Tag Archives: Koma

Travel: May 20, 2014: How Do You Clean a Tatami Mat?


Kari wasn’t able to get the whole of the time that I was with her away from work, so this day I have no pictures for you, and I have only a few stories.

This was a day of rest for me, but when I’m home, days off tend also to mean days to do chores. I decided to surprise Kari by doing as many of her chores as I could do. Except for the dishes, this was an exercise in ingenuity and improvisation and guesswork. I used a mop to sweep floors and damp paper towels in place of dustpans. I realized that no one had ever thought to teach me how to clean a tatami mat, so I used my hands to brush the dust to the wood molding that separated rooms and held the runners for the sliding walls. Wood I did know how to clean.


When Kari did get home, we decided to walk across the railway overpass in search of a ramen restaurant. It was a breezy but not bitterly cold evening and from the top of the overpass the view was pretty stellar, but I foolishly used my mental camera again instead of my physical one. (One day perhaps we will have Pensieves and then I can show you.)

As it got dark and we were walking past farms and roadside brush, I was greatly startled by a large, scuttling spider, but the tension was broken when from behind us we heard the young, innocent, excited call of “Kari Sensei!” One of Kari’s students was driving past. The car met us at the intersection and we talked a moment, with the kids leaning out the open car windows. I don’t remember being so excited to see my teachers outside of school. I mostly remember being disconcerted because I and my teachers were out of context when we met at the supermarket. It was one of the sweeter interactions to which I was privy in Japan. Though, to be fair, the age of the participants does help to sweeten it. Kids are always often adorable.

The ramen restaurant was closed, and the options for dining in Koma are scarce, so we adopted Plan B and went into a nearby convenience store and picked up several packages of instant rice and Japanese curry, which we cooked in the microwave before settling down for a movie on the laptop.

Photograph is mine.  Click to see it larger.

Travel: May 19, 2014: Sunlight, River Water, Tea, and Karaoke in Ichinoseki


The weather chose today to finally apologize, for the clouds to part to reveal the peak of Mt Iwate and the warm sun, the sun to tease my new sweatshirt from my shoulders.


I was glad of the relief because today we’d chosen to spend outdoors and upon the water, which would likely be particularly less pleasant in the rain. A shinkansen (more commonly known as a bullet train) sped us from Morioka to Ichinoseki. From there we took a bus deep into the hills, past farms, and perhaps a mining town to Geibikei or the Geibi Gorge.


A short walk brought us to the boat house (that’s not the right phrase because the boats launch from piers behind the house rather than being stored in the house, but I’m not sure what other word to use). A tour was just coming back and two middle-aged men caught us on our way to buy tickets and pushed their half full bag of fish feed into my hand. We thanked them profusely for the gift.

The riverboat is long and narrow with a platform at the back for the punter and shelves at the front for the guests’ shoes. Passengers sit on the tatami mats to peer over the sides of the boat while being poled down the river. The Satetsu River cuts between steep, wooded slopes and cliffs with wisteria twisting its way up several trees on the banks. Today was a day to just enjoy the wonder of God’s creation, to relax in the sunshine and the clean scent of river water and growing things, to point and ogle the creatures that He’s created—unfamiliar species of ducks, giant koi, carp, and catfish, hawks, and even a crane, the sight of which is said to be lucky—while whooping birdcalls echoed off the rock and water.

We threw bait to fish and ducks to lure them nearer to the boat and there was a small child aboard who called “ga ga” (“quack quack”) to the ducks as we passed.


Our boat docked briefly to allow us to go ashore farther downriver. A pathway led beneath fragrant wisteria, over a bridge, and past the “lion’s nose” for which Geibikei is named.


A man waited there selling rocks stamped with characters for “friendship,” “love,” “luck,” “wealth” and other such good fortunes. For 100 yen, you could choose five. Luck was supposed to come to those who could sling a stone into a small cave partway up one of the cliffsides and across the river. Kari and I both tried without luck. I don’t think anyone of our party got a stone into the cave, actually.



On the way back, as the boatman sang to us a warbling, traditional tune (“Geibi Oiwake”), we were passed by boats filled with 3rd years from Sapporo come to Iwate for their school trip. We waved to one another, calling “Konnichiwa!” and when they spotted Kari and I, even more enthusiastically, “Hello!”

Kari was able to talk with our fellow passengers and exchange stories, but I let myself just enjoy the natural beauty of the place.

When our tour returned, we wandered the village that has sprung up around Geibikei, where gardens and rice patties overwhelmed backyards and nestled up the roadsides. (The area seems to be called Higashiyamacho Nagasaka. Technically Geibikei is considered still inside the city limits of Ichinoseki, but the area around Geibikei definitely feels distinct from the city center more than a half hour’s drive away, and there are a great many farms and distinct “towns” between Geibikei and Ichinoseki’s shinkansen station.) We even found a kumano shrine near the convenience store. We also spent a fair bit of time in a souvenir shop by that specialized in and handmade washi paper.


We took the train rather than the bus back from Geibikei and so saw a great deal of the whole area of Ichinoseki.


The train wound more gently towards Ichinoseki but like the bus drove us past farmland primarily, dominated by rice patties shaped to fit the land.


Just outside Ichinoseki Station was a karaoke place. Karaoke in Japan is not what it is in America. In America, karaoke means getting up on a stage in front of strangers and singing from a usually very small set of songs and fumbling over the words because you don’t know the song as well as you thought you did and you’re nervous under the scrutiny of others. In Japan, karaoke can be done alone and is done in a private room. The walls of most homes, Kari explained, are too thin to blast music or belt a tune without bothering your neighbors and subjecting yourself to the very scrutiny that karaoke implies in America. So the Japanese have buildings specifically designed to muffle the sound of your voice. I was still nervous about singing along with a microphone and words on a screen. Perhaps it was too like scarring experiences in the States. I quite gladly sing without such paraphernalia in my kitchen, shower, in the sanctuary of my car, even on train and plane (though these last two I do only quietly).

We set out after an hour of Disney songs to find food, but were thwarted by the closing times of most restaurants and stores.

We did pass a teashop, its window filled with Japanese teapots and teacups. Knowing that I’d been requested to return to the States with tea, we ducked inside and as we browsed the selection of teas, teacups, teapots, and tea sweets were called over by the owners of the shop to share a pot of matcha green tea and a powdery cookie. The owners of the shop were eager to share their area with us and showed us pictures of Konjikido, a World Heritage site nearby. They were excited to see us, excited for what we might see. And they gave us tea. The smiles we shared were genuine and bright.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.


Travel: May 17, 2014: Field Day in Shibutami


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.