By the time we arrive in Nagano, its twilight and as we get off the bus, we notice a big drop in the temperature compared to Tokyo. We gather our bags at the bus stop and then Sachiko goes into the travel office to make an enquiry. I put on some extra clothes to adjust to the colder temperature in Nagano, a city that’s about 380 metres above sea-level. First impressions are of a city Nagano that is certainly more humble in scale than Tokyo but it has a grandeur of its own. In the fading light, I can just make out in the distance the snow-peaked mountain ranges that surround the city.
We’re in Nagano prefecture, one of the largest and most mountanous of prefectures in Japan. Nagano’s many mountains earned it the Winter Olympics in 1998, but the impact of the mountains on the culture of region has been much more longstanding. Through their height and range, the mountains have acted as both a barrier, keeping away change from outside, and as a container, preserving many traditions and customs that have long died out in other parts of Japan. Most people who live in Nagano are farmers and their lives are far more tied to the regular cycle of the seasons than to the whims of fashion or knowledge of what the latest gadget is. I’ve been forewarned not to expect any high-tech luxury, only dial-up phones and TV with only sound and no picture.
When Sachiko comes out of the travel office, we gather up our bags and walk towards the other side of the bus & train station where we’ve arranged to meet Sachiko’s parents. To get there, we walk through an enormous passage that passes over the station. This high-ceilinged passageway is open at both ends and in the direction we’re walking, it frames a spectacular view of the distant mountains. It’s quite breathtaking, but as a local clearly used to the scene, Sachiko merely says, “Built for the Winter Olympics”. We descend to the other side of the station and there we find Sachiko’s father, Haruo, waiting with the car. He greets Sachiko, who then introduces us. He smiles, and we shake hands. We nod a bit, make some friendly noises – neither of us speak the other’s language – and the greeting is done. We load our bags into the car, get in and after a few minutes of waiting, Sachiko’s mother, Kazuko, appears; she had gone off to where we had arrived off the bus. From the front passenger seat in the car she smiles, gives me a cheery “Konnichiwa!” and off we go.
The Kobayashi’s rattle away in Japanese and I just sit back and relax. Sachiko breaks into English to tell me we’ll be stopping for dinner on the way to Suzaka, their home town, which is about 30 minutes away. Her parents ask if I’m hungry, Sachiko translates that I am. We drive out of Nagano, a small city of under 400,000, and soon we’re driving through darkness, something I haven’t experienced since arriving in Japan; Nagano doesn’t have the 24-hour lifestyle and endless urbanization of Tokyo. We whizz down the road passing a few illuminated billboards and after about a 10 minute drive, we pull in to the carpark for the Sutamina Taro restaurant.
From the outside, it looks a typical enough drive-by diner: brick walls with large curtainless windows, it’s strongly lit inside and we can see lots of people having their dinners. We enter, and since it’s buffet-style, pay upfront. Then with tray in hand, we circle around and fill up our plates with the food on offer: sushi, miso soup, yakisoba, chips, japanese curry, steamed rice, udon noodles, tempura, salad, grill-it-yourself raw meat, sashimi, takoyaki (octopus ball), chicken karaage, dumplings, spaghetti, fried rice, random veg, fresh fruit and much more; it’s an awesome selection of food. I later learn what the name of the restaurant means: Sutamina Taro has been partially transliterated from English: Sutamina = stamina and Taro is a boy’s name in Japanese, literally ‘eldest son’. It’s the Japanese equivalent of Fat Freddies.
After loading up my plate, I find the Kobayashi’s who’re already sitting down. They check kindly that I’m okay – I reassure them that I couldn’t be better, I’m certainly not missing Irish food! As we eat, the conversation is almost completely in Japanese with Sachiko making occasional interjections into English. My chopstick technique, effective but not pretty, impresses Haruo & Kazuko and they complement me. I thank them with a bow. Although I don’t speak their language, there are still at least a few things I can do to demonstrate respect for their culture.
Compared to the restaurants Tokyo, there are some distinct differences about Sutamina Taro in Nagano. The staff look tired and they don’t hide it behind a starched expression of earnest friendliness. Amongst the diners, there aren’t any suits; a lot of people are wearing check-shirts, which hang casually outside their jeans. Like the Kobayashi’s, many of the people here are farmers so there are no white-gloved soft palms to be seen, only weather-beaten hardened hands. Some of the diners are even smoking and to an Irishman used to smoke-free bars and restaurants since 2004, this is a real blast-from-the-past. Overall, the restaurant is at ease, many tired bodies unwinding after a hard days work. There are many young families with children who run around playing and laughing freely while the parents are too relaxed to reign them in. Some of the kids unselfconsciously gawk at me, the lanky white gaijin, only to look away embarrassed when I playfully return the stare.
