Bellybutton of Japan

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5 August 1999

Sometimes you end up seeing the strangest places. On the trip from Kobe to Nyugawa, Aono’s hometown on Shikoku, we stopped for a few minutes at Nihon no Heso, the Bellybutton of Japan. At 35 N latitude, 135 E longitude, Nihon no Heso is the very center of the country.

There are a number of monuments competing to be the actual center--a sundial, two obelisks and a large stone monument share near proximity. I suspect that varying survey techniques produced slightly different results. But one of them must be correct, so I stood near all four of some point I was standing dead center in Japan!

There’s a park surrounding the monuments and a small art museum. There’s even a special train that comes out to the park. The station platform is decorated with kids’ paintings and a ceramic tile map of Japan done complete with a crosshair showing the center.

But we didn’t stay too long at Nihon no Hesa. The drive to Nyugawa on the northern coast of Shikoku was long and we had other places to visit along the way.

We passed from Honshu, the largest island, to Shikoku when we crossed over Seto Ohashi a huge span of bridge near Takamatsu. We stopped for lunch and photos and tried to catch donbo (dragonflies) by holding our fingers up in the air near a swarm of them. None of them took our fingertip bait though and soon we were back in the car.

At Kawanoe we stopped to try our hand at papermaking. Kawanoe is known for its papermills and the whole town smells like sour paper pulp. The paper museum exhibited washi techniques and raw materials as well as the myriad things done with Kawanoe paper. The kids were impressed with the long, uncut rolls of toilet paper. I liked the beautiful and elaborate knotted paper strings. They’re used on gift envelopes and these examples were some of the fanciest I’ve ever seen.

Behind the exhibits on the second floor is a huge workroom where you can make your own paper postcards. While you are not making the traditional Japanese rice paper, which takes years to master, papermaking is fun and even Yuka had a successful postcard making experience.

The man who ran the workroom has been making paper since he was 14 and has volunteered at the museum since he retired from his job 11 years ago. When the Empress came to visit the museum, he helped her make paper--hers was especially beautiful. He helped us commoners, too. Yuka had his assistance in dipping the frame into the slurry of pulp and water. Ko shyly helped him decorate a sample postcard for us.

How do you make paper? It’s really not too difficult.:

1. Create a soupy mixture of paper pulp and water. You can do this in a blender by ripping up old paper or cartons, adding water and pureeing.
2. Carefully and evenly pour the pulp into a special hinged frame with a screen on one side. Or put your paper pulp in a basin and dip the screen in. In either case, the water seeps out through the screen.
3. While the paper pulp is wet, you can add bits of flowers, shreds of colored paper and tissue, or pour colored pulp in patterns on top.
4. Start the drying process. The workroom had a special vacuum dryer that sucked out most of the water. But without the dryer, you use towels and blotting paper to soak up the water.
5. Turn the pages out of the frame and onto a table to dry. The workroom was fitted out with a steam heated table to shorten the drying time.
6. After the paper has dried most of the way and is curled up on the edges, you iron it flat which simultaneously completes the drying process.

All this education came at the price of only 10 yen per postcard!

Back in the car it was only a little further to Aono’s parent’s home in Nyugawa. “It’s a very old house,” Aono-san warned me. He sounded apologetic. But I don’t understand why. It is a beautiful, pre-war Japanese style house. It has a tile roof with ornate caps and a carved turtle tile on the peak over the door. There’s a pond of ornamental koi in front.

“That pond seemed so big when I was a kid,” Aono confided. “But is pretty small, isn’t it?”

Inside, the main room has a tatami floor and on three sides of the room, sliding panels of wood and frosted glass to shut it off from the hall which surrounds it. Two sides of the hall are floor to ceiling exterior windows. The third hall opens into another room which has been renovated in a western style. The fourth wall of the main room is the alcove where the family shrine sits, complete with candles and a can of mandarin oranges for the hungry gods.

We ate dinner in the main room the first night. We ate well--do it yourself temaki (handrolled sushi), with shrimp, egg custard, crab sticks, daikon sprouts, a flatish shrimp thing called shako that was very difficult to shell, and a variety of sauces.

