Every day when I am at my in-laws' house in Japan, I go for a walk around the neighborhood. It doesn't matter which way I go. I am sure to encounter at least one little statue of a Buddha-like man wearing a baby bib and maybe a matching knitted hat. Sometimes he's inside a delicate wooden box with incense sticks, food offerings, and origami cranes surrounding him. Sometimes he stands alone at the crossroads of streets with flowers at his feet and maybe a small pile of rocks. Who is this man?
Jizo, or Ojizosama as he is respectfully known, is the Buddhist protector of travelers and children. If you are interested in Buddhism and/or how Jizo's story parallels some of the stories found in Greek mythology, Traditionally Kyoto has a fascinating, in-depth look here. For TANABATA WISH, I wanted to portray Ojizosama in his more simplified form as the patron saint of sorts of children. I don’t know what the people using this Ojizosama box in our neighborhood were praying for specifically. They could have been praying for the general safety and well-being of their child. Or praying for help to conceive a child and have a healthy pregnancy. Maybe they were praying for the soul of an aborted child or still-born baby. The origami cranes might have been made to amplify the request for healing for a very ill child. I don’t know, but as a writer, I like to play with all the what-ifs.
What’s found inside the Ojizosama box near my in-laws’ house changes frequently. Sometimes it contains chains of origami cranes. It often has incense sticks and flowers. I’ve seen food and drink offerings. Maybe a few coins. The bib is usually red, but I’ve seen other pastel-colored ones too.
Below is the scene I wrote for TANABATA WISH that introduces Sky to the idea of Ojizosama. No spoilers here, but I do tell you via Sky’s stepfather Tomohiro in the next chapter why Hii-obaachan (Great Grandmother) stopped to make an offering. To set the scene…While the rest of the family is out for the afternoon, Sky is put in charge of elder-sitting Tomohiro’s 90-year-old grandmother in rural Ishizu, Japan (you can see my previous post about Ishizu here). Though they get off to a rough start and have serious communication issues, Sky and Hii-obaachan find a connection over their mutual love of cooking. The pair have just bought provisions at the local mom-and-pop grocery store and are heading back home.
She says something. I don’t know what it is, but at least one of us sounds calm. Hii-obaachan shuffles a few hundred more feet down the street before stopping at a chest-high box jutting out of some rocks on the side of the road. She pulls her antique baby stroller up to the light-colored wooden doors. Hii-obaachan wavers as she unlatches and opens the doors. I put out my arms to catch her. Amazingly though, she stays upright. Behind the doors is a worn, granite sculpture on an equally worn pedestal. It looks like a man. A Buddha of sorts. Only it has several layers of baby bibs hanging around its neck.
Hii-obaachan bows twice, claps her hands together twice, and bows again in prayer. Then she pulls a small glass cylinder of clear liquid out of her baby carriage. Hii-obaachan sways like bamboo on a windy day as she attempts to pull the metal tab off the top of the jar. I grab her with one hand and pull the tab off with the other. A sweet, alcoholic smell wafts out. Hii-obaachan reaches for the tiny sake cup flanking a bowl of uncooked rice inside the box. She says something to me. I stand there. Hii-obaachan gestures to the glass bottle and then the cup. I use the bottom of my shirt to wipe out the cooties from inside the cup and pour what must be sake into it.
Now what? Does she expect me to do shots with her in the middle of the street? Maybe I could take one tiny sip like Rachel did and that would be enough.
“Dōzo.” I hold the cup out for her to drink first.
Hii-obaachan laughs so hard that I can see all eight of the teeth in her head. She takes the cup from me and puts it back in the box next to the bowl of rice. My face burns. Hii-obaachan straightens up the baby bibs and throws out some of the dead flowers before closing up the box. The same pained smile crosses her face as when she was singing along with that karaoke song earlier. I want to know the story behind the look. What memory is passing through her ancient mind? I want to be able to communicate with her so bad. Before I can stop myself, I use the only piece of communication I know won’t get lost in translation. I hug her gently. Hii-obaachan dabs at her eyes with a Snoopy handkerchief-washcloth-thingie, which magically appears out of her apron pocket. Suddenly, Hii-obaachan’s sadness crashes over me, too. My eyes get misty. Hii-obaachan pats my arm and offers me the Snoopy handkerchief-washcloth-thingie. I sniff and shake my head.
A flurry of words come out of Hii-obaachan’s mouth, but all I get is “dinner” and “to make.”
“Ikimashō,” I say, making sure Hii-obaachan has a firm grip on the baby carriage.
As we take off down the street, I pray we are going in the right direction. I take a deep breath and put myself in Hii-obaachan’s arthritic hands for this adventure.
Want to know what/who Hii-obaachan was praying for? Want to know what Japanese dish Hii-obaachan taught Sky to make which she later makes for her dinner date with Ryouhei? You can buy the paperback of TANABATA WISH here and the Kindle eBook version here. If you are a traveler, a foodie, and/or a Japanophile, stick around for more behind-the-scenes posts about TANABATA WISH. Ja mata ne!