Sunday, 31 January 2010

Only the women

A path had been dug through the snow to the smaller of the two Shinto shrines in the village, the one perched on a steep slope beneath a bamboo plantation. Bears had damaged the doors trying to get in earlier in the year, presumably for some food that had been left as an offering, but the small wooden structure survived.  About the size of a garden shed, this is one of those very local shrines that only serves a few houses. It has probably has for a very long time, as the worn and headless statues of monks by it attest. Their heads have been replaced with round pebbles. My mother in law, who grew up in a big family just down the road, remembers skiing and sledging down this slope in the days before the Ski centre was built.

The shrine is also used for a more serious purpose one day a year. The 15th of January is a special day for the women of the village, who still troop up there to make offerings and celebrate their year of hard work. Traditionally this was their one day off a year, the one day when they didn't have to cook, clean, farm, and look after young children. The one day from 365 when everything was done for them, when they needed do nothing at all.

Now there are a few modern women in the area who grew up in the city and are married to professional men who moved here to work. They are housewives with enough leisure time during the day to enjoy shopping and dining in the nearest city. If there are young women who grew up locally and married local men, they invariably work too, as wages here are not high and two salaries are needed to build up enough savings, for future safety's sake.

Aunty Kiyoko-san says that it used to be that the man of the house would cook on women's new year day. There would usually be between ten and fifteen mouths to feed, what with eight or nine children, mother and father, paternal grandparents and maybe a great grandparent and an uncle or aunt. Schools didn't used to provide meals, so cooking breakfast and preparing the lunch boxes (O-bento) for everyone was a major production. Then there was the evening meal, the washing, keeping the house in order, and any spare time spent on the vegetable or rice fields. It was the man's job to bring in money, often having to live away from home while seeking work in Tokyo during the winter months. These days, with only three of them left in the house, Kiyoko-san even cooks on this one day. "He doesn't know where everything is, and it isn't worth the mess just for us three."

The footprints in the snow up the steep path to the shrine are getting fewer, as it is only the older women that still observe this day. In a few years who will remember to go?


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