I was helping my neighbor clean a mammoth-sized stewpot he had pulled out of his storage shed. “This is what you need if you are going to cook hiijah-jiru,” he said to me as he scrubbed the pot with a steel brush. (Hiijah-jiru is the Okinawan word for goat stew.)
The construction of our house, along with two small cottages we were planning to rent, was finally completed. For my wife and I, it marked the beginning of our dream to own a bed & breakfast. It was also a time to celebrate.
Whenever there is a big oiwai (celebration), Okinawans love to prepare and eat goat stew. It’s usually prepared many hours before the party by a group of men, while drinking, and involves simmering goat meat flavored with salt and Okinawan awamori for a long time. Ginger and the Okinawan herb fuchiba are also added to soften the intense smell and to help with digestion of the high amount of fat. For most people who have never had Okinawan goat stew, the flavor and smell can be a bit intense. It is often said that some people actually pass out from too much goat stew, which is known to increase blood pressure, so pregnant women never go near it. Okinawan men, however, love this dish and many believe it to have medicinal qualities that enhance virility. I was definitely curious about how this strange relationship between men, women, and goat stew would play out on the night of our party.
Since my mother’s family is from Maeda, my wife and I often ask for advice from my uncle and aunt when it comes to all things Okinawan. And this time was no different. When we arrived at their house, they were both sitting in the tatami living room. My aunt was watching television and my uncle was singing and playing the Okinawan sanshin, which is like a three-stringed banjo. After a bit of small talk, I asked my Uncle Noboru about how many people I should invite to the oiwai. He had been flipping through the pages of his small song book and suddenly stopped. He looked up at me and began shaking his head.
“You need to invite everyone.”
“You mean everyone as in everyone we know?”
“Huh! No, you invite everyone!”
I knew that this meant the entire village. “Can’t we keep it small?” I asked.
“You can’t just invite a few people. Everyone is related here!”
“But I don’t know every single person. What if I just invite family and the villagers I know?”
“You have to invite everyone!”
When my uncle repeats himself, it means there is no further discussion, so I simply listened and nodded.
It’s no big deal, I thought. There are only about sixty homes in the village, so it will just be a bigger party. I have a yard and it will be fun.
“Is there a list of everyone with their addresses so that I can send out invitations?” I asked.
My uncle gave me one of those looks as if I was from another planet, which for him relates to the fact that I was not born and raised in Okinawa.
My Aunt Misako was laughing when she interrupted. “You have to go around to each house and personally invite everyone.”
Go around to each and every house? I then gave my wife, Komaki, that look when you believe the people you are talking to are crazy.
And so, that is how it began. Komaki and I walked around the village to each house and invited everyone. Although this might seem like an easy task, it’s not. The villagers of Maeda, like most people in Japan, have jobs, so they are out during the day. If they are not at work, they are usually at their farm or they are out catching fish somewhere. Everybody leads an active life, which partly explains why Okinawa has one of the highest longevity rates in the world, but it also means they are never at home. And, Maeda is an aging village, so everyone goes to sleep early! Komaki and I often had to return to the same house repeatedly until we finally were able to find somebody to invite.
Back then, I usually stuck to the same route whenever I walked somewhere, so there were actually some small streets I had never taken before. In other words, there were parts of our small village that I had not seen, so it was also a bit like getting to know where everyone lived. We went to one house that I had never been to before and entered through the front gate. We were immediately greeted by a grandmother and grandfather working in the garden. (Most of the older villagers knew me because of my mother, who was born and raised here, and this was one of those homes.) They played the part of being surprised and happy to be invited (everyone actually expects to be invited) and then congratulated us on our new home. My wife and I politely bowed and left. After walking away, we decided to take a meandering path I had never been on before. We made a few turns and came upon another gate. I walked up the stairs and saw some people in the garden. I yelled out my well-rehearsed greeting and immediately was met with blank stares. I looked around and then I drew a blank. I was in the yard of the same house that I had just visited five minutes ago inviting the same people again! Komaki and I had inadvertently entered the same yard but through the back gate.
Our next meeting with my Uncle Noboru was to discuss the food. Before my uncle even had a chance to speak, I excitedly told him, “We want to have hiijah,” thinking that I was going to surprise my uncle with my cultural knowledge about how Okinawans like to celebrate.
“Toshiro is going cook the goat stew. I already told him to order the goat, so talk to him about what else you need,” he said.
My ego of being the American nephew who knew all about Okinawan oiwai and goat stew was quickly deflated. Even worse, now I had to deal with my Uncle Toshiro, whose mood always fluctuates between a guy who hasn’t had his morning coffee yet and a fisherman who is about to go out to sea in stormy weather without his morning coffee and the worst hangover in his life and then blames you for it. (He actually is a fisherman.)
