‘The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.’
~ Humphrey Bogart
The problem with Friday nights in the Good Hood is that everyone is a few drinks ahead. Which is not to say I’m a slow drinker—I’ll raise my glass to your health as fast as the next drunk—it’s just that by the time I've finished work, helped with the chores and read "Harry the Dirty Dog" or "Where The Wild Bums Are" to the little people of my household, Hana-kin is almost gone.
Hana-kin means ‘Flower Friday.’ Seasoned drinkers who survived the dancefloors and big hair of Japan’s 80s Bubble era still use the term to describe the day when a week’s worth of paper shuffling, screen-staring, drifting through meetings and endless trips to the green tea dispenser come to an end, and night and city beckon.
To Japanese youth, the term Hana-kin is archaic—like grandad’s shoestring neckties or Tahitian Lime hair tonic—and likely conjures up images of drunken businessmen singing karaoke with neck-tie bandanas while their junior female colleagues pour drinks and mop up the vomit of those who have passed out. It is true—I have borne witness. And yes, the youngbloods are right: Hana-kin does need an image upgrade.
The gap between old and young doesn’t bother me; I feel equally at ease in the raucous dive bars on Himeji's Salt Town (塩町) Street and the faux wine bars of Fish Town (魚町) Street. But in the end, there’s no place like home, and my home for the past twenty years has been the Good Hood north of Himeji Castle, an old neighborhood which survived the WWII fire bombings and still brims with community spirit. I like to drink with ‘my people.’ That’s why on Friday nights, whenever I can, I make for a place where the salt-of-the-earth gathers like a crust on the counter.
To the Poodle Bar!
The Poodle sits at the confluence of a busy street and the deathly quiet one which leads into my neighborhood. Before the roller door goes up around 6p.m., the counter has been wiped, ashtrays set at half-metre intervals, toilet scrubbed and the karaoke volume adjusted downwards from the previous night. Around 7p.m., the first customers drift in, the early birds, the oldtimers, pensioners, widowers, maybe a retired mobster or two. Later, their seats will be taken by factory workers, truck drivers, lonely single men and the odd housewife on-the-run.
Come on in, take a seat and start your night with the words, ‘Tori-aizu, biru!’ (A coldie for starters!). There’s nothing like a glass of brown bubbles to slacken the jaw and loosen tongue. But tonight, as on most Fridays, the seasoned drinkers are ahead. For the pensioner, the two grease monkeys with calloused knuckles, the huddle of smoking housewives and the jokester singing ‘Top of the World’, that first beer is a distant memory.
Bottles of Black Mist Island Shōchū (焼酎) line the counter, the ‘bottle keeps’ of these regular patrons, each bearing the name of the man or woman in front of it. This is serious drinking, Mum; the kind that makes an Irish funeral wake look like a child’s tea party.
Tonight promises to be a king tide at the Poodle Bar. Tonight all boats will be lifted, some may lose their rudders, others will flounder and sink, and the lucky ones will limp home to port and a dry dock for the rest of the weekend. The unlucky with be bundled into a taxi and driven to an address of their best pronunciation.
The Poodle Mama oversees this night-time circus with the ease of a woman who sees it every Friday night. She is a woman in her late 50s who looks like what Raymond Chandler might have called a ‘drawn-out dame.’ Her makeup is thick, I cannot tell if she is smiling or grimacing as she moves between patrons, pouring beers, working swizzle sticks, encouraging the money flow across the counter. Will she sing a song? Will she? The pensioner pleads. His cajoling ends in a sad (very sad) ballad about love lost in snowy Hokkaido.
The Poodle Mama is clapped off vigorously by the young mechanics at the end of the bar and a greasy microphone is thrust into my hand—with a song pre-selected. And so once again, the deathly quiet street which leads to my home resounds with the words, ‘On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air…’
Admittedly, closing time at Poodle is an hour I seldom see; the messiness, mayhem and mumbling missing persons reach me only as sounds lost in the night, when I am safely tucked up in my futon and dreaming of water skiing bikini girls and a warm tide lapping at my toes.
Which reminds me...
If I ever open a bar here, I will call it the High Tide Bar and I will raise a neon sign over the counter which will read in atomic orange kanji, ‘If you drink to forget, please pay in advance.'
So comfortable has life in an old Japanese neighborhood become that after twenty years it is now the single greatest threat to my sense of adventure.
Truth be told, the Good Hood will ruin a man; make him give up shopping to exist on gifts of onions, egg plants and sweet potato from the local gardeners, weaken his resolve to spend money on a meal downtown because the delicious aromas of close-quarters cooking remind him that dining local is where soul food really is. Or make him just stay in, because the sound of the neighbors’ TV game shows, screaming tots and husband-vs-wife arguments gives him that cozy, safe feeling of humanity pressing in on all sides.
