Weekend in Kōchi-ken: Part 1

August 5-7, 2011 – During the first weekend in August, I went along with a delegation of Shakotan officials and dancers to participate a Yosakoi Sōran festival in Kōchi-ken (高知県), on the southern island of Shikoku. When we had participated in Sapporo’s Yosakoi Sōran Matsuri in June, dancers from Kōchi had come north to team up with us. Now, we were traveling to participate in their festival. (Well, 12 people were coming, and only half of them dancers.)

I should probably clarify that while we came to Kōchi for a Yosakoi Matsuri, it wasn’t the Yosakoi Matsuri. Kōchi-ken is actually where Yosakoi originated and the city of Kōchi-shi (高知市) hosts the All Japan Yosakoi Matsuri on August 12th. It sounds like that Yosakoi festival is probably the biggest of them all. We were participating in a smaller event in Kami-shi (香美市), which like Sapporo’s festival, was focused on the Sōran Bushi (ソーラン節).

Visiting Kōchi-ken was a fantastic experience for me, maybe too fantastic. I say this because Kōchi fits my idealized image of Japan exactly. Kōchi has a rich samurai heritage and the people are clearly proud of their feudal roots. It was magical to see the sights and take in all the history, as well as the simple natural beauty of the landscape. But almost all that was wonderful about the southern prefecture contrasted with my current home in Hokkaido, which with the exception of the spectacular sea views, more resembles Midwest America than this quintessential Japan. And that made me question my decision to come to Shakotan after all. Luckily, the town of Shakotan is home to the nicest people in the world.

On Friday August 5th, we were flying to Kōchi, but first we had to drive to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, which takes around two hours. Our party of 12 boarded a large van that just barely fit us and our bags, and departed for the airport at 5:30am, so I was pretty tired going in. During the drive I just drifted in and out of consciousness, never really sleeping, never really awake. During the each leg of our flight, first to Tokyo Haneda and then to Kōchi Ryōma Airport, it was a similar experience; drifting in and out, but never feeling any more rested.

Once in Kōchi, we were greeted at the airport by a large party of local officials. Then we hopped on another bus and headed out. The air was much hotter in Kōchi than in Hokkaido, considerably more humid too. I had been warned about this and pretty much got exactly what I expected.

Just driving through Kōchi-ken was fun for me. For the most part, the area was flatter than I expected, with plenty of rice fields in the countryside. It seemed that every house, from rural farm houses to those in more urban areas, all had those Japanese tile roofs, called “kawara” (瓦). The kawara roofs, combined with the beautiful gardens that many homes featured, made the area seem distinctly Japanese.

Our bus took us directly to Kami-shi (香美市) town office, where there were some formalities to be done. Kami-shi’s office was bigger than Shakotan’s, with five floors of office space and meeting rooms, constructed in the latest ultra-modern style. While Mayor Matsui and the other officials briefly hobnobbed with their Kami-shi counterparts, the dancers and Yasuda-san were led to the room where we’d be having a meeting. The chairs in which we were to sit were actually labeled with our names; mine said 「ルーカスケレハー様」.

There were actually two meetings. First, the mayors of Shakotan and Kami officially met and each gave a speech, with many photographs being taken. Then, a gift was presented to Kami from Shakotan, a large painting of a coastal scene in Shakotan. (Actually, I was sure that I had seen this painting before at Shakotan’s town office, and I was pretty surprised that they were giving it to Kami. It’s a nice one.) After that was concluded, the Shakotan folks were given a tour of the town office building’s many features, including a trip to the basement to see the base vibration dampening devices that make it resistant to earthquake damage.

After the tour and some iced tea, we returned to the same meeting room, which this time had even more people present. A fellow named Hasegawa (長谷川) was to speak. As I understand it, Hasegawa-san was pivotal in creating the Yosakoi Sōran festival 20 years ago, which makes me think that he must have been the one to bring the tradition from Shikoku up to Hokkaido and make it such a success in Sapporo. He gave a long speech and was even moved to tears, choking up a couple times and apologizing. Because everything was spoken in Japanese, I couldn’t understand any of it, and my lack-of-sleep-induced fatigue made me kind of zone out for much of the talk. I really wish I could’ve comprehended more of it.

We left the town office but instead of the hotel we visited a local art museum that was currently featuring the works of Takashi Yanase (柳瀬 嵩), creator of Anpanman (アンパンマン). To be clear, this was not the official Anpanman Museum, which is also in Kōchi-ken, but merely an art museum that was showing Yanase’s illustrations, most of them not Anpanman related. Actually, if you’ve never been to Japan, I bet you’ve never heard of Anpanman; I should explain.

