“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 that 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 comes 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 images of drunken businessmen singing karaoke with neck-tie bandannas 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 Street and the faux wine bars of Fish Town Street. But in the end, there’s no place like home, and my home for the past 18 years has been the Good Hood north of Himeji Castle, an old neighborhood which survived the WWII firebombings and still breeds a sense of true Japanese community. 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 6pm, the counter has been wiped, ashtrays set at half-metre intervals, toilet scrubbed and the karaoke volume adjusted downwards from the previous night. Around 7pm, 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!” or “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) now 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.”
It wasn’t a warm wind that crawled through the Good Hood of Himeji city last night. It was an Arctic blast with a knife edge and it wailed like a crazed woman through the cracks of my old mud-walled and tiled-roof house. Hundred-year-old dust drifted from my ceiling while the paper doors rattled like old bones in their grooves. Outside the din was worse: empty beer cans somersaulted down the street, telephone lines whined and a drunk fell off his bicycle somewhere near the Funabiki Barber Shop around 2am, got back on it a half-hour later.
The Siberian northerlies I blame for my sleepless night ― the last chill breaths of the Wind God, Fujin, before spring well and truly sets in. That process has already begun; the warm air pushing in from the Philippines is beating winter back across the Japan Sea. It’s a tussle that always ends in tears over Honshu.
As predictable as the Japanese themselves, the weather last week was thus: rain, rain and more rain. It was bad news for Hanami party-goers who huddled beneath the cherry trees of the newly-restored Himeji Castle drinking good sake cheapened with rainwater. Trees shed their blossoms in pink blizzards and rivers and moats ran the colour of strawberry milk, a wash-out worthy of tears for those who had turned out with bento and booze to celebrate the beginning of all new things.
“The life of a cherry blossom is like the life of a samurai,” says Smokin’ Joe Matsumoto, the old kitchen gardener who tends a field beside the Semba River at the end of my street.
“How so?” I ask, hoisting my umbrella against the soft drizzle so he can light another cigarette.
“Short and beautiful,” he says.
“Like your neighbor Ms. Hayashi.”
He fixes me with his bloodshot gaze, searching my own.
“Don’t get any funny ideas. She’s got a boyfriend. He's yakuza.”
There’s a point, where if you stand just to the left of Smokin’s onion rows, you can glimpse the sweeping roofs of Himeji Castle’s main tower as they rise above the rooftops of the old city neighborhoods. I thought of the lovely Ms. Hayashi, her mobster man, the castle veiled in drizzle and the mud on my boots and murmured, “Pure misery.”
“This rain," I said.
“Harusame. Spring rain never lasts.”
True ― one kind of rain is merely replaced by another in Japan. The steady drizzle and lingering mists of harusame are preceded by natane-zuyu, or ‘rapeseed rain’, with its sudden downpours and droplets that can fill a sake cup within minutes. Gardens of the Good Hood surge on this abundant rainfall; bulbuls wing down from the mountains to feast on the new growth and the inhabitants thank the heavens for temporary respite from the hay fever-bearing cedar tree plantations in the north.
There will be further rain, on and off until the mighty tsuyu, the wet season, arrives in mid May. Then, the aging residents of my old neighborhood will know that spring has truly passed and that the Good Hood has once again completed another 940 million-kilometre circuit of the sun. I bet all this travel makes them tired.
Smokin’ Joe takes the umbrella from my hand, folds it and hands it back to me with a bunch of red onions.
“A famous samurai movie actor once said to his sidekick, “春雨じゃ, 濡れて行こう!”
“Spring rain's here. Let’s get wet.”
I laugh, he laughs. Rain is the one true constant at this time of year. So we set out along the river path for home ― the old samurai and his sidekick ― with a swagger that sets our onions swinging.
