Shiga Prefecture / Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
June 24 – 25 and 28 -30, 2009
This is the last entry in my Japan 2009 series. I’ve mostly written about historical landmarks and megapolises I visited. All were amazingly memorable experiences; however, they merely touched on extreme points on the Japanese continuum: its rich historical heritage and its modern urban present. I felt there was a missing link between these polar opposites, and on my last day I realized the bridge for this gap was right under my nose.
My stay in Shiga Prefecture completed my Japan experience. When I first learned that I’d be staying in this place, I was rather dismayed. I dreamed of the hyper-stimulation of Tokyo and Osaka, the Zen-like delights of Kyoto and Nara…but Shiga – where is that and what’s there? I hadn’t heard of the place. A quick Google search revealed it was in the middle of…um, nowhere. Sure it was in the vicinity of Osaka in the Kansai region – but it seemed out of the way. True enough, my Japanese host picked us up at a bus station in Kyoto and drove us through what seemed like remote mountainous terrain.
The days that followed were hectic with touristy activities. There were some lulls though when they just went about their mundane business, such as shopping and running errands. In retrospect, those were the moments that allowed me to somehow live the life of the average Japanese in one of Japan’s numerous small cities.
The first thing I noticed about Shiga were the flatlands blanketed by lush rice fields and framed by mountainous backdrops, very much akin to the views from the North Luzon Expressway in the Philippines. Initially I thought, I didn’t go to Japan to see Pampanga! But the similarities ended there. The roofs of houses that dotted the countryside mostly had that distinct Japanese-style shingles. A low mountain in Yasu City became a sort of landmark; I knew we were near my host’s house when it came into view from the highway. The land was obviously fertile, perhaps owing to the water supply from Lake Biwa, the third oldest lake in the world at 5 million years old. My host didn’t know this fact. I couldn’t blame her; living in a place for years, its fascinating aspects would tend to get eclipsed by the daily concerns of work, bills, and family.
Pachinko parlors, slot machine establishments mostly owned by Koreans, were also a ubiquitous sight even in the small cities of Shiga, coloring the roadside with their unmistakably gaudy facades and signs. It wasn’t surprising to see a host of them in Tokyo and Kawasaki, but there were two to three in almost every street corner in any city in Shiga! Interestingly, not one person I met in Japan admitted to having been to any of these places. Perhaps it was a kind of open secret.
Generally though, I found buildings in Shiga to be unassuming. Supermarkets were not in malls but in sprawling low-rise structures; factories dominated the cityscape. One such factory was Nissin Food Products. I could sniff out that distinct noodle aroma in the air. I was, after all, in the seat of instant ramen production – in Kusatsu, where the company also has a research center – a testament to how the Japanese take their ramen seriously. It’s their cup of…well, instant noodles.
Lunch time found us on the road, so my host pulled over at a small restaurant frequented by traveling salesmen with laptops and old men with newspapers. My host swore by its udon, which was mouth-wateringly spicy. There was no English menu, but the open counter laid out an array of noodles, prepared right after an order was placed. On the same street I also saw a Yoshinoya branch, a Japanese fastfood chain I was well acquainted with in my country and in China.
My impression of Shiga was that it straddled the thin line between urban and rural Japan. Its cities were not choked with crowds, but had a more laid-back suburban vibe, except during rush hour. I once caught a glimpse of a JR train in the evening packed with people in suits on their way home from their jobs in bigger cities, i.e. the urban triumvirate of Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto. Railways are indeed Japan’s main arteries, bridging distances between prefectures efficiently. Perhaps this daily exodus accounted for the lack of crowds I noticed during the day. While half of the adult population was at work elsewhere, the older or more traditional residents worked the rice paddies.
Train service was so efficient that even their staff had the bearings of flight attendants. We asked for help in working the ticket machine in a JR station in Kusatsu and this cheery female staff assisted us with such friendly professionalism. We were also surprised to be greeted with enthusiastic good-mornings when we alighted the train in Moriyama. I didn’t expect such civility in a train station.
