One Hundred Poems

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6 August 1999

I woke to the sound of the local announcements at 6:45. Why the community centre needs to broadcast information about the evening’s events so early in the day is beyond me, but there was a man reading slowly and solemnly from a sheet of paper about a party and some classes. When he reached the end, there was a pause and then the dreaded “mo ichi dou” (one more time) that I know so well from class and the announcements began again!

A bit later in the morning, after breakfast, laundry and a tour of the vegetable garden, there was a bit of an argument between Ko & Yuka. Ko didn’t want to come on the day’s excursions; he wanted to play go with his grandfather. Yuka wanted to stay with her brother who she adores and imitates. But Yuka’s destiny was to be in the car with us as we toured some of Ehime prefecture’s highlights. Eventually, she gave in and we were all in the car and on our way.

Aono-san took such great pains to make sure I got to see all the things that interest me. We started at the Iyo Sakurai Lacquer Hall a small factory that had an area where you could watch the craftsmen working at carving the lacquer, filling it with gold leaf, painting details and polishing the finished items. It was fascinating to watch the process in action. I was so entranced that it was startling when they all got up and left the room for a smoke break.

The hall also had an exhibit of antique lacquerware and new products for sale. Some of the large bowls and boxes with gold and mother of pearl inlays were as much as 500,000 yen (about $5,000). On the lower end of the scale, chopsticks were only 300 yen.

Our next stop was in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea how Aono managed to find this place in the middle of a rice field, off the side road, off the main road, over a bridge, past a tumbling down village. The drive took us on one lane roads with hairpin curves and two way traffic--exactly the sort of driving Tod loves! It’s a shame he wasn’t with us.

Anyway, we arrived at an old schoolhouse where an artist named Atsushi Tanaka has set up his studio. The halls of the school are filled with fragrant camphorwood, called kusunoki. Tanaka-san was a salaryman in Tokyo until about 10 years ago when he moved to Shikoku and took up the artistic life full-time. His handcarved dolls and puzzle pictures are now sold in one of the major department stores in Tokyo. He welcomes visitors (if they can find the school!) and has set up one of the former classrooms with a low key display of his works and a wall of photos and flyers from his exhibits around Japan. My favorite carving was of “Momotoro, the Peach Boy” who is the Japanese equivalent of Thumbelina.

When you think of Japanese pottery, do you think of white and blue glaze? Tobe, a town not too far from Nyugawa, produces some of Japan’s best known blue and white pottery. We went there to try our hand at painting some of our own.

The Creative Ceramic Art Center holds classes in pottery making from the ground up but for those like us with limited time, there is a painting-only room. Shelves full of greenware, the unglazed pottery, in the form of tea bowls, sushi plates, platters, rice bowls, sake sets and every other imaginable size and shape of dish, are available. I selected two small tea bowls. Ayoko painted a nameplate and Yuka decorated a small oval dish. Painting on the porous surfaces was more challenging than I expected, but after making a lot of mistakes on the first teacup, I did better on the second one.

Yuka’s dish was quite a masterpiece. She didn’t want her mother’s help with writing her name or making an outline around the dish--she did the whole thing herself. I’m sure she will treasure it forever. :-)

Nearby is the Tobe Pottery Museum. I was feeling a little bit “potteried-out” when we entered, but I’m very glad we went. The first thing you see is a giant pottery globe. It’s easily 2 meters in diameter. The seas are blue; the continents are raised out of the water and glazed in brown. And dotting the globe are little round stickers placed by all the international visitors.

I got to put my sticker on Pittsburgh, though it might have been closer to Erie in reality as a two meter globe really doesn’t give much margin for error. For my troubles, I was given a present from the Ehime Prefectural Tourist Association--a lovely straight-sided pottery tea cup. That was a really nice surprise.

The museum helped me to put into context all the pottery things I’d seen during the trip--the potteries I’d visited and learned about were all given in a timeline and on a map that pointed out why each was important. And of course, there were beautiful examples of Tobe style pottery. My tea bowls are shabby in comparison.

When we arrived back home, Aono-san’s mother met us outside. “Ko and Grandfather have gone to Hontani onsen for a bath before dinner,” she said. We ran inside, grabbed our bath things and were back in the car and on our way to join them.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to guide you in the onsen,” Aono-san said to me, meaning that the baths are segregated by gender. He paused a beat then added, “Does that count as harassment?” I laughed and shook my head.

