Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I'm starting with the man in the miira

(Miira means 'mummy' in Japanese, though the word in fact comes from Portuguese.)

I know, I know, this is way overdue. I haven't posted in over a month, in which time both my parents and the sakura have come and gone, and summer has pretty much arrived, bringing with it pollen and insects. Aside from the obvious benefit of facilitating snowboarding, there's a lot to be said for having a metre of snow on the ground at all times.

So why the holdup? To be honest, I just haven't really felt like blogging lately. As my man Holden Caulfield says, you have to be in the mood for these things. Maybe it's because my last flurry of posts were all related to the Great Earthquake (as people are now calling it, although usually in Japanese), and it seems a bit pedestrian to go back to covering my life in again-sleepy Yamagata after all that drama. Also, I've kind of got it in my head that I have more of an audience after the quake; though this is my hundred-and-somethingth post, I feel a bit like a briefly popular band tackling their difficult second album right now. And I guess there were some post-holiday blues too; after my parents' visit, and my little camping trip during Golden Week (it'll be a while until I get round to telling you about that), I just felt a bit out-of-sorts.

Anyway, the time has come to stop being a navel-gazing ponce and get on with it, so I'll belatedly tell you about my folks coming to Yamagata for their second time. They arrived on friday, the intercontinental journey having gone better than they could possibly have hoped for, as they had been upgraded to business class for the flight. I kicked things off with a kaitenzushi dinner, my dad trying the 'whale bacon' but balking at the raw horse.

After much discussion, it was decided that Saturday's destination should be the history-rich Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture. Yes, Fukushima. It's a pretty big prefecture, and this particular part of it is scarcely any closer to Daiichi than my house is. Driving through the mountains, we bagged an early monkey sighting. Also during the drive, my dad (who was sitting in the back) proffered the opinion that there was something amiss with my suspension.

First stop was the castle. Like so many in Japan, it is not the original structure but a modern reproduction - the conflict that brought about the unification of Japan and the end of the feudal age claimed most of the castles. Nevertheless, it was an interesting enough place to visit, as its interior was essentially a museum. Whilst browsing the exhibits, we felt an aftershock strong enough to make the projected displays go all wobbly. Of course, this is nothing to a seismic connoisseur like myself, but this grade 2 was my parents' first earthquake, and so they greeted it with some excitement. (The big one was a '5+' where I was.)

After a quick 500yen fleecing for a disappointing 'tea ceremony' (someone handing you a tray of green teas and mochi cakes does not constitute a tea ceremony - we weren't even kneeling!) we headed to a reconstructed samurai residence. This too was pretty good, though the owners had felt the need to liven it up with mannequins depicting dramatic scenes from the place's past, such as the lady of the house killing herself and her children rather than being taken hostage by the invading forces. (If there's one thing the Japanese love, it's a noble suicide.) The trouble was, they hadn't got the faces right. I know the Japanese tend to conceal their emotions, but I'm guessing the matriarch didn't have quite the same tranquil expression as the mannequin just before she kiri'd her hara.

Following a quick stop at my mum's favourite gyuudon chain Sukiya (where we were accosted by a crazy old lady - I've got to get better at pretending I don't understand any Japanese), we headed back home, as we had a shabu shabu engagement with my quasi-supervisor and my Anglophile retired archaeologist friend. Dad made an early blunder by walking on the tatami with slippers on. Lots of omiyage was exchanged, and a thoroughly enjoyable evening was had by all. However, my parents later revealed that although they had liked the food, they found the process of cooking it themselves in the cauldron on the table a little tiresome. I suppose I can see where they're coming from, particularly as using chopsticks is still a bit of a struggle for them.

