Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Portents and eyebrows

If you want to live a long and  unmolested life, choose to be a tree in the grounds of a Shinto shrine. What do you mean, "Even if there were such a thing as re-incarnation, the chances of being able to choose your next form are slim to none,"?  My, we are in a literal mood today, aren't we? It's an image, innit? Take a closer look at the forms in the tree, smart Alec.

Teaching, in one form or another, came thick and fast on a six and a half hour ride that began in watery sunshine. That lasted less than five minutes. The rain began after two hours, turning to sleet, then snow as I climbed the first of two passes.

Another cyclist was on my mind today, an old man of about eighty, lying on the road in Tadami, the first town I passed. He was covered in a blanket, bloody cloths on his chest, his eyes closed. A group of people were with him, waiting for the ambulance. Along the straight road through the town groups of people stood around, waiting.

Route 289 from Tadami to Tajima

A raven rose into the air and flew straight towards my head. It didn't see me until the last minute, and reared up in front of my face, it's wings and tail spread out and filling the air before it shot up and away.

Route 400 climbing from Tajima to Showa

The weather joined the portent party, streamers of mist taking bites out of the mountains, curtains of rain, snow, and all forms in between dropping by for a quick drink, then outstaying their welcome.

That's all it was though, weather. The people I met along the way told another story, and this isn't going to end like a Jack London tale with a frozen figure punished for presumption in the frozen north.

It started with eyebrows. It struck me, as I headed down from the top of 289 towards Tajima, my speed limited by squinting through the blinding snowflakes, that I want some big ones. I'm talking great bushy shelves of bristle, topping craggy brows over deep set eyes. I'm talking Samuel Becket. I'm talking Denis Healey. I'm talking Frida Khalo. Mmm, a projecting mono-brow, there's a thought. You see, we forget what they are for, and rail against them, plucking and bleaching, trimming and cutting. In some cases shaving them off and pencilling in expressions of surprise. But blast down a mountain road on a bike and you realise what they are actually for: keeping the weather out of your vision jellies. Banish portents: grow 'em thick, baby!

Let's ride, the weather's lovely: full gear on the last climb

Then there was the charming lady, who when unable to supply me with my request for an-donutsu from her tiny shop, and having ascertained that I was cycling 'From where?!' 'To where?!" followed me out of the shop and gave me my money back for the chocolate I  bought.

On the grind up the last climb, still cold in all my gear, a car stopped and out popped Mieko-san and her husband, two of the instructors from our local Ski centre: more shock and a rare photo of a lesser eye-browed cyclist.

And at the even smaller shop in the gathering dark, one of those shops where you wonder if it is a shop or a few bits in someone's larder shed, and it takes a while to work out they are actually selling anything at Dolops of sweet aduki bean paste surrounded by fried dough and a liberal dusting of sugar - now that will keep you going a while longer...


Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Snowshoe shuffle

Looking down to Nakagawa and the Tadami River, Kaneyama-machi

Now that the snow has compacted down, from three metres of leg-swallowing powder into a metre and half of layered icy globules, it is snow-shoe walking season. Routes have to be chosen with care, as the mountains bear the scars of many small avalanches, where the snow scours away at the steep slopes, and edges may be corniced. Flat shelves of land and the forestry roads are comparatively safe. I say comparatively. We descended some steep zigzags on what must have been the only road up to the village by Lake Numazawa at one time. "Oh, that is where the doctor went off the side of the road on a snow-mobile with a patient on the back, thirty years ago." As far as I know, the Hippocratic Oath does not encourage that kind of treatment, and I doubt the patient was too impressed either. Still, no lives lost, so not to worry, eh? Next up, ambulance drag racing.

An anonymous mound on the edge of the snow-covered fields on a high plateau turned out to be a samurai grave from the fifth century. This sombre and time-laden fact did not detain the children for a moment. They were  off, scribbling tracks across the huge blank paper of the snow, delighting in being the first to make a mark. Their small leaf-shaped plastic snow-shoes lent them a pixie-like appearance ('strewth, how many hyphens does one-sentence-need?). Some of the elders in the valley still use circular home-made (whoops-there's another) bamboo and rope snow shoes.

A cry went up from the leading group, and a mountain hare bounded at impossible speed up the hillside, resplendent in it's winter fur. No snowshoes required there, and a good thing if you ask me. Don't though. They are hinged at the toe (hyphenated, you might say), which means that they are always in contact with the snow. If you want to turn round when you are standing still you have to lift your feet up high. I know that know of course.  If I'd known it then, I wouldn't have suffered the very-un-hare-like indignity of keeling over into a heap. It contrasted a tad painfully with the authoritative tone I had adopted a moment before about the nature of some footprints. I always like to adopt an authoritative tone when I am talking complete bollocks, don't you? 

