Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gasshuku pt. 1

 It is, of course, needless for me to rehash the Blogger's Lament as is customary-- my silence for the past week, I'm sure, speaks volumes about the irritating load of work that has prevented me from posting, blah blah blah. But rest assured that I am still alive despite reports, possibly erroneous, of a HUGE EARTHQUAKE around these parts in the American media (I apparently slept through the event as Akita was far enough removed from the epicenter to render it almost impalpable) and my teachers' best attempts to make me crazy, dead, or both, through overwork. In any case, there hasn't been nearly enough time to do justice to the most exciting event in the past two weeks, the Aikido Club's annual training meet <合宿, gasshuku>. Every year, Kobayashi-sensei, the club's instructor, brings his students up north to eat, drink, and train (not necessarily in that order)-- this year, we drove to the picturesque little town of Happo-cho,  located just where the picturesque forest of Shirakamisan-chi  meets the rocky Japan Sea coast.

 Our accommodations were surprisingly excellent-- spartan rooms at the Shirakami Retreat Center, which turned out to possess, among other things, an excellent view of the Japan Sea, an excellent onsen bath, as well as a spacious gym, of which we made good use. 

Hrrk. These pictures taken by Kobayashi-sensei.

Dinner was served late-- a good thing, since it turned out to be one of the most elaborate meals I've eaten here so far-- an elaborate multi-course affair, joined by a few of Kobayashi-sensei's acquaintances from the area, during which, among other things, I was encouraged to eat whole raw shrimp, most of a largish whole-roasted flounder (I couldn't get through the liver and egg sac), several different pickled mountain vegetables, tuna and squid sashimi served with astringent burdock leaves, tiny deep-fried octopi, yakitori, konnyaku, vegetable tempura, miso soup, tofu-rice inari-zushi, a cold, creamy corn pudding, salad, and rice, refilling and being refilled on beer all the while, as is customary at formal dinner events.

It was, to say the least, quite a spread. As a somewhat reluctant "I'll try-anything-once-tarian" by necessity (actual vegetarian options being so far as I can tell, bizarrely unthinkable to most all my hosts around these parts), I was somewhat surprised to see not a few of my meat-eating colleagues making obvious faces of disdain at a few of the items on offer.

Full somewhere beyond capacity and more than slightly buzzed, we bedded down at midnight, in order that we have enough sleep for what Kobayashi-sensei assured us would be the trying main event of the retreat-- weapon practice at a nearby shrine.

Monday, June 20, 2011


According to popular account (backed supposedly by TV), the summer rainy season is now upon Northern Japan-- and given Akita's track record of grey and rainy skies, I ordinarily would have cause for concern, (not to say depression). It seems somehow perversely appropriate that, for the past two weeks, we've all been treated to temperatures in the high 20's/(70's- low 80's F), brilliant blue skies, and a nearly constant cool breeze from the north. Unreasonably fine weather for mid June in my book. Add that it even cools to the mid-60's at night, and I might have to vacation here yearly-- not that any of this has stopped virtually every other student from complaining about the heat!

It's weather like this, in short, that puts a man in the mood for adventure-- and I had a fine destination in mind.

On my regular bus rides to the mall, I'd noticed a roadside torii on the rural outskirts of Akita City proper, apparently marking the entrance to a shrine that, I surmised, lay somewhere out of sight down an alley between houses. Not too many people seemed to know much about it-- except for Professor Ashmore, who claimed the temple itself was located in a nearby forest clearing and sacred to Inari, a Shinto divinity worshipped as a god of prosperity, (although His/Her androgynous nature and associations with often supernaturally tricksome fox spirits suggests She/He once played a more ambiguous role.) Prof. Ashmore went on to mention that he found the site to be slightly creepy-- in his recounting, stepping inside the precinct was accompanied invariably by a chilling drop in temperature and a sudden inability to hear the nearby road, as if the grove was literally cut off from the rest of the world. Needless to say, for me, a more ringing endorsement for a destination would be hard to imagine.

Girded with lemonade and Google Maps, our hero set forth.
And so, after breakfast on Friday, I headed out the "back entrance" of AIU, past the graduate student housing, a Mongolian BBQ place (to which no student has ever, to my knowledge, actually gone), and an elaborately set up croquet pitch, another nearby public amusement of which my friends profess no knowledge.

Here in the alternate universe, croquet is played with golf rules.
In a minute or two, I'd gained the road, a pleasant rural highway with a welcome parallel pedestrian/bike path.

