Silk Road

20190904_132025Although I’ve been calling this place Kurohime, that is just the name of the railway station and the mountain; the area is properly called Kumakura, ‘Bear’s Larder’ or similar. There are bears around here; monkeys too – we saw some today on the way to the recycling plant. And last night something, probably a badger, was snuffling round under the tatami room while we were sleeping. We found footprints in fine dust beneath the house this morning. The Japanese badger is a mustelid with racoon eyes; it’s nocturnal, so heard but not often seen. Though the house is tight against the weather, sometimes you find small green frogs in the bathroom; there are larger brown ones hopping around outside; and the snakes that eat both kinds slithering through the bear bamboo. Yoshie showed me two shed skins she has collected. Shinanomachi is the name of the larger town, which includes Kumakura, Nojiriko (the caldera) and a dozen other places, all villages from ancient times. I always find directions difficult to intuit in the northern hemisphere though I’ve just about got it right now; the principles behind the disposition of the town we’re on the outskirts of continue to elude me. I’ve been to the Town Hall, to the Library, to the Hospital, to the Council Offices and still I cannot say how they sit in relation to each other or to the town as a whole. I think perhaps it is because modern infrastructure has been laid down over an old rural map where houses related to their surrounding fields, with their ubiquitous shrines, and to other houses more than they did to roads or grids or railways or whatever. Also I’ve been to the Temple and to the house of the Poet Issa, which stands on Highway 18, the Royal Road. In the Edo period gold mined on the offshore island of Sado was carried down here in wagons to the court of the Tokugawa Shogun. There’s now also a magnificent tollway which takes the same route to the coast but there’s still something about the Royal Road that makes you feel like you are breathing an older air. To the north west of town, before you go through the tunnel, heading towards Kumakura, on the left there is the Hotel Victoria. It is long and narrow, four or five storeys high, painted pink, with a balustrade along the front upon which numbers of grey-ish white neoclassic statues stand. Venuses, Putti, Atlases, Apollos, Virgins with Child and so forth. It is a love hotel, hence the colour. Not necesarily for illicit liaisons; many of the places around here (there are lots of large houses), are home to three or four or even five generations. Couples, therefore, in order to get away from the madding crowd, check into the hotel for an hour or two so they can make love in private. Teenagers, or young lovers, too, may escape parental scrutiny here. It’s about 8000 yen (= $100.00 aprox.) for an overnight stay, rather less for a ‘rest’ of a couple of hours; weekend rates are higher. On the other side of the tunnel, heading east and south on the Royal Road, there’s another hotel, standing eight storeys tall at a fork in the way. This was built by some entrepreneur, probably in the 1990s, in the expectation of a boom that never came. Though it was completed, and furnished (there are curtains in the windows), no-one has ever stayed there nor ever will. Weeds grow the height of a man outside reception, there are trees masking the lobby windows, inside, who knows, wild animals may have taken up residence in the rooms. It is as J G Ballard a sight as I have seen; although derelict dwellings, and other buildings, are everywhere. They sag back into the earth, festooned with creepers, their rooves collapsed by heavy winter snow, their windows blinded by webs and vines. If you drive on further, past the main street leading down to the station, with many of its shops shuttered (because, like in the West, most people go to supermarkets now), on the left you will see the sign that says Silk Road. It’s a Pachinko Parlour; today there were about a dozen vehicles parked in the carpark and about the same number of men, under sparkly lights, playing at machines in the enormous room. The game resembles pinball, but only vaguely. You purchase steel balls and insert them in an aperture at the top; they drop down, past various possible ‘cups’, through the playing field until (no win) they exit at the bottom. Any win gives the player more steel balls; which are thus both the bet and the prize. Gambling is illegal in Japan but Pachinko is a grey area; you can exchange your balls for tokens (‘prizes’) which may then be ‘sold’ for cash at a nearby establishment, owned and operated by the parlour where you won them – and so it goes. The Pachinko industry is said to generate more gambling revenue than Las Vegas, Singapore and Macau combined, though that seems unlikely; eighty percent of the owners are Korean, albeit domiciled in Japan. I asked the hostess who greeted me if I could photograph that strangely spangled ceiling, that cacophonous interior, but she became anxious and indicated that she would have to go and ask her boss; I said, no, don’t worry. Outside, on the facade, there are aqua camels on a yellow and orange ground; on the roof, two aqua domes and, between them, a neon sign; which, because I have not been there at night, I have not seen lit up. We went on to pick up Mayu’s new pink suitcase from the Black Cat depot, to which it had been despatched after she ordered it online in Tokyo last Saturday night; and then on into the afternoon. At the onsen the cherry trees that were bee-loud with blossom last time I was here, were now all green. Yellow daisies flowered amongst the morning glory. Swallows dived and swooped in the grey sky, from which heavy rain fell intermittently while thunder rumbled in the hills. I had a talk with a man called Hiro who is a petro-chemical engineer and has visited 153 countries. He told me about a lobster he ate, washed down with white wine, in Sydney in 1995. His skinny shanks and his humorous white-haired wife, who insisted on ringing the bell at the vacant reception desk, remain in mind. The rain is pouring down outside now in Kumakura, dinner is ready. It must be another kind of silk road I am upon, as seductive and as delusive as the one on Highway 18.

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