Anpanman (アンパンマン) is cartoon character that first appeared in the late 60’s and is still extremely popular with young children in Japan. Specifically, he’s popular with kids in elementary school and younger. Anpan is pastry; a bun filled with red bean paste, called anko (餡子). You could think of it as a Japanese jelly donut.  “Pan” (パン) means bread, so anko bread is called “anpan” (餡パン). Anpanman is a superhero whose head in made of out of anpan, and is therefore edible. Apparently Yanase wanted to create a character that could fly around feeding the hungry, and Anpanman can literally let people eat his head. (He can always get a replacement head from his father, who is a Geppetto-esque baker, I guess.) Other characters in the Anpanman Universe include Shokupanman (White Bread Man), Currypanman (Curry Bread Man), Melonpanna (Melon Bread Girl); you get the idea.

In addition to the Yanase illustrations at the art museum, we also saw a huge exhibit of school children’s artwork, from both Japanese and international students. There was one work that caught my eye, a painting by a Swiss student named “Lukas Keller”. Sounds like a good kid. After the art museum, we finally were taken to the hotel and I managed to sneak in a much needed 45 minute nap.

Around 6pm, we walked from the hotel to the place where we were having dinner. I’m not sure if the venue was a restaurant, or just a dining hall, but it was on the third floor of cramped inner-city building, so we had to climb multiple flights of narrow stairs to get up there. Inside it was basically just an open room, with a Tamami floor and the Japanese sliding doors you’d imagine. Four long rows of tables were set out to accommodate a large group, with kneeling pads designating individual seating. One of the Kōchi dancers was standing in the middle of the room with a clipboard, directing each person to their assigned seat as they entered.

The spread of food was unbelievable, I could barely wait for the obligatory opening speeches and toasting to finish so I could dive in. The first dish that was served was a kind of shrimp noodle soup. After that, it was an all-you-can-eat affair, complete with all-you-can-drink beer. The sashimi alone was out of this world, but there was also plenty of nigiri sushi; tamagoyaki, ebi, unagi, etc. The seafood just kept coming, with shrimp, crab legs, and lobster galore. There was even this dish that was essentially a fish stuffed with sushi rice and sliced up, making for a reverse sushi roll effect, with the rice on the inside and fish on the outside. Its head was also stuffed with rice and eaten. I’m told the cheeks are especially delicious, but since it looked like a lot of work to eat around the skull, I didn’t bother.

While the food alone made for an amazing dinner, the most memorial part of the evening was a local sake ritual called “atsukan” (熱燗). Atsukan is a general term for hot sake, but in Kōchi Province there is a unique protocol to imbibing the warm liquor. The cups used are small and rather shallow, capable of only holding about a shot’s worth of liquid. One person—probably the senior and/or socially superior in Japanese society’s hierarchy—hands the other person a little sake cup, and pours for them. The second person thanks them and drinks the hot sake, usually in a single gulp, then hands the cup back. At this point, roles are reversed and the second person pours so that the original person can drink from the same cup. The experience reminded me of communion in church, although with an even stronger sense of fraternity and good will.

My Shakotan friends had forewarned me about atsukan, describing how it worked so that I wouldn’t be surprised or uncomfortable. They had also joked about how with so much communal drinking expected that it might be hard to not get overly drunk. Yamazaki and Yasuda speculated on who would be the strongest drinker. True to expectation, it was me.

After much hot sake was shared, and everyone had reminisced about the recent Sapporo Yosakoi Sōran Matsuri, the dinner ended. Coming back down the steep stairs was a bit scary, as expected, but the alcohol hadn’t affected my motor skills, so it was alright. The night was still young, so many of us headed to bar called Snack Rakuto (らくと) for more drinks and karaoke. As it turned out, Snack Rakuto is owned by one of the Kōchi dancers, the fellow who acted as leader dancer with a pair of lanterns in hand, instead of naruko. His daughter, who also danced with us, worked as a bartender there too. It was like we were on home turf so far from Hokkaido.

We ordered drinks. I got beer, although some others got sake on ice. Yamazaki-san’s son Chikaru was with us, so he got soda. Our local friends had heard that I could sing an Enka song and they requested that I perform Sake-yo. I obliged and they kindly cheered me on. At some point in the evening, one of the Kōchi guys and I were singing Beatles songs together, me taking the melody and him singing harmony. It was awesome.

Eventually it was time to leave, so we bid adieu to Snack Rakuto. Instead of heading straight back to the hotel, we went to Lawson’s convenience store. The other guys were hungry and looking for a snack. This was unbelievable for me, as I was still full, almost painfully so, from the epic dinner we had had earlier. Still, Yasuda-san and Yamazaki-san bought some snacks.

Our hotel actually had a curfew. We were told that they weren’t going to open the doors after midnight, even if you had already paid for you room and everything. This was a bizarre concept for me, but we had to follow their rules. We walked into our hotel at 11:55pm. Once inside the building, Yasuda-san’s trip to the Lawson’s made more sense, as he invited us to hang out in his room. After midnight, Yasuda-san, Kida-san, Yamazaki-san, and I had one last drink before calling it a night.

To Be つづく’ed…

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2 Comments

Filed under Kōchi-ken, Shakotan

2 responses to “Weekend in Kōchi-ken: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Mini Volleyball | Rebel Without A Tan

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