Letter To Japan
by Denis Rouse, December 18, 2013
Dear Hiroshi, I’ll see you soon in Kochi on Shikoku, southern Japanese main island; most beautiful, least populated, mostly agrarian, putatively “lightly” bombed during WW II. Shikoku, the birthplace of revered 9th Century Shingon Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi whose 88 holy temples circumscribe the coast of the sacred island, whose religion makes far more sense than Christianity because Buddhism worships ethics and morality and nature and tranquility rather than fairy tales. We will be henro, or pilgrims, at least on the day we climb vertiginous stairs to visit one or more of Kobo’s shrines near Kochi where we will be headquartered, where one evening, I hope we can drive up into the mountains and partake of grilled ayu in a farm village where I once arm wrestled a local farmer who I outweighed by perhaps a hundred pounds and damn near lost. The ayu as you know are small trout that populate the gin-clear streams that drain the green heights of Shikoku, when they are skewered vertically tail down head up upon a charcoal grill and served whole body; head, tail, fins and all crisped up real nice, sake moh ippon kudasai, or in English, another bottle of sake please. Bear with me, it’s that old song playing in my head again, I think I’m turning Japanese. Of course Shikoku, specifically including Cape Muroto jutting into the yawning Pacific, from where Takashi’s grandfather went down to the sea and hunted whales as the Japanese have done for centuries before Melville penned his grand metaphor, for centuries before the Nice People ordained that hunting whales was politically, culturally, socially, morally incorrect. One could say we are living in strange times but how strange when really nothing fundamental has changed with humanity since the Fifth Century BC when Buddha taught “Though he should conquer a thousand men in the battlefield a thousand times, yet he, indeed, who would conquer himself, is the noblest victor.”
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We’re back home in the USA now, Hiroshi, and I’m still thinking about whaling. How could I not? Our hour together in the whaling museum located in a town on the sea in the shadow of huge Cape Muroto, especially the diorama there evocative of Japanese whaling in the old days, when men spotted a pod from atop the storied cape and then set out from the beach below in lean rowboats with rope and harpoon and apparently balls the size of winter melons to take on leviathan in his element. Then, that night, our second night in Kochi if memory serves, you steered us to a local Kochi eatery known as “The Drunken Whale.” My first thought was that if I were heading to a restaurant anywhere in the US called “The Drunken Whale” I’d soon be dealing with a crowd of drunken dart players pretending to be drunken British soccer fans. But I should have known better. “The Drunken Whale” in downtown Kochi City, in a word, sublime. The cuts of whale we enjoyed, the nearly transparent slices of tongue, the sashimi expertly cut from the chest to include an outer skein of the blubber, the egg poached in shoyu appetizer, the graciousness of the people serving there, their impeccable manners, all to treasure. I liked our cab driver earlier that day who you assigned to guide us from the train station to Cape Muroto, to the whaling museum nearby where he made it clear he isn’t a Greenpeace fan. You’ll remember he turned off the coastal road into a local neighborhood to show us some obviously quite old Japanese dwellings that looked to me like late Tokugawa or early Meiji, plenty familiar anyway from Kurosawa films, and I hadn’t the smarts then to request pause for some photos and maybe a chance to converse with one or more of the locals, but while observing the old structures I asked him through you how Kochi Prefecture fared during WW II bombing. Not well, he answered, and my assumption that Shikoku was “lightly” bombed evaporated when I later read that “Kochi was selected as a target by the U.S. Bomber Command because of its status as a prefectural capital and a center for industry and commercial trade. On July 3, 1945 at 6:22 pm 129 aircraft took off to bomb Kochi. More than a thousand tons of incendiary bombs were dropped destroying 48% of the city.” So much for assuming anything.
