Aomori: Two - Sarmoung
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It's Tuesday evening in Osaka. Another hot day. Just over 36. No air conditioning downstairs, just a fan. I've taken to throwing glasses of water over the concrete floor in a vaguely artful fashion. I believe that evaporation might somehow cool the ambient temperature. I might be mistaken. But I believe!
Leaving Osorezan and quite refreshed by a local ice snack they sell there made from some local fern with unspecified medicinal qualities. I can't remember the name. It doesn't taste of sulphur. Bus back to Shimokita. A man and woman who sat quite separately on the bus down now sit together. I'm not sure that Osorezan is such a hot spot for picking people up, but good luck to them, I think. Well, I should think that but on the whole I'm more aware of feeling jealous. Later at the station they huddle together, laughing over photos they're taking of the distant mountain, the railway tracks. He wears a t-shirt that reads "Blink". She has exceptionally well-cared for hair.
Although I strike up conversations in restaurants and bars, nothing goes further. The closest I have had to a chance romantic encounter is a woman I encountered on a train platform near Nagasaki on my Kyushu trip. I'm walking in her direction and she's smiling broadly. Must be someone behind me, I think, which is possibly how I think much of the time, thus avoiding any such assignation. But as I get closer, I suspect it must be me. Alone for too long. "Hello!" she says in English. "Where are you from?". I'm fearful of being dragged into some English conversation class but there's something refreshingly energetic about her address. "London" I reply. "Oh, England. I'm from Seoul!" So we're two strangers on a train. Two foreigners. She doesn't speak Japanese. We've both spent the day at Huis Ten Bosch, a sort of Dutch theme park with immaculately copied sections of Delft, Utrecht and so on. My two chief memories of that visit are the Dutch bike I hire to travel around the site, which somehow appears almost to power itself once it's moving, and spotting a chip van to the side of one of the squares. A square absolutely devoid of anyone sitting outside a cafe and drinking beer. The chip van is Dutch too. Chips it is, I think, done the Northern way with a big range of sauces. They have ketchup. Mayonnaise? No. Just ketchup. Okay. You know in Holland and Belgium, vans that look like this one normally have a big range of different sauces for chips. Have you ever tried chips with mayonnaise? No. How long have you worked here? Two months. There is very little Dutch food at all available. Dutch cheese, some imported, some local made in the Dutch style. A few boiled sweets. Perhaps when it first opened more than ten years ago there was more Dutch cuisine on offer, sauces perhaps, but Japanese visitors don't want to eat Dutch food. They're happy with domesticated pasta, curry rice, other snacks. There are some large hotels tacked onto the side of the place with top-class French restaurants. It's a good wedding destination. Big business in Japan. The only thing Dutch and living about the place is the man at the bike stand with his impressive moustache and the friendly wave. Despite the sauce disappointment, I like the place.
That we've chosen that over any of the other local options already makes us complicit in something or another. We talk along the way. I don't speak Korean, but university supplied me with a reasonable understanding of Korean history and an unreasonable amount of information about Neo-Confucian philosophy and Koreans I've met seem very happy that someone knows something about their ways. They've been an overlooked country compared to Japan, although that's changing. They make slushier tv dramas than the Japanese, which is saying something...
I'm hungry, she says. Heavens, someone to eat dinner with! We go to a place alongside Hakata station (Fukuoka). A range of local delicacies served reasonably well. The staff are all very cheerful and open. They seem genuine. I'm growing to like Fukuoka. I have to translate the menu. We eat raw fish, raw fish eggs, raw horse, a local style of hot pot. Ice cool beer, sweet potato wine. I'm happy for once. Nunu, for such is her name of sorts, is dressed in an eclectic fashion that looks like a St Martin's art student in about 1983. Warhol earrings. She's very charming and not especially reserved. I'm not having to wade through questions about Japan, or at least not where I'm watching the sensitivities of my p's and q's. Her English is good and she's not reserved in her opinions.
We tell each other our names, exchange addresses. "My name means Smells Good in the Morning". There's no answer to that. Well, I guess there is. But being who I am, rather than who I might wish to be in this moment. I think, well, this really is as good as it gets. I really just want to lie down and play that phrase around my head for an hour or so. But eventually the restaurant closes and we leave and I walk her back to her hotel and say goodnight. That's that.
