Wednesday, May 25, 2005

our mamori-gami

We left as the sun was just beginning to seep into the sky. The morning was holding its breath and the air was steely and cool. The lead van was loaded with mikes, mixers, two MC’s, a DJ, and enough alcohol to kill a horse. Our van was an identical white, a kaiseki chef at the wheel, smoking an American cigarette, a DJ stuffed between stacks of plastic ice coolers in the back seat, checking beats on his laptop, and me sitting shotgun, watching the sunrise in the rearview mirror. The stereo played Wayne Shorter as we ragged on Hiro for his grandma driving and made fun of each others haircuts. Me and the Japanese hip-hop group, going camping.

A few months ago Takeo handed me a small hand lettered flyer printed on shock blue paper. I turned it around in my hands as Takeo finished the head on my beer, taking my 500 yen coin off the table with a nod. “We’re doing this free outdoor music festival on Sunday the twenty-second. You should come.” Takeo has a flat broad face and two thick eyebrows that live permanently under a grey baseball cap. His eyes turn down to the floor whenever he smiles. I’m one of the few people who call him by his given name and not by his informal title, masta. He doesn’t seek out the title, but society lays it on his gentle forehead. He is almost perfectly balanced against his wife Michi, tiny and wonderful, pinched eyes and a face glowing beneath a massive pile of dreadlocks. I get the feeling that in her practical and modest manner Michi gathers all the ideas half baked at the bar and prods them to crisp and steaming reality. A small bar like theirs normally swirls around the strong and spiky personality of the owner: masta­ for men, mama-san for women. But this gentle couple with their love of American folk music have let the customers define the place, giving space to hip-hop bands, trance DJ’s, rockabilly fanatics and old school punk rockers. They have quietly woven together a network of regulars, always flexible enough for a few more, but tight enough for everyone to go camping for the weekend.

We arrived around eight fifteen, steep grassy slopes hitting an unnaturally flat field that pooled out below a small covered concrete stage. It was about as long as a Greyhound bus and as tall as the pine trees around us. Large panels of styrofoam had been painted in colored stripes and fashioned into a rainbow arc over the front of the stage. Chunks of people were eating breakfast with soundcheck: rice balls, canned beer and dried fish snacks. Michi was unpacking boxes of handmade clothes and store bought liquor onto rows of folding tables and Takeo was shouldering loops of cables and hammering together a wooden tent frame for the sound board. After we had helped the band unload their records and DJ equipment, Hiro and I unpacked the folding tables, camping chairs and ice coolers. Old women from down the road came to stare with furrowed brows at the clumps of hippies and sound equipment.

People were starting to trickle in, stumbling down the grassy slopes in fours and sixes, dotting the field with tarps and coolers of beer. It was a cool and cloudy Sunday morning, some of us basking in the last day of the weekend, some people clutching to this day off they had bargained for weeks before, trading shifts or begging long promised holidays. With no announcement, music came pounding across the field, a troupe of young Japanese hippies pounding on drums they had carved themselves, their leader waving changes and chants with flashes of hair and an intense smile. Two or three young looking guys with cameras the size of small rocket launchers took up tactical positions around the band, twisting torsos to sniper their photos.

As the morning wore on drums gave way to DJ’s spinning soul music. I helped Hiro make a salad of mashed yams and julienned daikon. As I mushed the yams with oil and veggies his gnarly hands twirled a knife around the daikon; it was soon laying in three clean piles of matchsticks. My friends’ hip hop group took the stage to scattered applause and tentative glances from the tie-dyed and ponytailed crowd. They bounced through their set juggling around sound problems. The sound guy crawled between keyboards and turntables to realign cords and place power strips while the two MC’s tossed the one good mike back and forth. If it fizzled the sound guy’s hand would pop out from underneath a mixing board, a new mike just plugged in, the set a high wire act at the mercy of the sound system. The crowd gradually thinned back to their tarps and cold beer, and the group left the stage to scattered applause from the few dancers left. Hiro and I consoled them with the salad and a round of beers from the cooler.

The clouds burned away and suddenly we were all very hot, sharing beers with friends who dropped by our tarps, munching on peanuts and dried squid and making fun of each other’s haircuts. The afternoon grew hazy in the heat and the beer, bodies napping in the shade, wild frisbees and stray soccer balls colliding with plastic cups and heads. I strolled around crunching on rice crackers talking to old friends and new, asking after those who couldn’t make it and those who would be here soon.

Asking one pale American where he was coming from, I almost dropped the last few swallows in my cup when he mentioned Hachinohei, a city on the very northern tip of Honshu, a full day’s drive from here. He had come down with a bunch of regulars from his local bar, and waved over his masta to talk to us. The masta looked like the veteran of a million summer festivals, skin dark with sun, voice deep and raspy, rangy arms twisted in tattoos, a bright and easy smile across his aging face. “Hey, please call me Kappa,” he said, switching our handshake to an affirmative handlock.

I did drop my beer at that one. A kappa are ancient Japanese water spirits, frog-men with duck billed mouths and fishing spears that stand as high as your chest. Mischevious or helpful, they can bring you fortune or steal your newborn children. You don’t pee in a kappa’s river. When I asked him about it he shrugged. “Yeah man, I’m kappa. Ever since I was seven, people call me Kappa, y’know.” He had left his duck bill and spear at home, but he told me that he had just bought 1500 tsubo (…) of open land in Aomori. “And hey man,” he said, eyes crinkled and twinkling “there’s a river in it too.”

A girl whose words were dripping with Aomori dialect offered us a few bowls of the soup that had been bubbling in the shade. We toasted the afternoon together and I thanked her for the soup. She told me it was a Hachinohei specialty, the hard local rice crackers cooked with seasonable veggies in a thick pork broth. As we sat down in the shade Kappa continued his story, stopping occasionally to slurp from a paper bowl or a beer can.

For a Japanese water spirit he was pretty well traveled, having back-packed in great circles through the jungles and beach raves of South-East Asia, along the mountains of Central America and across the African savanna. “But you know man?” he paused to put the final lick on a hand rolled cigarette. “Aomori is pretty great. You can wander out into the forest and find weed growing wild! Just fields of it! They used to be taller than me, but the cops they burned all the big ones. But you can still find ‘em man.” Asking what he did now, he told me about settling down as the owner-chef of a restaurant-bar in his native Hachinohei, the American interrupting to say how good the food was. He had met Takeo at a music festival a few years ago, and when he heard about this event he had corralled as many regulars as he could into a caravan of trucks and four-doors and brought everyone down for the weekend. “So here we are man! Have a beer!” A friend called him away and the American and I sat talking about Japan and bars. “Yeah man, I wouldn’t know anyone up there without Kappa y’know? That guy’s great. So where’s your masta? Y’know, the guy who organized this.”

In that moment I felt several stray thoughts in my brain click together into a perfect circle. Mama and Masta always seemed like thoroughly Japanese jokes, names of respect given a sly ironic twist, borrowed as they are from a foreign language. They were born somewhere in the rows of tiny drinking spots where a wiry man with a towel snapped in a band around his head sweats over rows of slowly grilled yakitori skewers, scraping a living selling beer and conversation to a counter of salaried workers who make four of five times what he does. From five PM until closing he is the masta of his small corner of the world, but what is he Tuesday morning at the bank, begging an extension on his loan payments? But could I be wrong? Maybe they are our mothers and masters more than we suspect, benevolently ruling our selves after work.

The sky grew thick and wooly gray as the last band took the stage, but with my mind spotted with beer, sunlight and fuzzy epiphanies my memory of them is a blurry mess. I remember Hiro talking about how to make good sauces for grilled beef while simultaneously realizing the folk-rock song they were playing had been a favorite of this old Boston street musician friend of mine. Just as the band rounded out their last guitar solo the sky began to drip and we hastily folded chairs and wrapped up tarps, scurrying up to our rented cabin for the night.

After waving off friends departing in cars and shuttle buses we settled to grilling beef and veggies on the cast iron grill on the porch of our cabin, sending plates over to the folks in the next cabin over and making fun of each others haircuts. Outside the circle of our porch light the world was black and silent as stage curtains, our bad jokes and skittery laughter disappearing in the darkness. After we had grilled off the last of the veggies and the yakisoba I said my goodnights and turned in early, arms stinging red from the sun and head feeling like the last plate of yakisoba on the grill.

We had breakfast with the festival staff and Kappa’s caravan from Aomori, big pots of miso soup, plates of grilled vegetables and free beers poured from the leftover kegs. I had two bowls of soup, slices of grilled burdock and eggplant some ginger pickles and half a cup of the beer. Some of our group had work that afternoon so we ate our fill and thanked Michi and Takeo for the breakfast. “By the way,” he said quietly, “have you guys seen the festival’s mamori-gami yet? It’s just a few minutes drive from here, I have to go that way anyhow, so I can show you the road.” We wound up a single lane strip of concrete that curved through pine forests and along sheer valleys, eventually parking at a turn in the road. Takeo led us up a dark little path between the trees, then stopped short. “This is it, the protective spirit of our music festival.”

I didn’t even notice it at first, the twisting coils flooding my whole field of vision. A massive tree, more than a thousand years old, mammoth twisting branch-trunks hurling out of the earth like the tentacles of a sea monster, frozen in a single instant. Our heads spun in different directions to try and judge the scope of it. Takeo placed his hand on a gnarly knot at the base of the tree the size of a bicycle wheel. It looked like the face of an elephant emerging from the trunk, folded with age. Takeo put his hands together and thanked it for another prosperous year, and as he stepped back a wave of laughter suddenly possessed us all at the same time. We bawled with open eyes and beaming faces, face-to-face with our master, this god of the old world who had quietly guided our little human gatherings and our drunken laughter: a party of fools at the feet of eternity.

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