Thursday, August 7, 2014
4~ When the Jaded Write Guidebooks
Looking out my back window I can see the Hinokamisama deity in the park. The rainy season has just begun. In the last week anonymous offerings have been appearing in front of the statue. Glasses full of shochu and bouquets of store bought flowers. Yoshimori is Yuko’s father. He was born in Akune. He’s nearing eighty, but looks about sixty-five. A group of Akuneans did a short rededication ceremony at the deity site this week. I saw them from the back window, Yoshimori included. It was mainly older people, Akune is an old town, I mean mostly populated by those over sixty as all the young people tend to move out to Osaka or Tokyo seeking employment. There are kids here, lots of them and younger couples, but you see more old people in the streets during the day. At the bus stop after school kindergarteners wait for moms to pick them up. They wait by doing homework, spilling the contents of their book bags on the sidewalk and excitedly pointing at shared answers.
The kids wear “school kid uniforms” and all the old people wear “old people uniforms”. The ages in between just look confused, like they are displaced out of a big city and landed in Akune for no reason. Grandma uniforms are housedresses with either cloth or plastic aprons, depending on whether they are gardening or cleaning fish. Old guy uniforms are windbreakers and drab loose trousers. Wide brimmed straw hats are worn by both genders, especially if going fishing. Most of the young guys wear ball caps for fishing, they almost have a uniform together, but still look out of place.
Some young moms in the grocery stores wear glittery flat-rimmed ball caps, and tee shirts tawdry messages in English text. The kinds of shorts and hats last seen in an American gangsta rap video from 1998. The traditional kimono clashes with any music post Run DMC, but as an American in Akune I see personal and secret irony in the current trend of the kimono making comeback among young women. The kimono is unquestionably more erotically mysterious than gold jewelry and ass leaking Daisy Duke cut offs. I predict the next big rap star will make press appearances surrounding himself with kimono wearing beauties. Just you wait.
The old men’s stalk legs were covered by dull ochre and grey trousers, shirts tucked in like natty schoolboys. The average age was about seventy-two. The few ladies present took off aprons in favor of knit sweaters or a long kimonoish light coat. They gathered in front of the Hinokamisama shrine with the paid Shinto priest they retained to perform the rededication ceremony. Yoshimori told me the mystery offerings probably appeared because there was a small fire in town recently and the person who felt responsible for it probably stepped forward to leave secret offerings of shochu because they felt guilty. The fire reportedly started when someone left a mess of paper trash in the garage and an electrical cord sparked and set a fire. Yoshimori thinks someone felt bad and began the new round robin of offerings at the shrine, which led to a the community noticing the shrine, culminating in a rededication ceremony.
Hinokamisama was first installed 1635. The town has grown around the sculpture and the park has seen many uses during the time he’s been sitting on his lotus pad chair. Before the land was a park it was a cemetery, they must have moved all the bodies because the kids’ massive play structures, slides, monkey bars, etc. are all rooted in deep cement foundations and would intrude upon the resting level of the dead if they were still there. Not to mention the screaming elementary school brats and skate borders that I can hear in the afternoons. The little sliders and swingers’ screeching would undo the dead and the curb scraping skaters would soon finish them off. Poor dead. Good thing they migrated long ago to the Buddhist temple mortuary storage cabinets.
Hinokamisama gave those old boys and girls of the Honmachi district a good reason to get together to drink shochu. Shochu is a distilled beverage made of sweet potatoes and is native to Kyushu, yeah the Koreans, Chinese and other island nations make claim to shochu, but it is the product of the Kyushuians from way back. Akune, like all towns and cities in Japan is made up of small districts, they don’t give streets names in Japan, but send mail by directing it to the proper district in town and the post man knows the name of the person and where they live or he goes by a house or building number in that district. Reminds me of the U-2 album with the song “Where the streets have no name”. That song was written in Joshua Tree California, but it applies here as well. Some of the twenty plus folks standing in front of old Hinokamisama were gripping beaded & tasseled wristbands which are a “Buddhist prayer rosary” for lack of a better way to explain the object. Many of them were not from Honmachi, but from other districts in Akune where the streets also have no names. The Shinto priest officiating gave a full rededication prayer and prompted everyone in the group to make proper bows and gasshos on que as he recited various chants. Gassho is the gesture of putting ones palms facing together in front of ones chest and holding the gesture for a few seconds in reverent peacefulness. Gassho is exactly the same gesture that Christians make when praying, which makes you wonder about the origins of religion. If all the religions use the same gesture maybe the game is a foot, as Sherlock Holmes would say, but the mystery of why religions fight remains a mystery. Shintoism is the main religion in Japan, but it’s pretty much like everywhere else in the world. You have some religion enthusiasts who make religion a big deal, but most people take religiosity in moderate amounts. It’s like drinking the shochu, too much will give a bad day tomorrow.
