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.
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!