October 31, 2008

The Good Earth

Mid-October is rice harvesting season in the western part of Japan. A few weekends ago, we were visiting Naomi’s family homestead in the countryside, which she calls ‘obachan no uchi’, meaning “Gramma’s place.” Naomi had wanted to see the village’s annual ‘kagura’ performance. Kagura (literally, “God-dance”) is a theatrical dance performed in Shinto shrines throughout Japan, commonly held in the fall to give thanks to the gods for the harvest. The annual kagura performance can be likened to the rural Japanese equivalent to a Thanksgiving Day parade.

Basically, it involves storytelling and the reenactment of ritual dances and ancient fables. In the small village where Naomi’s family hails from, they have one major kagura performance every year. This is when the local Shinto shrine -- which usually is deserted and feels slightly neglected -- comes alive with color and warmth as the festive gathering place for everyone in the village.
So we went to see the kagura dance with the Rising Daughter in tow. It started around 2100 on a Saturday night. (The performances are done by semi-professional troupes and usually continue unabated into the wee hours of the morning. The first few acts performed by the theater troupe are suited to small kids, who can’t stay awake until the more exciting segments late in the performance.) So we found a nice spot inside the shrine’s tatami mat flooring and waited for the drums to start. We saw the first three acts, which were accompanied by pounding percussion, periodic chanting, quick costume changes by the actors for different roles, and billowing smoke from dry ice machines which added an element of mysticism at critical points to the fables played out by the actors. This all occurs inside the shrine itself, which is likely hundreds of years old.

Photo credit: Jake Davies

Lady E. was alternately intrigued, bored, occasionally baying out laughter. She sometimes bolted toward the performance area or the steep stairwell, causing us to frantically collar her. Given her excited state, though, I think she had a good time. There were other small children there with their parents, adding to the mayhem.

Surprisingly, given the years I’ve lived in Japan, this was the first time I’d seen kagura. I enjoyed the flashes of color from the bright costumes and manic energy of the dances, although the ancient Japanese and convoluted pronunciation made deciphering the plots impossible. However, just being able to watch the spectacle and be a part of the experience, just feeling welcomed by the people there was more than enough. Naomi’s Dad also seemed very pleased to have his grandchild on hand to proudly introduce to his friends and neighbors.

The next day was harvest time. Naomi’s Dad is a stalwart old-school Japanese, meaning he works his ass off and is reluctant to ask others (in this case, me) to help out so as not to be a burden. Early that Sunday morning, he went out to the family rice fields and began harvesting the dried rice stalks with a small one-person harvesting combine. His younger brother soon appeared, and I was keen to help somehow, so I went out and simply asked what I could do. Astutely sensing the a) opportunity to get another pair of hands to help and b) my utterly hopeless city-boy/office worker/zero experience in these matters, they gave me cursory instructions as to what I could do. And so began my inept, one-day rice harvest apprenticeship, focused primarily on grunt work. I was happy to be a part of the enterprise. So I spent the day working with them. They took the dried rice stalks off the raised poles that were suspended horizontally over the dried rice paddies and fed them into the machine, which spit out the rice kernels into 30-kilogram bags. I untied the rope knots which strapped the long poles (tree trunks) to tripods, which suspended the stalks about one meter off the ground and exposed the rice stalks to the sun. My next task was to haul those bags and load them onto the tiny pickup truck, to be taken away to milling. Then I ripped out the tripods from the rice bed, and lugged all the wooden poles and support limbs to their proper storage place for the winter. Since it was mostly solitary work, I soon fetched my iPod and rocked out while doing this, which amused my uncle-in-law to no end. There is nothing like listening to Rage Against The Machine to get motivated while working in the rice fields.

Working together, we processed a couple dozen of the 30 kg rice bags in one day. I learned something about how that rice magically appears in my bowl at home: we are given some of this homegrown rice every year from Naomi’s folks. And that weekend visit was my brief brush with rural Japan’s farming lifestyle. But in two days, I had had two new Japan experiences that were each rewarding in their own way. Thus—'the good earth.'

Other news: Pumpkinhead (Lady E.) celebrated her second Hallowe’en on October 31st with a wee bit o’ candy.
Until next time...

October 4, 2008

September-A Cruel Month

SLEEP DEP!! September was a tough haul. Why? Because Lady E. has refused to go to sleep at a normal hour for over a month. In late August, The Battle of The Pacifier began when we were ‘advised’ during a routine checkup by the medical authorities here that it was best to stop all reliance on pacifiers to quiet our toddler. And thus the troubles began.

Today, I felt like a 770-point drop in the Dow Jones because I was up until midnight yesterday, driving the Rising Daughter and my amazing wife around in the Hiroshima night, hoping the thrum of our car’s engine would lull Elena to sleep. I felt like a character in Stephen King’s classic, “Christine.” We’ve been doing these night cruises, or similar sleep-inducing countermeasures, for over six weeks now. The other tactic I’ve employed is the ‘night stalker stroll’, where I roam the paths around our neighborhood after 2200 while our toddler contentedly rests in the crook of my right arm, singing along with songs from my iPod.
(Above photo) While we are near the center of the city, we still have a peaceful path through rice paddies 50 meters from our apartment building.

Lady E. seems to like a little night air before she finally nods off. I’m aware that it’s a stage, but she adamantly refuses to go to sleep without some kind of fuss—such is the right of small children. Even with a thirty-to-sixty minute siesta in the afternoon, these days she won’t go to sleep before 2300 most nights. So, our creative energies are laser-focused on new ways to get her to go down and grant us a few hours’ respite. We’re like a toddler sleep think tank…this has improved my innovation skills, and Naomi and I realize Lady E. is at a new stage in her young life. I am also aware that most parents go through these phases and our tribulations are nothing new to most people, but hell, it is still fun to write and think about why this stuff happens.

The weather has been warm and we are slowly – and reluctantly -- easing into the autumn. Over the past summer, we took Lady E. to the beach a few times, where she showed a fearless love for the ocean, to the extent that she would joyfully scramble into the waves and promptly sink…repeatedly. This made us think that early swimming lessons for her might be a good idea. Thus we have started baby swimming lessons at a local pool. It’s a load of fun because all three of us can participate in the excitement and learning. And so the good ship SS Elena floats on….