How Not to See Aomori

While I recommend going to Aomori (I mean, if you want to) and I definitely recommend my ultimate destination there (the Terayama Shuji Memorial Hall; again, I mean, if you want to go), what follows is a how-not-to guide of my trip three Wednesdays ago from Tokyo to Misawa, Aomori.

After coming back from Taiwan and immediately getting to work again, I needed to escape Tokyo.  I needed to get out and see some other part of Japan and forcibly remind myself of how good it is to live here, how widely varied and rich Japan is, how much I love travelling here.

Most of the time I see the road on my way to work, the walls of this office, and the parts of Koto I run through every night.  I also wanted to see Terayama Shuji’s work.  Since hearing about him for the first time in Taiwan, I’d become really interested in his films especially, but knowing that he had had his hand in so many different projects and productions I wanted to see everything he did collected all together.  So one Wednesday, my usual day off, I woke up as early as I could bear to and took the subway to Tokyo Station where I walked up to the ticket station and said, “I’d like a ticket for the next train to Aomori.”

The great thing about the shinkansen is that ticket prices are fixed and all you need to do to get a seat is walk up to the counter and ask for one.  It’s drastically easier than flying, although usually more expensive.  The price is well worth the convenience, though, and the joy that comes from racing through the countryside smoothly, quietly, softly.

I ran to get coffee quickly, and walked up to platform 21 to wait in the gentle morning sun for the train to arrive, sliding soundlessly down the track.  The train attendants were wearing fake sakura pinned to their hats and shoulders and it should have been absurd but it was quite endearing.

I want to be sick of all the cherry blossom fanfare, but everytime I see a cherry tree in bloom it’s so heartbreakingly beautiful that I can’t get that made about the hype.  Those foolish flowers deserve it all.

Similarly, I always roll my eyes a bit when people bring up how unique, how amazing, what a national treasure Mt. Fuji is.  I remember in Sanshiro, by Natsume Soseki, one of the characters says something to the effect that the pride for Mt. Fuji is misplaced and ridiculous–it’s not as if the Japanese invented it, and it will be here long after we’re gone.

But as we rode out through Ueno, Nippori, Omiya, I saw Mt. Fuji gliding past against a small smudge of cloud and… yeah, it’s damn impressive.  One of my friends recently said, when we caught sight of it down by the ocean during a picnic, that it never looks real.  It just looks as if someone painted the perfect mountain across the sky while our backs were turned.

After Fuji, I fell asleep, waking periodically to the softest announcements of our next stops, quickly leaving the familiar cities of Tokyo and Saitama and going up, up, up the coast to northern towns I’d never heard of.

We stopped in Hachinohe and I got off.

Hachinohe looks like every other shinkansen station I’ve been to except for Tokyo–where Tokyo is utilitarian and massively crowded, everything jammed together in the smallest space possible, stations that are further afield tend to be, in my experience, new and sharp, full of small stalls and stores stocking everything you could need on a four hour train ride.  And of course, they’re packed with local specialities: posters praising the sights (waterfalls and forests are popular; pictures of food even more so), station-specific boxed lunches, and stands of mochi, dried fish, cookies, rice crackers, and whatever else that area of Japan has laid claim to as it’s unique offering to travellers.

I didn’t get anything special at Hachinohe, instead walking out of the station to the convenience store to get something that seemed important at the time, and then walking back to catch the local train to Misawa.

The shinkansen and the local train are generally coordinated so that when you debark from one you can embark on the other, but living in Tokyo (New York, Beijing, Chicago) I forget that trains in the countryside don’t come every 5 minutes, but every hour.  So if you debark and then go somewhere else for a minute, you may miss the local train.

Naturally, I had already passed the ticket gate when I realized that the next train was coming in an hour, and on the local side of the station there is none of the fanfare of the shinkansen side.  There was a standing soba place, and a small New Days.  I sat on a bench for a while before going to the New Days.  As I was paying, I laid my book across the counter to find my wallet and the woman asked, “Oh, are you reading Tawara Machi? Isn’t it difficult?”

Tawara Machi is a tanka writer who my coworker recommended, famous for her short poems about daily life that resonate strongly with that deep, meloncholy place we all seem to have in us.

“I kind of understand it.  The contents are really easy, and I can read kanji from Chinese, so it’s not so bad.  It’s good practice,” I said.

She asked where I was from, what I was doing in Japan, when I would go back to America.  Didn’t I have a boyfriend waiting for me there?

“I’m definitely not going back,” I said.  “And there’s no one waiting for me.”  In spite of her insistence that it only makes sense to go back at some point, she was nice and seemed excited to talk to someone.

With 20 minutes left, I walked to the end of the platform where I couldn’t see a single person in any direction and sang to my iPod loudly, shuffling across the concrete in the cold.