 A minute or two more and I was on the crest of a hill overlooking the village of Kawabetoshima. Turning off the road to take a shortcut down a gravel track, I found myself passing a hillside Buddhist cemetery with a good view of the town. Small memorial plots like this one seem to have sprouted at random around these parts, their memorial obelisks standing out amidst the low houses and flat rice-fields.

 A tractor puttered by as I walked through Kawabetoshima, and my friend Shugo waved as he whirled past on his motorbike.

By the side of the road, the rice looked to be coming along nicely, the sky reflecting in the water between rows.

 Not half an hour later I found myself crossing  a commuter train line into what my map labeled as the next village, Kawabetoyonari.

Another for the Japanese puns file here-- this is a sign warning of low clearance below 20,000V train traction current lines labeled <Abunai-zō>, literally 'It's dangerous" with the informal-intensifier <ぞう/zō> attached, for an effect somewhere around "LOOK OUT!". The word for "elephant", <像>、is, as every schoolboy knows, also pronounced "zō".  So the sign says both "LOOK OUT" and "WATCH OUT, ELEPHANT!" Those of you still reading can appreciate how disproportionately amusing I found this-- and how insane I must have looked while taking a picture of a perfectly ordinary low clearance sign.
A few steps beyond lay the mysterious outer gate of the shrine, garlanded with a cordoning shimenawa rope and shide streamers.

The path angled up a hill between the houses and disappeared into the woods above the town.

The forest was indeed surprisingly quiet, the road sounds below muffled to a distant murmur by the moss and undergrowth. Through the trees, I could make out the second torii, marking the actual boundary of the shrine, ahead. From a low branch, an immense raven stared at me suspiciously. Further back in the forest, I noticed that half a dozen more were quietly following me.

 As I drew to within a hundred feet of the second torii, the ravens exploded into a ruckus of cawing, screaming murderously from the trees overhead, and making what looked unnervingly like experimental attack-swoops from perch to perch. The calls reached a crescendo as I drew even with the torii, half-seriously looking around for something heavy to swing-- and then, just as I entered the shrine's precinct proper, a clearing cut into the surrounding forest, died away all at once.

I laughed nervously-- if this was a movie, I'd just ignored the the crows' supernatural warning, and crossed a dangerously ensorcelled threshold. The effect was so pitch-perfect for a Hollywood encounter with the supernatural that I could almost imagine a small army of Disney sound designers squatting, animatronic crows in hand, among the cryptomeria.

The crows notwithstanding, supernatural vengeance was not apparently forthcoming, as far as I could tell-- the noon sun filtered through the surrounding trees in placid ripples of light, the wind whispering quietly above. All the same, leaving nothing to chance, I paused at the threshold of the shrine's main building or honden, a raised structure made of unpainted cedar, to perform the brief rites of shrine-visitation, omairi: two bows in the direction of the altar within the honden, two hand-claps (this, it was once explained to me, is to ensure you have attracted the attention of the resident kami), and a final bow, held a bit longer than the other two.

Bases covered with the spirits, I poked around the grounds for a bit, then strolled down the hill again, the crows watching my retreat in silence. 

The honden was surprisingly much deeper than its width, its eaves worked in subtly carved, unpainted wood.

The paper marks this tree as ritually purified-- perhaps in order for it to act as a temporary or permanent dwelling for a god.

Unchallenged by spirits, and with the remainder of an afternoon ahead of me, I figured I might be up for more in the way of adventure.

I walked on two more miles to the mall district of Goshono and, feeling shaggy in the heat, popped into the first hair salon I passed for a quick trim, surprising myself and my barber when I negotiated a walk-in visit, asked for a shampoo and a cut ( <If you can, get it about 2cm shorter, and as closely resembling my present style as you can manage...> ), and spent the next hour and a half chatting more or less successfully about politics (in the broadest of outlines) and classic movies with my stylist, a fellow in his 50's, dressed incongruously in what I thought of privately as 'space Western wear' (an open-necked shirt, boots and cowboy jeans, and silver-lapis jewelry, but all of it an unplaceably futuristic cut that said 'Shinjuku' far more than 'Santa Fe'), as he worked over my head all the way from a a boisterous, two-handed shampoo (it turns out that one bends forward into the rinse tub in Japan, as if being guillotined), to a final straight-razor neck-and-sideburn trim, an expert shoulder massage, and a light dusting of hair spray, applied by airbrush, not can.

The final result-- presentable once more!