Thinking back, given our comparison of hotels, she had said that breakfast at the Hyatt must be quite fantastic. I wouldn't know, I said, I haven't eaten it yet. Possibly should have invited her over in the morning. Or earlier. Possibly should have taken her somewhere else after. But somehow the train journey and the dinner conversation seemed right enough. I was full. No point trying to get an extra dessert in. I left in the morning. Wrote a song more or less directly on my return to Osaka. Although I need a better title than the working one of "Smells Good in the Morning". Back to Aomori...
For once, unthinkable, a train is delayed. Eventually I arrive in Hirosaki. My guidebook calls it "The Kyoto of the North". I'm not much a fan of Kyoto. Go, see, eat, do what you have to, leave. It's like Heritage Britain all rolled into one place and, some exceptions aside, I've met too many foreign visitors with a crazed look to their eye, saying how they're looking for the real Japan. All of it is real, I say. It probably is a pleasant place to live, more pleasant than this city, but somehow it feels less alive, too much of an eye on an ancient and imagined past. Historically, I always thought the period prior to the establishment of the capital at Kyoto was the more interesting. Indeed, watching another recap of the Olympic opening ceremony in between badminton matches last night, I wondered why it is that Japan, formally and officially, still chooses to use geisha as one of its national images. What other country, I wondered, would choose to use what is an extremely high-end escort service as its emblem? Why not women working in rice fields, naked pearl divers, swarthy fishermen even? The charm and talents of the geisha, and I've been fortunate to have a few visits sprung for me by well-appointed friends, I don't doubt, but at the end of the day, your head spinning with the gentility of these few hours, it still seems like the most consummate drag act you've ever come across.
My mood sours with the excessively false smile of the hotel receptionist. A smile made by someone holding back an enormous shit. In the evening, the local Neputa festival starts up, I head along. It seems alright, but I can remember a few of the local festivals I went to when I lived in the Japanese countryside. Those were festivals! People standing outside houses and businesses, offering (not selling) you food and drink as you passed. One, for local fishermen, ended with riotous dancing around a shrine with a pair of Chinese lions. No distinction between performer and audience, everyone in the village going for it. Local festival for local people. But this one in Hirosaki, like the larger Nebuta in Aomori, is as much as tourist draw as anything. Get some fresh yen into a meagre economy if you can. So you sit alongside the procession and watch the floats go by.
The drumming didn't quite ring right. Too martial. Or it seemed a bit sedate to start off with. But the floats were pleasant enough. My mood dropped again upon the arrival of the Japanese Self-Defence Force. It would seem that the relative wilderness of Aomori probably affords the establishment of large bases and such. I'd noticed more than a few posters. The SDF came along. Traditional hakama trousers, that band of white material around the torso (can't remember what it's called), all carrying swords which they unsheathed, waved threateningly and then sheathed in formation. Over and over. What the fuck? All to the accompaniment of what sounded like an early Showa military anthem ringing out of their advance float. Had it been England, I certainly would have shouted something vaguely (or more) derogatory. I've not an issue with the SDF parading at a festival, but couldn't they just be marching to cheery music and holding, I don't know, the hands of children or something? They're "supposedly" a self-defence force and not allowed under the constitution to bear arms abroad. Doesn't mean you have to wave your sword around at home and look like carbon-copy pre-1945 militarists eager for orders to cross the Japan Sea.
I headed off to eat. Except despite trawling around town (daylight revealed where I'd gone wrong) for an hour, I found almost nowhere that I wasn't thinking looked like a hideout for ultra-nationalists. No convenience stores. A Japanese town without convenience stores? I'm sure there's some think that sounds rather appealing. I don't. A tawdry looking red-light district. Eventually I found a Lawsons that seemed free of potential danger and headed back to the relative safety of the hotel room. Smarmy receptionist had thankfully gone off duty.
Morning showed Hirosaki in a slightly better light. City of Western Buildings and French Food, some posters read. There were rather a lot of French restaurants. Why, I don't know. Terayama was born in Hirosaki, but the house is no longer there. I wandered around the castle a bit, had some pizza toast in a nicely dishevelled kissaten, made for Aomori.
Hotel receptionists. What is their issue? In most Japanese hotels, and this was the most modern looking of all I stayed in, you get supplied a modem you hook into the phone line or tv socket. Sometimes there's a LAN cable there already. No, there's no internet, I'm sorry. Oh, I say, but what's this? A sign on the front desk reading that there's a wireless network in place. Can I use my computer in the lobby then? No, that sign is, err, something different. How is it different? It says there's a wireless network where you see this sign. It's on your desk, isn't it? It is on the desk, but we don't have any such network. Well, where might such a network be located nearby? I've really no idea. So, why, I say, picking up the sign and waving it in a slightly disparaging fashion, do you have this on your front desk then? It will obviously make people think you do have such a network or knowledge of one, won't it? Except you don't. Hmm, I say, hopefully implying that in that particular hmmmm my sense of being lightly shafted. Oh well. I head to the room.
