bit into my cheeseburger, I could taste the difference.

Japanese McDonalds just…well, I could taste the healthierness of the food. It wasn’t bad by any means, but I was left thinking – if it doesn’t taste that much different, why don’t we do this in America?

While we sat and ate, Tetsu tried to talk with me as much as possible. He asked what kind of burger places we have in America, and it turns out they’re pretty much the same – McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, the whole lot. Slowly, our conversation turned to Japanese history, and I explained my fascination with the Tokugawa period that began after Sekigahara in 1600 until the Bakumatsu. Particularly, I enjoy Shinsengumi history, and he found that amazing. He asked me to name off as many famous Japanese people as I could. My list went like this: Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Tokugawa Hidetada, Miyazaki and Hisaishi, Isami Kondo, Okita Souji, and Saito Hajime. When he noticed that many of the names were members of the Shinsengumi or key rulers during the Tokugawa period, he was impressed – he did not even know some of the people.

I understand, my friend. If you asked me about American history, I wouldn’t know half of the people you list off. History’s just not my jiff. Except for Japanese history, for some strange reason. That just seems to stick with me.

Anyway, after McDonalds, we returned home and rested for a little while before going to see Asuka in her rice ceremony. Just as we were getting there, the miko and the students in their ceremonial garb were just forming the procession to leave the temple and walk to the rice paddies.

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There was much dancing as the priestesses did their blessings, and a water snake was snatched from the rice paddy just in time.

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[If you are going to watch only one of the following videos of the priestesses in the ceremony, watch the second one. It has the smoking bamboo ritual.]

With each rhythmic verse in the song and dance, the whole row of planters would sweep down into the paddy and plant a stalk of rice.

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Unfortunately, the ceremony was quite lengthy, so host mama suggested that we take a short break and go to get some of the area’s famous mochi and ice cream. Considering that the sun was blisteringly hot and that I didn’t have sunscreen on (she didn’t warn me we’d be outside until we were already there), I had no problem with taking a break. The mochi was fantastic, filled with a sweet and roughly-textured center. It was the perfect way to take a break.

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After we’d finished eating, we returned to watch Asuka just in time to see the ceremony finish and watch the process trail back into the temple.

We were going to take Asuka home with us, but apparently she and her friends were invited to a surprise party held by their sensei in order to celebrate the successful planting. We left without her, and Tetsu was to go pick her up later. In the mean time, I looked through some of Ayane’s 4th grade Japanese language textbooks with host mama. Oh what an adventure that was.

After everyone had finally gathered back home following such a busy day, we decided that the best idea for dinner would be to go out and eat instead of making something at home. Since I had never been to a kaitenzushi place (what I like to call the sushi-go-round), naturally host mama said that that’s where we were going, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

We had to wait a bit before we got a table, but that was fine with me, as I’d rather just sit and relax anyway. Once we got back to our table, I had no idea what to do, so I just sat and watched. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do. That strategy has worked in every country so far, so it’s gotta work here.

Thankfully, it soon became clear just how easy kaitenzushi is. The sushi is going around on a giant conveyor belt right next to your table. It is freshly prepared, so don’t worry! If you see one you like, you can just grab it and start eating. If you don’t see what you want, you can order something on the electronic touch screen and, soon enough, it will be swirling around on the belt on a special plate telling other people not to take it.

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I didn’t really know what I wanted, so I just started munching on some of the larger sushi plates that my family had grabbed to share. There were a few makizushi, so I took two cucumber and one tuna of those. Host mama asked me what I liked, and I told her that I like shrimp sushi and egg sushi, so everyone was on the lookout for those. A plate of ebi nigiri (shrimp) came by shortly, so I grabbed one of those, then we ordered some tempura shrimp nigiri and tamago (egg) nigiri for me as well.

Unfortunately, what happened that night was exactly what I was expecting. My host family was so excited that I had never been to a kaitenzushi place that they kept snatching sushi off the belt, saying, “Oh, try this! Challenji!”

My dear friends, I cannot eat all of this food. 🙂

Once we were done, the stack of plates that we’d emptied was quite commendable. Yes, that’s Tetsu in the background. Then host mama insisted I have some mango dessert, and we added on even more plates. At the end, the waitress comes and counts how many plates you’ve eaten in order to figure out how much it costs. Considering how much we ate, it only came down to about $6 per person, so I didn’t feel quite so bad for costing them an arm and a leg.

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We returned home after that, and I was given the privilege of using the shower first.

Let’s get something clear. I appreciate that. But, in America, we don’t bathe two or three times a day (usually). That’s not to say that America is “right” and Japan is “wrong” for doing so, just that it is difficult for me to WANT to bathe that much. They want me to relax in a bath, and I appreciate that, but maybe once a day would be nice.

After the shower, I sat back down on the soft blanket on the floor to relax before bed. Ayane, however, had other ideas. Having mentioned to her mother earlier that I enjoy playing Japanese games like Shogi and Hanafuda, Ayane knew that I knew the rules of shogi. She grabbed her learner’s shogi board from the cupboard and plopped down at my feet.

All right. I guess we’re playing shogi. Cool.

Shogi, which is what I suppose you could call the Japanese version of chess, is actually quite different from its American counterpart. The pieces are entirely different (shogi having pieces like gold and silver knights) and the familiar pieces (like rooks) have entirely different move sets. There is no queen, but the goal is still to take the king. Additionally, pawns cannot capture diagonally, and if a piece reaches enemy territory, it is promoted and gets a new move set that is often very different from how it moved before. Captured pieces can also be placed back on the board. All of these aspects make it much different (and, to me, much more difficult) than standard chess.

I do, however, love shogi, so I didn’t have a problem playing with Ayane. Although I shouldn’t have had this mindset, I found myself thinking, “She’s 9. How well could she possibly play?”

Well.

REALLY well.

Although I did win the game, she put up a better fight than another player I’ve played against who was listed as “advanced.” Her only issue was that she did not defend her king. She went on the offensive immediately. I think I confused her at the beginning because I made a set of 7 moves (that same 7 moves that I always use to start a shogi game) that builds a wall around my king and puts my offensive pieces in position for my favorite attack type. She was wondering why I was not moving toward her and letting her claim some of my weaker pieces.

She was not a sore loser, though, and that was nice. Her mother and Tetsu were alternating between watching us and watching TV, but when she said, “Maketa [I was defeated],” she was smiling. Host mama couldn’t believe that she had lost!

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I tell you what, kid. You keep practicing shogi and you’re going to be the Bobby Fischer of Japanese chess. She was INCREDIBLE for a 9-year-old. Her offensive strategy was brilliant.

After we finished the shogi game, Tetsu decided to unveil the results of the pudding we made yesterday. It was bitter, like vanilla coffee, and it weighed about 6 pounds once it was on the plate. My chocolate dressing on the top was obviously the highlight of the show. 😉

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Yogurt for scale!

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