I'm not quite sure now just why I picked Izu as the location for my first 'solo' trip in Japan. I guess perhaps I had read Kawabata's 'Izu Dancer', and was looking forward to visiting some of the places mentioned in the book. It was late November, the perfect time of year for such a walking trip - cool fresh days, with never a cloud in sight ... It took me six days to get around the peninsula, from my 'drop-off' point at Ito Station, all the way round clockwise until I got to Shuzenji Onsen. I stayed at small youth hostels or local inns, almost always being the only guest. My Japanese was still extremely rudimentary, but I don't remember any particular problems.
I ate whatever the inn owners put in front of me, whether or not I understood what it was, and took every meeting and turn in the road as a new adventure. I have a bit of regret now that I didn't keep some kind of journal of my feelings during the trip, because of course there is no way now that I can recapture the 'freshness' of those early days in Japan. But I have the collection of station and hostel stamps in my notebook to remind me of those times!
Once I was back, we relaxed for a few days, and then hit the road again. We had a timetable - we had to get to her family's place in time for the New Year season. That was a few weeks away still, so we 'used up' the time with more travelling: up to the Hokuriku region, where the two of us walked around the Noto Peninsula (I just couldn't get enough!), then gradually down through the center of the country through Nagoya, where we spent Xmas day in a massive and very uncomfortable city youth hostel, and finally down the Kii Peninsula to our destination, the tiny village of Ozato, in the southernmost corner of Mie Prefecture.
Back in Canada, when we had been planning the trip, she had emphasized to me "Please understand, my family is very poor; we have nothing ..." I had just nodded, I wasn't concerned at all about the 'status' of her family; I too come from a completely normal 'nothing special' family. But on the morning after we arrived at the village, and we headed up to 'Okunono', the family farm, to help in some of the year-end cleanup work, I began to realize exactly what she had meant.
I have a topographic map here that shows me exactly where Okunono is located - and it is impossible to find a more isolated spot on the entire map. A small dot shows the location of the house - more than an hour's hike from the nearest road. Access by vehicle? Of course not; you walk. Gas? Electricity? Of course not. In an earlier issue of this newsletter I painted a small picture of Okunono for you - a place that 'once upon a time' was a valley filled with people and activity, but which now is silent and deserted. Our visit at that time was just a few years before the final abandonment, and the family was still struggling with a rear-guard action against the wild boars - we spent the next few days helping to string wire fencing to try and keep them out.
As the holiday grew closer, other family members arrived from various parts of the country, and the house floor became a sea of bedding each evening. Back in Canada I had read a lot of books about Japan and Japanese customs, and the books always dwelled lovingly on descriptions of the New Year: wonderful special foods, young girls in elegant kimono, I'm sure you all know what I mean. I had quite been looking forward to this visit ...
In subsequent years we laughed and laughed every time this story was retold ... David's first new year in Japan ... Did he see elegant kimono, or stacks of special food? Well, breakfast on New Year morning was soup and some samma sushi prepared during the previous few days. Lunch was samma sushi ... Dinner was samma sushi ... And the pattern continued the next day and the next ... I don't want her to be upset because I am telling you about this; she knows as well as I do that although the family was not the most 'elegant' or well-off family in Japan, there were plenty of large helpings served of the most important 'new year custom' - cheerful family get-togetherness. My fears that I would feel strange and unaccepted, especially by the older generation with war-time memories, were of course groundless. The old parents were just too happy that their daughter was happy with this guy; they didn't care at all about the colour of his hair, or the shape of his nose (well anyway, at least not about the hair ...). All in all, an experience that I will never forget ...
And then of course, after a couple of weeks of fence-building and helping with chores up on the farm, it was time to get back to 'work' - time to start walking again!