Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Yabakei / 耶馬溪

(Better Know a City)

I know I just got saying that my outing in Beppu would be my last free day for a while, but it turns out there's a couple days in between registration and classes , so I was able to squeeze in one more "Better Know a City".

Besides being my last free day for a while, this was my only chance to get out and see the Japanese cherry blossoms this spring (they're in bloom now). So I thought I would go out to Yabakei.

Not to be confused with Honyabakei....even though everyone always does. After all, just one syllable separates the names of the two towns. And they're right next to each other. And they're both very rural towns with similar topography right along the yamakuni river. It's easy to get them mixed up and forget which mountain is in which town. For example, the wikipedia entry on Yabakei, as of this writing, falsely claims that Yabakei "is home to the Aonodōmon, a legendary tunnel said to have been dug through solid rock by a single man over 30 years, and Rakanji, a famous mountain temple." Both Aonodomon and Rakanji are actually in Honyabakei.

Expecting a big day of hiking (what else is there to do in a country town up in the mountains) I put in a hearty breakfast. Two slices of buttered toast, a big bowl of oatmeal, half a cup of coffee, and a pack of tofu (this being Japan). Then I got in my car and drove on past the mountains of Honyabakei, and entered into the boarders of Yabakei town.
The first thing I did was stop at a convenience store to buy a notebook and pen (which I had forgotten to take with me.) Then I noticed right across the street was a nice stone bridge, and a path along the Yamakuni river, so I left my car parked at the convenience store and walked down along by the Yamakuni.

The main road through both Honyabakei and Yabakei follows along the Yamakuni river, and it is an absolutely beautiful drive. The river is amazing. I took a couple of shots of it while I was walking along beside it.

Although I had driven down this main road countless times before,whenever you stop the car and actual walk around you begin to see things you never noticed before. And so it was with me now. Once I was on the other side of the river, I noticed on a nearby hilltop there was some sort of a shrine surrounded by cherry trees. I hiked up there and it was great. I got a great view of the surrounding area from the hill and the cherry trees were everywhere.

As anyone who has been in Japan knows, the cherry trees may only be in bloom for 2 weeks of the year, but when they're in bloom they're really in bloom. The Japanese grow these trees absolutely everywhere just for the two weeks of blossoms.

(About the pictures on this post: I'll just say it once to get it off my chest and then won't repeat myself for the rest of this entry, but the whole town of Yabakei is really stunning in person. None of the pictures or grainy video footage I uploaded here do it any sort of justice).

Next it was off to the Yabakei Waterfall.
Over the years I've spent a lot of time on this blog talking about the Yabakei Waterfall. And with good reason. It's a great spot, and every summer we spend a lot of time there. (It's too hot to do much of anything else during the muggy Japanese summers). It might not be quite as tall or as visually impressive as the Waterfalls in Ajimu, but you can slide down it like a waterslide. Can you beat that?
The most descriptive post I wrote about this waterfall is here. And this one is also pretty detailed. And once Amy came along with her camera I was finally able to get some photos of the waterfall posted here.

Because I spend so much time at this waterfall, I thought I'd give it the complete video treatment, and video tape the whole walk down to the waterfall from the car park. Or if you don't have the patience for that, I took a picture as well.

Surprisingly, this waterfall seems to be one of the best kept secrets in Oita prefecture. Most of the JETs and other foreigners know about it, and it keeps getting passed down from one generation of JETs to the next. But very few Japanese people visit this waterfall. And none of my students in Nakatsu (only two towns up) seem to have even heard of it. Strange.

While I was over here in this area, I noticed there were signs for another waterfall nearby, so I drove down in the direction of the arrows. And there was another waterfall located just a short distance away. And it was pretty impressive. I'm not sure why I've never bothered to check it out before.

Once back in the car, I made my way into what passes for downtown Yabakei. As this is off the main road, I had driven by here many times before on my way to through the town, but never stopped the car and had a look around. So I pulled into the parking lot for the town hall, and had a walk up and down the streets of downtown Yabakei.

There wasn't much to see. As I suspected. I had vaguely hoped that by walking around I might find all sorts of cool little shops or diners hidden away, but there was pretty much nothing. There was one coffee shop, a couple general stores, a few temples, one book store, a clothing store that didn't look open, a dentist, and other mostly uninteresting things. All of the down town area could be walked across in about ten minutes.