Hontani onsen is a hot spring bath about 10 minutes from the Aono’s house. It’s been visited by ancient emperors and is as beautiful as it is popular. A curved red bridge spans the gorge below the bath house and in the spring, cherry blossoms tint the hills pink.

The bath was very busy! There were more women than taps to bathe at but as the honored guest (a role I was getting more than a little embarrassed and uncomfortable with), I got to bathe first when a tap opened up. I washed quickly and settled myself in the cedar-lined bath which was warm but not too hot.

Some friendly women--everyone in Ehime is friendly--tried to talk to me. But I am still not confident about my Japanese ability. I answered their questions as best I could, but I’m sure I introduced some non-sequiturs. The standard conversation that I had--almost every time someone talked to me they asked the same questions--went like this:

“Where are you from?”

“I come from America.”

“Are you on holiday?”

“Yes, I am. But I work in Tokyo.”

“Oh, really? How long have you been in Japan?”

“One year.”

“You are very skillful at Japanese.”

“I only speak a little bit.”

“Where have you visited in Japan?”

“I like Japan very much. Tomorrow I am going to Takamatsu and then to Kotohira-gu.”

And then they would invariably ask something I didn’t understand at all and the conversation would end with me putting my head in my hands and mumbling, “Gomen nasai. Wakarimasen.” Please forgive me, I don’t understand.

But this particular conversation ended in an unusual way. As I sat there talking to the nice bathing women, the water was getting hotter. Soon steam was no longer gently rising from the surface of the bath, but billowing up in great clouds!

“Atsui desu yo!” I said, meaning Wow it’s really hot!

The women smiled and giggled as I got up to leave the bath in search of cooler water at a tap. Where I’d been submerged, I looked like a boiled lobster! I cooled off and washed my hair, then Ayoko suggested I try the steam bath.

Man that was hot! The bath was really a tiny, cedar lined closet with a bench running around the wall and a big rock formation in one corner. There was a thermometer and an egg-timer sized hourglass on one wall. The thermometer read 92 centigrade (that’s 198 F) and the egg timer was to make sure you didn’t stay in too long. Five minutes at a time is the maximum. I lasted for three minutes before I had to escape to the icy water in the basin outside. Ayoko was right behind me but the other women who were in there stayed in the full five minutes. They were tough old women!

But at least I wasn’t the only pink one anymore. I still held the title of most pink, though. We left the bath and went home fir a delicious Japanese curry dinner and to admire the tanabata decorations that Ko had made while we were driving around.

Tanabata is a summer folk holiday that celebrates the legend of the stars Altair and Vega who are known as the Shepherd and the Weaver. Doomed lovers, they were banished to opposite sides of the sky for some slight they made against one of the gods. But they are allowed to come together once a year on Tanabata. People decorate poles of bamboo with colored strips of paper bearing wishes (usually romantic). In Tokyo, Tanabata is celebrated on the 7th of July, but outside Tokyo, most people celebrate it in early August.

After dinner, we played games again. Aono’s father played ceaseless games of go and elementary shogi (Japanese chess) with Ko while I was there. But in the evening, it was my turn to entertain. I showed Ko how to shuffle cards and though his hands were a little too small to do it right, he did really well. After a few rounds of babanuki, Aono-san’s father brought out another card game to show me.

Karuta is a poetry card game. There are one hundred famous tanka poems which are short sometimes humorous verse in two parts. The original selection of hundred poems was made by a famous poet in the 13th century. Some newer poems have been substituted since then and in the Edo era, someone came up with a game to play with them.

There are three players and two sets of cards. The reader has a set of 100 cards with the full poem written on them. The other two players share from a set of cards that has only the second half of the poem. Each player lays out 25 cards face up in front of them. The other 50 “second half” cards are out of play.

The reader reads the first half of one of his cards. The two players have to match the second half of the poem from among their cards. The first one to do so, removes the card from play. You can take the card from your own or your opponent’s layout but since the goal is to clear all 25 cards from in front of you, if you take one of your opponents cards, you get to give him one of yours.

Among good players, the pace is fast and furious. Aono-san’s father is the prefectural Karuta champion and he teaches people how to play at the community center. He gave me not only an overview of the game and hints on how to win but also a full set of 200 cards and a book on the history and gameplay. So now I need to memorize all the poems and see if I can play!

I fell asleep that night trying to translate the cards and so ended the first phase of my travels--life with the Aonos. The next morning, I was on my way to meet Tod in Takamatsu.

1 Comment

I don't remember reading about that card game. Neat story!

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  • Jenny: I don't remember reading about that card game. Neat story! read more