Walking into the kitchen this morning, followed by a cat and preceded by a cat, we all stopped short at a small sauce dish broken on the floor. Somecat had, we think, been up on the table and knocked it off, but no one confessed. The dish was formerly 4 inches across with a depth of ¾ inch. It had a small eggplant, nasubi, painted in the well, and a thin painted blue line around the circumference. It had broken into smaller pieces. The dish was part of an inexpensive set of 4 bought in Osaka, Japan, 10 years ago. One dish was broken a few years ago, not by a cat.
The little broken bones of the nasubi dish were gathered up and put on the counter. They will go out to the garden soon, and become pottery-mulch. The pieces will go somewhere special, maybe around the lemon sorrel plants. Every time the sorrel is clipped this summer, the shards will be little pieces of a nice memory.
I visited Japan 10 years ago, as part of a Japanese Language Program, held at the Kobe, Japan, YMCA. The fee for the one-month session included a homestay; I stayed with a woman (Miyako), her daughter, and her mother in Kita Ku, a nice suburb of Kobe/ Osaka. My Japanese did improve, a little bit. But more important, this was my first time in Asia, and I was on my own. It was a wonderful visit.
My hostess was, I like to think, a former geisha. A Japanese friend suggested that idea a few years after the visit, when I showed him pictures of my hostess: her formal kimono collection, her playing the traditional stringed koto, her arranging ikebana, and some other details of her life. Her English improved more than my Japanese throughout my visit, but I gained things to think about.
One day Miyako and I went through a Buddhist graveyard while walking somewhere. We walked everywhere, because she had no car. Most people I knew there didn’t have a car. I lost 10 lbs during the visit, which was great. Passing the cemetery, I was interested in the stone statuaries, and saw a woman sweeping, around a large central statue of Buddha. In broken Japanese and English, I asked if there were Shinto cemeteries, too. A few days earlier we had passed a Shinto shrine, which was a simple torii gate and a rustic wooden altar in a park area. Shintoism is a paganistic religion, with many small deities, none of them major. Another day I had seen many small pieces of white paper tied onto a little bush on the walk to my school. Miyako explained that the bush was a sacred place; someone had tied the paper on it for some special purpose, and thereby made it a little temporary home to Shinto deities. Its entirely possible that I have a unique view of Japanese religion due to the language learning gap when it was explained to me, but it was all interesting. She told me that Japanese are born in the Buddhist religion and die Buddhist, but are married in the Shinto religion. She also told me with a smile, when we visited a Buddhist temple and I was surprised by an altar surrounded by kegs of sake, that “Buddha likes sake.” My general impression was that Japanese religion is a little of this deity, a little of that deity, mixed together successfully.
One day we walked down to the oceanfront, to watch fireworks. It was some national holiday, and all the young women were dressed in traditional holiday kimonos, with decorative fans thrust through the back of their belts. We walked underneath tall street lamps, from which thousands of small bells hung. The sound they made was like tinkling rain drops, and I said Oh, they sound so beautiful. My hostess smiled and said, “Many small things, make a beautiful sound, all together.”
With that phrase she gave me a gift. Now, I always think of Japan as a place of many small things. It was my experience that at meals, many small dishes of food were served, or many small pieces in a large pot were shared. In ikebana, the traditional flower-arranging art, each flower and stem are individually arranged, for overall visual impact. Japanese culture puts emphasis on the unity of many small individuals working together, rather than American ideals of the cowboy individual working alone. Both ideas work fine in their way, just like chopsticks and forks both work fine. In their way.
My broken nasubi dish is now smaller parts of itself. Like the stones and bones in the Buddhist cemetery, the imperishable pieces which represent in all cultures the immortal part of what is human, my several small ceramic shards will arrange themselves over time in their new place. They will become a small part of a small garden in a small house in a small city in Michigan.