The Inaka Conundrum

Mt. Kuju ringed by cloud.

Mt. Kuju ringed by cloud.

I live in the countryside, or the inaka as they say in Japanese. Lots of people like to claim they live in the inaka just because they’re not in a major metropolitan area. If you live in a city with 200,000 people, a McDonald’s, and a Stabucks, I’m sorry but you don’t live in the inaka. It might not be what you’d call an exciting and vibrant city but it’s definitely not the countryside.

Taketa is the countryside and that’s just the way I like it.

I never thought I would like living in the countryside. I’m from a suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area. Growing up, my goal was always to live in the city. It’s where everything was happening. Clubs, bars, vintage clothing stores, record stores, museums and galleries… these were the things that made life worth living. I never gave a second thought to nature. It just didn’t excite me like a late-night burrito run.

I’ve lived in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Oita City, and there were things about them all that I loved (and, in the case of L.A., didn’t love so much). The only time I really felt the need to get away from the sheer concrete density of it all was in Tokyo, when I was surrounded on all sides by hours and hours of sprawl. But even then I didn’t run to the mountains, but to a seaside café or small-town Zen temple.

I have never lived in a place more beautiful than Taketa, which is deep in the lush, green mountains of northeast Kyushu. It’s hard to describe how verdant it is here in the summer, with terraced rice paddies like something out of a travel brochure cascading down bamboo-fringed slopes, and torrents of clear water rushing into the river that runs through the center of town.

Sure, there are drawbacks. I miss things like ethnic food and movie theaters and museums. But Oita City is only an hour away, and after I’ve had my curry and nan and seen some paintings, I can happily retreat back up the mountain, relieved to see green instead of concrete.

So what’s the conundrum then? If I could find someone to settle down with here, the problem would be solved. I would happily move into a house in the boonies and live the rest of my life under the impossibly blue summer sky. But in Taketa, where almost half the population is over 65, it’s exceedingly difficult to meet someone worth sharing that sky with.

I’m wondering if I’ll have to move to a big city at some point to find someone that I like. That would mean giving up the bamboo and waterfalls and rice paddies. I’m not going to make any decisions yet but I have to face the fact that I might not be able to put down roots just yet.

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The Blog Days Of Summer

IMG_2614Desk warming. If it’s summer vacation, I’m desk warming. For those of you not in the know, this means sitting at a desk with nothing to do. For most of the year I’m teaching classes at any of my 10 schools. Unlike most JETs though I don’t have a home school. My headquarters is the Taketa Board of Education in city hall. When I’m not at a school, I’m here, adding body heat to my ’60s-era gunmetal gray desk.

It seems to be an inescapable part of ESL life, desk warming. I first became familiar with it teaching in Korea. During the long breaks between semesters I’d sit at my desk, watch movies on my computer, and play Angry Birds on the iPad. Sometimes my school would let me “work from home,” which wasn’t strictly allowed but they were pretty lenient with me.

Here, though, I’m not hiding in an empty school. I’m sitting in a bullpen of desks in city hall, and I’m the first face people see when they come to our section. I’m not expected to take care of customers but I do have to greet them and, most importantly, look like I’m working. Loudly laughing at movies and launching flightless birds at shabbily constructed pig fortresses wouldn’t go over well.

Reading, studying Japanese, and getting ready for the next semester are all acceptable activities. Given that there isn’t a lot to do for next semester—my lessons are made reactively, that is, when requested—that leaves reading and studying. I’m loaded up on books, and I have plenty to study before the next Japanese Language Proficiency Test in December.

Then there’s writing, which is also an acceptable activity that looks like real work. Along with other, more general writing, I’m hoping to create a number of articles for this blog. Lord knows I’ve been neglecting it lately.

Here’s to the next five weeks of light air conditioning, pretend working and desk warming.

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In Praise Of Oita

oitaI live in the prefecture of Oita. Like most foreigners living here, I ended up here by chance. In 2008 I came to Oita University to study for a year as an exchange student. I had never heard of Oita before. In fact, I was hoping for Kyoto. But fate has a way of stepping in and messing up your plans and, as in this case, completely changing your life. It was an amazing year so when I applied to JET in 2012 I put down Oita as my top choice.

This time I’m not here by accident. I’m here because Oita is awesome. This isn’t just misplaced pride. The more I travel in Japan, the more I realize how unique it is.

Oita has a whole lot of castles. Most prefectures only have one. Oita has two full castles, a few partial ones, and a whole lot of castle ruins. Why so many? When Tokugawa became Shogun he issued an edict that each domain was only allowed one castle. Today’s modern prefectural borders correspond pretty closely to the old domains with the exception of Oita. Oita was actually a number of small domains at the time, each with its own castle. When the Shogun fell these small domains were organized into one large prefecture. I win.

