Fish Out of Water

By Alec Siegel

Jigalchi Fish Market, Busan, South Korea

Whipping winds make the brine and fish stench all the more pungent.

We are strolling the sea-splashed alleyways of Jagalchi fish market, on Nampo Port, in the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula and second most populous city, Busan.

Middle-aged women flank both sides of us, yelling, snapping, smiling, frowning. They aggressively hawk their wares, outdoing each other out of necessity. They sell the same things after all, all offer identical prices. How to choose one over the other?

Mackerels thrash in tanks the size of a shoebox. Immobile crabs in slightly larger tanks.Octopi nestle in pastel colored buckets, looking like soaking up the sun. Stingrays hang on hooks-stretched dry-more fossil than flesh.

But everything is fresh here, as fresh as it gets. One whiff tells you that much. It’s overwhelming to stroll Jagalchi’s rows of fish stalls, especially during a mini monsoon. It’s freezing, the wind-chill brutal.

Don’t let the sunset behind one of Busan’s many green hills fool you. It’s freezing.

The women and the stalls they operate offer more than a freshly caught fried fish dinner; they offer refuge from the gales. Merchant and customer alike huddle around heat lamps, puffing on their hands in between sips of soju (Korean rice liquor).

We walk on, sandwiched by pleas.

“Sir! Sir! fish! Over here! Cheap!”

One lady finally manages to catch our attention. Perhaps it was her force, perhaps it was our frostbitten exhaustion. Whatever the reason, she reeled us in. Unlike the fish desperately flopping around in her tanks, we happily settled in back of the adjacent restaurant to thaw and refuel.

It’s a new world. I can move my appendages. I can feel my face. I can laugh without fear of a permanent smile. But that’s nearly what happens when our meal hits the table.

A fish fried whole which, most likely, was searching for a meal of its own only hours before in the East China Sea, split in half, frowning. A hot bowl of soup. Banchan-small side dishes, usually an array of pickled vegetables. And to round things out: A cold Coke in a glass bottle.

A frowning fish makes for a happy meal.

All around us as we eat, Koreans banter and laugh, picking through steaming hot plates of sea creatures and vegetables. A newscaster drones on a small television set in the back. The woman who baited us shuffles from tables on the inside to potential customers out. They should bite. It’s warm in here.

We reluctantly finish eating. As I push in my chair, steeling myself for the cold that awaits, I make eye contact with a man seated alone behind me.

His eyes are icy blue, his fingernails rusted yellow, his hands smudged in black grease. A Russian seaman. (Judging by the language he attempted to communicate with and the fact that Nampo Port is home to a sizeable diaspora of Russian ship workers). On the table in front of him: the same spread I had eaten minutes before, only a bottle of soju in place of a Coke.

He smiles and speaks, motioning to the contents on the table.

His words are foreign to me, but I know what he is trying to say.

Just chillin’.


By Alec Siegel

Higashi Village, Okinawa, Japan

Despite its Biblical title, Canaan Farm is a hellish place.

Part of it, anyway.

The pigsty: A fenced enclosure accommodating 30 or so animals. Pure Okinawan pigs, wild boars, a hybrid of the two. Trees look lightning struck, dotting the barren enclosure with apocalyptic scar. The pigs ate the roots. It’s a tree graveyard. A smaller barn-like structure with ten cages, each no larger than 10×10 feet housed another 15. Their prickly coats range from apricot to coarse black. Mud and feces cover their snouts. All are eventually eaten, if not by one another, by human beings.

Every morning for five weeks, six days a week, we feed these creatures. Their breakfast, lunch and dinner: brewed barley hop residue (procured from a local Orion beer factory), dry cereal, rice powder, blocks of tofu, okara (the residual product when tofu is processed), a pinch of salt. We mix these ingredients in a large, rusty machine, divvy them into black buckets, and disperse them throughout the ten indoor cages. (Outdoor pork feast non-stop on poop and mud, and the occasional paper bag).

For them, it’s Heaven. For their handlers, not quite.  