No need even to wander far for entertainment in the Good Hood. At the Poodle Bar, three alleys up, you can drink for one coin and sing "Take It Easy" for a sitting ovation.
And yet I feel the slow creep of the uchi-muki phenomenon, the ‘inward-looking’ mindset, which the media says is sucking Japanese youth of their adventurous spirit.
So I did something about it. I found a clean collar, some sensible shoes, packed some copies of my self-published book, and bought a ticket to the Capital—the Big Soosh—city of insomniacs, home of the neon tan and the suited, chain-smoking millions who sing “Under Pressure” on Mondays and scream “Let me out!” on Fridays.
All trains lead to the Capital. In the olden days, feudal lords from across the archipelago left their fiefs to make the mandatory pilgrimage to meet with the Shogun in Edo (Tokyo) each year. From Himeji, it would have been a three-day butt-buster in an express palanquin. Now you can do it in three hours aboard a N700-series Nozomi express with salted peanuts and a six pack of Kirin road soda.
Granted, the heaving concourses of Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station are just as fast. An old canoeing mate of mine once said: “Always paddle faster than the current, dude”. Scott, if you are reading this, nothing paddles faster than the current in Shinagawa Station because the current is electrified, the drum of footsteps louder than any downpour on the Glenelg River and the smell of humanity, well, let’s just say it’s better than yours after a week on the river. But I digress...
Exit 27C is where I came up for air. Fortunately, I wasn’t in Shingawa anymore. I was in Shinjuku, and like a feudal lord (hauling his own baggage) I headed straight for the palace door. Kinokuniya Shinjuku is the royalty of bookstores in Japan; eleven floors of literature, a million books in the offing, and I was cold-calling on the most powerful person an indie writer could request an audience with—the Merchandising Manager.
Back in the Good Hood, door-to-door salespersons are as common as cat fights on garbage night; you can get anything from rice cakes to roast sweet potatoes, term deposits to the teachings of Jehovah, so I didn’t think twice about fronting up to the counter unannounced. But the Merchandising Manager was amazed. ‘You came all the way to Tokyo to deliver a sample of your book personally?’ he said incredulously. ‘Like a lord,’ I replied (though I think my quip went unappreciated).
A self-published author has approximately sixty seconds to deliver his spiel; there’s no time for nervous sweats or tongue-tied sales pitches, the Manager is a busy person. He watched, he listened, he felt the texture of the book’s pages, ran his pianist’s fingers down the spine, the barcode, the ISBN...then he spoke: ‘Look around you, almost all of our stock comes through a few American and British distributors. It simplifies out paperwork…’
I looked around at the big fish—the literary prize winners, represented authors—which swam gracefully by to the cash registers. Yes, I was a minnow in a salmon race. A minnow on a mission. With naught to lose and everything to gain. So I offered free shipping. The Manager listened. I offered to pay for return delivery of unsold books. The Manager smiled.
For the rest of that afternoon, I felt like a cork on a storm water drain; a cork with a paddle, and I did paddle faster than the current, through the neon canyons of Shinjuku to Shibuya and on to Ginza where the buying managers of other big bookstores greeted me and listened and took my samples with smiling faces and nods of appreciation. The experience became the adventure; the near empty suitcase, my sense of achievement.
And with achievement, comes rewards.
Under the Yamanote Line train track that night, I met with an old friend. We entered a tunnel and bowled out the other side into an alleyway filled with bobbing red lanterns and smoking braziers where salesfolk just like myself sat happily wedged into impossibly narrow eateries, laughing and drinking, and beckoning us to join them. And so the night passed, in drunken bonhomie with Tokyo’s hardest working, far from the Good Hood and its Poodle Bar, its husband-and wife warfare and cat fights on garbage night, until that feeling of all-good-things-must-end was suddenly thrust into my hand—the bill.
Now, I’ve always believed that a person’s story is their currency in this life, so to the manager with the grubby bandanna and sweat-stained chef’s jacket, I proposed a deal: food for fiction—the very last copy of my book, Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere in exchange for the wings and the beer.
He didn’t buy it.
Last night I had a dream I was trapped inside a castle besieged by peasants. They were carrying pitchforks and chanting, ‘Down with the King, down with the King!’. Since I live in a house with a kitchen sink view of a 500-year-old samurai castle, this was a completely plausible dream scenario. Only it wasn’t a dream. A rowdy mob really was below my window and it was chanting, ‘River clean! River clean!’ (Kawa-soji! Kawa-soji!).
Across Japan whole communities are picking up their buckets, rakes, scythes, barrows and pitchforks, to clear their neighborhood rivers of debris and weed before the first rains of the wet season arrive in late June.
With so much clamoring there was nothing for it but to leap from my futon, slip on my best threadbare rags, and join the march towards our mighty Semba River, the waterway which wends through the Good Hood, past the samurai castle, the bars, clubs and love hotels of FishTown before sidling under the bullet train tracks and emptying into the Seto Inland Sea.
