Thursday, December 15, 2016
One Night with a Geisha
On one bright sunny morning with a strong westerly wind, I walked delightfully through harvested rice paddies - the sea to my right, the mountains to my left. There in the distance, the theatrical side-lighting accentuating its upward-facing wimple - Mount Fuji, its snow-capped alpenglow just like in the posters. Far off - 150 kilometers, 4 days' walk - perfectly situated in the vee of two fore mountains. (I should make a quick watercolor, I thought, as soon as I find a good place to sit, out of the tailwind, but still in the warm sun.) I walked for some hours. Clouds came - Fuji faded then disappeared into a white sky. Later that day, light rain, high winds... for the days that followed, heavy rain, blustering winds, a downpour now and then, dramatic rising fog, sinking clouds, Mount Fuji hidden above it all.
I walked through forests and fields, along the rocky coast, on the beach in the spray of ferocious waves... a small sign in the mist declared in rare English - 'Mt Fuji Touristic Mountain Trail'. No other pilgrims (of course), no hikers. Dramatic rain, dramatic wind - whistling like in the movies... rising mists and equally sinking clouds, occasionally letting 'almighty power' sunbeams penetrate like golden stakes. Fujiyama hidden from my searching eyes. I saw it from a distance one morning. I know it's there.
People continue to be good. I've encountered many immigrant communities around the Catholic churches where I seek hospitality. Peruvians, with whom I can speak Spanish, Brazillians, with whom I can speak Spanish and listen in Portuguese with surprising mutual understanding; and Filippinos, who conveniently speak English often enough. It goes well.
One evening, a Japanese priest contacted a local woman from a long-standing Catholic family - that is, from among the 'Hidden Christians' who converted four centuries ago and persisted in secrecy when it was outlawed. I'd be more comfortable in her home than in the parish hall, he suggested. 'Chotte-mate' Wait. An hour later, came a Geisha. Proper Meiji-era kimono and hairstyle, wooden sandals, split-toed white silk socks... To her home we went on foot, with quick little noisy steps. Surprisingly untidy, her antique wooden home, but otherwise out of a movie set. An elaborate Buddhist home-shrine built into a wall commemorated her late husband and his repectable parents - his father of the pre-war warrior class.
Her English was no better than my Japanese, so a learning opportunity for us both. 'Sukyaki?' she suggested for dinner. Sure, I've heard of it. A portable gas burner was placed on the low wooden table on the reed floor mats. Bite-sized morsels of green onions, napa cabbage, some oddly textured root vegetabe she called 'cognac' or something audibly similar - with zero calories, she claimed - tofu, sliced pork, and strips of beef sizzled rapidly in a shallow pan placed on the open flame. A small bowl of rice, chopsticks, okay, I can managed, but I had to muster all my resources to continue when she delicately and with all the elegance of a tea ceremony (which turns out to be her daytime metier) cracked an egg into another small porcelain bowl. Using your chopsticks, dip the cooked meat and vegetable pieces one by one into the raw egg just before eating... she gestured and demonstrated. Really? Raw egg? (must I?) (should I?) ((When in Rome... close your eyes and swallow...)) On the more culturally comfortable side, she kept the 1.5-liter carton of Japanese red wine flowing into our small ceramic cups during the extended joyful meal full of laughter.
Her agility surprised and outpaced me - sure, I had walked well over 40 rugged kilometers in the rain that day (while she taught proper tea ceremony procedures to the up-and-coming Geisha wannabees) - I felt cramped and stiff alternatively kneeling or hunched cross-legged at the little table - heated underneath with an electric blanket - the only source of heat in the house aside from the cooking burner. She often went from the demur kneeling position at the table to run to the kitchen or shrine room for various things and back kneeling again like a gymnast sticking the landing, kicking her indoor sandals off every time entering the reed-mat dining room. Watching it made my muscles ache all the more. She showed me photos of her wedding, her calligraphied high school diploma, rare photos from the time of her youth - she was well over 80 years old. What an inspiration.
I'm continuing up the Pacific coast, closing in on Tokyo, passed the quarter- way mark. Afterwards, I suspect the population will thin out a bit and I won't be able to find a Catholic church every night. No worries.
Ferrets a-plenty, but still the snow monkeys elude me.