Chickens cluck-15 to 20, hens and roosters-stealing nibbles of pig feed as we prepare it. An inseparable group of cats call this stink home as well, slinking about each morning, watching us as we work-strange bearded men in mud stained work clothes and rain boots.

This is farm number four, our first in the southern Japanese prefectural island Okinawa. Higashi, the country’s top pineapple producer, is 30 or so miles to the south of the northern tip of the finger shaped island. We are an hour and a half plane ride from the mainland. It couldn’t feel any further away.

Gone is the chilly December air. The rough, endless mountains. The Shinto shrines. The occasional stray feline. Up here, in the hilly north of Okinawa, winds rage and pigs thunder. It is a jungle. Thick green palms and thin brown reeds spring from the bush. The clay red hills wear thick gashes from recent landslides.

Canaan Farm’s pig operations are tucked atop of one of these hills, at the end of a bumpy, dirt road that winds up past a mound of steel and aluminum cans (“Mt. Can”). The sty overlooks a small valley.

Piglets on the loose! Seeking cover among abandoned farm equipment.

It’s three of us each day-Michael, Go and I. Go is a 27 year old man, full-time staff at Canaan. He resembles a Mongol: A round face, wide features, a wispy goatee and beard. Go is affable. Often childish, always kind and quick to chuckle. He studied for three years at a small university in Oklahoma. Hip-hop music brought him to America. He was intrigued by the rhythms and cadences.

50 pigs roar when our battered white farm truck arrives. We mix and serve the grub: butlers of beasts. For 6 days each week, 5 weeks in December and January. It gets colder as the days inch toward a new year.

My senses revolt. The acrid, devilish smell. The sight of large male pigs eating newborn piglets. The sound of bones being crushed beneath teeth. The taste of a penetrating odor. These things will fade with time.

My memories strengthen. We seek out the eggs the chickens left us (a daily scavenger hunt). We converse: our pasts, our unfortunate present, our futures. We laugh: Go is a goofball. These things will remain, forever.

An Agu (Okinawan native pork). Mud-crusted and maybe stuck. 

So Long, Monday Blues

By Alec Siegel

The Golfers

We had been driving for 40 minutes when we pulled off the expressway into a nondescript narrow dirt path that wound up a hill.

Four crates of freshly picked persimmon rattled in the trunk of the car.

Earlier that morning, Michael and I had been ready to spend the day harvesting the fruit when Yoshio, our current WWOOF host, threw us for a loop.

“We will drive to Fukuoka at 9:30,” he said, while sorting through and packaging persimmon on the bed of his white farm truck, “Sell persimmon.” He gestured to four crates of the orange fruit on the ground a few feet away.

It was 9:15 in the morning. 15 minutes later, we packed his car with our inventory and sped off through the hills of Ukiha City toward Fukuoka to the northwest. Not a cloud in the sky. D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” album played as we cut through recently harvested rice fields and tiny villages.

I stopped the music when we approached the dirt path 40 minutes later. Yoshio tenderly guided his car off the road and up the hill.

At the top of the hill was an empty lot the size of a football field. Two white tents were set-up. Twenty-five or so people milled about, all wearing caps and white vests with the words “Umi Club” printed in green on the back.

We had arrived at the stomping ground of the Umi City ground golf club. Ground golf is a popular Japanese leisure activity, essentially a hybrid of croquet and miniature golf.

Yoshio instructed us to bring the crates over to a card table that was under one of the white tents. As soon as we dumped off the first crate, a flock of club members-all above the age of 60-converged on our merchandise.

Over the next 20 minutes, three crates of persimmon were emptied. Most were bought, 500 Yen per bag of 5 fruit. The rest was raffled off.

After our pop-up persimmon sale, a few ladies from the club invited the three of us out to lunch.

Lunch was delicious-fried chicken and coffee-and full of enlightening conversation.

“Do they speak English in Chicago and New York?” One lady asked us, via our translator, Yoshio.

And so on.

The Friends

 John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” played as we made our way back home.

Three of our persimmon crates had been emptied, and the last remaining one was only about half full.

The sky was no longer cloudless. In fact, there was nothing but clouds.

