Monday, November 26, 2012



When the plan was pitched to me in outline in a busy 2nd - 3rd period break weeks ago at Higashi Middle, it sounded like a slow-paced, relaxing weekend: a Saturday morning bus ride to a resort town in Yamagata Prefecture, an evening soak or two, and a return next morning. How could I pass up a chance to get to know teachers at Higashi better, soak in yet more of Japan's finest geothermal bathtubs, and do it all with the added relaxation of not having to do all of the trip planning--
 --although, come to think of it, I thought as I pulled into the teachers' lot at Higashi early on Saturday morning, I never really did get a chance to see the weekend's schedule in full detail...

I arrived just in time to help the aged groundskeeper with the last of the packing for the group: lifting an icechest of impressive dimensions onto the bus. Funny how moments that seem like groan-inducingly obvious foreshadowing when you recount them later never do seem to attract your notice when you might have stood to benefit from them. 

 <Good thing you decided to join us! We usually have more come along, but this year it's only 12 with you, Stephanie-sensei, and the Principal and Vice-Principal!> With numbers so significantly off their peak, it didn't take long for everyone to find their seats-- Stephanie and me in the back of the bus with the VP(1), Ms. Takahashi, one of Higashi's JTEs, and a few others, most of the rest of the crew forward with the Principal at the front of the bus. 

We were just on the southbound toll road at 8:30 when the Principal stood, thanked us all for coming, and proposed an official trip-opening toast. The VP opened the ice chest and...

revealed it to be entirely filled with beer and chūhai. No middle school teacher's outing would be complete without drinking before 9, it seemed. I'd expected an enkai, just not for it to start so early! Vast quantities of snacks-- cookies, dried squid, cheese sticks, Pocky, spiced peanuts-- appeared from somewhere, and before I knew it, the party was underway, as everyone around me began eating and drinking with an almost alarming sense of purpose.

I was wishing I'd brought some non-beer liquids to drink, and already feeling like I'd spoiled my dinner by the time we crossed the border into Yamagata and pulled up to what but an immense, and very busy seafood market/restaurant. Lunch? At 11:30?

There was a 45-minute wait for non-reserved seats, according to the overhead PA announcements. Why so popular? Apparently the specialty of the house was fish fresh from the fishing grounds off Tobishima, only a few kilometers away.

Our table, reserved under the name "Namahage Friends Association"(2) was already set for us with the group set menu, kaisen-don: a huge bowl of warm vinegared rice...

It may surprise some to learn that the dandelion (which is plastic) is the only thing in that bowl that is inedible. 

mixed liberally with a half-dozen types of sashimi and, almost as an afterthought, three large raw shrimp, each gravid with heavy masses of steel-blue eggs. It all tasted just as fresh as billed to my inexperienced palate, though working out how to get the shrimp out of their shells and into my mouth was an interesting challenge. (3) 

Full to bursting, we waddled back to the bus, where to my astonishment, my seatmates continued tying it on as we rolled south on the coast road. 

Even with the two rest stops that all that beer generated, we were still making good time. It seemed like I'd barely gotten settled when, to my surprise, the bus stopped, and we were herded, some a bit less steadily than others, toward the center of a city park... somewhere? Trying not to get left out of the  conversation inside the bus, which grew more and more thick with Akita-ben as the alcohol flowed had left me with no time to read signs since we'd crossed into Yamagata. "Where are we going?" asked Stephanie, looking a bit discombobulated. I had to admit I wasn't entirely sure. 

As I was piecing our location (Sakata, Yamagata) together from the guidance signs we passed on the way, the VP called a halt in front of an austere, attractive building in International Modern style. A plaque by the entrance read <KEN DOMON MEMORIAL HALL> and in beneath, in English, "Museum of Photography". It wasn't a name that rang a bell.
Our group seemed more interested in the ducks and koi in the river than the building or, as I discovered once we got inside, its collection. 

