musings travel

Around the World in 80 Days: Day 53, Return of the Fluids

This post could be called many things: The Oni Cafe, The Best People in the World Live in Onishi (and/or Read this Blog), Why Wasn’t I Born a Japanese Person?, Satan Created Goodbyes, I Adopted a Japanese Grandfather, Kurumi is Actually a Bear… I could go on.  It’s a big wrap-up of my stay in Japan though there will still be a few more posts about Japan before I’m done with this blog series.  Alas, this post is titled Return of the Fluids for foreshadowy reasons.  (Also, Fluids 2: Bigger, Badder and More Watery was messing with my website search engine optimization…)

On my last day in Onishi, I cleaned, packed, and ran errands on foot all over town.  Ryder and I were in no big hurry to get to Tokyo so we settled in for lunch and coffee at the Oni cafe. Fluid #1. When I first got to Onishi, Kjell Hahn, the grand poobah of the Shiro Oni art residency, recommended that I swing by the Oni Cafe to put my finger on the pulse of the town.  Boy am I glad I took that advice!  The residents are encouraged to go to this cafe because the owner, Mina Yanagihara, speaks English.  Many English speaking locals like to come to the cafe to meet the artists and it was here that I would meet the people I now hold so dear.

Frequenting this charming place on an average of four times a week, I quickly figured out that Mina has a daily lunch special and cheesecake.  I made it a practice to eat here and didn’t care what she made – I was gonna eat it.  The food is always great and it’s a precious commodity too.  She only makes twelve lunches a day so I made sure to be one of the recipients!  As an added bonus she works with the most pleasant Buddha-like face when she’s cooking.  Mina roasts her own beans and makes eye-popping special blends. Ryder and I are coffee snobs and her select coffee had us making involuntary and inappropriate grunts and sighs.

This is Mina processing my asking her if I was going to have to say forbidden cuss words to make her laugh.

As I became a permanent fixture in the cafe, Mina and I chatted more and more. We found out that we’re practically the same person on two separate continents so it didn’t take long for us to be very comfortable with each other.  Her greeting when I walked through the door was always jubilant.  It was like my own Cheers in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Japan!

Taking great pride in what she does, Mina literally goes the extra mile to collect mountain spring water for the cafe.  Fluid #2.  We went with her and drove up and up through more of the windiest roads I’ve ever seen, just like the roads to the washi factory.  Magically, I did not get carsick.  Just when I thought we were surely at the top of the mountain, we weren’t at the top of the mountain.  This happened about eight times and each time I pretty much asked, “Are we there yet?”  Usually the answer was “no” until the very last time.  Then we were there.

It smells just like you think it does.  Piney fresh. 

See the face in the rocks?

The water tastes better than any water I’ve ever had.  Thank you, Mina, for playing such a major part in this incredible experience in Japan.

Another person I became very attached to is Horiguchi-san.  I didn’t get to chat with him much because he knows about as much English as I know Japanese but it was always worth using the translation app to chat with him.  He’d laugh every time I’d ask him an excited question.  Did I mention he was eighty freaking years old?  Let me tell you something: I’ve never seen an eighty year old man do the things Horiguchi-san is able to do.  Shit, I mean… not even I do half the things he does and I’m half his age!  This man is constantly working.  If he’s not on the phone he’s weed-eating for Shiro Oni.  If he’s not building a bench he’s running a ryokan.  If he’s not rebuilding and painting a stage he’s my personal calligraphy slave.  Let me explain.  I saw him writing calligraphy one day and the idea hit me that I could ask him to write some for me to put on my fans.  I came up with four phrases for him to write without knowing how incredibly complicated the translation process is.  It took two hours to translate and write “Privacy is Dead,” “Privacy Flows Away,” “Night Watcher,” and “Hidden.”  There are actually many different ways in which these phrases could be written so he made countless practice runs.  I was embarrassed that I had asked such a favor of him.  I mentioned this to the locals in the nearby room but they said Horiguchi-san is happiest when he is doing favors for people.

Here’s Horiguchi-san and me.  I’m as happy as a clam here.  I still may have him shipped home to Texas.

At his ryokan, Horiguchi-san has a private onsen.  There’s a larger public onsen near town but I have a couple of tattoos in the way.  Because the Yakuza are typically covered in tattoos, onsens have a pretty strict “no tattoos” rule.  It probably keeps out a lot of douchey foreigners as well (I’m talking about Americans here…) but many of us slightly less douchey tattooed travelers also have to miss out on a really nice experience.  Horiguchi-san to the rescue.  He scheduled an evening just for the residents and some of the tattoo friendly locals to take part in hot spring water.  Fluid #3.  He even had sweets and drinks available for us after we got out.  I did not expect the onsen to be quite so hot so I only lasted for about fifteen minutes in there.  There were nice little shower stations where you could cool off if needed.  A wonderful experience.

