Friday, April 16, 2010


One of the deeper powers of the Japanese people is their undying love of simple things. They come from a long and concentrated past, uncolonized, and have willingly adopted all the diversions and distractions that the modern world has to offer, from trains, cars and planes to movies, tv, fast food, computers - it's a long list - and they enjoy and use it all, even improve on much of it, but at the core they're still much the way they were before all that came along.

I saw a good example of this the other morning when Echo and I joined the crowds going up the cherry blossom-lined mountain road not far from our house, to the cherry-inundated ski ropeway area where locals throng during cherry season to picnic and view the Lake, visit the stalls at the local product hall, buy some local foods and wines, pickles, sake, senbei, shochu, sit around on the red cloth-covered platforms and enjoy the events, some singers, some taiko drummers and other performances out in the open air.

All are just getting into enjoying their picnic bento when the MC announces that the mochi-making will now begin and whhhooooosssshhh: instantly all the platforms are empty and there is a steadily growing crowd of folks of every age gathered around the mochi-making place to watch an event that everybody there has seen dozens, hundreds, thousands of times (Echo is up there too watching, but for me a few dozen viewings is pretty much enough): someone plops a hefty hunk of hot glutinous rice into a big wooden or stone mortar and someone else pounds it with a big wooden hammer as the first someone, after each hammerstrike, with wet hands turns the blob of increasingly sticky rice, the crowd yelling at each turning of the gooey glob before each descent of the hammer Yoisho -- Yoisho -- even the tiny kids join in, yelling at the top of their lungs; they never tire of this, even the teenagers take part, then when at last the mochi is done, at the MC's announcement that they will now hand out the finished product, each person to receive two small portions of mochi, they all right away get in a line that snakes down the mountain and wait for up to 20 minutes to get their mochi, no problem, this is all fun, all joy, this timeless tradition, this symbol of strength and unity from way before any of the lives here, it means much more than the little it appears to be, all somehow deeply and importantly spiritual, but above all, as simple as you can get.

The Japanese love this kind of thing and always will; the grandmas love it, the new mothers love it, the farmers love it, the city folks love it, the young punks love it, the little kids love it, the babies love it, even the cynics love it, it resonates in all their hearts, this simple kind of thing, like the bon-odori dancing and the omikoshi carrying, the many societal embraces that the members take deep comfort in, because in all simple things, beyond the deceptive mask there are profound reaches, umbilicals of time and existence.

To those who by custom can appreciate that much dimension, it's all so simple, really...


Tabor said...

The last part of your last paragraph captures all the richness of tradition. A culture moving forward so fast that it fails to see the importance in tradition may loose its way.

Chrissy said...

I have to agree w/the Tabor... What I can't agree on is the taste of Mochi... Is it me? too american? or is it an acquired taste?

R. Brady said...

I think it will prove to be genetic, actually :), but I do love winter mochi (especially the kind with beans in it), toasted over the fire, wrapped with nori and dipped in shoyu... and some forms of mochi desserts are subtly delicious, like sakura mochi... just plain mochi, dusted with soybean powder etc., I leave to others...

Apprentice said...

One of the comments on one of your recent posts of pictures near your home asked you where in Japan these photos were - they were apparently dismayed at the lack of nature/beauty in their short trip.

I remember feeling a similar disappointment at a lack of difference between my life in America and what seemed to be daily life in Japan. It was all so normal - no mystery or intrigue to it... or so I thought. It took a few years, but I got over it.

Yes, Japan has cars, buses, Nintendo Wii, wide screen TV's, Makudonarudo, paved roads, tall buildings (and not very pretty ones) that make it just seem normal.

But it is understanding Japan in this way that you have 'pounded' out that make it special.

This invisible thread connecting Japanese to these timeless traditions. Modern as it is, behind the all pervasive blue business suit is the Noshime.