By Bill Roberts
I will always think of them as the Merry Mothers of Yamabe. “They” were about a dozen women who cooked at Oomoto’s Hokkaido headquarters in Yamabe (pronounced yama-bay). Two of them in particular took special care to make sure that I, a vegetarian in the land of fish eaters, got more than enough to eat. This is not a simple task.
In Japan, it is easy to avoid meat or fowl but fish is another story. Not eating fish is almost as hard as not breathing oxygen. I often order green salads or noodle dishes off menus only to find them laced with fish flakes or tiny shrimp. I suppose this is not surprising in an island nation long dependent on the bounty of the sea.
Japan should be easy for vegetarians. Compared to Americans, they eat a lot more vegetable protein, including beans, wheat gluten and various soy products like tofu. The problem is, many of them don’t think of fish as meat.
This is true of many Oomoto followers, which I admit surprises me. With the emphasis in Oomoto’s teachings on peace and non-violence, one might think they would oppose the killing of any live creatures for any purpose. Yet even the late Onisaburo Deguchi, the Co-Founder whose writings provide the basis for most of Oomoto’s practices, has been quoted as saying: “ I’ll eat anything with four legs except a table.” And so it goes.
Among the staff at the Oomoto dining hall in Kameoka, where I do most of my eating, a couple of cooks graciously concoct something for me when the meal has fish or meat. But it is clear that most of them would rather face an outbreak of botulism than my eating habits.
With advanced warning, most Japanese hosts happily accommodate my dietary needs. For example, Yumi Tanaka, who once was a cook for Oomoto’s Third Spiritual Leader, twice prepared excellent vegetarian meals for me. Masato and Akebono Deguchi served a meal that included ingredients from their own organic garden. Masato, who is the director of Oomoto’s religious training center and loves a juicy steak, prepared vegetarian sushi. Akebono, his wife and a granddaughter of Onisaburo, cooked udon (noodle soup).
When I was in Hokkaido, Hisae Kishine, an Oomoto member from Tokyo, flew up to cook for me one night in Sapporo. Her specialty was okara, which is the refuse from bean curd turned into a tasty high-protein dish similar to couscous in texture. There was also a delicious dish of tofu and mountain vegetables.
Then there was Mrs. Okamoto, an Oomoto member who has an unusual restaurant in Bisei near Okayama. She only serves three groups a week because many of her ingredients are wild, which she and her assistants gather from the rugged hills around her place. The meal, which spanned 10 courses, included wild mushrooms, delicate roots and rare potatoes.
These are all special food memories but none will last as long as those of the warm, friendly, kind, doting—i.e., motherly—attention of the Merry Mothers of Yamabe. Hikaru Fujimoto, Oomoto field director for Hokkaido, deserves some of the credit. He let them know in advance of my food habits. The women took it from there.
On the first of my three nights at Yamabe, I didn’t notice the attention although there was tofu and plenty of vegetables. By the next morning I knew I was getting special treatment. There, just for me while others had fish, was a fried egg, sunny side up. It was at this meal that the women began their acute attention, persistently making sure I got enough to eat. Another egg perhaps? More rice? They swarmed on me like mothers on sons just home from the army.
The eggs for breakfast did not continue, but each morning we did have natto, which are fermented beans and a good source of protein. I’m sure that was for my sake. In Yamabe I had more beans, tofu and other protein in any one meal than I probably have in two days in the dining hall at Kameoka.
Dinner one night for a few honored guests featured a hot pot with fresh tofu. The women kept bringing tofu and side dishes of vegetables and would not take no for an answer. Word had gotten around that the foreigner liked daikon radishes. (For the record, let me say I like them no better or worse than lettuce, tomatoes or many other vegetables.) It seemed that everyone in Yamabe was going all out to make sure I got my fill and the Merry Mothers did their part at this dinner.
There were mountains of fresh daikon that no one else was eating. Guess who polished it off? But only after a little encouragement from one of the Merry Mothers, who kneeled next to me, batted her brown doe-eyes and speaking no words gave me a gentle but persuasive look that said: If you don’t eat some more mother’s feelings will be hurt.
How could I resist?
The food was great, the portions plentiful and the service impeccable, but there is yet another reason I’ll always remember them as the Merry Mothers.
The only thing worse than trying to remain true to my vegetarian ways in Japan is the interminable discussions with hosts about my eating habits. In California we have enough vegetarians now that few people ever ask why. In Japan, everyone is curious.
When asked, I tell people that twice for long periods–most recently since 1993–I have chosen to avoid eating meat, fowl or fish. When pressed further, I usually say I do this for health reasons. Sometimes I admit there is a moral imperative. When feeling defensive I just say: “It is a calling.”
In Yamabe, the Merry Mothers never asked why. They simply saw a vegetarian in need of sustenance and filled that need–literally.
Mothers are like that, aren’t they?