Sakai Diary: Knives, shrines and senior citizens

seven days

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!

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Japan’s centuries-old, classical theater form, Noh.

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.

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Sakai Diary: Young skinpounders seek global stage

wadaiko

SAKAI CITY, Japan — We heard it the moment we entered the building—a faraway rumbling like distant thunder. The sound—a rhythmic badum badum badum—grew louder as we walked through the snaking corridors of the Mihara Bunka Kaikan, a nondescript theater in the heart of this city in the Osaka prefecture. There was something urgent about the beat, like it was enjoining us to hurry on toward it.

So we did.

By the time we reached the source of the sound, some members of the Japanese drum ensemble Wadaiko Miyako were already deep into practice, furiously pounding away on taikos (drums) of various sizes, creating a seismic sonic assault so powerful and massive it shook us —visiting journalists from ASEAN countries—out of our Saturday morning lethargy.

“We don’t usually practice on Saturdays,” Gaku Yano, the group’s 61-year-old mentor, told the foreign guests through an interpreter. “We practice on Wednesdays and Sundays, but today you are our special audience.”

That group was also rehearsing for Sunday, when they were scheduled to headline the Sakai ASEAN Week Cultural Festival, a morning-to-afternoon show outside the Hotel Agora Regency Sakai that showcased cultural song and dance performances from participating ASEAN countries, including the Philippines.

But the 10 young members of the Wadaiko Miyako—including one who, at the time of the interview, was visibly pregnant—were looking beyond Sakai and Sunday.

“It would be an honor to perform overseas someday,” said the group’s 29-year-old leader Haze Shote, taking a break from the rehearsal to chat with the foreign visitors. Although the group is primarily based in Sakai, they have stirred enough buzz to land them out-of-the-city gigs.

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Sakai Diary: A city for old men

Members of the Japanese elderly group Ohama Koen Walking no Kai gamely pose before journalists from Asean countries who are in Sakai for the Sakai Asean Week 2013.

SAKAI CITY, Japan – Osamu Okada treads the trail with a smile and a casual gait. Looking at him, it’s hard to believe that the retired salesman is already 80 years old—and that he’s climbing a mountain.

Granted, Sotetsu-yama is hardly a mountain by world standards; but here in Japan, it is categorized as such. At only 6.84 meters above sea level, it is officially recognized as Japan’s lowest mountain and an important landmark in this sprawling city in the heart of the Osaka prefecture. But despite its miniature size, Sotetsu-yama (Mount Sotetsu) still boasts of a rolling landscape, lush greenery, and ample shade.

Ahead and behind Okada are some 15 of Sakai city’s elderly residents, some walking in pairs, others in groups of three or four, all chatting and laughing as they gingerly navigate their way toward a certain meeting point.

It’s a slightly drizzly and bitterly cold Thursday morning, but for the members of the Ohama Koen Walking no Kai (Ohama Park Walking Group), it’s walk-to-the-mountain weather, creaking joints be damned.

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Sakai Diary: So far, so good

tiny lights

Carpet of lights.

On my second night in Sakai now, fresh from dinner and doing some writing before bed. I’m at the Hotel Agora Regency Sakai. Outside my window is a vast carpet of lights. I wish I could open the window and let some cool autumn breeze in. I’d prefer that over aircon. Other than that, I’ve no beef about the hotel and its service and amenities so far.

My first impression of Sakai: Very few people, so many bikes… and a city that sleeps early.  Even at Kansai Airport where we arrived yesterday there was hardly any people around. At 8 p.m. local time it looked like a Philippine mall at closing time on a weeknight. It was eerie.

Today’s sole activity was visiting a Japanese temple to watch a Noh performance, Noh being a Japanese stage art that has been passed down from generation to generation in an unbroken line for over 650 years. The performance involved four guys with one — the master, who wore a creepy mask — doing a slow dance with a fan while two others chanted and one played a bamboo flute (an instrument I got to try later). Think Kabuki, only Noh is more ancient, we’ve been told.  Cheesy at it sounds, I left the temple with new-found appreciation for Asian culture.

noh master

Meet the Noh master

That was Day Two of this six-night, seven-day trip. Tomorrow, it’s mountain trek with elderly people, a visit to Shinto Shrine, and a courtesy visit to the mayor.  Call time is 8:30 a.m., so I must park my pen now and catch some Z’s to lessen the possibility of me missing it. Because like everybody else, I tend to oversleep when I’m in a cool and quiet place.