Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Layer 146 Bicycles, Festivals, Mountains, Monkeys, Hot Springs, Chalets and a Dragon.

Tuesday 14th April

This morning it was raining. In the street outside the local mothers were taking their children to ‘kindergarden’. The first one to go past on her bicycle had a tiny child in a seat mounted just in front of the handlebars, suspended over the front wheel, protected from the rain by a nifty transparent plastic cover.

In the child-seat above the rear wheel was her slightly older child, in a rain hat/helmet and rainproof togs. With just one hand steering and braking the bike, and the other hand holding an umbrella over herself, she wafted serenely down the street.

Next came a mum with a child sitting on a kind of child-saddle on a crossbar, and she was holding her umbrella over both herself and the child, as she too steered and braked her bicycle with just one hand.

When I mentioned this to Yoko, and expressed some surprise that they didn’t consider riding in this way something of a safety risk, carrying a child or two whilst riding with just one hand on the handlebars, and at the same time managing an umbrella, she said, “It’s not a problem for Japanese women. It is normal like this. They are very skilful at riding bicycles. I also ride my bicycle with umbrella or sunshade”


Keeping the sun off their faces is clearly quite a big issue for Japanese women. Having a suntanned face is associated with the lower orders, peasants, farmworkers, etc. Middle class women who are fundamentally homemakers, professionals and educated office workers are very anxious to make clear their status by keeping their faces as pale as possible. Traditionally the aristocracy (and their geisha) went even further by using copious amounts of white face makeup.


We had endless sunshine throughout our weekend travels. Saburo picked us up at the university on Saturday afternoon - me, Yoko and Kayo - Yoko’s Masters degree student whom she’s professionally responsible for. Saburo had also studied for his masters degree as one of Yoko’s students some years ago. Yoko likes to keep in touch with all her ex-students. Saburo had been to my school twice - as one of a group of students (experienced teachers taking time out to do a Masters course) and also on his own, to carry out research towards his dissertation.

With immaculate timing we arrived at Toyokawa just under three hours after setting off - just in time for the start of the fire festival. This turned out to be an amazing combination of fireworks display and a type of performance art, by groups of young men representing the various local neighbourhoods, using massive hand-built and hand-held fireworks, in the grounds of the local Shinto shrine/temple.

The culmination of the evening’s festivities, after the overhead fireworks display was over, and after the hand-held fire cannons were all detonated, consisted of five massive wooden structures being carried one after the other through the Shinto arch, which they barely squeezed under, and placed in the display area directly facing the shrine, with its attendant priests. At that point, after a certain amount of ceremony, the huge “firework” that was mounted atop each structure was lit.

The resulting blast of fire and sparks had to be seen to be believed. You could see why each of these huge fire cannons was lashed to the tops of these structures, well out of the way of the audience and the watching priests, who supervised the whole thing. Apparently it’s not unknown for the fire cannons to explode and injure their holders, who are also responsible for building them

We’d gone to Toyokawa, instead of heading straight into the mountains and Takayama as we’d originally intended, at the suggestion of Sabu’s headteacher, who’d organised a fire festival party at his house, to which we were invited. There were about 20 people, mostly sitting on cushions around a low table that was laden with every kind of fish dish imaginable. Most of it uncooked, sashimi, and lots of it combined with rice into pieces of sushi. Not so great if you’re not a big fish lover.

Being on the coast, this area is heavily into fish, as are most Japanese people. It brought to mind the BBC programme on the Japanese and their passion for fish that I’d seen just before travelling. This trip I’ve discovered that the Japanese don’t seem to eat lamb, ever, and aren’t too crazy about beef, either. Chicken and pork are just about OK.

At the end of the evening we were taken off to a massive tower of a hotel, where Sabu had apparently got some good rates for bed and no breakfast.


Sunday’s drive into the Japanese Alps was via an incredibly beautiful and interesting village called Magome, whose car-free single street drops steeply downhill and has a stream flowing down it in a gully.

Every single house and shop, mostly in the traditional style, made of wood, was unbelievably photogenic, as were the various blossom trees, gardens and tubs of flowers. The arts and crafts, and food and drink, on display in the shops, looked superb.

We had lunch there, in an old-style restaurant, sitting on cushions on tatami mats, listening to the sound of the stream rushing by outside, as it turned an ancient water wheel.


I’d have been happy to settle for what we’d already experienced that morning, and so just driven along to the cottage in the mountains where we were booked to stay the night. Enough stimulation for one day.

But no. By no means. We were motoring along a quiet backroad further into the mountains when we came across a temple surrounded by the most incredible mass of ancient cherry blossom trees, with the blossoms still very much at their most perfect peak. At that altitude Spring was still just beginning and there were masses of daffodils still at their best, and lots of beautiful camellias still peaking.

As we approached on foot we could hear the sound of drumming coming from the temple garden, and people were hurrying up a slope to get involved in whatever was happening within the walls that surrounded it.

