Day 28: Rika


Rika works in an office by day but in real life, she’s an artist.

I met her when I stumbled into a little square-roomed gallery in a little annex attached to Omotesando Hills, a shopping complex swarming with Louboutin-heeled women in their forties trouncing from store to store in their Burberry trenchcoats and Hermes scarves with labels turned nonchalantly (but conspicuously) outward. I’d just nearly gotten run over by one such fine specimen in a rush to exit the elevator we’d shared; with just a flick of her hand (not even a glance backward) she tossed a “sumimasen” into the air behind her, directed at me, I think.

Welcome back to Tokyo, I thought to myself, and wandered out onto the street when I spotted a little sign for a gallery. I climbed the stairs, where a perfectly-coiffed bright-smiling girl in a navy and white polka-dot dress, white and navy polka-dot shoes, and (she later showed me) navy and white polka-dot earrings popped her head around the corner. Her perfect coif didn’t move one millimetre. Neither did her smile.

Hallo, she said, konnichiwa! I answered. The room was filled with flowers of some form or other, it was her first exhibition in Tokyo, she said.

She’s from Osaka, went to university in Kyoto, did a lot of drawing and painting and had exhibited work down that way before but hadn’t done much art since moving to Tokyo; all her paint had dried up, she said, and when she decided to start painting again she had to go out and buy a new set of paints.

When I had finished looking at the art on the walls – bubblegum-hued, themed of life and death and lies and truth – she sat me down at a little desk and showed me a portfolio of sorts, full of cutesy drawings and paintings of ice cream flavours as feelings. Mint-chocolate as loneliness, for example.

I stopped on one picture, a painting of a head with a map where the brain should be. She must’ve noticed me staring at the map for ages, because she stopped and told me, back when she was in high school, before everyone used Google maps, she used to study maps all the time, try to figure out where things were, commit them to memory. Maps, and train schedules, she said. So etched in her head were roads and train tracks, stations and buildings, colours and lines and directions. What about this map, is it anywhere in particular, I asked. No, nowhere really.

Someone else said, it must take a really extraordinary kind of person to be able to translate what’s in your mind to this kind of picture. But I’m an ordinary person, said Rika. I mean, I get drunk and complain about people just like everyone else!

I liked her, a lot. She asked for my details. I asked for this photo. I wished her luck, we parted ways.


Day 22: bibimbap (just kidding!)


This blog is fast becoming a noodle-only blog, I’d better find some strangers, and soon. But it hasn’t been easy.

On the 22nd day I tried to talk to a lady gathering gingko berries along the footpath near Noksapyeong Station. It was a fresh autumn afternoon, the weakening sun illuminated the golden gingko trees and their wind-blown leaves dancing to the ground. The footpath was covered in bright yellow leaves and as I shuffled along I noticed a few crushed berry-like things and then, later on, a woman in a hat and gloves, doubled over picking up something from the ground which she quickly tossed into a plastic bag. She found more, again and again, and as I walked closer I could tell her bag was heavy with these somethings – whatever they were, fruits, or nuts, or what. She looked up. I smiled. Anyonghaseyo, I said. She huffed and scowled and, never once getting up from her squatting position, sort of half jump-shuffled so that she was crouching in the other direction. I stood there for a second but it was pretty clear she didn’t want to talk gingko nuts. Okay, then.

I went to a cafe full of Westerners thinking they might be easier, less of a language barrier. There were a couple people my age sitting at a big, long shared table with a few empty seats at one end. I went to ask if a seat might be free, thinking these people might be good to chat to. Oh, no, they said, there are some more people coming, so I ended up having my coffee at the only free seat left, in a corner facing the wall, while this group of Americans read out their short story ideas to each other in order, one by one.

After that I met up with my old flatmate Fiona who now lives in Seoul and, preoccupied with catch-ups and gossip and hangover-relieving Korean tacos (oh yeah, there was that hangover) I didn’t manage to flag down any strangers.

But after a big walk up a steep hill to look at the lit-up cityscape from Namsan Tower and a movie screening of sorts we were kind of hungry. Perfect. Noodle time.

