by Neil Ryan Walsh
I was looking forward to meeting Madame Kurenai Deguchi in person. I had seen the Spiritual Leader when I participated in the at the 20th Annual Interreligious Conference and World Prayer for Peace Day at Mt. Hiei in August 2007 with Oomoto. At that conference, I noticed that Madame Deguchi always had a prominent position next to the leaders of other religious denominations. Madame Deguchi was notably the only woman on the stage with the representatives of other religions.
During my stay at Oomoto in February 2008, I was to meet the Spiritual Leader at her vegetable garden in Kameoka while she was planting potatoes. Masamichi Tanaka, chief of the Oomoto International Department, arranged the meeting and acted as my translator. Tanaka is soft spoken in English and Japanese, which is rare for someone from Osaka, and speaks English with an almost perfect BBC accent, without a hint of Japanese.
We arrived early to prepare to meet her, and I had a chance to talk with Kunihiko Shimamoto, chief of Oomoto. Shimamoto’s father invented the Shimamoto method of organic farming, which uses natural enzymes to replenish the soil, and to fertilize and strengthen vegetables. Shimamoto explained that he has farmed using this method since he was a teenager, and has been involved in researching and improving the method for almost as long. The Shimamoto method, which is widely used by Oomoto followers, has been the subject of several scale agricultural studies in Japan and abroad.
While we were talking a member of the Spiritual Leader’s staff announced that Madame Deguchi would arrive soon. Suddenly across the street, Madame Deguchi and a few men in black suits appeared from behind one of the bushes at her Kameoka residence.
The Spiritual Leader said, “Hi,” in English, and then bowed to greet everyone assembled at her small vegetable garden. She apologized for running behind schedule. I had not noticed any delay, and she could not have been more than two minutes late. She thanked me for coming to Oomoto and for writing a few articles for the English website. I was honored to have the chance to meet her.
Shimamoto is the Spiritual Leader’s farming teacher and she refers to him as sensei (teacher). Like other Oomoto followers, he calls her Kyoshu-sama (Madame Spiritual Leader). Before getting down to any farming, Madame Deguchi led the group in prayer from the Oomoto liturgy (Norito). She has a pure alto voice with an excellent, perfectly balanced vibrato, not resembling that of an opera singer but of a Noh performer.
Without wasting a second after the prayer, Shimamoto and the Spiritual Leader went to work, cutting about three dozen potatoes in half and dipping each halve into dry enzyme powder. They then proceeded to the field to plant the potatoes. I noticed how careful she was while planting. After the tubers were in the ground, Shimamoto instructed her to add more enzymes to the area around the potatoes. Madame Deguchi again did this with incredible care and attention.
After the two were done planting, with the help of the Oomoto gardening staff the whole crowd said a prayer, again from the Norito. Madame Deguchi invited me to have tea with her. Actually, all of us present joined her for tea. Madame Deguchi, Shimamoto, and I were the first to be served. We drank roasted tea and ate zenzai, a red bean soup served warm with a toasted rice cake. This zenzai was particularly good as it was almost not sweet at all. One of Madame Deguchi’s aides laid boxes full of salted, dried and fried rice cakes on the table. The Spiritual Leader encouraged us to take as many as we liked. The rice cakes had been offered to God at the New Year’s festival earlier this year. They tasted like popcorn.
It was apparent that Madame Deguchi had prepared for our meeting because she asked if I had studied at Sophia University in Tokyo, which indeed I had five years ago. This impressed me greatly because I knew the busy schedule she keeps.
She asked me if I had done any farming and I said that I had not. I made a joke saying that I was from New York City and was not used to seeing many farms. I did raise some vegetables when I was in middle school, and a few years ago I tried to grow an herb garden. Besides those efforts, I have little connection to the agrarian life. I asked Madame Deguchi how farming had changed her life. She said it had completely changed the way she thought about food and the earth and encouraged me to give it a try.
I told her I was impressed at how most occasions at Oomoto are started with a prayer. She said that it was most important to do so. The Spiritual Leader invited me to the poetry festival to be held in April in Tokyo, and I told her I would do my best to be there.
She thanked me for coming to meet her and apologized for meeting under such circumstances. I understand that she usually meets people for the first time during tea ceremony. I was grateful to meet her on her farm rather than in the tea room.
I did not feel it appropriate to ask her questions, rather I took the opportunity to express my gratitude for being invited to stay at Oomoto. If I have the chance to develop a deeper relationship with her in the future it would be my privilege. For the moment, however, I was glad to have spent an hour in her presence.