I noted a conspicuous absence of raw foods--certainly done for my benefit. There was a lot of care taken to ensure my comfort and food was one of the foremost issues. Aono-san noted that I did not eat like an American--meaning I didn’t eat as much as people apparently expected me to eat. Was I on a diet?

Because I didn’t eat enough, I think, I was treated to a special bowl of one of Aono-san’s fathers favorite foods, chazuke. It is rice mixed with green tea like a porridge. It’s salty and delicious.

After dinner, while the Ayoko did the dishes (I was never allowed to help in the kitchen), Aono-san and I looked through his photo albums. His father even fetched out the baby pictures. It was so much fun to see my friend as a child and then as a young man on his exchange trip to America and later being crazy in college with a former girlfriend (one that Ayoko doesn’t know about!). You never really can know another person--just parts of them. But paging through the photos helped me to see Aono in a different light.

Aono-san’s mother had taken Yuka and gone off to a min-yo (folk-singing) rehearsal at the community center down the street. I wanted to listen in, so Aono and I walked down the block and into the center. It was eerily quiet until we got to the second floor rehearsal room.

We gingerly slid the door open to reveal two neatly arranged rows of tables with six middle aged women and one man sitting at them. Sheet music in hand, slippered feet tapping and tape recorders running to capture the session, they sang to the accompaniment of their sensei as he played the shamisen.

We entered the back of the room, making as little noise as possible, but a foreigner and a stranger coming into a rural folk singing class is a bit of a spectacle. Class came to a brief standstill and we accepted the proffered chairs while an embarrassed yet proud Aono’s mother explained who we were. Yuka was sitting next to her grandmother being only minorly fidgety, but as the singing resumed, she came to sit on her father’s lap.

This folk music is ancient. These are the songs the working people sang as they farmed, picked rice, sailed boats. It’s high pitched, slightly syncopated and tuned to a scale I couldn’t recognize. It’s beautiful and very foreign. The three string shamisen has a tone that is distinctive but difficult to describe. In any case, it was played with a large triangular pick or sometimes plucked to provide the simple accompaniment to the singing.

Sensei played and everyone sang. But a look of displeasure crossed his face and he stopped to deliver a lecture about starting on the downbeat. He demonstrated, tapping out the rhythm on the table and speaking the lyrics in time with the taps. Recorders clicked on to capture the wisdom and instruction. He started from the top and six slightly wobbly voices sang. Some of them hit the downbeat.

Aono and Yuka made their escape on the pretext of Yuka’s bedtime, but I was fascinated and stayed an hour until the rehearsal was over. There were a number of lectures on the finer points of changing notes on the correct beat. The accompaniment doesn’t give the singers the notes so they need to know exactly when to change one long drawn out syllable for the next. I certainly couldn’t have sung that music correctly even with the lectures.

At the end of class, as the participants put away their tables and chairs and tidied the room, Sensei showed me the shamisen. The tuning was in half steps for part of the major scale, but some notes were missing and there seemed to be others thrown into places where they shouldn’t be. This is absolutely not a Western instrument! He played a major scale for me, to prove it could be done. Then he launched into a very fast, finger-numbing solo. At first I thought he was mimicking a rock riff, but later I encountered a similar shamisen tune and I realized that this was part of the traditional style used in the interludes of plays. Really impressive in either case.

That night, I slept in the Western-style room. Unlike the other rooms in the house which were sparsely furnished (tatami flooring is not made for furniture), this one was crammed with a sofa, two easy chairs, a coffee table, a karaoke machine and bookshelves. A mantle over an empty fireplace spanned one end of the room and the other end of the room was wall to wall bookcases. Orange carpeting complemented the golden colored drapes and rusty-brown flocked upholstery. The furniture had been moved aside to make room for my futon which seemed completely incongruous in this bastion of Western tastes.

If you have read “36 Views of Mount Fuji” by Cathy Davidson, you’ll recognize this room as the Practice Room. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.

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