HAIKU AHEAD – PROCEED WITH CAUTION:
Hot tea is needful, I think
Also many books
Four summers ago, I wrote about Taking Tea with Tornadoes describing my experience with the art of Japanese tea ceremonies during severe low pressure fronts; it has been quite a while since I’ve explored the Land of the Rising Sun. Please allow me to apologize in advance for my take on this venerable, ancient culture. “Sumimasen” すみません
I have the heart of a wanderer…and the expense account for ramen noodles on a good day. So, I have to adventure vicariously–taking a trip on the Orient Express for me means getting on board with digital media.
Allow me to recommend a few curiosities I’ve discovered along the way.
I recently ventured onto Amazon Prime and binge-watched James May’s Our Man in Japan travelogue. And while the titular host is a bit of a prat–writing deliberately offensive Haiku and presenting the results to a panel of bemused artists too polite to give him their opinion–there is a charm about watching this giant man navigate the island nation. He’s like a British Godzilla stomping his way through cultural traditions–old and new.
As an opening act, James is dragged along on a dog-sled adventure in the icy northern island of Hokkaido. Dragged is the operative word. It turns out to be a very comedic, if painful, episode to watch. Don’t worry, no dogs were injured in the making of the film. I can’t say the same for the host.
There are classic adventures and scenic tours, but there are also everyday experiences–driving in traffic. Being pulled over for crossing a line. Navigating the complex ordering process at a noodle shop where you must pay a vending machine to get a ticket, hopefully for something you want to eat, then presenting the ticket to the cook standing two feet away.
There are snowball fights in which James loses face–and lets down his mates–by being repeatedly pelted by the opponent’s team.
You can follow his meditative walk up the sacred Mount Haguro‘s icy steps alongside an ancient representative of the Yamabushi monks–wandering ascetics who, as May describes, “…have populated these forests since the 7th century–and they practice a doctrine of Shugendo. What that says is you leave your earthly cares and wares behind…..and then commune with nature, with the mountain in particular, to develop a sixth sense for the truth.”
Along this path, James May writes impromptu Haiku:
Snow on the mountain
Priest ascends the icy steps
Englishman on ass!
At the top of the mountain, James is permitted to blow the monk’s conch and then climbs into a hot tub with him. (There are no innuendos in the preceding sentence, though I’m sure someone will try to find one.)
James May’s take on Japan is an odd mixture of profane and pure. He shows earnest interest in all the endeavors and shows self deprecating awareness of his faux pas by repeatedly uttering a self-effacing apology “Sumi Masen” whenever he crosses a cultural line.
Japan’s polite face requires no deliberate offense, and this is absorbed by the host as he travels. Perhaps it is this expectation of saving honor that brings out the Samurai in James May. Literally. May is getting kitted up in full Samurai armor is an art and an ordeal. As all the gear is strapped on, James worries aloud “What if I can’t stand up at the end of all this?”
The response from his host (in translation) is a triumph in double-edged Japanese civility:
“It’s fine. You’re a man. You can stand up if you are a true Samurai!”
A member of staff teases him about wearing an outfit appropriate to a ‘torture dungeon’ and James May gives a very good impression of an offended British Samurai with his riposte. He draws the sword and holds it out toward the camera crew and makes a pointed observation:
“This is a 300-year-old Kitana if anybody has anything fatuous to say!”
I watched an episode a day, and spent a week traveling with James May. The most haunting trip visited the village of Nagoro–empty of people, but filled with human-sized dolls to represent the generations lost to modern life and exodus to city living. Even I can understand the creep-factor of dolls on this scale.
While I will never likely meet James May, after a week spent watching him navigate the Land of Cherry Blossoms I do feel I got to know him a bit by the end. But did I truly get to know Japan? I can’t say. I only know, it thrills me to adventure outside my own little world for a while. Which might explain my subsequent, serendipitous discovery of a very heady nature.
I was just leaving the library, when a title grabbed me and dragged me to a halt. There, on the table of books for sale, I spotted Plum Wine.
I wrote a long-winded review on Goodreads tolling the virtues and alternately lamenting the direction of one aspect of the novel. I highly recommend you read the book instead. My review is likely to put you off reading altogether. (You’ll note, this doesn’t stop me from writing.)
After soaking in literary Plum Wine, today I stumbled across a funny/indescribable/possibly insane show recommended to me by Amazon Prime. What this recommendation says about me, I dare not ask.
Honestly, I don’t know how to explain Samurai Cat. Perhaps the creators were drunk on Plum Wine as they wrote it?
Just watch this clip:
Warning, Samurai Cat has the weirdest blank spaces–an actual black screen appears for several minutes–where I think commercials would ordinarily go. They just didn’t bother to cut them out. Still, it’s the best damned Samurai Cat show I’ve ever seen. I challenge you to find one better.
There. I’ve shared the weirdness I’ve explored in the past month. Monday, I have to get something sucked out of my kid’s ear and buy a door and a new knob to replace the one that was destroyed. And Tuesday I will age by one year all at once.
Some days, all I want is to stuff my demon cat into a clay urn and wrap it with a “monster seal” and stick it in a safe place to deal with later.
Is that too much to ask?
Afterword: The title of my blog has this footnote for clarification. I thought I was quoting a song by Graham Parker about ‘Turning Japanese’ but I had confused it with another band. My husband loved Graham Parker, so instead, I’m putting a link to his take on the subject: