And without even saying a word, I have the full attention and co-operation of ten Japanese girls, all smiles and peace-signs.
“Thank you!” they call out.
I thank them in return, bow, and walk away.
A very short, but intriguing encounter.
A few moments earlier, after Sachiko and I had gotten off the train and descended the escalator that would deposit us on the edge of Matsumoto train station, I had seen a small, muted gathering of Japanese girls on the periphery of the station. Their singular lack of giddy enthusiasm caught my attention.
Spread out in a line, the girls were all standing and facing the train passengers as they walked out of the station. None of them were chatting or talking to each other, they all just stood passively in a line, each holding up a simple sign with a woman’s face. One of the girls addressed the passers-by in a monotonous and slightly forlorn voice. Even Sachiko couldn’t figure out what they doing.
They were such a captivating and eery sight that I decided to take a picture. So I went over, gave a friendly smile and made a “can I take a picture?” gesture with my camera.
Suddenly bursting with energy and excitement, the girls quickly called and waved to their friends a short distance away, beckoning them to run over and quickly join in. These girls darted over and they all bunched in for a bubbly group photo. As I took the picture, they all smiled (with their eyes), some called out “Hi!” and “Hello!” and each one of them made the peace-sign.
It was all very cute and they were all extremely nice. In fact, I was slightly embarrassed by how friendly they had suddenly become. After saying thanks, I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I bowed courteously and retreated.
We’re only in Matsumoto for a few hours. The main tourist attraction of the town, Matsumoto castle, is said to be “a national treasure”, so we power-walk across town to see it. Although the castle isn’t visible from anywhere in the town, Sachiko is on home turf and knows the quickest way to get there. Local knowledge at its best.
We pass a fantastic sculpture of two wrestling frogs and we’re in Nawate-Dori, a old-style warren of little streets, wooden shops and little market stalls. It’s busy with shoppers and doddling tourists all checking out the local bric-a-brac souvenirs: there’s toy frogs, lucky-charm frogs, origami frogs, chocolate frogs… everything frog. The explanation: kaeru, a wordplay on the nearby river and the word for frog.
Soon enough, we’re outside the entrance to Matsumoto castle. It’s guarded by an armed and fearsome samurai warrior.
Fortunately, he’s a big hit with all the locals, who crowd around, eager for a picture and a handle of one of his swords. Granny-in-the-pink-coat is less than impressed, she’s obviously encountered far more formidable samurai in her day. For the generation, for whom the samurai warrior resembles Darth Vader, he is very impressive.
It’s easy to slip by the samurai guard (distracted by the tourists, mwahahaha!) and we have no problems passing through the castle’s outer defensive walls (the gate has been left open, fools!).
We make it to the final courtyard, a large area immediately surrounding the castle building itself. But unfortunately, we’re completely stopped in our tracks and prevented from advancing any further. An unexpected and impregnable defense has beaten us.
Going down two sides of the courtyard is an enormous queue of families and other tourists waiting to enter the castle. A friendly tour guide predicts an hour’s wait before getting into the castle. We give up, our attempt to get inside the impressive fortress has been utterly crushed.
Crestfallen by our failure, we are thankfully distracted from our despair by the friendly tour guide who gives us lots of information about Matsumoto castle: the castle is one of the few original wooden castles left in Japan (most others have been burnt down so often, replicas have replaced them); there was a plan after the Restoration to demolish the castle but local opposition prevented it; and there’s a hidden storey inside the castle to fool any would-be attackers (we never get this far).
Ten minutes of marvelling at the castle from all angles and we’re very impressed, but beginning to tire. How many pictures can you take of the one building? So to kill some time, before our scheduled meeting with a friend, we go into the local history museum.
And it’s on the way into the museum that I make the revelatory discovery that Gerry Adams had a Japanese double – Kinoshita Naoe – who just like his Belfast brother, was also a politician and who was also in the peace trade.
Turns out Kinoshita Naoe is actually long dead. Sachiko translates the poster, which marks the 140th anniversary of his birth, “the work of Kinoshita Naoe never finishes, he conveys a message of democracy and non-violence”. What a fascinating coincidence that two such look-a-likes should have such a similar occupation. Equally interesting, I wonder will Gerry Adams be seen as an undiminished prophet for peace 140 years after his birth?
The museum is strictly about Matsumoto town and environs, but where that local history intersects with Japan’s national history, particularly during the second world war, the museum is quite interesting.
Two contemporary sources, a map of Japan with its war time flag (left) and a cartoon about the Japanese-China war (right) catch my attention. They are faint propaganda, nothing shocking.
We leave the museum, castle grounds, and hordes of other tourists and go to meet Natsumi. This is the third time and third location (Tokyo, Tsumago) we’ve met her since I arrived in Japan just over a week ago.
For lunch, the girls insist on going for soba noodles, the Nagano speciality. I’m beginning to learn that each region of Japan has its own culinary specialities, which the locals are very proud of. For Naganonians, soba noodles (made from buckwheat) are the supreme local dish and here in Matsumoto, there’s a proliferation of soba restaurants to choose from.
After trailing the girls for some time, as they wander from contender to contender, they finally make a decision and in we go. The restaurant’s interior is simple and quaint. We’re the only customers and we all make the same order: soba noodles, miso soup and a beer.
Anticipation is high, but for the first time in Japan, I find the main dish underwhelming. The presentation of the soba noodles is complex (each person receives a multi-tier set of trays with noodles on each tray) but their flavour is very plain. While you could also say that the soba noodles are very wholesome and healthy, my experience to-date has been that Japanese food doesn’t compromise flavour for nutritional value, so I’m a tad disappointed. The noodles are also served cold, something which seems to make their flavour even plainer.
The girls encourage me to spice up the dish with Nagano seven spices and I do finish the meal, hunger satisfied. It’s time for a few photos, and the inexplicable custom of holding up random items from the table for the camera. When in Rome, etc.
I still love Japanese food though, and our decision to go to an Irish bar for our next stop is not because I miss home. We simply want to go for a drink and native bars are very rare in Japan so we go to an Irish bar called OldRock. Their chalk board outside amuses me: no bar in Ireland would ever waste advertising real-estate with “soft drink”.
The internal design of OldRock is very convincing (a completely wooden interior, lots of taps at the bar, plenty of old-style signs on the walls, crisps for sale…) but there’s a few things that make the place uncanny: for a start you don’t go to the bar to get served instead, you take a table where a waiter gives you a menu. Although this is arguably easier than leaning across the bar to see what drinks are in the fridge, I’m still a bit discommoded by the practice. There’s no round system either (not necessarily a bad thing), so we go Dutch for the drinks (when in Rome…). Sachiko calls her brother, but he can’t make it because he’s still at the office (working on a Saturday evening, very Japanese).
After one drink each, it’s time for us to leave OldRock and Matsumoto. We say goodbye to Natsumi, though it’s only a half-hearted goodbye, because we’re sure we’ll see her again soon. Sachiko and I end up racing across town and through the railway station (with the wonderful sound of the Matsumoto train call) to where we catch the train back to Nagano city, from where we take one more train connection to Murayama, get a lift to Ainoshima and then dinner, bath, and sleep.