Met my old friend Ono-san in the local yorozuya (‘shop of ten thousand things’) the other day. We had both stepped in from a downpour without seeing each other and met over the tofu tub.
“Wet season’s here,” she said, fishing out a brick of bean curd. “Good for the hydrangeas.”
“Good for the slugs," I said.
"You got problems?"
"My bathroom’s a mold palace, the rice paper doors have more ripples than a Seto low tide and my tatami mats are so fat, the slugs think they’re water beds.”
“You’ve got a way with words.”
“If I could sell some I wouldn’t eat tofu everyday.”
The ancient cashier flick-flacked her abacus beads, devised a sum — how the hell does she do that? Out in the street, rain drops big enough to fill a sake cup smashed on the bald heads of old men too slow or forgetful to have brought an umbrella.
Wet season, or tsuyu, has arrived. From now until early July it will wrap the Good Hood in a hot, damp fug; some days a steamy downpour, sometimes days a long, warm drizzle whose moisture and dimness will conspire to turn my old townhouse into a Welcome Inn for terrestrial gastropods.
Some light reading in preparation for this onslaught: “Like most gastropods, a slug moves by rhythmic waves of muscular contraction on the underside of its foot. It simultaneously secretes a layer of mucus that it travels on, which helps prevent damage to the foot tissues.” (Denny, M. W.; Gosline, J. M. (1980). "The physical properties of the pedal mucus of the terrestrial slug, Ariolimax columbianus"). At first, I thought these were instructions on how to Moonwalk. Then I remembered — zoologists don’t dance.
Ono-san’s hydrangeas will burst into giant volleyballs of pastel hues and nod their big dripping heads. Neighbours will admire them. My slugs will loll about growing wise and fat on mold and tasty titbits dropped by my kids.
Can’t blame the kids so I blame the gods: the collision of two giant weather systems — warm, moist air pushing up from the Philippines smashing into the last of the cold northerlies drifting down from Siberia — gives us what the Japan Meteorological Agency calls with professional dourness: a “relatively stable bad weather front over Japan which lasts several weeks.”
Tsuyu sounds nicer. It means “plum rain,” with no hint of slime, and though I have no idea why the fruity innuendo, I guess it has something to do with the size of the raindrops. In the dead of night a cloudburst can sound like ten million pickled plums being machine-gunned onto the roofs of the Good Hood. On nights of such drama, I curl up beneath my bed sheet, happy to know that between me and nature’s wrath lie roof tiles made by men who knew how to make a roof tile.
Alas, 100-year-old houses don’t chill well. They were built to ‘breathe’ with clay-mud walls and paper doors that absorbed, filtered and circulated air, light and moisture. Modern household clutter nullifies this effect; it turns a large, breezy house into an Amazon riverboat full of empty wine bottles with a cabin fever that turns sane men into serial killers.
Yet the people of the Good Hood, and of greater Himeji city, endure. They have done for centuries. They sling bamboo shades from their windows, hang wind chimes from their eaves, flap uchiwa and sensu hand fans against their streaming faces and flock to the rooftop beer gardens downtown, hopeful for a salty breeze off the Seto Inland Sea.
“There are people who complain about the wet season,” says Ono-san. “But look at the positives. The city is cleansed, the cedar pollen and Gobi sand flushed away. AND it’s good for the..."
“Hydrangeas,” I said.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman so adept at turning black into white.
Days later we were inundated. The Good Hood turned riverine in minutes. My courtyard flooded, the runoff by-passed the roof guttering and overflowed the storm water drains. The Semba River became a superhighway for lost volleyballs, Coke bottles, milk cartons, baseballs and beer cans, all of them racing towards the Seto Inland Sea. Snakes, frogs and turtle evacuated the river en masse and the great herons and crows feasted on them. One crow whip-snapped a paddy snake three times its length, the turtles fared better.
I took the train west to Ako the next day. The rain had flooded the rice paddies making the land look like one huge broken mirror, reflecting the blue sky and towering white thunderheads. Farm hamlets clutch the fringes of these mirror fields, nestled beneath green mountains as lumpy as a crocodile's back. Green. Lumpy.
I reminded myself to stop by the yorozuya and pick up a sack of salt for my new house guests.
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!