Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A Lunchtime View of a Dying Art

It is actually the day before the string of holidays known as Golden Week here in the Land of the Rising Sun. It's a work day for everyone else. However, thanks to my school's Sports Festival last Saturday, today is a substitute holiday, so I got to have an extra day off. Coincidentally, today is also the day that my mother-in-law finally gets released from the hospital, where she's been for more than two months. That means I get to spend half the day driving down to Tokyo to pick her up.

My trips down to visit her thus far were always on Sundays, so traffic was always rather light. That is not the case today. The streets are packed, sometimes to the point that a bicycle might have been faster. To make matters worse, it rains (and sometimes thunders) all morning, meaning not only poor driving conditions and even poorer visibility but also lots of taxis switching on their emergency flashers and waiting for customers in the middle of the traffic lane. Getting to the hospital with my wits intact is nothing short of miraculous.

Mother-in-law came through her surgery and various tests more or less okay, but she has thinned down a lot, and her voice is very weak. She's pretty anxious to get out of there, however, and she makes it clear that her first order of business is getting some "real" food. That'll have to wait a little while, though. It's only 11 o'clock when we roll out of there, and we'd rather put some distance between ourselves and Tokyo before we stop to eat.

Actually, the trip back goes rather quickly. I disobey my car navigation system, get off the crowded main route, and take an alternate route that is almost empty of traffic (go figure!). The rain also comes to a halt, and the warm pavement quickly dries. I manage to get out of Tokyo far quicker than expected.

When we get to the end of the expressway in the fabled city of Itako, mom-in-law decides she wants to have soba (buckwheat noodles) for lunch. Dad-in-law tells me he knows a really good place that's right next to Itako Station and easy to find. Guess what? It isn't, and it isn't. We wind up nosing around on narrow backroads and alleys I've never seen before for several minutes, dad-in-law mumbling to himself all the way, before we finally stumble on the place. We are definitely in the thick of old downtown Itako, and it is most definitely old! Several of the buildings are built in the Edo (17th to 19th century) style and may very well date from then. (In fact, one of the larger buildings nearby most definitely looks like an Edo period brothel...albeit converted into somebody's house.) Also, the street, which is so narrow and so insignificant, is crowned by an ancient-looking, wooden gate next to what looks like an old pumphouse or lock (on a street!?!).

If the neighborhood looks like a museum exhibit, the inside of the restaurant is even better. The owners, a very pleasant and energetic, elderly couple, have literally set up a sort of museum of their own inside with photographs of Itako dating back to the 40s and 50s, when almost all of the downtown streets, including the one outside, were still canals and the people went around by boat. (Well, that explains the pumphouse/lock next to the road!) Itako was a sort of Japanese Venice for centuries, and it drew visitors from all over the country. Unfortunately, during the industrialization boom of the 60s, when Kashima Port was built and factories started springing up all over, most of the canals were filled in and turned into streets. It became just another rural town trying to be a new, faraway suburb of Tokyo, but it still continued to attract visitors to its various resort hotels, particularly during the famous Ayame (iris) Festival in June.

The famous Iris Gardens of Itako (not my pic).

Just as Venice has its famous gondoliers, Itako has always had its boat ladies, known as sendousan (船頭さん). Dressed in a unique, traditional costume, they'd ferry people around the watery avenues in town. Well, the canals are all but extinct now, but you can still find the boat ladies. Most of them are elderly, but they still dress up in the traditional costumes and hang out on the bridges to hawk rides on their boats. Of course, the best time to see them, again, is during the Ayame Festival.

This isn't my pic, unfortunately. Here are a couple of sendousan rowing a boatload of costumed revelers during the Ayame Festival through a canalside garden in the city of Sawara, which is just across the Tone River from Itako.

