Sometimes I start to worry when my email box stops ringing, but then I usually realize that I haven’t written anyone in weeks. Lots has been going on, so I guess it is time for another big update… so here we go!
Last Thursday I finally got to do some hanami. Hanami means “flower viewing,” but it involves more than just that; it’s a real event. As the cherry trees bloom from Okinawa to Hokkaido (March to May), millions of Japan’s inhabitants do some serious socialization, eating, and drinking anywhere there are hana to mi. I was invited to go with a friend, her mom, and some of their family friends. There were two toddlers (Ten and Eri), and one younger baby (Aoi). I think these shorter names must be in vogue these days… I like them. Ten means heaven, eri means charity, and aoi means blue. None of these babies had car seats, which made my motherbear instincts rare up, but there wasn’t anything I felt I could do or say from my position in the group.
In Japan I’ve been laughed at a few times for putting on my seatbelt in the back seat. “Oh! You don’t have to do that! Nobody does that.” For me it’s not even something I think about, so it surprises me every time someone is shocked by safety. They say that they use seatbelts in the front seats, but I’ve seen kids in neighboring cars climbing all over the dashboard…. This all comes down to a difference in child-rearing norms, and I might be starting to understand what some of those differences might be.
But back to Thursday: the first place we stopped off was a public park. The playground was great, with boats and fountains and a rainbow maker. I was glad that I had the little ones as an excuse to play. Not that I need an excuse, but I might have scared everybody off if I was just gallivanting around by myself. Not that I didn’t scare anybody off…. After the park we went to another park in Shizukuishi where the blossoms were out in full force.
Friday night I was struck down with a horrible stomach bug. Something had gotten into my body that my body did not want in there, so my body did everything in its power to get everything out. Saturday I spent the day holed up in my room, sipping on a tablespoon of water every fifteen minutes to stay hydrated. My incapacitation was a huge bummer, as all the while I was thinking that I wouldn’t be able to go to the to a bluegrass festival at Koiwai Farm on Sunday and Monday.
Things were looking up Sunday morning, however, so I decided to head out. The road was crazy congested, so I think that roughly everybody in Greater Morioka and Iwate was also going to Koiwai. Could it be that there are enough fans of Bluegrass in Iwate to cause such massive traffic congestion? As it turns out… no. I missed all of the music, but it was neat to wander around the farm. I saw a sheepdog demonstration, complete with the shearing of a hindquarters. As I looked around I noticed that most of the sheep had bald spots back there. Man… sheep are cool. I mean dumb.
As it started to get dark I drove towards the mountains to find a camping spot. The place I found (Amihari) was not bad, and I was able to refigure out my tent’s setup procedure with minimal frustration. I walked to a public bath, but it was closed, so I went to another up the road, but that one was closing. I decided to give up on the idea of being clean, but then I saw a little wooden sign that said rotenburo (outdoor hot spring), pointing to the woods. The moon was bright, so I took the trial to see what I could find. Rounding a curve, I caught a stiff whiff of sulfur, and realized it was going to be on of those kinds of things. Before long I reached the spring, and was a bit blown away at the beauty of the place. A medium-sized waterfall roared just behind the pools of white, sulfury water, and snow from a freak storm a couple of weeks ago was still on the ground. It is unspeakably rude to wear anything into a hot spring or public bath, so I didn’t even consider trunks a possibility 😉 . I had the place to myself, and felt like a king—either that or a really happy peasant. As I settled into the water, I wondered how I would write about this experience when back in civilization.
This thought made me step back a bit. I would have rather just let the experience wash over me, but I was already composing the description (this very description, in fact) in my head. So I decided to focus on the things around me that could never be translated to words. In conclusion, it is a magical spot, and there are thousands of magical places and people and experiences around me and all over the world. My time in Japan seems to be about mediating between these sparse moments of bliss and larger periods of emotional isolation. But the next two days were to bring much more bliss!
I slept like a rock (a warm, eggy-smelling rock) and woke up Monday morning with the sun. I headed down to Tedzukuri Mura, a place where they make cast iron things, turn wood, dye with indigo, and do other crafty stuff like that by hand. A friend of mine named Kumiko works in the indigo place, and she showed me around. She teaches tourists—mostly with kids—how to tie-dye hankies and shirts. I had flashbacks of Little/Middle Folk School summer camp in Brasstown. I showed her how we used to do the swirl, which she had surprisingly never seen. She promised to try it out. Indigo is cool stuff; the dye is constantly fermenting, so the place has a funky smell, but it is pleasant in a way. When the cloth comes out of the dye for the first time it is a greenish brown, but it oxidizes in the air and becomes blue. After three or four times in the vat the cloth becomes a deep, dark blue. I guess I could say it becomes indigo. The tourists do exclusion with rubber-bands, clothespins, and chopsticks. The fancier stuff in the gift shop (that Kumiko and her coworkers make) is either sewn or rice paste (like wax in batik) is used to keep the dye out of where they want to stay white.
From the Mura I went back towards Koiwai. The traffic was lousy again, so it took about an hour to go ten kilometers. I entertained myself by playing banjo between stops and starts, and sometimes on the straight stretches by steering with my knee. If my car’s alignment were better I imagine this would be even easier—I’ll have to look into that.
I got to Koiwai and got directed all over the parking lot until I was back at the exact spot that I had the day before. They must have been saving it for me again. As I walked towards the entrance my heart started to go pitter-pat as I saw a whole pile of folks with instrument cases. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many banjos in one place. They could see the glow of my excitement (and the banjo on my back) so we talked a little bit. They were from Sapporo, and leaving, but there were more folks and music to find inside.
I found the stage: a flatbed train car with BLUEGRASS in yellow letters and Mt. Iwate aesthetically placed in the background. It was starting to rain, but the show was going on. The groups were almost all half female, which rocks. Band after band played standard after standard…. Some of my friends back home asked if bluegrass is big in Japan, and I guess the answer is revealed by the makeup of the audience: all of the other bands’ members, and me. Maybe more folks would have stopped for awhile if it had not been raining or if the viewing area had been covered… but who else do you really want to be playing for than other musicians? As long as the musicians are having fun—and they were—there is no shame in low turnout. Or a lack of turnout. Says me.
There is a finesse that I’ve been working on in nudging one’s way into a group of friends. I tried to strike up conversation a couple of times, and failed, and was afraid to strike out…. But no! We clearly had something to talk about. A third nudge and suddenly I was in, and they were crowded around me and asking about North Carolina and clawhammer and how I learned to play and how we play music (shoutout to Chapel Hill and Brasstown jams!). After they were all done playing on stage we did a circle jam for about an hour, which seemed to attract more attention from passers-by than the stage acts. They promised to send the group picture that we took as we were saying goodbye after the jam. I’ll post it when they do. I also got some phone numbers and info about more festivals in the Summer, so I bet I’ll see some of those faces again in the coming year.
(As awesome as their instrumentation and harmonies were, their pronunciation of those lyrics that I know so well was about how you would imagine… a little painful. But hey! Everybody was having fun, and that’s all that matters. Says me.)
That evening the rotenburo was closed because of the rain—the stream’s level was too high. I went to the public bath (the water for soaking is from the same source, naturally heated). It was my first time at one of those places alone, which felt a little funny. I had to try not to laugh as this guy slipped into the water next to me saying “It feels good it feels good oh how can it feel this good.” Hey uncle, we’re already naked, you don’t actually have to try in order to make it awkward.
Slept soundly again, and woke up early Tuesday morning to grey light and the sound of rain on my tent. I broke it down and threw it in my car, then set out in search of the next adventure. I went to the coast, which involved a couple of hours of curvy, mountainous roads. Actually, if a Japanese road is not curvy and mountainous then it doesn’t go anywhere, so count on it (if you want to go somewhere).
I drove up the coast, which is pretty, all cliffs and pines. I decided to stop by my friends Mitsuru and Kumiko’s restaurant in Noda. Their place is absolutely wonderful. They renovated an old Japanese house to make an inn (called Tomaya). The roof is thatched, and the heat comes from a fire pit in the middle of the floor. There is no chimney—the smoke seeps out of the roof and makes it bug-proof. You’ll always smell like campfire after eating there, which is nice (nicer than cigarette smoke, at least). The menu is whatever they have cooked for that meal, which always comes in about fifteen dishes and is always amazing. Reservations are requested, but they don’t have a phone, you just have to figure that out. The owners are as cool as the inn… I could go on and on about them, even though I’m just getting to know them, but I’ll save it for another time. The place is so comfortable and friendly that I consistently forget to pay, which is a little embarrassing.
I had a slice of pie called babarora. I’m not sure if that is right or what that is, but it was light and earthy and delicious, with a violet on top. I stuck around and chatted for awhile, and decided to make a reservation for supper. They said that I could camp in the woods near their house, and I found a place blissfully removed from the world. I set up my tent in some bamboo, and then walked back down the road with my banjo on my back.
They had told me that there would be a family at supper, and they were there waiting. They had two small children, a six-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy. I played banjo, and the kids played drums. The girl was ridiculously cute, she was telling me a story about some of her friends, talking faster and faster as she (I imagine) was getting to the good part. After she went to bed I confided in the adults that I only understood about half of what she was saying, and they laughed, saying that they only understoond about half as well. The father, a mandolin and flute player, had spent time in college in Pennsylvania, and he knew the banjo from Dixieland Jazz. I explained about different styles, and let him touch the banjo. “What is this doing here!” he asked about the fifth string protuberance. “Oh, like a tambourine!” he said about the head. He is blind, so it was really sweet for me to be able to let him “see” him a banjo for the first time, “showing” him all of the important parts.
On the way back to the camp site I stumbled into a frog orgy in the road. I had to blush, but as my blush subsided my curiosity was sparked. There were tens of them, paired up and looking to get paired up, croaking pick-up lines at each other in Frog-Japanese. They were not reacting to me or my light in any way at all, so it was like the nature channel—right there in the road. I woke up during the night with some strange falling and frog dreams, but they settled, and I was able to sleep late.
I woke up on Wednesday morning, the beginning of the last day of the Golden Week holiday. I packed up for the last time; luckily it was sunny. I went down to check out a museum, and met a potting family. “Do y’all know Cat?” I asked. “Do we ever,” they replied, “she shaves her head and walks around barefoot!” (Cat is a Kiwi that lives in that town and introduced me to the magical inn, and works with these potters.) I hope to go down there and try to use the wheel sometime soon. They get their clay from Kuji, the city between Noda and me, which is apparently famous for clay in the Japanese ceramics world.
I found a four-leaf clover, and took it to Tomaya.
The story doesn’t stop there, and there is so more to fill in the cracks, but I’m pushing four A4-size pages as it is. If you have read this much in one sitting then color me impressed. Drop me a line, tell about what you are up to (and any other stories),
Peace, (Back to Taneichi Index)