“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson
American essayist and poet (1803-1882)

It’s taken me a while to decide whether to resume writing a column for The Rafu Shimpo. But here I am, staring at the laptop screen, struggling for inspiration. A year ago, Dr. Paul Terasaki encouraged me to resume the column. This is a man who’s clearly a lot smarter than I am, so I took heed.

Dr. Terasaki said he particularly liked the quotations with which I often open and close my posts, more of a tribute to Google than to my writing ability. Search engine prowess notwithstanding, compliments are gratefully accepted.

Welcome to “On Three,” signifying my third column re-start and the third phase of my life. As veteran scribes George “Horse” Yoshinaga and William T. “Wimpy” Hiroto will attest, coming up with a topic is the hardest part.  Right now I’m thinking, “Gosh, I wish I had a cool nickname like they have.”

Unable to come up with an interesting topic, I did the only sensible thing: I went to Costco.

It was New Year’s Eve, and I needed groceries for the next day. I pulled into the parking lot, saw that it was packed, turned around, and left. I headed for Trader Joe’s, where the parking situation was even worse. There’s nothing is more terrifying than the sight of trendy adults fighting over the last package of organic basil. I hurried out of there before someone attacked me with a recyclable bag.

I ultimately ended up at Mitsuwa Market. It was crowded. Understandably, the shoppers there were mostly Asian and, therefore…uhh… seemed to be more mellow, more civilized.  However, my plans to cook a pasta casserole had to be scrapped. Good luck finding lasagna noodles in a Japanese supermarket. I decided instead to do something I had never done before: Cook a traditional Oshogatsu meal.

My father was the master chef in our house and took charge of the annual New Year’s spread. Between shopping, chopping, marinating, steaming, and grilling, he spent three days preparing for Jan. 1 each year.  All of that stopped 16 years ago when he passed away.

Standing in Mitsuwa’s sake aisle, I closed my eyes and envisioned our 1996 New Year’s table — sushi, ozoni soup with mochi, tamago yaki, chicken teriyaki, yokan, kuromame, oden, kamaboko, lotus root, whole fish, and See’s candy. Could I do it? More important, would anybody eat it?

It took me an hour to find all the things I needed but I managed to put together a passable brunch, except for the See’s candy, which has nothing to do with Oshogatsu. We just happen to like it.

My older daughter, Stephanie, probably the only grandchild old enough to remember my dad’s ozoni, said, “This tastes exactly like Grandpa used to make.”  High praise indeed!

None of this would have happened had I found that parking space at Costco on New Year’s Eve.

There is a Japanese proverb: Ningen banji saiou ga uma. (“All human affairs are like old man Sai’s horse.”) It is based on a Chinese folk tale about an old man named Sai, who lived in a village near a fort in northern China. One day, Sai’s horse ran away. The villagers bemoaned his bad luck, but Sai remained calm. “No one really knows what is lucky or unlucky,” he told them.

A few days later, Sai’s horse returned, bringing with him another horse. The villagers cheered and congratulated Sai on his good luck.  He reminded them, “No one really knows what is lucky or unlucky.”

While riding the horse, Sai’s son fell and broke his leg. “Oh what terrible luck,” the neighbors exclaimed.  Again, Sai insisted, “No one knows what is lucky or unlucky.”

Sometime later, all the young men of the village were ordered to join the emperor’s army.  Sai’s son could not go because of his broken leg.

The Japanese American community has gone through dramatic changes recently. The Japanese American National Museum, National Japanese American Citizens League, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Little Tokyo Service Center, and Go For Broke National Education Center saw long-time leaders step down by choice or forced out.  Kudos to the Little Tokyo Service Center, which apparently is the only JA-led community organization with the foresight to design and execute an internal succession plan.

Transformations are inevitable and often necessary for meaningful progress, and once in a while, it’s a good idea to revisit venerable traditions and refocus your mission. Like warm ozoni soup, you might discover that it’s exactly what you needed.

Are the community’s changes lucky or unlucky?  Only time will tell.

* * *

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”

—Robert Frost, American poet (1857-1963)

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  1. Nice article Ellen. Always like a style of telling it from the first person.