Tag Archives: Numata

Still lost in totally no translation

To resume the situation for the folks who are not paying attention, I was in Numata, Japan, unleashed in the town by myself for the first time, and not having too much success communicating with the natives (despite two absolutely grueling Japanese lessons.)

I had made it to the Tenkeiji Temple through a random act of kindness, but, after a bit of fearless exploring, I needed to find my way back to the house of Ross.

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The familiar sight of garden gnomes reassured me a little. A common denominator! Even the Japanese were victims of tasteless decor, how about that?

Soon, I discovered just how cosmopolitan Numata really was…

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I considered having Itarian (sic) food at the Itarian restaurant.

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But then how tempting was the burg at My Burg since 1997!

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I settled on hot Tommy Lee Jones coffee. He was a graduate from St. Mark’s School of Texas where I shoot quite a lot (not when he was there. I must have been not born yet.) Anyway, drinking his coffee made me feel very macho and courageous and hyper for the rest of my journey at the heart of Numata.

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I even found a French boutique! The problem with all this cosmopolitanism is that it all remains very Japanese-speaking. It may be an Itarian restaurant but they do not speak a lick of Itarian. Ditto for My Burg. Ditto for the French. Quick on cashing in my hard-earned yens, but a bit short on lexicon help.

So I kept on walking and walking and having another Tommy Lee Jones coffee and walking and walking…

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I noticed a barber pole. If I may, I will tell you about barber poles. At a time when barbers were also surgeons (bad surgeons but surgeons nonetheless), one of their principal duties was bloodletting. The two spiral ribbons on the pole represent two bandages, one twisted around the arm before the bleeding and the other to bind it afterward.  As I walked by, I peeked, and pretty much, this is what I saw…

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Crocodile Dundee san cutting the extremely blue hair of a man. Fabulous, no? Of course, I had to stop and “ask” them for permission to photograph them.

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He was all embarrassed but the mama san made him do it. She was laughing her head off looking at her husband posing. She showed me a cup and I understood I was invited for coffee. Many things should have prompted a polite refusal. First, I was wired from all the Tommy Lee Jones coffee. Second, what would we be discussing? Third, there was another client waiting and he, too, was wearing a large hat. I had landed at the hairdresser for weird people!

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Well, of course, I stayed. I told them about going to Nikko and Takaragawa while sipping my milkless coffee (another hazard of the language barrier) and in turn they told me stuff too. There was no understanding whatsoever on either side but it was jovial and I ended up spending more than an hour with them, having a jolly good time.

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The arrival of a second client brought great excitement to my hosts. They made me understand that he spoke English. Well, that was one big exaggeration! He spoke English as well as I Japanese. He was totally busted in front of his friends! I felt a bit bad for him.

Eventually all good things come to an end and I still had to make it to the house.

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The mama san and the non-English speaking dude waived goodbye at the door and hop, I was back on the sidewalk.

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I observed many people working in open areas with their back to the street (which is totally bad for photography.) I walked and walked…

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When I came across the familiar site of small rented houses, I knew I was finally on the right track.

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I also recognized the poster of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda who had announced his resignation a few weeks prior to my trip. I was finally nearing my destination.

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Finally, the corner 7/11, rendered famous by Ross’ continuous milk shortage and his understanding of 7/11 food as the ultimate basic food group, came in view. I don’t know about you, but the closest 7/11 from my house does in no way resemble this one.  Mine looks like this:

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Sad, isn’t it?

Anyway, I had made it back to the point of origin and I was ready for some 7/11 lunch. I generally come back from trips all enriched by other people’s visions and life experience, but in Japan, my conversations being limited to sumi masen, sumi masen, I settled for the warmth and the sense of hospitality of absolute strangers. Upon my return to Texas, I also got rid of all the Japanese language CDs. First, they sucked, and second, if I can get around Japan with sumi masen, I am obviously as well-versed as I need to be.

