Thursday, February 14, 2013

And ye shall not wrong one another

What is a poor guy to do when suddenly the kami has decided to send a downpour and there is no other shelter around, but the endless, monotonous series of stores of the sandou? The poor guy just walks into the closest one and starts looking at the merchandise. A sandou is the street leading up to a shrine or a temple, usually lined with shops selling souvenirs,  traditional finger-foods and sweets, and every other kind of chachkes any pilgrim should buy. Luck had it that the poor guy caught in the rain walked into a store specializing in items made of semi-precious stones. After looking around once and twice, the rain not stopping, what was the poor guy trapped in the least interesting of all stores to do, but to keep looking and feign interest?
At some point, the rain still pouring down, halakhic guilt kicks in: is he giving the shopkeeper the impression to be somewhat interested in the merchandise? Is the shopkeeper thinking our poor guy trapped by the rain is going to buy something? Don’t inquire about any item! Should he pay some sort of “rent” for using the store as a shelter? If so, how much should it be? In order to shut off the voice in his head our poor guy decides that buying a chachke would probably be the right thing to do and, with the complicity of the rain, he starts looking at prices. 
Holy cow! Getting soaked in the rain wouldn’t be a bad idea, after all... 
He finally notices in a corner a display of replicas of magatama, stone beads found in archaeological digs around this city, Izumo. How expensive can they be, he wonders and starts looking at tags.

Now let me take a detour and I shall tell you something that happened to me this past June during a trip to another town, Joetsu. I had seen the magatama at the store of the archaeological museum when I had visited Izumo two years before. On the bullet train to Joetsu that day the thought of Izumo and the magatama surfaced in my mind together with the regret for not buying any. At the time I did not know what they were, they looked like stone fangs and I really did not care for them. On the train that morning I thought there would not be another chance to buy one since I had no plan to go back to Izumo and I had not seen magatama anywhere else in my trips. As they say here shouganai, there isn’t anything to do about it at this point.
I met with Ishihara-San, we went about our business and after lunch he said: “Wait for me. I want to give you something to remember this day.” He went to his apartment in the company’s dormitories and came back holding a flat wooden box. During our lunch he had told me that the company had transferred him from his hometown to Joetsu and now he lived there alone, that there wasn’t anything to do in the area, and he didn’t have close acquaintances. Now he added that in his free time he had taken up working the stones he collects at the beach, and wished to give me one of the objects he had made. So he lifted the lid and showed me half a dozen magatama he himself had made.
My jaw dropped, he thanked me.
Probably he thought my reaction, caused by the magatama materialized in front of me, was a sign of admiration for his work. I took them in my hands one by one, looking for the perfect one, the one where color would match elegance and smoothness of form. They were all flawlessly round. Not a crack, not a bump.
How long it takes you to make one?
10-12 hours. Wow! And he’s giving me 10-12 hours of his life...
I chose my magatama and he attached a braided string to it so that I could hang it from my cell phone and after a few more pleasantries and a couple of bows I was on my way back. On the train home I kept thinking about Ishihara-San, the magatama, lonely Ishihara-San looking for the right stones on the beach, and the strange thing had just happened.

Last week, 7 months later, I was in Izumo again, trapped in a store, and as I looked at the price tags my jaw dropped. Not a chance to leave this place unscathed. There must be one magatama that won’t cost me an arm and a leg. The tags were written on both sides: on the one the price, and on the other a description of the healing virtues or of the supposed magical power of that specific stone. So in part because I had time, in part because I wanted to practice reading Japanese handwriting, in part because I did not want to buy a stone that would get me married or pregnant, I read all the tags one by one, until the stone giving “the courage of making the right decision, Yen 4270” appeared. Holding the magatama I was determined to pay and leave the store despite the rain. Wow! The first right decision already and it isn’t even mine yet!
At the counter the shopkeeper informed me that every item in the store is hand-chiseled and then proceeded to pelt me with questions about myself, the reason of my trip, if I like Japan and Izumo, why am I there, what do I do in Japan, in short the usual stuff. Then he asked “Do you know what a magatama is?” Really?! You ask me if I know what a magatama is?! Time to show off! I launched into an explanation of magatama that surprised him and myself. I was not even aware I knew some of the words I used. I guess some vocabulary has stuck in my memory.
And you know what happened? The anonymous shopkeeper gave me the magatama as a present, causing my jaw to drop once again. He put the magatama around my neck and after that I rushed in the rain to the train station.
As for Ishihara-San’s magatama, I never attached it to my iPhone because, you see, I have this funny habit of leaving it on top of piles of books in bookstores, drop it in fitting rooms or on cab seats, and I would not forgive myself if one day that phone call that tells me they have found the cell phone would not arrive and I would have to part from Ishihara-San’s generous gift of 10-12 hours of his life.