Saturday, April 16, 2011

Unfamiliar Ceilings, part 2

The flight north was short, quiet, and unexpectedly scenic, the plane making a a slow turn around the verge of Tokyo before winging northwards. My high-school aged seatmate, trying hard to be too cool to talk to me, plugged in her headphones while we were still at the gate, and spent the flight pointedly browsing the in-flight magazine, lingering over the cosmetics adverts.

From my window, the landscape seemed to change with astonishing abruptness from the low-lying Kanto plain to a sudden landscape of snow-capped peaks, part of the mountainous spine of Japan. As we headed northwest, the view grew more rugged still. In 1902, I recalled reading, all but 11 of a party of 210 Japanese soldiers froze to death in the mountains only a little further north of here, trapped in a blizzard during a training exercise.

A seat behind me, an elderly couple tried to guess at which famous peaks were sliding past below, speaking an unfamiliar dialect I couldn't place, let alone easily understand. They would not have been out of place in a remake of Tokyo Story-- I wished I could have asked if they had a widowed daughter-in-law named Noriko. Several rows ahead of me, a group of Japanese Red Cross volunteers, most of them empty-nesters in their 50's dressed in red and grey boiler suits sat, on their way to the stricken eastern coast by way of the northernmost undamaged airport. Almost all were trying to sleep, with the exception of a man in an aisle seat, who leafed through the Tohoku section of a road atlas, looking up the layouts of coastal towns and sucking air through his teeth nervously.

As the mountains gave way once again to foothills, wooded with what looked from the air like Canadian pine forest, I reflected on how little I've actually been able to read about Akita, my destination. One of the northern-most prefectures (at least south of Hokkaido, the large northern island), Akita, part of the larger north Japan region collectively called "Tohoku", was the untamed frontier in the 6th and 7th century, home to various indigenous peoples, whose language and culture are said to have left a lasting mark on the Japanese who drove them from their land. The area has long been underdeveloped and rural, the people making their living from planting rice, (renowned as some of Japan's best), hunting bears and fur-bearing animals in the mountains with the help of Akita-inu hunting dogs, and giving birth to creamy-skinned beauties known as Akita-bijin ("beautiful women of Akita").

Describe a region in terms of its agricultural products and beautiful daughters, and one naturally wants to close the tag-line with "... and the children are all above average.", Garrison Keillor's old line about the tiny town of Lake Wobegone, Minnesota. But there are few tourists in Lake Wobegone, and since I didn't want to feel like a tourist on this trip, this was precisely the point.

During the Second World War, US war planners seem not to have felt there was much excitement in northern Japan-- or rather, not much worth bombing-- Akita City was so far down the list of priority target cities that American war planners waited to schedule a B-29 firebomb raid until August 15, 1945, only hours before the official announcement of the surrender. They still skipped most of the smaller cities in the region, and Tohoku is consequently still well known for its well-preserved traditional architecture and village-community atmosphere, along with the whole natural beauty, agriculture, and cute girls thing.

Or, in many cases, was; my guidebook was effusive with praise for the coastal city of Sendai, now, as I knew, completely destroyed.

Akita Airport turned out to be an unprepossessing one-runway deal of grimy 1960's vintage, set on top of a flattened space on top of a small mountain. As we taxied past the only other plane parked at the terminal building, I noticed that there seemed to be an alarmingly large variety of snow-removal machines arrayed in readiness-- huge mining forklifts, and military 6-wheel drive trucks with plows. Evidence that they had recently been used was stacked in the form of piles of snow here and there that were large enough to hide a small house, despite a temperature in the 60s.

The Arrivals area shared its space with the ticket windows, only a few steps from the gate. More for the experience than anything else, I asked the woman at the small airport information desk when the shuttlebus to Akita International University was expected to arrive. With 15 minutes to kill, I bought myself some kind of enriched mystery soda labeled "Let's Vitamin!" and sat down to absorb vitamins and scope out my surroundings.

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