Asia | Japan | Northern Honshu | Nagaoka – A Day in Nagaoka
I think one of the most wonderful aspects of taking this trip, at this time, in this way, is the opportunity to get to stay in a Japanese home, and experience Japan their way and not just as a traveler.
Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture, Japan and the city of Fort Worth, in the Great State of Texas, USA are Sister Cities. Fort Worth and Nagaoka have been in a formal relationship since 1987. Students travel every year between these countries to learn about the cultures. So, people ask me, why didnt I travel to Japan when I was a student? Two reasons came together to influence my decision. 1. For $1600 (in 1993) I could go to Japan for 2 weeks, or Indonesia for 4 weeks. 2. I thought that Japan is somewhere that I would be able to travel to later without being in a group. I did not think that would be a choice in Indonesia. So in 1993, I went to Indonesia. And now, in 2003, I am finally in Japan, fully enjoying the experience.
Today Yayoi is going to show me around Nagaoka. First, breakfast. We had hot tea, toast, jam, bananas, hot dogs and corn on the cob. Next, a tour of the house and grounds. We will start as if we just walked in the front door. When you come in the front door, there is an entry way where you take off your outside shoes, and put on your house slippers. Soon on the right there is a room with a toilet, just a toilet. There are special shoes you only wear in the toilet room. When you flush the toilet, there is a small fountain that pours water into a hole that feeds into the tank of the toilet. This enables you to wash your hands after using the toilet, and it doesnt waste any water to do it with.
Next down this hall (and make sure you have your house slippers on, not the toilet slippers) is the kitchen. It has a table, sink, stove top burners, and a fridge. It also has a second sink which the family uses for the uses of tooth brushing and washing your contact lenses that Americans would use the sink in the bathroom for. Next down the hall is a room which has the washing machine in it, and opens into the bath area. The bath area in this home has a shower where you squat on the floor and move the shower head around to where you need to use it. The Aizawa family has a bath which is available in the evenings. The bath tub is big enough to sit in, with my legs slightly bent up, and the water is up to my neck. The temperature on the bath is controlled with a digital display, so you can always keep the temperature exactly what you want it to be. In the evenings when the bath is on, there is not a change of water, the bath simply re-circulates the water to reheat it and keep it at the desired temperature.
Now, lets take the tour back to the front door. As we entered, lets go left instead of straight. Turning 90 degrees to our left upon entering, you will pass a staircase on your right, then Yayois parents bedroom on your left, then the main room will be on your right. The main room has a tatami (woven reed) mat floor, so we will take off our house shoes and walk on the mat barefooted or in socks. The main room has a low table in the center where we can sit on cushions on the floor with our legs folded up beneath us to eat. There is also a Large TV in one corner of the room, to keep up entertained during meals.
This room opens up to another tatami mat covered room. This next room has in it a shrine. Every morning Yayoi and her mom pray to their ancestors, especially Yayois grandparents. This is a sign of respect for ones ancestors in Japan.
Back to the main room. This room has a door way to the kitchen on one side. There are more house slippers here waiting for us. Lets go upstairs.
The staircase is narrow and steep. Very steep in my opinion. Upstairs there are three bedrooms. The first room is Yayois bedroom. The second room was her brothers room. He now lives near Tokyo with his wife where he is a policeman. The final bedroom is where I am staying. There is a futon on the floor, and paper sliding windows, which cover up the glass windows, which open up to the outside.
After a house tour, comes the garden tour. Every Japanese house I have seen so far fills every inch between the house and the street with potted plants. This neighborhood is no different. In the morning and evenings it is filled with neighbors out checking on their plants. Yayois house is surrounded by plants. There is also a 5M by5M garden area where there are herbs, flowering plants, roses and fruit trees in the ground. It is a beautiful corner to the property.
Next, into Nagaoka. We drove into town and found a place to park. Everywhere in town are trees that are carved into circle and square shapes; topiaries, or bonsai gone bizerk. Next to where we parked was a small park with a shrine in the middle of it. I love that about this county in the middle of the city, tucked away in a secret spot, are little quiet resting spots, religious moments waiting to happen.
I loved walking the streets of Nagaoka, especially with Yayoi to explain what I didnt understand. On the sidewalks, there would be decretive place markers showing the street names, or a flower, or something of importance. Even the manhole covers are decorative! There are markers in the sidewalk to Fort Worth and Sister Cites, along with arches spanning the street. Yayoi led me first to the International Community Center. This is where local English speakers, or any king of foreigners, can come and find assistance after moving to the city. There are all kinds of support groups available, along with free internet access and a area to work on resumes and finding jobs. This building is not just for the foreigner, but for the locals as well. One floor of the building had day care available. One floor had an art show ongoing filled with works from local students. And one floor had a fireworks museum.