Not quite knowing what to expect from Mr. Domon's work, I followed the group inside.  "OK, we'll meet back at the entrance in half an hour", announced the VP as we passed the ticket gate. Ouch, that wasn't going to leave me much time. 

While working not to get separated from the group, which forged ahead at a beery approximation of fast march, I divided my time between trying to enjoy the sample of Domon's oeuvre on temporary display and casting about on Google for context. On display in this, the tourism off-season, were some of what must have been the guy's most high-concept stuff-- painstakingly composed and technically impeccable portraits, in large-format Kodachrome, of elaborate ikebana arrangements, shown in context with Buddhist images before which they had been apparently been placed as offerings.(4) Weirdly, for images as obviously the product of compulsive artifice as these (one explanatory display showed an austere basket of Japanese maple being borne down upon by a comically technical array of soft-boxes, reflectors, and floods), the finished images did such a good job of appearing to merely 'depict' their subjects rather than flaunting their technical chops that the effect was in some ways, more 'realistic'-looking than the flowers and statues themselves would have been. It was also, unfortunately, the kind of subtle, high-art vibe that was easily spoiled by being frogmarched by each photo in turn-- ironically it wasn't until our pace slowed fractionally in the museum's gift shop that I was able to take a look at the postcard stand and get a chance to see some of the more immediate work that had won Domon attention in the first place.

And so it was the rest of the day. We rushed back to the bus, rushed across the river (I had just enough time to see signs telling me it was the famed Mogami as they vanished in the distance)(5), and hurled on immediately to yet another attraction which turned out to be...

Above: Highly unexpected, and marred only slightly by the full length collapse (only seconds after this shot was taken) of one of the very, very drunk members of another tour group, wearing cheerleader pom-poms in his hair as a lurid mop top wig.

a refurbed geisha house and gallery with a brief afternoon ko-uta performance and photo op?!

True to form, we blew by a large collection of ink-painting and Taisho-era Deco bijin-ga in order to forge on to the aquarium at Kamo, where, along with 'the world's largest collection of jellyfish' we spun past a retro collection of local staple fish and octopi, and an old-school trained-seal show-- all in under an hour! (6)

If this looks like they've done it a few times to you you're not the only one.

A nominal fee let you pet the eared seals in the adjacent enclosure.

I may have been the only individual not to pass this tank and exclaim "They look tasty!"

An unidentified third party helpfully explains which of these flounder and sole is likely the most delicious.
Somewhere along the line, as I was following the group back out to the bus after a criminally short time in yet another of the afternoon's destinations, and a criminally long one in the souvenir store adjacent, it struck me that, really for the first time in Akita, I wasn't a foreigner.  As one more member of 'The Namahage Friends', I'd been reborn for a day as the ur-Japanese Tourist of the stereotypes, talking to no one outside my group as I was filed past attractions at optimum 'been there, done that' speed, on my way to the next gift shop with barely enough air space to mug for photos between. The cultural vertigo didn't help with the lingering stomach grumbles from lunch. 

My camera battery-- not to mention my battery--was nearly flat by the time we made it (at last!) to Bankokuya, the promised hot spring day's end stay.

But before the blessed hot water, dinner: the most elaborate kaiseki multicourse meal I'd yet encountered (beer, sake, and wine (7) to drink), and, right at the moment when I'd really started to feel my taste for adventurous food experiences slacking...

Hi there!

 And then, as if I was starving for stimulation, the after dinner rakugo

Guy actually told the "'Doctor, everything hurts' --'Your finger is broken'" joke. Good thing the audience had all had plenty of liquid dinner. 

amateur-hour chanbara

Have at you, rogue of a receptionist!
    and a children's puppet theater performance, in which, the actual children being too shy, I was picked for the audience participation bits and got to pretend to fish for magnetic bream, and break a fake sake cask full of sweets in return for a cream flavored candy, a picture pamphlet,  and a good-luck 5 yen coin.(8) 

And, as they say, was only the beginning. Before I slept again in my own bed on Sunday night, there was an enkai, a visit to the mountain backlot where NHK (not to mention Takashi Miike) shoots its samurai dramas,

It was... a pretty windy morning.

and, just as we got back on the long road home, the year's first flakes of slush. (9) That's what I call a weekend well spent!

(1) Amateur-hour anthropology: the Japanese workplace tends to encourage referring to one's superiors and less-familiar coworkers by their job titles, even in the comparatively relaxed context of a bus vacation. "To speak a name is to assert familiarity, even power, over the one so named", the armchair Orientalist might airily propound, "and in a hierarchical society such as that of the Japanese, the personal name fades, therefore, in importance before titles." Rubbish, but there is a grain of truth in it-- certainly I'm well into the habit by now, and have accordingly long since forgotten the given names of all of the  Principals (校長先生, kōchō-sensei), and Vice Principals (教頭先生、kyōtō-sensei) I work with at my schools, and most of the staff I don't actually have classes with-- a problem I would guess is not unique to me, given the number of times I've seen Japanese teachers address each other as 'sensei' without attaching a name. It is even possible that, since they're of a generation whose gender roles were even more strict than those that prevail nowadays, even the Principal and Vice Principals' wives use their husbands' names only rarely, and mostly refer to them as「あなた」, anata, (informal you) or related, stuffy forms.     

(2) ナマハゲ友人の会、namahage yūjin-no-kai, and yes, really.

(3) The consensus method is to grasp the shrimp hard where the abdomen and thorax meet with your chopsticks and pull the shrimp's head off with your free hand (the empty plate on which you measured soy sauce to pour over the bowl is an excellent place to put the 'spare parts'), repeat the process for the tail, and gently coax off the swimmerets and the remaining bits of chitin on the abdomen using hands and chopsticks. This is easier said than done, especially when it comes to not spilling the eggs. For once the compliments on my chopstick skills were genuinely earned!

(4) Ikebana flows directly from the practice of offering flowers to images of Buddhas, though the forms in these portraits, I was able to smugly note, were mainly of the more modern chabana, moribana, and free styles. Who knew that that kado class would actually come in handy?

(5) Long a famed scenic spot for its picturesque rapids. The fact that it has a haiku-conducive five-syllable name (最上川, Mogamigawa) seals the deal. Famed haiku poet Matsuo Bashō's lyric 

 samidare o 
atsumete hayashi 
(Gathering May rain 
and growing more rapid--
Mogami River)

is a piece of high-school literature class fodder of the kind so well known that silly takeoffs are inevitable...

(6) None of this modern, wishy-washy "we're just doing this to demonstrate their fascinating evolutionary specialization and highlight awareness of biodiversity"  nonsense, oh no. These were California sealions living in tiny barred cages and trained to wave to the audience, catch rings on their necks, and bash out 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' with their muzzles on a toy piano. The retro enthusiasm for Man's Mastery Over Nature on display was alarmingly infectious. 

(7) 16th century daimyo Oda Nobunaga entertained his samurai guests with the exotic taste of Dutch ship's-ballast plonk. Not much has changed between then and now-- grape wine in Japan is, at least as far as my shopping and drinking experience goes so far, an expensive import good consumed mostly as a novelty, without a great deal of regard for its objective quality. The stuff we toasted the weekend with at Bankokuya came in 'white' and 'red' varieties (screwcap, natch) and was, without a doubt, the most vile brew I've ever drunk without a rice-paper appetizer and a sign-of-the-cross. On the plus side, even though it had an insufferably clever name, (くどき上手、Kudokijōzu, 'Persuasive/Seductive'), the nihonshu of the night was very fine indeed. Good thing that, as his ritual role as host, the Principal was buying the $50' bottles! 

(8) [As one might address a very clever dog]: <Young fellow, CAN YOU UNDERSTAND OUR WORDS?> <Well, yes, I--> [reverting to fake Edo-period puppet voices] <Good! Here, takest thee this fishing pole!>

(9) When I got back my neighbor was just putting the fourth snow tire on his car in the bleak 5 PM darkness.

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