English Murakami

Some Etcetera

This shall be a catch-all post.  All of my posts thus far have been on either laptops with dying batteries, or the remaining ten minutes of my daily 30-minute internet allowance at the Murakami City Library.  I am at an internet cafe (well, a Japanese version of one, with free soft drinks, comic books, billiards, darts, and showers), and, had I planned ahead, I could have uploaded some photos to go along with the various explanations of things.

 Murakami is a beautiful city.  I’ve been to both major beach areas, and while pretty nice, it doesn’t quite seem like the Japanese appreciate their coastline the way other nations do.  Alan Booth, author of Looking for the Lost and The Roads to Sata, writes in his chapter on Tsugaru that the Japanese, while in a land of mountains surrounded by sea, only discovered the appeal of these natural features in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when westerners began to build alpine ski and coastal resorts.  Murakami proper is set a mile or two back from the ocean.  One must cross one of two bridges to get over the train tracks and then battle a phalanx of hotels and enormous metal windbreaks and concrete tetrapods to get a decent view of the ocean.  In a several mile ride on my “city cycle” bike provided to me (a granny bike, I call it) from Senami Onsen in the south, to the mouth of the Miomote river, I passed only four or five homes on the coast.  They were all lavish, but there were an equal number of completely empty lots along the ocean, all built high up on the seawall (actually, about three seawalls) which afford them good views over the tetrapods which clutter the beach.  Having just driven down the east coast of Florida in May, I have somewhat of a baseline for comparison.  Anyway, maybe land costs are simply too high, but my hunch is that the Japanese have a complex relationship with their coastline.  And their rivers.  And their mountains.  I’ll reserve judgement until I ride my bike along the same route this winter, when the Sea of Japan is supposed to rear its stormy head.  Anyone interested further should read Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr, which, perhaps an all too critical book, sheds some light on the points above, and which I constantly find myself quoting from.

As I said, Murakami is beautiful.  It was never bombed out during WWII, and the feudal castle in the center of town has been left as ruins, an altogether more natural state than some of the other reconstructed castles I have been to in other parts of the country.  There are an abundance of old, old houses throughout the city, which itself is divided into smaller machi or chou (町 for you nihongophiles).  I live in ninochou, which is right at the base of Oshiroyama, on which the castle ruins are built.  Anyway, I went for a bike ride along the river the other day, and was surprised at how many families were hanging out on the sandbars and men were fishing.  I rode to the other side of the river, parked my bike, and hike a couple hundred meters upriver to where the sandbar disappears into steep hillside, and the river runs deep along the rock of the mountain.  There was one fisherman on a little rock perch that I had been eyeing as a good sitting place, so I continued a little bit upstream and stood on a flat rock a few feet out into the river.  Now, I’m no ninja, but I get pretty cavalier when hiking around, in hatcher pass, lazy, hopping across creeks in Skagway, whatever.  I figured that even in my worn out Chacos I’d be fine as I attempted to jump back onto the bank.  Not so.  I ended up doing a side-flop into the current.  Luckily, it was only 4 or 5 feet deep, and I freaked out so efficiently once in the water, that none of my books or documents in my bag ended up wet.  The fisherman on the perch noticed though, and asked if I was OK.  I think the other 15 fisherman downstream noticed as well, and probably had their suspicions about me confirmed.  I tried to play it off, saying “that was fun!  really slippery!” and then made conversation with the fisher dude in my dripping clothes, during which all I managed to understand was that he was fishing for ayu and that the salmon wouldn’t start running until October.  On Friday, I met some of the other ALTs in town at the Tanabata Festival, and we all seemed to have similar stories.  Eric, who I had seen just earlier that day, knocked an old man off his bike in a collision, Chris spilled tofu soup all over herself, and Hannah did a banana-peel slip landing as she was entering the garage where the festival-viewing party was.  The festival is apparently pretty famous within Japan.  There are about 18 floats, or oshagiri which represent each machi of the town and their respective shrines, and each group travels along the street, doing the shishimai or lion dance, to assembled onlookers.  I was wandering past when I heard my name called, and was soon sitting on a blue tarp in a garage with a bunch of middle-aged dudes from the Board of Education and associated dudes, drinking and eating whatever they handed me.  I took some great pictures of the festival, even though it was all at night.  I took a surprising amount, I think more and more as I drank more and more.

I plan on taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this December.  I have to sign up for it by Sept. 11th, and I bought some application materials at a bookstore in town today, along with a study manual.  Chris, Andrew, I would recommend trying to sign up online if you guys want to take it this year (it is only offered once a year), since I believe you two are arriving around then or later.  I also bought some other books – Xenocide, the sequel to Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, Kafka on the Shore, by Murakami Haruki, a Japanese cookbook, my own copy of East of Eden (chris, I’ll have Monte mail you yours back, sorry), and a rather expensive copy of Dave Barry’s Dave Barry Does Japan, which I told myself I should not buy (not for 15 bucks!) but was laughing so stupidly at that I decided the laughs were worth it.  I realized while reading his section on kanji, that I hadn’t laughed that hard in weeks.  Even the funny TV shows here still leave you perplexed, and while I have a personality that is pretty much constantly amused, I haven’t really busted up laughing at anything for a while.

Oh, I also found a really nice little bike shop here in Niigata and got a helmet.  It was surprisingly hard to find a place that sold helmets.  I have wanted to take a good ride for a while, but without a helmet didn’t feel safe.  Uncle Andy, I’ll never forget or stop repeating to others what you always have told me: “If you don’t wear a helmet, then you don’t think your head is worth $19.99.”  In this case, my head is worth a whole 6500 yen.  The guy there was really nice, and he knew of Bike Friday, and seemed impressed I had brought it all the way from Alaska.  It’s good to know that the place exists, because most of the bike gear you find elsewhere is designed and intended for the goofy single-speed basketed grandma bikes that everyone uses here.  When riding mine, I don’t wear a helmet, partly because no one else does, and partly because if I am just riding it in town, drivers are very polite and there are ample sidewalks and bike lanes.  I also can’t get it going faster than about 15mph.

Anyway, I’m rambling at this point.  I really want to get net access and be able to do some nice themed posts with pictures, maybe a photo essay or two, rather than this distended diary sort of thing I have going on here.  I want to do a whole post about trash.  Yes, trash, and recycling.  How I long for the Fairbanks transfer station.  And maybe a post about tetrapods.  They’re hard to explain without pictures, since it’s hard to explain something that has no apparent good reason to exist.  Also a post about festivals.  In addition to the festival this weeked, I am going to Sekikawa, about 20 min south by car, for the Snake festival next weekend, which has the world’s longest snake parade float, apparently.  There’s also a festival where men form teams and duke it out in the street, but I forget where that is.  Murakami has two more in the coming months as well.

One reply on “Some Etcetera”

Great entry, Sean. I’m starting to really want to go back to Japan after reading your entries. Maybe I can visit in a million years. I started thinking about how it will be a long while until I see you again. Unless you come back for Christmases or whatever. Anyway…stop sounding so pretentious. =P

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