Tag Archives: Japanese Gift Giving

Tofu Nirvana

Today was the day.  I had not touched my cell phone for 48 hours and now I could check to see if it was dead or alive.  It was alive!  The screen looked weird, like water had dripped down inside and smeared it, but it worked.  It would die eventually, once I was back home, but for the rest of my trip it worked.  Hurrah!

I felt grateful that it worked, and also grateful that I had been forced to not use it for 48 hours.  If your phone has to die, a mountaintop Buddhist monastery is the perfect place for that.

There were some new guests next door to me; from the guttural exclamations I could hear through the wall, they must have been German or Dutch.  They sounded aggressive, which I realized was just their language, but I took my laptop with me just in case they turned out to be thieves.  This is the type of irrational thinking I do when I am sleep deprived, which is just about every day.

I wanted to buy a gift for my Keiko’s parents.  Koyasan is considered sacred to the Japanese.  I didn’t know Fred and Hiromi were believers and if so, in what, but they had never been here and I thought it would be nice to bring them a little something.  But what?

At the information center, I asked the friendly staff of three for advice, but none of them spoke much English.  From the back office, a tall, stout man appeared and thrust out his hand.

“I’m Patrick O’Leary.  How can I help?”  An Irish American! He was the fourth employee.  After my initial surprise, I explained I wanted gift advice for my Japanese family.  He translated for the other employees and they conferred.

“I’ve lived here 30 years and I still don’t understand it completely—the gift giving thing,” he said.  The advice was to buy a special kind of dehydrated or freeze dried (is there a difference?) tofu made only in Koyasan.

Really?  Tofu?  Now, I like tofu, but I had never considered giving it as a gift.  I asked them to write down the exact name in Japanese since I assumed it would be difficult to find.  They giggled a little up their sleeves, and I realized why as I entered the first gift shop I came across to find thousands of boxes of gift-wrapped dehydrated tofu.

Here’s the good thing—dehydrated tofu is light, unlike the broth-packed yuba tofu I had bought in Nikko.  Once I saw it I realized this was something I’d been enjoying at every meal in Koyasan. Once it’s reconstituted, it has an even spongier texture than regular tofu.  Call me a weirdo, but I like that, so I bought a package for myself too.

I returned to the monastery and did some work, wrote a blog post, ate an instant ramen lunch, and packed for my departure the next morning.  Then I sauntered out for a last visit to the cemetery.

This time I followed some of the tantalizing trails that led off from the main paths.  They wound up, up, up from one terrace to another; on every level there were loads of old tombstones as well as signs that people still visited, like gardening tools and stools and obviously-recent offerings of coins or flowers or incense.

One path turned out to be a cross-country hiking trail. A very serious woman through hiker hoofed it my way, barely nodding at me.  The path opened out into a meadow, and I could see where it reentered a woods on the other side.  So tempting!  But I turned back.

I got lost and ended up in an area where Japanese tour buses arrived.  This was the location of newer graves, including “corporate graves” for people who dedicated their lives to their companies.  Probably they literally worked themselves to death.  I will never understand why this is considered admirable.

That afternoon I attended the fire ceremony, which as I wrote turned out to be a two-hour meditation.  That night I slept eight hours straight!  I guess all I have to do from now on is meditate two hours a day.  Right.

The Perils of Presents

I received several more emails from my sister-in-law about footwear, and an in-person demonstration at their house.

One additional thing related to footwear – no slippers on tatami mats.  Even if you put on indoor slippers when you go inside, when you go to a room where tatami mats are, you take off the slippers before you get into that room.

Continuing the topic of shoes – you usually take off shoes at ryokan, minshuku (either at entrance or when you get into the room).  You will be barefoot (or in socks) in tatami rooms – you’ll wear slippers provided (or your own footwear if allowed inside) when walking around outside your room in the building, going to shared bath, dining halls, etc.

Oh, there’s also the topic of bathroom slippers….don’t go into bathrooms in your regular indoor slippers …use the slippers provided in the bathroom…I know there’s way too much on footwear and slippers….

I’m doomed to make a faux pas with my filthy feet, and I accept that.

As I write this I am waiting to check in for my flight, unload the dishwasher, and leave a note and small gift for my subletters before driving away for a month.

Which brings up the whole Japanese gift-giving thing.  I always bring gifts for people when I travel.  Often they are items native to Minnesota, like wild rice; or made in Minnesota, like Aveda, Target, 3M, or General Mills products, or even Spam, as a joke.

I will call my sister-in-law Keiko, her mother Hiromi, and her dad Fred (he does go by a western name) to protect their privacy.

I asked Keiko what gift I could bring for her parents, and she suggested some good chocolate that’s made in the USA.  I’ve got that, but then I got to thinking….

When Fred and Hiromi first came to the US to meet my family when Keiko and my brother became engaged, there was a memorable gift exchange at the home of my mother and her husband.

We sat in a circle around the living room, the three of them and 10 of us.  Within minutes—without anything overt being said—it became clear that this was about Fred and my mom’s husband, Jim.  The two of them talked to each other across the room.  If anyone else spoke, they were ignored.  It was fascinating.  It was all about the alpha males.

Jim said, “We have some gifts for you,” and waved in the direction of my mother.  I know they were aware that gift giving is a big deal in Japan and that they had put some thought into what they should give.

My mom jumped up and delivered gift bags to Fred and Hiromi, from which they withdrew Minnesota Twins baseball caps.  They smiled and laughed and seemed very pleased.  Japanese are obsessed with baseball, so whew—gift-giving success, right?

Then Fred went out to the rental car and brought in a box about three feet long and one foot deep.  He placed it on the floor in the center of the room and lifted the lid.  This was no flimsy cardboard box. It was cardboard, but of a sturdy and obviously high-quality nature.

Fred withdrew a pair of white cotton gloves and donned them, then lifted layer upon layer of tissue to reveal a porcelain figure of a geisha wearing a silk kimono.  As he lifted her he explained, “This is a limited edition; one was given to Bill Clinton by the emperor during a state visit.”

Gulp.  There were oohs and ahs but also sideways glances among my family members as Fred accessorized the geisha with a parasol and shoes.

So, chocolate?  Sure, but today I’ll run over to a store that sells all things Made in Minnesota to see what else I can bring.

And tomorrow I leave.  Do you ever feel, just before heading out for a big trip, that you don’t really want to go?  I do.  There’s something to be said for the comfort, familiarity, and ease of one’s own home. Japan is intimidating and I’m not even there yet.

But I’ll go, of course.  See you on the other side!