Under the direction of the Jichi-kai-cho (Hood boss) I took up my position at the floodgates. This is where the most interesting debris accumulates; not the usual flotsam like beer cans, baseballs, slippers and soccer balls—that’s for the downriver people. I mean the heavy junk. Junk with stories, like adult movie collections (owner got a girlfriend), air guns (owner’s girlfriend threw it out), electric fans (owner’s girlfriend demanded air-con) and bicycles (owner bought a motor-scooter to escape girlfriend). Regardless of who put it there, and in what state of sanity, sobriety or slovenliness they might have been at the time, all this stuff must be fished out before the wet season deluge arrives.
River north, river south, all along the Semba’s banks, folk from our neighboring neighborhoods were hard at work, scything, dredging, shovelling, hauling weed and whatnot to big stinking riverside heaps. Wheelbarrows formed queues, manned by elderly women with big forearms and sensible shoes; a man sauntered by with a cigarette hanging off his lip, a pink bucket filled with brown muck in his hand and a twinkle in his eye that said 8am is never too early for a beer. He emptied his bucket and disappeared, leaving the two teetotallers to tend the muck heap.
It’s not only the river that needs cleaning—the sluiceways also. These narrow drains which connect the rice paddies are important because they funnel away overflow after typhoons. They also provide easy escape routes for the garbage corner tomcats, ferrets and other pets-on-the-run, and in summer, hours of entertainment for kids who catch medaka (tiny fish) for their home aquariums and ‘science experiments’..
This year my job was to lean precariously over the deepest part of the river, where the rapid churns in a vertical motion, and use a garden rake to dislodge all the heavy crap that gets stuck. There were no airguns or adult movie collections this year, just a mountain of pongy-smelling weed which soaked me through and left me scented like river itself.
Which is not to say that the our Semba is dirty. In fact, a sign of a healthy river is the presence of fireflies and this year there were many. Nights in the Good Hood were filled with the shouts and squeals of kids chasing them along the river bank from late May to mid-June. Which meant that there was a certain sadness in the river cleaning, because when you cut away the grass, you’re kicking out the fireflies. Smokin Joe Matsumoto, the old kitchen gardener who lives up my street, chimed in with his two yen on the matter. He said, ‘There used to be so many fireflies here, that when we swatted them with our hand fans it was like a shower of sparks.’ I wasn’t sure if this comment was meant to cheer me up or not.
Nevertheless, the technical high school on the other side of the river has developed a Healthy River program which encourages students to breed fireflies in the school’s artesian well water system. Then, at the end of May, they are released at a nighttime open-invitation event for all the surrounding neighborhoods to enjoy.
Unplugged, the Semba now runs freely. Like everything in the Good Hood, it doesn’t get done without teamwork. And though, at times, it sometimes seems futile (the river weed and junk will be back with the summer), community spirit is always stronger for it. We all now await, eyes skyward, the rainy season.
A long time ago (250 years thereabouts), a powerful dude named Sakakibara Masamune decreed that the people of his castle town slip into something more comfortable and shimmy downtown for a good time. “Do what?” his attendants asked. “Throw a party, you monkeys! I’m outta here!”
Indeed he was, off to rule another fiefdom, but not before starting a tradition that would fill the fine streets of Himeji with colourful summer kimono (ゆかた, yukata), octopus dumplings and (a little later) skyrockets and riot police for three days a year, every year thereafter.
More than just a celebration of the highly functional yukata, it’s a fashion show. Women’s yukata colours are brighter, patterns livelier, and shock! horror! hems are rising. The elderly women of the Good Hood shake their heads and click their tongues at these parading young things in mini yukata; the young fellas just nod their heads and knock themselves out with their tongues.
The Yukata Festival, held June 22-24 every year, also celebrates the rainy season. That’s right, it is the WETTEST time of the year (news just in: no rain forecast for June 22-24th) which doesn’t stop several hundred thousand people from choking the streets and alleys south of Himeji castle with coin to spend on cold beer, toys and tasty treats. There were once more than 800 stalls, erected and manned by a small army of itinerant carnivaleers called tekiya. The big hand of City Hall has nearly halved this number in recent years, in order to manage the heavy crowds. The effect, as always, has been like squeezing a tube of toothpaste - same crowds, smaller space.
