Narita, Obachan, and Frog Sushi

Tuesday, we took a trip out to the rural town of Narita, to visit お祖母ちゃん (obachan, or "grandmother." I could call her my host mother's mother, but that rolls off the tongue awkwardly). It was a long drive, and we eventually ended up at Narita-san, the mountain in the middle of the town, and the site of the Narita temple. It ended up being far bigger than I imagined- to me, a temple is a single building, with an occasional pagoda, information stand, or incense burner nearby. This took up the entire mountain, with newly-constructed buildings alongside those that had endured for thousands of years.

Have you ever had those little seaweed-wrapped rice crackers you can buy in Asian grocery stores? Those are approximations of senbei, roasted, seaweed-dipped rice cakes. This is real senbei- after a quick roast in the fire, it's dipped in soy sauce, wrapped in nori, and passed off to the customer. Warm, salty, and delicious.

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Obachan lives by herself, in a cute little house in outer Narita. The front rooms are wafuu, or Japanese-style; the floors are tatami mats, and occupants sit on the floor at low tables. The kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom are western-style, as is common in Japanese houses these days. Obachan was very sweet, and shocked that I could speak Japanese (as many older Japanese are). She brought out some nashi (asian pears- they're a summer fruit, kind of like the Japanese equivalent to watermelon) and grapes as refreshments for the muggy weather. A note on grapes here: seedless ones are rare, nobody eats the seeds, and most people peel the grapes before they eat them. Weird.

My host mother's brother and his wife came to visit, and we all went to obachan's husband's grave together. Now, I had been carrying a camera for most of the day, and felt no shame in photographing the beautiful structures on Mt. Narita, but in the culture in which I was brought up, a visit to a grave is a private, family matter, and I was honored they considered me family enough to bring along; I had no intention of making it part of my photo collection or blog.

As I was leaving obachan's house, though, my house mother asked me, 「カメラもっていくの」, "Aren't you going to bring the camera?" I told her that seemed rude, and she said it wasn't a problem. I figured I'd bring it and play it by ear, but it was soon evident that this really wasn't like a western grave visit, and they encouraged me to take all the photos I wanted.

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The graveyard is aesthetically different from a western one: the ground is gravel and concrete rather than grass, and the graves are more shrines than headstones, each with a small open space in front of it. Most are granite or marble, and have wooden sticks protruding from the back, with the dead's posthumously given buddhist name inscribed on them, along with well-wishing for the soul as it journeys into the afterlife.

As with most things in Japan, there is a logical, set process to be followed when visiting an ancestor's grave. First, you clean it up. Pull up plants pushing through the gravel, clear out the ashes of incense burned on the last visit, douse the stones and plaques with water, and place fresh flowers in the vases.

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Next, you ask the powers that be to see the dead well in the afterlife. Light a little incense, place it on the shrine, a quick pressing of the hands and bowing of the head, and it's done. Despite the large role this man played in the family's lives, and their attachment to him, there was no feeling of mourning at our visit; the sentiment was more of honoring the dead than anything else. I was invited to participate in the same way as each of the family members; my host mother made a comment along the lines of "gramps will be pleasantly surprised that an extra person prayed for him today."

Next, you eat sushi. This may not necessarily be part of the official Japanese grave-visiting doctrine, but I get the feeling it's a family tradition. We went to Kappa (frog) sushi, which relievingly didn't actually feature frog in its rolls. It was a sushi-train joint; plates of nigiri, maki, and sides moved around the tables on a conveyer belt, customers pick out what they want, and then are billed according to the plates on the table. Most American metropolises have them, as far as I know.

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What made this place special, though, was the "express train." The track snaking around the tables had two levels: the bottom was a conveyer belt, identical to those at American sushi-train places, but the top was bare. I couldn't quite figure out what it was for, until I saw my host-uncle playing with the touch screen above the table. He wanted salmon nigiri, and none had passed recently, so he ordered it from the touch screen. A minute later, a motorized tram came zooming along the upper track, laden with the sushi he had ordered, and stopped right in front of our table. We took the plates, and it zoomed back into the kitchen. Amazing.

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