Lost in totally no translation

Numata, Japan, 2008. Ross is a kind man and a fabulous guide but eventually Ross had to go back to work. That meant I was about to face Japan solo, armed with nothing but good disposition and a map. Before my trip, I had had time to take two Japanese lessons, just enough to learn how to say with aplomb: “Do you speak English?” and hope for the best. The best did not happen, but in a way, it did.

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I picked a destination at random, the Tenkeiji Temple on Zaimokusho-Dori, and I have to say that based on the map, it looked ultra-simple. Ross had warned me that the map was really old but he had not mentioned that 75% of the streets were not represented nor that the name of the streets would not be written with the Latin alphabet. Roads with no subtitles.

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Five minutes into my walk and I was already completely lost. I spotted what seemed to be a nice gentleman weeding his driveway, and I approached him with a smile and the absolute confidence that, within the next five minutes, a meaningful exchange of information would take place.

With my best Japanese accent (which, by that time, was infused with a bit of a Canadian flavor), I asked: “Do you speak English?” The man looked at me as if I had come from Mars. Maybe he was suffering from a hearing impediment. I repeated my well-rehearsed sentence more slowly and louder, taking great care in mouthing the words exaggeratedly so he could read my lips. No response. A blank stare.

Well, my valiant effort would not be in vain: I pointed at my camera and made eyes like interrogation points (that’s really big eyes with little nods) and he seemed to say okay. He immediately lowered his head so that I could take a really good picture of his hat.

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I continued on my road to nowhere or God knows where. When I saw a real estate agency, I thought for sure they would speak my kind of Japanese. I went in. A man was in polite conversation with, I think, a lady client (I’m sure about the lady part.) Again, with a confidence only slightly dented, I asked: “do you speak Japanese?” They both looked at each other, then back at me. Boy! My two Japanese lessons really sucked. I pointed at the map. They began to speak Japanese to me and I realized I was really in trouble in this country. I made little respectful bows, sumi masen, sumi masen (you can say sumi masen for any occasions, really. One can never go wrong with sumi masen. Hello, good bye, sorry: all sumi masen!) and exited the building.

Five minutes later, a car slowed down next to me, and the driver, the lady client from the real estate agency, made gestures that I should get into her car. I hope that’s what she meant otherwise she must have been really surprised when I hopped in. She drove me to the temple in her mini-car 66-99.

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Kazumi turned out to be very very cool in a non-communicative sort of way and she posed for me in the gardens of Tenkeiji. Having heard numerous tales of Japanese not liking foreigners (gaijin), I was amazed at the kindness of this woman.

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When she was gone, I started exploring. The temple appeared closed (no shoes lined up in front of the door) but the surroundings were beautiful.

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There were some very strange  Mizuko Jizo. It seemed someone had stuffed their mouth with fruit. A bit disturbing and not appetizing at all.

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I then knew why their clothes always looked like bibs. I simply had never witnessed the results of feeding time. A little further, I found mini God statues.

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I think the one on the left is a God and I think the one on the right is the butler, but this is pure conjecture on my part. I’ve probably committed sacrilege and insulted the God of cleanliness and purity.

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Another God-looking statue in the middle of the spring flowers of September, and of course, the tour would not be complete without my favorite: the tombs!

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Except they may not be tombs after all, but prayer stones. If these were tombstones, the people would have to be very small and skinny to fit. So probably, prayer stones… On the other side of the path, a small water way.

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These mini-rivers run all around town. It’s very charming. Numata is the little Venice of Japan. Without the Gondolas.

The problem with being driven somewhere is that you generally do not pay attention to the road. There I was, at Tenkeiji Temple, with the mission to go back to the house, a little blue dot on an archaic map. I just needed to find another good soul to drive me home. I put on my pathetic face and headed out toward a road…

Izakayas + Japadians = Fun Tonight, Hell Tomorrow

Numata, Japan. Saturday night. Kelly came over for a before drinks drink. Ross and I showed him our new toys and Kelly oohed and aahed politely until he spotted the coin bank, then he really meant it!

