Monday, September 28, 2009

Vale Urban Mountain Loafers

It was bound to happen - just days after reading the Doc's obituary for his orange sun goggles, my much loved Urban Mountain Loafers carked it.

The poor buggers have been my clod-hoppers for about 8 years, through thick and thin and in addition to being the shoe of choice for around town, have also been fine travelling companions. They've survived countless music festivals, including being honourable replacements for more appropriate gum boots at the legendary Mudford Folk Festival. They have shod me through thick and thin, across 2 countries (well, parts thereof) and despite many efforts at destroying them through inappropriate use (although this did not, curiously extend to actually climbing any mountains with them, as the Tiger strictly forbid me from taking them on our hike up 3000 metre Tateyama recently. I shall never forgive her for not allowing the Mountain Loafers to realise their true calling in life before they died). Nothing could stop them, it seemed, until their final moments trudging through the sleepy streets of Takoaka (transporting a very hungover body from a mate's tiny apartment, after a very drunken evening where I lost my karaoke virginity). A faint clip-clop sound was drilling into my head-holes with every step, annoying the absolute bejesus out of me. A couple of miffed glances behind me to find the source of this irritating sound were unsuccessful...

until I looked down and found the sole of the right loafer had finally given way and was flapping helplessly away from the shoe itself. Truth be told, this was not the first occasion this had happened, but I just wasn't ready to bid them farewell just then and so hastily glued them back together. This time, however, it was pretty clear they were unsalvageable, especially after I attempted to rip away the offending flappy bit only to come away with the entire soul (leaving them soleless... not soulless).

I picked them up at a post-Christmas Myer sale in Brisbane in 2009, prior to one of my numerous jaunts to Brendan's Byron hideaway. It took just a week of trudging around the beaches, through the hinterland and around parts of the Border Ranges National Park and in and around beer-soaked Byron venues for me to absolutely fall in love with the black buggers. My at times irrational love affair even outlasted my immature dalliance with my 8-hole Docs through high school and beyond; a love affair which left me with permanent calluses on my toes and numerous run-ins with ingrown toenails (although I still kept them in my closet until very recently, even though I officially retired them years ago). And so with still a few more walking days ahead of me in Japan - we're leaving the homestead tomorrow for a few days site-seeing around Yokohama and Tokyo before flying home on Thursday - I was in need of some suitable treads. I've never been a fan of lace-up shoes, and was rather reticent of clod-hoppers which required socks (I'm still in that phase of wanting to show off my Pearl Jam tat on my left ankle, which would be obscured by socks), and thongs have never really been my style. With that in mind, we set about finding if rural Japan had anything fitting that narrow brief. Our second store threw these up at us:

I'm still not sure about the boldness of the colour, but they're comfy as shit and are pretty easy to match with most clothing I wear. So, Vale old Mountain Loafers and welcome the Red Riding Hoofs... may you serve my tootsies well.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Family gatherings, Nagai-style

The pinnacle of our trip to Japan - apart from visiting ill Obachan (Grandma) - was the chance for the family to host an important family gathering with us in attendance. It was a Buddhist ritual of which I'm only partially aware of the intricacies, but it essentially paid respect to one's ancestors and happened only every few years. So as Tuesday rolled around the house was prepared with the rice paper wall/doors removed in the 'formal' part of the house to make a giant room focused on the freshly polished shrine in the corner. After Otosan 'officially' welcomed Satomi and I 'home' in front of the 30-odd suited family members, the formal proceedings began... which, in my world, meant just over an hour of sitting on my knees on cushions on the tatami mat floor, listening to 2 monks chant endlessly, interspersed with occasional bell ringing.
While fascinating and spiritual in one sense, it was also quite draining and the clock in my peripheral vision just made things worse in terms of time seeming to drag. My patience held out, thankfully, and the mass was soon piling into buses and cars for the short trip to a local hotel for the second part of the day - the formal sit down dinner.