10 minutes into our ride home, Yoshio pulled into a dense residential area. All of the homes were built with traditional Japanese roofs: two crisscrossing panels made of a thick layer of hay as the base, with a protective outer layer of stone shingles.

The roads in this neighborhood were narrow, barely wide enough for one car, and the homes were large, with Japanese gardens in the front and backyards.

“My tennis friend’s house,” Yoshio said as we pulled into the driveway of an especially large home. Yoshio filled a plastic bag with an armful of persimmons and knocked on the door.

The home belonged to Yoshio’s tennis friend of 40 years and his wife, who answered the door and ushered us in.

The home was gorgeous, traditionally built with a dash of modern convenience. There were sliding doors to all the rooms, tatami mats covering the floors, an elaborate shrine, pottery, paintings.

There was also a treadmill, a Calloway golf bag, old tennis trophies gathering dust on a bookshelf.

After the bag of persimmon was handed over, we were asked to sit down in the kitchen by Yoshio’s friend’s wife. While a local high school basketball game played on the television (one team was coached by Muggsy Bogues), the five of us sat and chatted over green tea and crackers.

An ancient looking man walked past us at one point, down a long dark hallway. He was 90 years old.

“My father,” Yoshio’s friend said.

After tea, we migrated to the living room, where we sat cross-legged on cushions, talked for awhile longer. There was an ornate hawk perched on a tree that carved into a wooden panel at the top of a sliding door.

When it was time to continue our journey, we were handed a bag full of clothes as a gift, and told to “please visit again”. I promised we would.

The Old Dog

Our last crate had only a handful of persimmons left. I was hopped up on caffeine as we hit the road.

No more than 10 minutes after leaving, we pulled off into a gravel driveway that had three signposts that said “No parking” in English.

“It says ‘no parking’”, I warned Yoshio. He laughed and parked the car.

Around the corner from the lot was a large metal slide door that was locked from the bottom, like the ones that protect storefronts during closing hours. Yoshio, a bag of persimmons in tow, knocked on the door.

A minute passed before an old man in a baseball cap peaked his head under the door.

He stared at the three of us with a blank expression for a few moments, and then smiled as he finally registered who Yoshio was-an old ground golf buddy.

He invited us into a room that had the feel of a tool shed, dark, dusty and crammed with random items from floor to ceiling.

There was a bin of 10 or so umbrellas by the door, bags of cat food piled off to the right. A dog paced around the left corner, chained to the wall. The dog looked tired and old, with a tricky to read demeanor. Was he looking for a rub behind the ears or a few fingers to bite off?

His name was Momo, and he was 13 years old, and as it turns out, as sweet as could be.

Our drop-offs complete, Yoshio decided it was time to take us sightseeing.

We sped up a nearby mountain, past shrines, streams and red forests, and then followed the curvy road down to the town below-Dazaifu.

It was about 4 O’clock in the evening, gray and chilly. We pulled up to the Tenman-gu temple, a famous Shinto shrine dating to the year 905, parked in a 30 minute spot, hurried to the main prayer site, performed a quick prayer (two bows, two claps, one more bow), hopped back in the car, and then sped off for home in Ukiha. It was a fitting capper to a whirlwind day.

This was a Monday. So much for the Monday blues.















A Mother by Nature

Oba-chan is a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother.

She is 87 years old, with the vitality and energy of someone a quarter of her age.

She wears an apron all day, sometimes blue, sometimes velvet, and tiptoes around her yard in orange sandals and socks.

Her miso soup is mean, her donburi downright disrespectful.

She peels, cuts, slices and dices persimmons, laying them out on trays for the sun to dry. The unassuming queenpin of a dried persimmon empire.

She sits cross-legged at a tiny wooden desk in her study, which faces a large glass window that looks out at her herb garden. This is where her downtime is spent, reading books or writing in a pocket journal.

Oba-chan certainly looks the part of an elderly Japanese lady: her skin is wrinkly as a prune, her gait is slow, her posture slightly bent, her voice gentle and worn. Physically, time has taken its toll, as it does to every human being on Earth.

Her spirit has managed to escape time’s grip.

