DAY ONE: The Arrival
There I was, 37,000 feet above ground on my first international flight, trying to concentrate on Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars” but failing miserably, in fact getting antsier and antsier by the minute, all because I couldn’t get my mind off one thing: chopsticks.
I mean, the dude next to me could be a religious nut with a sinister plot, but all that worried me on that humdrum flight en route to Japan was: How am I going to eat?
So it has come to this, I brooded darkly as we began our nighttime descent to Kansai International Airport. The ghost of countless missed opportunities to learn the damn thing has come to haunt me.
But apprehensions like that tend to vanish in the face of pulchritude. Zooming on a freeway inside a rented bus that was taking us to Sakai City, I marveled at the newness of everything: a highway that was already deserted at 9 p.m., wide sidewalks empty of moving things, a vast carpet of lights that was probably the entire Osaka prefecture flickering under a moonless sky. And as if those were not enough, the crisp autumn air that greeted us when we alighted from the bus drove home the fact that, after 34 years, I am finally a tourist in another country.
At the Hotel Agora Regency, a quick late dinner showed me my in-flight gastronomic concern was unfounded: They have spoon and fork! I hit the sack on that first night thinking, problem solved!
DAY TWO: Everything Zen
The question: Why am I in Sakai?
It was actually more for work than play. Every year, the local government of Sakai, the second largest city in the Osaka prefecture (next to Osaka City), holds the Sakai-ASEAN Week.
Among the activities is inviting journalists from several ASEAN countries (Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines) for a week-long cultural tour of the sprawling port city. I was one of the four Filipino media representatives for this year’s event.
The first of five days’ worth of morning-to-afternoon activities was a visit to a Buddhist temple to witness a Noh play, Noh being a Japanese performance art that’s been around for over 600 years.
At the Takakuraji Buddhist Temple, Noh master Gozo Nagayama lectured us on the art form, complete with a performance and a presentation of masks that according to him were a hundred years old. There was also a black bamboo flute that was and could not be tuned do-re-mi style. When played, it made a shrill one-note sound that is more akin to a dying cry of something subhuman than anything that comes out of a wind instrument.
Equally fascinating was the chubby male performer – the youngest in the group of four, including Nagayama – who donned layers of garments and a mask to resemble a woman. Think Kabuki, only Noh is much older, we were told. In place of a samurai sword, a Noh performer uses a paper fan called ohi, folding and unfolding it in graceful, dramatic gestures.
It was already pushing late afternoon when we left the Takakuraji Temple. After a short briefing of succeeding activities at the hotel, we were back at our respective rooms, sucking in the opulence and abusing the wifi connection, which was thankfully decent.
DAY THREE: A country for old men
In Japan, old people outnumbers the young, posing an economic dilemma. In Sakai alone, 189,380 of its 842,539 population as of January 2013 were aged 65 years and above. We met about 20 of them this morning, on their bi-weekly group walk to Sotetsu-yama, Japan’s lowest mountain (by world standards, a hill, but who are we to argue with Japanese topographers?). The 80-year-old leader of the group told us they’re doing it to be healthy so that the Japanese government will not have to worry about spending too much on their medical needs.
Then it was lunch at the Marusanro Setsuryoan, a traditional Japanese restaurant that has been around since 1855. It brought out the inner foodies in all of us. In his column in the Philippine Star, the award-winning writer Krip Yuson, who was part of the Filipino delegation, described the experience as an “exquisite culinary adventure back to old Japan.” At this point, I was too busy wrestling with chopsticks to jot down notes, but suffice it to say that I left the place burping, tapping my tummy, and in need of a siesta.
Next in the itinerary was a visit to a Shinto Shrine, the Hochigai Jinja, where we, in a ritual that involved bowing and clapping, introduced ourselves to the deity of direction (just one of the many gods in the Shinto religion). The ritual called oharai, we were told, was also for the banishment of bad luck. A crash course in Shintoism, Japan’s oldest religion, ensued, highlighted by a distribution of talisman that would ensure safe travel in any direction.
The day was capped with a courtesy call to the mayor of Sakai City.