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Kamoshika: grey eminence of the woods

This splendid creature is a Kamoshika, or Japanese Serow. Any animal that can survive the winter in the woods here deserves the utmost respect. It is the floating phantom of the forest, getting by on the leaves and moss they can find on steep pitches where the snow has slid down. They are very shy, and their footprints are seen more often than they are. I have seen them at a distance, or disappearing through the trees, but the only other time I came close to one I didn't have a camera with me. On that occasion I was on a run and came across one sheltering from rain under a cliff (characteristic behaviour), on steep ground above the village. We contemplated each other for a while. I don't think it was keen to give up the only dry ground on the hill to a usurper. It only moved off when I moved again.

Then yesterday I was on the road bike on a beautiful narrow road climbing above the Tadami river, and happened to look down to find this ball of grey fur staring back at me at close quarters. At first glance the scent marking glands below it's eyes made it look as if it had two pairs of eyes.  It looked very wide - was it a pregnant female? On close inspection you can see it has a horn missing, so perhaps it was a male that lost one in a fight.

I had time to get my camera out. If I had been one of the Jomon period hunters who inhabited this area 5,000 years ago and more, I would have had plenty of time to draw a bead with my bow and arrow. Now they are protected - very protected. We have been advised not to go anywhere near a corpse we come across in case someone thinks we did it. "But officer, I am vegetarian!" might not butter any parsnips. Disgusted with my continued fluorescent yellow presence, it suddenly snorted, and thundered down the steep hillside at impressive speed, grunting and expressing loud blasts through it's nostrils. It turned at the bottom and looked back up at me, still complaining, still not at all impressed with me.

As I write this it is dark, raining and blowing a gale outside. I hope it managed to find a nice cosy overhang to curl up under tonight.


Friday, 12 March 2010

Bubblegum carnage

Boys eagerly awaiting their turn to put coins in the machines

Boys here avidly collect, trade, and discuss games cards, the mountains forgotten and irrelevant outside their tight clusters of hot interest. The cards are spat out by babbling and flashing games machines, fascinating and irresistible to their diminutive clientèle, prone as they are to fantasies about heroic combat, and almost exclusively male. To them every card is the victor's prize in an epic struggle to the pixilated death. They think they are playing, and don't notice that they are being played.

They cluster round the screens, waiting with sweaty palmed politeness for their turn. They egg each other on, or examine each other's collections, some of which would easily pay for the kind of substantial real world equipment that I could only dream about when I was a boy. I have discussed this with my son, but my questions about whether it was better to press a button and watch a character do something interesting on a screen, or to actually do something exciting yourself, were not a success. Similarly, going through the economics, and pointing out that he had in effect paid ¥1,500 (£10) for fifteen small cards that were probably worth about ¥30, fell on stony seven-year-old ears.

Touching what?

I remember the feeling. My elder brother and I collected bubble gum cards. The bubble gum wasn't very nice, it was the cards that mattered. The flavour of the gum didn't last in the mouth,  but the cards always smelled of the bright pink gum. They pictured scenes from the American Civil War for some reason, the gorier the better - bayonetings and shootings, desperate hand to hand combat and the like. The big one, the card everyone wanted, and that instilled a thrill of horror and hushed awe in us, was of a man being blown apart by a canon in lurid technicolour. I both daren't look at it, and had to. For a long time after, death seemed linked to the sickly faut-fruit pink fumes of cheap gum. That was until my father died some years later, and my younger brother after that, and taught me what death really smells like.

I hope it takes my son a long time to learn.


Death and transformations

I was pleased that my son had been asked  by our neighbour to join her daughter in learning traditional dance. Ah, thought I, a nice gentle contrast to the thunder of Taiko and the martial austerities of Kendo, which involve, respectively, hitting animal skins and other people's heads with sticks. I pictured nuanced  stillness and precision, delicacy and balance, a lovely addition to any growing boy's repertoire of possibilities.  I pictured fans and parasols.

It was only at Friday's dress rehearsal that it hit me. They were re-enacting the final moments of the White Tigers Corps (Byakottai),  teenage soldiers, nineteen of whom who took their own lives during the Boshin War in nearby Aizuwakamatsu. This is a deeply ambivalent subject for me. M-san's view is that this story, which has become a famous strand in Japanese culture, is only remembered for it's tragedy. She feels that it is remembered so that we ensure it never happens again. This is reinforced by remembrance of the catastrophic impact of Japanese nationalism in the Second World War, which has led the Japanese people to be very aware of the impact of war on ordinary people, including children.

I recognise this, and the ladies waiting for their turn on stage did indeed cry as my son and his friend enacted the deaths, but I can't help feeling that the story is somehow fetishised, and that there is a degree of admiration and celebration of their choice - and for the Bushido system that led these young people to their tragic mistake. Separated from the rest of their unit, they killed themselves in the mistaken belief that their castle had fallen and families been killed, reinforced by their awareness that the attacking forces had killed many similar young people earlier in the campaign.

