Episode 09: Earth Celebration
- Ara! Mite!
- Na...nan da? Hikooki? Tori? Tonderu nattoo n ja nai naa?

Well, if it's not a flying bowl of nattoo, then what is the
Earth Celebration?  To make a long story short, it's a three-day
festival centering on Japanese drumming (wa-daiko), held yearly
at Sado-ga-shima Island; you can read all about it at the WWW site
This year was my turn to go there, and hence this week is your turn
to read about it.

So, having set my alarm to wake me up at a thoroughly disgusting
7 AM, I set off for the general direction of the Kan-etsu
Expressway.  Getting there took me no less than 4.5 hours --
see the upcoming supplement for why -- but get there I did, and
upon arrival I did something unheard of in Japan: I started
hitchhiking.  For the next 40 minutes, I stood under the blazing
sun with my arm erected in the imperial pose recommended by my
bible, the Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan.  Lots of cars passed,
most drivers looking at me quizzically, some even slowing down
to take a better look, one van packed full of girls all waving
and thumb-upping back at me (take me on board, dammit!), but no luck.
I was just beginning to contemplate a lunch break, when suddenly
a car pulled up and a window rolled down.  THGTJ was right about
the first question: "Doko made?"  Surprised, I stuttered out that
towards Niigata but anywhere along this road is fine; my driver
said he's going to Kuma, which I'd never heard of, but which was
fine with me.  And off we went!

So I ended up in the battered (by Japanese standards) car of a
young Japanese couple, both very much into jungle and rap music.
Cruising down the highway at 150 km/h (the limit was 70, but there
were plenty of cars passing us anyway), we talked haltingly in
Japanese, introducing ourselves and even managing to crack a joke
or two.  About an hour later, I was left off at a parking area,
where I had a quick yakisoba lunch.  I moved to a good-looking spot,
awaiting another half-hour wait, but this time I didn't even get
my thumb in the air before a car pulled up and beckoned me in!
This time, the driver was going to Nagaoka, some 50km from Niigata,
and eventually (despite my gentle, but not too insistent, protests)
he ended up taking me all the way to the ferry terminal in Niigata.
His wife was from the Philippines and he had just taken her to
Narita.  Several hundred breathtakingly beautiful kilometers down
the road -- you have no idea how amazing the Japan Alps look after
2 months of Tokyo -- I was deposited right at the Sado Kisen
terminal's doorstep, having spent less than 2500 yen to get there
from Tokyo (and most of that on one 1800 yen taxi ride).

Despite my early morning delay, I was very well on schedule and
took the 18:20 ferry from Niigata to Ryotsu on Sado Island.
The ride went uneventfully, although I was delighted at the wall-to-
wall thick carpet provided even in the cheap-ass class.  Correctly
realizing that it would be a cold night, I <cough> borrowed a
100-yen blanket to substitute for a sleeping bag, which provided
to be a lifesaver.

By the time I got there it was close to 21.  I went to check the
bus schedules, only to find out that at this time of night they
had stopped running and the town was deserted...  except for
a similarly stranded expat couple also headed for the EC and
looking for the place to stay.  An instant camaderie ensued and
Damond, Paulina & I set off in the general direction of Kyampu
Kisaki-jo, an entirely obscure camping area mentioned in THGTJ
but nowhere else.  Based on quick extrapolations I thought
it'd be about 2 km away, within walking distance, but after
half an hour of trudging along the entirely deserted streets of
Ryotsu we stopped at a ryokan to ask for directions.  It's a
good thing we did, since the place turned out to be 15 minutes
away by taxi, deep in the forest.  The campground, if you can
call it one, consisted of a tiny shrine on a little cape jutting
out into the large lake next to Ryotsu, bordered on both sides
by Sado's two central mountain chains.  Every other place of
lodging on the island may have been full, but the idyllic little
campground was ours alone.  A smoky fire, a bottle of wine and a box
of crackers later we settled down and slept in the shade of the shrine.
The night was bitterly cold and I dozed fitfully, but eventually the
morning dawned and within minutes the tent heated up under the
warm sun.