Clean the dishes after a meal and she’ll thank you like you just saved her life.

In her kitchen, each guest is assigned a pair of chopsticks. There are light purple ones with green streaks, brown ones with little blue fireflies on the handles. There is a coal black pair, a red pair. Oba-chan never forgets whose hand each belongs to.

Wake up one morning with a cold? Oba-chan will brew up a cocktail made of sake and a raw egg. It’ll fix you right up.

Oba-chan is the Japanese word for “mother”. It’s not her given name.

But to anybody who has tasted her potato salad, whose dirty laundry she has washed and hung out in the yard to dry, to anybody who has been left inspired by her agelessness, by her zest, she is Oba-chan.

Chicken-n-Beer (A “Ludacris” Night Out in Japan)

(Raw) Chicken-n-Beer
(Raw) Chicken-n-Beer

By Alec Siegel

The first sign the night would be special was when the waiter brought over a plate of chicken sashimi. Paper-thin slices of raw chicken are not on the dinner menu of just any given Tuesday.

The private dining room in the back of the restaurant was crammed with 20 or so Japanese men and women, all over 60 years old. Michael and I sat in the corner, taking in the ludicrousness of the scene we were in.

Dinner was the first step in our hashigo experience, a Japanese tradition that begins with dinner and ends with a bowl of ramen, with a visit to a yakitori bar in between. It’s like a more subdued barhopping journey, only with way more food involved.

Everyone in the room was on a soft tennis club based in Ukiha City, a small mountain town in northern Kyushu. Earlier in the day, Michael and I were guests at the club’s practice. We played a few hours of soft tennis-a game much like tennis, save for the squishy rubber ball-ate some snacks and watched the veterans play against each other.

Before heading to dinner, we stopped by a Japanese style inn called a ryokan, which was owned by one of the club members. We cleaned up in a natural spring fed bath, nibbled on some peanuts and enjoyed the surrounding scenery through giant glass windows.

The tori (chicken) restaurant-step one of the night’s festivities-was just across the street from the ryokan.

So there we were, in a room of tipsy Japanese grandmothers and grandfathers, observing the action from our corner perch.

Dinner with the soft tennis club of Ukiha City, Japan.
Dinner with the soft tennis club of Ukiha City, Japan.

As plates of chicken sashimi, fried chicken breast and soy marinated chicken skin were being served, each person in the room stood up and introduced him or herself. After a few minutes, the entire room did what I feared they would: they all looked at Michael and I, smiling and gesturing for us to stand up. It was our turn.

“Uhhh, I’m Alec,” I said in shaky Japanese.

“Alec!” they yelled back, or at least attempted to. It was a totally foreign name to them, so some of them pronounced my name like it were a question.

“And… I’m from Chicago. Thank you very much!” That was all I had for this crowd. They clapped like I was a visiting delegate and I sat back down. Michael gave a similar introduction, received a warm applause, and sat down next to me. The night went on.

At some point, in between bites of the chicken skin (a personal favorite) dish and sips of Coke, a man who I had not seen up to this point was suddenly propped on his knees next to us, reeking of beer and aftershave, smiling and speaking to us in Japanese.

For an hour or more this man, Ouichida, graced us with his presence. Talking to him was like having two one-sided conversations at once. He spoke to us in Japanese, so Michael and I, having no idea what he was saying, responded to what we imagined he was saying in English.

From left to right: some lady, Ouichida, Michael, Alec
From left to right: some lady, Ouichida, Michael, Alec

He didn’t seem to mind, and probably thought we knew exactly what he was talking about. On our side, we imagined the conversation being about Passover, the Chicago Bulls, and Kendrick Lamar.

Ouchida kept thanking us-I have no idea why-and shaking our hands. At one point he flexed his biceps, which were, given the fact that he was 78 years old, pretty impressive. He was intent on taking sake shots with us, and kept trying to sneak some into my Coke bottle.

Everybody in the room was still dressed in their tennis uniforms from practice-Yonex jumpsuits, Mizuno windbreakers and sweatpants. Ouichida was wearing a white zip-up jacket over a black and white patterned shirt. That, along with his thick framed glasses, slicked back silver hair and stocky stature, gave him the air of a mob boss, or a cowboy who lost his hat, or at the very least a regular at Caesar’s Palace.