“And so castles made of sand, fall in the sea, eventually”
― Jimi Hendrix
A house razed, a rice paddy paved, year after year the air flows more easily through the streets of the Good Hood. My elderly neighbours pass on, leaving their grand old homes to crumble and fall, or to be sold off by distant relatives and crushed by the demolition men in peppermint green uniforms and pink excavators. The other day I paid a visit to the real estate agent to ask about a vacant lot where dear old Mrs Mizutani and her home once stood. Asking price for the overgrown lot? The agent punched his calculator and pushed it across the table top. Holy Buddha, man! I could build a small Taj Mahal for that, I said. He shrugged, pocketed his Casio and glanced at the smoker’s room.
The Good Hood, a traditional mud-walled and tiled-roof neighborhood in the seaside city of Himeji, has been my home for 17 years. Its narrow streets have outlived WWII fire bombings, earthquakes and typhoons; it has sheltered bank workers and barbers, steelworkers and old mobsters with faded tattoos, foreign English teachers and their countless girlfriends, and now snakes, bats and exotic pets-on-the-run inhabit the deserted homes... But like all the aforementioned, the Good Hood is succumbing to that one true constant ― old age.
“Nothing lasts forever, not even a rock,” says my old friend and kitchener gardener, Smokin’ Joe Matsumoto. He lifts a stone from his onion patch and heaves it into the Semba River, the waterway which cuts a meandering path through the Good Hood.
He lights a cigarette and recalls the American B29 Superfortresses passing over Himeji on their way to unload on the fighter plane factories in Kobe in 1945. “They flew low, in big formations with sunlight glinting off their wings. So loud.” Ono-san, another old friend, will never forget the sticks of firebombs falling on south Himeji as she evacuated with thousands of others for safety of the mountains. “Like a fireworks show ― beautiful, deadly.”
The other true constant in this city (beside bad drivers) is Shirasagi-jo ― the White Egret Castle. You could say it is Himeji’s reason for being. It is my reason for being, because as the old houses around me are demolished, my view improves! Where else could I wake to the sight of dawn creeping over a 500-year-old samurai castle, then stick my head through a window and sniff Tahitian Lime hair tonic from the barber shop down the street.
The hardworking people of this town will next week head en masse to the Castle grounds, to roll out their picnic sheets and tilt their glasses to the cherry blossoms, drink to new classes, new jobs and new resolutions (for those who gave up ‘giving up’ in February).
Unlike the Good Hood’s old houses, the Castle is deemed too precious to let self destruct ― a no-go zone for the peppermint men and their pink machines. So six years ago, the city passed the hat and raised ¥2.4 billion from donations, taxes and national funds to give the old dame a facelift. For five and half years a shroud kept her face hidden; only a constant tapping, clanging and banging belied the work of a small and dedicated army of crafts folk who, using traditional materials and means, patched, plugged and painted her back to her prime.
Last week, beneath the vapor trails of those magnificent men in their flying machines - the Blue Impulse aerobatic team - Shirasagi-jo finally opened.
Nothing lasts forever ― true. The green and pink demolition squads will keep visiting the Good Hood, dropping old houses to make way for smaller, cleaner, brighter ones, and the land agent will get his commissions, the English teacher his new girlfriends, the snakes their frogs, and so on and so on down the food chain until my own mud, bamboo and tiled ‘castle’ will succumb to that one true constant and fall in the sea, eventually.
Next week: The one true constant ―Part II: ghosts, swordsmen and movie stars of Himeji Castle
Rolling thunder? Hunger pains? Another murmur from the Yamasaki fault line? No, that deep rumbling sound which fills the night sky over the Good Hood is the sound of a festival brewing.
The beat of the taiko drum heralds the approach of another year’s worth of shoulder pain, chanting, sweating, drinking and more drinking, all crammed into one day in October.
There’s not a moment in the Himeji city when I feel closer to the soul of Japan than atmatsuri (festival) time. When the smell of burning rice chaff signals the end of the rice harvest and the sickly sweet aroma of the kinmokusei flower fills every street, lane and alley.
The sound of drums can be sourced to the backyard of my Jichikai-cho, the neighborhood Boss, and our elaborately decorated centrepiece, the omikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine.
