Friday, June 17, 2011
Train to Nowhere, Japan
"I want to go to a small town," I say vaguely. "One that has nice cherry blossoms."
"Where?" the woman at the tourist help desk in Nara asks.
"Where do you like to see the cherry blossoms?" I counter.
She pauses thoughtfully for a moment and then uses her pen to scratch out a name on a scrap of paper. Immediately afterward, I walk to the train station to buy a ticket there. Even though the train stations in Japan are uniformly Neat and Orderly, I still have trouble figuring out which ticket to buy, so I press my finger against the round, red "help" button at the bottom of the automated ticket machine. Instead of a help screen appearing on the machine, as I'd anticipated, a square in the wall next to it snaps open, revealing a sort of camouflaged window I'd not noticed when it was closed, and a Neat and Orderly ticket agent pops his head out the window.
"May I help you?" he asks. It's an Alice in Wonderland moment.
I show the man my scrap of paper and he guides me through the correct series of buttons to push on the machine.
My destination, whose name I remember as Yashimoto though I can find no evidence of its existence from the Internet or guidebooks, is a tiny town where any visitor can attain insta-celebrity status by virtue of blonde hair! blue eyes! As I slowly walk through the town, a few people come up to me to shake my hand. A few others greet me with, "Hello-welcome-how-are-you?" and then quickly dash away before I can form a reply.
The center of all activity in town seems to revolve around an old castle that is surrounded by a moat and located on a hill. Before reaching the castle itself, I happen upon a nearby temple. On the outside porch of the temple are numerous plexiglass tanks containing small, brightly-coloured fish. This is so curious of a matter, unlike anything I've seen in other temples in Asia, that without thinking I ask the man nearest me, "Why are all those fish at the temple?"
The man stares at me in concern. I repeat the question slowly, point at the fish in question, smile and shrug. The first man calls over a second man and relays my question to him. The second man deals with me by passing me along to a group of teenage boys who are shyly reluctant to make my acquaintance. After what appears to be a polite debate among all the men of Yashimoto, one of teenagers makes a phone call for an outside opinion about the fish. After about 15 minutes of this, they settle on a conclusion. One of the young men, urged forward by the rest, solemnly makes the pronouncement: "Fish. Good. "
Relieved that the temple fish are not of a malicious nature, I thank the gathered assembly of boys and men (and I honestly am grateful for the amount of effort they'd put into answering my question). We all respectfully bobble up and down, and I continue on my way to the castle.
Lining the stony path to the castle is a row of rosily-striped vendor tents. I stop by one that has a small group of very happy children collected in front of it. I watch as the vendor mixes a concoction of sugar and syrup and colour in a small iron skillet and then carefully dribbles the mixture onto wax paper, swirling it into Japanese characters. He is making giant lollipops with children's names on them.
The group of children gathered there stops watching the candy making and begins watching me watching the candy making. One of them giggles and whispers something to his friends. With admirable boldness, he then asks if I have a boyfriend and tells me that I am cute. I really want to tell him no, you are so cute and pinch the darling baby-fat of his round cheeks. But such a response would be a blow to the dignified persona he is working so hard to achieve, so instead I point out that I am old, a grown adult, and ask him why he isn't in school on a weekday. He assures me the age difference won't be a problem since he is "also old, in junior high, almost high school."
This is what I get for hanging out at candy booths.
After buying a container of assorted sushi (and an oversized lollipop with my name spelled out in glossy candy form), I settle on the soft grass under some cherry blossom trees and picnic alongside dozens of Japanese families. The sun's brilliance falls across the lawn, adding a glimmer of warmth to the chilly spring day. A few feet away from me, the ancient castle towers.
The lovely Amanda from http://www.notaballerina.com/
has identified the town I visited as Yamatokoriyama with Koriyama-jo [castle].