While I was in Kyoto for New Year's Eve, my friends cleared up a mystery for me. Every so often, a car or van with a powerful sound system will cruise slowly around Takefu, extolling some special retail event or, in the case of one I stalked by bicycle for a while, some sort of religious message (well, the guy at the mike was dressed as a Shinto priest, whatever the message was). Just about every day, though, I hear a simple chant in a perfect and highly amplified monotone making its way slowly around my neighborhood at around five o'clock. I've been wondering for months what the significance of it is, whether it's Buddhist or Shinto, and what the words actually mean. I know there's a weird somewhat evangelical neo-Buddhist church in the area, and I wondered if this was them--I was also thinking of the vans (Hasidic or just Orthodox?) that cruise Brooklyn haranguing Jews to be observant. Maybe, by analogy to a muzzain's call, it means time for evening prayers or something like that (though I didn't think there were evening prayers). Of course, as soon as the sound's out of earshot, I forget, so I hadn't asked about it--until I heard the same chant, seemingly in the same voice, moving slowly ahead of us on the street in Kyoto about half an hour before the end of the second millennium. Propitious time to ask, it seemed, so I turned to my companions. Ayesha and Joe had also heard and wondered about it in Takefu, but they, more attentive than I, had summoned the initiative to ask an actual Japanese. The chant, I discovered, translates into something like, "Sweet potatoes. Hot. And delicious." Indeed, a hundred or so meters ahead of us a little truck with a smoking wood-fired oven in the back had stopped to sell sweet potatoes.
Now if I can just get up the courage to see what happens when I push the button labeled with a picture of a butt that I see on fancier toilet seats (it also says "butt" in Japanese), all the mysteries will be clear to me.
O genki de
After I sent this email, one of my correspondents sent me the following explanation of the butt button:
I think I tried this button. If it has a little fountain under the butt, the bidet-like spray of water changes from a fire hose type spray designed to ream you to a gentle fountain that sputters over both cheeks in places that one would hope never to get dirty enough to clean after using the toilet.
This explanation sounds drastic, but I remind you that the time I tried one of these buttons they darn near had to peel me off the ceiling afterward. I like the sudden shift in style from the frank "ream you" to the mincingly delicate "places that one would hope never to get dirty enough to clean after using the toilet."