Owing to a portentously incompetent misplacement of my application by the company, I did not begin my contract with Communicat at the start of the academic year, and instead joined a reserve batch to fill any positions that became vacant throughout the year. I replaced a guy who decided to return to the UK after three months. As a result, I worked for only about a month before the summer holidays began, by which time I was already fatigued by the new post, mildly homesick, frustrated at my still undiagnosed stomach problems, and was melting in the unendurable heat, which was in the high thirties.
On the drive to Nichu on the last day before the holidays the mountains looked particularly beautiful, and I was deeply saddened by the yet unfulfilled longing to explore them. With such unstable emotions, that stupid song that plays at the beginning of the day nearly brought forth tears.
The last day was a half-day, and I had been invited along with other female members of staff for a girly lunch for which food had been pre-ordered. Not only was I shattered, I was conversationally out of my depth so ate my good but overpriced lunch in silence. When we emerged from the small room in which I always ate lunch, the halls were eerily quiet in the total absence of students.
I had hoped to be allowed to leave early given my clear lack of use in the building, but when no comment to that effect was forthcoming I assumed I was detained there until three-thirty and dejectedly resumed my position at my desk. Thankfully I was told a little later that as all the teachers were having a meeting, I was allowed to go at two o’clock. Joyously I could therefore fit in a nap before the enkai (drinks) that evening for the teachers to celebrate the end of term.
The enkai went okay, though I barely understood anything, and when I did make the effort to start conversations people would turn to someone else to answer my questions. It was odd and demoralising, but I understand the social awkwardness that controlled their behaviour. I also had the opportunity to speak with the principle, who is a lovely man. Everyone was making merry, and I wondered, when I saw Ueno-sensei lie down on the tatami floor in red-faced drunkenness, if anyone else considered her behaviour to be a little strange. Towards the end one teacher tried to deliver something of an address, but was a little too intoxicated and everyone laughed heartily at his inarticulation.
Earlier in the day Ueno-sensei had mentioned to me that there was a festival over the weekend in Kitakata, so I arranged to meet the other ALTs at what we referred to as the ‘Retro Board’ – a billboard at the corner of some crossroads along the town’s main street. This mildly amusing sign boasted hand-drawn illustrations of characters from a 1950s TV show called Gekkou Kamen (Moonlight Mask, pictured), which looked to be wonderfully camp and melodramatic. As the board had been there since I arrived, I assumed it was a permanent fixture, but by the time I worked out that it was an advert for the Retro Festival, it had been removed. There was something quite sad about its absence, and the lack of hammy drawings that had brightened the roadside.
Like many festivals in Japan, it manifested itself as rows of stalls flanking the main street, selling street food, vintage goods or potluck games. There was also a bouncy castle, a stage for performances, and a mini train which people could ride down the length of the road, fronted by Thomas the Tank Engine. Decorations made by local schools and groups cascaded like colourful willow branches from foliated bamboo poles at the roadsides, decorated in myriad ways, including paper cranes, paper rings or flowers, and flowing fukinagashi streamers. This ‘Retro Festival’ appeared to be a good excuse for people to drag out anachronistic, nostalgic items and imagery for display or sale. In a rural town with a liberal definition of ‘retro,’ there was an abundance of material.
As I walked around with Allan, Jared and Richard, we were recognised by many of our respective students, though I seemed to bump into more of mine than the others. It was an odd feeling to find oneself pointing at children in the street and saying things like ‘Are they yours?’ ‘I think those ones are mine.’ Of the many students who recognised me, one little boy just pointed and gawked. One girl ran up and grabbed my hand, staring into my face with elated astonishment, so it was quite awkward that I didn’t recognise her.
A woman from Jared’s eikaiwa class spotted him and beckoned us to follow her. We all trailed obediently through the crowds, though I felt a little apprehensive about what we might be walking into. Our destination turned out to be the Ramen Museum, as she was working there and wanted Jared, and I suppose the rest of us, to see it. Another woman, Kiyoko, gave us a personal tour around the modest but well-designed single-room exhibition.
Perhaps influenced by this temple to noodles, we had lunch in Raimu, one of Kitakata’s hundreds of ramen shops. In my ongoing yet futile attempts to avoid gluten, I ordered an unsatisfying bowl of plain rice. As we ate, I mentioned that I was itching to venture into the mountains. I had not expected anyone to indulge me, but to my extremely pleasant surprise, Richard and Jared offered to join me for the afternoon.
