OCHAZUKE: Traditions on a Manzanar Pilgrimage

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By GWEN MURANAKA

It was a beautiful day in the Eastern Sierras. Returning again to Manzanar over the weekend was a chance to witness a ritual that, thanks to the hard work of the Manzanar Committee, remains an essential, evolving part of the Japanese American experience. It is a story retold, to anyone who is willing to listen, that explains who we are and why we are here.

Les Inafuku, the park’s superintendent, said to come to Manzanar with an open mind and an open heart … and also sunscreen and plenty of water. Sometimes I think it is easy to get caught up in the abstract, especially those of us who never lived through the experience, when we talk about camp. But for one Saturday in April, young and old, JA and non-JA, gather to feel the hot wind, blink at the unrelenting sun and gaze upon the Sierra mountains.

Everyone experiences it a little differently. For many it’s an early morning wake-up call to catch the bus, followed by a pit stop at the McDonald’s in Mojave. Others stay overnight, as we did, in the town of Lone Pine. On that morning the Manzanar Visitors Center was bustling. In the women’s restroom, young girls wearing colorful yukata tied on their obi sashes, while a group of  Latina schoolgirls read with curiosity a notation on the latrines in camp. Young women in hijab are now a common sight at the pilgrimage, as are words of gratitude from young Muslims, who share that the first community to stand with them in the wake of 9/11-driven hysteria was the Japanese American community.

The Rafu doesn’t have many traditions, but we have always made a point to make the newbie on staff take the bus trip to Manzanar and report on their experience. Another tradition is photographer Mario Reyes or I will pick up a big bucket of buttery cookies from Schat’s Bakery in Bishop to share with staff. For my husband Eric and I, we finished our pilgrimage with a quick trip up to Whitney Portal to eat sandwiches and for Eric, an avid fisherman, to try to entice the trout to take his hand-tied fly. A few looked and followed the bait, teasing and taunting, before turning the other way.

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Thank you to Faith (Higurashi) Ono, who wrote in about her family’s okazu memories. She shared that her family’s okazu was made with a broth of “sugar, shoyu, mirin (sometimes) and anything else for seasoning. Always good with a bowl of rice and tsukemono.”

I had forgotten about the tsukemono, the salty pickled vegetables that are served alongside any Japanese meal. We used to have one of those plastic tsukemono makers with the press that would twist down and compress the fresh cabbage or slices of daikon. I imagine it may have been something my grandmother gave to my mom, who stuck it up on a top shelf in the pantry and forgot about it.

My grandmother’s generation no doubt had to make their own tsukemono, but these days a quick trip to the local Japanese supermarket will yield an array of pickled vegetables: sweet rakkyo, bright green hakusai or yellow takuan in rows of glass jars. I imagine there are those who still make tsukemono, but like so many things convenience often trumps homemade in our hectic lives.

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When I thought about trying to write a column, I had long thought I would write about my recent wedding. It is thanks to George Yoshinaga that I have received so many congratulations from readers about my nuptials, even though I have never mentioned it myself in print. Thank you to everybody. I really appreciate your kind words.

I am hoping to write about the experience in an upcoming column. One thing I notice is how odd it feels to say the phrase “my husband,” it still catches on my tongue. When we first started dating it was “my boyfriend,” then for the bulk of last year it became “my fiancé.” We’ll see how things progress. Maybe it will become “my better half” or some other corny cliché. If we were Japanese, I suppose I could say “anata.” As long as he doesn’t start referring to me as “the old ball and chain,” then I guess we’ll be doing all right.

Gwen Muranaka is Rafu English editor-in-chief and may be contacted at [email protected] Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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