Sado: The Old Japan

I'm on my very first long term business trip. I'm teaching on Sado Island, an island off the coast of Niigata-ken. In total, it will be seven days, six of which I had to/ have to work. I'm half-way through my business trip. So far it's been... まあまあ (so-so). I loooooooove sleeping in a bed. I didn't realize how much I missed a thick mattress until I spent a few nights on one. I like seeing a new place. I like having piping hot rice and green tea ready for me as soon as I get out of bed. I like getting paid $25 a day to go out to eat. BUT, I don't like being awoken at 5:46 a.m. by noisy construction workers almost every morning. I don't like waiting an hour for the next bus, because there are so few. I don't like not knowing where the heck I am or where in the world I'm going. I don't like not being able to cook. So, there are pluses and minuses to business trips. I'm glad there's usually only an opportunity for one a year, but then again, that option is nice, even if I don't take it again.

The best part of the business trip is the free time. My hotel is a 5 minute walk from the classroom, so the time I usually spend traveling is all mine. It's been nice to be all alone for such long uninterrupted time periods. I've been studying Japanese and reading to my heart's content. After two days of blissful alone time, Dustin joined me for the weekend. I take the blame for our weekend being a bit less eventful than we'd both hoped. I researched all of the possible destinations on Sado and chose the ones that seemed most intriguing to me. Once I got to Sado, I took out a map and marked all of the places I wanted to go. At that point, I realized that all of the things I wanted to see were on completely different parts of the island.

Before I got to Sado, I hadn't realized that it was so enormous. It's about twice the size of the greater Springfield area. That might not seem too big, but when you don't have a car or a bike, it's enormous. I suggested renting a power-bike, but the threat of rain caused us to nix that plan. So, we rode the bus everywhere. But the buses only came once an hour or once every 2 or 3 hours. I'm staying in a central area on the west coast of Sado, but even getting to the northwest coast (a mere thumb print on the map) took almost an hour by bus. We quickly realized we had to prioritize our destinations.

Due to indecisiveness and neither of us admitting that we really didn't care about certain tourist spots until halfway there, we changed the plans a lot. In the end, we ended up spending a good portion of day one figuring out which bus routes we'd need to take to get here, there, and everywhere, and didn't actually end up going to all of those places. We did go to a bunya puppet show. A nice little old lady (who we ran into about a billion times after we met her) was explaining the difference between Osaka bunrakyu puppets and Sado bunya puppets and then the show began. I understood very little of the song that accompanied the performance, so I made up my own story. I shared that story with Dustin after the performance and learned that the puppet I deemed the "lover" was actually the mother. That put a very different spin on the story.

After the puppets, we headed to the Sado Gold Mine. There was a modern tunnel and and Edo era (1600-late 1800) tunnel. We took the Edo course. There were really interesting animatronic models of the workers extracting the gold. Kind of cheesy, but surprisingly interesting. The best part of the experience was the brick of gold in a box with hole big enough to stick your arm through. The challenge was to lift the brick of gold. I watched as an endless line of elderly folks (most of the fellow tourists we've encountered on this trip have been well past retirement age) attempted and failed to pick up the brick. I waited for a short break in the line and rushed over to try my turn, hoping that all the push-ups I've been doing lately would help me out, but I couldn't even make it budge. When Dustin entered the room, I rushed him over to have his turn. He impressed me by picking it right up and lifting it pretty high. All the senior citizens were equally impressed.