Ordinarily, I was told, this dinner would be prepared at home and served by the women in the family. It was immediately clear on entering the dining room why this was not even attempted at the Nagai household - what waited for us was a 13-course Japanese feast, with huge amounts of flowing Asahi and sake. Sure, 13 courses of Japanese food isn't that taxing on the gullet due to the small serving sizes, but still there was no logistical possibility of this being attempted in the small Nagai kitchen. No-one seemed to mind, however, as food and drink we quaffed by the excitable gents and demure ladies hell bent on making this a memorable day. The food, to my palette, was similar to the other formal dinners I've had in Japan - a mix of strange (baby squid served in a squid ink sauce), exciting (sesame tufo) and quaint (braised steak served with three tiny pieces of vegetables) and best tackled by throwing caution to the wind and repressing the gag reflex as much as possible. The drinking aspect of the day is a communal affair, with the pouring of beer and sake for another being an important social lubricant. It prompts a reciprocal gesture and, of course, a bit of light banter and chatter, all building to a great sense of sharing and getting to know each other. Satomi and I took nearly an hour to work the room, with the gathered Nagai family members and neighbours all interested in Satomi's new hometown (near the Goldu Coasto for those familiar with Oz, and north of Sy-den-ey for those less conversant with the big brown land), my age (which all believed was hard to judge) and the ubiquitous plea for us to bear children.
Seriously, I've never been nagged so much about having kids as much as I have in the past 2 weeks! Not only at this gathering, but our regular visits to Obachan in hospital rarely has less than 10 mentions of having at least one great grand-child for her to dote on.

Anyway, with the meal drawing to a close, we poured back into the hotel's courtesy bus and embarked on the rowdy drunken trip back to the farmhouse for the critical 3rd part of the evening - the male bonding session of drink, deep fried foods and lots and lots of laughter and spirit. As the women-folk repaired to the living quarters, the men gathered in the shrine room and settled in for the evening, sans jackets and ties. With partial translations from Satomi, and quite a lot of drunken gesturing and drink spilling, the night carried on in jovial fashion.
The Nagai (and Nagai neighbours) seemed truly appreciative and accepting of the first foreigner in their precious inner sanctum of Japanese masculinity, and were even planning a 12-man Nagai tour of Australia, with yours truly as the official guide. Something tells me I'll be needing a brand new liver by the end of it.

After a few hours of soaked frivolity, various wives started materialising to haul their sweaty messes of what once were their husbands back to their homes to sleep off their poor states. Which left just the immediate Nagai family (including Ojisan - Uncle - who drove up from Nagoya for the event) to digest the day and what it meant. Otosan seemed genuinely thrilled with how everything turned out, particularly how Satomi and I were accepted and welcomed into the flock. I was truly humbled by Otosan's including me in this very special event, and conveyed it as being proud to call myself an honourary Nagai. And so with that, we retired and slept off the excess; but even today, I still feel I amazingly blessed that I was able to not only bear witness to such an intimate part of another culture's spiritual process, but also to be such an accepted and included member of this proud and rich family. The  overall theme of this visit has seen me feel more at 'home' and comfortable than the first visit (which in reality was a blur of excitement and social fuck ups) and truly amazed by where my life has taken me to allow me to call a tiny rice farming village in provincial Japan as 'home'.

And now, with just a week until we fly back, it's a case of cramming in as much as we can in a short time. Tomorrow we head up to Tateyama (at 3,000m it's the highest mountain I've ever seen), and then will spend Saturday evening at a dinner party in a friend's really small apartment in Takaoka, before taking the bullet train to Tokyo on Tuesday. Tuesday night will be spent at another friend's place in Yokohama, while Wednesday, that night and most of Thursday itself will be spent enjoying all Tokyo city has to offer, before the night flight back that evening.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On gohan

It's been all systems go around the homestead for the past few days as a break in the wet, dreary weather has sparked a flurry of rice harvesting. Which has been a boon for me, as I've been able to see and experience first hand the joys of harvesting this important Japanese staple dish. Harvest time is quite an important part of the calendar in this part of the world, and not many conversations are complete without some mention or discussion on this year's crop and yield. I seized the opportunity to quiz Otosan and Okasan (Satomi's Dad and Mum) about the intricacies of life on the land, Japan style.

For those who aren't familiar rice fields, in Japan at least, are typically rectangular fields about 150m long and 40-50m wide and are sunken down from the surrounding land so as to provide a basin-type effect to assist with water retention. In this part of the world, the fields are omnipresent - kilometre after kilometre of this rare flat expanse of land is covered with these fields. There are even some very small fields for cultivating rice in some of the larger urban areas around here. The road system follows the rice fields, resulting a patch-work of almost dead straight roads criss-crossing this area. Between the roadways and the fields lies the complicated water system - an array of gutters and drains which constantly flow with water, fed from the nearby dams and transported using gravity. Various locks can be switched to direct the flow in different ways, with plugs being opened to flood the fields ready for planting. The level of public infrastructure is impressive in its complexity, but in comparison is probably as logistically difficult to organise as is providing power, town water and sewerage systems to the farther flung Australian farms. And it's not provided cheaply, the burden borne by the farmers themselves through various taxes and levies.

