I wanted to write this post last night, but I was a little too overwhelmed and I felt like I needed to process this week’s experiences (especially yesterday). It’s all good stuff. Just needed to find a way and some time to put it all into words… Well, it won’t only be words. With setsubun, a sake tasting with other foreigners, a chance adventure with a french ex-pat, and another adventure disguised initially as my first day on the job (I got the sake job!), this post is going to be full of media.
Without further to do, let’s start with the stories.
So, a few of you may know about setsubun. It’s the festival where you throw beans at oni (which are like ogres/demons) and yell “Oni out, good luck in!” Don’t worry, there will be related videos and pictures later about this part of it.
Makizushi for all the AKP students and Doshisha conversation volunteers.
What’s a little less known (in America, at least) is the tradition of eating an entire roll of uncut sushi for setsubun. Let me explain.
From what I’ve heard, this originated in the Kansai area (Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka) but only recently has it become a national tradition. Apparently at the encouragement of 7/11 and other convience stores that sell these uncut rolls of sushi.
There’re three rules:
- Everyone faces this year’s lucky direction (each year has one). This year’s was south-south-east.
- You eat the entire roll while thinking about a wish for the coming year.
- Don’t say anything. At all. Until you finish.
So, on Wednesday, AKP provided the rolls, and all the AKP students along with Doshisha volunteers ate in unison facing south-south-east. Nothing but munching sounds for about 2 minutes.
After eating our rolls and feeling a little bloated, a few of us went with a professor to a several local temples to experience the rest of setsubun.
The streets were filled with people, and everyone was in god spirits. A lot of the kids had oni masks on, and their respective brothers or sisters were throwing beans at them.
The first temple we went to was actually a bit of an oddity. Some mountain ascetics came and performed a slightly tweaked version of the setsubun story at a local Pure Land Buddhist temple (to better fit with the Pure Land teachings).
I was happy to see some archery, too. Priests shoot arrows in every cardinal direction during setsubun to scare away oni.
Each temple, depending on the sect of Buddhism or where the event is taking place, puts on a slightly different performance. Sometimes the oni are cast out and escape. Sometimes the oni are invited in.
The performance we saw showed the oni causing trouble and interrupting temple activities until they were subdued by the power of the Buddhist scripture. After that, the oni became servants to Amida Buddha and helped to bless people in the audience (we all got blessed with a sword by the head priest. Awesome).
The best part was by far the fire ceremony afterwords, though. It’s what we came to see. The video below shows the ascetics lighting the pyre…
…and the next video is a few minutes later. The video doesn’t do it justice, especially since I took it near the beginning of the ceremony. They tended the fire and splashed water in such a way that the column of smoke rotated around the pire and enveloped all of us at one time or another. I don’t know why, but the smoke didn’t hurt my eyes or hinder my breathing at all. I wonder if it was mostly steam from the fresh brush.
When you saw the smoke coming towards you, it looked like ocean waves. It rolled and and crested and twisted over itself as it came to meet you. And when you were enveloped, it felt like you were in a cloud. Really beautiful.
Finally to end the event the ascetics and priests brought out old scrolls and tapestries to burn on the pyre. Many people in the audience would then buy new, fresh scrolls from the temple later. Or they simply wanted to dispose of their objects in a meaningful way.
We went to a few other, more famous performances later in the day, but this one was awesome. Throughout the day we also got a lot of free food and drink from temples, shrines, and just people passing us by. My favorite was when we were pelted with candy or uncooked mochi by priests. Great way to get frustration out, and a great way to get free treats.
All the sake I tried on Thursday, with the sparkling wine poured at the very last.
I don’t know if you remember from my last post, but after being placed on the waiting list for a month, I was able to go to a sake-tasting held specially for foreigners. It was an experience.
First, if my friend Clara hadn’t decided to come along, I would have been the youngest person in the room. Maybe by 6-7 years. Clara and I were the first ones to arrive at the Takara Shuzo event space so we had the whole room to ourselves for a bit.
Seemed pretty legit.
The entrance fee was only 500 yen, but we realized that was because they wanted us to fill out a lot of questionnaires. It was fun stuff though. They were mostly wondering which menus out of three possible arrangements were the easiest to read, understand, etc…
As the adults creaked in they all mumbled and grumbled about having to do work and they whispered that they were just there to drink sake. It was mostly in jest, though.