How many of Kobo Daishi’s 88 serenely beautiful temples did we visit during our time together on Shikoku’s swath of south coast between Cape Muroto and Cape Ashizuri? I lost count after five or six but memory is seared with the images of the ancient wood and stonework that seems to meld with the radiant green verdure of nature at Temple 24, known as Hotsumisaki-ji, located high atop a staircase of rock shining with yen coins left by devotees, on hugely symbolic Cape Muroto where is the cave at the base of the promontory where the revered Buddhist saint meditated in the 9th Century, where a two story high white statue of Buddha’s great disciple, staff in hand, stares out to sea. Unforgettable too our walk around the seafront of that gorgeous wild cape where some of the oldest marine rock on earth is still emerging from a sea trench creating a dramatic rocky shore so stunning no wonder it’s been established as one of Japan’s national preserves. Again, our cab driver being the kind man he is, paused at my request on the way back to the train station at a fish market in the small coastal town of Ukitsu so we could observe some of the local catch that day including a fifty pound sea bass lying in ice on the floor. On the wall there I noted beautifully mounted colorful local reef fish, their skins apparently expertly stretched over delicate handmade frames. You’ll remember the artist who created this was working there in the market, and when I said I thought his art was better than gyotaku, the old art of Japanese fish printing that involves inking a whole fresh fish and pressing it to rice paper, his beaming prideful reaction was something of great value to me. Hiroshi, isn’t it human connection that often matters most? Another such moment took place in the evening when we entered a restaurant you selected where the chef in his immaculate whites was preparing a major Kochi specialty katsuo tataki with flourish, he lightly searing a thick steak of fresh bonito with a big hand held torch of flaming rice straw and then as he sliced the fish into traditional bite size morsels of sashimi he thoughtfully held one out to me with his steel chopsticks to taste and when the warm expertly smoked goodness hit my palate I simply said, “God!.” The chef laughed, his assistant further back in the kitchen laughed as he joyously repeated my one word response to the culinary perfection. As you know the only Japanese I speak is a glossary of sushi, but there it was, that connection again.
Your personal guidance led us into some real life in Kochi few foreign tourists experience. Especially our visit to a local dentist where you assisted communication between Cookie and the doc as she sat in the chair having a broken crown repaired promptly and very well as it turned out. I sat in the waiting room amazed at the number of patients coming and going, and how efficiently they were being handled by a whole staff of DAs. There are many dentists in Kochi and the competition is stiff, you explained. Cookie told me her experience was heightened by much mirth at the chair when she jokingly asked “why do you people greet each other so much by saying hi all the time” she knowing full well of course that “hi” in Japanese is “hai” and it means “yes” or simply acknowledgement, and is thus often normally repetitious in conversation. Humor, it seems, bridges language gaps too. Our days tripping around Kochi City are in grand frames of memory, especially riding the Tosa Electric Railway streetcar (the oldest in Japan); ding, ding, ding went the trolley reminding me of riding in identical fashion in kinder gentler days in Los Angeles on the Santa Monica Boulevard tracks with my grandmother. Then we jump off the trolley for my favorite Japanese lunch in one of those ubiquitous homemade noodle shops to slurp up noisily (it’s good manners as you well know Hiroshi) a big bowl of thick white wheat Udon noodles, served cold in this instance, then picked up in chop stick loads and dunked into bonito flavored broth laced with sliced green onions and a touch of wasabi for a dripping mouthful, sorry Italy, of the world’s best pasta. We ate like Sumo champions but we walked it off when we hoofed it all the way up to the top of the tower of Kochi Castle, ground zero pivotal 17th Century Japanese history, connection to the Battle of Sekigahara 1600, Lord Yamauchi Kazutoyo, who was on the winning Tokugawa side at Sekigahara thanks to his wife Chiyo’s advice after spying on Hideyoshi’s troop strength, begins construction in 1601 of this magnificent citadel, one of just a dozen feudal era castles in Japan that has survived reasonably intact. As you well know, history pulls like a dreadnought. So wish we would have had more time at the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial where Kochi’s harbor empties into the bay the day we took the bus there because the more we learned about this 19th Century Kochi hero who dedicated his life to ending the injustice of seven hundred years of feudalism to bring about the reforms of the Meiji Restoration in the 1860’s, by forging an alliance between warring clans, efforts that led to his assassination at 32 in 1867, the more we saw parallels with an American hero, I think our greatest president, who was assassinated in Washington two years earlier. Our memories of Kochi will always include the blazing Technicolor of the huge celebration of chrysanthemums we experienced when we taxied to the suburb of Haruno-cho, a reminder that the gorgeous flower symbolizes perfection and is representative of Amaterasu, the most divine Shinto sun goddess who brought light to the world, whose tales come from the oldest records of Japanese history. Made me think too of John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” a short story from the roof of American literature in which the flower symbolizes a woman’s self-esteem that is in peril, a story I am positive would have captivated Japan’s greatest writer Natsume Soseki. Connection again, and well driven by it thanks to you.