It was, if nothing else, a beautiful location for a downtown, with mountains on all sides and beside the Yamakuni river. There was also a cycling road which follows the length of the Yamakuni river (from Nakatsu all the way to Hita). Looking at the great scenery these bikers got to enjoy on their ride along the Yamakuni river made me wish I had a working bike in Japan again. (Unfortunately in Japan I have trouble finding a good bike for my size, and then also keeping it from rusting during rainy season. I've more or less given up for the moment).

I went into the town cultural center hoping I might find some pamphlets on sightseeing in Yabakei, but there was nothing. In the town library, however, I saw something that really warmed my heart. Someone had written up a little essay about the importance of working for Peace in the world, and hung it up on the library's bulletin board.

Isn't that great? Doesn't that just re-affirm your faith in humanity? I mean it would have been so easy to be cynical about this, and say no one cares what the people in Yabakei think about world peace, but instead someone put a lot of time and effort writing their opinion on world peace, with the full knowledge that it would just be posted here in a small town library.
(Actually a closer examination of the Kanji reveals that this was done by a Yabakei junior high school student. Possibly as a school assignment. But I'm going to keep my optimistic view of human nature anyway. And besides, at the Yabakei bookstore I saw a poster for international peace day on March 3rd).

Next, it was off to Yabakei dam.

I mentioned this before in my write-up of Matama, but once when I was an ALT in the elementary schools I remember sitting in on a class about environmental conservation. At the end, the children were given booklets about all the natural beauty spots in Oita prefecture. I was appalled to discover that a few dams had snuck there way into this list of "natural beauties."

This indicates that the true conservation consciousness is a bit behind in Japan. One the other hand, because of Japan's mountainous topography all the water usually runs straight down the mountains and into the ocean, and aside from the dams there are hardly any freshwater lakes in Japan (at least in Oita prefecture). As such, most of the lakes created by dams are turned into nature parks or scenic sight seeing areas.

There were several wild flowers and cherry blossom trees on the drive up to the dam, so I stopped the car to take some video.

There was also a park at the base of the dam which I walked over to. It was obviously man made, but very nice. It had a couple ponds, a waterfall, a covered bridge, and lots and lots of cherry trees. The only problem was that as I approached it I found that it was all fenced off with the gates padlocked shut. I went around to another entrance and found the same thing. Finally up around the other side there was a restaurant, behind which it was possible to sneak into the park.

It was a nice park, but I did feel the whole time like I wasn't really supposed to be there. Was this a public park, or was I supposed to pay admission somewhere? Was it open now, or was this the off season? Was this some sort of garden reserved for customers of the restaurant?
I walked around and took some video and figured someone would yell at me if they really didn't want me there. And no one bothered me at all. But I never really felt relaxed in the place either.

Next, time for a brief look at the map to see where we've been so far. (Sorry about the focus and shaky camera.)

And continuing on to the top of Yabakei dam.
Yabakei dam is one of those locally famous places that pops up in conversation often enough that I was sure I had been there loads of times before. Now driving up to it, and realizing that it was off the main road and not something I would have gone to unless I made the effort, I wasn't sure. Even when I got to the top it was hard to tell, because there are a few of these types of dams in Oita prefecture with similar scenery.
At any rate, I was disappointed to see there wasn't really a foot path around the lake, just a scenic outlook at the top of the dam where you could look over the fence and take some pictures.

(I knew someone who runs a business in Yabakei dam lake taking people out on his boat for waterskiing and wakeboarding. As far as I know Yabakei dam is the only place in Oita prefecture where you can do these things. But I didn't see him or his boats out today. Probably still too early in the season).

Around this time I was beginning to see a lot of signs for an area called "Shinyabakei." To the best of my recollection I had never been there before, but the signs seemed to be pointing it out as an important destination. You can, of course, never trust these signs. More than once (in fact usually ever time I set out to a town) I find myself following road signs to scenic points that don't exist or tourist attractions that shut down years ago. Still, for lack of any better plan I thought I might as well head out and see what Shinyabakei had to offer.