DAY FOUR: Turning Japanese
What is a Japanese experience without donning the kimono? On day four of our Sakai adventure, some of us got to try this traditional Japanese garment on for a tea ceremony, an important part of Japanese culture involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of powdered green tea called the matcha. (Trivia: Sakai is the birthplace of tea master Sen no Rikyu, a historical Japanese figure whose bust is displayed outside the tearoom in the Japanese Garden in Daisen Park.)
Kneeling in silence, we watched as an elderly woman gracefully performed the ceremony, which was an art-form in itself. Afterward we partook of the concoction – age-old Japanese tradition in a gulp!
The tea ceremony was a fitting end to the day’s itinerary that included a fruit-picking mission at Nanraku-en, a hillside mandarin farm, with dozens of overjoyed schoolchildren, including toddlers, from all over Osaka (Japanese mandarin oranges, or mikan, are the sweetest and juiciest, methinks); and a brief visit at the gate of Nintoku Tumulus, the expansive keyhole-shaped tomb (“kofun”) of the 16th emperor of Japan. (Only members of the imperial family and the mayor of Sakai are allowed entrance to the sacred ground.)
DAY FIVE: Bang a drum, ride a train
Perhaps it was the fatigue from four days of packed itinerary, or the heavy feeling that came with the realization that this cultural adventure was almost at its tail-end, but there seemed to be a collective lethargy among the journalists on this day. We trudged, instead of sprinted, toward the bus that would take us to our first destination for the day.
That was short-lived, however. By the time we left our morning appointment with Wadaiko Miyako, a 10-piece group of young Japanese drummers who graced us with an interview and a thunderous performance, we were wide awake as ever.
Since Sakai is also known for its blades and shears industry (a brochure described the city as “a town of knives”), our next stop was the Ashi Cutlery Works, a world-famous manufacturer of knives whose glimmering, razor-sharp products are mainstays in European and American hotels and restaurants. In a nondescript establishment tucked in a nondescript residential area, the business’ proprietor, Mr. Ashi, the head craftsman, demonstrated to us how their knives are made, practically turning an ugly piece of metal into world-class stainless wonder.
From knives to train: The final activity for the day was a Nankai Rapi:t train ride from Sakai to the Kansai International Airport, complete with a detailed lecture on how the private sector and local government are cooperating to make Sakai, one of the oldest cities in Japan, a prime destination of international tourists.
DAY SIX: Culmination
On the morning of the last day of activities we attended the first few hours of the day-long Sakai-ASEAN Week Cultural Festival, which had performances, booths and food fair showcasing the culture of the participating countries. Then we were off to another Shinto shrine for the Kagura jishi, or the Japanese dragon dance, which was another manifestation on how young people in Japan are maintaining their tradition.
Evening: a farewell party. Over Chinese food, we met and dined with the minkantaishi – student ambassadors fresh from their two-week stay in Sakai City families. One by one these students – a pair each from the participating countries – delivered a brief talk in Japanese narrating their experience. (For this year, the Philippines’ delegates were Alvea Sikat and Roman Aquino, both from De La Salle University. They were accompanied by their professor, Bernadette Hieida.) Later outside, it was all emotion, as the students tearfully said their farewell to their foster families. It was a scene ripped off from countless movies: the bus moving, those inside waving sadly to the group huddled outside, faces pressed to the window, choked voices, tears…
DAY SEVEN: The departure
Left the hotel at 7 a.m. Was at Kansai International Airport less than an hour later. It’s both sad and funny how friendship forged in six days of bus rides, meals, adventure, and fun would melt in the harsh, artificial glare of airport lights. The moment we got inside, we immediately parted ways with very few words exchanged. It was like nobody wanted a closure to the experience, and preferred to keep the whole thing hanging.
Back to our own countries, back to our own lives. Most likely we’ll never see each other again. But for seven days we became part of each other’s lives.
Indeed, Sakai had been an enriching experience. After all, it was the place where I learned to use chopsticks.
As published on GMA News Online. Edited by Barbara Marchadesch.