Thursday, July 21, 2005

watermelon run

Yokozawa-san stepped back to light a cigarette as Kaneko-san and I squeezed the last plastic crate onto the flat bed truck. The late afternoon sky was ribbed with white streaks and framed by the thick, chewy green of mountains in late July. We paused to check the fully packed truck. The crates were stacked three high, four wide, and at least six or seven deep, each one scrawled with the name of the farmer responsible for the contents. Six or seven watermelons to a crate, with two set aside for pumpkins and cucumbers. The payload just edged over the one ton limit written above the license plate. Our bags would have to ride on top, tucked between the top crates and a heavy plastic tarp. I had images of us shooting along the highway, the extra weight throwing us over a curve, skulls and melons bursting on impact, red juices running along the blacktop.

“Try not to get caught!” Yokozawa said, a barky alto laugh squeezing out of his stocky farmer’s body. I didn’t really know what he meant.

I had lived in Isazawa for a few months at the end of last year, staying with the Kaneko family and working at their soba restaurant. Isazawa is an unassuming little valley in Japan’s north country blessed with pristine water and a thick red soil that can run the color of blood when it rains. A few dozen farming families have blanketed the soil with crops; apple orchards, grape lattices and large wooden frames for hops line the rivers and roads. It’s the contracts with department stores and big companies that keep these small farmers alive. Cash crops of hops are sold to Kirin for beer, the apples shipped off to shops and customers who have been buying for generations, and the grapes sold in high end department stores. There may be a few plots of summer vegetables, but most of what makes it to the dinner table will be from the super market.

Kaneko-san is a knotty little gnome of a man, an eccentric among this valley of cash crops farmers with their new Toyotas and remodeled houses. He tends a dozen or so patches of potatoes, pumpkins, corn and soy beans sold for trifles at the local farmers market while his neighbor may simply tend a wide orchard of high grade apples to sell in Tokyo. It’s whispered around the valley that the guy has a lot of money tucked away, saved from years of working in town selling electronics. I had to drag that little bit of information out of him, he doesn’t talk about the past very much, too busy scurrying around on his plots of organic land, trying to better organize the local farmers market, find new markets for Isazawa produce. He is the unofficial head of the farmers cooperative, his eyes always squinting past the myriad of daily chores to an unvoiced goal. He loves this valley, loves the people in it, loves the life they live, and sees it slowly slipping away, the children going to work in factories in town or disappearing into the cities. The farming families of Isazawa have it easier than most folks out in the country, their valley grows fruits of unbelievable quality. But like all small farms they are perched on the edge of an abyss. A new market could mean everything.

With this in mind we’d piled the truck high with crates of watermelons, throwing a few boxes of plums and eggplants pickled by a local housewife. A fresh Japanese watermelon the size of a volleyball can sell for close to ten bucks in Tokyo. Apparently some of the black watermelons from the far north in Hokkaido can go for sixty bucks. Isazawa had never tried to sell their dark heavy melons any farther than the valley, the farmers coop might be able to double their money down in Tokyo, selling better fruit at the same price, no middle man.

We left at the gun running hour of one in the morning, blinking ourselves awake after three hours of sleep. The yellowy moon was just a few slivers shy of being full. There were three of us in the front cab: a pudgy farmwife named Machida squeezed between me and Kaneko-san. She chattered on about mountain roads and what she made for dinner last night while Kaneko squinted behind the steering wheel and I scrunched by the passenger door invent new ways to tie my legs into knots.

Machida didn’t really let up for a few hours, Kaneko nodding through her rambling. I drifted in and out of sleep. We flew through the city of Yonezawa to pick up the freeway, Machida remarking she’d lived here for a little while in high school when her Dad found work near here, but they soon moved back to Isazawa. “But you’ve always lived in Isazawa, right Kaneko-san?” Even though her speech was littered with local phrases it was a lot clearer than most Isazawa folks, who speak with mouths pursed tight, muddying up their words. Local joke is that it’s so cold up here no one wants to open their mouths too wide.

“No, wasn’t born in Isazawa.” My ears perked up at that one. She pressed him on it.
“Born in Manchukuo when the Japanese empire was over there. Dad had a job as a local policeman, was planning to get some land, start a farm. Left when I was about six. Everyone pressing to get out of the country, it was... incredible. Was with my mother and sisters, only met up with my father by chance at the port. Otherwise… who knows. Came back to Isazaawa.” He blinked a few times. Machida made a few comments about how terrible war was and he just nodded. “If Koizumi keeps up with this whole Iraq thing...I just don’t know.”

I woke up to find us jammed on the entrance ramp to a Tokyo freeway, three lanes crammed with morning commuters. The air was thick and wooly, and the sky the color of wet paper. I worried about the fruit jostling behind us, imagined it turning gray in the sticky Tokyo smog. Kaneko was still at the wheel, face still stony and squinting, Machida, hunched over a small library of maps. We trundled off the highway, three rubes and a full ton of melons screeching around Tokyo backstreets on rush hour. We trundled into central Shinjuku, signs and stores screaming at the thousands of commuters pumping in and out of express trains and local buses. We gawked out while waiting at the stop light. Just three days outside this mess made it seem grimy, fresh and terrifying. “If you got everyone together in Isazawa for the summer festival, you still wouldn't...” Kaneko’s voice trailed off.