I started following the street signs towards Shinyabakei. I had a rough time getting there. First of all there was some sort of big construction project going on around the dam, so the road going towards Shinyabakei had been closed down and instead there were the usual confusing signs for a detour. This took me a while to figure out.

Then at last I got on what I thought was the right road, and headed through about 10 minutes of nothing but mountains and rice fields, wondering whether or not,I was headed in the right direction, or if I'd even realize I was in Shinyabakei when I got there.

Then big bright colorful signs popped up announcing "Maple Farm Scenic Road: Turn Here". Automatically I obeyed the signs and turned the car down the road.
The road took me up into the mountains and before I knew it, it was taking me down again. It was, I suppose, a scenic drive if it comes to it, but I was hoping for something more than just a drive. I wanted the road to lead somewhere, like to a park where I could see the maple leaves. Or at least a small parking lot where I could have parked the car and gotten out and walked around a bit and enjoyed the view.
Instead it was a small windy mountain road, and I didn't really find a decent shoulder where I felt comfortable stopping the car until I was out of the mountain and in the valley below.
It was still beautiful scenery. The river ran through the valley, with forest on either side and a few rice fields and orange tree orchids. Yellow wild flowers were all over the ground and cherry blossom trees in full bloom. And all around where the stunningly shaped mountains of Yabakei, famous for all their interesting cliff formations.

I got back in the car, drove on, and then discovered to my dismay that "Maple Farm Scenic Road" dropped me right back off on the main through road in Yabakei by the Yamakuni river.

Of course, when you're driving through a town you don't know perfectly and taking experimental detours, you've got to expect these kind of things are there's no use getting upset about it.
At the same time I was kind of thinking in the back of my mind about all the gas I had just used. And because I was driving an old car that always sounded like it was on it's last legs at the best of times, and really clunked and strained when I took it around the mountain roads, I did kind of feel guilty about putting my car through all those mountains just to end up back where I started from. And then of course there's the whole environmental aspect of it to make me feel even more guilty. The fact that our world is going to hell in a handbasket, and here I am just tooling around burning gas and spitting out carbon emissions on roads that go nowhere.

"Well, nuts to it," I declared. "I didn't want to go to Shinyabakei anyway. Probably nothing down there worth seeing. I'll just keep going down the main road."

But after driving down the main road, and then back again, and not seeing anything in particular (it was beautiful scenery the whole way, but nothing I felt was really worth stopping the car) I gave a sigh and turned off towards Shinyabakei again. And went up to the dam again. And around the construction detour again. And followed the signs to Shinyabakei again. This time, however, when I saw the sign for Maple Farm scenic road, I just kept right on going.

About five minutes later, I passed a sign saying, "Welcome to Shinyabakei." (Shinyabakei is an area within Yabakei, but the road signs treat it as if it were it's own town. This always throws me off). I slowed down and tried to figure out what exactly Shinyabakei was. There were a lot of tourist signs pointing in all directions, but when I looked around I couldn't see anything to stop at.

At this point the 3 cars unfortunate enough to have been behind me this whole time were beginning to honk furiously, so I pulled off on one of the side streets and parked my car in a hot spring parking lot. There seemed to be a lot of hot springs around this area. Maybe that's what Shinyabakei is famous for. I thought about going in one, but I'm not really that much of a hot spring person. There pretty boring without a friend to talk to. You can make conversation with the locals, but it's always the same conversation: "Where are you from? You're very tall. Do you like Japanese food? You speak Japanese very well." (This last one is a standard phrase said to every foreigner no matter if they can speak Japanese or not).

So I just left my car parked and decided to walk down the streets of Shinyabakei to see if I could see anything walking that I hadn't noticed driving. There were some hotels set up (actually more in the style of bed and breakfast type lodgings) that didn't look open, a number of hot spring baths, and a few ma and pa type Japanese restaurants. Most of the signs advertised scenic places to see the red leaves, and at that point I began to realize that this was a tourist area for people coming in from the big city to view the fall leaves. (Yabakei is famous for it's fall leaves). As I was here in the off season, it wasn't very busy at all, and had the air of a ghost town.

As I walked down the road, a picture of a waterfall in front of someone's house. As I got a little closer, I was able to the sign that said, "The Entrance right here. Come on over and have a look." It looked like the entrance was right through someone's driveway and into their backyard, but having been invited by the sign I thought I would take a look.
"Nice of them to put up a sign like this to invite strangers through their yard," I thought.

