Letters From Around the World
No. 56 Good Fortune
Yuko sat on the floor, cross-legged. She was text-messaging her beau, Ton’. In the kitchen 12 feet away, her mom, dad, and twin sister, Nuriko, were preparing the noodles.
Nuriko multi-tasked, singing and dancing along with the Japanese version of American Idol while filling small ceramic bowls with chopped green onions and shredded carrots. It was the show’s New Year’s edition, a reunion of earlier Idols. They were somehow intellectual pop stars, singing about current events as well as heartbreaks. Nuriko’s favorite artist was performing the latest chart-topper: “Nazu Idenshi,” or, “My Genome is My Secret.”
In a few minutes it would be midnight, and as Japanese tradition dictates, when clocks struck 12, each family member should eat a bowl of Udon noodles. New Year in Tokyo means a city plastered with plastic decorations, people pouring out of the shrines, and lots of closed museums. In the family, it means preparation, especially for the mother.
“The New Year’s celebration is a schedule of events,” Yuko’s mother explained, “beginning with the noodles at midnight.”
After, the family would walk to a Shinto shrine and then to a Buddhist temple. Then they would hurry back home to sleep from about 2:00 a.m. until 5:30 a.m., rising early because the bus ride to the grandparents’ home in Mito takes several hours. We would arrive there by lunchtime, eat, visit another shrine, have a tea ceremony, eat again, and finally sleep for longer than three hours.
With this multi-day, multi-event program ahead, they were working through stage one, trying to time the noodles for midnight. But, Yuko was operating in a different realm. She alternated between text-messaging and knitting. In the text messages, sometimes the emoticons outnumbered the words, and they were riddled with dancing graphics.
The knitting project was a gray scarf, one-third finished; it would be her New Year’s gift for her boyfriend, Ton’. Yuko told her parents that the scarf was for a friend because she was keeping this relationship a secret. Ton’ was running for his university’s track team and training to become a police officer: the kind of guy who should meet the parents.
Ton’ and Yuko had met one month earlier at driving school. Driving schools are private and expensive in Japan. Because public transportation provides comprehensive nation-wide coverage, many people do not learn to drive. But, Yuko just wanted to learn. She and Ton’ had been waiting for the bus after a lecture session, and it began raining. He asked if she wanted to get a cup of coffee and wait out the storm. She thought that sounded nice. So commenced their love story.
Photo by Katie Baldwin
Recently their relationship had taken a step in the more serious direction: a sticker picture of Ton’ hides under Yuko’s cell phone battery cover. The picture is a one-inch, square, full-body shot, taken in a Japanese photo booth. The Japanese dual penchant for gadgetry and cuteness has collided in these photo booths found in every mall, and subway station, and even on some street corners in central Tokyo. About $1 U.S. gets the customers four pictures taken over the course of 90 seconds accompanied by a tinny carousel-style music soundtrack maybe meant to inspire creative poses. Then, the buyers can decorate their pictures on the attached computer, usually with hearts and stars and duckling graphics. The pictures print out like postage stamps, perforated and sticky, and fit perfectly inside the compact Toshiba mobiles.
Yuko and I had become friends one year earlier while we both studied in Germany. Now, back in her natural habitat, she was thin like Twiggy, and shicky-micky (Tokyo slang for ultra fashionable). She drank only a glass of milk for breakfast and precisely shaved and penciled her eyebrows each day. She let me in on her new romance as soon as I arrived, but counted on me to keep it confidential.
A few minutes past midnight, Nuriko positioned the noodle pot in the middle of a tray containing the garnishes she had prepared. Yuko snapped her mobile shut and rejoined the family. We slurped the noodles hurriedly (because we could not be late to the temple) and audibly (because this is the proper way to consume Udon).
The family members wrapped themselves in coats, all black, all wool. Yuko’s mom passed out five Yen coins for offerings at the shrine. Yuko’s dad locked the door and we walked four blocks to the nearest Shinto shrine. We stood in an orderly line with about 700 other people, waiting to bow, pray, toss in our offering, and pick our fortune sheets. Neighbors bowed to neighbors in greeting so often that the crowd seemed to move collectively with a wave-like rhythm.
Photo by Katie Baldwin
Our turn. We tossed in the coins, and then reached for our fortunes, organized carefully in compartmentalized shelves. Like a child unwrapping a Snickers bar, Yuko eagerly unfolded her fortune: No. 56 Good Fortune. After scanning the page, she fished her mobile from her coat pocket to update Ton’ on her luck.
If Ton’ had grabbed a Good Fortune, the prognosis was promising for their romantic future. These fortunes are not like those found in U.S. fortune cookies. They are a full page long. Bad Fortunes leave no room for hope. No. 82 Bad Luck, for example, is especially grim: Fire breaks out up to the sky. This is a big fire, which burns to the heaven. It will be impossible to get whatever you want. Your wishes will not be realized. The patient will not get well. The lost article will not be found. Building a new house or moving is no good. You should not make a trip. Marriage and hiring employees are both bad.