Word on the street is that the tekiya are in cohorts with the local yakuza; others say that’s an unfair image and that the stall holders are just abiding by a ‘system’ which takes a nice slice of their earnings and hands it to the mob. Let’s call it a ‘licensing fee’. The City seems OK with this as it ‘stimulates’ the local economy and frees up their rubber stamps for more pressing matters. Times have changed since I tagged along with some English teachers to my first Yukata Festival 20 years ago. Then, youth gangs flocked from all over the province to wage theatrical (and sometimes violent) running pitched battles with their rivals on the city streets. Hard to believe in peace-loving Japan? Well listen to this: watching riot police get pelted with skyrockets, drag troublemakers off to paddy wagons by their orange hair, and see the odd motor scooter get barbecued, reminded me of the Costa Rican fruit vendor riots of ‘91 (Yes, I was in Costa Rica in 1991). Cheap entertainment for the masses, poor public relations for the police, not exactly a festive family affair.
That’s all gone. The police have changed their tune. They now use subterfuge and infiltration tactics, clever stuff like putting dozens of plain clothes officers into the crowds to catch troublemakers on digital camera or video. Maybe this has worked, or maybe the young punks have just gotten older, gotten married and gotten a job, because the Yukata Matsuri IS now a family affair.
‘Smokin Joe’ Matsumoto, the old kitchen gardener who lives on my street in the Good Hood, will be taking his grandchildren again this year. Those long sleeves of his faded yukata will be sure to hold a pack of cigarettes, a lighter and some coins for cotton candy. My old friend Ono-san won’t be going; she thinks it’s too crowded, too noisy, the food tasteless and too expensive. “I’m saving my yukata for the fireworks festivals,” she says.
If YOU go, be sure to drop by the Ghost House at the edge of Otemae park; it has been a going concern for years, adept at taking your money and scaring the beejeezuss out of you with the screams of other teenage patrons. They say a good ghosting chills you out during a long, hot Japanese summer. Personally I’d prefer a cold beer...
Sometimes good things can be found in the most unlikely places. For the best shave in my city, I go to the hospital. The Himeji Junkanki Centre Hospital, to be exact. This mysterious facility hides in the hills south of the train tracks and is only known to people with heart conditions, poor blood circulation or a poor sense of direction.
Down a hallway, in a warren of hallways, past its blood drawing room, stomach camera room, X-Ray closet, a cafe of philosophical waitresses and a kiosk which sells everything for double-and-a-half, at the very end, stands a small barber shop. The sign over the door should say ‘Style with a smile’ or ‘Life is short, but our buzzcut is shorter’. Instead it just says “Barber”.
On a busy day the wheelchairs are backed up around the corner. Waiting time is short, however, on account of the mostly elderly patrons who don’t have much hair to speak of. It's not the cut they come for anyway; it’s the ‘old school’ shave. I haven’t been around long enough to know what ‘old school’ means, but to recline in a classic Takara-Belmont barber chair with the tang of Tahitian Lime hair tonic in your nostrils and feel the liquid smoothness of an Iwasaki straight razor rolling across your chin and cheeks, is to savor one of the great intimate pleasures of Japan.
A shave at the Junkanki Centre Hospital Barbershop is also my chance to step out of a lightspeed lifestyle for fifteen minutes, to drift off into a hot-lathered land where the hustle of a hospital sounds like a far-off cocktail party through which white-uniformed stewardesses push trolleys of clinking martinis and...be brought back to earth by the jolt and jerk of the chair, a brisk shampoo and a scalp rub which leaves me wondering where I am, what time it is and...
There are two staff; an elderly man with a voice that sounds like a food processor full of thumb tacks and a middle-aged woman with a voice that doesn't. They share the glass shelves of scalp tonic, tubs of baby powder and hair wax, double-edged razors, clippers, a steam oven filled with hot towels, and a transistor which radio plays Okinawan ballads in the morning and baseball in the afternoon.
For some reason it’s the woman who always cuts my hair and shaves me. She tells me she has two young sons and two jobs. I know she works hard and her shoulder massages make me remember it. I’ve often wondered if her second job is dough rolling in a noodle joint, or maybe she has a black belt in shiatsu? I will ask her next time. We talk about our kids mostly, our neighborhoods, the seasonal festivals and the different viruses currently circulating at the kids’ schools. She knows my local liquor store owner (he’s also her customer) which means our seiken (world) really is semai (small), which is really the essence of Japanese community spirit. It’s this reassurance and safety 'by association' that gets you through doors and gets you good service, which of course is a two-way street. I always tip ten percent.
Almost all the old neighborhoods in Himeji have a barbershop. They are considered an ‘essential local service’, and seemed to have outlasted the rice millers, tatami mat weavers, coffee shop owners, butchers and fishmongers. The barber shop also remains a kind of ‘bush telegraph’ where (mostly) men go to chew the fat and shoot the breeze, and some not to get a haircut at all.
On my street in the Good Hood stands the Funabiki Barber Shop with its red and blue spiralling pole and cheerful snip-snipping sounds emanating from the tiled floor inside. It’s run by a family of barbers who rise with the sun and are still hard at it after dark. In Autumn, their kids practice taiko drumming with mine, and send them to me with bag fulls of fresh wakame seaweed and strings of onions. Once, I went for a haircut with a hangover. I fell asleep in the chair and awoke with a shaven forehead, ears and nostrils smooth, and a coiffure like a professional Japanese baseball player.