The family dog, however, was not into the same welcoming spirit. As he saw me approach he began barking furiously and lunged at me. Fortunately his chain held him back.
We've all encountered barking dogs before, and we all know that some dogs bark at you because they just want you to come over and pay attention to them, and some dogs would really like to sink their teeth into you, and you can usually tell which is which by looking in their eyes. This was one of the mean dogs. And although he was on a chain, his chain looked like it might just be long enough to stretch the width of the driveway. I decided to risk it and put my back against the house as I cautiously inched by. He strained against his chain, and I was just a couple of feet from his mouth, but I was able to get by.

And it was a nice view of the waterfall. It looked like there might even be a path leading up the mountain, but as I walked forward I encountered a closed. After all the drama of getting past the dog, I was reluctant to turn around after just a quick look at the waterfall. So when I noticed the gate had no lock on it, I wondered if it wasn't so much to block the trail, as just to indicate the official opening to the trail. I chose to interpret this in my favor, opened the gate, and started hiking up the mountain.

I was never really sure if there was an actual trail going up the mountain, or if I was just imagining it. It started out walking through someone's garden, where there were rose bushes and orange trees and a little footpath going in between. Soon the footpath became overgrown. And then shortly afterwards I was just following a muddy dirt trail which might have been a path or might have been erosion from the waterfall. As I got further and further along I was more and more convinced there wasn't really a path, but once you get more than halfway up you might as well keep on going to the top. Even though when I did finally get all the way up to the waterfall, there wasn't anything particularly special about the view.

The mud trail was pretty slippery. And there were also an annoying amount of thorn bushes and thorny trees along the way. More than once I reached out to a tree for support, only to recoil painfully and then pull the thorns out of my hands.
And going down was even worse. By the end of it I was pretty dirty, and a little bit blooded.

Along the way I did pick up a pretty hefty walking stick, which, in addition to helping me on the trail, I also intended to use against the dog as an incentive for him to stay a comfortable distance away. I had gotten passed him once, but I figured a little extra insurance never hurt.
Just as I was nearing the bottom, and the dog was beginning to bay for my blood and I was getting my walking stick ready, the owner, a middle aged lady who worked in the resturant across the street, ran over and led the dog away. I thanked her and went past.

I walked up the street a ways, but I never felt very safe on the road. There was no shoulder for pedestrians to walk on, and although the cars were few on this mountain road, the cars that did came along usually came at full speed around the corner. So I turned back before too long.

Around now I was beginning to get pretty hungry by now. It was after 2 and my big breakfast was a long time ago in the past. I had been thinking of food for a couple hours now, but had been holding out on the off chance that I might come across a place that served hamburgers and cokes, or some other semi-Western food. (It can happen. Even in the Japanese countryside sometimes you find these little diners in the oddest places).

There was actually a little tea and lunch place I walked past. It was designed to look like a little European cottage, so I figured they might have Western food, and I was tempted to go in there. But on walking up to the door, I decided someone had put just a little bit too much effort into making this place look cute. There was the bright red color of the outside, and the black tiled roof, and the potted flowers all along the walkway, and the lacy curtains. It looked like an overgrown doll house, and was probably not the kind of place a man can eat by himself without raising a few eyebrows. Especially not looking like I did. I hadn't shaved for a couple days because it was my day off. I was covered with dirt, and a little bit of blood, from the hike. I could not simply throw down my walking stick, come through the door, sit in one of the tiny little chairs, and order an overpriced tea and cookie set. Not with my dignity in tact anyway.

So I walked back down the road, where the only shop that looked open was the one right across from the waterfall. The one where the proprieter had just previously ran out to save me from her dog.

There was absolutely no one else in the shop, and I wasn't even sure they were open for business, but I poked my head in and asked and she told me they were. I asked for a menu, and she just pointed to the wall where all the food was written down. But she added the only things they served were Soba and Udon.
Both are a type of Japanese noodle soup. Both are acceptable in a pinch, but to my a little bland tasting and not really the hearty solid type lunch I felt I had earned after an afternoon of hiking around.