Nakastle castle

Nakastle castle

Buddha Rock Carvings
Oita is known as the hot springs prefecture. Heavy volcanic activity ensures that we have more hot springs than any other prefecture. This same volcanic activity has also created cliffs and rock walls that are particularly suited for carving. The stone Buddha statues of Usuki are pretty famous, as is the Fudomyo carving in Kunisaki, but if you know where to look you can find carvings all over the prefecture.

Usuki Buddha

Usuki Buddha

Oita is in the top 10 prefectures for number of shrines per person. For someone like me who loves Shinto shrines, this is a real bonus. Of course, there’s the famous shrine in Usa but the whole prefecture is dotted with shrines large and small. I have spent many a Saturday driving down back roads looking for shrines. I am rarely disappointed.

Usa Shrine

Usa Shrine

Fried Chicken
Oita is famous for toriten, tempura fried chicken. It’s such an obvious thing that I’m surprised it isn’t a national dish. What is a national dish though is karaage. I’ve eaten it any number of times all over Japan and even in America. But I had no idea that this was born in Oita, too: Usa to be exact. The city of Nakatsu is also famous for its karaage. Oita definitely knows chicken.

Oita is staggeringly beautiful. Its got a rugged coast line, green mountains full of terraced rice fields, beautiful rivers and of course the Kuju Highlands, which look like nowhere else in Japan. I’ve been all over Kyushu and I have to say that Oita is the prettiest prefecture around.

Shiramizu Falls

Shiramizu Falls

To say that Oita has great weather is kind of pushing it but it’s not bad, considering it’s Japan. The summers are long but not super hot. Big cities like Tokyo and Osaka are much hotter. Hokkaido has mild summers but long, snowy winters and we absolutely do not. I think I had to dig my car out of the snow only twice last winter. And that was the worst winter in 30 years.

Of course, Oita doesn’t have everything. But it is located close enough to other places that even if you can’t find what you want here, what you’re looking for might be just a few hours away. Need a big city fix? Fukuoka is around the corner. How about a volcano? Aso is right across the border in Kumamoto. The cave where the sun goddess hid? Not far away in Miyazaki. Need to surf? Drive down the coast. Hell, even the Asian mainland isn’t that far away.

Amanoiwato Shrine in Takachiho, Miyazaki

Amanoiwato Shrine in Takachiho, Miyazaki

I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay in Oita forever but I will certainly try to. As far as I’m concerned, this is home.

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On Impermanence

All things must pass.

All things must pass.

Every spring, the entire country of Japan turns out for the arrival of sakura, or cherry blossoms. News agencies forecast the day of their blossoming, and duly update viewers with the best times to view them. Friends and co-workers gather on weekends and evenings in spots known to have the best blossoms and drink and eat, but mostly drink. Why such a fuss over a flower? Because the cherry blossom lasts for only a very short time and then falls. It’s its impermanence that makes it all the more beautiful.

Japan seems to be built around the idea of impermanence, sometimes literally. Things are not made to last forever. Houses were, after all, made of wood and paper for centuries and things had to be replaced often. In pre-modern times, straw sandals were favored and new ones were often bought two or three times in a single journey. Ise-jingu, the most famous shrine in Japan, is demolished and rebuilt every 20 years. In America, we tend to value things that are (to us at least) eternal, like mountains. But here it’s exactly the opposite.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the massive game of musical chairs the whole country plays every April. From schools to work places to television programs, everything changes come spring. As the cherry blossoms fall outside, businessmen move around sections inside companies and teachers transfer to different schools. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you studied marketing in school, when the time comes to transfer you’re going to human resources. Perhaps you’re great with sixth graders. That’s nice but you’re going to be teaching first grade now. Oh, and your new school is three hours away so you have two weeks to find a new place to live.

I have yet to hear a good reason for this confusing system, which slows down the whole country spring while people get used to their new positions, other than this is how it’s always been done. I came across a passage in an essay by Meiji-era writer Lafcadio Hearn, in which he marveled about this very same thing, and remarked that it had been going on for a very long time. I suspect part of this great yearly change has to do with making sure no one develops any kind of unnatural seniority by being in a workplace for too long, but I also think it’s done this way because it’s always been done this way.

Japan may be particularly in tune to impermanence in some things but when it comes to systems those must never change. People move around every year (to the detriment of business and economy) because this is the way it’s always been done. Houses are built without insulation or central heating because this is the way it’s always been done. Women have little opportunity for advancement in the workplace and are expected to quit once they become pregnant because… well, you get the idea.