More memories are in a video framed by train windows, first from the sleek express train from Kochi Station to Kubokawa, and then from a historic small local train that clackety clacks us up the Shimanto River to Ekawasaki where our lodgings above Japan’s last undammed free flowing river await. From the express train the video is white farmhouses and clotheslines on balconies and bicycles leaned against walls and rice checks and neat rows of vegetables and long greenhouses and rocky hillsides tinted orange by November and then into frequent tunnels when the screen goes black save for the dark streaks of the tunnel wall speeding by and then into the station at the village of Kubokawa where we get off the express to visit Temple 37 (a beauty because no one’s there, just a tree in a blaze of Autumnal glory), to try to get Cookie’s overnight bag with a failed handle replaced (mission accomplished thanks to the sweet ladies in the notions store there) and have lunch across the street from the station that turns out to be way healthy local veg, wild and raised, and tofu and miso soup and rice that knocks us out. Then the video begins again through the window of the old vintage train we board at Kubokawa as it chugs its way up the gorgeous river, riveting scenes of it rushing white through boulder strewn gorges, then flowing in glistening sheets through wide riparian valleys where low narrow submersible bridges without rails that would be swept away during frequent spells of typhoon driven high water span the Shimanto, including the one we see as we pull into Ekawasaki Station, the one that we cross when we’re shuttled up to Hotel Seira Shimanto located high on a verdant bank of the river opposite the town. Ah, the onsen, the hot spring bath with a full view of old man river flowing by the town twinkling in the gloaming, into which we soak our bones for a leisurely hour or so before trundling to dinner in our exquisitely comfortable Japanese bathrobes we know and love as yukatas, a dinner including various local specialties like ayu grilling on our own personal mini hibachi’s brought to the table, along with Shimanto river shrimp and eel and seaweed tempura and a host of wild vegetables from the mountains, and more, and all of it so artfully and deliciously presented in a lovely variegated set of gleaming ceramic dinnerware many of my cups and bowls and plates, embarrassingly enough, end up looking like they’ve been washed. Ah, indeed, Japan, especially many aspects of old Japan we experienced on this journey you assembled for us, Hiroshi, make me think again that the rest of the world isn’t getting life quite right.
Morning comes. Hit the onsen again before breakfast? Of course. Take a wonderful riverside stroll to pretend we’re exercising? Naturally. Although you’ll remember “stroll” doesn’t quite cut it. We took a steep dangerously slippery foot path that zig zagged from the hotel down to the river, then we walked what seemed like a mile downriver to a streamside store serving river tourists with anything they might need to enhance their experience, including kayaks and eel traps. You want shrink wrapped grilled ayu to send home to impress the family back in Waukegan? No problem. As you well know Hiroshi from your career at Kawasaki, Japanese enterprise is a force driven by smarts and a work ethic that puts that of many other countries to shame. Then we circled our way back to the hotel on some uphill byways that made a lot more sense than retracing our steps to slippery gulch. It was time to take the train downriver to meet a tour bus you booked for us in Nakamura near the mouth of the Shimanto River where I hope we can return sometime to spend days because I was wanting to sample more local favorites including Japanese mitten crab paste made from the rich dense meat and the shell ground together to become the base of a popular soup known as tsugani. So much to experience in your country, Hiroshi, so little time.