The day was overcast, making the humidity all the worse, and the low cloud curled lazily around the mountain tops. Jared drove, taking us north towards Hinaka Dam about thirty minutes away along increasingly narrow and winding mountain roads. We parked in an empty car park next to the dam and wandered out into the drizzle. Passing an incredibly steep torii-gated entrance to a foot path signed-posted boldly as “Hinaka Iimoriyama Mountain Hiking Entrance,” we discussed the possibility of returning one day to climb it. Ambling along a wide and lengthy concrete bridge, we had an aerial view of a onsen (hot spring) complex cradled in the valley below. Further along, a majestically large waterway for the dam slid suddenly away at an intimidating gradient. We also passed a haunting rusted doorway in the mountainside which concealed some mysterious tunnel. Richard attempted to expose its dark secrets by taking flash photography through a gap formed by a gutter that run out below the door and continued down the centre of the concreted entrance, but the images did not reveal much.
On the other side of the bridge we continued walking uphill along a concrete path that struggled to keep the lush green foliage parted. We passed a sign warning visitors about resident bears, which was illustrated with a deceptively cute, though angry, cartoon bear. The conversation turned to the seemingly contradictory messages that float among city-dwellers as to the correct procedure in the event of a bear encounter. Received wisdom conflictingly suggests running, standing one’s ground, or playing dead; a selection that seems fatally incompatible. I do not recall the discussion coming to a satisfactory conclusion, even with the consultation of Google.
Further up the hill we came across an area which had clearly been a prim and well-equipped visitors’ rest stop in the not-too-distant past but had since fallen into disuse. The spacious car park and crazy-paved walkway had been colonised by ferns, trees and grasses, and the toilet block was unusable. After wandering around for a while, wading through the wet knee-high vegetation and admiring the view from the purpose-built viewing platform, we made our way back to the car.
A dignified suspension bridge that traversed the dam lay further down the road, however there were signs that seemed to give some sort of warning. Our combined efforts at translation found the notice to be unclear but not life-threatening, so we gratified our lust to go further. There was more signage at the start of the bridge, where we lingered trying to decipher the message. Again we concluded that the warning was not related to certain death, and decided to solider on, although this did not stop me from being rigid with anxiety that the bridge would crumble beneath the weight of the car and we would be plunged into the artificial lake below, never to be found. It was a long bridge, which Jared took cautiously, and we reached the end unscathed. We carried on along narrow, rugged roads, again passing more warning signs that we did a poor job of interpreting. The road went on a little relentlessly, becoming more and more untamed, littered with fist-sized rocks. A GPS investigation by myself found that this road ultimately led to nowhere, and seemed to have only been constructed for dam work and perhaps never even finished. Jared also intelligently pointed out that the rocks in the road may be the reason behind the warning signs, particularly if the stones had originated from a higher altitude. Given these conclusions we turned back, and once more braved the bridge that I peered at nervously through the rain as I hoped it wouldn’t surrender to gravity.
After the dam, Jared and Richard seemed keen to return to an ‘abandoned village’ they had found some time prior to my arrival in Kitakata. They enjoyed regaling the tale of their jaunt to a creepy mountain settlement populated only by an old woman and a man they saw urinating. Of course, I wanted to see this legendary dilapidation for myself, and eagerly joined the second expedition. Their reports had not been hyperbole; this collection of buildings nestled deep in the green mountains were indeed all visibly crumbling into ruin, with ripped tarpaulin, fallen beams and drooping rooftops. As we drove down the unkempt arterial road hugged by these forsaken edifices, I took hurried photographs from the safety of our safari vehicle. The ramshackle homes were not completely deserted, however, as we passed an old couple who seemed extremely surprised to see a carful of foreigners. The road finished with a building that looked like the remains of a town hall, at which point we performed an about-face and returned home. There was something about the state of the village which did not tempt us to venture out on foot.
The weekend festival crowds thronged thicker on the Sunday, though I bumped into fewer of my students. Walking up and down the street once again with Allan, Jared and Richard, I spent some time coveting second-hand kimonos which I finally decided would be too frivolous a purchase. With self-control emerging as victor, I rejoined the boys in time to see a tall black man walking away from them. He was a Senegalese student at Aizu University, it was relayed to me, and he had rocked up to my fellow ALTs just to say hello.
The festival program included pro-wrestling matches in a ring set up in the road, which we watched for long enough for me to get terribly sun burnt. Although this fake sport is not something I find particularly entertaining, I was very impressed with a skinny guy who convincingly wrestled himself. He had long hair, an elaborate mask, and wore a vertically stripped blue and white singlet. He comedically narrated his movements, and in sparring with his invisible opponent, managed to lean backwards at an incredible angle. After driving to Sukiya for lunch, we returned to the festival for the afternoon. Pushing yet again through the crowds and the heat, we started to flag. I bumped into Ueno-sensei who told us about a picture story telling event taking place soon, but we were all exhausted, so went to a couple of air-conditioned shopping outlets before calling it a day.