After we finished at the Gold Mine, we headed into the nearby town of Aikawa to find a festival I'd read about in the map my boss had given me. Sado is famous for oni daiko (people who dress up as demons and play giant drums), and I was told that they are at virtually every festival on the island. Somehow, Dustin and I convinced ourselves that Kodo, a world famous taiko group who is actually from Sado, were also going to be at this festival. Dustin and I have been to our fair share of festivals, usually in Nagaoka. They often include loads of vendors selling food and drinks, multiple parades and performances, and massive crowds. When we got to Aikawa, it was distinctively quiet. Quieter than a normal city would be festival or not. Hmmm... we went into the local conbini, and I used my excellent (sarcasm) Japanese to ask where the festival was. He responded by pointing across the street, and saying with a laugh "that neighborhood." We left with a puzzled look on our faces and crossed the street, trying to find the festival. Dustin's ears perked up when he heard a flute. We started walking quickly towards the sound of the flute. We crossed paths with a group of taiko drummers accompanied by a couple of samurai and what appeared to be either a god or a demon with a white face mask. They were headed to the nearby gas station. We'd been told that the taiko groups in this town play at different houses as a way of asking for donations for the local shrine (kind of like the Aikawa version of trick-or-treating?), but we hadn't expected them to stop at a gas station.

After that performance, we tagged along to the next spot, but it was pretty much the same as the gas station performance, and we were the only people in the group that weren't wearing a matching festival jacket. Plus, we're white. Needless to say, we stuck out. We weren't too keen on being groupies to this particular drumming clan without seeing the rest of the town's offerings. So, we stopped off to watch a beautiful sunset before setting out again to find the center of the festival. We wanted festival food and crowds and maybe a glass of sake.

We walked up and down the streets. We saw the tell tale lanterns that usually denote a festival, but we couldn't find anything resembling a festival we were accustomed to. We'd asked the Japanese Teacher for the Peppy school on Sado if she wanted to join us, but my phone didn't have any reception in Aikawa, so I didn't really know if she would show up or not. Dustin and I were perplexed. We didn't want to keep following the same taiko group all around town. They were going to visit EVERY house after all. We were just standing on a street corner wondering what to do, when Hiromi (the Sado JT) suddenly appeared. She'd seen us standing on this corner and gotten off the bus to join us. We shared our confusion with her, hoping she would have some answers. She grew up on Sado, but she's always lived in Sawata, 15 minutes away by taxi, so she had no idea what the traditions of Aikawa are. She'd never been to this festival. It was shocking to me that two towns so close could have little to do with each other.

Being the helpful Japanese woman she is, Hiromi stopped the first Aikawan she found and asked him for the lowdown on the festival. Now, asking for help in Japan is a risky thing, because some people (especially people of a rather advanced age) will give you far too much help. Dustin and I had experienced that earlier in the day with a nice little old lady who'd overheard us bickering about which bus would take us to Aikawa. She not only pointed us in the direction of the bus, but she made us sit right next to her on the bus and commentated our 30 minute ride together. She told us the names of all the rock formations and frequently asked us questions that were drowned out by the bus's loud effort to make it up the mountainside. We appreciated the help, but it's more work than you realize to keep a grateful smile plastered on your face while trying to think of something appropriate to say in Japanese for half an hour.

The older gentlemen Hiromi was interrogating had obviously been partaking in sake for some time already, so he was even more helpful than he might have been pre-sake. He showed us some pictures of the taiko group he'd taken on his cell phone. He told us all about their route and how all of the taiko groups would meet on the main street in town at 10:00 (wrong), and that the oni daiko would be coming down the street shortly (wrong), and that we could find festival food at the end of that street (wrong). If he had told us these things directly, I could understand how certain ideas could have been lost in translation, but no, he gave all these bits of information to Hiromi, a Japanese woman, in Japanese. And Hiromi, who has spent 3 years in a Canadian university and has been teaching English for over 3 years, has near perfect English. Once we got over the disappointment of not being able to see the oni daiko or eat festival food, we set out in search of any food. We stopped in several izakaiya, but they were all closed on account of the festival, yet there was no one on the streets. It was nearly a ghost town, aside from the distant pounding of drums.

Another helpful older Japanese person directed us to about a million different places that might serve vegetables (since my dietary restrictions were a major factor in where we could eat in Hiromi's eyes), we finally found one that was indeed open. We tried to make our meal last since it was 6:00 and the true climax of the festival where the different taiko groups meet on the main street wasn't until 9:00. Dinner didn't quite last 3 hours, but we stayed there for quite a while before finding a choice spot on the main road, where we waited and waited and waited for the drummers to arrive. People started pouring onto the street out of nowhere. I have no idea where they'd been hiding all this time. Finally, the first group (the one we'd unintentionally been following all night long) showed up.