But the lack of internet makes me go out again and I take a taxi over to the Aomori Museum of Art, which I might just otherwise have skipped in favour of snoozing to the Today programme. It's a pleasantly white building, located next to some older sports stadium. The first room is three vast Chagalls, there's an installation of rooms by Nara Yoshitomo, a section about Terayama, another famous local artist [Munakata Shiko], whose video shows his eye almost directly on the surface of the woodcut as he feverishly chisels the surface away. It's a pleasant hour, despite the chaotic internal arrangement of doors and staircases. The external simplicity lies. There's a healthy section of Terayama items in the shop. I buy twenty of the face masks. That's pretty much most of my souvenir shopping done right there and then.
Walking back through the complex, the sun lowering in the sky, I remember that I am soon going home. Have I done everything I set out to do? No. Have I done everything I need to? I will have. I walk back towards town. It's a straight road more or less, another military base, businesses closed for good, time capsule store fronts, people heading for the festival. Where to eat? There's an izakaya blaring enka at high volume through an open door, but so high you'd probably have to mime your order over the counter. Yakitori? That'll do. A not untypical slightly frosty or uncertain atmosphere until they work out you can read the menu and converse in what appears to be Japanese. The television switches from a Giants baseball game to live coverage of the festival. I mention to the couple next to me that I'd been in Hirosaki. The Kyoto of the North, apparently.... Oh. What did you think? Well, not mentioning the SDF issue, I say I'd found the festival a bit lacking in festivity. They don't know how to have a good time over there, they reply. This is Aomori, if they're Kyoto, think of us as Osaka. Works for me, I say, and we sit there eating, drinking and chatting for an hour or so. I get them to take a picture of me with a Terayama mask on, the one in the previous post, a man bounds over to say how he'd worked with Terayama for a while in the 70's. He's a bit too drunk for coherent conversation though, it is all of seven o'clock and it is a festival day.
Fortified with chicken, beer and (something I've not drunk before) a sort of sake-slushy, where you must part-freeze the bottle before serving. It's good. I buy a couple of beers and find a bit of wall to sit on to watch the floats pass by. It's a bigger festival, but I notice more smiles this time, some of the floats are of giant drinks cans or crisp packets. It finishes on the dot. Police shuffle people home. I spot the world's largest traffic cones, but the police decline to be photographed standing by them.
It's Misawa the next day. Born in Hirosaki, spent some time in Hachinohe, Terayama's pubertal rites of passage took place in Misawa. I'd downloaded a map from the museum website some time previously, but it wasn't particularly well pointed out quite how far it was from the city centre. Three buses a day. Somewhere, more possibly in Japanese, there is a tanka:
Terayama Shuji Memorial Museum
Cost of entrance ¥300
Taxi there ¥3,000
[Maybe if you were exceptionally clever, you could make some pun on senryu, the name of a style of haiku, and sen also being a thousand. The journey of 300 li starts with a cash down payment of 3,000... Sado, I think as well. The island of exile and also a film that Terayama scripted. Of course, also the Japanese spelling of "[de] Sade". The museum's location feels like exile from the centre. We should build a museum for him. There's probably various grants, allowances, donors, local sweeteners on offer. Where? How about here? Who's going to go there? If we build it, they will come! Do they? I don't know. It's quite possible that the location is close to a childhood home, but if you're travelling on a budget, ¥6,000 is your night at the lodge with two meals included.]
The first line pretty much sucks up much of your syllabic allowance, so you'd be best off writing several poems collected under the title of the first line. The taxi journey fairly much follows the perimeter fence of the Misawa air force base, jointly operated by the US and SDF. How do you feel about these Americans here? They're not too popular in Okinawa, I say to the taxi driver. I'd rather they weren't here, to be honest, but then there's the money and work they bring in. How are you getting back? I don't know I say, but I've no idea how long I'll be. See you then, he says, and drives off.
