Monday, March 19, 2012
One Sunday in Mizusawa
At 6 a.m. on Sunday morning the silence was unspoiled. The dawn had barely broken and it was perfectly still. I lay in my futon under layers of blankets all covered by a thick quilt. It was cold in the room and the air felt fresh. The solid tatami floor under the thin mattress was good for my back that was stiff after a 14-hour flight followed by more than 3 hours on two trains last night. Yoko was still fast asleep in the futon next to me. Even her brother, Jun, and his son Hiromichi sleeping in the next room separated only by thin sliding doors, fusuma, made no sound. In Brooklyn where we live such stillness would be impossible. The bar across the street would have closed its doors just a couple of hours ago and there might still be some stragglers heading home after a night’s partying. Others would be up to go to work at some establishment or another that didn’t close for the weekend. Inevitably, someone would play loud cumbia music on his car stereo with the windows rolled down. There’d be traffic on Williamsburg Bridge and the subway that in our part of town runs above ground, the distant sound of which would mix with the constant hum of the big city. Such continuous low-grade background noise, I’m sure, contributes to the tense nerves and aggression of the contemporary city dwellers.
Here in Mizusawa, Iwate, no such background hum existed. In the first waking hour I heard two cars pass slowly on the street. A lone bird started to twitter outside of the window as the sun was climbing higher above the horizon. Birdsong was another victim of the urban noise. Ornithologists have been able to document how many songbirds have simplified their song as a result of the loud soundscape in the city; their partners are just not able to distinguish the finer nuances. Another loss to the diversity and beauty of life. The sun came out and I opened the shoji screens in front of the second floor windows. There were still patches of snow here and there—it had been a very snowy winter in northern Japan—but the day was going to be beautiful. I glanced at the temperature inside the room: +9 degrees C. It was time to turn on the heater in the corner. It came to life with a flicker and a click and at once started to spread warm air to the small room. The room filled with a pleasant smell of kerosene and the low purr of the heater. I could no longer hear the bird.
This was the first time I was back in Iwate since the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami a year ago. Although the epicentre of the quake was not too far from here—straight west off the coast—the damage to Mizusawa had been limited. The town lies far enough from the coast to have been spared from the tsunami. It is comfortably snuggled up in a picturesque valley between snow-capped mountains. The earthquake had been strong here, too, and the town was cut off from the rest of the country for a couple of weeks, as the train service was not running. Electricity had also been intermittent for a long period of time and it had taken days until the television was back on. But no-one had died and no buildings had collapsed. This old house in which Yoko grew up had escaped virtually unscathed with only a couple of minor cracks in the walls. I had thought it unlikely, but I guess I had underestimated the resilience of the structure—or more to the point, its flexibility. This elasticity of the old style wooden Japanese houses was now emulated in modern construction. Rigid structures are broken in earthquakes if their intensity is adequate—and earthquakes happen constantly in Japan—but if the structure is able to sway with the motion of the earth, it has a better chance of surviving. There is an old saying in Japanese: bamboo is the strongest element; it bends with the wind, but never breaks. This saying, although presumably referring to human beings, applies equally to buildings.
Breakfast was a traditional Japanese one. Hiromichi who lives with his mother Miho in Hakodate on the northern island of Hokkaido had brought with him a hokke, a mackerel type of fish found primarily in the Sea of Okhostk, which my mother-in-law grilled for us. Many Japanese today—including Hiromichi—prefer a breakfast of toast with eggs and bacon or marmalade, but a real Japanese breakfast gets you well prepared for an active day. We ate the grilled hokke with bowls of white rice and steaming miso soup, accompanied by assorted small vegetable dishes: pickled cucumbers and daikon radish, seri (an herb that comes out in spring), pungent leaves of wasabi horseradish. Fried fish, rice, vegetables, miso soup could be the backbone of any meal, not just breakfast. In fact, throughout history in most societies there would not have been specific foods for specific meals—breakfast, as we understand it in the modern West, is a rather new invention. Still, I would bet the majority of the world’s population—at least those who have enough to fill their stomachs with—starts their day with the same kind of fare they’ll be eating at other meals as well.