Ise-jingu may be rebuilt every 20 years but it’s rebuilt exactly the same way. It’s both impermanent and permanent, constantly changing and yet eternally static. Japan is a lot like this. It’s why you can see ultra-modern buildings next to centuries-old temples in Tokyo, or why its robotics industry is number one in the world yet the average person still wants a floppy drive on their computer, if they know how to use a computer at all. It’s why the country can be so excitingly modern in some ways and so frustratingly backwards in others.

It’s also why Japan continues to be so fascinating for me.

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Taketa Best

IMG_2050There was recently an article online about a poll conducted by a Japanese publishing house. The poll listed 137 small towns across the country and asked people to vote for the one they most wanted to live in. Not only were the top three all in Kyushu, two of the top three (well, four actually since third place had two tied entries) were in Oita. And among them was my town, Taketa.

Number one was Usa, in Oita. I’ve been to Usa a few times. It’s a lovely town with a great big shrine, and supposedly the first karaage takeout stand in the country. But I can’t say I thought it was the best city in the country. Number two is Takeo in Saga, a prefecture known more for being the butt of jokes than anything else. I’ve been to Saga (though not the town in question) and I found it to be provincial. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Tied for third place are two more Oita towns, Bungotakada and my beloved Taketa. Bungotakada is up by Kunisaki Peninsula. It also repurposed its downtown area into Showa Town, a tourist destination that looks like a small town from the 1950s. It’s certainly cute but is it really that great?

And so we come to Taketa. Of course, I know it’s a great place but that’s because I live here. Why would someone who had never been here choose it from a list of more than 100 other countryside towns? The article mentions Taketa’s historical buildings and locations, of which there are quite a few. It also says that Taketa has become a mini-Mecca for artisans and craftspeople working in traditional arts like fabric dyeing. I had no idea. It also said that Taketa has set up an office in Tokyo to encourage people to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and move to their town.

This is the first small town I’ve lived in Japan. I sort of assumed they were all like this but I guess Taketa really is something special.

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Regular Exorcize

koutouThere are bad luck years in Japan. Called yakudoshi 厄年, they’re supposed to coincide with changes in one’s life that can lead to misfortune in health, finances and any number of categories. For men, the years are generally 25, 42 and 60, and for women they’re 19, 33 and 37. As I’m turning 42 in a few weeks, I thought it couldn’t hurt to get some special protection against whatever calamities might be waiting for me in the coming year.

Known as a yakubarai 厄払い, the ceremony is essentially an exorcism to ward off any bad spirits that might be hanging around and make the local kami (god) aware of your special needs in the hopes that it will offer extra protection. I had mine done at a Shinto shrine but apparently Buddhist temples can also do it. This is not surprising as shrines and temples coexisted for a thousand years and were only separated in the late 1800s to weaken Buddhism as part of the Meiji-era push towards emperor worship.

I decided to go to the biggest shrine in my town to have my yakubarai done. Ogi Mori Inari-jinja (also known as Koutou-sama) is an Inari shrine, which means it houses the god Inari, which is actually a collective of multiple gods. Inari-sama (to add the honorific) is in charge of rice and agriculture and prosperity in general. Its symbol is the fox. Inari shrines are characterized by their vermillion color and tunnels of torii (shrine gates). Although I don’t feel a great affinity for Inari-sama, I am trying to be more fiscally responsible these days. And anyway, it’s my town shrine and I’m asking for year-long protection so it makes sense to stay local.

I went on a Sunday morning. The shrine was busier than normal, what with people still doing hatsumode (first shrine or temple visit of the year) and taking care of other beginning-of-the-year business. Shinto strikes me as a very practical religion. There are no existential crises of faith; you have a problem, you go get it fixed. I like that.

This was my first time to do anything at a shrine other than stop by and pray outside so I was pretty nervous. I asked at the area where they sell protective charms and they directed me to the waiting area, which was inside the actual shrine. I took off my shoes, ascended the short flight of stairs, and I found myself inside the shrine building. Behind me was the offertory box and rope and bell, and I could hear people clapping and ringing the bell behind me as they prayed. In front of me was a raised area where a family was receiving some kind of blessing from the priest, who faced an altar with a circular mirror on it. The mirror was flanked on both sides by wooden sticks bearing lightning bolt-shaped paper streamers called shide. I sat on the carpeted floor and waited to see what would happen.

As the family finished and a pair of men, who had been waiting next to me, took their place at the altar, a man sat down behind a low table to my left and motioned me over. I told him I wanted a yakubarai because I was turning 42. He wrote my name and address down on a piece of paper and circled the number 42. I told him it was my first time in a shrine, gave him 3000 yen (around $30) for the service, and went back to wait.

A new priest entered the shrine and took my paper from the clerk, who explained that this was my first time and that I didn’t know what to do. The new priest came over to me and gave me a little primer on what was going to happen. He instructed me how to properly bow, and how to receive the sacred evergreen sakaki branch. We then ascended to the altar level.

