Thursday, September 24, 2009

Family gatherings, Nagai-style

The pinnacle of our trip to Japan - apart from visiting ill Obachan (Grandma) - was the chance for the family to host an important family gathering with us in attendance. It was a Buddhist ritual of which I'm only partially aware of the intricacies, but it essentially paid respect to one's ancestors and happened only every few years. So as Tuesday rolled around the house was prepared with the rice paper wall/doors removed in the 'formal' part of the house to make a giant room focused on the freshly polished shrine in the corner. After Otosan 'officially' welcomed Satomi and I 'home' in front of the 30-odd suited family members, the formal proceedings began... which, in my world, meant just over an hour of sitting on my knees on cushions on the tatami mat floor, listening to 2 monks chant endlessly, interspersed with occasional bell ringing.
While fascinating and spiritual in one sense, it was also quite draining and the clock in my peripheral vision just made things worse in terms of time seeming to drag. My patience held out, thankfully, and the mass was soon piling into buses and cars for the short trip to a local hotel for the second part of the day - the formal sit down dinner.

Ordinarily, I was told, this dinner would be prepared at home and served by the women in the family. It was immediately clear on entering the dining room why this was not even attempted at the Nagai household - what waited for us was a 13-course Japanese feast, with huge amounts of flowing Asahi and sake. Sure, 13 courses of Japanese food isn't that taxing on the gullet due to the small serving sizes, but still there was no logistical possibility of this being attempted in the small Nagai kitchen. No-one seemed to mind, however, as food and drink we quaffed by the excitable gents and demure ladies hell bent on making this a memorable day. The food, to my palette, was similar to the other formal dinners I've had in Japan - a mix of strange (baby squid served in a squid ink sauce), exciting (sesame tufo) and quaint (braised steak served with three tiny pieces of vegetables) and best tackled by throwing caution to the wind and repressing the gag reflex as much as possible. The drinking aspect of the day is a communal affair, with the pouring of beer and sake for another being an important social lubricant. It prompts a reciprocal gesture and, of course, a bit of light banter and chatter, all building to a great sense of sharing and getting to know each other. Satomi and I took nearly an hour to work the room, with the gathered Nagai family members and neighbours all interested in Satomi's new hometown (near the Goldu Coasto for those familiar with Oz, and north of Sy-den-ey for those less conversant with the big brown land), my age (which all believed was hard to judge) and the ubiquitous plea for us to bear children.
Seriously, I've never been nagged so much about having kids as much as I have in the past 2 weeks! Not only at this gathering, but our regular visits to Obachan in hospital rarely has less than 10 mentions of having at least one great grand-child for her to dote on.

Anyway, with the meal drawing to a close, we poured back into the hotel's courtesy bus and embarked on the rowdy drunken trip back to the farmhouse for the critical 3rd part of the evening - the male bonding session of drink, deep fried foods and lots and lots of laughter and spirit. As the women-folk repaired to the living quarters, the men gathered in the shrine room and settled in for the evening, sans jackets and ties. With partial translations from Satomi, and quite a lot of drunken gesturing and drink spilling, the night carried on in jovial fashion.
The Nagai (and Nagai neighbours) seemed truly appreciative and accepting of the first foreigner in their precious inner sanctum of Japanese masculinity, and were even planning a 12-man Nagai tour of Australia, with yours truly as the official guide. Something tells me I'll be needing a brand new liver by the end of it.

After a few hours of soaked frivolity, various wives started materialising to haul their sweaty messes of what once were their husbands back to their homes to sleep off their poor states. Which left just the immediate Nagai family (including Ojisan - Uncle - who drove up from Nagoya for the event) to digest the day and what it meant. Otosan seemed genuinely thrilled with how everything turned out, particularly how Satomi and I were accepted and welcomed into the flock. I was truly humbled by Otosan's including me in this very special event, and conveyed it as being proud to call myself an honourary Nagai. And so with that, we retired and slept off the excess; but even today, I still feel I amazingly blessed that I was able to not only bear witness to such an intimate part of another culture's spiritual process, but also to be such an accepted and included member of this proud and rich family. The  overall theme of this visit has seen me feel more at 'home' and comfortable than the first visit (which in reality was a blur of excitement and social fuck ups) and truly amazed by where my life has taken me to allow me to call a tiny rice farming village in provincial Japan as 'home'.

And now, with just a week until we fly back, it's a case of cramming in as much as we can in a short time. Tomorrow we head up to Tateyama (at 3,000m it's the highest mountain I've ever seen), and then will spend Saturday evening at a dinner party in a friend's really small apartment in Takaoka, before taking the bullet train to Tokyo on Tuesday. Tuesday night will be spent at another friend's place in Yokohama, while Wednesday, that night and most of Thursday itself will be spent enjoying all Tokyo city has to offer, before the night flight back that evening.


庄川Steve-オ said...

Superbly summed up as per usual! You have really summed it up well - brings back many memories of memorable times mixing with the locals in Japan/Toyama.

The group or collective plays such an important thing in traditional Japanese culture, and there is no more important group than the family, which make these insights from such a privileged viewpoint compelling indeed.

Jamin (AKA Blue Box) said...

Cheers Steve-O. I'm still like a wide-eyed child sometimes when I realise how involved in the culture I'm being allowed to be. It's indeed a privileged position.

Dr Yobbo said...

Great piece Jamin. Reminded me a bit of my old man's stories about the first time he was introduced to my mum's family (Italian migrants who farmed up in the hills behind Lismore) in the late 60s and the whole experience of being immersed into the culture, the eating and drinking, the language (which was of course impenetrable) and the feeling of being adopted and claimed as their own by these people he'd only just met. Of course the culture shock, while large, wasn't really on the same scale, but interesting how the general progression of the family feast took fairly similar lines - just without the sitting around bit at the start, more milling around the food preparation area (which as in all Italian homes is the centre of social operations.)

Dr Yobbo said...

Ironically the verification code on that prev post was 'HUMBUL', which is exactly what you have to be in situations like that...

Jamin (AKA Blue Box) said...

Nice one! Thanks Doc.

Yeah, I'm at times trying to work out how much of the feeling on both sides is due to cultural exchange, and how much is due to being the first in-law. I guess in the end it doesn't really matter in the grander scheme of things.

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