The term rice farming is probably a bit of a misnomer, as rice is just one element of the mixed bag of crops these farms tend to produce. Selling all their produce through the single desk trading association (known as JA), farmers are often given quotas to fill, and nothing above that quota will be accepted. Since there are no real free markets to sell excess rice, the farmer has little choice but to abide, and hence has to diversify to ensure income. Coupled with the fact that the fields are heavily worked (it's coming to almost 8 generations of continual cultivation just on this farm), it's pretty common to see crops such as taro and daikon radish interspersed with rice crops. Out of the Nagai's 8 fields, only 5 grew rice, with one growing taro and 2 growing sunflowers. The sunflowers, interestingly, are not for cultivation, but a grown to ensure the field is now overrun by weeds if left to its own devices for a season. Luckily, JA compensates the farmer is they are left with non-income bearing fields as a result of the quota system. That said, farming in this part of the world is barely above the levels of subsistence, with Okasan (and, on occasion, Otosan) required to take out part time jobs to keep up with the cost of living. Which is sad, but unfortunately not unique to Japanese farming communities, as far as I know.

So, on to the harvest itself. Since arriving, the weather's been a little bit shit - rainy, overcast and a bit yuck. And not all that conducive to harvesting, as the dryness of the grain is quite important (to stop spoilage, I would suggest). A break in the weather the other day, however, saw us don the gum boots and gloves and take to the field with a couple of small sickles. Luckily the manual harvesting is just for the corners of the fields, which the motorised harvesters find hard to reach. Thank Christ for that! This is quite deceptively hard work, requiring some decent techniques to ensure you don't lop off a finger or toe, as well as some hard-core lower back workout with the constant up and down motion of cutting the bunch, then bundling them for drying.

It takes about 4-5 hours for the motorised harvester to clear a field of its goodness. It's a fairly straight forward contraption, with the machine lopping the plants off at the base, shaking the grains loose from the tops, and threshing the stalks before scattering them back over the field as a natural mulch. Four rows are tackled in a run, with the majority of the time taken up by emptying the harvesting machine's fill of rice into the truck, then emptying the truck's payload into the sorting machine back in the shed at the homestead. It's a 2-person job, with 2 fields able to be tackled in a fairly long and tiresome day. The removal of the rice from the field is just one step, however, with the grains going into a huge cleaning and sorting machine which shakes the shit out of them to remove the outer husks, as well as sorting them into grading. A small batch is removed from the beginning of the harvest, is whitened at a vending machine at the local shopping centre, and then cooked up for the family as celebration of the new harvest. Apparently it's a lot nicer than 'old' rice, and while there are noticeable differences from the stale versions we buy at the supermarkets, it's not remarkably different to this uncultured pallet. (I go along with it, though, as the buggers are just so damned proud of what they do!). And with the harvest seemingly coming to an end, the Nagai household erupted with celebration last night - which in this part of Nippon means a sashimi and oden dinner, which was delicious. With just the taro just to harvest, the farms rests for a little before the winter crops get sowed and it all starts again.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nippon rules

So we made it to Japan after a trouble-free, but not altogether comfortable flight and commute. Travelling JAL was certainly a step up from my only other international flight experience - Jetstar - but no so much that it made the budget carrier look bad (and if Jetstar continues to offer their ridiculously cheap fares, I'll no doubt be a frequent flyer of theirs).

Curiously the odour was again the first thing which hit me as the biggest cultural difference. Japan smells old, and musky - like a dampness which set in about 20 years ago and never really had a chance to dry. The entire country seems to smell like a stuffy, cigarette smoke-drenched room (which I know only too well, thanks to my past), and the the interior of the public buildings have that depressed, 1980s hopelessness about them which is at once annoying and endearing.

We skirted through customs and immigration largely undisturbed, and set about the mission of getting from Narita to Shinjuku via the Narita Express train. The disturbance, however, came a little bit late: prior to boarding the train, Satomi needed a quick toilet break, leaving me to mind the mini mountain of luggage. Being the curious gent that I am, I set about walking in loose circles around the concourse area of the station. As 2 armed police officers wandered towards me, they also caught my attention. Unfortunately, this seemed to raise their suspicions, giving them enough reason to halt my progress and demand to see my passport. (Demand is probably too strong, as even in delivering their front-line aggression, Japanese are painfully polite about it). Returning from the toilet, this little scene obviously caused my wife no end of glee, as tried to stifle her humour enough to properly converse with the gun-toting keepers of the peace and explain my hapless self to them. It seemed to work and we were on our way soon enough.

