Monday, March 3, 2008

Fire, Ice & Obama Cookies

Japan is about 7,000 miles from the United States.

That should be enough distance to keep me somewhat sheltered from the pre-election craziness (read: name-calling and mud-slinging) that is capturing headlines in the USA right now. That's not to say that I'm not interested in following our nation's democratic process. Without disclosing my political affiliations here, suffice to say I'm thrilled to see so many of my fellow Americans engaged in this year's election. I, like so many, am ready for big change in the White House. And I'm certainly planning to vote via absentee ballot come November.

But what's caught me off guard is the number of Japanese folks who are also following the election. Closely. I've had lengthy (read: lengthy-for-me-in-Japanese) conversations with my new swimming buddies about the Obama-versus-Clinton race between laps at the Maruoka pool. My fellow teachers at Sakai Jr. High have asked me to shed some light on America's oft-confusing election process. And, last week, a 3rd grader at one of my visiting elementary schools asked me who I was planning to vote for - in perfect English.

So it would seem that Fukui is election crazy, too. But while America's choice for the next president will certainly have ramifications here in Japan, perhaps what's causing all of this interest in my little corner of the world is the fact that Fukui is home to a sleepy little fishing town called...


Yes. Obama, Japan is a town of 32,000 people at the south end of the prefecture. It's about 2 hours from my apartment by car. Like most of Fukui, Obama's the kind of place that nobody's ever really heard of - the kind of place that Lonely Planet forgets to mention and that comes up black and pixilated on a Google Earth search.

That is, until Barack entered the picture.

Now, Obama, Japan is pretty darn famous - at least by Fukui standards. Or maybe it's that Obama (the man) is pretty darn famous in Obama (the city). The folks there have started selling "I Heart Obama" t-shirts and headbands. Someone even told me that they're making manju, a kind of Japanese confection, with Obama's face on them.


Either way, I had the privilege of visiting Obama yesterday, though it wasn't necessarily for the lure of Barack's cookies. I took part in the Omizu Okuri (Water Sending) - a festival that's been going on for 1,200 years. Held at night in the freezing cold, the event was actually quite eerie: Using light from hundreds of torches, hooded Shinto priests chant and bless water at a shrine in the mountains. They carry this water, called kozui, through the forest to a river. After another ceremony and the lighting of a huge bonfire, the kozui is poured into the rapids. Folks believe that the kozui water arrives at the Big Buddha temple in Nara 10 days later, so there's another festival there on March 12.

The hundreds of spectators at this centuries-old ritual get to purchase torches, write their wishes on them, light them, and follow the Shinto priests down the mountain. This seems like a good idea in theory, but in practice, walking through slippery snow with thousands of tiny Japanese folks with torches (read: they held their lit torches above their heads, which, quite conveniently, was my eye level) proved to be quite terrifying. In hindsight, I should have traded my wish for "World Peace" for a wish for some extra medical insurance...

At any rate, the festival was fantastic. The pictures I posted here don't really do the experience justice, so try to evoke your sense of smell as you look at them. Imagine a mysterious mix of pine, smoke, holy water...and Barack Obama cookies.

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