In some ways this act was the inevitable result of their rigorous, competitive and honour-based education where Bushido was rigidly enforced. The  fascist regimes in Italy and Germany sent monuments to Iimoriama, the hilltop shrine sited where the young people died. They certainly seemed to have been celebrating the story in terms of loyalty to lords and masters, not sadness at wasted childhood.

Still, come the performance proper, the community reacted so warmly that it would be churlish not to concentrate on how dance itself has been an important part of local culture. All the other performers were middle aged or older, and the audience were touched that two children at least are keeping the tradition alive. The hall was packed with an appreciative audience, and not a dry eye was in the house.

The valley's woman dance teacher dancing as a male samurai

A succession of beautifully dressed and coiffed women (and one man) performed their sequences of tableau-like dances over the course of three hours. The very distinctive style of dance, usually performed in synchronised groups, is more a chain of separate static images and gestures then the flowing or rhythmic pulses of movement that are more common outside Asia. It has a neatness and containment which is Japanese body language writ large. This particular brand is likely based on older traditions, but is now performed to syrupy Enka backing tracks, which sadly must have become the popular replacement for real musicians over the years since the 1950's and 60's.

With the exception of the massed ranks of sparkling ladies playing electric Kotos (to more backing tracks), and  several story tellers, dance is clearly the art form most loved and kept alive by the older population here. Being able to transform yourself into a dazzling confection of colour turning in the spotlight must hold a particular attraction when you spend most of your life trussed up in winter woolies or scarfed and hatted against the sun and up to your knees in paddy field mud.

One of the two remaining male exponents is now in his late seventies, but is fond of reclaiming his youth when dancing, with a thick layer of slap and wigs, which transform him into a somewhat alarming, if handsome, teenage beau. We were treated to his own version of the Byakottai story, and another of his dances involved yet another suicide, this time involving a grown samurai, with a graphic disembowelling motion accross the gut which stayed in the mind as an overlay to the flowers, spinning parasols and fans of the lovely ladies of the mountains.

So that's:
Child suicides 3
Disembowellings 1
Ladies in lovely kimonos, 47


Saturday, 6 March 2010

The meaning of food

Tetsutaro and Tomoko Tamaki, orgainic rice growers from Chiba

Tetsutaro and Tomoko Tamaki are examples of how the way food is produced and sold in Japan  is being re-evaluated. Part of an environmentally and socially aware generation across the world, they are asking  questions about large scale agribusiness and  its impact on smaller food producers, and on the quality of food we eat. They are also interested in the relationship between food consumers and producers. For most of us, that means no relationship at all, but they would like to see that change.

They grow organic rice in Chiba prefecture, and sell only to people that know them personally and trust the quality of their food. Known as 'face to face' trading, consumers are able to know definitely how food is produced and who their money is going to. Food sold in this way is likely to cost more than supermarket food, but it is local, and the buyer knows that all their money is going to the producer with earth under their nails, rather than them receiving a laughably small percentage of a supermarket price.

"Why is food so cheap?" Tomoko asks. "It is too cheap for small farmers to make any money from. Small farmers in Japan really struggle to make a living, as the price of rice is too cheap. Imported rice, and rice that has been grown using lots of chemicals on big farms means that the people who traditionally farmed Japan are having a very hard time." While Japan still has many relatively small farms compared to other developed countries (for example England, where land ownership is concentrated into fewer hands), her view is that most of these smallholdings are just subsisting, growing vegetables and rice for their own use, as selling it is not a viable option for many.
This makes it all the harder for Japanese farmers to think about moving towards organic production, though Tetsutaro and Tomoko are hoping to gradually get this message across. "Small farmers are quite traditional, so you have to give them time to come around slowly."

"We need to think about paying more for our food. Of course it is nice to have cheap things, but there are hidden costs to other people." They did not grow up as farmers, but became interested in food and decided to be part of the move back to the land that some  people are attempting to make in Japan. "It can take time to be accepted, but to be honest we get on well with everyone - better sometimes than the older families do themselves! There are feuds going back generations, maybe hundreds of years, so long that the families have no idea what started it - just that their family is not supposed to talk to the other family! They all talk to us though."

They provide an alternative image for what it can mean to be a farmer. Growing high quality food for sale through their own distribution network, and mixing that with their lives as musicians and a dose of social awareness, they show that farming can be carried out in many different ways and can co-exist within a rich cultural framework. After we finished talking they packed up the hollow tree trunk and big wooden hammer used for beating omochi rice. Every year they bring some of their rice to Tokyo, so that people who have experienced homelessness can join in the fun of making and eating new year omochi, which is essential to any Japanese new year.

The laughing, shouting, grinning circle of  people had chanted in time with the swing of the mallet, loud in the confined space between two buildings. Far from where the rice was grown, but linked by the companionship of this ritual, we had all shared in part of the real meaning of food.