Ssssssssshhhhh. Stealth in Shinjuku Station.

Once, when no one was looking …

January 7 prompt, “A Writer’s Book of Days”

They are unseen in the late hour of Christmas Eve. Inside their cardboard boxes that are inside a distant corner inside the vast underground passage inside one of the world’s largest train stations in Tokyo.

What was the hour? Midnight or so?

The camp of boxes is not the chaotic layout more common in the West. They stand close together, reflecting a culture of the collective in small spaces, and not ordered yet orderly, reflecting a culture that strongly values orderliness and organization. (Like the Germans; just one reason Japan and I sync well.)

It’s the first time I’ve made these en masse. Onigiri. Balls of gohan — rice — wrapped in sheets of nori  — dried seaweed. The ubiquitous snack in Japan. Indeed, their onigiri is our Lay’s. Sad.  Today’s not for a comparison between the healthful Japanese diet and the crap American’s.

Year two in Japan. My rice cooker serves me well. My diet’s as Japanese as the next Kabayashi-san’s. Nonetheless, I’ve never before made rice in this quantity. I’ve done my best to cook it to the right consistency. Sticky. And condense-able into balls that won’t fall apart. Rice that’ll stay bound and compact and hold the wrap-around sheets of nori.

They’re amateurish, I conclude, as I get rolling. With bare hands I dig rice out of the cooker and shape into balls the size of a small orange. More like mikan? The Japanese tangerine.

The rice though sticky isn’t holding together as well as I’d want. Yes, amateurish. But not horrible for my first time. I wet my hands. That helps to a point. The wetness causes grains to cling to my palms. I scrap them off to shape into the ball. Like working with slightly sticky cookie dough.

Balls formed, into each I press an umeboshi. Pickled dried plum widespread and traditional in an onigiri though by no means the only “centerpiece.” All variety of fillings are found inside an onigiri! Tuna or salmon with mayonnaise. Tarako (salted roe). Mentaiko (seasoned cod roe). Tempura tidbit. Konbu (dried kelp). I go with umeboshi (plum). It’s traditional, what they know, what I know too. {How many past lives in Japan have I had I wonder.}

I wrap the onigiri — clumsy lil’ baseballs they be! — in seaweed sheets then each in plastic wrap. Two tasks easier than the shaping. Into bags they go, a few dozen or so. Then off I go (by bicycle or foot, don’t recall) to Shinjuku, about a mile away.

One of the world’s lively, crazy-busy, bustling stations is Shinjuku’s in Tokyo. Some 3.4 million pass through every day. Where the homeless have their camp of cardboard boxes is quiet at this hour. It’s late. Station shops are closed. And it’s in a relatively remote corner of the behemoth station. Shinjuku Station, a town unto itself. Like all big train stations in Japan but particularly this one.

Japanese don’t hassle the homeless and the homeless don’t hassle passersby. Not like in the United States. Very different culture. I miss it so sometimes. More than usual lately.

I enter their camp. Quietly. I don’t want to be seen. Not for fear. Not for anxiety. Not for inability to speak Japanese if a homeless man does emerge from his box or appear by foot. I’m stealthy for the surprise.

Along with the general orderliness and cleanliness of their camp of boxes, I notice one thing above all else. Something that remains with me vividly to this day some 20 years later. Their shoes. Set neatly side by side just outside the entrances to their boxes.

Even in their homelessness, their tradition of removing shoes before entering a home persists.

I sneak, stepping lightly, delicately, weaving through the boxes, placing a bag of onigiri here then there. Then, arms emptied, I depart, more quickly than I arrived. No one’s seen me and I want to keep it that way.

The next morning — pretty sure it was Christmas — a camp of homeless men awoke to bags of onigiri containing umeboshi amateurishly pressed by a gaijin (foreigner).

Once, when no one was looking, I was a Santa elf. Perhaps Buddha’s too. Can’t really distinguish. They’ve both got jolly big bellies.

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6 thoughts on “Ssssssssshhhhh. Stealth in Shinjuku Station.

  1. You are absolutely wonderful, and so is this story! In Hawaii these are called “musubi” and I love them! So far I really like your prompts. Finally bit the bullet and ordered the book so I can see if I can do them 🙂

  2. @livingonchi – Ahhhhh, musubi. Spam onigiri. A Hawaiian creation, not of Japan! Once in fact worked with a nissei (American-Japanese) in Idaho. He’d visit Hawaii, loved the stuff. Me, thought it sounded gross! Give me raw fish over Spam any day! 🙂 🙂

    Congrats on ordering the book. Be prepared. It’s far more than a simple tome of prompts. It’s as described on the back cover: “… a holistic approach to being a writer that encompasses the physical, emotional and spiritual as well as the creative aspects of writing.” I’d describe it an ongoing workshop for writers. 🙂

    Look forward to seeing what you produce from the prompts!

  3. @livingonchi – Just had a flash. While you await the book’s arrival, something I’d suggest (in addition to the obvious of read the book, itself marvelously and holistically laid out) or caution is to not look ahead in the prompts. Various reasons for that, including avoiding the danger of overthinking, mapping out or planning for what lies ahead.

    I never know the day’s prompt ’til I sit down at the laptop, open the book, read it and promptly (yes, I said promptly! 🙂 ) begin writing. No thinking, planning or preparation, just whatever springs into mind. Overthinking or preparing can only muck things up and defeat the prompts’ (and book’s) purpose.

    Hope that tidbit of wisdom helps. They’re amazing fun. Enjoy!

  4. Pingback: Ssssssssshhhhh. Stealth in Shinjuku Station. | Allelujah, Arizona!

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