We debated whether it was motion, sound, or touch triggered, screaming at it and making all kinds of cool gestures in front of it but, in the end, we could not tell for sure. To this day, it remains a mystery. Time flies by when in Numata, and we suddenly realized it was 10 pm and we were starving. Off we went to Gen Roku Izakaya.

We sat at the “bar” where your legs and feet dangle into a hole in the floor. Of course, we first had to take our shoes off which still weirds me out a bit.

Ross and Kelly had beer (and let me tell you Japanese do not serve little rikiki beers), and I had sake which I adore and is very dangerous for my sobriety. Soon, I was taking the camera to a nearby alcove when youngsters were eating and mostly drinking.

They seemed to welcome me crashing the party and made multiple peace signs.

And more peace signs… If you try to convey that you’d rather them NOT make peace signs, they get very confused, soooo get used to it. Many more peace signs to come!

By the time I got back to our bar hole, Kelly was lovingly kissing my handbag.

Ross was making peace signs too (they were peace signs, right Ross?) and I was feeling quite, er, relaxed and amorous. I generally do not go about restaurant reclining but my shoes were confiscated and my sake goblet never ran out of liquid (by the way, in Japan, a woman never pours her own sake, she has to hold the cup, and put her other hand under it – so that if the guy misses, she’ll sustain third degree burns but the table cloth will remain immaculate – then hopefully a man notices her begging for sake and serves her some.)

The owners of Gen Roku, traditionally called Master san and Mamma san, were the bomb!

Kelly lifted Mamma san off the floor and moved her around a bit (I think she liked that.)

But Master san had an expression on his face which makes me think he liked his Mamma san better with her feet on the ground and away from the rock star.

Master san’s sock shoes had issues.

Me too. Poor Ross. It must be fairly difficult to have dinner with a monkey woman hanging from your neck! Well, as I mentioned before, Ross is a very polite man and he resignedly let me have my way with him. Then I decided to document the azakaya’s kitchen.

I think the cooks san were trying to convey the delightfulness of the food at Gen Roku – either that or the guy san on the left is rubbing the Buddha belly for good luck.

Cook san on the right presented the kitchen which appeared spotless and a fun environment.

I would fail all my duties if I did not post the traditional peace sign photograph too. You will not be spared.

Oh yeah, no sparing for you!

My last souvenir of Gen Roku Izakaya: Ross in animated Japanese discussion with Master san and Kelly really needing to go home. Ross and I took a cab to the 7/11.

This is our cab driver. My experience of izakayas with Ross and Kelly is that when you get out of there, you generally need some kind of food otherwise waking up in the morning feels miserable.

That’s the best hangover preventive ever: the Nikuman that Ross describes as a “gorgeous creation of doughy crap and possible meat all just waiting for you when you walk in the door.” He can eat four on the row which is really quite impressive when you think about it.

Dallas is not half as fun as Numata with the crazy Japadians. Blogging about this makes me feel all sad and nostalgic and I have not even been back a week. On the other hand, I have felt inexplicably much better in the morning since my return.

planetross eats skewers of bones

Numata, Japan. At 9:50 pm, planetross leaves work. Not before saying to his remaining colleagues he is sorry to depart before them: “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu”, “osaki ni shitsurei shimasu”, etc. Between you, me and the fence post, I don’t think he really means it (I would surmise the opposite is probably quite true), but Japan seems really big on manners and planetross is an extremely polite man.

At 10 pm, I see him pull up in his driveway from the balcony where I’m roosting (my favorite place to observe the neighborhood.) I run downstairs with the energy of someone who has been sleeping the whole time he has been working. No mercy! I feel eager to discover Numata by night.

planetross, Ross really, announces we will go eat at an Izakaya which is a bar/restaurant combo but sounds so much more exotic in Japanese. We walk for about a minute when I realize that for every step Ross takes, I have to take three. Hurriedly. He is a whole foot taller than I am and I think it’s all in his legs. At the traffic light, I look at him sheepishly and we go back to the house where I trade the four inch heels for threes. We are finally good to go!