But, you can't be picky out in these parts, so I ordered one of the sobas. I could read most of the Kanji on the wall, but I wasn't sure what any of it meant, so I just picked "Mountain style soba". I waited at the table and read my book while she went into the kitchen. About ten minutes later, she came out with the soba.
It looked disgusting. It was covered with a slimy gooey substance, which to my ignorant Western mind reminded me of saliva and mucus. And I suddenly began to wonder if the lady who ran the shop had anything against me. After all I did just excite her dog, go through her gate, trampling up and down her garden to get to the waterfall. And maybe she saw had seen it in my eyes that I had been considering using the walking stick against her dog.

I don't really think she spit in my Soba. I can't prove a negative, but at the very least I'm sure she couldn't possibly have had enough saliva in her mouth to account for all the goo that was on the top of my bowl. And I had eaten Japanese dishes before (like Natto) which had a similarly slimy texture.
Nevertheless, once the thought had entered my mind, my appetite was gone. I ate most of the Soba just to be polite, but didn't enjoy any of it. Right as I was getting up to leave, a much older woman (probably close to 90) came out to refill my tea and give me some Japanese pickles. So I sat back down and ate those just to be polite. Then I paid and left.

There was a vending machine outside, so I bought a coke to try and wash away the lingering goo in my mouth, and drank it as I walked down the road to my car. After which I felt even worse. I probably drank it too fast. Plus, although coke maybe a great beverage for sitting at home watching TV, it's never really meant to be mixed with exercise. As I continued walking down the road, I could feel all the carbonated bubbles swishing around in my stomach with each step.

I got back in my car and continued down the road further into Shinyabakei. Once I got around the turn in the road I realized that I had simply stopped my car too soon. Just a little bit down the road was Shinyabakei in all it's tourist tackiness. There were all sorts of soba resturants and ...well, mostly it was just the soba resturants, but there were a lot of them.
Once I got this far, I remembered that I had been out this way once before. Way back in spring 2003. A few other JETs were going out for a hot spring bath out this way, and I had come along. I remember being rather unimpressed by the hot spring bath (it was advertised as a great nature view, and then the whole thing turned out to be inside). I also remember one of my JET friends Ron telling me that this whole area is packed with bumper to bumper traffic on a weekend day in the fall. It sure didn't look that way now though.

Along the road there was a path overlooking the river. Most of the parking lots here charged money, so I kept driving down the road until the walking path ended, then parked my car on the road shoulder, and took the walking path back towards the tourist area. (In addition to getting free parking, I would have had a lingering feeling of missing out if I hadn't of walked the whole length of the path along the river anyway).

Once I got towards the tourist areas, there was a sign for a hiking trail. For a whole network of hiking trails actually, and maps of where they went, and even photographs of the various sights you could see along the way.
Real hiking on actual trails! I had hit the goldmine.
Unfortunately by this time it was getting late in the day. It was 3:30, and I knew the sun set early up in the mountains. Already it was looking a bit gray out. I cursed myself for all the screwing around I had done earlier in the day. If only I had known there were proper, cultivated, marked out hiking trails awaiting me over here.

The first trail started out very promising with an official looking bridge crossing the river.

However no sooner had I crossed this bridge then the trail disappeared. I wandered around in confusion for a while trying to figure out which direction the trail was supposed to pick up in. Ran pack and double checked the map at the trail head again. Wandered around some more. Found parts of what looked like it may have been a trail at one time, tried to follow it until it got gradually more and more overgrown, and then just gave up.

When I returned to the trail head, I noticed a little ways over that there was an even bigger bridge leading to an even more official trail.

Now this really looked like the real deal. In fact after I crossed the bridge, someone had even built steps into the mountain. I climbed up until the trail became level again, and then for the next kilometer or so it was beautiful. For the first half a kilometer it was even paved (no doubt extra money in the city construction budget that year), but they had managed to pave it in a conservative way without tearing up all of the trees and plants around it.

The path followed alongside the river. Occassionally there would be steps up and down the mountain, but there was always a chain linked fence so you didn't fall down into the river below.

Whenever you crossed the river there was a wooden ramp acting as a bridge.

And of course, what would a Japanese nature trail be without a scenic view of a dam?

After about half a kilometer, it became just a dirt trail, but that was no problem at all for me.

