Noh! Matsushima Matsuri! Fun!

Get ready for a long day of nothing! I have a completely empty schedule and no Sarah to bug. So, today, we really get to see if I am capable of amusing myself. If only City Hall were like Pangaea and I could adjourn to the lounge for some darts – I miss you Charanjeet! At least I don’t have to fill in a timesheet here. Such an ordeal would bend truth way past it’s limits. I’m not sure how Sarah and I could manipulate playing chess into something relevant to teaching’

I’ve already managed to while away an hour and a half of this morning and I haven’t even gotten to journaling yet. No, I haven’t been a productive, little JET, but I have been a somewhat productive little Darby. My time is being passed going through photos from last night and emailing. Go JET go!

And now, I’ll attempt to keep up with the week’s events. Friday, a group of the Ichinoseki JETs went out for dinner and Sally and Michael from joined us nearby towns. Brent and I met outside Lawson’s near the station, as planned. The rest of the group, however, decided not to inform us that they were waiting around the corner. So Brent and I chatted a while then figured out that we were being neglected.

We walked to a second-floor restaurant whose menu suggested I would be able to eat some tomato and cucumber sandwiches. What the plastic foods outside neglected to include, however, was the egg that was crammed into every nook of the sandwiches. As appealing as that was, I had to do some scraping – the end result was rather unsatisfying, so I followed it up with an all-too-satisfying foot-tall sundae. So expensive, but so good.

Afterwards, we said some goodbyes to Sarah who was soon leaving for home for a two-week vacation. The night was young, but everyone else was off to other venues so I biked home by myself and relaxed there.

The next day, I got a late start on my plans to go to Hiraizumi. I confused my train schedules and ended up planning for the wrong time. That meant, however, that I was home when Sarah arrived to drop off her key so I could pass it along to Jo, so we got to say another farewell. Then, we repeated the procedure when I biked past her on the way to the station.

My destination in Hiraizumi for the afternoon was Motsuji temple for a walk and some photos. As with Chusonji, my photos describe the location better than I can, so I will keep my descriptions brief. However, the photos don’t capture what the place would have been like in centuries past. A mural at the site depicted the sprawling temples surrounding the lake and suggested that Motsuji was one an incredibly glorious location. Now, it is only somewhat glorious.

As I wandered, I met a couple of other teachers who work in Ichinoseki and we exchanged information. It’s always nice to know more English speakers here, so hopefully they can be an addition to my small circle of friends in Japan.

A short hike later and I was back at Chusonji where I hoped to attend the Noh performance. Unaware that a ticket was going to cost me an arm and a leg, I happily strolled toward the stage, but was confronted by the ticket sellers. I found one who spoke English who informed me that a ticket to stay until 7:45 would cost me 4000 yen. I drifted to the side of the path and deliberated. Eventually, I came to the conclusion, ‘When am I going to get the chance to see this again?’ and I bit the bullet.

But, my biggest lesson learned from this experience: Before purchasing a ticket, always ask if photos are permitted. I’m sure you can guess where this goes. As the performance was starting and the chorus was warming up for their guttural, inhuman growls and comical, high-pitched yelps, I started snapping away from my tripod. A gaijin with a tripod, a big camera and no press pass is, apparently, pretty easy to spot in a crowd of Japanese tourists and I was quickly halted in my photographic tracks. Disappointing to say the least – one of my main reasons for attending was to take photos. For me, it was like going to the theatre and not being allowed to wear glasses (if I needed glasses).

The performance itself was as bizarre as it gets on stage. After fires were lit around the viewing area, the cast slowly entered. This ancient, traditional, Japanese art form defies description. The non-rhythmic drum slaps, growls and yips from the chorus and incomprehensible melodies from the singers were the delivery method for words that only seemed like backwards gibberish to me. I couldn’t actually make out any sounds that could have been words and wondered if I was the only person so bemused.

I made an effort to follow along, but the movements were so sparse and the drama so austere, I couldn’t exactly piece together any sort of narrative. I started assembling something in my head, but it ended up being a Kafka-esque tale related more to my experience of the performance than to the performance itself. Since I couldn’t take photos, I think my brain wanted to have this experience inspire something creative, so now I have a story I need to write in my off time.