Our two days on the bus plays back in more great memories, like how it got us closer to the river, pausing so we could walk across one of the famous submersible bridges Cookie said made her toes curl, meeting up with a river boatman who guided us in his sleek motor craft on a cruise of a section of the Shimanto that was engaging because he showed us an essence of the river, how the raging floodtides of typhoons have turned her banks upside down. Like pausing where we can find, if we’re lucky, a famous gorgeous-when-polished Shimanto riverbank gemstone containing enough iron ore to adhere to our magnets provided by our kind bus lady tour guide who was just cuter than hell. You and I, Hiroshi, find nothing of consequence but it curbs our good riverside cheer not a whit. Then, when our driver at the wheel of the forty foot behemoth was negotiating the winding road that ascends the soaring sea cliffs of Cape Ashizuri on a road so narrow he had to back the monster up from a particularly tight corner to allow oncoming vehicles enough room to squeeze by. I was watching his face in the rearview mirror as he skillfully executed the appalling rearward maneuver in which an error of inches could result in a tour bus doing a swan dive a thousand feet down to the sea. His expression never changed from imperturbable professional calm under pressure, so very Japanese I thought. You’ll remember Cookie and I clapped in applause, we got the rest of our bus mates clapping, and I gave the fine young man a high five I know he appreciated when we reached Ashizuri Pacific Camellia, our country inn for the night, the lodging perched on an edge of the magnificent promontory, where immersion into an outdoor onsen of swirling heated sea water, into a furo hewn from the local rock, the view from which was the whole Pacific Ocean glittering in silver starlight, provided your faithful correspondent here with a protracted sensory high so wonderful that I know I will ponder in memory someday whether it was real or dreamt.
Morning comes. Were we back in the hot tub of sea water before breakfast to watch sunrise begin to tint the eastern sky at 6:00 am? Despite our overindulgence with shochu last night, the answer you’ll remember Hiroshi is clearly yes. Was breakfast here fairly representative of what I know and love everywhere I’ve ever been in Japan?, which is to ask, was breakfast here an artful presentation of local delicacies from the land and the sea as to make biscuits and gravy, as much as I love it, seem like a plate for Attila the Hun? Anyway, we’re back aboard the bus by seven. Short cruise to the imposing statue of Nakahama Manjiro, another Kochi hero whose story is epic and so far ignored by the American film industry currently devoted to mindless mayhem. Even a short Manjiro bio suggests a whopping screenplay: Poor 14-year-old fisherman marooned by a storm in 1841, rescued by the captain of an American whaling ship who takes him to the United States and enrolls him in the Oxford School in Fairhaven, Massachusetts where the boy masters English and navigation, and eventually returns to Japan in 1853 to become a samurai in direct service to the shogun and instrumental in negotiations when Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships arrive in Edo Bay to force Japan to open her country, her markets to the world. From the Manjiro memorial you’ll remember our walk on a narrow cliffside trail atop Cape Ashizuri afforded breathtaking views of the great promontory and the lonely white sentinel of Japan’s tallest lighthouse facing the open sea at Land’s end. As you know there’s a famous Japanese novel set here, Tamiya Torahiko’s 1949 “Cape Ashizuri,” story about a disillusioned young man who travels among the henro, and then who jumps to his death from a cliff right here, a stone’s throw from Temple 38, one of the most holy and venerated on the pilgrimage. Kobo Daishi spoke of other realms, I think Torahiko’s novel might evoke something of them.