Most days in Yasu City, where I stayed, were slow and quiet. My host lived on a row of immaculate houses with neighbors I hardly saw. Every morning, my host’s mother would kneel, bow, and light incense before a shrine to her late husband, whose photo was propped up right there in the living room. And as quietly, she would proceed to the kitchen. I could feel we would have much to talk about if only we spoke a common language. All things unexpressed we just conveyed by bowing.
Meals in the house were prepared in minutes, but they were no less delicious than restaurant fare. One time we had dried fish for breakfast and it was the tenderest one I had ever eaten. Many foods were similar to what I had in the Philippines, but portioned in Japanese-style minimalist servings (though still filling) with several side dishes. Dinners were capped with toasts of sake.
We spent the weekend at my host family’s log cabin at the highlands of Otsu City, Shiga’s capital. This was the husband’s territory, his off-day retreat place where he indulged in his carpentry hobby without distraction. The wooden furniture and carved decors in the cabin were all made by him.
Dinner was cooked and served right on the griller, a hole in the floor. We sat agura-style (sitting on the floor cross-legged) around it and ate directly from it. After dinner, my host’s husband played the guitar and we sang Beatles and Carpenters songs. A “country-folk” experience in Japan was truly unexpected, as was the bathroom with a huge window that opened to the darkness of the woods without regard to privacy. More than the qualm of revealing my nakedness, it would be the Friday the 13th slasher scenes (that mostly happened in log cabins) I imagined that unnerved me. It was the fastest shower I had ever taken.
A major driving force in Japanese life is education. Back in the family house, I slept in a room that doubled as a classroom during the day. Schoolchildren spent after-school hours in review classes in this room. These grade school and middle school students devoted most waking hours to study. I had a meet-and-greet with them – all regular kids: some funny and rowdy, others shy and reticent. But after five minutes of interruption, they quietly buried their noses back to their books – business as usual. After they had all left, I stared at the darkened classroom, their stacks of books and meticulously-arranged armchairs. It was commendable that they valued education with such fervor (err, pressure?), but I also wondered how much of their childhood it had cost them.
Middle-aged women, mostly housewives and empty nesters, had not shaken off the learning bug as well. They filled their time with school too, enrolling in small language schools to learn English. I visited one such home-based class in nearby Ritto City, in a house of a worldly Japanese woman who taught English in her airy living room. Her passion for the language was evident in her exuberant speech. She called it English Cafe. She served us tea, though, and a delicious homemade sponge cake. Her all-female students received us enthusiastically – eager to practice their English with us.
Others who are not so linguistically inclined enroll in art classes, such as calligraphy. My host’s sister is a calligraphy teacher. She laid out one of her works and explained that calligraphy was essentially painting rather than writing. The brush strokes were fluid and indelible. Each stroke could not be erased and corrected. That permanence makes this work of art a snapshot of a moment in a calligrapher’s life – no two strokes are ever the same.
I had a full week in Japan. It was a short stay but I traveled and experienced and learned so much about the country that it felt longer. Our hosts drove us to the Kyoto Station to get on a shuttle bus to Kansai International Airport in Osaka. The futuristic building made of glass and steel was a 180-degree departure from the traditional notion of Kyoto and had attracted criticism for breaking tradition. I did my last-minute souvenir shopping at Isetann Department Store inside the station and had fun racing with my host’s husband by running up its gigantic staircase and through its glass-encased connecting tubes. Yes, I unleashed my inner Astroboy (whose statue adorned the lobby, by the way).
Cindy and I would like to thank our hosts for a most memorable, not to mention enriching, trip. We wouldn’t have intimately experienced Japan if we had spent this one week staying in hotels and just sightseeing. They not only showed us around; they showed us their life. We owe this richness of experience to them. Domo arigato!
And we would like to thank Mother Nature for cooperating with us. The last week of June is the height of the rainy season in Japan. But the entire week of our visit, there was not a drop of rain – until our last day. By the time we got to KIX (Kansai International Airport) in Osaka, the rain was pouring heavily. We didn’t mind because the sun had already risen and shone brightly on the Land of the Rising Sun.