Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sweet Home Nakamura

I left the computer alone when I stopped working this morning, and now I pick it back up again to start working. In between, it was quite a full day. Again. And I thought coming to this humble fishing village would be restful. At least it was very educational. So today, you're getting history lessons.

The day started with a trip to go visit my grandmother... at her grave. This bummed me out two-fold, first off because I miss her. She was a smart-assed woman who, for her diminutive size, was wickedly strong. She lived into her 80's doing what she did in her 20's: riding a bicycle through the hilly country, swinging a golf club with friends, drinking whiskey, and smoking half a pack a day. (See who I get my go-all-day/party-all-night constitution from?) I'm doubly bummed because this trip was supposed to happen a few years ago so I could see her before she passed away. We were holding off for the oppressively humid summer to be over and come in the milder autumn... but before we could, she was gone. Not because of her hard livin' - but because she broke her back falling out of bed one day. Go figure.

What surprised me is how far we didn't have to go to visit the grave. It's about a block and a half away from the house. Because Japanese don't traditionally leave their hometown, graveyards for the families of a particular neighborhood are actually in the neighborhood. So visiting daily to light some incense, leave an offering of rice and sake, and water the plants is actually a realistic expectation. And conveniently, the graves of all my Moriyama ancestors are in one place, so I can pay my respects and save a ton of time. Brilliant!

One interesting aspect of the whole never-leaving-the-village thing (although most of my family did end up dispersing) is that Japanese houses are like mazes. As generation after generation inherits a house, more rooms or floors are added to the property. The sliding walls make for endless configurations, as well. The family room can easily be divided into a couple of guest sleeping quarters... A smaller room can be expanded into a larger room when a bird leaves the nest. The possibilities are mind-boggling. And while this is great, it kind of sucks when you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and find yourself in some rat-race contraption from hell.

Overall, though, the old Moriyama homestead is as I remember it from my last visit about 30 years ago. Until, of course, you slide one wall over to reveal a small wing that was added on. Or you go around the corner to find a stairwell to a whole new floor. (That's where my room is.) It's my room now, and with the rush of childhood memories, I'm kind of wishing it would be my room for always. I guess it is, since at this rate, this house will likely remain in my family forever.

Although that's not true of the land surrounding it. My family owned the hills surrounding Shimoda, but they saw no point in holding on to it if they weren't really doing anything with it. So a little while back, they sold it to the government to turn it into a huge public space. In it there's a children's park, the largest campground in southwest Japan, an onsen hot spring bath, and a park with an odd-looking observation deck that boasts a wide-open view of the sea. And climbing up to check it out this morning as the sun shone over the Pacific, just as it did 30 years before - and invariably 30 centuries before - I thought to myself, "No one owns this land... but this view will always be mine."

Nearby, there's a breakfast place Aunt Izumi recommended. Called the Nest Herb Garden House or something Engrish like that, it has a huge circular atrium where they have a magnificent herb garden, including the most fragrant basil I've ever smelled. They blend their own herbs, which aren't cheap, but smell brilliant. Unfortunately, not a single one of them ends up in the breakfast. I opted for the "Western" breakfast, as pictured above. Yes, that's salad. And that pink thing? Cherry Jell-o. I think they took the place of bacon and hash browns on short notice. And never mind the teacup. I actually asked for them to replace my Earl Grey with miso soup. Wait, no I didn't!

The village of Shimoda is a part of the overall town of Nakamura, our next destination. We went to hit up Fujiya - my grandma's favorite bakery from the days of yore, as well as check out the Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) festival going on at the local shrine. This is when children aged - you guessed it - 7, 5, and 3 are put in their most decadent Japanese finery and brought to the local Shinto shrine for blessings. And even more so to be photographed by snap-happy parents. And who can blame them? They're so freakin' cute. I just wanted to go up to the beaming parents and ask their permission, "Can I hug it? Do you think I could get one? Do they cost much to feed?"