After everyone arrived, about 20 foreigners in total an American who worked for Takara Shuzo and helped organize the event came out and gave a 15 minute presentation on sake preparation and grading. I found this intensely fascinating because of my previous interest in sake, but also because of my upcoming potential job working in a sake shop (more on that later). The adults were not quite as interested and their complaints started to sound a bit more earnest. The room was made up of British, American, French and other ex-pats, but no matter the nationality, things get tense with a room full of thirsty/hungry people.
The serious survey: the one about the sake itself.
Luckily his presentation seemed to end just in time and all of our samples were brought out. The same American representative walked us through each of the sake samples. I actually feel like I had a pretty grasp of what he was talking about, but I will admit that I think my scores started to slip near the end of the night. That was alright, though. The best part of the night was yet to come. I thought this was pretty smart, actually.
They brought out platters and platters of catered food and all the bottles that we tried and basically told us to sit back, relax and have a good time. They servers would occasionally come around and ask us about our favorites or what we thought of the earlier menus, but it really just seemed like an excuse to show us foreigners that we could have a great party based around sake. Pretty good way of gauging which was the most popular, too. The sparkling sake went by far the quickest. Eventually it just collapsed into a good-natured, rowdy party.
What’s bound to happen every time too many gaijin gather in one place. Yes, that’s a fiddle, and yes, he brought it with him.
It was interesting to see the Japanese ex-pat scene. I’m not sure if I liked it that much. Or at least, the faction of it that was represented by the prople present that night. A lot of the older people seemed jaded or bewildered or downright unpleasant. I remember one guy telling a server with a smile that their most expensive sake tasted “like rubbing alcohol”. The server looked either surprised or confused for reasons apparent, but this particular person decided that it was because the server didn’t understand him. “You know, rubbing alcohol,” and then he mimed rubbing something on his arm. The server said, “Oh, is that right? Interesting.” He responded with a disappointed (still with a smile), “Mmm, yeah.” His wife then informed me with a disappointed shake of her head that I shouldn’t be studying Japanese if I wanted to teach English in Japan. “They’ll just take advantage of you,” she said with a sad smile. “I’ve seen it happen.” Huh.
Most of the rest of them just complained about how hard Japanese was to learn. Which is true, but hey–it gets better the more you try.
But in the end everyone was reasonably courteous when they left. Especially because we left with sample bottles of that sparkling sake! Samples are the best.
Meeting a mutual friend from France renewed my faith in foreigners, luckily. It’s a bit of a complicated story but suffice it to say I ended up with a group of very rowdy Japanese people, a French ex-pat visiting from Singapore, and my host sister.
Let me tell you, my Japanese was stretched every which way that night. But the results were great. Because of my kyudo teacher and just living in Kyoto for about 6-7 months now, I’m pretty comfortable with roughish Kansai dialect. But wow, these 5 or so Japanese friends that my French friend had were really stretching my abilities. They were using all the words and phrases that we weren’t supposed to know about. Fun stuff. Of course if you’ve ever watched any anime or gangster movies/walked around industrial Kyoto at night, you’ll hear stuff like this. But still, I kept thinking, “So there actually are people like this out there.” And the best part was, once they realized I understood what was saying (I ended up translating a lot for my French friend even though his Japanese was alright), they started including me in all their conversations and rowdiness too.
Anyone that says Japanese people are quiet and reserved obviously hasn’t had a night out with friends.
After a lot to eat and after disturbing a large portion of the restaurant where we were eating, we decided to go to a nearby place called Sporcha and play around a bit. It’s a place where you can do many different sports and games like soccer, archery, boxing, bowling… It’s all in one massive building. We ended up doing soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, archery and various other sports later. Playing team sports was awesome. None of us were very good, but perhaps because of that it made me reminisce about P.E. Whenever I made a basket or messed up one of them would always yell, “Ah, come on Idaho!” I think we would all agree that soccer was the most fun. Why? Because for no apparent reason we played soccer inside of massive inflatable balls. Things quickly devolved.
We ended up getting back home around 2 in the morning. I remember my hostsister saying in the car on the way back how surprised she was at how fast we all became friends. “We even seem like family, now.” Maybe I’ll do something like that again sometime. If anything, it certainly improved my Japanese.
