Japan Notes

 I am still exhausted from this chest cold/pneumonia, but with the aid of antibiotics and lots of aspirin I am able to function, after a fashion. Today I rented a car, drove on the wrong side of the road- on purpose- ate little sweet fish, visited a temple, saw and ancient cherry tree, and slept like a baby.

I had wanted to beg off going to lunch with Yuka’s parents, but my son, Sam, told me this was the only day Mr. Oba had been able to get off from work, and he wanted to take us all out to lunch. My daughter, Meraiah, and her husband, Tim, weren’t able to get there yet- some snafu with their travel agent in Australia sending them off on a non-existent flight to Japan. They arrived the next day having laid over in Kuala Lumpur for a day, but it appeared another family member absent would be a disappointment to Mr. Oba, so I said okay.

We rented a car in the small town of Ogachi and I followed Sam over to Yuka’s parent’s house, which is located about twenty minutes drive from Sam’s house in Wanouchi-Cho. I have driven on the left before, but it is a challenge. I always feel slightly off balance driving on the left, and doing it this time on cold medicine was even worse. It’s that first left hand turn out of an intersection that always throws me, as I think, Oh my God, did I ever even look to the right before diving into the onrush of traffic? Plus, all of the intersections had four-way mirrors for the narrow streets, so I felt even more confused at each turn. But, I managed, and we arrived at the Oba household all in one piece.

All the way there, the mix of power grids, small farms and incredible family gardens overwhelmed me. Japan is the most amazing place I have ever visited because of the juxtaposition of farming and agriculture to urban living. Yuka’s parents, for instance, have been in the rice business for generations. Their rice paddies are near their house, and yet their house is in the middle of a small town. The rice paddies are intermingled with houses and small businesses in the neighborhood, and generally are no bigger than a city lot.
At the corner, just before their house was a small lake, more like a cistern really a mere twenty feet across, where everyday there sat elderly men earnestly fishing for carp. Sam told us that the town stocked the little pond regularly or there would be no carp to fish for. If there were more than two gentlemen there, their lines would become hopelessly tangled. We enjoyed watching those men and their past time.
The house itself is a traditional Japanese house built by Yuka’s grand parents, and maintained by the family ever since. All the rooms have sliding Shoji screens to separate them from the out of doors, as well as each other. Inside the house they had two low tables and no other furniture. We sat on the floor on Tatami mats to visit, and at night slept on futons, which were folded away during the day. Outside, Yuka’s mother has a fabulous garden, which the whole family tends. I recognized eggplants, zucchinis, and many other vegetables, but there were many I didn’t know. She has been kind enough to raise Basil for my son, but she says she thinks it stinks. Cultural differences abound.

Once we all got organized, we drove further out into the country to a little restaurant Yuka’s family has been going to for as long as she can remember. It sits on the banks of a rushing river, Ibi, and its specialty is “little sweet fish.” We were shown to our table, and after removing our shoes, sat cross-legged or straight legged under the table, whatever our complaining knees would tolerate.

Japan in mid-July is muggy and hot; I would say the average temperature was in the mid-eighties, and the humidity about the same. This little restaurant had rigged up an air-conditioning system, of sorts, from the river. Pipes brought the water in off the river upstream, fed it by some kind of soaker hose arrangement onto the roof, where it proceeded to run down the corrugated tin roof in tiny rivulets, cooling us off as we dined.

Apparently Yuka and her mother decided what to order off the menu before we ever sat down, because the waitress began bringing little fish to us almost immediately. All the dishes were of the same fish. The first one was cured in some kind of Teriyaki sauce. It was leathery, but the flesh was surprisingly sweet and tender once it was pulled off the frame, and tasted quite a bit like a small mackerel or sardine. As a side dish we had the same fish pickled in sweet brine along with tiny cucumbers.

The dishes kept coming, and they were all nothing but this small fish. We had them in Hoi sin sauce, or something like it, as sashimi, the carcass still wiggling- the fish was so fresh- and deep-fried in Panko served and with a little soy sauce. Each had its own distinctive flavor, but all were definitely the same fish.