Horiguchi-san was always doing considerate things like chopping bamboo for me, giving me giant Asian pears, and giving me a daifuku that he couldn’t fit into his eating schedule.  Such a sweet and amazing man.  I will miss him so much.  Arigato gozaimasu, Horiguchi-san.

Another character in town who stood out is Tadaaki Hachisu.  He’s the one who taught the very first workshop on how to make uchiwa.  (Remember the fans?)  Tadaaki was often at the coffee shop at the same time so I had many interesting conversations with him about his life.  He is a local farmer who in the past farmed chickens until a freak snowstorm ruined all of his coops.  Changing his strategy he now grows soybeans and he often sells them to the soy factory I wrote about in a previous post.  This year there was more rain than usual and his crops were ruined.  This left him spending a lot of his time weeding his fields so he was more than happy to take a break to help me out with something.  He chopped more bamboo for me, showed me how to make a different kind of fan, helped me find quality tools at the flea market, and made two incredible shirts out of tenugui for me.  I bought a metric shit-ton of tenugui at the flea market and brought my faves to Tadaaki to have him choose which ones to make the shirts out of.

This is the front and the back of one of the shirts.  They are reversible.  The bold writing on the back, in this case, is a former Prime Minister’s name.  The coin pattern on the front just happened to be one of the Prime Minister’s favorite patterns. Who knew Prime Ministers had favorite patterns?  This shirt got a lot of attention wherever I went.  Tadaaki chose well.

He also did a mochi pounding demo at the art festival.

Here’s Ryder and Tadaaki pounding mochi.  In between mallet strikes, Tadaaki puts water on the mochi.  Fluid #4. (Yes. yesssss.  I’m stretching here.)  Here’s what it looks like when you go fast.  Yep – Ryder and Tadaaki totally did that.

Here’s Tadaaki blowing on a fire to boil some edamame picked fresh from the farm.  Best edamame I’ve ever had.

He also offered to do a shibori dying workshop from the indigo grown in his own fields.  I whimpered a little bit because I’ve been wanting to learn to do this for a long, long time and have been searching for nice shibori curtains and a bedspread for months.  Months!  But I decided that I should stop asking him for favors because he would never say no.  I will try to tackle this task at home.  Thank you, Tadaaki, for all of the time invested in me.

While I didn’t meet Yasuko Takada at the Oni Cafe, she did fill in there on Sundays.  As you know, she was another major player in the Japanese chapter of my life.  Every time I stopped by her store, On y Va, I was offered coffee.  I stopped by often.  Yasuko was integral in getting my belly dance classes off the ground by asking her friends to come.  She herself belly danced in Malaysia for a year and a half!  I didn’t pack a coin scarf, so not only did Yasuko get one for me, she got several for the rest of the class to jingle jangle!  It was awesome.  I taught four packed classes and had a blast.

Yasuko is also part of the local equestrian society and she loves horses.  Listening to her talk about horses is magical.  The Japanese have a very different way of viewing these animals.  For example, she talks about how she feels strength by merely listening to the horse breathe.  On Sunday the society brought a horse to the festival grounds and Yasuko was very happy.  Here’s us with the horse!

Yasuko is not that short.  She’s in a bit of a lunge to make herself a little shorter because the horse was so self-conscious about his height. 

Also extremely happy here!  You can see my neck working overtime to support all of the happiness in my head.  Thank you so much, Yasuko, for exhausting me with happiness.

Later, for the big wrap-up party, there may or may not have been some sake involved.  Fluid #5.  Man the sake is good here.  The whole art festival and show takes place yearly in an old sake brewery.  Super cool.

All the way back to the present in the Oni Cafe, it was time to say goodbye.  Yep.  Good old tears.  Fluid #6.  I’m a bit too emotional to make this funny.  I’d been busy thinking about baseball and garage door openers and kittens as it got closer and closer to time to say goodbye.  When I could avoid it no longer I stood up to say goodbye to Horigushi-san who had just arrived at the cafe.  The tears started gushing and I nearly crushed dear Horiguchi-san with my hug as I sobbed, Japanese customs and etiquette be damned.  (I did ask around before I did it to see if it would be acceptable though.)  It was excruciating to say bye to the group that had quietly gathered at the cafe.  Aiba-chan, Mina, the Watanabes, Kurumi, and anyone else in the vicinity got tearful hugs in addition to my adopted Japanese grandfather.  They… told me… that they would wait for me… which is one of the most incredible ways to be told goodbye.

Then I had to go say bye to Yasuko.  The look on my face must have been horrible when I walked into her shop.  I’m sure she thought something was wrong.  Well, it was.  I had to say goodbye.  In one more selfless act, Yasuko offered to take Ryder and I to the bus stop.  We had each gained a large extra bag from all the stuff I accumulated in Japan, including the remaining fans I made that hadn’t been traded off.  The drive to the station is thirty minutes and I was grateful not only for an easier trip (in place of wrangling all the luggage onto the bus) but I was grateful for that extra time with Yasuko.

Whenever I return to Japan, and I will return, Onishi is a must on my itinerary.

Totally not crying right now,



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