If you need an honest opinion about whether you've put on weight, Japanese people will deliver every time.
Take for example my recent return to dance practice in Tokushima. I turn up to Tensui-ren's practice at the local temple carpark one balmy evening last month, and the first thing out of the mouths of most people in the group was, "Dave, did you put on weight?!"
Some people softened the blow with the follow-up comment "Shiawase-na futori ya na" - which equates to the fattening of a happily married man, and is probably on the money. One or two thought I looked a little bigger and stronger, a bit like my very solidly built brother (who they've met), which sounds much better than "fatter". Everyone was kind enough to otherwise seem happy to see me again.
So I could only accept the comments with grace. And get on with dancing to whip my long disused muscles back into shape and try to shake those love handles.
I only had a week or so of actual practice to get into some sort of dancing shape before it was time to don the yukata in earnest. But my first performance was not in Tokushima, the veritable Mecca of Awa Odori. Instead it was at another festival half way across the country on the tsunami-devastated north-eastern coast.
Joining a bunch of dancers and dongers from a variety of different groups, I jetted, bussed and bullet trained my way to Sendai city, about 3 hours train ride north of Tokyo. Sendai is a scant hundred kilometres from Fukushima's nuclear disaster zone. The image of Sendai's airport being inundated and planes being washed away was one of the first I can recall seeing when news of the tsunami flitted around the globe back in March. Nearly five months later, we were heading to this busy town of over a million people to lift some spirits and spread a little happiness, Awa Odori style.
Straight off the train, we danced in the street in front of our hotel, then jumped on another bus to visit a kasetsu juutaku, temporary housing for people who lost their own homes. We danced at a couple of such places, amidst rows and rows of demountable buildings set up in camps on sports grounds or old school sites. The families living there seemed grateful to see us, and I think we duly managed to bring a little joy into their difficult lives.
The next day we danced in the festival proper, Sendai's famous Tanabata Matsuri. If I wasn't in dancing shape before I arrived, dancing in the heat of the day on stage and down a 170m arcade was bound to do the trick. The locals were generally unfamiliar with Awa Odori, but I think that just made them more appreciative. We all had a good time and personally I got a lot out of the experience of being on tour with people who live and breathe Awa Odori.
But of course we couldn't visit a place like Sendai without going to see the after effects of the tsunami, the literal ground zero. Doing it taxi style meant we had the driver's local perspective on what happened. The bulk of the wave was stopped by a built-up section of highway a kilometre or two in from the shore. On the inland side, there was a bit of garbage and the occasional derelict car, but buildings were generally intact. On the seaward side, there wasn't much left.
More piles of garbage, more random car wrecks. Concrete foundations of buildings, occasionally the actual shell of a house or gas stand. Plots that might have been rice fields now ruined and empty. In the distance, near the sea, a mountain with cranes moving around on it, which we were told is actually a mountain of rubbish that is simply being pushed together in one place so it can be dealt with. We couldn't go near it because roads are still closed in some areas that are considered too dangerous to access or are being protected from looting. Five months later, forget about rebuilding, they are still cleaning up. It's hard to comprehend how all that used to be standing in that place was washed away. And hard not to fearfully realise as you're driving along that you are driving on roads that were under six metres of churning ocean a scant few months ago. Fortunately the joy of dancing was close at hand to chase away these fleeting nightmares.
No sooner were we on the train back home than our exploits could already be found on YouTube. Sign of the times! The comment below this first one describes the cameraman's surprise when a big foreigner appeared dancing down the arcade - the repeat frames of me reinforce the impact, I guess!
This second one is of our stage performance. I didn't even notice during the performance that one of our girls hit the deck. Full credit to her, she got back up, turned on the smile and carried on!