At around 8 o’clock, the room began to empty, and it was time to leave. Hashigo must go on.

After a drawn out farewell in the parking lot, Michael and I joined a couple of others at a yakitori bar down the street. Yakitori is, traditionally, chicken parts skewered on a stick and grilled over coal. Most modern yakitori bars have the whole barn however-beef, pork, eggs-and vegetables as well.

For the next hour or so, five of us sat at a yakitori bar, stuffing our faces with skewered meat and drinking beer. It was Yoshio, our host in Ukiha, his wife Mariko, their Buddhist monk friend, Michael and myself.

The ramen spot was our final stop. By this point I could barely breathe I was so full.

I was knocked out, ready to throw in the towel, if not the contents of my stomach. A sumo-wrestling match played on the restaurant’s TV as we plowed through our pork ramen bowl.

When we were all finished, we dropped the monk off at his temple, and then headed back toward Yoshio’s farm. It seemed like all the stars were out tonight, casting their glow over the mountains that surrounded Ukiha City. Nobody spoke. Nothing needed to be said. Hashigo was complete.

Pitbull, a Leaf Blower, Mormons

by Alec Siegel

Sec, Siegs, Yusuke
Sec, Siegs, and  Yusuke

Hitchhiking in Japan is like trying to catch fish in the Dead Sea. That might be a tad dramatic, but it isn’t too far off.

So why did Michael and I engage in such a foolish endeavor? To save seven bucks. Bumming a ride instead of taking the city bus for all of eight miles would accomplish that.

Two months into a six-month trip through Japan will make you appreciate the value of yen a little bit more. $7 is dinner. $7 is a night at a cheap hotel.

It was early evening on a Saturday, about four o’clock, and we were returning from a day at the Saga International Hot Air Balloon Festival. The event was on the banks of the Kasase River in Saga, Fukuoka Prefecture, no more than eight miles from where we needed to be.

Our lodgings were just off route 422, a one-lane highway that cuts through a number of tiny farming hamlets across the river from Saga.

A 100 yen shuttle took us from the festival to the Saga train station, from which we were either going to walk the eight miles back to our Airbnb, or ideally, hitch a ride.

When we arrived at the Saga train station, I opened up my journal to a blank page, and scribbled the word “Okawa”, the name of the village we were headed toward.

10 minutes of walking backward with our thumbs out and our sign waving in the wind got us nowhere. A few bemused looks, but no ride.

A few minutes later, our prayers were answered, although in a different form than we anticipated.

Two kids in suits were on the sidewalk in front of us walking with their bicycles. They heard Michael and I speaking English to each other and turned around.

“Hey guys,” the one with the short cropped black hair and glasses said, “need some help?”

We stopped to chat, still holding our “Okawa” sign out for oncoming cars to see. The two kids were American, one from Idaho the other California, and they were in Japan as Mormon missionaries. Mormon freaking missionaries! On a sidewalk in a town of 200,000 in nowhere Japan. We’ve encountered some bizarre things in this country, but this was up there.

So while one offered to pay for our bus fare (we told him we were not broke, only cheap), concrete help-a ride-proved elusive. As we parted ways, I told them to send a prayer for us to the man up above. They said they would.

No more than two minutes later, a white van pulled up to the curb. A thick necked man leaned out the window and shouted “Okawa?!”

“Hai! Hai!” we replied (translation: “Yes! Yes!”).

We chucked our bags in the trunk, Michael took shotgun and I squeezed into the backseat, next to a dusty leaf blower, piles of toolboxes, and a pair of green and white basketball sneakers.

This was no limousine or even city bus, but it was a zero-cost ride. Besides, anyone with a leaf blower in the backseat has to be trustworthy.

The man’s name was Yusuke. He had two tins on his dash: one filled with toothpicks, the other with Q-tips. Another reason to feel safe. He cleans the nooks and crannies.