There is only one other place I have ventured into in Himeji. It’s called Royal, and I won’t be going back. Royal is what’s known as the ‘shearing sheds’ in the Australian vernacular. It’s Sweeney Todd without the head-rolling and meat pies. A long line of chairs face a continuous mirror and manning these are men who might have once been pet groomers, tree doctors or failed ramen chefs. Golf is a popular sport in Japan, although to play eighteen holes can be cost prohibitive. But if you really want eighteen holes, it will only cost ten bucks at Royal.
The Haru-Ichiban (春一番, First Wind of Spring) is afoot. It’s at this time of year, when my nose runs like snowmelt and my eyes itch with hay fever, that my finger hovers over the 'book now' button for a low-cost carrier going anywhere between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, any place where cedar pollen and Gobi sand, which the last of the Siberian northerlies bring to western Honshu, have no local translation.
Problem, as always, is funds. You can’t get on the big silver bird without a big silver coin. So, there will be no Bintang in Bali, Sling in Singapore or Singha in Siam, to celebrate winter’s end this year, boo-hoo.
About a month ago, however, something fortuitous happened. I discovered a large greenhouse beside the mountain where I work. It is used by the Faculty of Pharmacological Science to grow medicinal plants for research and is tended by a retinue of elderly men in powder blue overalls who water and weed and keep the insects in check.
The good thing about March is that there are no university classes; the researchers are all off in Borneo or Guatemala, or wherever it is that they go to study medicinal plants, give medicinal presentations and try local 'medicine' (for medicinal purposes only), which leaves myself and the powder-blue people to enjoy this pollen-free paradise in peace.
When I first stepped inside the greenhouse, it was mid January. Outside was a big fat zero; inside, the lush 25 degrees had me loosening my collar and humming “April Sun in Cuba” while I settled down to read my lunchtime paperback. It was Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, a winding yarn about a guy (himself) who skives off during working hours to go gamble on horses, drink, chase women and write bestsellers.
Now, the powder blue people disappear around lunchtime, so after a few weeks I started to feel a little lonely sitting in this jungle all by myself. To remedy the problem I sent out an invitation to my long-time friend, the old kitchen gardener who lives up my street, Smokin Joe Matsumoto, asking him to join me.
I thought he might enjoy sitting around and telling yarns about ‘old Japan’ beneath the Piper longum (peppercorn) bush, Tamarindus indica (tamarind) tree, Cymbopogon (lemongrass), Zingiber officinale (ginger), jasmine and orchids, but I’m yet to hear back from him.
I’d like to show him the Rauvolfia serpentina (Indian snakeroot) which, I've since found out, contains 200 known alkaloids and is used as a traditional antivenin to treat snake bites in India. A little more reading and I discovered that Alexander the Great used it to cure Ptolemy of a poisoned arrow injury; Mahatma Gandhi also took it as a sedative (for stress? yeah, right). Snakeroot contains reserpine, an antipsychotic, antihypertensive alkaloid, which was once used by Western medicine to treat high blood pressure and schizophrenia. It is still one of the 50 most used plants in Chinese medicine.
I will knock on Smokin Joe’s door again. He has a bear-like tendency to venture out in late March when the fragrance of the plum and cherry blossoms carries on the Haru-Ichiban.
On second thoughts, I fear our little ‘green-ins’ will attract attention. If other administration staff find out they can take their coffee breaks in the tropics, it might get a little too hot in there. I must be careful.
The other day I finished the Charles Bukowski book and searched my shelves for the next thing to take to the greenhouse; I passed over Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (too dark), Spencer Chapman’s WWII soldiering-in-Malaya memoir The Jungle Is Neutral (too long), and Peter Matthiessen’s missionaries-in-the-Amazon adventure At Play in the Fields of the Lord (too much drama). In the end, I picked out an old favourite, Eric Hansen’s Stranger in the Forest, about his journey on foot from one side of Borneo to the other.
So with coffee and book in hand, and whistling Guns ‘n Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle”, I returned to the greenhouse yesterday.
Only to find it locked.
The paradox of living in a traditional high-density Japanese neighborhood is that on some days it feels like there is no-one living here at all. Granted, summer has begun and the heat and humidity are oppressive, which means the narrow crooked streets of the Good Hood are quiet, save for the happy hum of Toshiba air-conditioners and the sound of a far-off water gun battle.
But when the sun sets, the neighborhood broadcasts a new symphony. I can’t say if this is the true nocturne of night-time across Japan because I’ve lived on the same street for 18 years but I suspect so, only probably louder in Osaka.