Generating the thunder are the small arms of the neighborhood school kids. Two weeks before festival day, they hammer volleys into the night sky, honing their skills, perfecting their rhythm for the big day.
One day before the festival, the Boss summons me. An extra pair of hands is needed to assemble the omikoshi; it’s an intricate and fiddly job which entails bolting, knot-tying, binding the shrine and attaching ornaments to its housing. When preparations are complete, six packs are passed. Quiet slurping and furtive glances towards the sky follow.Will Raijin the God of Thunder stay away tomorrow?
Across the archipelago, autumn festivals are thrown to honour the Shinto gods and give thanks for the rice harvest. But as my good friend Ono-san laments, it’s a meaning too often drowned in drinking, eating, macho posturing and the excitement of carrying the omikoshi. I reply: “And you think Christmas is just the Big Man’s birthday?”
The night before the festival, our illuminated omikoshi ventures into the streets swarming with school kids and pushed and pulled by fathers who have escaped the office early. Lanterns hang from residents’ porches like overweight glow worms. The omikoshi moves slowly, like a dinner cruise boat along darkened laneways.
Festival day breaks with a clear crisp dawn. I don my blue festival jacket with its giant red kanji character for “festival” on the back, shake the night’s hangover from my head and secure by self-pity with a red bandanna.
The Boss gives a speech. Cups of sake are passed. Died squid jerky, too. A staccato drum beat sends the men to the yokes and together we carry the omikoshi to the local shrine to be blessed by the Shinto priest. Joining us are other neighborhoods, their omikoshi topped with dancing lions and decorated with tigers and bamboo, each supported by an entourage of mothers, wives, kids, babies in prams and the occasional lost tourist.
The day wears on, the sun beats down, bento and beer flow, and through the Good Hood the omikoshi rumbles and rattles like an old war horse. The sound of its drum brings residents to their doors bearing envelopes of gift money. For this they receive a boisterous, semi-drunken chant and vigorous shaking of the shrine by its bearers.
Rice millers, tatami weavers, barbers, tea shop and restaurant staff come out of their shops to cheer us on. To a destination I’m no longer sure of, or even care. The omikoshi becomes a lifeboat for those who have drunk too much. Stay with us! Don’t let go! The taiko beat feels like a huge rolling rock inside of our heads.
By late afternoon the chanting eases, the fall of the drumstick dependent more on gravity than energy, the bearers are tired, the drummers slightly deaf and the mothers’ auxiliary strung out in the streets behind us; only the babies waking from their afternoon sleep are punching the air.
On sunset, as the crows fly north overhead, we give thanks for another great day, then set to work dismantling and packing away the omikoshi for another year.
Once the roller door is pulled shut, I turn and head for home, bone weary and beat. The Boss summons me. I cringe and turn slowly to face my fate: the other annual tradition in the Good Hood I forgot to tell you about -- the matsuri AFTER PARTY!
Summer has left my old friend Smokin’ Joe Matsumoto a broken man. Not quite broken, more like washed up; the heavy rain and typhoons which rolled through the Good Hood of Himeji this year ravaged his kitchen garden and left him king of a teeny weeny harvest. Even the watermelon thieves passed his patch over this year.
I have never seen a man smoke a cigarette more despondently. He tosses me an eggplant the size of light bulb, wearing a frown that could hold rainwater.
“Don’t take it so bad. The watermelon thieves will be back next year,” I say.
“Hardy-hah (Japanese equivalent),” says he. “How’s your slug problem?”
“I’ve run out of salt.”
“You should move out of that old house.”
“That’s what I tell the slugs.”
“What do they say?”
“When Buddha wills it.”
“You should talk to Buddha.”
“I’ll Skype him tonight.”
“I mean you should REALLY talk to Buddha. Climb the holy mountain and talk to him.”
“What holy mountain?”
“You mean the place where they filmed The Last Samurai?”
“Never seen it. What's it about?"
