A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-3


CHAPTER III.

When just from school our faces and hands were as black as demons' with ink. On my reaching home my mother would take care of the copy-books, and send me straight to the kitchen to wash before I sat down to the table. The vessel corresponding to the basin is made of brass. We have not learned to use soap; old folks believe that it would turn our black hair red like that of the foreigners. There is no convenience of faucet or pump; each house has its own well in the back yard, even in the city;—hence no water-works, no gas-works, and no fuss about plumbing; the housewife must proceed to the well for water, rain or shine, and struggle back to the kitchen with a pailful of it every time she needs it.

The kitchen itself is not often floored; the range (of clay and of different appearance from that, which is used here) and the sink stand directly on mother earth under a shed-like roof which has been darkened by smoke. The range has no chimney; not coal but wood is burned in it, and all the smoke escapes from the front opening or mouth and fills the entire kitchen, causing the dear black eyes of the amiable housewife to suffuse with tears.

She has the small Japanese towel wrapped round her head to protect the elaborate coiffure from the soot of years, that has accumulated everywhere and falls in gentle flakes, snow-fashion, on things universally. She works her pair of lungs at the "fire-blowing tube," a large bamboo two or three feet long, opened at one end for a mouth-piece and punched at the other for a narrow orifice. The imprisoned volumes of smoke in the kitchen must crowd out through a square aperture in the roof; if it be closed on a rainy day, they must escape through windows or crevices the best they may.

The water when brought in from the well is emptied into a deep heavy earthen reservoir of reddish hue standing near the sink. With a wooden ladle I would dip out the water into the brass basin (sheet brass, not solid), and wash myself without soap in the most rapid manner possible, yearning eagerly for dinner. The towel is a piece of cotton dyed blue with designs left undyed or dyed black. I grumbled, I confess, when my mother sent me back for a more thorough washing; but with the utmost alacrity I always saluted the very sight of viands.

Oftentimes I was late and was obliged to eat a late dinner alone; but when all of our family sat down together, enough of life was manifested. At one end my witty young brother provoked laughter in us with stuff and nonsense; next him sat my younger sister, quiet and good. I assumed my position between my sister and my father and mother, who sat together at the head of the row. I forget to mention that my elder brother, whose place must be next above me, had been ordered to keep peace in the region of my merry little brother. My sister-in-law or my elder brother's wife took her stand opposite us, surrounded by a rice-bucket, a cast-iron cooking-pot, a teapot, a basket of rice-bowls, saucers, etc. She it was who had to cook and serve dinner and wash dishes and take care of her babies. It is this that renders a young married woman's lot in life very hard in Japan, the principal weight of daily work devolving upon her. After all this, if parents-in-law are not pleased with her she is in imminent danger of being turned off like a hired servant, however affectionate she may be toward her husband; and the husband feels it his duty to part with her despite his deep attachment; so sacred is regarded the manifestation of filial piety! Fortunately for my sister-in-law, my mother, who has four daughters living with their husbands' relatives, made every household task as light and easy as she could for her and expressed sympathy when needed, knowing that her own daughters were laboring in the like circumstances.

We do not eat at one large dining table with chairs round it; we sit on our heels on the matted floor with a separate small table in front of each of us. I remember my table was in the form of a box about a foot square, the lid of which I lifted and laid on the body of the box with the inner surface up. The inner surface was japanned red, the outer surface and the sides of the box green. The convenience of this form of table is, that you can store away your own rice-bowl, vegetable-dish and chop-stick case in the box. Some tables stand on two flat and broad legs, others have drawers in their sides. We do not ring the bell in announcing dinner; in large families they clap two oblong blocks of hard wood. Grace before meat was a thing unknown to us; my brother, however, had a queer habit of bowing to his chopsticks at the close of meals. He did it from simple heart-felt gratitude and not for show. In his ignorance of Him who provideth our daily bread, he concluded to return thanks to the tools of immediate usefulness. Chopsticks are of various materials—bamboo, mahogany, ivory, etc.,—and in different shapes—round, angular, slender at one end and stout at the other, etc. In a great public feast where there is no knowing the number present, or a religious fete where reverential cleanliness is formally insisted upon, fork-shaped splints of soft wood are distributed among the guests who rend them asunder into pairs of impromptu chopsticks. On the morning of New Year's Day tradition requires us to use chopsticks prepared hastily of mulberry twigs in handling rice-paste cakes called mochi, which the people cook with various edibles and eat, as a sort of religious ceremony.

Rice is the staple food. Vegetables and fishes are also consumed, yet no meat is eaten. Partridge and game, however, were sanctioned from early times as food or rather as luxuries. To cook rice just right—not too soft nor too hard—is not an easy matter; it is considered an art every Japanese maiden of marriageable age must needs acquire. The rice is first washed in a wooden tub, and then transferred to a deep iron cooking-pot with some water. The point lies in the question, how much water is needed? Neither too much nor too little; there is a golden mean. If the rice be cooked either the very least little bit soft or hard the young servant-wife, for really that she is, is blamed for it. The right amount of water is only ascertained by trial. No less puzzling is the degree of heat to be applied to the pot, and the point at which to withdraw the fuel and leave the cooking to be completed without any further application of heat. These things I speak of not merely from observation but from personal experience. When I was off at a boarding school, which I may have occasion to speak of, I experimented in boarding myself for a while; I learned there how to cook as at a young ladies' seminary, as well as how to write and read.

Hot boiled rice we always have at dinner; at supper and breakfast we pour boiling tea over cold rice in the bowl and are content. Tea is boiling in the kitchen from morning till night. It is drunk with no sugar or milk; indeed, the scrupulous inhabitants of the "land of the gods" never dreamt of tasting the milk of a brute. If a babe is nourished with cow's milk, it is believed that the horns will grow on his forehead. When no palatable dishes are to be had we eat our rice with pickled plums and preserved radishes, turnips, egg-plants and cabbage. The preserves are not done up in glass jars; they are kept in a huge tub of salt and rice-bran. During the summer months when vegetables are plenty and cheap we buy a great quantity of them from a farmer of our acquaintance. He brings them on the back of a horse. The poor animal is usually loaded so heavily that only his head and tail are visible amidst the mountain of cabbage leaves. Days are spent in washing and scrubbing the roots and bulbs of the garden, many more in drying them in the sun. House-tops, weather-beaten walls, fences and all available windy corners are utilized in hanging up the vegetables. When partly dried they are packed in salt and rice-bran and subjected to pressure in bamboo-hooped wooden tubs, commonly by laying old millstones on them. Being but partially dry, the vegetables deliver the remaining moisture to the powder in which they are packed, and in course of time the whole contents become soaked in a yellowish, muddy, pungent liquid. Kōkŏ, as the vegetables are then called, can be preserved in this way throughout the whole year. They are taken out from time to time, washed and sliced and relished with great satisfaction. They are something that is sure to be obtained in any house at any time; with cold rice and hot tea they make up our simplest fare.

When I was late from school I made out my dinner with the rice and kōkŏ. Frequently, however, my provident mother set aside for me something nice.

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