Jun looked tired. He works too hard and seldom takes breaks. He has made a successful career as a freelance stage manager specializing in ballet and opera productions, often touring the country with visiting troupes, such as the Leningrad Ballet or the Ballet de Monte Carlo. The pressure in the work is heavy and he has recently taken up a more sedate job in a theatre in Aomori. Jun is also a very talented musician, whose claim to fame does not rest with the fact that in the 1990s in Tokyo he was the lead guitarist in our band, Bête Noire. Jun had driven down to Mizusawa from Aomori, the capital of the prefecture with the same name north-west of Iwate. Instead of the expected 3 hours, the trip had taken more than 6, as there had been an accident in one of the many tunnels through which the highway passes (we saw the aftermath on TV; the driver of the car that had crashed with a truck stood no chance). Jun had left the highway and driven most of the way through country roads on the mountainsides and in the valleys. There had still been huge amounts of snow and the driving had been slow, but the landscape had been beautiful.
As we sat down with our cups of tea, a considerable tremor shook the house. Yoko rushed to turn off the main gas switch—fires caused by earthquakes are a major cause of associated loss—but the situation was over before anyone else had time to react. We thus resumed our tea and chat.
Mizusawa is no longer a city in its own right. Six years ago it was merged with the neighbouring city of Esashi, towns of Maesawa and Isawa, and the village of Koromokawa to form the larger city of Oshu-shi (population 128,000). In the process, Mizusawa was downgraded from city (shi) into a ward (ku) in the new constellation. In many ways, Mizusawa was an interesting case study of what was happening in small town Japan. There was structural change. At the time my late father-in-law Masayuki Takahashi had first arrived here, after the World War II, when Tokyo had been devastated, he had found a small but lively town, which was largely serving as trading and service centre for the surrounding countryside dominated by rice paddies and other agriculture. He had met my mother-in-law, Tomoko, a daughter in a sake brewing house in the small community of Koromokawa nearby. He would later tell, probably only half-jokingly, that he married the young woman because the family’s business guaranteed him a steady flow of fresh sake brewed with the cleanest water from the mountain streams. The city boy settled permanently into the quiet life in the northern countryside and both he and his wife eventually found jobs in the Iwate prefectural government from which they both retired decades later. Masayuki made his career in the financial administration, while Tomoko became a regional planner with responsibility for some of the major dams and reservoirs Japan built in the mountains during the frenzied reconstruction efforts in the 1960s through 1980s.
Masayuki passed away some years ago completely unexpectedly. Now there is a small shrine for him in the corner of the living room and every morning Tomoko lights up a candle and some joss sticks in front of it.
Despite its relatively small size—although, with some 60,000 people, Mizusawa would be a significant centre in many other countries, in densely populated Japan it’s but a speck on the map—Mizusawa was thriving. It got a shinkansen (or bullet train) station, which it shares with Esashi, on the main Tohoko line from Tokyo to Morioka. It’s said that the station is testimony to the Japanese politics of patronage: one of the country’s foremost political figures—and an eternal opposition leader, it seems—Ichiro Ozawa calls Mizusawa his home, although he has hardly ever lived here. Although the big man is often accused of arrogance and is not nationally popular, he is very powerful—and this is Ozawa country. He even sent a congratulatory message to our wedding at the Komagata Jinja shrine.
Mizusawa is also host to one of the world’s six international latitude observatories created along the latitude 39 degrees 8’ north originally to measure the ‘wobble’ of Earth’s axis. The town’s location in the mountains far from the dust and light pollution of major urban centres makes it ideal for observing the stars and its observations and data are still in use, even if the original mission has since been modified.
Today, Mizusawa has two sides to it. The main growth is outside of the old town centre. There is newer housing and many of the younger people with their new families have moved there. The main shopping centres accessible by private car are also concentrated there. Downtown Mizusawa for its part is more like a real town, with city streets and sidewalks lined with smaller shops and restaurants, mostly the type of drinking establishments known as izakaya.
