Lost on Main Street

| No Comments

9 August 1999

The reason I went to Tokushima was not to chase Tod’s phone or even to do my laundry. I wanted to see some of the prefecture’s traditional crafts. Tokushima boasts indigo dying, traditional weaving, puppet making, pottery, paper making and a special local dance called Awa Odori.

The day dawned and I was full of excited anticipation. I had a list of places I wanted to go and things I wanted to see. Bur first, I’d fortify myself with breakfast.

I had asked for an early breakfast because I wanted to get a jump on things and leave enough time to figure out which busses to take and generally manage my illiteracy. So I was the only person in the dining room when I came in. At my place at the low table was the usual array of tiny dishes filled with pickled things. To one side was a brazier with a grate. As I puzzled a bit over this, the room attendant from the previous afternoon appeared bearing a bowl of rice, some miso soup and a fish which she placed on the brazier.

So I had to cook my own breakfast and it stared at me the whole time. As long as I concentrated on the rice I was OK. The attendant came over and flipped the fish over when it started to burn on the first side.

She also noticed I hadn’t cracked open my raw egg and she asked me if she could help. Well, I really had no way of resisting her help, so I just sat there while she cracked the egg into my miso soup. Which partly cooked the egg and made me lose my taste for the miso.

At least the pickles were all vegetables and they looked good. There were some light brown colored beans in a bowl to one side. I dug in and came away with two beans and some silky stringy stuff like you see on okra. Weird but I eat okra so no problem. Except this wasn’t beans with okra goo. It was natto. Fermented, rotting soybeans.

They actually tasted fine. But the texture was impossible and they upset my stomach for two hours afterwards. So breakfast was not a big hit with me that day.

No worries though, I hadn’t lost my enthusiasm for the day, just my appetite. I beat as hasty a retreat as I could politely manage and walked to what was becoming my Tokushima Point of Reference--the bus terminal.

Where I discovered that I wasn’t in Tokyo anymore. Not that I hadn’t been aware of this all along, but it really hit home when I looked at the schedule and saw that the bus that heads to Tokushima’s main tourist center, ASTY Tokushima, only runs once every 90 minutes. Either A) everyone has cars or B) nobody goes to ASTY or C) they are all on package tours.

Option C turned out to be the correct one. I caught the bus and got there at about 10:00--three hours after breakfast. So much for an early start!

ASTY promised me the chance to see the main points of the prefecture--some of the far-flung sights I wasn’t going to have time to travel to see in person--and give me the chance to try some of the crafts and learn the Awa Odori dance, too!

But the promises weren’t kept very well. Since I was traveling alone instead of with a busload of companions, the center’s staff weren’t sure what to do with me. They hurried me into the 360 degree film theater where the film had just begun. It was a nice film and the 360 view was interesting. The film showed the natural highlights of the region--gorges, seascapes and mountains, and also portrayed the Awa Odori dance festival.

In real life, the dance festival started the day after I was left Tokushima. Bad timing! But I did watch a lot of festival preparations and that was fun, too.

Once the film was over, I wanted to learn to do the dance. But a bus tour was being ushered past the dance corner and away from the place where you could try the gong and drums that accompany the dancing. I tried to resist the flow of traffic, but it was over the “vine bridge” and into the puppet theater for me.

The puppet show was Bunraku, a traditional Japanese art form with puppets that are half life size and handled by three to four puppeteers. But this particular show was a computer controlled mechanized version. It was interesting, but I’d rather have seen the real thing. After the show, I dawdled at the exhibits of puppet making and handling until one of the docents came up to me and handed me a puppet head to try to manipulate. It was more difficult than I expected to keep the neck from flopping around while opening and closing the eyes with a little pull chain inside the neck.

The docent, having discharged her duty, sat me in front of a three dimensional film box and started a puppet film for me. Then, as I was getting interested in some puppet heads, she decided I needed a change of scenery and led me off to a room lined with wavy wooden benches representing mountains and a TV playing videotaped seascapes. Lovely but not very exciting.

I made my way through ASTY in about 30 minutes and missed much of what I’d hoped to see. But there was also a Handicraft Hall where I would be able to try some aizome (indigo dying), papermaking and other crafts. The handicraft hall held the key to a good time.

Except the handicraft hall was more of a shopping arcade. At the back of each specialized craft shop--one for indigo, one for bamboo craft, one for puppets and dolls and so on--most of the shops had an area where you could either watch an artisan at work or try the craft yourself.