Numata late in the evening looks deserted, a true ghost town. Pretty lanterns adorn each side of the main road but once you take small streets, it can get pretty dark.

At one intersection, Ross spots one of the teenagers who study where he works, going home on her bike. It’s 10:45 pm! On a Friday night! He explains that in Japan, to enroll in the good high schools, the student must perform well on an entry exam. If the results are deemed unsatisfactory, the Numata kid has to attend class in the high school from another town located an hour and a half away! Needless to say, the kids appear highly motivated to study and they spend most of their evenings and week-ends cramming for the exam.

I was surprised to discover blankets hanging from the sides of houses like this one. Ross explained that when two houses are conjoint and one is demolished, blue tarps are temporarily placed to provide some insulation. Often, they are not replaced by more permanent construction.

Of course, I make Ross pose in front of the tarps! You may be wondering why he never smiles on the images I post but I’m trying to balance out his own photographs where he is always cracking up. In fact, I have a lot of him smiling too 😉

When we get to the Komachi Izakaya, we sit at the bar where we can see what happens in the kitchen. I grab the menu. Ha! Ha! It’s all in Japanese. No drawing. No pictures. Not a trace of English. I am not sure what I would have done had I been on my own. Probably stay close to the 7/11.

I give Ross the menu. Ross is now de facto the boss of what I eat. He suggests skewers of chicken skins, skewers of chicken bones and little shrimps you eat whole with the eyes and everything. I look at him funny because, of course, I think he is joking. He is not joking. The man has insane tastes! He never blogged about eating bones! Generously, he also orders some chicken and green onions which makes me feel much more comfortable.

It turns out, after a bite of the chicken skins (a little one just to show that I am worldly and would try just about anything), well it turns out they are so yummy I want them all to myself! The shrimps? Oooh heavens! So good! After hearing Ross eat the bones, I decide to draw a boundary but Japanese cooking absolutely rocks big time!

When we leave the Izakaya, we meet these happy young ones who seemed much less serious when not wearing a school uniform. The V is not for victory but for peace. All my photographs of young Japanese people include the peace sign. Nothing can be done. It is endemic.

We walked to the Suga Shrine where the Numata Festival ends every year. It feels extremely strange and surreal to be in a place previously described by Ross in one of his posts.

At the end of this dark alley, a Snack Bar. That’s not the place where you get a sandwich and a coke to go. This is where you go when as a man, you would like the company of a woman. Platonic company I must add. You buy a bottle, and a woman sits and talks to you. They seem fairly popular. Numata also has a number of Love Hotels where you can rent a room for a very short time. Some people just rent rooms for karaoke sessions or to have a place to entertain a group of friends.

It is 1 am and time to go to bed because tomorrow, we have to shop for toys, visit a Scottish castle, listen to Kelly perform, and have more chicken skins and a lot of sake for me (I’m still hesitating about posting some of the photographs!)

Oyasuminasai!

Red-Nosed Spirits in The Mountain

I hopped on the bus at Narita Airport in Tokyo and I went: “No Waaaay!” (in my head.) Japan is exactly like St. Croix: folks drive on the wrong side of the street. Dammit! That crucial tidbit of information meant I would not get behind the wheel under any circumstances during my trip as to not create an international accident of astronomical proportion.

The bus ride to Shibukawa where Kelly would pick me up lasted more than four hours but I sat quietly, greatly entertained by the new scenery. I arrived a bit early so I rounded up the bus drivers for a special shoot.

None of the drivers spoke ANY English. I had reached lesson two of my Japanese method and thought I had master: “Do you understand English?” but apparently not. I had to wave my camera under their noses and point at a place outside where I wanted them to pose. I had to be bossy.

Photographing Japanese people would prove difficult. I should have pushed to at least lesson three or four perhaps, but time somehow eluded me.