And then, gradually the trail began to fade out, until I wasn't even sure I was still on a trail. I walked around for a while, and then I noticed there was an official looking trail and wooden steps on the other side of the river.

After having such a nice trail for the first kilometer, it seemed a bit of a shock now to have to cross the river without any assistance, but it did at least bring back memories of backpacking through the Smokey Mountains Sophmore year. (We had noticed on the map that the trail crisscrossed the river several times, but we had naively assumed there would be foot bridges at each of these crossings. When we actually began hiking we had instead discovered we were on our own to figure out a way across at each intersection.)

There were enough rocks that I could hop skip and jump my way across, but they were just far enough from each other, and just slippery enough, that there were a couple times I was sure I was going to fall off and drop my video camera, digital camera, and assorted eletrical sight seeing equiptment into the river. Fortunately I made it across.

The trail picked up again. And then faded out again. I kept bushwacking forward for a little while and it picked up again. And then it came back to the river and abruptly stopped.

There was a sign saying another 2 kilometers to the scenic view, but I reluctantly turned to go back. With the sun heading down, I decided it was too late in the day to mess around with a trail that wasn't going to cooperate with me.

There was one more trail I headed off on. The sign claimed it was a 15 minute hike around the mountain.

And it was an alright hike for what it was, but 15 minutes was a very generous estimate. The trail went up a small ways, abruptly cut over, and then brought me back to where I had started all in what couldn't have been more than 5 minutes.

And thus ended my hiking experiences in Shinyabakei. I did have the lingering feeling that there was probably a decent hiking trail out there somewhere, but I never found it.

I walked down the tourist strip. I was keeping my eyes open for a nice little place where I could get a cup of coffee, but they appeared to be all Soba shops. And half of the places appeared closed down.

This being Spring break time in Japan, there were some University students around the same area. 3 guys on a motorcycles stopped by, and were wandering around just as confused as me about what there was to do in this area. They went down to the river, admired how clear and beautiful the water was (and it was pretty clear and beautiful) and then got back on their motorcycles and sped on. There was another couple of University students on a date who got ice cream and ate it overlooking the river. They starred at me as I walked past them, so I gave them a smile and a nod.

And then I went back to my car, and started heading for home.

Since I never did find a coffee shop or any non-soba food in Shinyabakei, on my second trip through downtown Yabakei, I stopped at a coffee shop for some coffee and cake.
"We're closing at 6," the lady behind the counter said to me.

"Oh," I said. "What time is it now?"

"It's 6."

"Oh. Sorry to bother you then," I was turning to head for the door, when she called out, "But you can have some coffee if you want. You just can't stay too long. Is a half hour fine?"

"Yes," I said. "That's more than enough time."

She was very nice, and served me a cup of coffee and a big piece of chocolate cake. I apologized several times about showing up late, and in typical Japanese fashion she told me not to worry about it, and then she apologized in turn to me for making me feel rushed. I finished my coffee and cake in about 20 minutes, and stood up to leave, but she told me I didn't have to leave just quite yet so awkwardly I sat down in my seat to wait out the last 10 minutes.

I had brought in my notebook and intended to jot down a few thoughts from the day, but instead I found myself listening in on the conversation from the old man at the counter who was talking to the owner. "Those were the days," he was saying. "Back when we were involved with the student movement, I felt really alive. Life was exciting. There was danger. We had to be on our guard all the time not to be caught by the police. Life these days just seems so boring."

Now of course long time readers of this blog know that one of my pet historical interests is the Japanese Student movement. So you can imagine my ears perked up a little bit when I heard this conversation. I carefully listened in to see if there would be any interesting details or stories.

He continued talking, turning onto that favorite subject of all old people everywhere: complaining about the young. "Back then we were really living," he said. "These days young people spend all their times with video games and the internet, and they don't even know what it's like to be truly alive."
(I might be turning into a bit of an old man before my time, but this is a concern I also share about my generation, and indeed sometimes about my own life).

The old man then began talking about how he had lost contact with all of his family, and had never even once met his various nieces and nephews. It sounded a bit sad really.

I thought about speaking up and asking him what his experiences in the student movement had been. I would have had to admit I had been evesdropping of course, but in a coffee shop as small as this it could not have been helped.