Suddenly the flow of people went into reverse, and the crowd started to come back out of the temple gate. Then three masked and costumed figures emerged, and stood, arms folded, facing the world outside. The one in the middle then tugged on a rope, and to the sound of drumming and chanting a huge colourful dragon appeared. The drumming and chanting were coming from inside the dragon.

The three masked figured then proceeded to lead and to shepherd the dragon down the slope towards the village square, with its covering of cherry blossoms. The general throng of people circulated around the dragon, and children tried to jump up and pluck strands of paper flowers from its tail.

This whole procession, this spectacle, continued for about an hour, under blue skies and with blossom petals falling gently like snowflakes. The kids kept trying to jump up and grab strands of the dragon’s tail, which obviously had some symbolic function, and one of the masked attendants kept dashing to the rear of the dragon with loud yells to threaten the kids with his spear.

Finally the dragon was pacified, and put its head down on a purple cushion, and slept. And the kids got their bits of tail. Fabulous.


The Toyota Land Cruiser can carry up to 8 people inside, and on the roof a shedload of luggage - stuff you lug? - over any terrain, in all weathers. It also has on its dashboard a multi-dialled computer that will tell you, among other things, what altitude you’ve reached. In this case, over a kilometre above sea level - about the same height as the peaks of highest mountains in Britain.

It turned out the cottage we were staying in was part of a large hotel complex. There were about 20 cottages in the vicinity of the hotel, further down the slopes, along a winding road under tall pine trees, and built in the style of Swiss chalets. Very appropriate for the Japanese Alps.

The women slept in western-style beds upstairs. Sabu and I dossed down on futons we took from cupboards in the downstairs sleeping room, which was floored with tatami mats. There was room on the tatamis for another four futons. More people could have slept on futons in the large living room, which contained a dining table for eight.

Before sleeping Sabu and I went up to the hotel to use the baths which were filled with hot mineral waters from thermal springs within the mountain. At one point I found myself alone in the outside bath, whilst Sabu chatted to some guys in the inside bath, just lying back in the silence and floating, looking out towards floodlit pine trees under a starry sky, with a full moon, and with bats silently flitting about. Another moment of pure Zen.


We’d had dinner at the hotel, in a beautiful tatami-floored dining room, with low black tables and low chairs. There was a set menu of about 12 different dishes, each of them served in exquisite bowls or on beautiful plates. The food is also arranged beautifully on the plates - salads, Japanese pickles, fish, tempura, miso soup, sushi, noodles, more fish, and individual pots of beef broth bubbling away on the table, covered with wooden lids. The two puddings were very good too. And the bottle of local beer and the glass of local sake were possibly the best I’ve ever tasted.


Waking at dawn I took a walk with my cameras, taking shots of the sun coming up behind the dark silhouettes of the pines. Sabu was awake and dressed by the time I got back, still wearing my hotel pajamas, a vision in leaf green, with the trousers at half mast. He suggested taking a drive to look at the higher slopes, so I quickly dressed and we set off.

We’d hardly gone a mile up the road when we came across a couple of monkeys, crossing the road ahead of us. Sabu said he’d never seen monkeys in the wild before, in spite of having visited these mountains several times for skiing and fishing.

We stopped the car and switched off the engine. To our surprise the monkeys didn’t just run off into the trees. They casually sat down in the grassy clearing next to the road and started feeding on whatever it was they’d found there. Possibly some of the fern shoots we’d had in our salad last night. Possibly beetles or ants.

More of their group began to appear, crossing the road and moving through the clearing, including babies and younger members of the group who were keen to run and play, as well as feed. One of them climbed a pole carrying power lines next to the road, and just for the hell of it did a high-wire act above our heads, holding the upper cable whilst balancing along a lower one. By this time I was out of the car and shooting video.

After a while they made their way into the trees, went down the steep slopes of the valley and crossed a rushing river via a wooden bridge, and we headed back to the chalet. We all had breakfast at the hotel on a large open terrace in front of a breathtaking landscape, with a huge tree-filled valley beneath us and with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop.

Fortunately for me the hotel had on offer bacon and scrambled eggs, croissants and good coffee. I don’t think I will ever get into Japanese-style breakfast eating, which is based around various cold fish and salads. I’d rather settle for cereals and toast.


Heading back to Osaka we drove through ever-more breathtaking scenery and narrow valleys, over bridges and through tunnels, and across the top of a huge hydro-electric dam holding back a vast lake. This higher region, at over 4,000 feet, though by no means the highest part of their Alps, still had large snow patches, which were thawing in the Spring sunshine and another day of 20C. At one point we left the car and walked up through snow to look at a spectacular waterfall.

Around midday we arrived in Takayama and took some time to wander around the old streets with their beautiful wooden shop fronts. We then went down to take a look at the river, whose banks had on them large numbers of spectacular cherry blossom and willow trees. After which it was back to the car, the motorway, and a descent to the big city.


At this point, after a weekend of such sensory and ‘spiritual’ experiences, I recommend readers to re-visit Layer 14 (April 2007) and consider again some thoughts on Zen.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a comment