We headed to the modern side for lunch in a popular restaurant named ‘Victory’, the specialty of which is a huge variety of sirloin and hamburger steaks in imaginative combinations. This would be a family affair. Jun and Hiromichi drove to the Mizusawa-Esashi shinkansen station to pick up Miho who was arriving from Hakodate. Our taxi overtook Yoko’s aunt Eiko and her husband Akira as they were riding their bikes towards the restaurant. Eiko and Akira have a long history in theatre and ran a successful event-organizing business in Tokyo, but decided to move back to Mizusawa for semi-retirement. The retirement bit soon turned out to be less than the foreseen half. In addition to the karaoke bar that they opened and by now have run for several years, Eiko has recently been appointed the director of Z Hall, a cultural centre that contains a main hall seating 1,500 people. Just weeks ago they premiered a massive historical play, written by Akira, that involved some 200 extras drawn from the local population to play the role of disgruntled peasants staging a revolt against the landlords.
The Tohoku region (consisting of the northernmost prefectures of the Honshu island: Fukushima, Miyagi, Yamagata, Iwate, Akita and Aomori) has a reputation of having an independent population opposed to authority. Tohoku was the last stronghold against the rule of the shogun in the 12th century. Esashi today has a not-so-minor industry for location shooting of historical dramas that are so popular in Japan. The currently running epic, Taira no Kiyomori, and the hugely popular Furinkazan a few years back were both largely shot in Esashi. The reason for this is that there still are areas that can easily be transformed to look like samurai-era towns. More importantly, there is plenty of unspoilt nature—mountains, forests and the beautiful Kitakamigawa river—that are not ruined for film by electric poles or other modern features.
Having spent the afternoon in one of the major shopping malls, Aterui, we returned home to rest. As the evening was falling, Yoko and I decided to take a stroll to the town centre for a cup of coffee. Silence had again fallen with the setting sun. The shops on the main street were closing for the day. On a Sunday evening, the centre was almost deserted. In the coffee shop, a young couple were smoking. A few of the izakayas were open and I could see people entering. A group of girls in miniskirts looked cold as they were chatting in front of the Maple department store.
As we returned home, it was time for the third full meal of the day. The Japanese take food seriously, as testified by the numerous cooking and local food programs on TV at any time of any day. Food is the most common topic of discussion, like the proverbial weather for the Englishmen. Virtually every woman and many men take pride in being proficient cooks. Attention is paid to the quality and freshness of the ingredients, and it is important to vary them according to season. Eating on the go is considered a sacrilege and the closest one gets to fast food in Japan is sushi. In these parts, however, one can go weeks and months without sushi or sashimi. Iwate grows cattle, which produces fabulous cheeses and other milk products. Maesawa beef is second only to Kobe beef in reputation. I couldn’t think that I’d be able to eat yet another meal, but the hot ramen noodles in savoury broth were delicious, as was the Maesawa beef salad served with spicy soy sauce and washed down with cold beer. The meal was rounded off by juicy mandarin oranges, mikan, that are a staple of Japanese winter. It was cosy to sit around the kotatsu, a heated space underneath the table that keeps one’s feet and legs warm in the unheated house. The same elasticity that makes the houses endure earthquakes ensure that there is enough of fresh air blowing through the windows and doors to keep the inside temperature close to that outside. The kotatsu, as Mugi-chan the cat would agree, is a wonderful invention that keeps the family warm and together.
Still jetlagged, I was ready to sleep, but there was one more mandatory thing to do, the ofuro. Most Japanese take a hot bath every night before sleeping. The bath tub is filled once with scalding water and each person staying in the house—family, friends, guest—takes a dip in his or her turn. People are very clean and everyone washes thoroughly before immersing in the hot tub. As the most senior male present, I had the honour of taking the first turn in the bath. I retired to the warm futon and the amazing silence in anticipation of waking up to a new bright and calm day tomorrow.