Homemade Soba Noodles
“My wife’s mother is making soba noodles for us for dinner.” Buddhist Monk Yoshihiro Unezawa told me and made a circular motion with his hands – the lengthy method for incorporating water into the buckwheat flour. “So, desuka?? Soba ga daisuke desu yo!” I said that I love soba noodles. Then obaasan, the soba-chef/ grandmother, burst in the room to meet me, talking friendly, loud and fast; her hands caked with flour. She quickly disappeared home on her bicycle to continue the soba making process.
I went back to showing his wife, Meiko, and her sister my family history in photographs. Here were my great-grandparents in their dark wedding clothes, great-grandfather with his horses, and my grandfather with his three brothers sitting on a fence. Later Obaasan brought the thin sliced fresh noodles to the Unezawa home. “She will cook them outside on a fireplace that she built herself.” I ran down the steep driveway to the guest house to get my camera, back to the house, and out the kitchen door to the back garden. (This sounds easy, but it involved five separate shoe changes.) The round hole in the top of the wood-burning fireplace was fitted with a metal bowl full of rapidly boiling water. Eight-year old Yoshitomo-kun was helping his grandmother stoke the fire.
I caught my breath – for fuel they were using the wood slats I had seen at the Buddhist cemetery – markers for the family graves! I could make out some of the simpler kanji; family names and dates, but to me they were a mysterious message a Japanese family wrote to a departed relative. And here they were being consumed by flames to make my dinner! I needed to document this apparent lack of respect by taking pictures.
Calming down I realized that, of course, a Buddhist monk’s family would not be defiling sacred items. These must be only temporary markers that had served their purpose, and now I could enjoy the fact that they were serving mine!
Back in the kitchen, Meiko’s sister was making tempura. Pumpkin slices, patties of grated vegetables with minced fish, and my favorite, individual leaves of shiso, each dipped in batter and fried. Meiko was heating up the family’s recipe of salty sauce we would use to dip both the tempura and the soba noodles.
At the table we each had a cup with dipping sauce and a pair of chopsticks. After the family shrine in the dining room was stacked with bowls of the fresh food, we hungrily helped ourselves to the huge communal bowls of noodles and vegetables. I couldn’t help but close my eyes and swoon. “Mmmmmmmm, totemo oishii desu! Arigatou gozaimasu”. The children giggled, either at my pronunciation or at the fact I was so enjoying a dinner that was so common to them.
After we ate, Meiko asked me about my ancestors. She pointed to the portraits of the Unezawa fathers and grandfathers, then typed the word for ‘funeral’ in her electronic dictionary. She was concerned about how we remember and honor our ancestors if we didn’t have a family shrine in our house. I told her we remember our ancestors through the many family pictures we have.
One of my great-uncles took volumes of photos of my great-grand parents’ farm and family. Through these pictures, I see them as they are doing housework, sawing trees, sitting on a log across a creek. I feel as if I know them because of these pictures. Even though I don’t symbolically feed them or light incense and pray, I have deep feelings of respect and gratitude for the hard life they led as farmers in rural Illinois.
Later in the week, our group from UIS visited a different Buddhist monk and his temple. We were instructed in meditation and given the following subject to contemplate: What were we before our parents were born?
The monk told us that if we were having trouble concentrating during our meditation, we should motion to him as he walked around the room. Then we would bow, and he would whack us on the back, twice, with a long flat stick. After I took advantage of that kind of incentive, (How could I not?) in this beautiful Buddhist temple, where sliding paper doors were open to the sweet air, the sun and the birds of Japan, there I was, thinking about my ancestors, watching my young grandfather and his brothers on their Illinois farm. That's where I was before my parents were born. I was there, waiting to take my turn at life.