And here's two more for good measure:
While we're at it, see if you can find me in these videos from the main festival in Tokushima:
Of course, I couldn't spend a month of summer in Japan without hitting the river for a good time with the crew at Happy Raft. After a couple of typhoons and plenty of rain in June, the Yoshino River had just come down to a nice level again by the time we arrived. Between dance practice, the festival and the recovery, I managed to head out west twice, both times jumping in a little boat by myself to cruise down the small rapids on the upper stretch of the river. The second time down I got to test out "mini-me", a 2-man raft the same shape as the big boats, rounder than the long inflatable kayak that is the usual for a 1-man paddle. I'll tell you, it's not easy to get a raft down the river by yourself with a single-bladed paddle, but it was a fun time!
In total I danced 2 days in Sendai, 1 in Naruto, and 3-and-a-bit in Tokushima city. We also headed out to Ikeda to watch the last day of dancing out west and see if any old friends from Minoda-ren and the valley were still around. Sure enough, quite a few familiar faces. It was all good baby!
Speaking of babies, I wasn't the only chubby foreigner dancing on the streets of Tokushima this year. Our 13-month old boy Ryo took to it with a passion, too. Whenever the sound of ringing gongs and beating drums (or even a spoon clinking on a glass!) wafted past Ryo's ears, both arms went up into the air and he started bouncing on his little legs before running off in search of the nearest group of dancers to invade. He loves it and it's a source of great joy for Masumi and I to see him in action. Now the only problem is whether he ends up dancing with Masumi's group Uzuki-ren or with my Tensui-ren!
Also speaking of babies, we spent a lot of our time in Japan meeting up with friends and family to tell them some good news - baby number two is on the way! We don't know whether it's a boy or a girl yet, but Masumi is due to give birth some time in January. Watch this space!
Adding to the excitement, and also to the pressure, is the fact that work on our new house has just started this week. The thin layer of grass and soil has been stripped away, leaving only dirt that has been pounded hard and flat. Next up should be drainage and a concrete slab. Then it's the race to get it done by Christmas - otherwise, it'll be the wet season, and the black hole of holidays into the New Year, and the baby will be due... there's some kinds of mayhem I'd rather avoid!
Fortunately, my work as a public servant shouldn't contribute to the mayhem, especially now that I've secured a permanent full-time position here in Cairns. The last six months or so have been a flurry of applications and interviews for positions in Canberra, and subsequent negotiations to be outposted in Cairns. Finally, the NAQS program decided that an in-house capacity to manage data and IT issues was necessary on an ongoing basis. I interviewed for the position by phone from Japan, in the midst of our holiday, and must have done enough to convince the panel that I'm the man for the job.
So with a new house, new baby and new job, it looks like we're set for being in Cairns for a year or two yet. If we can set ourselves up to visit Japan for a month or two each northern summer, we'll be living the dream.
While we were away, Masumi and I celebrated two years since our wedding and three years of legal marriage. We also received some great news - Masumi has earned her permanent residency in Australia. The saga that started with Masumi getting booted out of the country is finally, really and truly, at an end. We don't even get a second look from immigration officers at the border these days. It's no small relief to know that we can now just focus on getting on with our lives together.
The final thing I noted between all the fun of Tokushima's festival season was that it has been exactly ten years since I first set foot on Shikoku. A decade since I first took the long, spectacular drive out to Iya; took my first clumsy dancing steps with Arasowa-ren under the bright lights of Aibahama; took the steep hike up to the Amagoi waterfall with all my fellow JETs in Kamiyama; and first started to
write this blog. It really hit home for me when Masumi, Ryo and I hiked up to Amagoi with some friends the day before we were due to fly out.
It's a little bit spiritual up at the top of the main waterfall there. I couldn't help but spend a moment thinking about all the wonders of my time in Japan and how my life has changed since 2001. I whispered a few words of thanks to any of the spirits who might have been listening before we hiked back down. It started to rain just as we got to the bottom - which I like to think was an appropriate answer from a waterfall named “rain dance”.
Thanks, Japan, it's been good. 'Til next time, love,