Futures, bad or good, could begin the next day. That night the community celebrated together, organized and polite in the Japanese manner. We migrated from the shrine to a nearby campfire, where volunteers doled out a thick hot rice drink. It was 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire warmed our legs; the soupy drink our hands and souls. A minute later Yuko’s pocket buzzed. Ton’ had received the identical No. 56 Good Fortune.
Sticking to the schedule, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 5:30 a.m. Even at that hour, Yuko’s mother prepared a breakfast with the attention my mother would reserve for Thanksgiving. She served sashimi sliced evenly and spread over star-shaped leaves like an Oriental fan, and steaming miso soup with strips of seaweed and a smoky taste. In Japan, appearance is not superficial but substantive, and appreciated every day. Gifts prettily packaged mean more than the usually modest contents of rice crackers or post-it notes. We ate the artful breakfast and ran because public transportation departs punctually.
On the bus, Yuko pulled out her knitting and plugged headphones into her mobile. After five minutes, she pulled out her ear buds and turned to me. It was a dilemma: she needed and partially wanted to spend this holiday with her relatives. But mostly, she just wanted to see Ton’. She wanted to give him the scarf and go on a date to Starbucks where they could drink peppermint hot chocolate together.
I braved the question: “Why don’t you just tell your parents?”
“Young people don’t talk about their relationships with their parents,” Yuko assured me.
The reverse, I learned, is also true. Adults don’t talk about their relationships, either. Yuko had only learned the story of how her parents met a few nights before when I asked during a sushi family dinner. Her parents, Keiko and Shu, were introduced by a colleague at an after-work function 25 years earlier. Their story was typical, but my question absolutely novel. It was as though they had not reminisced about their first meeting since the actual occurrence.
Yuko is 23 and has had several boyfriends, none of whom have ever met her family. “My parents joke that I am challenged socially,” she said with a subdued smile.
Their expectations exhaust her. They pressure Yuko disproportionately because her twin, Nuriko, has Down Syndrome. “I am their hope to lead the life we are supposed to: married, professional, modest.” If she introduced a boyfriend to them, they would expect Yuko to marry him.
“Ok. But I think you kind of like sneaking around, too,” I told her, like a friend, not like a parent.
She grinned, looking at me sideways, and passed on answering. A text message was incoming: New Year’s Day wishes with undulating heart graphics, from you-know-who. We were nearing Mito where the festivities would resume. Outside, instead of neon lights and skyscrapers were carefully cultivated square plots and two-story square houses.
“Let’s go home early tomorrow, while my parents remain in Mito,” Yuko plotted.
I would be the excuse – I wanted to see more museums in Tokyo, which would finally reopen. She figured she could have the scarf finished by then, plus, didn’t I want to meet him? I relented to the plan before we arrived in Mito.
The normalcy of this secret relationship phenomenon is paradoxical. Usually, Yuko is exhaustingly honest. She found the equivalent of $10 U.S. forgotten in an ATM machine the Sunday before in central Tokyo. She panicked. What should be done with it?
But this was Tokyo where enabling conditions exist for politeness and honesty. A courtesy phone was mounted on the wall beside the machine. After what must have been 20 rings, a distant voice echoed through the speaker. The employee explained that Yuko could place the Yen in a deposit envelope, and then slip it in the slot for after-hours transactions. It would also be very kind, he said, if she could write a short explanatory note with the date and time on the envelope. After completing this, Yuko was visibly relieved, as if morally cleansed from that unfortunate circumstance of finding money. Apparently, boyfriends and money are categorized differently.
The traditions, knitting, and text messaging continued in Mito. We watched more Japanese Idol huddled around a low square table draped with an electric blanket. That afternoon, Yuko apprenticed under her grandmother in a three-hour tea ceremony, wrapped up in her scarlet kimono like a Christmas gift. Later, the dinner conversation was extra animated because of the caffeine content in the ceremonial green tea as thick as chowder. With no pockets in her kimono, Yuko spent the ceremony and meal detached from her mobile. She seemed happy and funny, relishing this other part of her life.
Yuko and I arrived back in Tokyo late in the afternoon of January 2. Ton’ knocked on the door within an hour. When he came in, she squealed but immediately tried to swallow it. She presented him with the scarf, which turned out to be a bit short. But he wore it for the next two hours of his visit, tied so tightly it looked like a turtleneck.
Eventually (after four more months) Yuko cracked and introduced Ton’ to her parents. They were predictably inquisitive and thrilled. Now, Yuko is studying for her final exams to become an elementary school teacher. Ton’ is working as a police officer in Hiroshima. Probably, hopefully, Yuko will take a teaching position there within six months. Probably, hopefully, they will get married. Not because of parental pressure, rather because they remain in love. Currently, Yuko has put away her knitting needles.
Katie Baldwin migrated to Montana, the Big Sky Country, from California. She attended Montana State University studying History, German and Spanish. Baldwin’s father is a pilot for Northwest Airlines, and she spends all of her school breaks traveling. In Montana, she skis, hikes, and volunteers for numerous organizations. Her energy to affect social change spans issues from Habitat for Humanity to land mine eradication, political campaigning, or raising the minimum wage for Montanans. Katie hopes to work for an international development organization after graduating, taking a position abroad, of course.