When you last saw me, I had been deposited in the middle of a festival. Dressed like a (US) college student, I was surrounded by earthy-crunchy people and wishing desperately that I was dressed like them. I own clothes like that, too- I just didn’t bring them.
While I was busy ogling the festival-goers, my hosts had already moved off to chat with friends, taking the placid baby boys with them. No problem. It seemed that Junpei and Haru were not the “Come meet my friends! I’ll show you around!” types, so it was up to me to strike out on my own and navigate the festival. Truthfully, what I really wanted was to get to the farm already, have something to eat, and find my bearings (Cue to my nagging conscience: “No, no, never mind what you really want! That’s not what you signed up for. You’re here for the experience.” ). And conscience won, of course, since the other alternatives would have been either faking exhaustion and pleading a delicate constitution (nope–not with my pride at stake), or stating baldly that I did not want to have fun, and insist on going straight home (spoiling their fun, and making no friends from the outset). I knew that it was best to buck up, plunge into the crowd, and pretend to be at ease. So I did.
It was a short but action-packed little festival featuring, among other things, a group of grandfathers performing the “Shishimai Odori”–or Lion Dance. Draping themselves in a huge Chinese-patterned cloth and resembling a many-legged snake or dragon with a large wooden Lion’s head , the men gamboled freely about the festival grounds. Note: I always feel uneasy when Japanese monsters chase small children (this is a staple attraction at many different festivals, and caused my own children undue anxiety in their toddler years), but at this event–in an interesting reversal– the children were gleefully chasing the lion! ”Why?” I asked the woman next to me, in a brave attempt to make friends and figure out what was happening. ”Well, they want to get their heads bitten,” was the reply. (Oh, right. Of course.) My neighbor elucidated, and I learned that a head-bite from the Shishimai is supposed to increase brain power. Still, it was rather unnerving to see parents ignore the howling as they eagerly rushed to pop their babies’ heads into the clacking wooden jaws of the Lion. Babies will need the extra brain-power to help them rationalize their inexplicable fear of snakes and lions later on, right?
Along with the head-nibbling, there were also Taiko performances by schoolchildren, and an African drumming performance by both kids and adults (something that would never happen in Hadano–it’s not “traditional”). The African drumming was wildly popular, and I was mesmerized by one young mother who happily abandoned her baby to a friend, leaped into the performer’s area and began dancing wildly while the other mothers clapped out the rhythm. With all the excitement going on around me, I could not get a proper photo of her, so I will leave readers to imagine the scene.
Someone dancing at a festival? My sister from New Orleans would wonder why I bother to record such a mundane observation. In the US, people breaking into spontaneous dance does not make news. In the 13 years I’ve lived in Hadano, however, I’m always startled to see a child dance spontaneously in public. I usually assume they’re second or third generation Japanese kids from Brazil or Peru, and most times I’m right. I’ve never seen spontaneous dancing anywhere from an adult. So may I please be excused for gaping during the performance? I really could not help it.
Shortly after the drumming stopped and the enthusiastic mother in baggy pants was reunited with her baby, the festival drew to a close. My hosts, Junpei and Haru, finally disengaged themselves from their conversations and prepared to pack up the van my daughter had warned me about (very large, very dirty). Between the babies, the folding stroller, baby bags, backbacks and such, this took time, but at last we were settled in.
The van was indeed dirty. And it was what my grandparents might have called a ”contraption” rather than a vehicle, since the entire back had been ripped apart to make a large seating area. No actual seats or cushions, but a nice flat bed and plenty of room for multiple passengers. I was fine with this, as I had done my “Kokoro no Junbi” (literally, “preparing the heart” in Japanese). Preparing the heart for what? Well, for any possible consequences, especially negative ones. In this case, based on Ellen’s description, I had imagined the worst sort of rattle-trap-rusted-out monster-of-a-van and envisioned myself sitting serenely in the seat, as if I did this every day. Well, in fact I did do that every day during my senior year of college, so I knew I could do it again.
I had neglected, however, to envision the lack of seatbelts. There were none in the van at all, and I forced myself to swallow hard and look unconcerned. Even the awful thing I had driven during college had had seatbelts, and I’d been grateful for them many times. My inner coward was protesting, but I knew I couldn’t expect my hosts to produce seat belts out of thin air. I was in no position to be all hoity-toity and refuse their ride home, either. Somehow, my reserve supply of fortitude had not yet been exhausted, and I managed to feign a devil-may-care attitude: “Seatbelts? Pish-posh! Who worries about such things?” while waiting for Papa Junpei to get the engine started. My place was next to the driver’s seat. Haru, mother of the two solemn baby boys, was seated cross-legged on the back floorboards with both babies on her lap, surrounded by the stroller, boxes of festival food, and who knows what else. The engine started right up and off we went, into the setting sun. Just like a movie.
After only a few minutes of driving along a riverside, we turned onto a narrow dirt road leading up a hill and into a forest. After ten minutes of slogging up the hill (the dirt was rapidly becoming mud), I decided it was a mountain. Darkness descended, and it was not just dark, it was completely and totally dark with only the stars and the headlights for illumination. Up until this point, Haru and the babies had been sitting quietly in the back; either Sane or Mitsu was nursing (I could not tell which) and the other twin was eating crackers. If the driving conditions got no worse than this I could almost relax, though the mud seemed to be getting more treacherous and the van moving more slowly. Then one of the twins began to fuss. Not a BIG fuss, but a small insistant whimper of discontent.
“Shall I take one of them?” asked Papa Junpei from the driver’s seat (“No, no!” I thought).
“Oh, yes, please,” said Mama Haru from the back, and one of the good-sized baby boys was pushed gently toward the front.
“I’ll take him,” I said immediately, intercepting the baton pass. Again, I’m not sure which of the twins I got, but he was happy on my lap…..for approximately five seconds. Then the howling started, and this time it WAS a big fuss. Reluctantly, I returned the baby to his rightful owner (Papa Junpei), whereupon his tears dissolved instantaneously. I bit my tongue at the sight of Baby Sane (or Mitsu) now behind the steering wheel, jumping
excitedly up and down while his father calmly kept one hand on the child, one hand on the wheel, and one eye on the road. Our path continued to wind upward with the van moving at a snail’s pace through the mud, while one twin happily cavorted about the driver’s seat and the other nursed blissfully in the back. Both parents were serene. “Look! There’s a tanuki!” said Papa Junpei, pointing at a mangy dog-like animal seen in the headlights. I was appropriately impressed, having never seen one up close before, but still wished that the driver had fewer distractions.
By now, we had probably been on the same winding uphill road for at least twenty minutes, and were moving so slowly I had forgotten to be anxious about the lack of seatbelts. The worst thing that could happen seemed to be toppling over into the forest in very slow motion, or (more probably) getting irrevocably stuck and making the rest of the trek on foot. Either of those options was preferable to careening off the edge of a cliff at high speed, so I began to relax in earnest. Besides, I was too tired to sustain a genuine state of anxiety for long. The van chugged along through the mud, the babies crowed happily, and just as I was beginning to feel seriously drowsy, we turned off onto a still smaller road which led to our final destination–the farm itself.
And here is where I leave you for the moment. You will see and read about the farm itself in the next post, for it deserves its own post rather than a few lines at the end of this one. It has taken two full posts just to arrive at the Fresh Start Farm, but as it took me a full day to get there via train-bus-festival-and contraption, I think that’s appropriate. So hang tight: we’re in Nagano, and the next part of the adventure is about to begin. Good night, and thank you for reading!