For those wanting a memento of Itako, or for those unable to make the trip themselves, one of the best ways to enjoy the sight of sendousan has long been to buy a miniature copy. The crafting of sendousan dolls is an old and dear tradition. Gift shops in the area used to be full of them, and I have bought my fair share myself to keep and give as gifts. Note that I said "used to be". I noticed from the end of the 90s that the dolls were becoming harder to find. There is a good reason for that, and the restaurant owners explain with great regret. Apparently it is a dying art. It used to be a custom handed down from generation to generation and practiced by neighborhood circles. Now few people are even interested in trying. In only about a decade, a treasured, local custom of old has gone from being something many people practiced with pride to a dusty, old curiosity kept alive by a few lonely eccentrics.

The owner of the restaurant is one of those eccentrics. He doesn't make the dolls himself, but he knows the people that do, and he collects them. As we enjoy our lunch of chicken soba, he eagerly unwraps his most recent acquisitions, a quartet of sendousan dolls, an Itako boat-bride doll (another famous, old tradition that is now virtually extinct), and a hand-crafted, miniature boat complete with copper trim. It is then that I remember my cell phone has a camera, so I snap a quick pic:

The restaurant owner is clearly tickled with my curiosity for things Itako, so he gives me a little gift as we're leaving:

It's a copy of an old print showing three geisha dressed in the characteristic colors of the three geisha houses that used to exist in that area. Above them are the lyrics of an old song about Itako. The geisha houses are no longer operating, obviously. (Now there are lots of foreign bar hostesses...most of which were tricked into their fill that role.) The song, however, is still performed, particularly at the Ayame Festival every year.

I wish I had the music for it. It might be fun to arrange...


  • Great post, Moody. That was a long stint in the hospital for your mother-in-law. 'Hope she recovers quickly.

    What a great find in that restaurant and the old buildings, the photos of how things used to look. I've never seen those kind of dolls before, just the flat origami ones they sell in the souvenir shops.

    That print the owner gave you is beautiful. I remember reading that the Ibaraki born poet and song writer, Ujo Nobuchi used to go to Itako a lot in the early 20th century.

    It's good to get off the beaten track sometimes. You never what you might find. Thanks for sharing this interesting experience.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:42 AM  

  • Elmo is FOUND!

    By Blogger Robin, at 11:13 AM  

  • Was he hanging around at a "cat house" in Itako all this time? Arf! Arf! Arf!

    Happy for you. :oP

    By Blogger Momo the Wonder Dog, at 3:57 PM  

  • Congratulations, Robin!

    (For those of you who don't know, Elmo is Robin's Russian blue cat who suddenly disappeared and apparently spent several days hiding out in a local drain pipe fleeing anyone that tried to approach. Check out his blog for more info.)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 6:18 PM  

  • It is a wonderful post. I'd love to see all those dolls in the restaurant. I've never seen the ones like them. Would you tell me where it is?

    Well, I remember "Musume Sendo-san" or a boat-lady told us Tokugawa Mitsukuni liked to visit Itako...

    It is good your mother-in-law was able to get out of the hospital at last.

    By Anonymous j-apricot, at 8:36 PM  

  • Just in case anyone is interested, the name of the restaurant is "Wakata". It is difficult to explain where it is since it is in old town Itako, i.e. lots of tiny, narrow streets, all alike. The locals know it as being next to a famous sweets shop called "Ozawa" and very close to that gate I mentioned.

    Incidentally, I just found out that that gate is a very recent rebuild of a torii (traditional Japanese gate) that used to stand there long ago. Apparently one of the fringe benefits of Itako Town becoming Itako City is that they've been putting more effort and funding into restoring the area's historical charm (which might explain why Itako's schools are understaffed and underfunded).

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:28 AM  

  • MM, glad your M-I-L is out of hospital and best wishes for her speedy recovery.

    A very informative and interesting post indeed. A restaurant with a history - very nice. Was the food good? Here in KL, we still have some parts in the City Centre that are remnants of pre-WWII (or just after it) buildings and are being converted to shoplots mainly serving food and some of them are renowned for the food they serve.

    That's a lovely print. In Japan, are these prints normally framed up or just left hanging as is by the string already provided? I've always wondered what's the norm. Please advise.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 1:25 PM  

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