“It's about a small American guy with a big nose who forces the samurai to speak English."
“We leave at dawn."
And so, with emotional baggage to purge, the Australian and the old Kitchen Gardener wobble off into a September dawn on bicycles they can only dream of burning their names in the road with.
Shosha-zan, the ‘Mount Hiei of the West,’ is a holy mountain, home to a small Buddhist community of the Tendai sect, on which the towering Engyoji temple pavilions serve as its centrepiece.
At this hour the venerable mount lies wreathed in mist, a sleeping giant on the outskirts of the city. We ditch the bikes and through rice fields clouded in dragonflies we hike, before ascending a zig-zag path through rock, scrub and cedar forest, until the air cools and the sounds of the city fade into bird song.
I keep two strides ahead of Smokin’, who, at 71 years old, believes progress up a mountainside is measured not in mossy stone markers but in cigarettes smoked. Kudos to him when he holsters his Zippo at the edge of the old wooden temple precinct. There, a monk in black and white robes stands waiting in the courtyard. He is a big man with small round spectacles which balance on his nose. He, too, is dwarfed by the thousand-year-old pavilions with sloping tiled roofs and gargoyle keepers.
The monk holds a long wooden paddle in his hands. He pats it gently against the palm of his meaty hand and smiles at our approach.
Smokin greets him like an old friend. They are old friends, from an aikido class years ago. With greetings exchanged we are ushered up the steps of Jogyodo, the Training Hall, whereupon the monk halts and turns to me.
“It is dark inside and for the next 30 minutes you and Matsumoto-san will be alone with yourselves in the presence of Buddha. Empty your mind, breathe deeply and lower your eyelids. But do not sleep.” He pats the paddle.
Into the fragrant depths I step, moving barefoot across smooth wooden floor until I reach the edge of illumination. Rising above us at the centre of the room sits the All-Seeing One, gilded in gold foil and lit from above. His narrowed eyes peer down on us with an infinity of calm.
We lower ourselves onto cushions the size of a frisbee, sit cross-legged, forming the circular sign of emptiness with our fingers. We shutter our eyelids to slits, draw deeply on the air and purge our minds of all thoughts of slugs, cigarettes, undersized melons, bikini girls and coconut oil.
Time passes. And yet it does not pass. Time is merely a concept, so how can it be measured if I cannot consciously detect any change in my personal circumstance? The answer to that lies in the monk’s big wooden paddle.
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
I must have dozed.
For this misdemeanor I take my punishment of three stiff blows to each shoulder and thank my punisher with hands clasped and a reverent bow.
Each breath returns me to emptiness and time, once again, begins to fade. Buddha smiles on the two small men from the lowlands.
My eyelid pops up. That's it! Watanabe Ken (below) sat beneath this very Buddha in the Last Samurai….
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
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! their hems are rising. The elderly women of the Good Hood shake their heads and click their tongues at these parading young things in short yukata; the young fellas 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 (and news just in: rain is forecast for Sunday June 22nd) 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. Catering to the masses are more than 800 stalls, erected and manned by a small army of itinerant carnivaleers called tekiya.
Word on the street is that 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 15 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...
Met my old friend Ono-san in our local ‘shop of ten thousand services’ (yorozuya) the other day. We had stepped into the store 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."
“You got ナメクジ 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 damp the slugs think they’re water beds.”
“You’ve got a way with words.”
“If I could sell some I wouldn't have to eat tofu everyday.”
The cashier clickety-clacked her abacus beads, devised a sum (how the hell did she do that?) and took my damp yen with a weak smile. Out in the street, rain drops big enough to fill a sake cup smashed on the bald heads of old men too slow or senile to have remembered an umbrella.
Wet season, or tsuyu, has arrived. From now until early July it will wrap the Good Hood in a hot, damp blanket. There'll be days of steamy downpours and long, warm drizzle. Moisture and grey sunlight will conspire to turn my old townhouse into a Welcome Inn for terrestrial gastropods.
