Beginning of an adventure

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The next few entries (not including Recipe Thursday and Creative Perspectives on Friday) are another set of essays I wrote years ago describing my trip to Shikoku. I'm publishing them as they were written (sloppily) and presented to the group of readers who came before my weblog. This first one is from 4 August 1999.

It’s been a pretty amazing two weeks. I just arrived home from the long trip I mentioned last time I wrote to you. What an adventure. Or rather a long series of adventures. There’s far too much to tell all in one go, so I’ll dole out the highlights in a series.

The first part of my trip was spent with the Aono family. I met Aono-san when I worked at the bank. When I mentioned one day that I wanted to visit Shikoku, the smallest of the four major islands of Japan, he invited me to come along with him and his family on their summer vacation.

Over 25 million people live in the Tokyo metropolitan area and suburbs but most of them aren’t native to Tokyo. They’ve come to seek their fortunes in the big city. Once a year, at O-Bon in the middle of August, they head back to their hometowns to visit family and in the ancient tradition make peace with their ancestors. The Aonos were traveling to Aono-san’s hometown on Shikoku for O-Bon this year.

This was an invitation not to be passed up. To see Shikoku with a native and to get to meet Aono’s family was a major big deal.

Japanese are pretty reserved about showing their private feelings and sharing their private lives. There is even a special word for the external mask used at work and with people who aren’t relatives or close, trusted friends. This is the “face” you hear about so much in Western press--as in saving face, you know. But there is another side of the Japanese--playful, loving, silly. I was being given an opportunity to see that private, family side of Aono-san.

And it was such fun.

I traveled by Shinkansen to Kobe where Aono-san, his wife, two kids and brother-in-law met me. The kids, Ko and Yuka, were in the backseat of the car asleep with their mom, Ayoko. When I nudged Ko, Aono’s 6 year old son, he looked at me rather dubiously. A big, pink gaijin was invading his space! But he climbed onto his mother’s lap, squashing his little sister in the process, and soon we were on our way to a local pottery.

Pottery has an 800 hundred year history in the town of Tachikui. There are over 5 dozen family-run pottery businesses in the tiny village and a pottery museum complex that includes a workshop where you can try your hand at making a pot with the local clay. Mine turned out very lopsided!

The museum and pottery workshop whetted my appetite for more information about the pottery of the area, so the fearless Takashi went into the museum’s offices and interrupted the board of directors meeting to find out if I could interview someone! This was a very bold move, but Takashi is a man who does not fear stepping outside his social rank and talking to people. The president of the museum complex, who kindly took a few minutes out of his meeting to talk to us, encouraged us to visit any of the local potters who would be happy to show us around.

So we piled into the car and Takashi picked a place at random. Through Aono and Takashi’s patient translating, I learned about the local wood-fired nobori-gama (inclined kilns) and saw works of art created by a third-generation potter named Ichino-san. He was happy to give us a tour and to answer my questions. He showed us all his kilns, going so far as to jump in his truck and drive down the road to show us his ana-gama (hole kiln) where he fires artistic, old-styled pottery. This was great country hospitality.

I think that Takashi and Aono enjoyed it as much as I did. I gave them an excuse to go outside the bounds of what they normally might restrain themselves from doing--dropping in unannounced on an artist at work and asking questions. They grinned ear to ear that afternoon.

After the pottery, we headed to Takashi and Nanako’s house. They live in an abandoned vacation resort! much like the one where I grew up. The house is on a small lake and surrounded by hills and trees. It’s very beautiful. Nanako who is Aono’s older sister had prepared a picnic feast for us--dish after dish of food arrived on the table as presided over the grill with a blowtorch and a fan. We gorged ourselves on yakiniku, yakitori, pickles, salads, fresh fruit.

Eventually, dinner concluded and Yuka’s impatient insistence on fireworks was rewarded. The hanabi came out and we all played with dangerous explosives. I think I had as much fun playing with the hanabi as the kids did because it was quite novel; this is not something I can imagine doing in the US. In addition to handheld fireworks which we lit over candle flames, there were rockets and huge spark-spitting monsters that Takashi set off three feet from us.

Over dinner, Nanako told me that they have a pair of wild tanuki who come up to the house for dinner scraps. Tanuki are “raccoon dogs” which are neither raccoons nor dogs and there’s no equivalent beast in the States. They are the mythological pranksters and while you won’t see any real ones in Tokyo except at the zoo, statues of them posed with sake flasks and straw hats sit outside many bars. So I was anxious to see my first wild tanuki to compare.

And they did not disappoint. After the cacophony of the hanabi had died down and our after dinner hilarity had become a quiet conversation, a pair of eyes appeared in the bushes. A step forward brought a head into the light followed by quick dart to the patio door for some food and then back into the bushes. I went into the house to stand at the patio door and get a better view. The female of the pair was a little more skittish. She hung back, then came forward, but froze and looked around at every sound. She didn’t like me standing in the doorway, either. Her approach was slow and halting while her retreat was lightning quick.

The tanuki statues are round and jolly and show really huge testicles (part of the prankster image, I suppose). The wild tanuki in summer are lean and the male was too fast for me to check underneath for size. Takashi and Nanako say that their tanuki get fat but only in winter. They had the same mask-like eye markings and multicolored fur as the statues depict but no sake flasks and they weren’t wearing straw hats. Maybe that’s saved for winter, too.

Before bedtime, the kids taught me some new card games--”babanuki” and one whose name sounded like “shichi-nana-bai”--which were easy enough for me to understand and play. Ko is a game fiend and a good strategist. Yuka’s still sorting out the idea of rules (she’s only 4) but she plays enthusiastically nonetheless and doesn’t mind when people help her a little bit. We played a few hands and then it was time for sleep for all of us.

My arrival and guest status meant that the entire Aono family vacated the 8 mat tatami room where they had been sleeping for the past three nights and moved themselves to a tent outside while I occupied their former quarters. That was a little strange and I felt bad for having put them to so much trouble and inconvenience. I felt worse in the morning when I saw that it had rained in the night.

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Wow - I visited Shikoku a few years before your trip. It was a fun excursion but I was on my own and didn't see nearly enough. However, I did get to spend time with a family I knew in Fukuoka, where we all got very silly and playful. That was the most fun on the entire trip.

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