Obon event relies on expert but aging crew

By Sharon Noguchi, Mercury News, July 13, 2008

San Jose, CA (USA) -- The special recipe for flavoring 7,400 pieces of age - Japanese fried tofu pouches - lives inside Hideko Mayeda's head. Or more precisely, in her eyes and on her tongue.

"There's nothing written down," said Mayeda, 78, who's been head sushi chef for the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin's Obon bazaar for a decade. "I just look at the pot to see if the color is right and if the taste is right."

And her skills are both the gift and the challenge for the temple, which is holding its Obon festival this weekend. Festivities will be from noon to 8 p.m. today at the church, 640 North Fifth Street. At Obon, an aging corps of dedicated workers, especially those who make sushi, is not being replenished fast enough.

That's why little by little, food preparers - so vital to the popular, annual event - slip in survival shortcuts. A couple of years ago, the Buddhist Women's Association began purchasing prepared age, instead of spending a day painstakingly cooking and seasoning it. But customers complained about the strong flavor. So Mayeda, former owner of Okayama Restaurant in Japantown, re-seasons the store-bought stuff with sake, sugar and sweet wine.

Like Obon bazaars held by Japanese-American Buddhist temples every summer, San Jose's attracts and feeds thousands of visitors who depend upon finding favorites like sushi, tempura and teriyaki boasting the homemade taste that restaurants lack.

This precious flavor gap is rooted partly in
history - the immigrants who settled in America a century ago brought with them the taste of western Japan, sweeter and more delicate than salty Tokyo flavors.

The Obon festivals, honoring the dead and raising funds for temples, are decades-old traditions that draw on culinary and logistical secrets filed away in the memory banks of community members and volunteers.

So 690 pounds of rice is cooked, then seasoned with vinegar and sugar by two women - ages 84 and 88. They labored carefully until about 2 a.m. Saturday to complete the rice needed to prepare sushi.

As in a well-run factory, section heads at the bazaar marshal volunteer corps and assign specialized jobs. Dale Taniguchi is the "batter man," who flours shrimp and mixes the right proportion of flour and ice water for tempura batter. Glenn Tsutsumi, 58, ensures that the charcoal fire in the twin cinder-block barbecue pits keeps burning at the precise temperature.

And how do you coordinate cleaning, marinating, cooking and serving 1,750 chickens?

"We have this stuff on little scraps of paper," said Randy Shingai, 54, one of two head chicken men.

While he's got plenty of help, even from non-church members, many people shy away from putting down their names on the volunteer list - in part because they don't want their contributions to be recognized. "If you don't step back, somebody's going to put you in charge," cracked Bill Kusumoto, Shingai's co-chicken man. "I forgot to step back."

Sus Ikeda, 82, has been trying to hand off the tempura booth for years.

"I don't accept the handoff," laughed Richard Kogura, who nevertheless takes charge of cooking, overseeing the 100 volunteers it takes to cover about half the shift.

It's a hot, smelly and, with 375-degree oil, sometimes dangerous job. Kogura keeps a keg of cold beer on tap for his volunteers. For camaraderie and quality assurance he groups workers by age and experience. Also, "the single guys get to face the crowd and the married guys have to face the wall." And the professionals, including restaurateur Ken Yanai, take charge of the trickier tasks like cooking shrimp.

Mostly, though, working bazaar shifts gives volunteers a chance to catch up with friends every year, Kogura said. "It's more fun than we think it's going to be."

The looming question is about sushi. With the average age in the women's association 75 to 80 years old, it's not certain who's going take over that labor-intensive job, association President Shiz Hanada said. "That's what we're all wondering."

While the church encourages "young people" - 60 and under - to join the women's group, temple President Al Hironaga said, the work is daunting. Mayeda got up at 2:30 a.m. Saturday and was at work with Hanada from 4 a.m., preparing the sushi for rolling.

Not to mention that not everyone has the right aji, or flavor, detector on the tip of her tongue.

Perhaps it's a skill that will slowly vanish. "When it comes to that part," Ikeda said, smiling, "we're going to have to just have hot dogs and hamburgers."