SYNOPSIS:   About a castle which still has a traditional town, and about this town and the cruel and not so cruel traditions it fosters.  Meeting a nice Japanese couple.  A few words about Japanese and the English language.


It’s a tiny little dot on the map:  Inuyama, but it’s worth a trip if you have the time.  The castle of Inuyama — yes another castle! — is the oldest in Japan.  That should count for something and it justified my visit.  And it is one of the few castles which still has a town to go with pretty much the same as it had a town at the time of its conception.  That is definitely something that counts.

I had gotten up very early in Nagoya and made the trip out here.  On my way from the station I noticed an elderly couple walking out of a hotel, greeting me with big smiles.  Soon after, I would see them again at the castle, where they started to talk to me.  On and off throughout the day we would run into each other and I am really sorry that I did not exchange contact information with them.  But they are good examples of a rare breed of Japanese: the ones who can speak English.  I really can’t get over the fact that young people can barely say hello in English.  This is not coming from the position of an arrogant American who thinks that all of the world has to speak his or her language.  This is coming from a teacher’s perspective where I wonder how any young person will be successful in an increasingly global world without a foreign language (and that means English for starters).  What is most surprising to me is that there is none of the eagerness I have encountered in other countries to learn the language through movies, books, news, and contact with foreigners on your own despite inadequate schooling.  No.  It is almost as if there is a resistance, a certain sureness that one can and will survive just fine without the Western foreigners.  Tourism here is definitely not geared towards the English-speaking world even though it is much better now than I hear it was just 30 years ago, where no street sign and no information was posted in English.  But tourism is one thing, the global economy another…

Even the world “tou-rist in-for-ma-tion” pronounced very slowly will draw scary blanks!  And that is a phrase posted in English at every train station.  How oblivious does one have to be not to have ever read this?  At a UNESCO town with a big world heritage center — again, posted on multiple signs and in big letters throughout town, a woman who lived two blocks from it could not communicate with me when I asked her where I had to turn to get to the “he-ri-tage cen-ter”.  No chance.

But then there are the ones who have studied or lived abroad and who can and are eager to speak English, the very, very few.  And this older couple was among them.  We exchanged some pleasantries and a few sentences whenever our paths crossed.  They were on a little vacation at the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary!  They had five children and eleven grandchildren.  They were such a sweet, gentle and pleasant couple.  They reminded me of you, Elida and Bill!

But back to the castle — what can I say?  It looks quite like all the others.  🙂  It was a bit smaller than some I have seen.  But now I have a good sense on how remarkably authentic the reconstructions really are, which I have seen since this one was through and through original.  This one had a unique entry.  You had to actually go through a Shinto shrine — up a flight of stairs, past the shrine and out through a row of torii gates — to proceed up to the castle.  I wonder if it was the castle kami that was venerated here, or if the shrine was a later addition taking advantage of the nice elevation and the prominent location.

A stroll through the downtown area at the foothill of the castle, and even moreso, a look at the city museum’s model of the town, reveals that it has a remarkably authentic city center as well.  There was no devastation through war or fire even though an 1891 earthquake destroyed the west side of the castle and during the Meji restoration (here we go again) some of the buildings deemed unnecessary, were torn down.  But overall, the medieval character of both castle and town were preserved.  One does not see that very often.

With a preserved old town come preserved traditions.  From all I can tell, Japanese are the most festival-enthusiastic people I have ever come across.  And Inuyama comes with one that combines ancient puppeteering with a unique parade.  Huge floats called yama-dashi are constructed of wood which look like a set of receding squares stacked on top of each other.  There are 13 yamas in total and they each have a name!  Each float is three stories high.  The bottom story with the largest square will have poles for men to pull and push this thing along.  These guys also perform sophisticated and choreographed movements as they are pulling the floats and of course, they wear color-coordinated clothes.  The center cubicle has to be big enough for two to four puppeteers to kneel inside and there is room for some children to ride along on this level to wave to the crowd and to cheer.   They are dressed in golden clothing.  And the smallest square on top, covered by a canopy, provides the stage for several, 2-3 life-size puppets to perform.

Some of the floats are completely covered with candlelit paper lanterns, 365 on each of them.  They alternate with the puppet floats. Even in the model procession and in the video which was playing at the museum, this festival was a sight to behold.  The most exciting spot in the parade is when each of these floats has to make two 90 degree turns in brief succession as the parade moves up one long street and then back the one parallel to it to make a big (rectangular) circle.  The men who move the float work hard at these precarious turns which are accompanied by lots of screaming from the audience, shouting and banging, and and the booming echo of the wheels which at that moment drown out the flutes and drums that accompany each float.  Even these turns have names:  donden.

A whole museum in town was dedicated to models of this festival and puppet making.  A hands-on section allowed the visitor to manipulate one of the puppets, and I was amazed how much resistance there actually is.  To make these puppets dance takes muscle!  A puppet master typically maneuvers about 6 sticks around to move the legs, arms, and head of his or her character.  This form of theater is called karakui and the festival is known as the Matsuri festival.  It originated under the patronage of the lord of the castle in the 17th century and was affiliated with the Shinto shrine dedicated to the local gods.  Definitely a fun, fun tradition.

But there is another unique tradition in town — this one a lot more sinister: cormorant fishing.  But I will need a full blog for that, so get ready.  Tomorrow.

Good night.