On sunday we went the opposite direction, going through even more mountains on the way to north-west Yamagata prefecture. The frost and/or the snow-chains of winter had taken their toll on the roads, which had some mean potholes. In the back once again, Dad was not having a good time. Actually I'm currently driving a courtesy car (a slightly newer and marginally less crappy Wagon R), having put mine into the garage to get this sorted. Anyway, we eventually made it to a remote little temple in the mountains, famed for being home to a sokushinbutsu, an adherent of a particularly weird variant of Buddhism who literally mediated himself to death, mummifying himself in the process. It truly is a remarkable thing to do, involving deliberately starving and poisoning oneself gradually over a period of six years before being entombed alive, such that one's corpse will be preserved without any kind of embalming. The practice was more-or-less exclusive to Yamagata (it doesn't happen anymore, thankfully), and thus is probably the most interesting thing the prefecture has going for it.

Now, the information I just gave you came from researching the subject after the fact, because when we arrived at the temple we were ushered in to join the guided tour which a genial priest had evidently just started giving. It was of course in Japanese, and went on for about half an hour, during which time I managed to extract only about 20% of what he was trying to tell us. This is quite a low hit-rate for me these days, but he was a) talking quickly, b) seemed to have quite a local accent, and most importantly c) I'm not to up on my mummification vocab. To be fair, he chatted to me one-on-one for a bit at the end, adopting a more foreigner-friendly delivery, and I fared rather better. Anyway, after this prolonged build-up, we got what we came for when he drew back the curtain to reveal a shriveled but remarkably intact sitting figure, decked out in what stuck me as an inappropriately flashy colourful robe. Later on, Mum inexplicably offered the opinion that self-mummification wasn't that big a deal, because "he was old anyway". I couldn't believe what I was hearing; you don't have to approve of what the guy did - I'd describe it as misguided, at best - but any way you look at it it's surely impressively hardcore? Marlo wasn't having it.

Next up was Zempou-ji, a beautiful temple with a five-story pagoda. It also boasted the ancillary attraction of a pond inhabited by 'human-faced carp', which we felt we had to check out. We were rather underwhelmed; it seemed they were human faced in that they had one mouth and two eyes, but that was about it. But to be honest, we probably got more enjoyment out of laughing about how spurious the claim was than we would have done if every single fish had been a dead ringer for, say, Adrian Chiles.

After that we briefly stopped off at the beach. Living as I do up in the mountains about 70km inland, I often forget that Yamagata actually has a coastline with beaches. Dad and I spent some time attempting to divert a small stream that was running across the sand, just as we did together at Loch Earn when I was about six. I found it hard not to imagine a 10-metre wave rolling in from the sea and destroying everything though. Then it was time for the long drive home, and more socialising, this time at Marie's.

That seems like a good place to leave it for this installment. Next time: the most awkward cherry blossom viewing ever.


  1. I can't believe it, a monkey sighting on day two.

  2. I have decided to rebrand myself


    saw koo shin butt soo or
    sew kuhsh in boot suh?

    This is a wonderful concept and one that, I feel, will undoubtedly come back into fashion in a big way. The time to act is NOW - get ahead of the curve, a bit of BST, OTB and we're made for life. First of - start building and furnishing sokushinbutsu parlours (boutiques?) (perhaps shortened to SKSBS (as per TKTS) - international market already interested - especially Americans attracted by the green credentials. A six year turnaround might be a tad lengthy though - is there any scope for going digital?

    Might be an idea to base in Switzerland.

    50:50 Finlay?

  3. Pronunciation: Two of the 'u's become devoiced in this word, so it actually ends up sounding very similar to "sock shin boots". Perhaps there is some way we can work this happy coincidence into the business plan - a sideline in branded footwear?

    Though you lost me with a few of those TLAs, I think the idea has legs. Back in the day, the SSB would ring a bell in the tomb everyday to let those outside know he was still alive (when the ringing stopped, they would seal it up). I'm thinking we could go Web 2.0 on this aspect of the process - Twitter updates? Streaming video?

  4. BST - blue sky thinking, OTB - outside the box

    With streaming would come product placement. Oil of Olay and Rolex interested. Ga (first name terms) will do the theme.

    Could shorten the process a bit by having SKSBSs bell being battery operated. (do you see how I have ignored your attempt to rebrand my rebranding?)