All kidding aside, it's one of those traditions that my mom steeped me in as a kid, and as I grew older and more resistant (and less appreciative), the less I participated, the less Japanese I felt. I thought it was stupid that my mom would dress me in a kimono or teach me various Shinto and Buddhist rituals, and while I still view everything with an eye toward the future, I'm far more touched by her efforts to instill culture in me now than I ever was back then. Back then, I just liked getting the candy.

Walking through downtown Nakamura, my mom pointed out that it's bars, bars, bars everywhere. Seriously - I think Nakamura has more bars per capita than any other city in Japan. And possibly Ireland. There are probably more bar stools than there are people of legal drinking age. There's even a bar called Jail - where I'm sure many a glass of Shochu has led someone to the actual jail, conveniently located within stumbling distance. We made a pit stop at the local liquor emporium - once the sake distillery - and WOAH are we still in Japan? Oh, we must be - they have about 800 different kinds of Sochu. But on top of that, an impressive array of wines, really impressive bottles of Scotch, and, well, just about anything to supply the town drunk for the next millennium.

I looked around and a funny smile hit my face. All these bars and an incredible liquor store, all so conveniently bundled together, it's almost as though it's urban planning of the best kind... "Hey mom, didn't you say one of our relatives was once the mayor of Nakamura?"

"Yes, that was your great grandfather. You know, Nakamura wasn't even really a city back when he first became mayor."

Bingo. It's become all that much clearer where the drinking gene comes from.

It's at this point where the pace picked up. See if you can keep up.

We drove out of Nakamura proper and into the hills alongside the Shimanto-gawa river one of Japan's largest undammed rivers Here we stopped by a couple of my mom's cousins' places which I guess makes them second cousins to me I don't know I never knew how all that worked Anyway it was very nice seeing them after 30 years because it never gets old when relatives tell you that you've grown not only vertically but horizontally har har har We stopped by a neighborhood shop and picked up what we could for a picnic lunch to be consumed at a later time Then we drove further up the river and stopped off to umm look at the river Then we drove even further up and

--Ok, catching my breath here--

We drove even further up to the bridge of my nightmares.

Or at least, a stressful recurring dream through my childhood, teenage years, and even early adult life.

Once I saw this bridge, I knew this was the cause of the dream. In the dream, I always dreamt that I was driving across a body of water on a narrow bridge, which inexplicably had no railing on the sides, and was barely wide enough for the car. I'd wake up in a cold sweat from the sheer nervousness of trying to go across this bridge without slipping off. And this was that bridge. A damn bridge you can drive across, but sneeze and jerk the wheel just once and you'll be whisked away into the Pacific a few miles down the way.

Yeah? Well fuck you, bridge. I cheated death by running up and down the bridge. I played chicken with an oncoming car. On foot. I teetered on the edge of the bridge as high winds threatened to send me to my watery demise. Guess what, bridge? I'm all grown up now. And I'm not afraid of heights - or the water - anymore. Maybe that's why you can't haunt me in my dreams anymore, you steel and concrete piece of shit. You thought you had me, didn't you? Ha!

Aaaanyway... Then we got back in the car and went further up the river to look at the river some more then stopped at another part on the river where we had our picnic lunch and skipped rocks for a while It was really funny when my mom fell down on the rocks Not because she got hurt but because it's just funny when someone falls We then took a long windy drive through the hills alongside the river because apparently I hadn't seen every possible view of the river and then we criss crossed the river on a couple of different bridges so I could see the various ways to get over the river and then we headed back into Nakamura because my aunt thought I'd like to see the local historical museum and --


I really yelled that. Not just now, but in the car. This stuff was killing me. Maybe hopping on a bus and seeing every possible little site in one day is appealing for Japanese tourists, and maybe I was starting to feel much more in touch with my roots, and maybe I'm married to my Nikon SLR and my Sony point-and-shoot but... I AM NOT A JAPANESE TOURIST.

I don't care for going from place to place with barely a moment's pause. We spend more time in the damn car than anything else, and we barely have time to sit some place and just... be. As in be on vacation. As in be part of the scene. As in be here, not just see it.