I want to know my enemy, I did some reading: “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.
Soon Ono-san’s hydrangeas will burst into giant volleyballs of pastel hues and nod their big dripping heads. Neighbors will admire them. My slugs will loll about growing wise and fat on mold and tasty titbits dropped by my kids and my neighbors will laugh.
I don’t blame my kids, Hell no, I blame the Shinto gods: the collision of two clumsy giants - one warm and moist, pushing in from the Philippines, the other cold and dry drifting down from Siberia - who gives us what the Japan Meteorological Agency calls with practiced 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 unripe 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 like mine do not 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 like plasma screen TeeVees and rice cookers nullifies this effect. It turns a large, breezy house into an Amazon riverboat filled with empty wine bottles and a cabin fever that can turn 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, cedar pollen and Gobi sand are flushed away AND it’s good for the..."
“Hydrangeas.” I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman so adept at turning lead into gold.
Days later we are inundated. The Good Hood turns riverine in minutes. My courtyard floods, runoff by-passes the roof guttering causing the storm water drains to overflow. The Semba River becomes a superhighway for lost volleyballs, Coke bottles, milk cartons, baseballs and beer cans, all racing towards the Seto Inland Sea.
Next day on the train to Ako, 30 klicks west of Himeji, the land looks like a broken mirror: flooded rice paddies reflect a powder blue sky filled with thunderheads, farm hamlets and green mountains lumpy as a dragon's back.
Green. Lumpy. Slugs.
Gotta stop by the yorozuya on my way home, pick up a sack of salt for my new house mates.
Four years ago this June, I was standing in a watermelon patch beside Himeji's Semba River shooting the breeze with my longtime friend and regular contributor of wisdom to this blog, Smokin’ Joe Matsumoto, the kitchen gardener who lives up my street. A crescent moon hung in the eastern sky. Bats skimmed the Semba for midge flies and a Buddhist temple bell bonged somewhere off.
“You look stressed,” Smokin’ said.
“It’s these new Uniqlo underpants. They’re cooking my eggs,” I said.
“No, mentally. I mean you look wrapped too tight.”
“Where did you learn that expression?”
“From my English teacher.”
“I’m an English teacher!”
“Life’s expensive. It’s gettin on top of me.”
“You should get a grip.” (fishing a cigarette from his pocket)
“Get a grip?”
“Learn a martial art.”
“The art of swordsmanship.”
“So, next time an *Uomachi goon with “T U F F L O V E” tattooed on his knuckles hauls me out of a club at dawn I can shout, “Unhand me chimp or I’ll dice you like dog meat with the sword I don’t have on me right now.”
“Sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about. (lighting the cigarette) There’s an old samurai saying, “Win the battle without drawing the sword.” (exhaling) Iaido teaches you to be aware of your enemy, to anticipate his next move and to meditate on your own. But most of all it teaches you that to use your sword is the very last option.”
The bats flitted overhead. The Semba raced on toward the Inland Sea; everyone and everything in a hurry except old smokestack and his watermelons. I left him to his beans, melons and samurai philosophies and followed the river back to the empty streets and emptier houses of the Good Hood, my home away from Australia for 15 years.
Seven days later.
Twilight and the city Shinto shrine was closing for business. Two blocks south the dojo of Kanshou-ryu (the Flying Crown sword style) was opening for business. I stepped beneath its flickering entrance light, removed my shoes and entered a small wooden hall. Scuffed and scarred floorboards rubbed against my feet. Odors of oiled steel, old sweat and mosquito coil filled my nostrils; there was tobacco smoke, too.
I crossed the floor, passing racks of swords, lances and spears, to where a small woman stood in the corner. A coal black ponytail fountained off her head and her hands rested on her hips. A cigarette smoldered between her lips. She wasn’t waiting, she was expecting.
