Friday, February 4, 2011

Luck & Sardines - A Year in Fukushima #7

I am in big trouble.

Something bad is staring me right in the face, and this time it has nothing to do with my son, my short attention span or personal injury (or, most recently, all three). It has nothing to do with anything I’ve done, actually. In fact, it has absolutely nothing to do with anything that has even happened yet. But I am on a collision course with destiny, and there is no getting around it. That is why tomorrow I am going to jump on the horn and set a date with my local exorcist.

To most outsiders Japan is a safe, peaceful place, decorated with cherry blossoms and veiled in a kimono of serenity. Not true, my friends. This country is a dangerous, devilish place.

Take my friend Eriko. She’s a pleasant mix of gregarious, intelligent and modest. She works at a bank, travels abroad on her own and goes to the gym regularly. She’s confident yet self-effacing, and has probably never crossed the street against the light. Yet recently she did something to warrant a trip up the road to Fudohsan Shrine for the ominous yakubarai ritual.

Recently, Eriko turned the dreaded thirty-three.

Japan maintains a traditional belief in ‘yakudoshi’, years of bad luck, nay, calamity, which must be warily regarded and properly tended to. Yakudoshi are said to bring illness and misfortune to people of certain ages - 25, 42 and 61 for men, 19, 33 and 37 for women – and in their respective years men and women pay a visit to the local Shinto shrine to be cleansed, body and soul, by a man with a funny hat who waves a long stick over their heads. Okay, I shouldn’t trivialize this revered rite of yakubarai like that. The stick is actually good quality bamboo, with carefully folded strips of paper attached to one end to make a spooky swishing sound as the priest (with the funny hat) exorcises the demons of catastrophe that entered the poor person’s body as he or she was making a wish and blowing out their candles.

As with many old beliefs and traditions, Eriko doesn’t put much stock in the whole yakudoshi idea; her mother, however, would hear none of it. I asked Eriko if she felt any different now. She said no. Personally I’m glad she agreed to be exorcised. My wife skipped her 33-year yakubarai and what happened? She ended up getting engaged that year to a guy who holes himself up till all hours of the night thinking he’s going to make it as a writer. Talk about misfortune.

Yakubarai-ed out of Eriko, those devils are now out there looking for someone new to possess. I turn 42 this year, and you can bet I’m going to be right at the front of that yakubarai line come October. I’m bringing some extra strips of paper too, just to make sure I get a good swoosh.

In the meantime I can’t be complacent. Just this week my family and I had to ward off a separate slew of demons, which we did by whipping peanuts around in the annual Setsubun ceremony. Setsubun translates into ‘between’ or ‘splitting’ the seasons, meaning Winter and Spring. ‘But it’s only February 3rd,’ you say? That may be true, but it was in the 60’s yesterday. Something’s going on here, and I’m not about to buck tradition.

As far as I’ve seen everyone celebrates Setsubun on February 3rd. According to a book my wife pulled out, however, Setsubun can also land on the 4th. For fifteen dollars I’d have to believe the book, but a co-worker of mine assured me Setsubun was always and only on the 3rd. Evidently Japanese people can’t agree on the appropriate day to throw beans out the windows and doors of their homes. There seems to be no question, however, that it is appropriate to throw beans out of your windows and doors. This they do while shouting ‘Oni soto! Fuku uchi!’ which means ‘Devil out! Good luck in!’

It’s good fun for the kids, but the adults take on a bit more somber attitude when the beans start flying.

I suppose there’s room for debate as to whether tossing roasted soybeans onto the sidewalks and streets and parked cars will keep the demons of bad luck away, but I’m taking Pascal’s Wager on this one. Particularly with all the snow we’ve been having (until this Thursday of course when Spring arrived) I am long overdue for a good bicycle accident. And if firing peanuts into the neighbor's garden is going to keep my tires on the ground where they belong then bombs away it is.

To complete the bean toss formalities everyone is supposed to eat as many beans as their age, but my son got a little carried away and chucked too many of them off the veranda. I didn’t sleep well last night for this, but today before breakfast I went outside and, to my delight, found plenty of peanuts scattered about, presumably courtesy of the neighbors, and I wolfed down enough to get back to the luckier side of Setsubun.

The Japanese, sure as they seem about the effectiveness of the bean thing, take no chances with the devil. So for dinner last night my wife grilled up a batch of iwashi, aka sardines. ‘The Oni don’t like the smell of iwashi,’ she explained. Which now makes me think these feared bearers of misfortune aren’t so tough after all, despite the fact that these particular sardines are eight inches long with mouths like piranhas. But hey, Superman had his kryptonite, the Japanese devils have iwashi. Plus I like fish anyway, and these overgrown anchovies don’t waft any worse than any other finned or tentacled supper so why wouldn’t I take the extra precaution? Then as I was scraping the bones into the garbage my wife snatched up the fish heads. ‘These go outside on the front door,’ she said with a straight face. ‘To let all the demons know our home smells like iwashi so they shouldn’t even bother trying to come in.’ Right then I knew we wouldn’t be having any company that evening, devils, demons or friends.

Now that the demons have been effectively warded off, it is time to go full force and bring the good luck home. This is accomplished by eating norimaki, a long rice roll wrapped in seaweed, all in one go while facing a prescribed direction (this year it is south-southeast) and making not a sound as you keep chewing and swallowing and chewing and swallowing and practically suffocate from the effort.

I just checked; going south-southeast from Fukushima, Japan sends me out into the Pacific Ocean, over the Marianas Trench and past a thousand Polynesian islands, all the way to Antarctica. Yakudoshi indeed.

While doing the dishes I came across a stray iwashi head. After all the beans and sardines and compass point rice rolls I wasn’t about to flush my good fortune down the drain by tossing this one fish head in the trash. So outside I went to hang it on the door with the others. While I was threading the string through its gills a pizza delivery guy whizzed up on his moped and bounded up to the door next to mine. Obviously not all Japanese subscribe to the traditional beliefs of their ancestors, I guessed. If this girl next door still lived with her mother she’d probably be eating iwashi and rice rolls too. And, in certain years, heading off to be exorcised, just as Eriko had on the firm advisement of her mother. But the younger generations seem to be slowly abandoning Japan’s rich traditions.

As my neighbor opened her door the delivery guy took a peek at the label taped to the pizza box.

‘Double anchovies?’