Sake blessed by Inari-sama.

Sake blessed by Inari-sama.

I sat seiza, or on my knees, and the priest, facing the altar and the god enshrined in the area behind us, intoned prayers. At one point I heard my name and address, I guess so the god would know who I was and where I lived. The priest also gave me a kind of running commentary between verses, letting me know when to pray, bow my head, etc. At one point he waved a wand festooned with more of the zigzag paper over my head to purify me. And then the big moment for me: he approached me and handed me the branch, which I took as instructed. I didn’t quite do it right so he had me do it again. Then I placed it on a low table in front of me and bowed low, twice, to the god, clapped twice and then bowed again, as instructed. He then said some more prayers, handed me a bottle of sake, and it was over. The ceremony took around 10 minutes.

I stood up shakily, having knelt immobile for 10 minutes, but thankfully my legs hadn’t fallen asleep. I turned around to descend from the altar level and there were quite a few groups of people waiting. Aside from the solemn atmosphere and the fact that they were sitting on the floor, it could have been any kind of waiting room. They all seemed a little surprised to see me.

As I walked back to my car, I felt significantly lighter, like the troubles and stress I had been holding onto had vanished. Rationally, I don’t really believe that Inari-sama will zap away bad spirits as they approach me or my house, like some kind of spiritual video game. But I do see the worth in participating in these kinds of ceremonies. Perhaps I’ll be more careful this year, and will think before I throw away money on something I don’t really need. But more than that, I feel like I participated in something greater than myself, and experienced a kind of awe that is largely lacking in daily life. It’s the same awe you feel standing on top of a mountain, or seeing the sunrise. It’s the awe and beauty of life and it’s why I keep going back to Shinto shrines, seeking them out.

As this isn’t science (obviously), the actual bad-luck years apparently differ around Japan. At my local shrine it was 25, 42 and 60 for men, but I’ve also seen 61 (and not 60) listed as a bad year. Also, are you counting your years the Western way i.e. zero when you’re born, or the traditional Asian way i.e. 1 when you’re born? Perhaps to combat this confusion, most shrines recommend having an exorcism done in the years before and after the bad years as well. Additionally, I was told that I should have the ceremony done before the year started and not during, which seems to run counter to the idea of having it done before, during and after. I guess if bad things start to happen I’ll head back to the shrine for a touch-up, like going to the dentist to have a cavity filled.

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The Cutlery Incident

Recently I was eating in a Japanese restaurant when something happened that made me surprisingly upset, so much so that I had to think about it for a while before I thought I could cogently write this blog entry. Here’s what happened:

I had gone into the big city of Oita to do some shopping at a mall and decided to eat at one of the restaurants before heading back up the mountain. I chose a Japanese-style place, read the Japanese menu and placed my order in Japanese. And then halfway through my dinner the waitress brought me a knife and fork.

I looked at her with an expression that I hoped conveyed that although I was smiling I was in disbelief that I was being insulted in such a way. The message didn’t seem to be getting though so I said in Japanese, “I don’t need them.” I clicked my chopsticks together to show that there was nothing wrong with my manual dexterity. She asked, “Everything is OK?” and, smile plastered to my face, I assured her that it was. I finished my meal and paid my bill and then drove home, seething all the while.

So why did this make me so upset? She was only trying to be nice, I’m sure. But to me this felt like an insult.

Americans don’t like to be patronized and this felt like patronization. When Japanese people tell us that our chopstick skills are good it’s like a slap in the face. Yes, I’m perfectly capable of feeding myself. I’m a big boy with big boy manual dexterity. We absolutely hate being compared to a child in any way. As a society of individuals, one of the hallmarks of adulthood is being able to take care of yourself. Suggesting otherwise is insulting.

Also, everyone I know can use chopsticks to some extent. It would be embarrassing to have to ask for a fork at an Asian restaurant and would be like failing some kind of urban adaptability test. Japanese people eat Western food with a knife and fork, why can’t we eat Asian food with chopsticks? Can you imagine if a waitress brought an Asian person chopsticks in a Denny’s?

I asked two Japanese friends who have lived in the US how they would feel if they were handed chopsticks at a diner in America and their answers surprised me. They both said they would be pleased and surprised by the attentiveness of the wait staff, who anticipated their possible needs and went out of the way to help them.

Well, didn’t I feel like an ass. From the Japanese perspective, this was a helpful thing to do. It was just good customer service. And statistically speaking, Americans really can’t use chopsticks. My California experience seems to be an exception.

No good comes from seething. In the future, I will try to accept these kinds of gestures as acts of kindness. My blood pressure will certainly be the better for it.

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