Actually it would hardly have been the first time I asked someone about their experience with the student movement. As you can imagine, there are no lack of aging baby boomers in Japan, and the subject has come up from time to time. When I first came to Japan I talked to my supervisor and his wife about it. Over the course of the next few years it has come up in conversation occassionally with the Japanese teachers at the schools I worked at. Now that I'm at Nova, occassionally one of my older adult students will share a few thoughts or recollections.

These conversations are interesting, but almost always a disappointment when I press for details. Most people talk about the period in generalizations, instead of being able to give me specific stories. Maybe the average person just isn't that good at telling stories. Or maybe after 40 years your memory fades a little. (I'm sometimes alarmed at how many gaps there are in my own memory at 29. Who knows what I'll be like at 60).

When I finally stood up to pay my bill, the old man began asking me the usual questions. ("Where are you from?" "How tall are you?") And I thought I might as well ask him about his student days and see if I could get any interesting stories out of him.

He was more than eager to talk to me. I was guessing he might be, given how he had been rambling on to the waitress. (I should probably have taken this as my first warning sign that I was about to get stuck in a long one-sided conversation.) "This coffee shop is closing up," he said, "but I'm staying at the cycling center across the road. We can relax there and I'll tell you all about it."

We went over to the cycling center (which I think was sort of a rest stop for cyclers headed down the road.) There was a lobby where we sat down at a table. One of the curators of the place even served us coffee.
I asked if it was okay if I could write down notes as he talked (mainly for the purpose of having something to do instead of stare forward blankly and nodding) and he began his story.

"I was born in 1948 in Kitakyushu," he said. "That's 3 years after the war ended. There were 3 groups of people back then. There were the people who had actually gone and fought in the war. There were the people who hadn't been old enough to fight, but had grown up in the war years with the shadow of the war hanging over them. And then there were those of us born after the war. Each of these groups had such a different outlook on life, that they were bound to have conflict sooner or later."

He came to a pause after that and looked at me expecting the next question. So I said, "The first big protests were in 1960, right?"

"Yes, that's right," he said. "I was still a junior high school student at the time, but I remember seeing it on the news. I didn't really understand the significance of it at the time, but I remember all the newspaper articles about Michiko Kanba being killed. That was a big shock to everyone because her father was a Tokyo University professor."

"Was he really?" I knew about Michiko Kanba, but I didn't know her father had been at Tokyo University.

"I think so. Now that protest occured 15 years after the end of the war, and at that time Japanese politics were a lot more polarized than they are today. You had the LDP, the Socialist party, and the Communist party, and they all took strong positions on various issues and clashed with eachother often. The student movement grew out of that climate."

"There was another reason that we didn't know at the time, but it's come out in the years since. The police were getting ready for The Beatle's visit to Japan. At that time the Japanese police had no experience in massive crowd control, so they wanted to provoke the demonstrators into a riot to see if they could be able to contain them, as kind of a test run for when the Beatles visited Japan."

Now this I knew for a fact wasn't true. First of all as a long time Beatles fan, I knew that in 1960 The Beatles hadn't even signed a record contract yet, so it was extremely unlikely the Japanese riot police were already preparing for their visit to Japan. Secondly the protestors in the 1960 Anpo demonstrations turned out in such massive numbers that no one could control them, they broke into the Prime Minister's residence and smashed up cars, and embarrassed the Japanese government by forcing them to canel President Eisenhower's planned visit. I doubt the police were trying to provoke the situation.
With an inward sigh, I wondered if this meant I would have to take everything he said with a grain of salt now.

"When did you get involved?" I asked him.

"From 1970 to 1971," he answered.


"Well, I in my case it was mostly for the money. I respect people who got involved because of their ideals you understand, but for me it was the money."

"The money?"

"And a gauranteed place to sleep. That was important too."

"You got paid for being a protestor?"

"The communist and socialist parties were funneling money into the student protests at the time. Not directly of course. They would have gotten into all sorts of legal trouble if they had been giving money directly. But the money made its way to the students in round about ways. At any rate, there was money coming into these student groups from somewhere, and word got around.
"I came from a poor family. My father went bankrupt when I was a child and ran off. After that my siblings in I all lived in different houses. I had to work my own way through high school by working during the day and going to school at night. Then for college I just went to a 2 year technical school in Kitakyushu. After that I didn't know what I was going to do with myself, so the money in the student movement looked really good to me. And they always had a place for you to sleep in the student dorms. And they looked after their own, so you had all these built in friends."