The museum is quite small. One area by the reception is for temporary exhibits. This current one is on Terayama's visit to America, when he staged "Directions for Servants". The reviews in the American press aren't too positive. There's some of his records: Sun Ra, Sonny Boy Williamson, Headhunters. There's a snack area to one side with a drinks machine. No food on offer. I'd have thought "Emperor Tomato Ketchup Omuraisu" [fried rice folded into an omelette with tomato sauce on top. A popular staple] would be a sure winner. A television plays a recent Aomori TV documentary on Terayama. It's none other than Mikami Kan as presenter! Mikami is playing a London residency shortly after I get back and (if anyone has managed to trawl this far through this narrative, it's the 11-13 September in Dalston. I've got spare tickets. I'm eager to make converts) I'm still slightly smarting that despite writing to the venue immediately after its announcement in April to ask whether they'd decided on the support slots and, well, there can't be that many Mikami fans who live locally, sing enka, would they consider listening... No reply. It's not so tricky just to say, thanks, but we've other arrangements. I buy a Mikami CD from the shop area called "Jazz and Other Things". It's from 1995 and there are some English liner notes by Alan Cummings, about the only person I know to write about Mikami in English. I read:
"Listen up. Twenty-five down the line, shotthrough with gleams of progress brighter than ever, and no sign of last light yet. Mikami still stands as an(everlasting) testament to true human spirit, the triumph of shaved head, voice and guitar over so called soso-ciety's tendency towards mediocrity and resignation... [Cummings should probably lay off the Benzedrine, I think] ... even more terrifying than the lyrics to Mikami's only cover-version "Summertime"... [err, no! I've got plenty of cover versions by Mikami. Do Japanese cover versions somehow not count?] ... There may be a few lame-brained fuckos out there who're going to argue that there's no point listening to something where your lack of Japanese linguistic muscle is causing you to miss half the plot. Fuck that. Mikami is the blues. Pure, uncut humanity and universal force that don't need [Why the sudden "black" voice here? The "who're" wasn't "who's"] no words-you [sic] going to tell me you didn't understand a single word of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the night", or Loren Mazzacane's early moaning, or even Ayler soul scream? Mikami's got a voice (and what a fuck of a voice it is!) [Enough with the fuck already!], a soul and a guitar, and you should know how to deal with those. Fair enough, some of his reference points are going to be beyond you [So why not use this space to explain some of them, rather than name-dropping?]. You've never heard the bleak Aomori wind whistling an accompaniment to some rough Tsugaru-jamisen music [It's '95 and no one's going to be able to Google that adequately], the Ainu references are going to slip you by completely, and you're not going to get any of his Noh vocalising-but you can bet your life that Mikami's heard more Ayler records and read more Novalis and Celine than you [Is it a pissing contest?] ... In end though none of this shit really matters. What this comes down to is one human being talking to another [Translating Mikami's lyrics rather than versifying yourself might have been the better aid here]. Truth, beauty and humanity transcend all limits of language and nationality [Do they? Hold on a minute!]. Grab onto that Aomori/the Delta as spiritual twins in insular and harsh rurality metaphor, and dive on in-I can guarantee you'll dig it. You'd have to be a simp not to [Daddy-o]."
Thirteen years has probably calmed him a bit. I don't know anything about Cummings [Looks like he taught classical Japanese literature at SOAS until last year!] I don't read The Wire regularly or assiduously enough to recall him. He does write for them, doesn't he? For supporting Mikami and encouraging an audience outside of Japan, well done. Nevertheless, I disagree with rather a lot of this. Why is Mikami the blues? Can't he just be enka? Doesn't sound like contemporary or commercial enka, but it's a route enka could have taken. Is the blues an "authentic" voice and enka not? Fuck that skidoodle! To paraphrase Cummings. He's not quite going this far, but by saying the words don't matter, you can appreciate it anyway... It's true, to an extent, but the words are great. So why not translate them or at least apologise for not managing to? More or less every Japanese CD of foreign music comes with original and translated lyrics. Seems obvious to me. Moreover, Cumming's reading of the blues doesn't chime with mine. His would appear, from this brief note at least, to be that rather masculine version of the blues, soul and authenticity, the hardships of the Delta, the supposed ur-blues. Truth is, truth as much as anything, is that this version of the blues is a curated invention of white folks via Lomax and the rest of them. I'd like Mikami to be Bessie Smith. I know he isn't. But is Bessie the blues or is she jazz? How about Jelly Roll Morton? Stick him in the jazz section. Guys with guitars. Give me lesbians with pianos or drag queens with trombones. This is still the blues. I'd agree that Mikami can be appreciated without lyrical understanding, but he needs a more open context than he's being given here.
