About ten this morning, just before my first class, a group of children came by the school collecting money. The mother chaperoning the group of kids tried to explain what they were asking donations for, but I couldn't exactly understand. I was going to give them 1000 Yen anyway, since some of the kids were my students, but she got out some paper and drew a little Buddhist shrine and a monk. Then she explained, Shichi-ji (7 O'clock) and pointed behind Sunkus, the local convenient store.
So tonight after my last lesson, Libby and I ambled over behind Sunkus where the Ano River runs by some old houses. Immediately the smell of incense was in the air and children could be heard laughing and running and yelling. A group of about twenty kids made a haphazard line in front of a small wooden shrine. In front of the shrine a monk sat praying as two old women fanned him. The children listened vaguely. Then something would catch their attention, and they would run away, only to return again.
The monk continued his chant. Parents tended scuffed knees, hungry children. Cicada droned their somnolent rhythms into the night air. With a brass hammer the monk rang a bell, then picked up a mallet and tapped on a wooden drum. Incense evanesced towards the black sky.
One of the older women fanning the monk said something to the children and the line began to move. Each child moved under the wooden awning of the small shrine, pinched incense between their fingers and sprinkled it over a small flame. Then the children, one by one, would bow and leave to return to his hollering friend, running around a small grassy area behind the shrine.
One of my students saw Libby and I standing around watching. Saya and her sister Yuuka ran over and issued some quick sentences in Japanese, and then said 'Joe sensei' and offered her hand. She led me into the shrine and motioned to me how to offer the incense and bow. We followed her instructions and dropped a few hundred Yen in the box.
Finally, the monk finished. He stood up and gathered the children together. He explained, I assume, the meaning behind his prayer, the significance of the sacraments in front of the shrine, and some things about Buddhism. The children, mostly, listened. Then he asked if their were any questions. And, to our surprise, there were. Children as young as 4 or 5 asked questions as their parents concealed giggles before the monk attempted an answer.
After the children's curiosity had been satisfied the monk offered his thanks and then pointed to bags of something beside him. The children made a line and each were given a small plastic 'grab bag' to take home. Libby and I started to walk back home when one of the parents asked us to wait. "Matte ne, matte ne."
She sent two girls to get us a bag - filled with treats and snacks from the local grocer - and we waited, offering our thanks.
People always talk about how hard it is to feel integrated into Japanese society. Besides the language barrier there is a strong nationalism, regionalism between the Japanese. But, sometimes I don't understand how anyone could feel pushed aside here. We felt a great hospitality tonight, saw very warm faces.
Maybe some gaijin expect the unexpected or are overly sensitive and easily discouraged. Racism exists here, as it does elsewhere. But, feeling part of a community is a two way relationship and it isn't hard to feel at home in Ano.