He continued his story, telling me how he and his friends would be called in to various parts of the country whenever there was a big demonstration planned. His job was to steal empty glass coke bottles, and gasoline, and manufacture molotov cocktails for the protests. But he never actually threw any himself. His job was just to make them, after which they would be passed on to others who would use them in the protests.

Since he had been talking in the coffee shop about escaping from the police, I asked him if he had any run ins, but he said he had been told early on to avoid trouble with the police at all costs. "If the Japanese police caught you they took you into a back room and beat you until you named names, and then all those names would be put into their register and hunted down. So when I first entered the movement the older students told me never to get caught by the police, and I was very careful to avoid them. I suspected some of the policemen in my hometown might have known what he was up to, but I made sure I was never in a place where they could easily get to me."

All in all it was a relatively interesting conversation. And, as we had been talking in Japanese the whole time, it was also one of those moments where I could give myself a little pat on the back and feel proud at how much I could understand. (He lost me a couple times, but I was able to understand most of what he was saying). How nice it would have been if I could have wrapped up the conversation there, said good-bye, and continued on my way home.

Alas he kept me for another hour. Everytime I would try and say something like, "Well, listen, this has been great, thanks a lot," he would suddenly start into a new topic, and I listened to his philosophy of life and his theory of the Japanese mind. He obviously just wanted someone to talk to, and in the end I was too polite to leave abruptly, so I heard him out on all his topics. Although half the time when he was talking, I was just watching his mouth move and thinking to myself, "Why do I always get myself into these kind of conversations? Would other people still be sitting here listening, or would the average person have found a way to escape this conversation by now? Am I being too polite?" And all that kind of internal dialogue that goes on through your head when your in a social situation you're beginning to tire of.

Occassionally he would return to the subject of the student movement, and he did have some interesting observations. "It might be tempting to watch the footage of the protests and think that's all there was to the era," he said. "But really that was just the tip of the ice berg. There was a lot more going on that didn't make for dramatic news footage. Young people today have a lot of freedom, but they have that freedom because of my generation. When I was growing up we couldn't listen to rock music. And if we got caught playing an electric guitar, that was it. Our academic career was over, we were expelled from school. We couldn't use any English words at school. If I said something like "Pink" or "Blue" the teacher would hit me. You'd never believe it now-adays. Young people use Japonized English for everything. Most Japanese people don't even know how to say pink in their native language. And in my day if we were caught eating burgers or drinking coffee, or having any western food, we'd be in huge trouble. Young people today have all sorts of freedom. and they have it because people in my generation were willing to fight and be hit over the head by the police."

Eventually, after several more attempts to leave, I was finally able to wrap up the conversation and make my way out the door. The whole thing had gone on for about an hour longer than I had intended to, but that's what you get for asking an old man to tell you about his life, right? In the end, I got some interesting information out of him, and he obviously enjoyed telling it, so it probably worked out well for both of us.

After that, I got in the car, and drove home.

Additional Yabakei Photos:

Link of the Day
According to Media Mouse, there was a Hitchens Vs. Hitchens debate in my hometown last week.
I would have liked to have seen this. Christopher Hitchens is completely off base on Iraq of course, but he's an engaging speaker and I always enjoy listening to him whether I agree with him or not. Fortunately the video is on-line at the media mouse website

...and if you're not sick of MLK links yet:
40 Years After the Lynching of Dr. King,
Martin Luther King's Death: 40 Years On
and American conflict


Whisky Prajer said...

It's interesting to consider this man's memory glitches, then speculate what sorts of absurdities might be occurring in the memories of survivors from the North American counter culture. It's doubtful your interlocutor subjected his brain cells to the sort of abuse most of his Western counterparts did.

Joel Swagman said...

As always, thanks for the comments Whisky.

I guess this is where the phrase: "If you remember the 60s, you weren't really there comes in."

I guess to me the interesting question as I age is how much is the average person supposed to remember anyway? and then it would be interesting to compare that with the acid victims as well.