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Last chance at the Takara corral to unholster the six sakes John Gauntner chose for the evening. Last sips of life in Japan. Doreen, a veteran of 35 years in Japan and a part-time NHK sumo announcer, presides over the table in her plummy British accent. Patricia, my familiar drinking buddy, and I relax into tipsy companionship. John talks about sakamai (sake rice) varieties. He plants images in my mind of tall stalks straining to stay upright. After harvest, the toji (brew master) coaxes the extra-large rice grains to dissolve and ferment with the yeast and mold.
Thank you Yamada Nishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Omachi, Dewasansan…
Rob Yellin gives a lecture about chawan (tea bowls). He instructs us to take off our jewelry when handling the irreplaceable bowls at the head table. We look for spontaneity in the carving of the bowl’s foot, for the irregular beauty that holds one’s interest so much longer than perfect machine-made soulless crockery.
Rob wants us to ask one question when selecting our household ceramics: “Do I want to be intimate with this?”
Refills of favorites and I am pain-free. Some of the gang of ex-pats pity me for having to leave Japan. I feel a mixture of envy that they get to stay in Japan and a primal urge to go home. I gotta see about a house and a job and the rest of my life. But this life is so very very tasty.
Six dinner courses, six sakes, a few hours of varied pleasure. Kaika Junmai Nama (Gohyakumangoku rice) had a deep floral nose, almost like a chrysanthemum, with a fat body and a long sweet finish. Nishi no Seki Junmai (Hattan Nishiki rice) was crisp with high alcohol, and a tight, clean, almost wheaty taste that faded quickly. Dewazakura Ginjo (Dewasansan rice) had a spice nose with a hint of peppermint, a light body, and a fruit aftertaste, almost effervescent on the tongue. Toyo Bijin Junmai Ginjo (Akaiwa Omachi rice) was delicate and elegant with a silky texture. Hitakami Junmai (Yamada Nishiki rice) was clean and fresh with a black pepper edge, a tidy sake. Hitakami Junmai Ginjo (Watabibune rice) had a rose nose, but the taste was wide, strong, and bold.
Goodnight junmai and ginjo and nama. Goodnight sake bar and Mori-san the sommelier. Goodnight John, goodnight Rob, goodnight Patricia. Goodnight cultural inebriation. Goodnight nihonshu in Japan.
I meet my friend Eriko and her six-year-old daughter, Amy, to go to the Higashi-Zushi Tanabata festival. There are large Tanabata festivals in other Japanese cities, but this will be a modest neighborhood event.
Amy is excited to show off her patterned pink yukata (festival kimono) with a bright yellow obi tied in a big bow in the back. Instead of the traditional geta (wooden clogs), she is wearing a pair of hot pink Crocs.
It’s dusk and the air has started to cool down after a very muggy day. We walk down the hill to a small fairground area, a dusty patch of worn grass. There’s a large crowd for the size of the area, mostly families with children, many of the young girls wearing pink yukata. Boys are screeching and smashing each other in the head with plastic blow-up swords. I feel a wave of claustrophobia at the high-pitched squeal-chatter of so many children. I breathe and relax into the chaos.
We’re here to celebrate Tanabata, an ancient festival imported from China to Japan. It used to be tied to the lunar calendar, but now is celebrated on July 7 and the weekend before. The story: Weaving Princess Star (Orihime, or Vega) and Pulling Cows Star (Hikoboshi, or Altair) are a celestial husband and wife who neglected their duties (i.e., weaving, minding cows) after they were married. As a punishment, they were separated and put on either side of the River of Heaven (Milky Way) by Orihime’s father, the Sky God. If they work hard during the year and get their work done, they are allowed to meet once a year, ferried across the river by a celestial boatman or, in other versions of the story, some magpies. Apparently, if it rains, the couple can’t cross the river and has to wait another year.
The air at the little festival smells sweet with an undertone of grilled chicken. Festival tents line two sides of the area. The food tents sell yakitori (three sticks for 200 yen, one each of chicken thigh, chicken meatballs, and chicken skin), yakisoba, cotton candy, mizuame (flavored gooey sugar on sticks), grilled corn (with a sauce of mirin, soy sauce, and sugar), and grilled squid heads impaled on a stick, the top of the head maintaining a suggestive flared shape. A pizza van with a built-in wood-fired oven offers tiny gourmet pizzas, which we find out later are quite delicious.
