Hello, my friends and readers. I left you without preamble, but now I can announce that I have been abroad and that Nine Pages is going to take some time to try on travel blogging because there are people who want both stories and pictures and I express myself best in print and cannot spend three days in uninterrupted storytelling nor gather my friends together for such a recounting.
I hope those of you here for book reviews will forgive the brief interlude. Please, share my adventures with me and know that I’ll get back to book blogging soon.
This was, for the most part, not your typical tourist’s trip to Japan. I went to see my friend, Kari, who has been living for the past two years in Koma, a small town in the Iwate prefecture, and teaching in its surrounding towns.
Waking groggily to the boom of the national guard’s cannon fire, my first full day in Japan was spent primarily in Shibutami, a tiny town so small that it isn’t recognized by an easy Google Maps or TripAdvisor search, so for all those curious people following along at home, it is here:
More specifically, here:
Look at all those pretty rivers!
This is farming land—or so it seemed from the windows of the taxi that drove us to the junior high school. As we drove out of town and up towards the foothills of Mt Iwate, the houses became more widespread and side streets were replaced by larger gardens and a smattering of farm equipment. As we pressed towards the mountainside, evergreens climbed up the slopes and overhung the twisting road.
I’m going to assume that the majority of my audience is American and speak to you a moment: Do you all remember in elementary school when we would spend one hot, late spring day on the fields running relay races and having water balloon fights? If you missed out on this, I’m sorry. Suffice it to say, it happened at my elementary school. For Hollins students, the comparison may best be our annual SHARE Olympiad, of which I actually have clearer memories.
Japan has such a tradition. On a weekend—this was a Saturday—the students don headbands and track suits that are their school uniforms and return to school for a sports or field day called undōkai (if Wikipedia is to be a trusted source).
For the Japanese—or at least in Shibutami—this is a community event as it never was at my American elementary school, attended by parents, families, and friends.
Kari probably didn’t realize that as I sat on the low wall that hedged the school, watching the students compete as did the townspeople, I kept remembering a moment in my own WIP (this was supposed partially to be a writer’s vacation) when the protagonist realizes that his best friend has brought him to a community event:
“A celebration, a festival meant for Lochsimites, and Keagan had tried to include Veil, tried to include him in a way that the Gerizimites never had.”
If I wasn’t enjoying myself enough people-watching and learning about Japanese culture and comparing my observations to my those of my own culture, that comparison and its associated warmth would have buoyed me through the cold, windy, gray day.
I particularly enjoyed watching the younger children playing on the sidelines and the parents watching the children. Children at play are unaware that they are being observed.
The elders of the town are allowed to sit in chairs beneath the white pavilion that also housed the student commentator.
Snippets of truth buried in stereotypes had prepared me to expect elders to be more respected in Japan than they are in America. I was hyperaware of signs of that respect. At one point an elderly man with a cane left the tent and a middle-aged man (he had a very dignified streak of white through his black hair and a face more heavily lined for his concern for the older man) hurried to his side to help him along. There is a grain of truth buried in our American stereotype too. I wondered if the elderly gentleman might not feel some spike of American indignation at the middle-aged man’s interference, some sense of stubborn pride that says, “Son, I can make it on my own,” but I did not see this in his face.
For the most part, the games were pretty familiar, though I did notice a stronger emphasis on the team and that there were no games in which an individual could win and few in which an individual could be a true hero, though there were certainly a few boys with the swagger of MVPs. There were three-legged relay races, relay races, and an egg race in which elders were paired with students. There was a game very like the one where we try to eat a donut from a string without using our hands, where students had to get the bagged bread off of the string with their mouths then run back to the start line with it. This they did as a three-legged race and they had to stop midway to complete a first task, such a stacking boxes or blowing up then popping a balloon. The community was asked to join for a game to get the most balls into the raised basket.
There was a challenge to bring the most tires back to your teams’ side, and a game for the boys alone where one boy went on the shoulders of another and the upraised boys tried to steal one another’s hats.
All these were accompanied by music over the loudspeaker (mostly in Japanese but a few Western favorites including “Call Me Maybe” snuck into the repertoire, making me laugh), a taiko drumbeat, and encouraging, choreographed, and practiced cheers from team members. Perhaps because this is a community event and an opportunity to showcase one’s skills for others, students practice for weeks in advance. It seems that the students are given much more opportunity to lead than we were at any of our field days, which were events that we attended not events that we planned or prepared for.
The lunch break was spent at a small mall, an Aeon Supercenter, in walking distance. The road twisted over the river, past this view, and up a hill before depositing us in the town proper.
I noticed as we walked through town that even though there aren’t many foreigners who visit Shibutami, signs for important government type buildings were still in English as well as Japanese. It was really nice to be able to read something. (I know I should have studied more Japanese before I left, but I didn’t.)
Malls and shopping centers in Japan have many stores, like ours do, but mostly they seem to favor an open floor plan, which is pretty brilliant, because it not only gives you more space, but it also means that your eyes and feet wander all over. You can see much more of a store’s merchandise when the floor plan is open than you can through the front windows or doors alone.
Lunch was salad with breaded chicken cutlet and my first taste of lotus root, which I grew very fond of in its many preparations.
The evening we spent in Morioka, which will be something of a refrain in the first few of these posts.
Morioka is the nearest city proper to Koma (the marker set farthest north; Shibutami is just below that) so it’s where Kari and I went when we wanted a choice of restaurants, especially restaurants that stayed open past 5 pm. Morioka is built at the confluence of three rivers. I think the one below is the Nakatsu River.
We went to Iwate Park, which houses the ruins of Morioka Castle. What’s left of the castle is mainly the walls that shape the grounds.
The park included a monument erected in honor of a local poet whose biography included the brilliant line: “It was here that the well-known poet Takuboku Ishikawa, having escaped from school by way of a window, would spend hours reading literature and philosophy and daydreaming.” Though I know none of his poetry, that line is enough to make me like him.
Dinner was a hamburger patty at one of Kari’s favorite restaurants but dessert was a parfait of green tea ice cream with sweet bean paste and mochi I think and whipped cream.
All photographs are mine. Click to see them larger. All maps are made using Google Maps.