Sunday, 31 January 2010

Not going gentle

On a vegetable mission: giving it some welly up the hill

There is no reason to get lazy, just because it is midwinter. The sun is shining through half-hearted cloud, the road is clear, and there are vegetables to be brought, the green gold of the valley. Batting up an incline on her Mama-chari (short for Mamma Chariot),  this woman was demonstrating one of the reasons why old people in Oku-Aizu are not old in the same way as in other places. They brook no opposition to their routine and keep going no matter what.

Many of the householders were taking advantage of the lull in the snow to make inroads into the prodigious piles around their houses and sheds. The young ones, in their seventies, were doing the hard shovelling, while their parents, in their nineties, were merely sledging it round the corner, sometimes thirty yards, and into a stream or off a bank. These citizens are not going gentle into that good night, snowy or not, any time soon. Their vigour comes off them in waves, from their flushed cheeks to their steamy breath, every pedal stroke and shovel-full a lesson ready for the learning.
Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night, 

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right, 

Because their words had forked no lightning they 

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright 

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, 

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, 

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight 

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height, 

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray. 

Do not go gentle into that good night. 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas


Only the women

A path had been dug through the snow to the smaller of the two Shinto shrines in the village, the one perched on a steep slope beneath a bamboo plantation. Bears had damaged the doors trying to get in earlier in the year, presumably for some food that had been left as an offering, but the small wooden structure survived.  About the size of a garden shed, this is one of those very local shrines that only serves a few houses. It has probably has for a very long time, as the worn and headless statues of monks by it attest. Their heads have been replaced with round pebbles. My mother in law, who grew up in a big family just down the road, remembers skiing and sledging down this slope in the days before the Ski centre was built.

The shrine is also used for a more serious purpose one day a year. The 15th of January is a special day for the women of the village, who still troop up there to make offerings and celebrate their year of hard work. Traditionally this was their one day off a year, the one day when they didn't have to cook, clean, farm, and look after young children. The one day from 365 when everything was done for them, when they needed do nothing at all.

Now there are a few modern women in the area who grew up in the city and are married to professional men who moved here to work. They are housewives with enough leisure time during the day to enjoy shopping and dining in the nearest city. If there are young women who grew up locally and married local men, they invariably work too, as wages here are not high and two salaries are needed to build up enough savings, for future safety's sake.

Aunty Kiyoko-san says that it used to be that the man of the house would cook on women's new year day. There would usually be between ten and fifteen mouths to feed, what with eight or nine children, mother and father, paternal grandparents and maybe a great grandparent and an uncle or aunt. Schools didn't used to provide meals, so cooking breakfast and preparing the lunch boxes (O-bento) for everyone was a major production. Then there was the evening meal, the washing, keeping the house in order, and any spare time spent on the vegetable or rice fields. It was the man's job to bring in money, often having to live away from home while seeking work in Tokyo during the winter months. These days, with only three of them left in the house, Kiyoko-san even cooks on this one day. "He doesn't know where everything is, and it isn't worth the mess just for us three."

The footprints in the snow up the steep path to the shrine are getting fewer, as it is only the older women that still observe this day. In a few years who will remember to go?


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Skipping to eternity

We were on time, which made us late by Japanese standards, so we were the last parents to arrive, hurriedly negotiating the huge bulldozed piles of snow in the car park. It was another of the many days in the year when  children's families are invited to the school. We had had opening day, sports day, science day, swimming day, performance day, and now skipping day, and there will be more before the academic year is out. Its only two weeks until ski day, and many schools have those?

And you know, as you settle down to watch your beloved offspring do their stuff, that around the land thousands upon thousands of other parents are doing so too, because every child at Primary school will be skipping the same exercises on the same day, at exactly the same time. You know, because the organising teacher is anxiously consulting both his watch and a book the size of a phone directory with detailed tables and timings. It is as if he is following a detailed train timetable, only instead of marshalling toy trucks and trains, its children. And these children will run on time.

They skip their hearts out on demand, the little darlings, their feet pattering and drumming on the wooden floor in frantic counterpoint to the silent horizontal drift of snow petals past the big windows at the top of the gym. First came the group drills, the older ones executing fast figures of eight through one big rope, everyone chanting "Hai, hai, hai, hai!" in rhythm, the pressure to get it right, to not be the one who breaks the group harmony, plain on their faces. As good a symbol for the Japanese attitude to group endeavour as you could find: endless practice, attention to detail, great skill at the price of tiredness and stress, with the payout of achievement and the comfort of the group at the end. It is this conditioning that makes the crushing unpaid and unofficial working hours imposed by most employers awaiting these children in their working lives bearable, I suppose. Along with all the other physical skills they learn, it also makes Aizu children incredibly fit and healthy, much more so than their poor counterparts in crammed city schools.

Mrs Mills taught me to skip when I was my son's age. She was a cheery dinner lady at Littleborough Primary School in the north of England and I never forgot her name. She wore a blue nylon overall and oversaw playtimes, but she also saw to it that I could skip. It was fun. I don't recall that she asked me to do at least 300 in five minutes, or 500 when I was a couple of years older, with everyone watching and someone at my feet counting every jump. Still, these skipping storm troopers, serious though it all is, cracked into their usual sunny smiles in between, and clearly relished the challenge of the trickier techniques - the reverse skip, the double, the twist, and even the reverse with twist. Mrs Mills let me down badly on that score. The children's highlight was when their athletic young teacher came out for the ultimate challenge, the triple, which is apparently nearly impossible. They hooted with laughter when he only managed it once.

It is the figure of eight pattern that stayed with me, the moving machine of children interlocking with the circling rope. Seen from above it would look like the symbol for eternity, made of bobbing heads and flashing limbs, the piping voices crying "Yes, yes, yes!" in time.