The night of the first Mikami gig starts off with a half-hour introductory talk by Cummings. I hope he's doesn't put anything in his mineral water and I'll try to keep my gob shut.
The main room of the museum has various posters (Yokoo Tadanori et al.) of productions and other photographs on the walls. A series of about twelve desks nestle beneath a suspended stage. The desks are themed around various periods and productions. A video projects onto the surface when you approach. You can open drawers and examine ephemera with the torch provided. Activating all the desks, it's fairly deserted with about ten people at most there at any time, creates a reasonably pleasant mulch of song and clatter. Walk to the other side of the room and the stage features various characters and motifs from film and play. There's a small library area with books and videos to play. What else could you do? I think what it most lacks, given the audience experience of his productions, is the sense of confusion or possible threat. He's dead. It's safe now. You can approach. Nothing will bite. The avant-garde is over. Return to your homes. The festival has finished. Please dispose conscientiously of food wrapping and plastic bottles. Separate containers provided for recycling.
There's a walk from the back of the museum along a path through the forest. It leads to a memorial. A sculpture of the book Den-en ni Shisu, a man-powered plane rests on top, a dog looks on. A pleasant lake. Have a fag. Look at the dragonflies. Walk back. I'm lucky to meet a couple of men from Tokyo to share the taxi back with. I've an hour and a half before my train back to Aomori. I should eat.
I study the map and walk towards the centre of Misawa. Everything is shut down. It looks permanent. Tool shops and agricultural equipment. Beauty salons. No food. Walk a little further. A restaurant or two. Shut. Years ago. No cafes. Relentless sun and I'm getting fractious. I ask a woman. There's a place just along from here, past the second set of traffic light on the left. This takes another ten minutes of walking through a late-Showa rural graveyard. Occasionally a fat SUV crawls past. Contains similarly vast-looking American with crew cut. I'm at the base's main gates. Still no food in sight. The restaurant is shut. Open until 2:30. It's 1:45. I may as well be in America by the look of the street and buildings. The side streets are all bars and clubs, pleasure quarters awaiting the descent of night and the trickle of servicemen. Rusty buildings. Army surplus. Where is all this supposed money then? It's not here. This is Japan consumed by a virus, it's eaten away the fabric of community and left the shell intact. A shell that will fall over if you blow on it. Potemkin village. It's taken me forty five minutes walk from the station but there is a lunch-box shop open. Taxi back to the station. I'm grateful to leave.
I can remember reading a piece by Arudou Debito, a naturalised Japanese citizen and self-appointed voice of conscience against discrimination. He comes to Misawa with a friend and tries to gain entry to some of these bars and clubs. No foreigners, read some of the signs, or they're asked to leave. How unfair! He moans. I am Japanese! We should be allowed in. Writes various letters of complaint to local authorities. These signs are not legal. All very well, but why would you want to go to these places? What would possess anyone to want to hang out in an army town like this? Plenty of places would let him in for a drink. These other places? They're probably fed up to the back teeth with Americans not knowing the rules, pawing bodies instead of allowing themselves to be touched, mistaking flirtation-by-the-hour for an actual come-on. It's somewhere for the Japanese to go without worrying there might be some Americans in earshot as they voice their complaints over watery whisky and light knee stroking.
Back to Aomori and a few hours to kill with souvenir shopping for people in Osaka. An overnight train home. I share the compartment with an Osakan but now living in Melbourne for twelve years or so. She's in a smoking carriage but doesn't smoke. She has a rather obsessional manner to her in the way she makes her bed and aligns possessions. Her family is from Sakai, a place to the south of Osaka proper, but still considered part of town. She makes okonomiyaki in Melbourne for her friends. Uses Otafuku sauce. Maybe my playfulness doesn't quite come across to her as it should, but I scold her lightly for that. Otafuku? Err, that's Hiroshima style. Too sweet. And you say you're from Osaka... Hmm, it's probably the Sakai thing, maybe, I think. Although there is a great sauce, the best I've tried in fact, that's from just near Sakai. We have very little in common and nothing to talk about. You can generally string along a conversation for a good half-hour with people in Osaka over the merits over the many local sauces. It's a non-starter for her. I smoke at the other end of the carriage while she spends a good hour adjusting the hem of the curtain around her bed to reduce light leakage or, I suspect, provide greater security. She never appears comfortable. I listen to The Kinks, look out of the darkened window and realise that I'm going home.
On Sunday, I buy a knife from a maker in Sakai. Slice off a chink off my index finger whilst chopping cabbage. Serves me right, probably.