I went to a shochu distillery a few weeks back, there’s one in another district of Akune about a 20 minute walk from Honmachi. I can’t remember how to get there, because I have not gotten used to the concept of streets without names. However I can almost navigate by alcoholic beverage global positioning, ABGP. My dad and my uncles used to drive around in San Bernardino, the town I as born in, and wind their way from one end of town to the other by knowing where the liquor stores were. You could give directions to a guy in San Bernardino by telling them to drive past the Elgin Fagan Bar, turn left on Highland Ave. and go down past Heywood’s Ice Cream, then left up Sierra Way past the Monkeys Hide Out bar, and to grandmother house you go.
Wait, I’m sorry, I just got you lost. The Monkey’s Hideout is down near Valley College. It’s all very murky to me because I was not actually drinking at the time, being a child, wearing a child’s uniform in the back seat of the car. Heywood’s Ice Cream was more my monument for reference in childhood. Mr. Heywood built balsa model airplanes, I remember them hanging from the ceiling of the ice cream parlor. There were crop dusting biplanes covered with seamless bright blue and yellow tissue papers. He made olive green WWII fighter planes and deep red Piper Cubs too. Maybe there was a Mitsubishi Zero with a big red-orange meatball on the fuselage. The counter was long and high, the stools were covered in some sticky vinyl and the ice cream tasted much better than beer. I dropped my cone on the floor once and they gave me a whole new one. That still does not help me locate that shochu making factory. I’ll have to ask directions to visit them again in the late summer to early fall when the big sweet potato crop comes in and they begin the next season of shochu making.
On Kyushu, in the south, they drink shochu mixed with straight hot water. No matter whether it’s the hot wet typhoon season or the cold dry winter, the dudes who wear the old guy uniforms universally drink shochu in a water glass with the ideal ratio of 7 to 3 - water to shochu. At first I was skeptical of the hot water and drank shochu on ice, but soon I switched to the hot water mix. Shochu on ice requires that one get up from the table, walk into the kitchen, take ice from the freezer, put it in your glass, walk back to the table, reseat yourself on the floor and then pour the shochu over the ice. Geeze, it’s too much work in the heat. Best thing to do is hand your glass to the person nearest the push top hot water dispensing thermos that is ubiquitous in Japanese sitting and dining rooms and ask them to fill your glass with hot water for shochu. The nearest person does not really need to be asked or told the proper ratio of water to shochu. They will automatically size up your glass and shoot the local Kyushu prescribed amount of H2o in your glass. Then they will measure out by eye the exact ratio of shochu to water. These are universal skills in Kyushu. Ice does have its place in shochu cocktails, delicious mixtures of plum wine or fruit juices with soda water and shochu, mostly ladies drink them, but I like them too. However the real man drinks schochu with hot water in the correct ratio, unless the locals are trying to get you drunk to see how much shochu you can drink. I was given glasses with as much as half and half shochu to water at a party recently, and one recalcitrant fisherman by the name of Yuzo gave me a glass with straight shochu. Afterwards that party was to be dubbed “The party with one thousand legs” at some point in the future I’ll write about that one, but it was over three weeks ago and I still have trouble remembering my name much less the no name street it took place on.
The party in the park for the recognition of the fire deity Hino-what’s is name sama completed the gasshos and paid the Shinto priest his due. They walked en masse’ to the Honmachi Cultural Center a few blocks away for a bento lunch and no doubt some shochu and hot water. The Honmachi Cultural Center is an old building; some Honmachians think it’s not as good as the other districts meeting halls. Each district has a performance or meeting hall that can be rented for weddings, concerts or funeral events. But it makes me wonder how those from other districts or out of towners find the damn things because the streets have no names.
Tachiko used to own a restaurant, I’m sure it had a name, but I have not ventured to ask it, yet. It must have been called something tough and scandalous like Samurai Village Coffee Shop or Rudy’s Can’t Fail Ramen. Tachan drinks beer from a can, she wears her hair in a short brown perm. She looks like a 1980’s MTV Japanese band leader, maybe she founded Shonen Knife? She’s sixty years old and burps at the table with gusto. She speaks low and deep, with force, like the big man in a “sword and sandal” film. She could probably one punch your lights out in a fight, even though she stands ring side at about 5 feet and a few inches. She gets up about 4am and cooks in a kitchen she had added onto the ground floor. The kitchen door opens to the carport where her trusty black steed “Honda” waits each morning to carry her on her grocery store route. Tachiko and Honda deliver her delicious bento to local stores that sell them to office workers who want a fast but satisfying lunch. You seldom see her bento goods left in the store after 4pm.
Were the shrimp and fish fillets swimming away from Tachiko’s freezer? To find out she called the police. Fillet capers were low on the priority list said the Po-Po, but at some point they would tear themselves away from the 7-11 doughnut section (It’s not bad I must say) and make a drive by to “secure the ‘hood” and hopefully catch the fish thief. They never arrived. The seafood kept swimming off into thin air, so she called them again. This time she asked them for surveillance advice. She proposed that she sit in the carport after the deliveryman dropped off her daily food supplies, and then hide in her Honda with a baseball bat. The police responded, horrified, that she herself might get hurt if she took that course of action and that they would make haste to patrol the ‘street with no name’ during the times Tachiko was out delivering foodstuffs. Try as they did the mighty Akune Police Force could not crack the case of the missing crab cakes and purloined ebi. Joe Strummer the cat was pretty useless too, as Tachiko thinks the thief bribed him to keep his mouth shut.
One morning after the baffled police had abandoned the chase and resumed browsing the snack cake section of the ‘combini store’, Tachiko forgot some of the bamboo leaf wrapped mochi that was expected by the massive hordes of hungry businessmen across town. As she gunned Honda back into the carport to grab the leaf swaddled mochi, she trapped the vile shrimp predator in mid swipe with freezer lid open, one arm clutching bags of frozen chicken gyoza! It was her rival at cottage industry cookery, the old lady down the street. Tachiko threw open the car door and cussed her up a blue streak, except that, um well, the Japanese language does not really have any cusswords, you just have to get your point across by talking angrily.
Luckily no blows were exchanged. The frozen goods were dumped back into the freezer. The brazen aggressor was chased down the street at broom point. Tachiko has still refused to put a padlock on the freezer, it’s just not that kind of street, or that kind of town.
1~ Found in Translation
Akune is far off the common track. The Shinkansen bullet train does not stop here. The old Orange Line, orange for rust, oxidation, pulls through. Pigeons and wattle carrying swallows own the nest pocked real estate of the walls and ceilings above the ticket window of the terminal. Crows, fishing boats, sea eagles. There are no gulls. I think the sea eagles must have eaten them eons ago during the Jomon Period. Beds of white salty potatoes grow in terraces perched on cliffs over the sea on up on Nagashima Island. The water is Mediterranean, rocky bottomed. Viridian green shallows blend to dark manganese blue depths. Small black octopi try to hide on Styrofoam trays under the canvas tented fish market stalls.
One could write all kinds of touristy road trip details designed to flatter this countryside. Any real portrait of this town would have to step over the stunning beauty of the East China Sea, the greenery of the stands of timber bamboo, and cut to Tachiko’s story; how did big bags of frozen of shrimp and gyoza constantly disappear from the freezer wedged between cardboard produce boxes and plastic work buckets that inhabit her carport?
Tachan, ‘chan’ the familiar endearing form of her full name Tachiko, lives across the street from me. It’s hardly a street, unless you’re from a really small village in Italy and the streets are narrow and strewn with pea gravel and allow only one tiny non American sized car at a time. Where I am from it would be called an alley, but I shy from judging this thoroughfare by naming it in a diminutive way. It’s a tough little street full of amorpropio, but like most side streets in countryside Japanese towns, it has no name. Taxi drivers would know my street if you were to engage him to deliver you by saying: “Fumotosan’s house” or “Tachikosan”. Off your taxi man would go to present you to the precise door of the person you requested, on a street with no name.
At the opposite end of Tachiko and I there is a large hospital and a building behind it which is the Akune City branch of NTT, Nippon Telephone and Telegraph. I have not seen any telegraph lines, yet, but it would not shock me to see a man in an upper story window tapping out Morse code. I’ve seen stranger things already. Fifty meters down our road a hospital sits on massive angular haunches like a white stucco boulder. I imagine it as a giant Japanese toy figure that transforms at night into an albino Godzilla. After dark he climbs on the NTT’s reception tower, a wide octagonal observation deck that is a grid work of steel mesh and circular radio dishes. He shimmies up the iron clipper ship mast and tears satellite discs from their mounts, flinging them into the sea and hills playing a game of monster Frisbee golf.
The rural funk, imaginary cult monster and metal sky clutter structure would loom depressingly over this little delicate street with no name, but it’s saved by a tree filled city park situated between us and Godzilla’s playground. In 1765 there was a fire in Akune which burned a great deal of the city. Part of the park is quite old, at least from the time of the fire.
The old section features a Shinto figure three high tall made of indigenous basalt rock, a fire protection deity. He is the usual demon, scary angry eyes, a flaming mantle, stony feet that could stomp furiously on the lotus shaped base. Not to represent the demonic in a Christian sense, but to frighten fires by commanding fire to “stay away or I will kick your bloody face in!” Not sure if fire has a face, but if it did this little rock bastard would break free of its stony moorings and pick a drunken bar fight that would rearrange Fires nose, mouth, lips and forehead. The protector deity Hinokamisama rules from a verdant grassy slope, near enough to our house to stave off any guitar incinerating conflagrations. The Japanese I must surmise, while active in stationing fire prevention deities, gave up centuries ago making anti-mosquito Shinto deities, for I have not seen a single one. The closest thing to a shrine are the stacks aerosol repellent cans in the drug store aisles. I can see the TV advert scene: Ancient Shinto shrine, can of bug repellent on the altar, priest devoutly hands a can to young acolyte, says: “Here is the secret of peace and harmony”……wait…..I could get a job in advertising here……
The mean street I live on has its feline denizens as well and my favorite is Tachiko’s tom cat. He is a swaggering punk rock tabby. His right foreleg is completely white; the outline of the white fur is a contour drawing that perfectly circumnavigates the tip of his pointy shoulder. From his chest to tail it looks like he is wearing a black tee shirt with one sleeve rolled up around his boxers arm. He reminds me of Joe Strummer from The Clash, so I call him Joe.