He found it hilarious that we asked him to take us somewhere a mere eight miles away, and he made a few phone calls to his friends to let them know how amusing this all was. He had a smoking voice on par with DMX.

“I have two Americans in the car!” I imagined him saying, “Should I take ‘em to the shed in the woods or to theunderground holding pen?”

He has a leaf blower and a jar of Q-tips, I reminded myself, we’ll be fine.

In a few minutes of small talk-very, very small talk-we learned that he was 38 years old, and according to Google Translate, worked in the “construction field”. His shoddy English and our shoddier Japanese hit a wall, so we sat in silence for the next few miles.

The sun was setting over the hills to our right, and fields of rice and edamame stretched out for miles to our left.

I pulled out my phone to check the map to make sure we were headed toward Okawa. I could see Michael doing the same in the front seat. It seemed like Yusuke’s route was taking us away from Okawa, on a highway that diverged to the north, when we needed to be going south. If he doesn’t turn right up ahead, I thought, we are taking off at the next light.

His purple striped socks and army camouflage croc slippers did not help my mass murder imaginings.

The turn was 100 meters ahead. Fifty, twenty-five. I clutched my phone until my knuckles turned white. Michael fingered the yarn on his backpack. Yusuke made the turn. I checked the map. We were on the right track.

With my senses out of crises mode, I noticed a radio set on his dash that looked like an XM unit.

“American music?” I asked, pointing at the radio. A nod.

“Wait a moment,” he said.

He dug into his sweatpants pocket and pulled out his phone. Seconds later, a live performance of “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull and Ne-Yo from YouTube began to play. He set the phone on the dash for all of us to watch.

He paid more attention to the video more than he did the road. It was terrifying.

Listening to Pitbull and Ne-Yo is not how I envisioned leaving this life, so I hatched a plan.

“Better American music,” I said, pointing to my phone. He shut the video off. I switched on “m.A.A.d. city” by Kendrick Lamar, followed by “So Fresh, So Clean” by OutKast. Both got a nod of approval and a thumb up from Yusuke.

We were almost in Okawa, our eight-mile journey coming to a conclusion. For most of the ride, I had been worried about this man’s intentions. Why would a 38 year old Japanese man with a leaf blower in his backseat pickup two Gaijin at 5 o’clock on aSaturday night? Why did he sound like DMX? Why did he wear purple socks? Were the construction tools a farce? The Japanese Mike Myers?

“Here OK” we said, and the car stopped just across the street from where our bicycles were parked. He sent us off with a toothy grin and a wave, lit up a cigarette, and drove off.

We were the oddballs, I realized as his car disappeared. Yusuke should have questioned our intentions. Instead he drove us eight miles, and saved us $7. Maybe he was an undercover Mormon agent, maybe those two kids paid him to scoop usup, I rationalized.

Or maybe he was simply a hygienic Pitbull fan with an open mind and a few open seats.

Yusuke driving
Yusuke driving

Which way is that way

by Michael Secular


The day began at 6:30, our usual wake up. But our routine of breakfast and house chores had ended. We were now packing and cleaning up to move on to our next destination: Kyoto.

We said our various goodbyes to friends made over the course of three weeks and some over the past few days. The goodbyes were quick. We took a few photos, and shook a few hands, but life on the farm continued on without us. Our host, Akio-San, dropped us off at the entrance of a highway. We have our final farewell and continue on our way.

Hitchhiking began at 9. We had two signs. One in English, one in Japanese, both with the words “going to Kyoto” written on it. Each of us took a sign and began waiting on the side of the road. In the beginning, the sight of each new car drew excitement of a potential ride. But soon, passing cars became a common sight.

Many would look at the signs with confused expressions, some pointed and laughed; others gave us a thumbs up. One man stopped and read the sign carefully, and upon realizing it said “Kyoto”, shook his head indicating he was not going in that direction, put his hand up to apologize, and continued on his route.

After 3 hours with zero success, a highway patrol man came by wearing a helmet, radio in his ear, and holding a flag. He tried to communicate with us, however, the lack of English made it impossible. He took out a laminated book filled with tiny pictures that resembled a children’s story.He pointed to a picture with a caption that said “not safe police coming soon”. He lead us off the highway, and communicated we should go in front of a 7/11.