I thought our time on the tour bus rounded out our travels by train and taxi very well; it was great to watch the old world of rural coastal Kochi slide by. As we plied our way back to Nakamura Station, I saw the scythe of gorgeous beach at Ohkinohama where Takashi and I paused during a summer motorcycle jaunt some thirty years ago to cool off in the waves, a paradise apparently unchanged, still appearing almost deserted, only two or three surfers out on glassy longboard rollers, a scene right out of a photo album of 1950’s coastal California. Then another terrific interlude off the bus to board a glass bottom boat at Tatsukushi National Marine Preserve, Japan’s first, to gaze at the fecundity of the coral and the colorful array of reef fishes that are its denizens, an undersea world well nourished by the subtropical relatively warm Kuroshio Current that brushes the southeast coast of Shikoku as it streams north from the Philippine Sea. Then you’ll remember our added treat as the boat was docked at an outer shore here, and we hiked around a peninsula of Tertiary sandstone carved by eons of wave action into surreal shapes right out of the Hobbit, and speaking of surreal, will we ever forget the sight of a whale shark that looked as big as our bus, whose bulk seemed to take five minutes to pass by the window of the giant aquarium tank in nearby Iburi through which we gawked open-mouthed, still wondering as these words are written, how such a giant, indeed the biggest fish in the ocean that needs the open sea to filter feed on plankton and small marine creatures, can be kept alive in captivity. Questions, always questions, they help keep us alert, and at this stage of the game, vive le France.
At this point I was saddened to think our journey was ending, but not before we boarded the train at Nakamura and got off at the old whaling town of Tosa-Kure to check into Kuroshiohonjin where the lodging style, in our two story cabin anyway, was very Japanese, which is to say Hiroshi, that you and I and Cookie slept together on futons on the floor. Truth be told there was a loft upstairs but we decided we were all too old to risk stairs at zero dark thirty when toi toi might be needed to pee pee. Kidding aside, I’ve got to tell you I loved it here, why? Specifically because dinner featured live Pacific Lobster, a local favorite, for dinner in the Japanese manner, the meat from the body and tail: sushi, sashimi, okayu, et. al. and then being informed that the head of the lobster will be served at breakfast. Well, it was as you remember, in a broth that combined the rich essence of the lobster with an oceanic tint of a clean cold winter morning.
We put it off as long as we could but our final night in Kochi City was imminent. The good news is our final night we’ll be sleeping back in our twenty first story room in Hotel Nikko Kochi, owned in part by Japan Air Lines, that is very elegant Japanese-executed Western style, not a bad thing because we’re going to be back in the USA real soon and the shock will require days from which to recover. I say, Hiroshi, let’s go to a Japanese steak house, celebrate our last night together by getting real carnivorous, Cookie loves beef, we’ll have fun. No question about it, fun we had, but the “Japanese steak house” turned out to be a Japanese restaurant trying to be French which is to say the steaks were wonderful but the size of finger food, thank God for all the French bread and butter or we would have had to go out for yakitori. We laughed, we joked, and the Robert Mondavi red was terrific, we thought it meaningful here we are in Japan in a French restaurant drinking California wine, are we not one world? Then the topper here is in strides a young attractive Japanese couple obviously celebrating the demure lady’s birthday, here comes the cake, and then we do the Happy Birthday song thing that breaks up the whole room including our maître d’ in his tuxedo who joins in reverie right along with us.
Our final morning breakfasting together in the dining room that is the penthouse of Hotel Nikko Kochi. It’s a twenty two story high memory framed by big windows through which we see sunrise beginning to wash golden light and shadow across a great swath of Kochi City below; the three downtown bridges we can see that cross the Kagami River are already crawling with commuter traffic. Land of the rising sun, indeed, the rest of Asia is still in darkness. My immediate issue is whether to go Western or Japanese at the huge gorgeous breakfast buffet here, whether to do bacon and eggs and hash browns that look plenty fabulous, or go very Japanese with all my local favorites including okayu, saba tataki, natto, tofu, udon and much more. Decision executed, we will do both with a modicum of restraint. Hiroshi, Cookie and I feel greatly indebted to you for sharing this adventure with us in your country we have come to love. Therefore, it’s our fondest wish that we can one day host you and Takako here in Bieber so we can show you some of our home ground that we think is the last best of the USA. With great affection, Denis and Cookie.