We asked Hiromi whether the guy with the white face was a demon or a god, but she didn't know, so she went to a nearby shop to inquire. I felt so bad that she was asking all of these questions and then translating just for our benefit. The drunk guy from earlier in the night had even asked if she was our guide... but she is just such a nice and helpful person. We discovered that he was neither a god nor a demon. She said, "He's not such a bad guy, but he has to make it difficult for the gods to pass by." Basically, the purpose of this festival is to raise money to offer to the gods in exchange for a good harvest. The struggle against the guy in the white mask is supposed to represent the idea that good things require a bit of hardship, so at harvest time, everyone must work really hard. We had waited around doing nothing for about 4 hours, but the climax of the festival was worth it.

The guy in the white mask did a really interesting dance, accompanied by the samurai while the other taiko groups tried (and all inevitably succeeded) to push past him. It was so traditional and full of meaning and emotion. Everyone was unbelievably into it, despite the fact that they've seen it every year of their life. After the last group had pushed through, two of the groups seemed to be fighting. We thought it was a part of the performance, until people started moving out of the way and everyone was shouting, but not in a festive manner. I looked up and noticed that the massive fight was moving right towards me, but directly in front of my face was the samurai's blade. AH! Luckily, a more leveled headed drummer broke up the fight. Only one guy showed signs of violence with a cut eye and a bloody shirt, but it was pretty intense.

We went to the Sado Legends Museum today. Sado was the place where Japanese intellectuals were banished in the 8th century. This kitschy museum told the stories of Sado's great legends (an emperor, the priest who popularized Buddhism in Japan, a healer who could make it rain, etc.) through impressively life-like robots. They were really neat.

I like Sado. It's quaint. It's quiet (aside from the two older gents on the other side of hotel room wall, that is). It's traditional. It's really beautiful, especially now that the leaves have just begun to change. I'm enjoying my little mini-vacation. I am increasingly realizing how essential is it for me to leave Nagaoka every once in while, or I will go crazy. I think this means that Nagaoka is not the city I'm intended to live in forever. I wonder if I will ever find that place... I wonder if anyone's attention span has lasted long enough to get to the end of this long-winded post... ごめんね... sorry!

p.s. More new Sado pictures are in the new album, which you can click on at the top right of this page: Sado Living.


わたちたちは日本に一年にいます! or We've been in Japan for a year! (or at least I think that's what that says)

Yes, we have passed our first year milestone in Japan without much fuss. We had officially been on Japanese soil as of Saturday, September 26. I kind of wanted to celebrate with a one-year anniversary party, but that date happened to coincide with the going away party of two of our friends, so we let it pass by quietly.

Nothing much is new across the ocean. We've had a new prime minister for some time now, but I've seen no noticeable differences. There's a typhoon on its way over here this week, but then again, there was supposed to be a typhoon in August, but that never arrived in Niigata-ken.

It's getting colder, which I don't like, but that means more drinking hot tea and staying in trying to keep warm and just watching movies or reading, which I do like. A friend recently told me that there are more pachinko parlors in Niigata-ken than any other prefecture in Japan, because there isn't really much to do in the winter months. I guess when you get covered in snow walking from your front door to the car (assuming you're lucky enough to have one in those chilly months), there's little motivation to do anything but sit and stare at a machine feeding it tiny balls. Dustin can't wait for the first snow, so he can use his new snowboard (which he will get for his birthday in about a month and a half).

I'm counting down the days until December 17. I can't wait for a visit to the States. I've lived abroad before, but never for more than 6 months. I'm overjoyed to be able to spend 3 weeks at home in December and I can't wait to come back in 5 months for the wedding. Yay! There are a few new pictures in the "Last Days of Summer" album if you want to see what exactly we've been doing since I last posted.