Not so long ago there was an old man and an old woman living all alone quite a way up a mountain deep in the country. They didn’t used to live all alone, there used to be a whole hamlet of houses around them but over the years all the young people moved to the city and the old people passed on or were put in homes by their 5th floor 3LDK city living children until there were only the two of them left. They didn’t have any money as the government pension for farmers was hardly worth the long trip down to the post office to collect it but they didn’t need much money as they had always been smalltime farmers eking out a living year to year and season to season. As they got older, slowly, one field at a time, they decreased the amount of land they tended until they were left scraping out a living subsistence farming one last field as the surrounding land returned to nature. They lived simply and ate sparely, simply and seasonally. In winter here deep in the mountains that meant they were eating a lot of pickles, a lot of daikon, hakusai and negi and not much else.
One day, on the last day of the year, a day when they woke up with frost on their noses- old houses and insulation and all that- the old lady served up the same old breakfast of hakusai and daikon miso soup, pickled daikon, salted hakusai, negi-miso baked rice balls and green tea that she’d been serving three meals a day for weeks and she sighed and said “Old man, tomorrow is New Years Day! I want something different to eat. I need a change from all this monotony and I want something without salt!”
“Is that so?” The old man mumbled through a mouthful of soup. He wasn’t really listening, the old woman had been talking his ear off for over 50 years now and it had faded into a background hum to his daily life about 45 of them ago.
“Old man! I said I need you to buy us some food- I want some fish! Maybe some meat!”
“Ok, ok.” The old man sighed into his tea. “No need to carry on.” That’s what you get for marrying someone who had been used to the finer things, hey? he thought as he remembered his father in law and the shop he had had on main street. Back when there was a main street…
“Stop your fussing and I’ll go and sell some of those straw hats we made on all those rainy days lat month. I’ll get us some money and buy your fish if you just promise to let up on the caterwauling and let me eat my meal in peace old woman.”
They finished their meal as they usually did, without talking and with only slurping and chewing sounds to break the silence of a snow bound winter morn.
The old man headed off on the long tramp down the hill with a ‘yoisho’ and a groan for effect as he stood up with the five straw hats tied to his back and his own battered straw hat pushed down hard on his head.
On the way down the mountain he passed six stone jizo statues, nodding to them and commenting on the cold as he passed. With noone else but the old woman for company the old man had grown quite fond of the jizo. Feeling a sense of comradery with them and sometimes envying their peaceful existence.
After an hour and a half of trudging and slipping and sliding and tramping down the mountain the old man made it into town. It was New Year’s Eve and the streets were crazy, all those city folks back for New Year driving like they were still in peak hour city traffic, the shops were heaving with be-aproned women searching for last minute osechi ingredients and everyone was meeting friends, neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances needing a cheery but hurried New Year greeting.
The old man sat down in a corner of the park with his straw hats at his feet and watched all the scurrying. It all rather overwhelmed him to be honest.
It was a cold winter day but there was no wind and the old man basked in the weak winter sun and wiled the hours away without anyone so much as throwing a glance in his direction. The thing was, very few people even used straw hats anymore. JA handed out baseball caps for every new campaign, you could pick up a made-in-China, snugfitting, bow-closing, floral all-in-one hat and scarf from the home centre for 198 yen on sale. The cumbersome and non-sweat absorbing straw hat was an endangered species almost exclusively worn by those who had made them themselves.
As the sun began to sink behind the mountain tops- around 3:00pm up this high- the old man unwrapped his negi-miso baked rice ball and chewed it purposefully before slowly and with much effort unkinking his stiff muscles, restrapping the straw hats to his back and- avoiding the splash from an under-occupied 7-seater people mover taking a corner too tight and too fast- he started off on the long journey home. The sunshine had created an icy crust on the snow, a breeze had picked up turning a cold day into a frigid late afternoon and the old man leaned into the mountain as he took each slow, heavy and deliberate step back up the mountain.
Half way up the mountain the wind turned into a howl, the sky darkened prematurely and the snow that had been fluttering down lazily quickly became a white out of fat, fluffy flakes that taunted him by stinging his cheeks and finding his eyes no matter how far he bent towards the mountain unconsciously trying to make himself a smaller target.
And still the old man pushed on, thinking of the old woman at home waiting for him. She’d have the fire going well in the irori by now, soup keeping warm in a corner and his mat pulled up close to the heat ready for him to sink down and get warm.
She was a good woman and it was a happy life they had together. Their two sons had long ago left the hamlet for the city and didn’t come back anymore. Too far, too busy, nothing for the grandkids to do and their wives both hated visiting the old and draughty house with it’s lack of gadgetry. They missed their boys of course but it was easier this way. Just the two of them. They had their own routine and their own way of doing things and it worked just fine for them.
The man was so consumed by his reverie he almost missed seeing the jizo statues. Well the vaguely jizo shaped snow mounds by the side of the track anyway. Stopping to untangle the knots in his back with a few groans and yoisho’s he put down his load of hats and scooped the snow off the jizo and gave them a solemn “Tadaima.” They looked so longsuffering just standing there in the cold, unable to even turn their backs to the wind. He looked at the pile of hats he had offloaded and frowned thinking of the ear chewing he was in for when he got home. He looked at the jizo again, already wearing a thin powdering of fresh snow, and with a shadow of the cheeky smile he had so often worn as a much younger man he tied the straw hats on the heads of the jizo, giving his own hat to the last jizo with a final pat. He stepped back and nodded a final greeting to the jizo as he smiled at his handiwork, slapped the snow off his trousers with yet another yoisho and trudged the last few minutes towards home in the fast encroaching dark.
When he slid open the rattling old door to his genkan with a weary ‘Tadaima’ he sighed with contentment at the warmth and the smells of home- wood smoke, pickles and the slightly musty smell of damp washing.
“Okaeri!” He heard from the hearth. He straightened his shoulders and rubbed his stubbly chin as he shucked off his boots and yoishoed his way up into the house. He was in for it over those hats. He sent up a prayer that at least she’d serve his dinner before she got stuck in to him. If she got distracted ranting she could be standing their waving that ladle around in the air for emphasis for an age while he sat there hopefully in front of his empty bowl and the soup sat patiently in it’s pot in the corner.
“You must be tired.” she greeted him and then, looking up saw that he was carrying no shopping, in fact carrying nothing at all. “Old man what have you been doing all day? I bet you didn’t even sell a single hat! Did you even take the hats to the JA office to see Tetchan’s son? You know he always buys them up and puts them around the shop. You didn’t did you? I bet you spent the whole day sitting around down there doing absolutely nothing and gazing off into the distance. You forgot? Again?! How can you forget something we do every time we go into town? Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. What did you do with those hats then? What?? Oh you really are an infuriating man! The least you could have done was bring them home so I could take them down to town and sell them myself when the snow lets up. Hats on statues? You must be funny in the head I swear. And to think I waited for you for dinner! I haven’t got anything organized you know. Ahhh I was going to boil the fish for tomorrow and use the broth for some really good soup tonight. And now what are we going to do? And what are you doing just standing there dripping all over the place. Come over by the fire and get dry at least. You’ll catch your death of cold I swear. And what good will you be to me then, hey? Oh well, I suppose there’s always pickles and I can add some more hakusai and daikon to the left over miso soup from this morning. And the hearth is hot we can have roasted rice balls with negi-miso. Same old, same old. It could have been fish! It could have been something different. You hopeless old man, you. I don’t know why I married you somedays.”
The old woman kept right on ranting as the old man sighed contentedly and sank down by the hearth creeping forward until his toes peeked over the side of it and warmth and feeling returned to his feet and he watched his socks let up wisps of pungent steam. It was good to be home. It sure was good to be home.
As the snow shushed down relentlessly outside the window and settled heavily on the trees and bushes and the jizo’s straw hats that were warping and showing the strain (well, the three that hadn’t already fallen off into the snow anyway) the old year crept to a close and the old man and the old woman settled in for the night under layer upon layer of chest-compressingly heavy futons and said a weary goodnight to each other.
And they slept uninterrupted through a long quiet night and woke the next morning to the dawn of a new day, a new year and another meal of hakusai and daikon miso soup, pickled daikon, salted hakusai, negi-miso baked rice balls and tea.