Outside of the 7/ 11 we sat on the side of the road under a tree, eating curry, sushi and chocolate. The sun began to dim. We took shifts, one of us holding the sign while the other read or slept on the sidewalk. After two and a half hours we made the decision to call it a day.

Carrying our giant backpacks the two of us headed to the train station. Upon our arrival we learned the cheapest train to Kyoto was leaving in less than 10 minutes.  We rushed to buy tickets and ran to the track. After getting on we looked at each other, unsure if we had even got on the right train. Thankfully we did. Our minds relaxed with the chaos of the day behind us.

The train ride was a perfect substitute for our failure. The train swept through valleys and farmlands; over rivers and small dams and tiny bamboo forests. Small towns passed through our view with everyday people going about their lives. The train sped forward toward the south of the country, chasing the sun. Its final golden rays cast out among the land leaving large shadows. A day’s end was coming near, and a small stage of a long journey closing. Today was a big realization that so much lies ahead. The train makes for a bad metaphor for our long voyage in Japan. Kyoto waits in the distance.

sun (1)

All OK

by Alec Siegel

Kei-san's notes
Kei-san’s notes

I’m bent over the sink washing dishes from dinner when the bald Buddhist monk walks up to me.

“What religion are you?” he asks.

The question hangs in the air as I mindlessly scrub a miso soup bowl.

Kei-san, a monk of four years and proprietor of the Setsukeian Guest House, located in the hills of Nantan, Japan, did not ask me this question as dish time small talk. Let me rewind.

There were five of us at dinner: four volunteer farmers (three Americans and one Frenchman) and Kei-san. Dinner started unusually early, at around six-thirty. After dinner-beef stuffed cabbage, rice and miso soup-we cleared the plates off to the side,and he motioned for us to gather around.

He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled some bubbles, connected them with lines, and jotted down some Japanese characters. “Kei-san here,” he said, pointing to a small dot at the bottom of the page. He had sketched a family tree.

In Japan, Kei-san said, showing appreciation and respect for one’s ancestors is a central part of the culture, something that is ingrained in most Japanese people and is practiced both inside and outside the home.

The four of us nodded, waiting for more, for a larger point, for the nugget of Buddhist wisdom we had hoped to collect. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then switched gears altogether.

“Christian, Jewish, Islam, no religion. All OK,” he suddenly said, his round face scrunched up, each word delivered with urgency, as if Buddha himself had used him as a conduit.

Eventually he comes back to his core message: culture and tradition and customs are important, very important. So important in fact that he spells each word out on top of his family tree.

“In Japan there are two religions,” he said, “very hard for foreigners to understand.”

He jots the word “Buda” (Buddha) at the top right of the page, and “god” at the top left. He connects the two with a straight line. In Japan, an ancient religion called Shinto colors the religious outlook of a majority of the country. “God” is the universe and everything in it-humans, trees, rice, fruits, vegetables, etc. It does not indicate a creator or deity with any specific name or form. The lesson ends as abruptly as it began, and we are dismissed for our nightly chores.

I’m on dish duty, so as the other three sort rice from their rice husks at the dinner table, I head to the kitchen, stewing over what he had just said.

Do I appreciate my ancestors enough? Can’t we all-Jews, Muslims, Christians, every living human being-live by the words “All OK”?

Before I could mull these questions over any further, Kei-san burst into the kitchen and looked at me with a wide grin, far from the stern and meditative caricature of a Buddhist monk.

“What religion are you?”

I pull out the Star of David necklace from under my shirt and launch into an explanation of my Jewish upbringing, and how I identify as a cultural and ethnic Jew, but religiously I’m a bit up in the air. I’m talking in circles, trying to convey a complex concept to a Japanese monk with a puzzled look on his face.

I’m rounding out my “cultural Jew” dissertation, using chopsticks to show how Jewish identity can be separated between a culture and a religion, when he suddenly laughs, signals for me to stop, and pats me on the shoulder.

“Christian, Jewish, Islam, no religion. All OK,” he said.