Sachiko’s parents encourage me to go back for a second helping, which I do, but we don’t linger very long in the restaurant. After some green tea, we leave and drive the final leg of the journey to Suzaka. En-route, Haruo announces that he has his whiskey collection waiting for us when we arrive. Sounds promising. Kazuko then checks that, like the others, I’ll be having a bath. I’ve been briefed beforehand by Sachiko, so when I say that I will, I’m fully aware of what I’m signing up to. Two great Japanese traditions, whiskey and bathing, have the evening sewn up.
When we arrive in Suzaka town, we turn off the main road, drive up a little lane-way and arrive at the Kobayashi household. It’s hard to make out where everything is in the dark, but I can just about discern a few old and large houses all gathered together in an higgledy-piggledy type arrangement, with various allotments and lane-ways marking the boundaries. We take our bags from the car and bring them up to Sachiko’s quarters. Sachiko’s bedroom and living area are in a separate building to the main household and they’re very comfortable and surprisingly spacious. Sachiko gives me a pair of slippers to wear while inside, “The floor is sacred”, she tells me. I should never wear my outdoor shoes indoors, that would mean automatic hara kiri. I then get a quick tour of the toilet arrangements, which includes a separate pair of toilet-only slippers. Another Japanese custom to abide by.
We leave Sachiko’s quarters and cross the yard to the main house. On the way, we pass Kazuko in the process of lighting a fire with some kindling. The fire she’s lighting is outside the house, but directly underneath the bathtub, which has already been filled with cold water. In this way, with the trimmings and small branches from their orchard, the family can heat up their bathtub every evening. It’s a widespread custom in Japan for every household to have a bath each evening, but not every household is able to heat their water with their own fuel. I’m very impressed with this homegrown sustainable energy.
Over to the main house and Japanese style, it’s a sliding door – we pull it aside and go in. I’ve used my outdoor shoes to cross the yard and now I’m given another pair of slippers to wear inside, the third pair since I’ve arrived in Suzaka, 15 minutes ago. With these slippers on, we go into the house and enter the chanoma, literally ‘tea-space’. This room is the Japanese equivalent of the sitting room, except there are no seats. It’s a small square room about 3 metres for each side; in the centre is a low table and surrounding the table are the cushions we’ll be sitting on. Around the room I see an old TV in the corner, a well-marked calendar on the wall and a high-up shelf with a troop of Darumas, Buddhas & Lucky Cats looking on.
Haruo, the head of the household, sits facing the room’s entrance, subtly commanding the space. I’m shown to Haruo’s left, Sachiko sits opposite me and Kazuko sits opposite her husband, by the entrance to the room. I sit cross-legged on the cushion, which thanks to my regular yoga classes, is reasonably comfortable. The table we sit around is a unique Japanese innovation called a kotatsu. From each side of the kotatsu, blankets hang and underneath the table is a charcoal stove. The blankets keep the heat from the stove under the table and by sitting with the blankets over our legs, we’re kept altogether very warm and cosy. The table is laid with little nibbles, kaki peanuts and various rice crackers. The Suntory and White Horse whiskeys and Asahi beer are brought out too. We’re all set for the evening.
We start chatting and Haruo is in jovial form and clearly keen to talk to me. Our conversation is very informal and relaxed, but for translation purposes, there’s a clear structure: Haruo speaks and Sachiko translates to me, I consider my response, relay it to Sachiko and she translates it back to Haruo, who responds or makes a fresh point. Whenever our beer, whiskey or nibble supplies run low, Kazuko always goes out to the kitchen to replenish them.
To start, Haruo asks me if I’ve heard of the March 11th earthquake. He tells me about some of the impact on the northeast of Japan and how so many farmers in the area have had their livelihoods destroyed. We then discuss the nuclear fall-out in Fukushima and Sachiko and I describe the protest we saw in Tokyo yesterday. Haruo tells us of the impending crisis for power demand, when due to air-conditioning requirements during the searing summer months of July & August, the power demand in Tokyo reaches it’s peak for the year.
Haruo then asks me about farming in Ireland and I tell him about our enormous cattle herd and large meat exports. There’s far more fruit and vegetable farming in Japan than in Ireland, but just like in Ireland, the average age of farmers is quite old. Both Haruo and Kazuko are in their late 60s, although with their vigorous outdoor lives, they’re both in rude good health. Haruo asks after my parents and I tell him they’re both well and in good health. When I tell them of my Granny who’s alive and well at 100 years old, there is a wholehearted response of total respect from both Haruo & Kazuko. We then talk a little about Nagano, “the best prefecture in Japan”, says Haruo with a twinkle in his eye.
