I’ve gotten used to things in the 13 years since I moved to Japan, so sometimes it takes a visitor to remind me of all the things I still don’t know.

This time the visitor was my mother. We were walking through my neighborhood when she noticed several round, furry decorations hanging outside a local liquor shop. She asked me what they were but I had no idea, though I’d seen them around many times. I kind of blew off the question, distracting her by telling her to just enjoy the sights. I didn’t know what these brown orbs were, and the truth is I felt bad for not having an answer for her.

My mother eventually left (she had a great time, by the way) and in the days that followed, I began to notice the brown orbs more often — each time they caught my eye was a reminder of the bratty petulance I’d displayed before. I tried searching online for a description of what they were, but found no useful results immediately. (I confess, had I done a little more digging I would’ve likely come across an answer.)

Months passed, and I was still none the wiser regarding the hanging objects. I did notice, however, that some of them were a more greenish shade of brown and, occasionally, pure green. I came to realize that, what was initially just an embarrassing moment developed into a nagging obsession with these puzzling spheres.

Then, one day I was walking with a friend who is quite knowledgeable on the subject of obscure Japanese cultural artifacts and I spotted one the objects. I eagerly asked, “What is that thing?”

“It’s a sugidama,” he explained.

With great pride I can now tell you dear reader (and my mother) that a sugidama is literally a “ball of cedar,” and serves as a symbol for Japanese rice wine breweries. At the start of the brewing season, sake makers pluck hundreds of fresh green sprigs of cedar and trim them into a sphere. They then hang these ornaments outside their establishments. The rate at which the sugidama lose their color and turn to brown happens to coincide with the length of the maturation process. So everyone passing by the brewery will know, once the sugidama has turned brown, that the sake is ready for purchase and consumption.

These days, sugidama are hung outside of restaurants that pride themselves on the selection and quality of the sake available within.

I couldn’t have hoped for a more interesting explanation for the sugidama. It also struck me that they aren’t unique in having an interesting story behind them; there must be so many other stories that I’m not hearing. Coming face to face with my mother’s joyful curiosity, though, it reminded me that I had that feeling once too, and that I needed to find a way to get in touch with it again.

I sometimes hesitate to ask about Japanese culture for fear of seeming like I haven’t made enough of an effort to understand this country, especially after years of living here. I think this fear of seeming ignorant about Japan was what kept me from learning about it. But that’s what made Japan so dynamic in my early days here and, regardless of where you live, that inquisitiveness will keep us engaged in the world around us. I’m lucky to get a reminder of that every time I see sugidama.

In conversations with Japanese friends, I’ve found a lot of them are unaware of the sugidama’s story. I confess that I get a kick out of teaching Japanese people about something Japanese, it’s nice to share in a culture. And it’s something I’d never have been able to do if I hadn’t had been set off by my mother’s curiosity. I’m looking forward to her next visit, this time I’ll take copious amounts of notes on whatever interesting or bizarre objects she discovers hanging around.

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