Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Takayama, Japan

Friends: Ten days remain in these travels. As I meander towards Mount Fuji, I have a variety of sights I can detour to--castles, temples, old traditional villages, a hot spring that attracts monkeys. The tourist attractions quickly grow stale and tiresome, however, and rarely live up to their hype. What I randomly see along the road seems more interesting and real. Taking time to join the tourists is time spent off the bike, where I truly long to be. That elevates and perks my spirit and reveals more about where I am and who I am than anything. Whatever I happen upon and discover on my own gives the most satisfaction.

Several times I've had the good fortune of happening upon a Little League baseball game. Watching kids at play appeals to me much more than wandering through an old castle. It offers as much insight into the people I am amongst and their culture than anything. Its late in the year to be playing baseball, so I may have been witnessing a championship game. With an umpire at each base, that would have been the case in most places, but here in Japan, where efficiency and detail is given priority, that may be how it is always done. There was no celebration at the game's end, just a lot of bowing. The two teams lined up facing each other from the pitcher's mound to home plate and then bowed to one another. Then they each went to the opposing team's fans, neatly lined up, and bowed. They concluded their bowing with bows to their own supporters. I saw no stupendous play, just a lot of hustle and backing one another up. The only lassitude came from the third base coaches, who were also kids. They were very very blase in telling base runners what to do, pretty much leaving it up to them.

After several weeks in a foreign land some recurring site or object will often emerge as something uniquely representative of the country. I enjoy a quick flutter of delight whenever I spot another. They are frequently something commonplace and mundane, something I barely paid any notice initially. But in time I come to appreciate them and detect that each has a distinctive character. They become an object of art. If I were a photographer, I would want to
photograph them and compile them into coffee-table book. In India it was bullock carts and their oxen. In France the village fontaines captured my imagination. I frequently filled my water bottles with their cool refreshing water. Many of the fontaines were part of a fountain in a town square. In Cuba my eye was continually captured by the vintage American cars. In
Iceland I was enraptured by the emergency huts along the road that provided shelter from severe weather. Vietnam abounded with bicycles overloaded with all manner of goods. Australia provided a gallery of working class men in navy blue singlets.

Japan offers several recurring sites worthy of a coffee-table book. One is the neat and tidy mini-botanical gardens around many people's homes. Another is the pocket-sized shrines and temples that appear here and there along the road. Lately, tunnel entrances have been emerging as one of my favorite sites. There is quite a variety to them. Some are adorned with a mini-mural or a painting of a product unique to the region--an apple or a flower or an animal. There is great variety to their surroundings and landscaping. I have spent a lot of time in tunnels here, often minutes and miles at a time, and don't necessarily regret it. Riding through a tunnel is an entirely different sensory experience than being out in the open and in the sun. Tunnels slow time and heighten the senses. Tunnels magnify sound. It is often difficult to determine whether a vehicle is bearing down on me from the front or the rear. Tunnels take me into a different world, protected from wind and sun and rain and they are generally flat, making them easier on the legs. But it is always a relief to make their exit. I feel as if I have been reborn emerging into fresh air and panoramic surroundings and relative quiet.

Perhaps the oddest sites I have seen in Japan, those that give me the greatest charge, are the gigantic bowling pins that stand atop or in front of bowling alleys. They are totems that can be seen from a great distance. When on the roof of a multi-story building, they could be the highest object in a city, a space ordinarily reserved for church steeples or observation towers or TV antennas. They stand so tall and so noble, a visitor from another planet might take them to be an object of worship or reverence, which they might well be. Bowling alleys could be found anywhere, in the heart of a city or on its outskirts in a mall or off on its own. If I go several days without seeing a pin, I feel deprived and make an effort to seek out the local bowling alley, curious to see what manner of pin marks it. The bowling pins are just one of many over-sized objects that populate Japan. There are bears and lobsters and insects and apples and fish, each stirring the imagination. They are all a symptom of the Japanese Godzilla complex and their fascination with the gigantic. Godzilla, that 150-foot tall mutant dinosaur, is by far the most popular Japanese cinematic figure. The first Godzilla movie was in 1954. It was so popular, there have been 27 sequels, each a big hit, ranking among the highest grossing films every year.

There are also some distinctive Japanese mannerisms that I have developed a fondness for. I am charmed whenever I am told "stop" or "no entry" or "not possible" or "go away," especially when it is accompanied by the gesture of crossed forearms held against the chest. I never like to be refused entry to some place I'd like to go, but the way I am told lessens the pain. It is often someone in uniform--a security guard or someone working on a road construction crew.

Later, George

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