All in all, the evening is going well. This is after all meet-the-parents and I was initially somewhat on my guard having heard plenty of stories about Asian parents being suspicious and even hostile towards Western males who have designs on their daughters. A Irish friend in Taiwan was given a thorough interrogation by his girlfriend’s parents: “Can you use chopsticks?”, “Can you speak Chinese?”, “Where do you see yourself in five years time?”. Thankfully, nothing like that is transpiring here. The atmosphere is very friendly and since we don’t have a common language, and everything must be translated, the spotlight nature of the encounter is softened. When Sachiko is translating, I can relax and consider a response at ease and because Sachiko’s role in the conversation is so central, she isn’t sidelined and watching our interaction nervously and helplessly. When she translates what her father says, or listens to my response, we have plenty of eye-contact through which I’m able to convey – all’s good, I’m fine and I love you.
Like many conversations in Ireland, our talk inevitable turns to alcohol. I try both whiskeys and declare that they’re both very good, especially the Suntory. Haruo marvels at how I drink it neat, something he claims he could do as a young man but that now he must drink it with water. Kazuko also drinks whiskey, but even more diluted than her husband. When I present them with a present of a bottle of Irish Jameson whiskey, Haruo grips the bottle and exclaims with delight,
“Excellent”, Sachiko translates.
I make a point of saying that the bottle is for both of them, although I have a suspicion about who’s going to end up drinking most of it. I also give Haruo & Kazuko a whiskey measure made from Mullingar pewter and with Sachiko’s help, explain its function. They politely listen, nod and thank me. For the rest of the evening and whenever I need a refill, they insist that I use the measure, but despite my gentle exhortations when the situation is reversed, they continue to just refill their glasses from the bottle.
Our conversation carries on and is in turn, light-hearted and serious. When I mention the samurai, hoping for a learned insight to the famous Japanese warriors, Haruo singularly dismisses them,
Later on, we talk about the dark days of World War II. I mention my great aunt who worked as a nurse in Singapore in 1942. As the Japanese invaded, she and thousands of others fled the city by sea. Her ship, the Tanjong Pinang, was torpedoed by the Japanese and she died. After Sachiko translates, Haruo says nothing but lowers his head and shakes it slowly with pathos.
After a few hours in the chanoma, I’ve drunk a lot of whiskey and I haven’t stood up in a few hours. After sitting cross-legged for so long, I’m worried that my legs will go from under me as soon as I attempt to stand. But it’s not bed I’m bound for. As a guest, I’m given the privilege of being the first to have a bath. So I fetch a large towel and Sachiko shows me to the bathroom for my first ever tipsy bath.
The first thing I notice is that the bathroom doesn’t have a toilet. In Japan these two aspects of life are kept strictly apart. Before I’m allowed enter, I’m shown another pair of slippers, which are made of plastic and are for the bathroom only. There’s apparently no situation in Japan that doesn’t have an appropriate pair of slippers.
Showering and bathing may be universal customs, but this is Japan where even the simplest things are done differently. The process goes like this:
-Undress and leaves your clothes outside in the anteroom
-Enter the small fully tiled bathroom, note that one half of the bathroom is for showering, the other half is for bathing
-For showering, sit on a small 1ft stool and uses the shower head in combination with the tap unit, basin, hand-towel and soap to wash vigorously
-After lots of showering and dousing with the basin, prepare to enter the bath
-Since the bath is shared by all, it’s essential to be clean before you enter, the only purpose of the bath is to soak
Unlike western baths, this bathtub is shorter and deeper so the soaking position is sitting down with knees to chest, fully submerged up to neck. I get into the bath tub and it’s the hottest water I’ve ever been in. I resist the instinct to scream; for some reason, getting into a hot bath is slightly more bearable when you’re skin is already wet. I sit and soak. The water has been heated exclusively from the fire underneath, and the bottom of the bath is too hot to rest my feet on it so I move them to the side. I soak for less than five minutes and remembering Sachiko’s advice, I get out for fear that I’ll become lightheaded and pass out. That wouldn’t be a good end to the evening.
The soak leaves me so hot that I continue to perspire long after I’ve toweled down. I’ve no towel robe so I get dressed in my normal clothes and leave the bathroom. I thank the Kobayashi’s, bid them goodnight,
The bath has made me extremely tired. I’m just nodding off when Sachiko returns from having had a bath. She is full of apologies from her mother saying that the water was too hot! I’m greatly relieved that I won’t have to endure that heat every night. Lights out and I sleep like a stone.