Kelly blasted in the parking lot and we drove off to Numata, music blaring (I just finally got an iPod and I am obsessed with it), and getting to know each other during the 40 minute trip. When I said planetross was living at the end of the world, I was totally not kidding. Really.

He always works late hours so Kelly and I toured his house and had a few drinks before he arrived (more exactly Kelly watched me have a few drinks.)

Then planetross arrived and it was all good.

The next morning, we drove to Mt. Kasho (Kashozan) also known as Tengu’s Mountain. It is highly regarded as a sacred place and hosts a Buddhist Temple first established in 848. The Temple followed the Tendai Sect, and converted to the Soto Sect of Buddhism in the 15th century.

Along the way, we stopped at a shrine in the forest on the side of the road.

It felt peaceful. I could inundate poor planetross with a thousand questions and make him pose everywhere. That’s also the location I encountered my first Mizuko Jizo, guardian of a stillborn baby, miscarried or aborted fetus, or a baby who died very early on.

The worshipers pay a fee to the Temple to adopt a Mizuko Jizo (potential Buddha of the water-babies) and inscribe a Kaymyo (name given after death) on it. The ritual of honoring the Mikuzo figurines is called Mikuzo Kuyo.

I think some Mizuko are weird looking. If you compare the two above photographs, you can surely notice that one is definitely more blessed by nature than the other. Anyway, these statuettes abound all over the area which sounds a bit sinister but really isn’t.

We continued our ascent of the mountain to get to the main cluster of temples. It is said that the Buddhist priest Chuho told his successor that he was the embodiment of Kasho buddha, and that he would stay on the mountain as a spirit. Then as his spirit ascended, he left behind a mask of Tengu.

Tengu (“Heavenly dogs”) are monter-spirits which are sometimes worshiped as revered gods. Initially, the tengu took the form of birds of prey, but throughout history, have come to be humanized with an abnormally long nose (that kinda looks like something else.) The Mirokuji Temple is one of three large temples in Japan to enshrine Tengu.

This, for example, could be the representation of an earlier Tengu. I would not know. Everything is in Japanese and no one speaks English.

That was a very cool hairy Tengu. Kashozan is the home of the biggest Tengu mask in Japan: 21.98 ft and a VERY long nose of 8.86 ft! Visitors of the Temple can rent a Tengu mask for wish granting. I did not rent one since I had all I wanted and I figured the language barrier would probably hurt my chances of being heard anyway.

You can also contribute a big mask to the Temple. In 1971, the Great Tengu Religious Association gave one to pray for protection from traffic accident and for the prosperity of the Numata Chamber of commerce and Industry.

In the middle of all that Tengu spirituality, I had planetross pose everywhere. He had insisted on wearing his tennis shoes number ones, which were all new and screwed up my contrast on every shot. He even had some number threes but I had to wait two days before he agreed to wear them! Wanker!

The above photograph represents I have no idea whom but it had cool glasses so I thought I’d share.

I thought these were prayers and I was getting all solemn but, er, nenni my friends, nenni. These are thanks to sponsors! You can be a Buddhist priest and have an excellent sense of business.

Soon it was time to leave since planetross had to work that afternoon and and I had to take a monster nap. That evening, we would go to an izakaya to grab a bite and take pictures of Numata by night (which was a lot of fun from what I can vaguely remember.)

Konnichiwa!

I would go to the end of the world to meet a person who tickles my curiosity bone, not to mention my funny one.

So, I went… AND honestly, the end of the world was even further than I thought (when you add a 4 hour bus ride) AND it was totally worth every damn mile. I’m happy!

I will now leave you with my two favorite Canadians EVER and go to bed. Details of the journey will follow. No secret information will be shared… but I come back with 2,000 photographs so I’ll have plenty to show you!

planetroCKss in Japan after experimenting with hair shears

Kelly Pettit and lovely wife Harumi

note: I can be bribed (but it won’t be cheap.)