'Twas time to get going, so a short hike and a short taxi ride
later we found ourselves on Route 350, thumbs up in the air.
We had 10 minutes until the bus came, so we tried our luck, and
just as the bus came into sight a large van stopped and the driver
waved us in.  A software engineer, he had lived in California
and used to hitchhike there, so he felt it was his duty to return
the favor -- indeed, when Paulina offered him a 1000-yen bill for
his troubles, he (predictably) refused and said we should just do
the same someday.  We left our stuff (unguarded: hey, this is
Japan!) at the Sawata bus station and grabbed a quick breakfast.
Then yet another bus, this time one packed with other gaijin all
on their way to Ogi.  The entire Niigata-area English teacher
contingent had turned out in force and D&P knew most of them,
so I was assigned to teach them handy phrases of Finnish like
"yöpöytä", "hääyöaie" and "meille vai teille?".  An hour of twisty
little mountain roads later we arrived at our final destination.

Well, almost.  Everything may have been happening at Ogi, but
the nearest Official CampgroundTM was at Sobama, on the other
side of the peninsula.  Having driven 15 minutes to get to the
official area, which would've cost 1300 yen a pop, we all promptly
camped out right next to it on the gorgeous white sandy beach, for
free.  By now the sun was blazing in the clear blue sky and some
people were even going swimming in the frigid waters.  But no time
to rest, it was time to get back to Ogi before the concerts started.
I had a leisurely lunch at a lively little izakaya (delicious if
salty and impossible-to-eat-with-chopsticks grilled fish) and
then headed up to Shiroyama-koen for the evening's concert,
featuring as main star Sado's own Kodo with as side attraction the
Red Willow Dancers from New Mexico.

A word about the setting.  The EC organizers had, on purpose,
limited each concert to 1000 people so all music could be performed
acoustically.  The "venue" was simply a stage in the hill-top park,
with a large grass field for people to sit on.  The show opened
off with Kodo and RWD marching onstage, but Kodo left as quickly
as they came and left RWD alone on stage.  And, with all due
respect, they were a pretty sad show.  Musically, the group
consisted of a guy beating one beat on one drum while chanting
"Heeyahoohoo" and lots of people with jingling bells in their pants,
while most dances consisted of morose people shuffling about on stage
dressed in extremely touristy versions of Indian outfits (we're
talking enough faux eagle feathers to stuff a pillow here).
Now, head honcho Benito Concha himself was a different matter, as was
flutist Mazatl Galindo when he was allowed to shine, but the rest of
the group seemed to consist of offspring, wives and parents dragged
along because they couldn't get anybody else.

The end of RWD's part was elegantly signaled by a drop-dead gorgeous
Japanese girl clad simply in a white kimono with a blood-red obi,
who glided up to the stage and made the RWD look even more like
clowns.  Soon afterward 5 people in samurai gear and a few Kodo
drummers appeared on stage.  After a short but stunning solo
dance by the girl, the samurai pulled out their katana -- real,
sharp and deadly -- and started performing an impossibly intricately
choreographed dance with swords slicing everywhere.  Astonishingly,
they managed to complete it without decapitating anybody and
then, finally, Kodo's show started.

Without further ado, the stage was cleared and the 2-meter-wide
o-daiko was rolled on stage, with two men clad only in loincloths
poised on both sides.  On cue, the man in front lifted up one
of the logs he was using for a drumstick and let loose an
thundering BOOM.  And again.  And again.  Backed by the other guy,
who was drumming a steady rhythm, the main player downright
attacked the o-daiko, banging away with skill, dexterity and above
all brute FORCE for over twenty minutes, face turning red and
muscles bulging, as the taiko connoisseurs cheered and female
audience members wet their panties.