If my night out with everyone tested my ability to be super friendly-slangy in Japanese, the next day certainly tested me in the opposite way. After coming back home around 2am, it was my first day on the job working for the sake brewery, starting around 11:30.
While I was out the night before, the owner/manager of the brewery emailed me and told me that instead of going to the shop in Nishiki market, she wanted me to come and meet her at the brewery itself. Mostly to show me around and to give me an idea who I would be working for. I started to realize then that I was part of a company; that I would be representing an entire many-hundred year old brewery when I was talking to customers in Nishiki.
The manager met me at the station, some 20 minutes west of Kyoto and surrounded by mountains. I noticed snow on some of these mountains as I rode the train through the countryside and through a few mountains themselves. From the station, she drove me to the brewery. I was using all my polite Japanese and my ears were straining to catch all of what she was saying, mostly because I’m not quite used to being referred to and spoken to in such a polite way. But luckily, I was able to carry on just enough small talk to get to the brewery.
At the brewery itself, the manager showed me around the entire facility. Not much has changed. Making sake is a very complicated process that a lot closer to brewing beer than it is to wine. There have been some improvements and automations, but the process and the functions of the machines are nearly unchanged. The whole place smelled great. Sort of like freshly kneaded dough. All throughout she introduced me to the workers. It was great to see their faces change from slight steely-confusion to utter gratitude when she told the, that I would be joining the company part-time.
She next showed me to her house on the property and served me tea and candies while she prepared a few other things. This was the real deal, and there was no backing out now. She came back after a few minutes to talk a bit of business and scheduling before taking me to another, separate room in the brewery to watch a video about the history and recent success of the brewery. While I watched the video at the round table, a few employees brought out, to my surprise, a plate of sushi, tea, and several bottles of sake with accompanying cups.
I ended up watching the video twice, but it was no matter. I interacted with a few other customers who came in and sat around the round table with me. Eventually the manager came to get me. I didn’t quite know what was going to happen next, but it turned out that she was going to give me a tour of all of their outlets across Kyoto, from Arashiyama to the Imperial Palace to Nishiki. But before I left, I of course received a bag of samples. Or at least I thought it was samples. It turned out to be three full bottles of sake, a large bag of sake rice sheets (it makes excellent soups), and various other, related sake products. There was even some facial cleanser and lotion that has been made from sake by-product for hundreds of years. She just kept putting things in…
Finally we left. The tour was relatively uneventful expect for when we got to Arashiyama and decided to buy me a grocery bag stuffed with various tofu products from Kyoto’s most famous tofu shop. “No, no, it’s fine,” she said when I asked her how much it was. “We help each other out a lot and I know her family well, so it wasn’t that much.”
When we arrived at the Nishiki storefront, I was laden down with gifts and expectations. I met everyone who I would be working with and we all seemed relieved when it turned out we could all communicate alright with each other. The manager left separately, but not before telling me that she would pay me working hours for that day.
My host family freaked out when I returned home. I guess I hadn’t realized just how much I had received till everyone kept pulling things out of the bags. She had even given me all the candy I hadn’t finished when she was talking with me about business over tea. The tofu especially caused a small uproar. “I’ve always heard of this shop but I’ve never tasted tofu from it!”
Hostmom taught me an important Japanese phrase: “One stone, two birds.” Which is of course nearly exactly the same in English, surprisingly. She reckoned by counting up on her fingers I was up to 4 or 5 birds with one stone at this point, though.
I’d heard that joining a company in Japan is like joining a family. I’m not sure why, but it often seems like I hear this in a negative way. About how much people work so that their job becomes their family. Brushing aside this vast generalization of Japanese business practice for the moment, I certainly feel like I’m part of something like a family now. I was welcomed into this elderly woman’s family business, her home, and all I sensed from her was gratitude. And yes, there is now definitely a sense of obligation to do my best for her business. But not to make money or repay any debts. It’s simply because I feel welcome and happy and cared for. When was the last time you heard of a company with benefits like that?
Today was actually my first day on the job, but that’ll have to wait for next week. I will say that it was good, though. Very, very good.
Next week also marks the middle of the spring term. I’m not necessarily sad about leaving yet, but I am starting to budget my time a bit. Not too much is planned for next week, but hey–neither was this week. We’ll see what happens.