“Enter this dojo with the mind in which you left it,” Souke said. I was about to say I hadn’t had a chance to leave it. Her manicured finger silenced me. It hoisted my gaze to four dark, swirling pictograms on the wall overhead which she read for emphasis, “Sho shin kan tetsu." She took a long draw of the cigarette and exhaled. “Matsumoto-san and I went to the same highschool. He told me you were coming.”
Highschool? Souke (the Grandmaster) and Smokin’ Joe? Peas in a pod. Now I understood - the samurai philosophies...
She studied my height and walked to a wall rack. She took down something long, cold and heavy. “This is not for beginners," she said, “But it’ll do for you."
Compliment or caveat? I couldn’t tell. Nevertheless on that humid June night four years ago, my second life began. Names like Spring Lightning, Moon Sleeve, Wind God, The Secret, Valley Wind, Blizzard, Spinning top, Slicing the Swallow, Ocean Current and Leaping Frog - cutting techniques - became part of my Tuesday and Friday night lexicon. Two nights a week, every week for a year, every year for four years, off came the grimy business collar, on came the dogi and hakama. By night’s end, each held a day’s worth of sweat and 206 weary bones.
There are three distinctive sounds in an iadio dojo: the click! (of a sword being freed from its scabbard), the vicious whistle (of a blade carving through air) and the soft whoosh (of blood being ridden from the blade). Not real blood, but something symbolic of blood.
Iaido is the ‘art of drawing the sword.’ It has also been called “Moving Zen” which I guess implies the ability to perform a highly disciplined action with an uncluttered or ‘empty’ mind. In other words the last thing you should be thinking of when handling a ‘live’ sword, or shinken, is how much blood is going to leak from your body if you make a mistake.
“Let your sword do the work, let it fly,” Souke told me on my first night. “Let it fly, but remember that control is everything.” Words to live life by.
Next week: Moving Zen part II
*Uomachi is the name of Himeji's ‘entertainment’ street. It is generally referred to as a precinct and is home to some 3000 bars, clubs and lounges.
What do commuters think about on their long rides to and from the mills each day? I bet they don’t think about how lucky they are that the wheel was invented.
I was a commuter once - a nameless man in a salt-stained suit and headphones. A Business English instructor, a corporate gun-for-hire with a bandolier of Ballpoints (™), a ronin who could commit hara-kiri with the edge of a Let’sTalk2 cd. But didn’t. Because it was never about the destination - the depressing chemical plants, semiconductor factories and sinister steel mills waiting for me at the end of the line - it was about getting there.
The Kakogawa line train is the quintessential ‘paddy lands express.’ Four years of rattle and roll through the greenest rice fields this side of the Japan Alps, from the Seto seabord to the lush hinterlands of Hyogo, a place where frog eats fly and snake eats frog and snake gets beaten to a pulp by village boy. The journey (like the boy) neutralised the destination.
The Kakogawa-sen follows a great, slow-moving torrent called the Kako River. If you've ever seen Apocalypse Now or read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for four years that guy in the story (Willard in the movie, Marlow in the book), that was me. I wish I could say I found someone as interesting as Kurtz at the end of the line, but alas, there was no badass.
The two-car ‘conductorless' train still departs Kakogawa station at 20 minute intervals, bound for upcountry with students, workers, Guinness Book grandmas and sometimes a foreigner or two. Young women still sleep on the shoulders of strangers and college girls still doze and nod their heads like glam-rock groupies as the train bounces down the rails. Some days the entire car looks like it has been gassed; passengers everywhere, draped on each other, slouching, snoring. I stepped over a fat boy asleep on his back on the aisle floor once.
My destination was Yashiro, a place where trains pass hourly and the station attendant is a large, fat ginger cat which eyes passengers suspiciously as they pass through the turnstile.
In summer, midge flies, moths and nymphs cloud the platform. Fuzzy caterpillars crawl over the bench seats and spiders abseil from the rafters. In winter they disappear and the soft, silent misery of falling snowflakes fills the hour-long wait for the night train back to modern-day Japan.