“Not everyone is going to eat the goat stew, so you need something else. We can make some Okinawa beef stew also. Then you have both the goat and beef,” explained Toshiro.
“I want to help, so just tell me what to do.”
Toshiro gave me one of those “you are not Okinawan so how are you going to make the goat stew, and you must be crazy” looks. After a long pause, he finally said, “Ok, get carrots and radish for the beef stew. I will get everything else.”
He doesn’t want me to go near the goat stew. “Like how many carrots and radish?”
“I have a keg of Orion beer plus several cases of Orion in cans and several bottles of awamori. I’m ordering several plates of hors d'oeuvre,” I added. In Okinawa this is said as “odoboru” and basically means fried fish, fried tofu, fried octopus…fried everything. “How about sashimi? Do we need sashimi?” Both my uncles are fishermen, so this was more like, Can you supply the sashimi?
“Your Aunt Tsuyako is making a lot of food. You don’t need sashimi. It will be too much.”
“Really? But, shouldn’t we have sashimi since it’s an oiwai?”
“Daijoubu!” (This basically means, “everything is ok.”)
The guests were invited and the food was set. I had already talked to the village mayor about getting some tables and chairs, so that was taken care of. I just needed to report back to my Uncle Noboru and check on whether I was forgetting something.
“When are you planting your lawn?”
My lawn? Why do I have to think about my lawn. Does that really matter? “After the oiwai,” I answered.
“You’re going to have people walking on the dirt?”
“I don’t know. Should I plant the lawn first?”
“You’re going to have people walking and sitting on the dirt?”
My uncle was repeating himself again. “Isn’t it too late?” I asked.
“I will have somebody come with sod to plant your lawn next week. He’s a friend.”
After some discussion about the cost and my uncle finally telling me that he was also going to pay for the entire lawn installation, he finally just commanded me to order a ton of sand.”
“A ton of sand? Isn’t that too much?”
“No, you can always use sand.”
I wasn’t really sure what he meant by “you can always use sand,” and on top of that, I now had something else to worry about.
Komaki and I managed to find a construction supply company nearby and they delivered our sand by dumping it into a huge pile in my driveway. I enlisted the help of my cousin’s husband and we began by moving it wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow onto the yard. (A ton of sand is a lot of sand.) We laid out several mini piles throughout the yard and then proceeded to spread those piles out with rakes and shovels.
After hours of work in the hot tropical sun, we finally were able to get all the sand leveled out in order for the sod to be laid, but then my Uncle Noboru came to take a look. He was walking around the yard, moving the sand around with his farming boots while hissing. “There’s too much sand. Take some out.”
Take some out? After shoveling all that sand for hours? I looked at my cousin’s husband and we both knew what we had to do. Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, we started to haul sand back onto my driveway. When we were done, we were pretty tired and thirsty, so we cracked open a few Orion beers. Sitting under a shady tree, we were quenching our thirst and admiring the sandy yard when my uncle’s landscaper friend showed up.
He walked around the yard while putting his hands into the sand at different spots. “Why didn’t you use all the sand?”
I raised my eyebrows a bit. “We did, but Noboru told us it was too much, so we took some off.”
“There’s not enough sand. Put the rest of that sand back on there.”
I didn’t even bother responding, and without even finishing our beers, we began to shovel more sand and wheelbarrow it back to where it had been before.
The landscaper came back and checked our work.
“This is good. When is the oiwai?”
“Ok, I will be here on Monday.”
Monday is too late. “Noboru told me you could get it done by this weekend.”
At this point I gave up. I actually felt relieved since I thought that the lawn would be destroyed with all those people anyway.
When I explained to my uncle that the lawn wouldn’t be ready, he brought out a huge blue tarp. “You can use this. Put it right over the sand and set up all the tables and chairs right on top.”
On the morning of the party, everything began to fall into place. The neighbors all showed up to help without any notice (this is typical in Okinawa) and even put up a large tent in case of bad weather. A few of them had mini pickup trucks, so we used them to hall about 100 chairs and close to 20 tables from the village community center to my house. The food, alcohol, and drinks all arrived and the beer was put on ice. Even the blue tarp looked ok, providing the color of Okinawa's sea right there in my yard!
My Uncle Toshiro had begun preparing the hiijah and beef stew with some of his fishermen friends the night before, cutting up the meat and vegetables while drinking and talking. They had set up their own little clubhouse-like area with chairs, a table, cooking utensils, and two huge cauldrons sitting atop two giant gas burners. They basically had everything they needed, and I made sure they also had a cooler box filled with cold beer and plenty of Okinawan awamori. Much past midnight, they had gone home to get a few hours of sleep before coming back again to start the cooking process. By now, both stews were simmering and the smell of goat was strong throughout the neighborhood.