The train pulled in and I sat down, joined by three other people who were all much older, going I don’t know where.

It was maybe 20 minutes from there to Misawa, through unremarkable pine forests and past unremarkable suburbs where we stopped and almost no one got on or off.

In Misawa, there is really nothing.

Most of the stores were closed, in spite it being a Wednesday afternoon, and the only information about busses was vague along the lines of, “There’s a bus next to that soba place next to the station.  Details inside.”  There was a line of taxis outside the station, but otherwise the others who got off at Misawa disappeared down the hilly streets on foot.

I walked back to the station and asked the attendant if there were any busses to the Terayama Shuji Memorial Hall.  The attendant looked at me like I was asking for an elephant ride to the museum, and said that there were no busses.  “Did you try asking at the soba place next to the station?”

“Thanks,” I said, and wandered back out.  I walked up to the first taxi whose driver wasn’t asleep and asked to go to the museum, and we were off.

The museum is in a park to the north of Misawa city, stuck onto the edge of a massive lake.  The roads through the park wind gently along the irregular curves of the coast before climbing into a forest, part of which has been made into a large field.  In the distant, it looked like there were school baseball fields further into the park, but we stopped up a hill that carved down into the lake, next to the Misawa Historical Museum (?).

The Terayama Shuji Memorial Hall, architecturally, reflects the shape of his work (as I understand it, which is barely at all; but the vibes matched, in my mind).  The building is irregular, undulating concrete whose waves are joined by a glass bridge.  On the outside, there are small faces and other strange shapes embedded into the walls.  In the back of the hall, there is something that looks like a stage.

On entering, someone came out from the back curiously, as though not having expected to see someone there.  I asked for a ticket, and he explained the layout of the museum, looking up at me anxiously in the way people do sometimes when they’re conveying information but aren’t sure if I speak Japanese.  I thanked him and threw all my stuff down in the lounge area, which was filled with pamphlets about local artists and exhibitions.  A TV was playing an interview, silent and subtitled, with Terayama, and in the back was a counter that advertised lunch but seemed determindely closed.

The contents of the museum you can read about online, but it was everything I was hoping for and more.  It was informative, filling in the wide gaps in my knowledge about him, and it was filled comprehensively and creatively with his work and the work of people he influenced or was involved with.

The main hall in particular is why I call it a creative collection–underneath an elevated stage was a grid of wooden desks, apparent replicates of Terayama’s.  On the top of each desk was a clue about some aspect of his life with blanks you had to try to fill in.  Underneath the desks were the answers, and you could sit down and peer underneath at the backlit answers.

On the stage were props and scenes from his productions which moved and were illuminated in turns.  It was just creepy enough to feel right, considering his work, but organized well enough that it was informative.

Around the walls were photographs of his shows, of people he worked with, of his childhood, posters from his productions and movies, and a little underground library filled with the newsletter his theater company put out.

The best part of the museum, though, was the back.  “If you walk out the back door for about 5 minutes there’s a literature memorial,” the attendent had told me.  Not knowing what he was talking about at all, I walked out the back door and there was a path into the woods.  The path was clear enough on its own, but it was helpfully marked with posts at the tops of which were hands pointing into the forest.  Down the post were quotes from Terayama.  I stopped periodically and read them until I reached a fork.  One path said, “Don’t come down this way” and one stretched back along the crest of the hill, on the other side of which was the massive lake.

At this point in the day, the sun spilled harshly on the water and was reflected dazzlingly into the trees where I was standing.  I stood on top of a bench and looked down at the lake, which was large enough to send regular waves crashing into the empty shore.  Large enough to stretch beyond what the eye could see, dipping into inlets and winding around hills further out from where I stood.

I kept walking, noting the strangely regular appearance of ashtrays (one every 15 seconds; you would think they wouldn’t encourage you to smoke in the woods.)

At the end of a path was a giant sculpture of an open book with a sculpture of a dog sitting in front of it, its head bowed.  One the book were written two of Terayam’s poems, and on a plaque nearby they were translated into English.

I sat for a long time on one of the benches across from the book, watching the road below as a van drove in one direction, and then, some minutes later, another van drove in the opposite direction.

Honestly, I still don’t know too much about Terayama’s work.  I know all the basic biographical information, and I’ve seen his short films countless times, but beyond that his writing is beyond me being in Japanese, and his films are hard to get a hold of in their entirety.  I don’t know if people still put on his plays, and if so, where.

But the reason I love his work so much is how it makes me feel when I do get my hands on it.

I first saw his short films (and watched them countless times after) in a bookstore in Taiwan.  I went there for the first time when I was finally getting really settled at work.  I felt like I was a real part of the school, finally, and that I was fitting in pretty well.  I went from not having the nerve to talk to a lot of people to pretty much chatting nonstop with whoever was around.  I’d stand in the kitchen and make small talk with whoever happened to be there at the time, or I’d catch up with people at their desks.  I talked all the time to the person I sat next to, and another coworker of ours would often join us, sitting on the floor between us while people walked by and asked us, “What are you three crazy kids up to over there?”