However, none of the Craft Corners were manned. The bus tour that had sped ahead of me after the puppet theater was long gone so I suspect the shopkeepers and craftspeople were having a rest before another busload arrived. To the credit of the single shop that was in action, two women who were folding handkerchiefs for the dyepot did nod at me as I walked past and gesture for me to come try which, being completely disgusted by this time, I did not. So it was back to the bus stop to wait for the bus back into town.

But my afternoon was still free. I could do what I ought to have done in the first place. Go see real artisans in their actual workshops. Not sanitized films and the ten minute tour at ASTY. I fortified my finally calm stomach with some tonkatsu, breaded fried pork cutlet, and went in search of indigo dying and shijira, a local weaving that produces cloth similar to seersucker. I would get to try dying after all.

The tourist information center had lots of brochures on places that promoted these fibercrafts and I decided to hop on the train and go three stops down the line to a village named Ko. Ko had six or seven places to observe and participate in dying and weaving.

The station at Ko was once a train car. Not big. Neither was the town. With my cartoon map in hand, I tried to find the nearest aizome place.

“OK, exit the station and just about a block ahead there should be a big road,” I coached myself as I walked along. Good. I was on track. There was the big road.

“Now, turn left and go past two traffic signals...” I was still consulting my cartoon map when I saw a big painted map on a billboard across the street. So I crossed and compared it to my map. Which was a mistake, because the big painted map was oriented backwards. I ended up all turned around and heading the other way which I didn’t realize was wrong at the time.

So I walked past two signals but saw nothing that looked like weaving or dying. But as I walked along I discovered the Ko is home to four of the 88 Temples of Shikoku.

The 88 Temples of Shikoku form a famous pilgrimage that was first undertaken by a Buddhist priest in the late 8th century as he founded temples and brought his brand of Buddhism to Shikoku. To walk the entire pilgrimage can take up to two months. Most people now do it as a bus tour or by private car. But there are still those who walk the entire route. Pilgrims, whether in a bus or on foot, can be identified by their white clothing and hats.

Since I was having no luck finding my craft places and I was less than two kilometers away from temple number 16, I decided to walk there. It was hard to miss. Village street signs pointed the way. Stone obelisks erected at key intersections showed the direction and distance to the nearest temples. Hand lettered signs tacked to lampposts gave maps. If only there had been this much publicity for the indigo and shijira places!

Oh, have I mentioned that it was raining? By the time I left the temple, I was soaked, but the rain had stopped. I walked back to the main road with renewed hope that I would find what I was looking for.

At a crossroads near a Shinto shrine, an older man stopped me and asked if he could take my picture. Ever the ambassador for my country, I assented and stood near a Mickey Mouse statue in the shrine’s precincts for an all-American photo. The man asked for my address and said he would send me a copy of the photo. For all I know, we’ll see him on our doorstep soon, but he seemed harmless and sincere so perhaps I’ll have a souvenir of my damp walk.

Do you think it’s possible that certain types of people gravitate into your life? This man who took my picture was another in the “palm reading” series. I will have a good life and two children according to what he says. And I should stand up straighter, he recommended.

After that brief exchange which was mostly Japanese with a smattering of English, he launched into a long comparison of Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity. Of course it was lost on me, though I did comprehend that he was Shinto and he didn’t understand the idea of the crucifixion.

To extricate myself from having to try to explain a theology I don’t understand myself, I explained I was in a bit of a rush and asked him if he knew where I could find the shijira places. He pointed me in the direction I started out when I left the station and I left.

And promptly got lost again. Ko is a one street town. How I could get lost was beyond me, but I was not where I expected to be. However, the community center was on the corner and I went in for directions.

The women behind the counter pulled out maps, consulted with coworkers and ended up deciding which of the (honestly) many options would be best. They gave me another map and told me some landmarks near where I needed to turn.

Thus armed, I headed back outside and followed their directions. Three kilometers later, I was at the corner of a three rice fields and a house with a minvan parked outside. Wrong turn? I don’t know...I turned at the Elegance Fair shop like they told me to!

Once again, I retreated to the main road. I continued on until I reached the river at which point all my maps told me I had gone too far. But I did find a German pretzel shop (a wonderful surprise) so I had a soft pretzel and a box of juice before walking back to the train station. About a kilometer from the station, a trendy, bleached hair boy in a car with friends called out and asked me where I was going, but before my brain could parse the Japanese, the traffic signal turned green and they pulled away.

I reached the hotel in time for a rest before dinner. I decided I required a dose of English so I consulted with the ladies at the front desk and went off to see Eyes Wide Shut at the local theater. What a treat. Cool air conditioning and my own language for more than two hours! After the movie, I went back to the hotel and had a bath and fell asleep hoping for a better breakfast in the morning.

Leave a comment