Venice of the East it isn’t, but there’s no shortage of water running through the Good Hood at this time of year. The wet season waits in the wings. From late May to late June rain falls in grey sheets, so monotonous it grates. Gimme lightning! gimme thunder! a violent downpour with a rainbow even! But not the droll drum of grey drizzle on my roof tiles. Buson, the haiku poet, put a positive spin on the rainy season over 200 years ago:
A flash of lightning!
The sound of drops
Falling among the bamboos
Between deluges the elderly folk charge into their vegetable patches and flower gardens to beat back the rampaging weeds and rescue their strawberries and tomatoes; they pitch uri melons straighter than rookies on the Himeji Kogyo Highschool baseball team.
But this isn’t about flying fruit, it’s about the Semba River, the one constant cooling element of the Good Hood. While our elderly residents depart steadily for loftier realms, the river never gives up the ghost. Its ebb and flow reflects the seasons: shallow and frigid in winter, lively and sparkling in spring, tea-green and lazy in summer, muddy and swollen after the typhoons of autumn.
Says my neighbour Fujimori-san: “We used to swim in the Semba after school.” But that was 60 years ago and back then the surrounding land, she says, was a patchwork of rice and vegetable fields and the water ran swift and full with medaka (Japanese killifish), unobstructed by urban planners.
Some people use it as a dump these days, people who think the current will carry off their shit for good. Interesting shit, mind you: porno comics, adult dvds, umbrellas, PlayStation1s, jogging shoes (never a pair), empty sake cartons and the occasional bicycle. At its lower reaches, where the river feeds the moats of Himeji castle, there’s an almost decorative effect in the way the snagged fishing lures dangle from the trees overhanging the water.
A walking path follows the Semba River from the Good Hood, all the way into downtown Himeji city. Familiar faces line this route; there’s the laughing grandmother who lives across from the bakery and feeds sardines to the grey heron with arthritis. And Smokin Joe, the old kitchen gardener who watches the river and puffs thoughtfully, growling his “ohayo” or a “konnichiwa” depending on the time of day. And many more characters, too, which this post doesn’t have time for.
You’d be surprised how much wildlife inhabits a small Japanese neighborhood river. In the Semba live turtles, carp, frogs, snakes, ducks, grey and white herons, and bats which gorge on insects by twilight. Several weeks ago my jichi-kai, the neighborhood association, demanded all able hands on deck to clean up the river. Thanks to their dejunking efforts, cleaner waters are bringing back the fireflies. Says my old friend Ono-san, “fireflies determine a river’s clarity—the more the better!”
Yep, the firefly viewing season is here. But more on that next week.
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!