Friday, 22 October 2010

Saved by noodles

Unidentified wild mushrooms, rarely seen in the shops and gathered on the mountains by old hands whose knowledge I trust (almost) completely, glistened under red grains of schimi on a hot bed of udon noodles. No ordinary bowl of noodles this, it sat on the trestle table on the playground of a disused school which had lasted from the 1870's to the 1970's. All around were stalls and the ear-splitting distortion of an antiquated public address system not designed to take loud music. I ate with one finger in my bad ear. We were all here to help get the village back on the map and back on it's feet, and what better in a food-obsessed nation than a noodle festival to draw in the salivating punters?

A landslide in the spring downpours smashed down on a snow shed and made the main valley road south of Tamonashi unsafe to use. Rather more important than the inconvenience this caused to cyclist like myself, it severed the whole village from much of the tourist traffic that brings income to those who run accommodation, shops, and restaurants. Commuters had an extra hour of mountain roads to negotiate twice a day. Seven months of risky engineering work later, the road is open again, and the noodle festival was in full swing, run by volunteers from all over the area, and with lots of familiar faces behind the stalls.

Other dishes of a less culinary nature included the team of dancers having a lot of fun in their Kung Fu - looking costumes, leaping about on the gravel to blaring backing tracks, which must have echoed up the mountainsides to confused squirrels and bears disturbed in their mid-day snoozes up trees.

Upstairs in the old school, three rooms are a haunting home-made museum, each thing with its own hand written luggage label tied on with string. Many are still in use today, Aizu being itself a kind of living museum, but others a mystery. The walls carried fading photographs of the people for whom these objects were simply useful. The dusty clothes, patched and worn, sometimes, like the ankle length jacket, made from old futons and kimonos, were rawly personal, imprinted with the wearer's shape.

Uncomfortable information. A hand made aid for teaching anatomy

In the late afternoon musicians began to play to a scattering of people in the school gym.  I wondered where the young people were, as this gig was clearly aimed at them. Were they at home playing with their DS's, or in the shopping centres in Wakamatsu? When they dream of life in the cities isn't it just this kind of thing that they dream of going to? And yet when they have it here, they don't come.

Armed to a man or woman with acoustic guitars and the occasional harmonica, the performers were skilled singer-song writers in the efficient but somewhat off-the-peg mould that often afflicts many genres of Japanese popular music. If they were less skilled might it be better? Then they would have to invent their own ham-fisted and strange way of doing things and whatever is in them could come straight out.

The first two boys were winsome, poppy and sweet, the second a little more there, but the last performer was really good of her kind, though in all cases it was probably best not to understand the lyrics, like opera.

She played beautifully constructed slow acoustic songs with well judged and varied dynamics, her voice haunting and moving, creating that stillness and focus in the room that tells you the audience are no longer in it, but have floated out somewhere to meet the music. She deserved the young people to be here.

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