By nine o’clock we had dropped off Machida and half the produce on a small two way street nestled in a neighborhood of take-out restaurants and apartment blocks. We stacked the crates on a creaking wooden deck fronting a neighborhood bar-restaurant. The door was hung with sign scrawled in red and black magic markers: “Wednesday, July 20th, Watermelons direct from Yamagata!”

Kaneko and I curved through another tangle of one way streets and wrong turns, getting stuck in neighborhoods where not even the cops could give us decent directions. We spent close to forty minutes four blocks from our destination, stuck in a neighborhood designed by a four-year-old drawing a plate of spaghetti. We pulled into the apartment complex over an hour late, the street fair already underway. Between the parking lots and apartment lobbies a tree shaded path was lined with frumpy old women selling juice boxes and handcrafts. The local tenants association had hobbled this little event together, housewives in aprons and wide rimmed hats bowing and smiling as they scurried amid the tarps and folding tables.

We set up quickly across from a sour looking guy selling used clothing on blue tarps. Next to us there was a Chiba farmer with crates of free range eggs and two women in their forties selling organic teas and flavored honeys. As soon as we set down our crates we were swarmed by gaggles of housewives, the older grandmas thumping the bottom of melons listening for irregularities, younger moms with toddlers watching on. They squinted at the melons, trying to figure out just how big they could buy and still have it fit into the fridge between the cabbage and the daikon.

Once the fuss had died down we cut up a few samples, laying out thick slices on a tray. Kaneko-san excused himself and went back to the truck to collapse for an hour or so, leaving me to make change and pull in the customers with a lilting voice. “Fresh watermelons, straight from Yamagata! Try a slice of these delicious watermelons!” A skinny old guy with shock white hair and coke-bottle glasses shuffled up to me, staring at the melons and pumpkins and the skinny white guy behind them. “You come all the way from the states to sell these watermelons?” he asked me in nearly flawless English. Kids on summer vacation eyed the watermelon slices shyly and checked with me two or three times that it was really okay to try one. The grandmas weren’t as shy, munching on the samples and delicately spitting seeds into a plastic bin.
Eyes widened at the taste, sweet and rich as candy. We’ve all grown used to sucking the watery juice from feeble pink footballs, but these watermelons were a whole ‘nother animal. Little kids giggled and chewed down to the rind, breaking into little arguments over whether it was sweeter than a watermelon lollipop. Old folks sighed, “I haven’t had a watermelon like this in years...”

By four o’clock we were left counting bills among stacks of empty crates. The egg man had sold all his produce a few hours before and left with a flurry of bows and name cards passed around. The women selling organic teas gave us a free packs of locally grown Darjeeling and a pamphlet for their natural foods store.

By five we were back with Machida at the restaurant, packing empty crates and leftovers onto the truck. The same scooters and sedans we’d tangled with that morning flying back in the opposite direction, missing us by finger breadths as we fastened down the tarp. Once the truck was safely parked at a friend’s place and we’d washed our faces the three of us tumbled into the restaurant into a small sideroom with a low wooden table and a “Reserved” sign. We sat down to chilled mugs of beer and platters of raw fish with a smattering of friends and partners who had helped to put the watermelon run together. I found myself next to a graduate student in environmental agriculture I’d met at Kaneko-san’s last October and I harangued him into explain exactly what he was studying, which he was all hedgy about. “Actually, it’s all super specialized, I don’t quite get it yet,” he said sheepishly.

Kaneko was soon onto cups of chilled sake and plying a local friend on the best places to find wild mushrooms in Saitama, his face occasionally twisting into a gnarly smile. The conversation swung to liquor brands, with the student and I trying to decipher how to read the names of the different sake brands. I asked Kaneko which one he thought would be good and his face scrunched the way it does when he’s checking the ripeness of pumpkins. “I don’t really think brands mean that much,” he said, his voice slipping to the muddy Isazawa accent he’d been suppressing all day. “If it’s made locally, fresh, the day before, it’ll be good sake.” He started munching on a piece of fried eggplant, which was tasteless next to the gorgeous purple chunks we’d eaten with our dinner the night before. The talk turned to good liquor stores in Tokyo, wandering into soccer, sumo and places to go in northern Japan as our heads grew heavier.
The grad student and I had trains to catch, gathering our bags together. Kaneko saw us off at the door, handing us each a couple of watermelons that could also be used as bowling balls before eating. He came out to point the way to the station, and I asked why he seemed to know this neighborhood so well.

“Lived here for three years when I was younger. Worked in a factory over there making motorcycle parts. It’s an apartment complex now. So yeah, thanks for today, take care, bye bye.” He ducked back into the restaurant with a gnarly smile as the student and I glanced at each other, eyes wide. We talked about him as we staggered down to the station, hands loaded with fruit, heads heavy with sake.

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