The next sketch was not accompanied by the chorus and seemed to be more amusing to the audience. A little physical comedy even drew a chuckle or two from me. From what I gathered, the story in this episode was related to an old worker who kept falling asleep at his job of stirring who knows what. He was miming the action – how could I know what he was supposed to be stirring? Some superior of his was constantly interrupting him from his naps by stomping his feet and yelling. Beyond that, I can’t elaborate much more on the subject matter.

Another operatic movement followed and was just as obfuscated as the first. All I really know about this one is that archers were somehow involved. They had arrows – I’m so astute. It did, however, give me further material for that story I might write’

I left a bit early and took some photos along the way back through Chusonji. Only a few of the locations were adequately lit, but I managed to find a few shots. There was something haunting about being near these shrines alone and in the dark.

When I reached the train station, a minor festival was underway with drumming and dancing. From the platform, I was able to watch a homemade fireworks display shooting from the road outside. I rode home with another JET, Joe, living in Miyagi prefecture then once again, ran into Sarah in the Ichinoseki station. She was waiting on her train to Sendai and caught a glimpse of me and decided to say hi and goodbye again – I guess she’s just having a hard time letting go of me. Har!

The next day I waited through the morning to hear from Jo about our trip to Matsushima. I talked with home for a while before I had to clear the line.

In the afternoon, Jo, Brent, Alice and I headed south along the expressway. We were soon in Matsushima and began a desperate search for parking. As in Aomori, our gaijin proclivity for bending rules the Japanese would deem near sacrosanct proved useful. Our options were either to park more than a few kilometers down the road or to park at the omiyage shop across the street from the viewing area. The choice was obvious.

Jo tried to justify the violation by making a purchase at the shop. After she left it in the car, we wandered around the back of the store and dodged the view of the security guard directing traffic in the parking lot. This route allowed a quick scan of some of Matsushima’s sights and I think a return visit would be worthwhile. Temples, caves and of course, the beautiful view of the bay would make for a lovely day of photographs.

We found a good spot on a bench to watch the fireworks after buying tasty crepes from one of the many festival food stands. The couple next to us was hospitable and moved the bench for our gaijin butts. We took turns gathering sustenance and then I wandered in search of photo opportunities. I carried on this way until the fireworks were set to launch from barges in the bay over top of the thousands of floating lanterns set out onto the water. When the sky burst into action, I procured one of the best possible spots at the sea wall and snapped to my heart’s content.

The yellow and red lights slowly drifting in the distance were a gorgeous sight to behold. I wish we could have been closer to them, but I suspect only the boats in the bay got an adequate view ‘perhaps next year this will be an option’

With the chest-pounding booms still echoing off the nearby hills, we started back from home. Now, Matsushima isn’t an especially large urban centre. In fact, it might best be described as a burgh. One road leads in, one road leads out. And guess where everyone needed to be to leave for home: that one road. It took us about two hours to get onto the expressway. In the meantime, we were able to people watch, swear at the idiocy of Japanese drivers, and marvel at one of the worst traffic jams I had ever experienced.

Earlier that day, Jo and Brent had been telling us just how the licensing system works for drivers in Japan. They have to take a test that is actually performed on a road course – they are never tested in actual roadway conditions. The driving schools all prepare the drivers for passing the test and little else beyond that. So, when they get onto the real roads, they have little to no experience of driving around other cars or at high speeds. Merging and following distances are left to instinct. The mystery of bad Japanese drivers has been solved.

But another interesting point is that in the case of an accident involving a cyclist and a car, it is always the driver of the car who is at fault – even if the car is parked and the cyclist runs into the vehicle. That would explain some of the courtesy the cyclists are offered here and it also hints at why the cyclists sometimes speed through city streets with an air of invincibility.

While I’m thinking of interesting facts, talking with one of the junior high teachers last week revealed that she is putting the poor kids through some serious paces while they attempt to enjoy their summer holiday. Each child continues to engage in his or her club activities during the break, but Ms. Asanuma prescribes an additional five hours of homework per student, per night. The poor kids are missing their childhood. They went wide eyed at the thought of me having more than two months vacation during the summer at their age and no homework to speak of. Once they had picked their jaws from the floor, they settled back into the chronically fatigued states of Japanese school children. The next day, Sarah and I were supposed to tutor them again, but Yusuke’s cold had not been allowed to subside and it had also spread to Daichi. Surprise, overworked kids get sick – didn’t see that coming at all.

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