“Ii sögwachi deebiru,” as they say in Okinawa. “Happy New Year!”
The past is not so far away. When I was a young boy growing up on Owäwa Street in Kalihi, there was a Chinese man who had a little store in the garage attached to his house. We called him the “crack seed man.”
In my current neighborhood in Okinawa, Ajya, there are remnants of Naha’s
past that take me back to my past in Hawai‘i. For example, there are small stores attached to family houses everywhere. There’s one located about 300 yards from my front door — I think of it as Ajya’s version of my crack seed man. I sometimes walk by this store, which is directly across the street from Ajya Elementary School. It’s actually a stationery store, but its real moneymaker is its snacks. When school is out, the owner is busy selling snacks to youngsters. Kids are the same everywhere: Wherever there are snacks for kids, there will be kids.
I walked in and introduced myself to the owner, Tokuzo Uehara, and told him I was from Hawai‘i. I asked him how old he was, to which he replied, “I can’t remember,” but he thought maybe 82 or 84 years old. I asked him how long he’s had the store. “I can’t remember,” Uehara-san said.
He let me take a picture of him in his shop and smiled happily. After I took his picture, he pulled me to an icebox and offered me a free can of beer. It was 10 a.m., so I graciously declined. Now how cute is that.
Seatbelt and helmet law — so what? Japan has a strictly enforced seatbelt law, but can you believe this? No child car seat laws! I don’t understand how adults can drive, protected by a seatbelt, while a preschool-aged child — sometimes more than one child — stands on the front seat next to them, or plays on the floor of the front seat.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Even more dangerous is seeing adults driving mopeds with preschool-aged children standing in front of them. There is a helmet law here, so both the operator and the child are wearing helmets. Cute? Definitely not!
School lunch. Schools here do not have cafeterias like we have in Hawai‘i and in most schools in America. Some elementary and junior high schools have kitchens, where workers cook the students’ meals. However, the students don’t eat in the kitchen. Instead, they walk to the kitchen to get the food, usually in large pots, and carry the pots back to their classrooms, where the lunch is served and eaten. After lunch, the dirty pots and dishes are returned to the kitchen to be washed.
The students pay a monthly fee for their lunches. I was told that the price is currently about 4,500 yen per month (about $36). A dietician or nutritionist plans each month’s menu, which is printed, complete with its dietary and nutritional information.
If a school does not have a kitchen, it usually contracts with a kyushoku center that prepares the lunches, delivers them to the school and then goes back later to retrieve the dishes for washing. Preschools also do this.
High school students have more options: They can buy bentö at the school or
bring lunch from home. About five or six bentö vendors come to the schools to sell their bentö, creating fierce competition among each other. They also sell onigiri (what we call musubi in Hawai‘i) and pan (bread) with different fillings. Bentö prices start at about $2. The vendors can also be found on the college campuses here.
Some parents make their children’s bentö — Riemi does this for Yuta and Sota, but only once a month. Her mother-in-law, Hisae-chan, wakes up at 5:30 a.m. every day to make bentö for her husband, Ayao-san. They buy various cupcake-like paper and aluminum containers at the 100 yen shops that come in a multitude of sizes and shapes. Even the bentö boxes come in various styles.
Okinawan word of the week: Bintoo for box lunch — in Hawai‘i, we’re all familiar with the Japanese word: bentö.