Because the fish was cooked whole, Yuka and her father taught us all how to get the bones and guts out. First we pulled the tail off, then placed the fish on its belly and pressed along the backbone with our chopsticks. Next we broke the skin right behind the head and pulled gently on the head extracting the whole vertebrae as well as all the guts caged within the ribs- clean and simple.
After lunch, Yuka’s father wanted to take us to a temple where his family goes to pray every year on New Year’s Day eve. We drove up the Ibi River into the Mt. Tanigumisan Kejonji Temple area. The route was littered with houses and small farms. I should probably define “small farm” here; it means a piece of property anywhere from a quarter of a city block to an acre. All the rice paddies had been paved and the dirt hauled into their shallow catch basins. The fields were then flooded and planted. We drove through miles of these interspersed with small towns, immaculate gardens and rockwork. Everyone’s house and yard here could be in a book about oriental gardening. All gutters were covered with orderly concrete tiles, which could be easily removed for cleaning.

We arrived in the small town of Tanigumi and wandered up through the cobblestone streets to the temple at the top of the village. The shops and houses in this small village were traditional Japanese with sliding Shoji screens to the out-of-doors. Where some of them had been left partially open, welcoming gardens appeared and a path that beckoned us around a bend into to who-knows-what. The traditional swooping rooflines tiled in glazed ceramics, ornate chains hanging at the eaves to guide rain off the roof making its own music as it falls, made for a very tranquil scene.

This temple has been here for 1200 years, and people have been making their pilgrimages to it for just as long. Yuka says it is one of 33 pilgrimage temples in Japan in honor of the goddess Kannon, or “Goddess of Mercy,” because she can manifest herself in thirty-three forms. As it is traditionally the last in the series of temples visited, the pilgrims remove their pilgrim coats and leave them at the site.

We wandered up the ancient cobblestone walkway- indented from thousands of footsteps before us and, undoubtedly, thousands after us. We were surrounded by ancient and knowing Cedar trees, their fragrance filled the air. The sides of the path were littered with Shogun living quarters and small temples, small Buddha’s and stone animals dressed in cloth hats and cloaks by the monks. The Japanese mix their original Shinto religion with the Buddhist beliefs creating a wonderful mix of shrines and temples in their worship.

Compared to other temples this is very small and intimate and I felt instantly at home there. Perhaps it was the Kannon and the feminine that drew me. It would seem that this was a temple for healing. Yuka’s father came with strips of paper with Kanji scripture written on them. We were to wet them with water and place them on the Buddha in places where we were sick or hurt. My husband, who was wearing two arm braces for his elbow tendonitis, immediately plastered them to the corresponding part of one of the statues. Mr. Oba pointed to my chest, and so I put one on the chest of the Buddha, and began to feel better.

All the temples are set up so the worshiper can draw the deities attention by gonging a bell or striking a wooden mallet against a steel pot three times. The dim sounds of worshippers echoed dully through the forest as we wandered the site.

A Buddhist Monk was on duty and encouraged us to pass down a set of stairs at the side of the main altar. We descended the steep stairs, separated by a small handrail, into complete blackness. The only thing we could do to make our way was to feel blindly for the handrail and the wall. We edged on into sheer blackness, veering ever to the left. Suddenly, the wall sheered off to the right and the little path fell away beneath us. We crept forward, feeling our way with hands only. Suddenly we began to see light in front of us, and then a set of stairs. We exited exactly where we had entered, but on the other side of the handrail. The Monks explained to us that it was an exercise to simulate the feeling of being reborn in the wheel of life.

After the temple we decided to go and see a 1500-year-old cherry tree. It sat on a small farm not far from the temple site. It was simply enormous. The trunk at the bottom is 15 meters around. It has been propped up with poles and guy-wires, but I suppose when we get that old we might need a bit of propping up as well. It must be spectacular in the spring when it blossoms.

It was a fascinating day and I’m so glad I found the strength to go, but by this time I was truly exhausted. We headed home to our beds, and with the aid of Benadryl, Alka-Seltzer Cold Plus and Antibiotics, I slept soundly through the night. There would be more to see the next day.