Even with the glorious title of "Express" which suggests swiftness and efficiency - which I have no doubt it had plenty of both - the train still took the better part of 2 hours to reach our destination. Up and down a multitude of escalators and we finally found the south exit of Shinjuku station and were thrust upon the seething mess of Tokyo city streets at night. Satomi's old friend Yoko-chan was kind enough to meet us and guided us through the fascinating throngs (which is everything you could expect from your impressions of a metropolis like this - bright, busy and bustling), and led us to a charming little pub-come-restuarant which entertained us for a few hours with its cheap drinks, good food and great company.

We decided to catch the extremely cheap night bus from Tokyo to Takaoka - where we could get picked up by the Nagai's - and so set about finding the bus station. Bus station is, by the way, only a label, as all it consisted of was a flimsy card table on the side of the road surrounded by apron-clad lasses screaming out directions and information on which bus is coming next. The side of the street and steps leading to the near-by buildings were choked with others just like us - suitcase carrying travellers eager to get away. And eager in more than just the usual travelling zombie way - but eager to escape the putrid, open-sewer smell that would waft through from some underground construction work nearby.

The bus was a bloody disaster, and every bit cheap-assed. As it was a night bus, all passengers slept throughout the journey - meaning that all of the curtains were drawn and leaving the interior a dark, unfamiliar and somewhat dank cavern. The seats pitched back beautifully, but were amazingly uncomfortable - even just sitting upright brought about sharp pains in the lower back. The temperature and climate control within the cavern was infuriatingly inconsistent and the smell of 30-odd sweaty, farting, snoring unwashed bodies inside was almost gag-worthy. My pristine new watch became my enemy, as every time I was jolted back into consciousness by someone moving, the bus lurching, or just the overall feeling of extreme uncomfortability, its gleefully glowing hands told me I'd only been out for about 10 minutes. This meant that the 7-hour trip was spent being hopelessly awake and unable to do anything about it. Which is not so much a bad thing - I've had similar experiences bus travelling before, but as this was a dedicated "night bus", it was almost unwritten law that you could not turn on a light or open the curtains to watch the scenery whiz by. I've discovered then, that while I sometimes crave the moments of vacant staring into space and letting my mind wander, being forced to stare into an unfamiliar, dark and smelly space, being jolted and assaulted by ergonomically tortuous seats, is probably not the most healthy way to do it.

And so we arrived at Takaoka station tired and miserable. This passed pretty quickly, though, when Okasan arrived and whisked us away through the country-side and straight to the hospital to pay our respects to Obasan - the very reason for our trip. The poor old dear looked frail and poorly, but was still full of spirit and curiosity. The three ladies spent the hour or so nattering away naturally and happily, but this was interrupted every so often by Obasan's back pain and ailing ways - the only outward indication she was ill. We parted fairly soon, but will be back visiting daily for the next three weeks. We're heading off this evening to meet with a friend of Satomi-chan's, but have kept any other plans to a basic minimum so we can maximise our time with Obasan.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New gig

So Faster Louder liked my work and have welcomed me on board. Yay for slowly getting back into the groove of writing for a real purpose. Yay even more for door-lists!

Here's my first effort - bluesy-rootsy chick Dallas Frasca. Got another one this Friday, but then will have to put things on the back-burner prematurely, as The Tiger and I need to head to Japan for 3 weeks for urgent family reasons.

This comes on the back of a rather pleasant week touring the country-side - Sydney for a quick lunch, Albury for my sister's 21st, roadtrip around old haunts in country Victoria with my big bro, Melbourne for a few days, crazy road trip with Jen to Castlemaine to see Augie March, then home. Phew.

We had only just gotten back into the work mode after that quick trip when we were summonsed to Japan following some poor news regarding Satomi's grandma. The matriarch is none too well, so we've decided to bring out planned February trip forward a few months. We jet out next Thursday, and despite the circumstances, I'm quite excited. I'll get to finally spend a couple of days in Tokyo (one of my all-time must visit cities), plus I'll get to help out harvesting the family's rice crop.