I put on some Okinawan music and was helping my cousins prepare small bento boxes for each guest. These were customarily taken home after eating. (Yes, when you attend an Okinawan oiwai, you get to eat a lot of food and then you get more food to take home.) As we worked, I was enjoying a cold Orion morning beer from the keg when my Uncle Toshiro came out from his mini goat kitchen. I could tell he was a bit tired because he was unshaven and his wavy hair was a lot wavier and taller than usual. At first, he was just staring at us.
“Where is the sashimi?” he suddenly blurted out.
Everyone stopped and looked around at each other.
I took a swig of beer to calm my nerves before answering. “I thought you said we didn’t need sashimi?”
“This is an oiwai. You always serve sashimi at an oiwai,” he grumbled in a low voice.
My fisherman uncle is asking me why there isn’t sashimi. When I saw him grimacing, I realized that maybe the pre-party the night before had not been such a good idea. I was about to remind him again about his “daijoubu” comment a few weeks earlier concerning the sashimi, but my cousin intuitively sensed the brewing situation and stood up. “I’ll go out and get the sashimi.” She had just saved face for both of us. My Uncle Toshiro turned around and walked back to his neutral corner of goat stew.
Just past noon, some early guests began showing up. These were mostly close friends and people who came for the keg of Orion draft beer. Most of the early birds were not big fans of goat stew but would walk over to the goat corner to take a look as if it were a requirement. Each time, Toshiro would give the stew a few stirs with this long piece of lumber and then proudly lift up the good stuff with his giant ladle for all to see. Even though you can smell the goat stew from pretty far away, it is a lot different when you are right there. The display, of course, did not entice any of the newbies into trying some, but there was always plenty of exuberant reactions. Sadly, the beef stew was like a friend that shyly sat in the corner and got no attention.
By around 3 pm there was a pretty good-sized crowd, and my Uncle Noboru showed up with his sanshin. For me, this really signified the start of our special day. Although Noboru plays the sanshin like a pro, he rarely plays outside of his own comfort zone, which is his living room. Many villagers are familiar with his musical talent since his house sits directly across from the village community center. On hot summer nights, you can hear his unique style of play and distinct voice reverberate out into the street. The thing about Noboru is that he is modest and a bit shy. But there he was, sitting down at our oiwai, tuning the three-stringed instrument and flipping through his song book getting ready to perform.
The sanshin is like the soul of Okinawa. It has been around for centuries and there is usually at least one family member who can play. When there are traditional gatherings, the sanshin and a good singing voice are what many Okinawans look forward to. People spontaneously get up and dance. The reaction to Noboru’s sanshin playing was truly uplifting. Smiles were on everybody’s face and with the end of each song there was always lively applause followed by people shouting out the names of various songs they wanted to hear. When he finally put his sanshin away, I thanked him with a smile. He just nodded his head and then walked over to get a bowl of goat stew.
By early evening, the goat stew addicts had arrived. Toshiro and his friends were working in unison at the goat corner with precision. Somebody would stir, another person stood to the side holding a bowl, and then the ladler would search for the right balance of meat and soup. When the bowl was filled, it was passed to a server and finally brought to patiently waiting guests. Once in a while, there would be some movement over at the beef stew section.
When I looked around, I realized that all the planning and preparation had magically materialized into a true Okinawan oiwai. My close friends, my Okinawan family, neighbors, and of course, some people who I didn’t really know were all mingling and celebrating. Komaki and I were going from table to table, making sure we thanked everyone for coming. Many of the older guests talked to me at length, often mentioning their gratitude toward my mother and father for their generosity and kindness during the tough years just after the war. I listened to their warmhearted stories, which brought a much more meaningful connection to this new house in Maeda.
By midnight, a handful of people was all that remained. I noticed that my Uncle Toshiro was no longer near the goat stew. I walked over and asked his friends if he was ok. “Kanojo ni ai ni itta!” said one of his friends with a big laugh. Girlfriend? I don’t know why, but the first thing that came to mind was the ending scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Matt Damon left behind a note for Robin Williams… “Gone to see about a girl!” I immediately recalled my interest in the connection between men, women, and goat stew, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Toshiro had spent just a little too much time around the latter.
With the goat stew just about gone, the goat stew maker nowhere in sight, and one of my neighbors sleeping in a chair in the middle of the yard, the oiwai was over. I was telling my Aunt Misako as we were both clearing off tables how much I appreciated everyone’s help and how thankful I was for all the villagers who came when one of the last guests approached me to say goodbye. He was a villager who I didn’t really know that well. If I hadn’t listened to my uncle and aunt’s advice about who to invite, he probably wouldn’t have been standing in front of me. He patted me on the shoulder and told me he was happy that I had decided to live in Maeda. I waved goodbye while thinking, so am I.