Other tents offer games like scooping up live goldfish or small rubber balls floating in water, gambling with giant styrofoam dice, and fishing with a bamboo rod, a string line, and a paperclip hook for prizes. One tent sells live two-inch-long Japanese rhinoceros beetles in clear plastic boxes padded with sawdust. Eriko tells me young boys enjoy organizing beetle battles.
Eriko’s friends arrive with their daughters—classmates of Amy—and the three girls together are animated, chatting with their faces close together.
Our group makes one circuit of the offerings. We buy some drinks and yakitori, and find seats at some tables set up in front of a stage. For now there is no performer. The sound system is playing Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Eriko catches the smile on my face and laughs.
The small stage is decorated on either side with two very large bamboo branches with green leaves. Hanging from the branches are fluttering slips of paper (green, purple, pink, orange, blue, red, yellow, and white) with handwritten wishes on them. The wishes are children’s hopes for the future: “I want to become a model,” “I want to become a good dancer,” “I want to play the piano well.” I turn to Amy and one of her friends, “What do you wish?” They agree: they both want to become princesses.
The next song is “Theme from the Godfather.” I sit watching the Japanese girls in pink. I notice an old man in jimbei, a Japanese man’s traditional summer outfit with shorts and a wrap-around top. No other man at the festival is wearing traditional Japanese dress, and we women agree that it’s a shame. A tall teenaged girl in a blue yukata walks by very elegantly. Her hair is tied up with ribbons and her neck is long and very smooth.
Three high school boys set up at the mikes on stage. One has a guitar and they are all three dressed in faux-gangsta boy-band style. They tell the crowd that they have been singing together since elementary school. The crowd in front of the stage already knows this, in fact knows them well, and cheers wildly. They begin to sing to a music track, but the vocals are live—high-level karaoke. The first song is a pop song I don’t recognize, and the chorus repeats in English: “Summer party, summer party, summer party.”
Eriko, her friends, and the little girls head off to play some of the games. I stay to listen to the band and save our seats. The boys sing a ballad. The night air is cool and I have a strong feeling of nostalgia, a memory of being back in the U.S. at the county fair in summer. I can smell the hay and dust and fried dough and sugar. The teenage fans of the band remind me of being in a group, shuffling around the fair, feeling a mixture of excitement at being out at night and disappointment with the scene. We longed to be noticed.
The third song is a slightly punk-inspired number that gets the audience very excited. The band’s friends laugh and applaud certain lines of the lyrics. I have no idea what they are singing. Next to the stage two older men with lined faces grin with detachment at the scene as they sit smoking; one has a small white towel draped around his neck.
The last song is another pop number. The chorus is unintentionally funny: “We wish you a happy rife.” I try to be mature about it, but I crack up.
In the night air, with the applause of the crowd and the colorful wishes fluttering in the breeze, somehow this line makes perfect sense. I feel rife with—what I don’t know—but it’s copious.
I got a lot of money
Could you be my nasty girl
And let me do that dirty dance witchu
Shake that sexy body
I just wanna nasty girl
Now tell me is that nasty girl you?
—Nitti (alternate reading, Nitty), a Heian period tanka master, from his poem, Fuketsuna koibito (Nasty Girl)
You know how it is for the ex-pat: the lights of the bars in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai used to titillate, but one tires of drag queens and vomiting up shochu and yakitori at 3 a.m. You move on to ukiyo-e at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art near Harajuku, but too soon you need more than 100 views of Fuji to get off. You soak your sore nether regions in the sento (bathhouses) of Ryogoku, and ritually wash yourself pure at the shrines of Kamakura. You have a brief fling with the Snow White looks of Kokkai, the Georgian sumo wrestler, who, incidentally, mixes a really tasty mint julep, but even his bulk can’t wear down your need for more more more. You have worked over the Kanto Plain and now your jaded palate wants a taste of the Kansai, the famous Heian kink. Like Genji looking for a hookup with an anonymous handmaid with blackened teeth and a stiff…raw…silk kimono, everyone eventually ends up stumbling blind with desire into Kyoto.