Monday, 25 January 2010

My friend the rain

After extensive testing I can confirm that the bicycle does not make an efficient snow plough

In Aizu in winter, rain is the cyclist's friend. If it is raining, it means it is not snowing. It means that, being a few degrees warmer, there is a chance that the usual two or three inches of snow and ice on the roads - the roads that are ploughed at least - might have melted. It means that you can brake and turn a corner without sliding. It means a blast of wet freedom and the chance to get your lungs and heart going. Some of the pent-up energy that buggers up the spirit, accumulating like the piles of snow by the house, can be swept away.

The walls of snow and ice by the side of the road turn each one into a Cresta Run, and all is transformed. It is hard to believe that these are the same mountains that sang with green flames in the spring, the same valleys whose golden fields were heavy with rice in the autumn, the same roads that hummed with vibrating heat in the summer.

Under the avalanche canopy, on the way to as far as the road will go, a gang of men were checking  and peering up at it, scattered across the road. One of them, a very friendly local  father, gave me his usual cheery greeting. As I disappeared up the road in the teeming rain I heard him giving what was probably a necessary justification, in the circumstances. People don't go out in the rain without a good reason here, and cycling is probably not a good reason. "Oh, he's training for skiing," which is something they are more familiar with, but somewhat wide of the mark. Having recently joined my son on the slopes and tried it for the first time, it's fair to say that my technique owes more to Olympic diving than my afternoons slumped on the sofa watching Ski Sunday as a child. "Oh, and that's a lovely tucked triple corkscrew with pike, finished in characteristically brilliant improvisational style with a landing on his head in a snowdrift, just lovely." I find that I can fall over on the piste in an extraordinary variety of ways without any training at all.

Some of the marooned signs are still  flashing their messages like mad street preachers shouting their visions to an indifferent snowy congregation. Personally, I have learned to treat all signs with a healthy suspicion, miraculous or otherwise. Symbols, on the other hand...I always welcome a good symbol.

The next day...

The rain had turned to wind-blown snow, but not enough to cover the valley road, so it was time to sneak in another ride before it got serious. The side valley, being less used, had more slush and snow on it, but I continued while it was still in patches, only turning round where it became continuous.

Getting home was hard work, my weariness seeming more than the previous day's ride warranted. I must be more out of shape than I realised, I thought, until I got home and looked at the bike. Every surface was covered in built-up ice, including the spokes - the kind that makes planes crash and cyclists tired.


Friday, 8 January 2010

New Year in the mountains

I bumped into him on New Year's Day on the snow-filled pavement leading from our house. At first I didn't recognise him in his best suit and newly opened face, his gold-rimmed incisors shining in a grin cracked like a safe. It was an aunt's husband, usually reticent  and serious, a maker of fine home-grown and prepared soba noodles and grower of some of the best tomatoes I have ever tasted. "Ah, ha, domo, domo, happy new year! Please come to my house anytime today!" Well, New Year seems to agree with him,  let's take him up on that, I thought, in my everyday slobby clothes and with my blurred and ambivalent relationship to this pivotal day in the Japanese calendar intact.

Home grown and hand made soba noodles, now re-packaged in our stomachs

He had kindly sent some of his wonderful soba accross for us to eat as is traditional on the 31st of December in many parts of Japan, though not here in Aizu. This was partly as a thanks for the portrait I had given him earlier in the year, partly in honour of my daughter's visit, and partly because generosity is a natural reflex in Kaneyama-machi.

This first day of the new year my next door neighbour was also in his suit. I had misunderstood his joined hands and gesturing upwards as hoping for the snow to let up, and laughed and nodded like an idiot, whereas of course he was indicating that he was off to pay his respects at the small shrine up the hill, a rather more serious business. As a daily forager in the mountains for wild food he needs the luck, and his family worry about him. More social gaffs than a whaling ship, that's me. Whoops, there's another one. 

We decided to do the same, and had the place to ourselves, the sound hushed and muffled by the snow. The things that lend the place an air of cheerful, unstuffy normality in the summer were gone, the swings and see-saw dismantled, and the all-important gateball gear safely stashed under the shrine.

Such small, obscure country shrines as ours are as much worth visiting as their well known counterparts, which can be swamped with people queueing round the corner for that special brand of luck that seems to be available only there. The relationship between the shrine and the few houses around it is a natural one, often of centuries long standing, and I can manage without the razmataz of food stalls, frenzied lucky charm buying, and madding crowds dropping in before hitting the departo sales. New year in Kaneyama is an altogether more peaceful affair, based on seeing which of your city-flown offspring can make it back to the nest through the snow and the motorway jams. Children are particularly appreciated, and can make a tidy sum handed over in used notes and slim envelopes.

We called in at auntie's house much later, but still beat the man of the house home. Along with the other men of the village he was doing the rounds of other houses, he had been out some time, and they were starting to worry. It is traditional to take a cup or two of sake in each house, and there are a lot of houses for one man to get round and still remain concious. They get the good stuff out for this special day, and by that I mean strong, and he doesn't normally drink. One wonders if the history of New Year in Aizu is littered with the corpses of men just having a little lie down in the snow, so soft, so inviting, on the non-too straight way home.

It was clear when he arrived shortly after dark that he had managed to make it round most of the houses in the village, and was now feeling really very sociable indeed. He probably spoke more words than he had all year, gesturing and waving, and at one point keeling over completely. Still, no bones broken, no harm done, except for the hangover of Bandai-san proportions heading his way like an avalanche in the morning.

He had earned his day in the cups. It turned out that it was he who had cleared the path to the shrine that morning at six thirty, sledging it off by hand so that the rest of the village could walk there easily, while we were still sleeping.