Let me describe the aural clock I live by: sunset brings the sound of bicycle bells and screaming brakes as workers pass through my neighborhood on their way home to the burbs; then comes the soft-shoe shuffle of my elderly neighbors carrying their garbage bags to the collection point outside my house. Later, the tom cats will tear these open and fight each other for the fish bones, hissing and screaming, and maybe leave a little surprise on my doorstep. Thankfully the singing drunks who come after will scare them away before those surprises pile up. These singing drunks are mostly businessmen, sometimes on ‘requisitioned’ bicycles, whose hard-earned cash is sometimes also ‘requisitioned’ by the ladies on Salt Town Street. But that’s another story.
Around midnight the security guard who lives to the north of me arrives home. I know exactly when he arrives because his dog, “Pudding”, announces it. On summer nights when the air is still and hot, I lie awake on my futon and listen to the off-duty security guard climb the wooden staircase to his balcony where he proceeds to tear the tabs of a half-dozen cans of beer. I also hear the clickety-clicking of his empty cigarette lighter and the crackle of saltpeter as 4,000 chemicals burn between his fingers. On Sunday mornings he plays Harry Belafonte up loud, and now I ask you, how would you like to awaken to “The Banana Boat Song" ("Day-O”) or some other Caribbean drinking ditty at seven in the morning of your only day off?
But back to the clock. We are at midnight. This is when the junk mailman’s farting Suzuki rolls into town and the sound of him jockeying this pile of nuts and bolts through the alleyways, stuffing letter boxes full of ads for private detectives (the wives have heard of Salt Town Street), summer futons and cheap haircuts, deprives me of another ten minutes sleep. Yes, there are nights when I envy the hard-of-hearing, these old-timers who can drop their blinds at eight-thirty and rise with the sun to water their morning glories with eight hours of uninterrupted sleep in between.
Three months ago, new neighbors moved in. Like rust, they don’t sleep either. Rust doesn’t sleep because science says so. These people are very unscientific. They might even be from Tokyo - the city of a million and one insomniacs - but I give them the benefit of the doubt and say that it takes time to acclimatise to new surroundings.
So I will endure the teenage daughter who sings Japanese anime songs at one in the morning from her upstairs window, and the father who stays out late and returns to a berating from his wife whose late-night TV drama he’s interrupting, and finally the hot water shower system which sounds like a high-octane dragster splitting the dead of night wide open.
Thankfully my new neighbours don’t have a dog named Pudding. They have turtles, and like all turtles they started out small (at a ‘catch-em-yourself’ festival street stall). Now they have grown so big that the family last week told me they are going to build a concrete enclosure and sink a well in the backyard to give their pets fresh water for life. It costs ¥500 ($4.80) to play the festival turtles. It will cost my neighbors another ¥500,000 ($4,800) to house them. I like turtles. Turtles don’t complain about the heat, they keep regular hours, and they don’t sing or smoke. They just live long SILENT lives.
Saw my old friend Smokin Joe Matsumoto the other day after a winter’s hiatus. Like the old bear he is, the scent of a Japanese spring had teased him from his lair and back to his plot of earth beside our waterway, the Semba River. I’m guessing those endless tempura lunches and hot pot dinners all through the long cold months had expended his supply of homegrown vegetables and there was nothing for it but to go break the soil for a new planting.
For the record, Smokin Joe is not only a damn good cook, he is a man of indeterminable age and boundless wisdom, AND he has a right arm that could kill a watermelon thief with an eggplant at 50 paces. Like the grasshopper in the Aesop’s fable, he is also a prodigious and pragmatic food producer—a ‘celery man’ in a nation of ‘salarymen’—working for his garden, not a company, reaping the bounty for himself, not his boss.
Now spring has passed and the warmer temperatures mix with rain to unleash green fury on our neighborhood. Not so long ago I awoke to cherry blossoms outside my window; now it’s Day of the Triffids; creeper, weeds and bamboo swallow the old and derelict houses and will do so until distant relatives of their deceased (or institutionalised) owners can fight back with hand saws and weed cutters. This does not bother the tadpoles—there will always be broken flower pots and abandoned bathtubs filled with rainwater for swimming lessons. After, the paddy snakes will decide the quick and dead.
Early evening when the western sky is still bright enough to see by and the bats are skirting and diving over the Semba River is when the kitchen gardeners are most active. Up and down the river they muddle about in their small plots of land, tossing buckets attached to ropes into the current to top up their bathtub water tanks for the long, hot days ahead, then maybe puff thoughtfully on a cigarette, like my mate Smokin Joe, or put a sly beer down the hatch before bundling their bounty onto a bicycle and peddling home to more beer and baseball on TV. These constant gardeners are the last hold-outs in the war against the Machines, the construction companies and their excavators, and the real estate agents so keen to turn productive earth into pavement-for-profit—parking lots, that is.
Last year Smokin Joe was robbed by watermelon thieves. They came in the night and rolled off his best. Another day he noticed soil missing and filed a report with police. The cops call in occasionally to say they’re “still working on it” and together Smokin and I try to imagine the headlines when they solve this big one: “Soil Gang Foiled” or “Cops Hit Pay Dirt” or “Quiet Earth Found.”
When the harvesting begins, the bounty reaches everyone. My neighbours, the affable Funabiki barbers, brought me a string of giant onions yesterday and last week a bag of eggplant and capsicums was left swinging from my door by an anonymous friend. Sometimes the old woman who feeds the grey heron on the Semba also feeds me—with a great dirty daikon from her veggie patch.
Smokin Joe, by his very nature, is a generous man, proffering bags and baskets of vegetables as the seasons progress: strawberries in May, capsicum and broad beans in June, sweet peas and cherry tomatoes in July, corn in August and the culinary calendar rolls on until December arrives and Smokin goes into hibernation with a crate of sake and enough cooking oil to see him through the winter. In the meantime I look forward to June. June means cucumber: cucumber for breakfast, cucumber for lunch, cucumber for dinner. There’s nothing like a chilled cucumber with salted kelp served with a bottle of Kirin lager at the end of a hot June day.
Smokin Joe would agree.
Rain shrouded the city yesterday. You could almost hear the creaking sounds overhead as the cool Siberian air flow played tug-o-war with the warm southerlies rising from the Philippines. Today the Good Hood is warm and heavy with the smell of spring: the fragrance of sakura and daphne, the odors of a fast moving river, wet bamboo and grilling sawara (鰆), a kind of mackerel which spawns in the nearby Seto Inland Sea during spring.
But last weekend a more ominous smell muscled in on my neighborhood; the kind that strikes fear into the hearts of residents of all traditional wood homes across Japan, the bitter tang of charred wood and scorched earth.
It happened on a sunny Saturday afternoon as I was driving home, ironically, from the DIY centre after buying three new smoke detectors for my house. Flashing lights of eight fire trucks, a swag of police cars and cops on every corner met me at the entrance to my street. Access was blocked by fire hoses and Himeji’s finest waved me on with a ‘nothing to see here folks’ gesture. But there was something to see--my bleedin house!
Over the rooftops, in the approximate location of where I drink beer and watch TV every night, dark plumes of smoke were rising. I checked my phone: my landlady had called three times. My pulse leapt from the starting blocks. Crowds of gawkers stood on the street corners, most of them familiar, so when I lowered my window to ask, “Whose? Whose? Whose izzit for Chrisssake!” I got an answer which released a sigh of relief you could have heard all the way to the Okinawan islands.
I have yet to find out what caused old Mrs Nakao’s house to burn down. I talked to the neighborhood boss, whose own wood-and-tile house stands next door, but he didn’t know. Maybe she dropped a hot iron to catch a phone call, maybe she fell asleep to an afternoon Korean drama with a ciggie in her hand, maybe she was drinking Pimms and soda with The Doors turned up and Jim Morrison really got to her. Like the boss, I don’t know. But I did hear that the fire started in her annex and swept down the hallway so fast that she only had time to grab her cell phone. The fire officers wouldn’t let her return to snatch any mementos and the cops stationed a patrol car outside overnight to deter looters from doing the same. In olden days Japan when a house burned down, neighbors would visit to pay money and condolences called kaji-mimai (火事見舞), a tradition which continues in older neighborhoods including ours, where ¥10,000 is the going rate and no return ‘gift’ is required.
So thank Buddha for this April rain which hangs in grey veils over my city, gushes and gurgles through the cracked spouting of my 100 year-old house. The cold and waterless winter has passed, meaning there will be no more kerosene tankers working the morning streets with their ice-cream-van jingles, no more village fire trucks making the Sunday night rounds warning denizens to turn off their kerosene heaters and appliances before bedtime--and hopefully no more fires.
My old friend, Ono-san, told me her story over barely tea the other day. About a year ago she and her son dozed off beneath the kotatsu one evening while watching TV. Some time later she was woken by the ringing of a Buddhist gong in the next room. Ono-san went to investigate. When she entered the family altar room she was met with the smell of smoldering tatami. In front of the family’s Buddhist shrine the incense urn had tipped over and the incense had begun to burn the reed mats. She quickly snuffed it out and woke her son who promptly asked the million-dollar question--who rang the gong?
Like I said, thank Buddha.
Himeji was firebombed during World War II. Some say Himeji Castle was spared because it served as a navigation point for the American B29s heading east to hit the aircraft factories in Kobe, but they razed the south side of Himeji for good measure anyhow. Abe-san, an elderly student of mine, witnessed this ‘scorched earth’ policy first hand. As a seven year-old she fled to the mountains on the night her neighborhood was bombed and she recalls looking over her shoulder at the “beautiful fire sticks” cascading from the low flying planes before someone grabbed her arm and dragged her onwards to safety.