First stop: the so-called “Philosopher’s Walk,” a tree-lined, watery test of stamina, with many temptations, secret places, and mind-blowing meanings. We worked that hidden canal for hours, until we had to collapse, exhausted, at Honen-in, a mossy and wet Buddhist love motel.
We sprawled on the cool, slick wooden veranda of the prayer hall with a group of strangers, disreputable-looking middle-aged Japanese sybarites carrying guidebooks and open minds—all of us sweaty and shoeless. It was a place that smelled of the incense of love. Under the stony gaze of The Buddha Who Likes to Watch, we collapsed in a lusty heap, trying to keep our voices low and our hands off each other. We failed.
My posse and I were sitting outside on Fujino-ya’s yuka, one of the salacious summertime riverside verandas, marveling at the colorful fashions worn by the hustlers and dealers of the Kyoto underworld. The “English” menu said, “Raw Japanese alcohol,” so we knew we were in the right place. When the waitress brought an unpasteurized sake and some hot meat rods, we began our descent into the dangerous world of the Pontocho.
The night was our fried oyster….
The next day I left my posse behind to travel to the dens of iniquity in Arashiyama. As any true freak knows, Nonomiya Shrine has long been a place for hot exchanges of poetry and bodily fluids. Prince Genji himself met the Rokujo Lady at the Nonomiya Shrine:
The evening moon burst forth and the figure she saw in its light was handsome beyond describing. Not wishing to apologize for all the weeks of neglect, he pushed a branch of the sacred tree in under the blinds.
“With the heart unchanging as this evergreen,
This sacred tree, I enter the sacred gate.”
— “The Tale of Genji” (Seidensticker, p. 187)
Not yet satisfied, I moved on to Rakushisha, or “the cottage of the fallen persimmons” (wink wink, if you know what I mean), the home of the poet Mukai Kyorai, a disciple of Basho. Kyorai was known for the way he would put some stank on his haiku; as I looked over the very private rooms, I felt the decrepit sensuality inherent in this place (you may want to send your children out of the room):
nanigoto zo hana miru hito no nagagatana
one viewing flowers
carries a long saber
I’d heard about a place called Boai-so (the grinding stick), which sounded good and nasty. Boai-so is a farmhouse once owned by Kitaro Nishida (he of the Philosopher’s Walk) hidden in a grove of rock hard, gently swaying bamboo. The house madam recommended the daily special, a multi-course tease of humiliation and fresh creamy tofu. Unfortunately, I blacked out with pleasure, but you can imagine what happens when you mix a grinding stick, a suribachi full of sesame seeds, and a basket of limp, cold noodles. Worth a visit.
Later, I hit the famous meat (fish, pickles, salty things) market of Nishiki. I took my time looking at the temptations and taking saucy photos. At a shop selling booze, I picked up a local and took him back to the hotel. My posse and I had him in our room. He was a rich old man with a gentle finish, a very quaffable dude.
Of course, we had to high-tail it down to Nara for the famous “deer park” show. It’s better than a “soapy” in Bangkok: all antlers and spotted flanks and girls/boys in school uniforms. Nara is known for its citizenry’s rebellious streak and phallic pickles. We lit a candle at the iconoclastic, Lenny Bruce-inspired “Big Buddha”: shown above giving The Man the finger.
Inside Todaiji, an excitable gang waited their turn at the enlightenment hole. Need I say more?
After three days of indulging in sin, we ran low on funds. To raise money, I sent out the youngest, hottest member of my posse to solicit passers-by. She charged impressionable young girls 5,000 yen for a signature from “Nikki Hilton.”
After such a vigorous exploration of this lascivious city of wonder, we were sunk in hebetude on the train home: our bodies satiated, our cameras full of evidence that could be used against us in a court of law. Little did we care. In the words of Donatien Alphonse François, “In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.”
Give in to the dark side, give in to Kyoto.