And this was only the beginning.  For the next hour, Kodo played
a non-stop series of group pieces, which were either impossibly
well choreographed down to the last move or impossibly well
improvised on the fly without a single mistake.  Almost all Kodo
members had short-cropped hair, but the two who didn't were clearly
the leaders: one, an older man with a shaved head, excelled in
the brute force and technical skill department, whereas a much
younger ponytailed fellow did the improvising and fancy drum tricks.
But most striking was the attitude difference: from a mile away it
was obvious that every member of Kodo loved doing what they were
doing and the enthusiasm was contagious, with the audience
clapping with the rhythm, gasping in wonder and shouting
encouragement.  Towards the end, Kodo moved towards more comical
pieces, doing astonishing theme song renditions and sound effects,
culminating in what I can only describe as a hilarious wordless
comedy show consisting of RWD flutist Mazatl and assorted Kodo people
showing off technical skill, with Mazatl -- among other things --
stuffing his flute up his nose and playing a tune at one point.
At the very end, everybody came off stage, joined hands with
concertgoers and formed massive people chains circling the
concert area, still playing and dancing without missing a beat.
Eventually, the players snuck off and I left to get a quick
pseudo-Chinese meal of Eight Treasures set in cornstarch jello
sauce with rice.

The concert was over, but back at Sobama beach the party was only
starting, with people gathering around a bonfire and committing
various acts of pyromania.  I had earlier surreptiously moved my
dandy-handy ever-ready Pop-TentTM to the paid camping area
(doomo arigatoo gozaimashita to Jenni-chan for lending hers)
away from the beer-induced noise of the beach area, so when it
started to drizzle rain I retired back to the tent and, having
convinced myself that it was waterproof, went to sleep.
Needless to say, I woke up at 2 AM to find that it was downright
pouring outside and most definitely dripping down inside.  After
quick action to secure valuables from the water and considering
various plans, I decided that a captain mustn't abandon his ship;
instead, I shifted my tent into a nearby little grill shelter of
sorts.  Even after disposing of a large log and other junk in
the way the tent didn't fit all the way, but it was good enough,
and after half an hour of emergency repairs the water already
inside was sufficiently well contained for me to go back to bed.
Thankfully it was less cold that night, so despite my damp clothes
I stayed warmer than the previous night (of course, being in a
place sheltered from wind on 3 sides helped -- one of the tents on
the beach was blown away to sea by the wind!), and in the morning
I even gathered up the mental fortitude (lunacy?) to take my first
shower since Friday morning.  The fortitude was required since,
despite me forking out 100 yen, the shower machine certainly wasn't
going to heat the water...

The morning was then spent temple-tramping in the outskirts of Ogi;
be sure to check out the An-something-ji complex if you ever
go there.  Lunch was at the same place as yesterday, a superb
crispy tonkatsu teishoku prepared on demand, like everything else
in the shop.  After a free performance of ondaiko (demon drumming),
where I was amused to note that the demon's hair was made blonde
and long to be as scary as possible, it was time for the next
concert, once again Kodo & RWD (whaddaya mean, I'm a Kodo freak?
Hey, the tickets were 'only' 4200 yen apiece!).  Missing one
key player, RWD managed to look even more pathetic than the
previous day, whereas Kodo was even more amazing.  At one point,
every single Kodo member was on stage, jamming away for over
15 minutes, changing melodies and patterns constantly and never
missing a beat.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, so 15 minutes
before the end of the concert I beat a hasty retreat, collected
my junk, purchased last-minute omiyage and made it to the last ferry
with a few minutes to spare, just in time to run into Damond &
Paulina again.  The blanket that mysteriously disappeared off the
Niigata-Ryotsu ship magically reappeared onto this one.  Once we
got to Naoetsu, I had 38 minutes to catch my connecting train, so we
figured we'd walk the "few" blocks.  Needless to say, I got to the
station with 8 minutes left to buy a 3-stage express/shinkansen/local
ticket from Naoetsu to Meguro via Yuzawa Onsen and Ueno, but
fortunately automation saved the day and a single button press combined
with a 10000-yen bill produced the desired result.  Three hours and
three hundred kilometers of tunnels later I was home, with 40,000 yen
reduced to a mild sunburn, the obligatory T-shirt and some great memories.
Plus, of course, the weekend's top T-shirt slogan:

                    "Jovial Unit Model Simply Yearning"

I'm Plaza,

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