15. The Cookout

January 19, 2021Roger W. Lowther

On March 1, we’ll be coming out with my next book Aroma of Beauty, telling stories of how the arts brought hope and healing after the 2011 earthquake and disaster here in Japan. We’re pretty excited about this project because the beauty we found in those dark times can encourage us at all times, and nothing seems more appropriate during this time of unrest and during the spread of the coronavirus.

The title of this book, Aroma of Beauty, is taken from the story that I’m just about to share with you. It’s a kind of beauty that is temporary and fleeting, but, man, is it powerful. In fact, this kind of weak beauty, this fragile beauty, is exactly what we needed in that time and place.

The food just after the tsunami was terrible. Every meal was treated like an emergency situation. Refugees and relief workers alike, we all lived off of emergency rations, canned and instant foods. This kind of food may keep the body going for a day, but it sure lacks the vitamins, nutrients, and life-giving beauty that we so desperately needed.

When we heard from survivors the kind of stomach problems they were now dealing with, our local Tokyo community was galvanized into action and began to plan our first takidashi cookout. Grocers donated rice, meat, and vegetables. Restaurants loaned equipment. My dentist even donated toothbrushes and toothpaste. A dozen people who had never been to the disaster area agreed to go as cooks and volunteers.

My wife Abi led a caravan of trucks and vans to the city of Ishinomaki. They came to a halt in a gravel lot cleared of debris, the tell-tale sign that people were taking shelter on the upper floors of nearby homes, stores, and buildings.

Fish and seaweed decayed in the sun. Piles of garbage lined roadsides with nowhere to go. Porta-potties and toilets overflowed. The stench was overwhelming, and every time we opened the doors of our trucks, we were overcome by the potency of it.

This must be what hell is like, Abi thought as she began to unload, trying to ignore the stench and not stare at the surrounding devastation.

Noisy generators powered the rice cookers. Industrial-sized propane burners roared underneath the large pots of water. The volunteers cut meat and vegetables on plastic portable tables. Pork, carrots, daikon radishes, shiitake mushrooms, and konnyaku gelatin strips—all the ingredients needed to make tonjiru soup.

As the food went into the pots, something beautiful began to happen. An aroma began to waft through the air, a pleasing smell unknown since before the earthquake.

People began to line up from surrounding buildings—ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred people—and volunteers began to get worried. “What do we do? We still need more time!”

“It’s okay,” Abi said. “There hasn’t been a smell like this here for a very long time. Let’s enjoy it.”

Abi asked the musician who came with the group if he wouldn’t mind playing a little bit. “I know it’s not an ideal spot,” she said, staring at the blocks of concrete and thick gooey mud. “And your audience isn’t exactly nicely grouped together.” The line of people went as far as she could see.

The musician pulled out his shakuhachi bamboo flute and began to play, slowly picking his way around the puddles and the mud as he walked down the line of people. The melodies of the flute and the aroma of the soup filled the air, wiping away the stench like tears, comforting with a tales from a world without destruction.

The food was more than mere sustenance. The music was more than mere entertainment, a way to pass the time while waiting in line. It was life-giving. An electrifying sense of hope, almost tangible, wafted through the air. It was the aroma of beauty.

“An electrifying sense of hope,

almost tangible,

wafted through the air.

It was the aroma of beauty.”

Aroma may be temporary and only last a moment, but the more time we spent in the disaster area, the more urgently we felt its need. The aroma of beauty became a seawall against the black waves of despair that threatened us every day after that tsunami. It brought an unexpected joy with the promise that a better tomorrow would come.

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