The straw donkey was about as big as I was, but the two straw humans balanced on his back wouldn’t have reached my knee. They had been woven with a quick and crude artistry, arms sticking straight out to either side, the woman with two lumps on her chest. They were riding through the basement of the Matsumoto Museum and Cultural Heritage Center, perched on a little roped off pedestal. Next to them was a large black-and-white photograph of the icon being borne out of the village by a wave of weary looking old village folk. The men wore baseball caps with farm equipment logos and the women had tied back their hair with polka dotted bandannas. The tour guide must have been the same age as the farmers in the photograph, but her smooth skin and elegant bowl of silver hair radiated a life of philosophy seminars and nine-to-five days.
“This is a ritual still enacted in some of the more rural towns in these parts. The old people of the village will weave an old man, an old woman and a beast for them to ride from rice husks left over from the harvest. The icon is then carried out of the village and set aflame. This was done in the hope that it would appease death for that year and not come for any of them.”
Death, or their grandkids.
The Cultural Heritage Center was in a flat scrubbed concrete building that looked like it had been built to be as anonymous as possible. Maybe the architect was intimidated by the neighborhood. Right next door was one of Japan’s all time coolest castles: Matsumoto-jo, “The Raven Castle, a black obsidian fang of a tower that reached up and split the Nagano sky.
An extant Japanese castle is a rare thing, a great pile of timber that has somehow tricked its way through several hundred years of lightning storms, earthquakes, sieges, anti-feudal wrath and spontaneous combustion. Those that have made it through seem a little bewildered about what the hell they should be doing. There they are, propped on the highest hill, paper tigers commanding cities that ignore them. The tourists that fill them look a little confused as well, gingerly stepping through the lord’s chambers and squinting at the explanatory plaques posted here and there. The inside of a castle gets real old real quick: once you’ve seen the holes used for dropping things on people the rest is just cold floors and staircases. They spruced this one up a bit with a little exhibit on the history of guns in Japan. There was an extremely useful chart with the names of lords and the date that they got their hands on guns. There was a lovely drawing of a coterie of courtly ladies gossiping and forging bullets. The sign said that bullet forging was women’s work, right along with nursing.
There were men in baseball caps and gloves to direct traffic on the stairs. Being a castle, the stairs (or “ladders” as we call them in the West) were designed more for invader-hacking than for tourist-strolling. Old ladies with massive rear ends sweated and giggled as they tottered down, the traffic conductors always ready to jump in the way and cushion a fall. If you were fit enough to make it to the very top you were rewarded with a lovely view of the town of Matsumoto, nestled in the mountains, every apartment block steadfastly ignoring the castle. Somewhere in the slant of the windows and the dizzying height you could feel the arrogance of this place, this black tower built to look down on cowed peasants, this onyx blade to tear at the edge of their vision. The city now sat with its back to the keep. You could buy postcards, keychains and black castle cookies in the gift shop.
I had lunch at a local restaurant that handmade buckwheat soba noodles for the tourists. The rich Nagano soil makes for good buckwheat and famous soba noodles, so I felt I should have a plate before I left. Buckwheat was about six months out of season, so the noodles tasted pretty much the same as everywhere else, but we all packed in anyway. I sat at the counter and watched as two high school kids tried to navigate their first day on the job, forgetting to bring cups of tea, getting snarked at on every side by the cooks and the senior waitresses who had probably been doing this their whole lives.
Back at the train station the hikers were swarming around the coin lockers and the bus queues leaving the castles and the shopping to the tourists with large asses. I collected my stuff, bought some fruit, a loaf of bread and a hunk of locally produced cheese at a supermarket and bought a bus ticket to the mountains.