But as much as I was grateful to have become a part of the school in a way that felt meaningful to me, something felt missing.  And that something was personified exactly in this bookstore, and I felt it the moment I walked in.

I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something in me that can’t sit still and it can’t make small talk and it can’t put on an agreeable face and be pleasantly sociable for too long.  It’s like putting on makeup at the start of the day, and by 2 in the morning you’ve got creases in your foundation and the wings of your eyeliner are missing.  It can’t last.

Working here, with all of it’s bright moments and all of the love and gratitude I feel for this place, I’ve realized how extremely not fit for an office job I am.  The kind of work I want is the kind that Terayama did–wildly creative, provocative, liberating for both the creator and the viewer.  I want to work in a space of raw honesty that constantly probes questions of who we are and how we should spend our lives, and examines everything we take for granted and takes it to pieces to build a better way of existing.

Putting on nice clothes and being presentable for 12 hours a day doesn’t jam with that ideal, and I was starting to realize that right when I went to Taiwan.  Walking into the bookstore, where Asakawa Maki was playing on the speakers and Terayama Shuji was being screened on the wall, it was like waking from a very long dream and remembering, “This is your reality.  This is where you’re supposed to be, right?”

Going up to Aomori reproduced those feelings, reminding me again of what is worth spending time and energy on, and what kind of work I want to be doing.

And it’s not an either/or situation of course.  I love this job a lot, and I don’t hate that I have to be here for another year.  But going to Aomori was important for keeping certain goals in mind.

I took another taxi back to Misawa.  The driver asked if I was satisfied with the museum, and I said very much so.  My ambition and will to live reaffirmed by the museum, I felt steady enough to reach out to another person so I asked the driver about Misawa.  As we drove along the lake he said that people came there in the summer to swim, and I asked, surprised, if it got hot in Aomori.  He laughed and said of course, just as hot as it does in Tokyo.  It just took a bit longer, which is why the sakura still weren’t blooming, when I asked about that next.

Outside of the museum, Misawa is famous as a base for the Japanese Self-Defense Force, and the airfields are used both by the SDF and airplane enthusiasts.  The whole time I was there I saw countless planes streaming overhead–small ones, like fighter jets or hobby planes, tracing arcs across Misawa before landing back at the field by the ocean.

At the station, I had soba at the soba place by the station that apparently possessed the bus details I had been looking for earlier, and watched a travel program on TV about Myanmar.  Several people came in to buy konnyaku, mysteriously, and one woman came in to ensure that her family could come by and eat later because the grandmother was a being a bit difficult that day but they had all planned to come down in the evening.

The train pulled in as I was walking into the station, and I boarded with several groups of junior high school students.  The inside of the train was a soft orange from the sun, and the fields and pines around us were slowly turning blue with dusk, like being dipped successively into watercolor paint.

I read Tawara Machi on the train–her poems about love, about the frenetic lives of high school students, about every little feeling we have and keep privately each day.  I’ve hardly been able to pick up the book since.  I understand now that it fits best on a quiet afternoon train through the countryside, and I can’t shake that feeling.

This time it wasn’t too long a wait until the next shinkansen, and I bought a chupa chup and coffee at the convenience store, squeezing past more junior high students who were standing in the aisles reading magazines or calling to each other over shelves about which chip flavor to buy.

The train back felt longer by half, the three hours passing painfully slowly.  I read and listened to music, and watched the names of the stops go past on the ticker screen inside the car.  This time the names were more familiar, though I still don’t know what any of those towns hold.

Getting back to Tokyo was jarring for the contrast, and so immediately instense in its energy and rush that it almost erased the memory of Aomori.  Going there for only a day, the trip took on a dreamlike quality anyway, and when I walked into the subway station below the shinkansen tracks it was like I had never left.  But it was easier to walk this time, and knowing that I had work the next morning didn’t slow me down as I left the ticket gate, walked down past the Marunouchi line, around that old smoking room that’s been papered over, and past the standing sushi place that I always want to try but never do.  I stood on the Tozai line, my backpack at my feet and a dozen people pressed against my shoulders, and took the local train home.

If you go to Aomori, I recommend not going for only a day because it’s just stupid to do that, and not not checking the train schedules at any point in the day, and not only going to one museum and going home.  I’m sure there’s a lot up there that’s worth seeing, and hopefully I’ll go up and see it sometime soon.  I always joke that if you go to Aomori but you don’t eat an apple, did you really go to Aomori?  Since I didn’t have any apples this time, stay tuned for further, better-planned escapades in this archipelago’s northern reaches.


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