Discover Nikkei

Chapter Nine—Hurricane Popcorn Days

“Mom, we need to make some hurricane popcorn.” 

My daughter Sycamore and I had designated Thursday our movie night. We watched animation, most recently old episodes of Dragon Ball, the Japanese version from my childhood when I was Sycamore’s age. I was amazed how all these streaming channels could resurrect old shows from the past.

It was strange to see the episodes again as a mother. The protagonist, the monkey-tailed Goku, seemed too naughty at times. What was I teaching my 10-year-old daughter? On the other hand, the colors and the old-school animation delighted me, transporting me back to my village home, Minamiawaji, on Awaji island. Nostalgia won out. We were in the middle of a pandemic. What did it matter if Sycamore started absorbing some of Goku’s traits? I was her only live playmate right now and I could extinguish any bad behavior before it became a habit.

“We are almost out of a-ra-re.” Sycamore pronounced arare very deliberately as if she was cutting up the Japanese word. For our version of hurricane popcorn, in addition to generous doses of furikake, we included a couple of cups of rice crackers.

“Really?” I thought that before the pandemic I had purchased a huge bag of little rectangular rice crackers with nori around the middle. I wasn’t one to buy things on sale and in bulk, but I had a strange premonition to do so around February, after New Year’s sales, and prophetically a month before the quarantine.

Sycamore dug out the almost empty bag from the pantry and I felt my stomach sink. I wasn’t about to stand in line in a crowded Japanese market to buy rice crackers. California so far had been in strict lockdown and the extreme measures seemed to be working. While the COVID numbers were sky high in New York, we were holding steady.

We watched the 13th episode of Dragon Ball, “Goku’s Great Transformation.” Young Goku had turned into a giant ape and was stomping on a castle of his enemies. Two of the villains brought out handguns and I was becoming alarmed. I didn’t remember firearms in any of the Dragon Ball episodes. Of course, regular Japanese citizens were barred from owning guns, so perhaps this scene just went over my head.

Just as the ape was getting ready to eat a blue-haired girl, one of Goku’s compadres magically transformed into a pair scissors and cut off the ape’s tail, causing him to turn back into the little boy.

“Mom! He’s completely naked!” Sycamore shrieked.

I paused the animated show. “How about we check the storage unit?” I asked.

* * * * *

It was a little before Sycamore’s bedtime, but I figured that we’d just stop in quickly. Only three days before my deadline, but so far I was on schedule. What remained was only a pile of two colored bags and a burlap bag in the corner. We might as well get started on the black-and-white striped ones.

Since I was late, I told Sycamore to load the bags into the truck to take back home. One was extremely light. I carried a box that was at least twenty pounds.

We dragged both items into our small living room. Sycamore got the box cutter for me and I sliced open the box. We both cautiously looked inside. Some kind of metal equipment.

Was it another car part?

Sycamore studied the intricate surface of the cylindrical gear. “These are flowers.”

“What?” I thought Sycamore was mistaken and studied the design. Sure enough, a pattern of flowers with five split petals. These were definitely cherry blossoms. “Those look familiar.”

“Mom, they look like a-ra-re that I ate as a kid.”

Technically, Sycamore was still a kid, but far away enough from the 3-year-old who crunched on flower arare like goldfish crackers.

“You’re right!” I declared. “You are a genius.”

Sycamore gave me a toothy smile, perhaps evidence that I didn’t compliment her enough.

After checking the time, I put on my mom hat. “Okay, this is way past your bedtime.”

“Friday’s only a half day.”

I promised her that I wouldn’t open the other bag until the next day.

While she prepared for bed, I watched a brief YouTube program on the history of a rice cracker company here in Los Angeles. It was produced by the Japanese American National Museum and sure enough, the same metal cylinder with the cherry blossom design was featured.

I looked up JANM’s collections director and curator. Her name was Kristen Hayashi and it was not difficult to locate her work e-mail address on the Internet. I took a picture of the cylinder and attached it to an e-mail to her.

That’s all I could do that evening. I went to the bedroom that I shared with Sycamore and dreamed of blue monkeys jumping from tree to tree with large rice crackers in their hands.

* * * * *

Kristen Hayashi called me the next morning around ten o’clock. Sycamore and I had already gone through the other bag, which was filled with a stack of long, yellowed paper with what looked like messages inside of fortune cookies.

I explained our findings to Kristen, who seemed genuinely excited. She explained that the former Little Tokyo company, Umeya, had produced and distributed fortune cookies like other Asian American snack companies before World War II.

I had never encountered fortune cookies until I had come to America. The news that the fortune cookie was an American invention was not a surprise.

I made arrangements for Kristen to meet me outside of the museum that afternoon. I felt my heart lifting. I was so close to the end of my assignment!

During her break, Sycamore removed her earphones and approached me with the bag that held the printed fortunes. “There are some loose ones in there. Pick, Mom.”

Feeling generous, I went along with her request and stuck my hand in the bag.

“Let me read it.” Sycamore pulled the paper from my fingers. “It says, ‘You will discover that you are loved.’”

“What a weird fortune.” I got ready to select another one, but Sycamore stopped me. “It’s bad luck to choose two fortunes on the same day.”

“What?” I had never heard anything like that.

“Dad taught me that.”

“Really?” Actually that didn’t surprise me. My ex, Stewart, was a bit superstitious at times. He was also very playful, making up stories instead of repeating established ones. I had a feeling this superstition was completely his own.

“Well, you pick a fortune then.” I held out the bag for her.

She pulled one out and eagerly read it. Her eyes remained fixated on the message as if she didn’t really believe it. She burst into tears and ran out of the room.

“Sycamore!” I called out.

The door slammed to the bedroom.

I picked up the torn fortune on the carpet.


Chapter Ten >>


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© 2021 Naomi Hiarahara

California fiction Los Angeles Naomi Hirahara Umeya (firm) United States
About this series

Hiroko Houki, the proprietor of the cleaning business, Souji RS, reluctantly agrees to take on a mysterious client who wants her to clear out his storage unit. However, it’s the middle of the pandemic, and Hiroko’s usual recipients of used items—thrift stores—are closed. It turns out some of the items have historic value and Hiroko attempts to return them to various previous owners or their descendants, sometimes with disastrous results. 

Ten Days of Cleanup is a 12-chapter serial story published exclusively on Discover Nikkei. A new chapter will be release on the 4th of each month.

Read Chapter One

Learn More
About the Author

Naomi Hirahara is the author of the Edgar Award-winning Mas Arai mystery series, which features a Kibei Nisei gardener and atomic-bomb survivor who solves crimes, Officer Ellie Rush series, and now the new Leilani Santiago mysteries. A former editor of The Rafu Shimpo, she has written a number of nonfiction books on the Japanese American experience and several 12-part serials for Discover Nikkei.

Updated October 2019

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