Not a lot could have rounded out the day at this point, I figured, walking back to the bus stop for AIU through the first floor of the mall. It was then that I saw that Baskin-Robbins was running a free upgrade to triples today-- and today, the 31 flavors included not only Jamocha Almond Fudge, but  green tea and annin-dofu. Turned out the day was still looking up, after all.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bottle of White, Bottle of Red

No rest for the wicked-- or for bloggers. After a week of not quite getting enough time to blog the rest of last weekend, I'm at the end of my tether. So the Paul-Theroux wannabe travel writing will have to take a break for this update, and I'll try to tell a story in pictures.

Dateline, last Sunday, place Katagami, a town north of Akita on the nearby expressway, home to Kodama Brewing, a local sake factory-- makers of fine Japanese spirits, miso, and other related fermented goods.
Not exactly the traditional Japanese breakfast: We began the day with breakfast at a newly-opened 'patisserie'-- actually more like a light-fare restaurant with fantastic dessert.  Highlights on the table here included that mini gruyere mac n' cheese on the right, the salads on the top, the pickled fruits and veg next to the rice-balls, and especially the miso soup (see previous picture)-- made with Kodama Brewing's miso, which literally brought tears to my eyes. An auspicious sign.

They saved the best for last-- <イチゴケーキ>、'strawberry cake', an elaborated angel-food/short-cake hybrid that I think, if not unique to Japan, has at least become embedded in the culture as one of the great Archetypal Fancy Cakes around here. In literally every Japanese movie or TV show I've ever seen, if cake (especially birthday) is mentioned, it will be strawberry cake without fail. By the way, it was absurdly delicious. I didn't realize how much I'd been missing real whipped cream.
Here's where we ended up after breakfast: The Kodama family residence (and Ms. Kodama)-- built 1923 in hybrid Japanese-western style by the current owner's twice great-grandfather, the founder of the brewery, and now a National Important Cultural Property. The Kodama family once owned most of the town in their role as area landlords-- as well as the bank, telephone system, post office, and train station. Land reform came only after World War II. The garage blocks sight to the attached fireproof storehouse or kura, also preserved.
The main entry.

Fitting its purpose as a place to impress visitors, the house has a fantastic garden attached.

A few interior shots of the house-- here, the main hall.
One of several rooms intended for entertaining guests.

The dining room seats enough people for a good-sized banquet.

The house possesses a protected accessway to its own fireproof storage building, or kura. Note the immense safe-like door.

Inside the kura. A separate storehouse on the same property still stores grain for the brewery.
We walked back to the factory complex, a series of low buildings near the Kodama mansion. Since brewing season only runs from October to April, production wasn't going on-- but we did get a look at the storage tanks for the sake.

Here are the actual fermentation vats for sake, in the next shed over.
And the final result. This is Kodama's Taiheizan Tenko brand, an award-winning super-premium "Junmai Daiginjō" <純米大吟醸酒> type, and the sake that convinced me that I like sake, after tasting the stuff in the brewery's factory store. It's ice-clear, surprisingly dry yet fruity and tart (almost appley, maybe?), and reminds me faintly of a sharp, bubble-free champagne-- with none of the vile aftertaste that I usually associate with nihonshu. Most expensive bottle of alcohol I've yet purchased in my short drinking career, and totally worth it.  I'm not the only one who thinks this stuff is good, apparently-- in the States, if you can find it, it retails for about 2 1/2  times what I paid.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Day in the Limelight

Despite an insomnia-induced handicap (someone had a party and decided to invite a family of hard-drinking rhinoceroses instead of me late Friday night, as far as I could tell), I managed to get up with more than enough time to get myself properly into my kimono in time for an early Saturday morning bus, accompanied by Professor Ashmore (he of the kimono-buying tips) and his Traditional Performing Arts class, almost entirely composed of exchange students geared up in Japanese clothes of varying type, formality, and vintage. Our goal was Kosaka, a pleasant mountain town in the extreme north of the prefecture, home of one of the oldest continuously operating Kabuki theaters in Japan, built around the turn of the century for the amusement of a boom-town's worth of miners.

We cut quite a figure as we piled onto the bus, kitted out in outfits identifiable by me alternately as having been originally intended to practice iaido, go to summer festivals, and attend debutante balls-- and we got the weird looks to go with them when we arrived by mid-day in Kosaka to find an earthquake-relief benefit fair ongoing in the city park, a temperature in the high 90s and ourselves the only people within miles not sensibly wearing shorts and tee-shirts.