I love museums. I will go to any and all kinds that I can find, and this one was just COOL! Nagaoka is famous for their fireworks festival. It is held every August 2 + 3. On August 1, 1945, Nagaoka was bombed, almost to the ground. So they have their festival on the 2 + 3 to celebrate the re-birth of the city. Since they cant have fireworks year round, they built the fireworks museum. You enter a room about 30 feet by 30 feet. There is a white screen in front of you and on the ceiling. The seats are not permanently attached, and with each group they set them out, and then put them away again. In the front of the room, there are what looks like three drum pads attached to a railing. An introduction is given by an employee, explains the presentation you are about to experience. Then you put on your 3D glasses, and enjoy the ride.
The video is narrated by a small fireworks character. The highlight of the video is when the fireworks character invites you to step up and hit the drum pad. Each pad controls a different color firework. One is yellow, one is red, and one is blue. If you tap it, you will get tiny fireworks. If you HIT it you can get a huge firework to flash in the shy in front of you! A pretty cool way to get your audience interactive!
We walked along the city, seeing lots of shops, and ended up arriving at a kimono store. We were looking at the things on the outside, and then we walked in and looked at the small animal dolls dressed in their kimonos. Today was the stores first day open. The employees already had customers. In the back part of the store was a raised floor with a tatami mat where the employees could fit you for your kimono. They asked if I wanted to try one on. We said no, we didnt want to waste their time. They continued to ask. Then a guy who looked like a manager came over and asked. I gave in and we were led to the back.
There were two women dressing me, and at times all of their hands were full. They chose a dark blue pattern with light flowers on it. Kimonos are fitted for each customer so that they are the correct length, top to bottom and in the sleeves. The sleeves of a female have very long parts that hang off of them. When she gets married, she cuts these to about half their length to show that she is no longer single. Every Japanese girl gets to choose her own kimono for her coming out/turning of age party when she turns twenty. This store had kimonos of all colors, with all kings of patters to choose form on them.
So to dress me. They tied a white collar on me, then a girdle (sort of). Next they put on the blue kimono. Next they chose two colored collars to put under the kimono but above the white collar. Around my waist went an obi (the wide band) and then a colored decorative rope around that! There is no way I could have done all this by myself. The sleeves were supposed to demurely cover my hands. I think my arms were too long.
Whew! And after all that, we still did have one shopping goal for the day, I needed a pen for when I go to the Moss Garden in Kyoto. The pen as it translates looks like a paintbrush to me. This is how they write/draw/paint their beautiful kanji characters. Yayoi led me to a 100 Yen store the Japanese equivalent of the American Dollar store. Everything in here is 100 Yen, and candy is two for 100 Yen! A great place to buy all kinds of beautiful dishes, chopsticks, cups, pens, paper, and candy, if I only had a way to pack it all. Shelley is such a hard name for Japanese to say, we had translated it to Kai for Shell or Seashell. Interesting to note that I will translate my name to ‘Shell’ in foreign languages, but I refuse to let Americans call me ‘Shell.’ In Japan, your official signature is not a signature at all, but a rubber stamp with your family name on it. With Yayois help, I found a stamp that said Kai Se, Shell Riffle a great name for a color guard girl!
Next, we get to go to the grocery store, yea! I think it is such a great experience to get to go to the grocery store in foreign cities. This was a great sight so much fish! All kinds of fish, and fish like objects, are available, including my personal favorite, eel. Eel is a summer food here. Im glad I came to visit in the proper season! Yayois mom had given us a list, and I would not let Yayoi quit without every single item, because I wanted to see every single inch of the store.
Dinner was a wonderful spread. We had sushi, sliced cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, a pasta salad with pasta tuna, mandarin oranges and cucumbers in it, and beef and green bean salad, and cold tea to drink. I enjoyed talking with Mrs. Yasuko Aizawa, Yayoi’s Mom. I had brought Yayoi a book from Longwood Gardens, and her mom a calendar. We sat on the floor sharing plant names in Japanese and English to each other. Then her mom brought in some pictures of her on tour with a group to look at some magnificent azaleas. Yayoi has a hand held pocket translator (computer). It is about six inches by three inches by one inch thick. It even translates plant names!
I am so thankful to be here now. To be old enough to be able to travel, and to get to spend time with this wonderful family, this is becoming a most excellent adventure!
Links of the day:
Sister Cities International http://www.sister-cities.org/
Fort Worth Sister Cities http://fwsistercities.org
Nagaoka, Japan http://www.city.nagaoka.niigata.jp/