And thusly, we went to the mall.

Which is precisely what I like.

No, I'm no shopaholic spending queen, but going where "normal" people (i.e. not tourists) shop is much more interesting to me than any museum about the local history or most extraneous views of a river. I like to see what's trendy. What's on the clearance rack. What people queue up for. What are the #1 CDs and DVDs? Who's on the cover of magazines and newspapers? Why the hell are they pushing Beaujoulais Nouveau 2007 as a high-end wine option when it's just table swill at even the worst of French restaurants? These are the things I like to ponder when I visit someplace new.

Mostly, I love the market. Be it an open-air market, a specialy market, or in this case a big, bright supermarket. I love seeing what's available. What's cheap. What's expensive. It all fascinates me so much more than a display of what houses looked like here before WWII. Or some feudal lord's codpiece. Ok, that's mildly interesting.

We picked up provisions for the night, and while Mom and Aunt Izumi started preparing dinner, Makoto and I headed to the aforementioned (about 212 paragraphs ago) onsen. As pissed off and worked up as I get about being stuck in a car all day, touring around cattle style at cattle prod paces, and not seeing and doing what I really want to see and do, all that can be magically erased by spending an hour or two in a hot spring bath.

And unlike hot springs in most of the western hemisphere, this isn't just about a soak. You actually come to the baths here to bathe. As I explained in an earlier post, the Japanese approach to bathing is quite different. They shower and scrub and preen and exfoliate... then they get in the tub to soak their bones. It works much the same at an onsen but on a much larger scale. You go and wash yourself, then you sit and soak in a pool fed by geothermal springs under Japan's highly volcanic surface. And then - because it feels good - you go wash yourself again if you like. In fact, I have to say bathing might be the best part. It's a bit uncomfortable at first. There you are, in all your naked glory, with a bunch of other men, squatting at a low faucet with a bucket and a wash rag, scrubbing parts that shouldn't be seen in public... And it feels good. It's meditative. It's you and your washcloth and your soap - and little else. You scrub, you rinse, maybe scrub some more. And for some reason, it all feels very ritualistic. Like you're bathing with a purpose. I mean, other than to not stink. Anyway, I can't explain it. So I'm going to have to go back repeatedly until I can.

In the meantime, it's a brisk ten-minute walk back to to the house in almost pitch black conditions. With the faint glow of the village in the distance and knowing that as long as you feel pavement under your feet you're probably going the right way, it's kind of hard to get lost in a place this small.

And when you make it back, you know you have a hotpot of sukiyaki waiting for you. As in whale sukiyaki.

That's right hippies, we ate the whale tonight. And the verdict is, as Homer Simpson would say, "Sacrelicious!"

The meat itself is tough and chewy. Not soft at all like sukiyaki meat normally would be. Tasty, but not worth putting a species into extinction.

The "whale bacon" as we called it, on the other hand... To. Die. For. As in I'm totally fine with big, beautiful creatures of the sea of which we know little but have so much to learn are totally welcome to die for it. A layer of blubber, a couple of inches thick, with a little bit of the skin on there like a rind - de-harpoony-licious. Somehow, it doesn't taste fatty nor feel greasy at all. It's a sublime flavor with only a hint of ocean gaminess, like a very fatty bacon without the fat. And it paired brilliantly with the chestnut sochu we picked up at the liquor store earlier today. Yeah, chestnut. No, I can't tell you why they work together, but they do.

Again, like with bathing at an onsen, I don't know if I can properly explain it, so I'm just going to have to eat more.

Alrighty, you Greenpeace freaks are getting lucky. Due to the limitations imposed on harpooning, gutting, and slicing whale into meat (and delicious blubber!), it's extremely limited and a rare find, and I likely won't eat more. Consider us both lucky and we'll call it a draw.

Well, I've been writing for what seems to be an eternity now, and there doesn't seem to be much action on the work front. I bid you a wonderful night. *whale burp*

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