It's a bit hard to describe how obvious a 6-foot American wearing a formal kimono can be in a public park on a hot day, but I'll say this-- usually I expect only children under 6 to stare for more than 10 seconds when I'm out in public. This was not in the least surprising considering that I had effectively chosen to attach a giant neon sign to myself labeled "I AM A FOREIGNER AT THE MAXIMUM PEAK OF WACKINESS"-- in the half an hour I had to kill before seats opened at the theater, I must have had 2 dozen conversations with curious folks. What was interesting was that in my kimono be-clad state, I was, without exception, addressed only in Japanese,  mostly accosted by grandmotherly looking women, and invariably complimented, with eyes-a-twinkle, on how good I looked.

The Korakukan. Note the Western-inspired detailing on the facade, ultra cool around 1910 in Japan.
It would also be hard to convey exactly how unsuited for the climate my choice of clothing had been. The temperature on TV that morning had predicted highs in the 30's, which meant that I was staring down the barrel of temperatures but little lower than blood heat, wearing 4 billowing layers of dark, tight-knit fabric. I bought the largest snow-cone I could find and ate it as quickly as care for my garments would permit, and retreated to the shade near the recruitment booth for the Self-Defence Forces to wait for the matinee to begin.

Not being actually enrolled in the class for which this excursion was a field trip, I had very little idea of what to actually expect from the performance for which I was now waiting. My reading on Kabuki mostly having focused on the sterner stuff, I was disappointed to hear that we'd be watching a variety performance consisting of a brief play and a series of dance routines, all in a non-traditional, anything-goes style called "Super-Kabuki", designed by the Shochiku Company, owners of this (and most other) Kabuki playhouses to attract a younger audience to their establishments. Apparently, as I learned while queueing with Professor Ashmore, the informal material was also considered appropriate to the actors appearing this afternoon-- as young journeyman performers, it would not be until several seasons of lighter fare (traditional and Super) that they would be graduated to the major theaters to play leading dramatic roles in the canon works.

All the same, as we were ushered to our "seats" near the front of the low straw-matted audience seating area along raised "aisles" made of weathered wood, I found myself having a hard time really reconciling the idea of a young, hip Kabuki to the theater's interior, which looked every moment of its 100 years old.
Vendors among the audience before the show.
It didn't stay this way for long.
The curtain rose on what looked to be a fairly traditional setup for a sewamono-type domestic drama-- a young onnagata (cross-cast actor in female attire) portraying a young bride newly married to a brash Edo townsman. Picking my way through the period-imitating dialogue (lots of obsolete verb-endings for flavor), I was pleased to find myself following most of what was going on on stage (stylized acting really helps here), and wondering what cruel fortune had in store for our protagonist-lovers. And then I was blindsided by a joke about body odor in modern Japanese, and a followup punchline about taking a (highly anachronistic) shower. And before I knew it, things had gone all Super-Kabuki on me.

In structure, the setup for the play that followed certainly resembled 'normal' Kabuki-- complex family politics threatened to force the main characters to divorce for reasons I wasn't quite able to discern, setting up the kind of conflict between higher duty and human emotions that animates so many Kabuki and bunraku plays. Except here the plot had been cut down to 4 scenes, the traditional comic interludes had now been extended until they dominated the affair, and the tone altered to switch without warning between the serious and the bizarre with a kind of winking taste for non sequitir that savored less of the traditional stage than it did comic anime. And yet, it somehow managed to work-- by the time an onstage costume change was used to reveal an 'old man' character was actually wearing a middle-schooler's sailor uniform   under his period garb, I was sold on the sheer zany exuberance of the experience, and remained that way from the ensuing audience-participation bit (in which one of our number was called up onstage to 'apprehend' a traditionally-dressed burglar (amidst a storm of Lupin III references, natch) all the way until the triumphant ending dance number, set (I feel I must emphasize I am not making this up) not to shamisen music but to a techno remix of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme.

Traditional Kabuki burglars all wear hankies tied under their noses. Non-traditional Kabuki burglars are apprehended by "Inspector Zenigata" with help from the audience.

Conventional mie (dramatic pose) but you should have heard the music they picked to go with it.
It certainly wasn't the 17th century revenge drama that I went in expecting, but in all, Super Kabuki certainly delivered on the "entertainment" side of the equation-- and a reminder that, after all, Kabuki was, at its inception, a "low-class" entertainment that happened to end up as High Art. A good adventure and a great Saturday-- two thumbs up!