Flat as a teppanyaki grill this city of half a million might be, but in August it’s nigh as hot as one too. You know it’s hot when Fujimoto-san, the coolest cucumber AND the hardest working noodle chef on Otemae Street starts sweating into his dough. A little salt to taste? All good in this summer swelter, I say.
Horsepower beats pedal power in August. So, in a country where small is king, I will join the perambulating proletariat in compact, air-conned comfort. I call mine the “Little Red Rocket” (a Polo Volkswagen) on account of its candy apple red paint job, and “Little Red Heartbreak" on account of the money I have since paid for it in repairs.
Still, it's the bee's knees for negotiating the labyrinthine network of streets over which Himeji sprawls and if this city were indeed a human body, with Himeji Castle the beating heart, I would live at the end of one crooked capillary, a street not widened since the last rickshaw drag race in 1901.
There is no need for traffic lights here in the Good Hood - you simply cannot drive faster than a centegenarian doing a soft-shoe shuffle to the convenience store. And this is no place for goading six cylinders either - a Zen state of mind prevails, people motor about like they’re listening to the “Sounds of One Hand Clapping” or “Haiku Hits and Memories.”
Even in August when you’d expect tempers to rise with the mercury, they don’t. Drivers nod and bow to each other, slowing to allow pedestrians to cross where there are no crossings, giving way when there is no legal (or rational) need, and allowing fellow motorists to edge into long traffic streams ahead of them for no good reason other than goodwill.
Which is not to say that Himeji is driving Heaven. Hell, no! My facial muscles grip my skull each time I venture beyond the comfort zone of the Good Hood where I’ve lived for the past 18 years. An instructor at the Sanyo driving school where I took a refresher course years ago warned me. He said, “Himeji drivers are the second-worst in Japan.”
“And the worst?" I squeaked.
“Osaka,” he said, clicking his tongue and looking towards the east. “Fuhgeddaboudit.”
I concede, some drivers a little too Zen in the head here. Zen-drunk even, when empty mind is overtaken by absent mind. There are drivers who park on sidewalks, leave engines running outside 7-Eleven while they do their shopping, run red lights, juggle dogs and babies and cell phones, and on the sight of any orange traffic light, they put the pedal to the metal.
In Himeji, 10km/ph over the speed limit is deemed acceptable. You could go drive slower of course, but only the cops do that, which lends them an air of ominousness which I suspect they like. Civil servants with power exert it - even if driving a desk. I sat through a mandatory lecture at the Himeji Police Station, filled with the yawning and the young, grinding my teeth as the traffic wardens ran through the car accident statistics for the previous year. The atmosphere would have made an actuaries’ conference look like the last party on Earth.
And the people who really should be there? The yakuza? No. The bōsōzoku (暴走族, literally “running-out-of-control tribe") motorbike gangs? No. The geriatric red-light-runners? No. In my mind, the greatest threat to humanity on the streets of Himeji is the 'young momma', the woman who is five minutes late for her son’s piano lesson.
At her disposal is 2,500 ccs of hot-greased Japanese technical know-how, satellite-connected, TV-equipped, iced latte-filled and antsy-fumed. As a cyclist, I have been cut off at corners, edged into azaleas, brushed at signals and generally looked down upon from the captain’s chairs of these hot-greased family wagons all my life by these women.
But not today, no sir. I’m looking up. Looking up from the air-conditioned comfort of my Little Red Heartbreak with The Police on full volume, singing “De Do Do Do, De Dah Dah Dah is all I want to say to you!"
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!