Thankfully the Good Hood--my home-away-from-Australia for 18 years now--was largely spared the wrath of the B29s. Older houses still bear the traditional talisman meant to ‘repel’ fire, like the kanji character for water (水) which is embossed on the clay tiles at either end of a roof’s apex, or the half-carp half-tiger figurine, called shachihoko (鯱鉾), which sits atop it. Upcountry, in the paddy lands where some old farmsteads still use indoor fireplaces, a wood carving of a fish might hang above the ash bed to ward off ‘evil’ sparks.
It is difficult not to think about old Mrs Nakao’s house lying there, a village block away, reduced to a pile of wet ash and soggy cinders. It is difficult not to think about it lying in my futon at night or getting dressed for work each morning or towelling off after a bath in the evenings. Because the one thing I forgot to do before leaving my house that fateful Saturday afternoon was to bring in the laundry and shut the windows. Now, when my students’ nostrils twitch and they glance at me strangely, I tell them I’m wearing the latest cologne for adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts--Eau de campfire by the House of Nakao.
A lot can change in the space of a few weeks. One day you live in a house on the sunny side of the street, the next, the Tower of Babel is rising over you.
Once again ‘nothing lasts forever’ explains it all. From dawn till dusk my 100-year-old townhouse is now masked in shadows. I want to tell my new neighbors that laundry doesn’t dry as well under moonlight. Or that my Vitamin D deficiency is giving me soft bones and muscle weakness.
My new neighbors? The daylight robbers, I have yet to meet them. They are a mystery; soft-shoed ghosts who deposit ‘sorry gifts’ in my entrance way - boxes of neatly wrapped rice crackers - perhaps because they are afraid, or ashamed to have stolen my sunshine, or just unsure of how to approach a ‘foreigner’ nextdoor. Enough rice crackers, already!
The Shinto gods are not on my side. When the newly cleared plot was sold, the owners held a ‘ground breaking’ ceremony, or jichinsai (地鎮祭). They wheeled in the spiritual artillery - a Shinto priest in full garb - to conduct the blessing. This I watched from behind my curtains, cracking my knuckles and grinding my teeth, as small piles of salt were placed at the four corners of the plot to ward off evil spirits. Could the big white man from D’under be an evil spirit? I surely drink spirits and my socks smell evil from time to time...I’ll ask next time we meet.
When construction began the stone masons were first to arrive. Up went the boundary wall in somewhat of a medieval gesture. Then came the foundation laying team, a two-man outfit in camo-print monpei (Japanese knickerbockers) who said nothing, just went about their concrete pouring and cigarette smoking until the builders took over. The builders are still here, arriving each morning at 7:30am to sit in their mini trucks and drink hot canned coffee and read comics until a few minutes before 8am when they assemble to get the day’s orders from the boss. Lip-reading, I imagine the conversation goes something like this: MINIONS: “What’s the plan, boss?” BOSS: “Build it to the sky.”
And so, as the winter days wear on and snow sometimes falls and the Siberian wind blows, the Tower of Babel rises. Rises to a symphony of staple guns, power grinders, band saws, hawking and harking and FM radio. A three-storied house beside a neighbor with just one sad story to tell. At night I lie in my futon and listen to the silence and wonder if the gods will punish the arrogance of the humans who think they can build a tower to the sky, steal the sun and rob a man of his view of a 500-year-old samurai castle.
I am trying to understand a paradox here: Japan’s population is falling but why are the number of new houses rising? Do all young home buyers want new Western-style houses with composite kitchen flooring, porthole windows and a shiny name plaque? What about maintaining traditional houses made of natural materials which ‘breathe’ in summer, diffuse sunlight in winter and smell of tatami reed and cypress wood? I think the answer is elementary, Watson: modernity equals ‘progress’ and old Japanese homes are just too dark, cold and old world.
I saw an interesting sight once, a building team huddled around a plan model of the house no bigger than a doll’s house, which they were about to build. And so it followed that these burly men who eat wood chips for breakfast and shave themselves with power grinders did just that: they built a doll’s house.
INTERLUDE: More ‘sorry’ gifts arrived yesterday. So, relative to the height of the Tower, the pile of rice crackers in the corner of my room grows.
Well, I could say life sucks. I could start drawing up a small business plan for a mushroom farm - I hear shiitake love dark, damp conditions - and I could get business cards with “artisanal shroom farmer” printed in both Japanese and English. Or, I could just saddle up Old Moe and join the tumbleweeds blowing south, hit the highway with a fistful of yen and a box of rice crackers.
If you meet a tall stranger on his nag, unshaven, in a poncho and chewing an old rice cracker, it won’t be Clint Eastwood.
What is the essence of a small neighborhood in Japan? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!