I don't miss the long commutes. But I do miss the man who was always waiting for me at the end of the line. A taxi driver named Yamamoto. His shiny black Nissan Cedric always got me to the mill on time. Love him or loathe him, I still can't decide; he was both the endearing face of small town Japan and the Mister McGoo of public transportation.
He drove at a speed I could have bettered running on my knees. He clocked 39 km/hr once on a paddy by-pass. He would veer and drift all over the road, squinting over the wheel as he squeezed out his best radio-learned English. He once answered the dispatcher in English: “Oooh yes? How are you today? I am very fine, veeeeeery fine thank, and you? Hahaha-ha!" Every conversation with him ended the same way: “Many thankyous Mister Simon, for the free English lesson."
“Nothing lasts forever. Not even a rock,” says Kawabata-san, pouring two glasses of beer. He slides one across the table. “To your long life.”
Kawabata-san runs the liquor store on the old shopping street near my house. It stands next to the butcher, opposite the yakitori grill, across from the tea ceremony teacher’s house. It has a vending machine outside and the rumble-and-THUNK of bottled beer falling into its hopper is a familiar note in a symphony that fills this street at the end of the day.
Coins tumble, bottles rumble, liquor loosens tongues, lubricates conversation, firms up trust and builds friendships - it’s the glue in the social fabric of communities all over Japan and in the Good Hood of Himeji city, too.
And so passes an afternoon of drinking and philosophising in the backroom of a liquor store, about the demise of the old neighborhood in which we live, and all the while the outside traffic heads north away from the city, the school kids in new uniforms marching by in scattered ranks, Mitsubishi Electric workers cycling home under greasy collars, ancients walking their dogs to nowhere in particular. The city winds down, the bathhouses fill up and dinners are served, beer bottle caps lopped off and TVs revved up. Another day gone. Kawabata-san burps. “Nothing lasts forever.”
For 15 years I’ve borne witness to the slow demise of a traditional neighborhood, the old houses being pulled down to make way for tax-effective car parks and smaller, more compact houses built of shiny, weather-resistant materials that make them look like cheap toys from Guangdong.
“Many see old not as ‘classic’ but as unfashionable and inefficient,” Kawabata-san says, refilling our glasses. “The traditional Japanese townhouse is too hot in summer, too cold in winter, too dark, too airy, too noisy in typhoons, too quiet when it snows, too hard to maintain. Me, I love mine!”
And me, mine.
Yet, as new houses rise around us, I ponder the fate of my 100-year-old mudwall-and-tile abode, built in 1916 by the hands of master craftsmen. From the street it looks haunted. There’s a ‘pissing pole’ for local mutts outside, a crapping gallery for the crows in the power lines overhead, and twice a week, residents deposit their garbage bags (neatly) for collection along my south wall. I can replicate the roar-and-chomp of the midnight garbage truck perfectly. Ask me next time.
I have come to favour its weather beaten facade, coarse tatami mats, creaking stairway and winter sunlight which streams through the holes in the paper doors. It's the tilt that worries me. A ping pong ball rolls across the floor from north to south at speeds which grow faster each year. Maybe it's time to join the slow bleed of the Good Hood and leave...
I repapered the shoji sliding doors the other day, and the fusuma paper doors, and the amido fly screen netting that flapped against the window all winter. These are jobs designed to give you gorilla knuckles and a Quasimodo stance. I won’t miss them.
One day this house will crumble and return to the earth, or to the Matsui Demolition Company which will bring in their ‘Komatsu Claw’ - a tracked house-munching machine that rips and shreds for a living. I will have to search the world wide web for a new dwelling, and a new ‘Good Hood.’
“Nothing lasts forever,” Kawabata-san says, looking at our empty beer bottle.
The mountains behind Himeji look promising; cooler in summer with a view of the sweltering sprawl and glowing metallic centipede we call the shinkansen that passes through the city.
Wherever I hang my hat in the those mountains, I will take pleasure in rolling the ping pong ball one last time. From the top of my street.
Next week: The writer takes Himeji's Train to Nowhere.
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!