We went to Hongdae, a neighbourhood swarming with students who were all (at 11 at night on a Saturday, at least) lining up to get into bars and clubs of some sort and holding impromptu street celebrations when a car crawled by blaring ‘Gangnam Style’. Also there were a fair few young types eating at a 24-hour noodle bar we passed by. So we went in too.

There was an illustrated menu of sorts on the wall of the restaurant, from which I could tell there were a few different noodle dishes available, one of which was like a noodle version of bibimbap, a rice dish with various vegetables and seaweed and egg and meat and sauce that you mix into the hot rice.

So we went up to the ticket-dispensing machine to order. The buttons were only in Korean, but had helpful pictures to show which button went with which dish. So far, so good. I found the button with a picture that looked like the noodle dish I’d seen on the wall. Then there was another button, with an almost-identical picture – only this one was a bit more expensive, and seemed to come with an egg. Sweet, I thought. I like eggs. I put in my money and pushed the button and handed my ticket to the guy behind the counter.

But when my food came, Fiona looked at me quizzically. Did you get noodles, she said, or is that rice? She was right. Underneath the colourfully-arranged meat and vegetables was not noodles, but rice. I’d ordered my old favourite, bibimbap, not its noodle equivalent. So much for confidently pushing buttons on a vending machine ordering system.

Anyway the bibimbap was delicious, and I’m glad I had it. And luckily Fiona had ordered some kind of noodle soup with twisted strands of fried tofu and nori and sesame seeds and little bite-sized mandu floating in the soup, and gave me a bit so I wouldn’t fail at this project (thanks, Fi!). The soup was refreshing and light – a seaweed-based broth, maybe? with a little bit of that ubiquitous red sauce – the noodles plain and pale, like Japanese somen in flavour but a little bit thicker. It was good, and cheap (about $4 NZ for a big bowl). And I’m a big fan of dumplings, so the little mandu were a plus.


Day 20: Koji

This is Koji. I met him in his clothing shop in Daimyo, a neighbourhood of Fukuoka dotted with little boutiques and bars.

He says he was born in 1965 but I can’t really tell if he’s joking or for real. I spot one or two white strands hidden in his jet-black ponytail, so, who knows.

He likes rock climbing and has never been to New Zealand but he’d like to go. They have good rock climbing there, right? he asks. I think so, I reply (I hope I’m right?). Good surfing? I think so, I reply. Good snowboarding? When conditions are right, it can be very good, I say.

Koji’s shop is pretty cool, the kind of shop that can afford to space out the clothes hanging on its racks, the kind of place that makes you feel a bit special just looking around. Koji goes to London, Paris, New York for buying trips. (So lucky.) Paris is his favourite. At night, it’s a magical place, he says. I don’t disagree.

I ask Koji what his favourite food in Fukuoka is. He thinks for a moment:

In Fukuoka, everything is delicious. Fish, vegetable, rice, everything. Can you eat noodles?Then Ichiran. You write your order, and then, (he gestures handing a slip of paper over the counter). Everything you can choose: noodles hard or soft, soup strong or light, white or green sliced negi, how much garlic.

He tells me the name of a good cafe (do you prefer a cool place with not-so-good coffee, or a not-so-cool place with really good coffee, he asks; I pick the latter) and the name of his favourite restaurant and asks me to add him on facebook. If you weren’t flying off to Korea I’d say you should come out for dinner with some friends tonight, he says. Maybe next time.

Day 15: Nagata-san

Mum and I had actually met Nagata-san a couple days before, on Sesoko Island in Okinawa where he and his wife have just built a house; they’re from Sasebo in Nagasaki prefecture but they’re retiring soon and have just moved to Okinawa. I said I was coming to Kyushu and he called up his travel agent friend who made me an itinerary. (I’ve more or less followed it.) If you come to Sasebo, Nagata-san said, give me a call, I’ll show you around. Not normally something I’d do, but on the train on the way to Sasebo I found the little paper with his number and “K. Nagata” written on it, so I did.

It was a Saturday morning; he picked me up from Sasebo station in a shimmering silver Mercedes, brand-new by the looks of it, immaculate black leather interior. Unlike the jeans-wearing Nagata-san I had met the other day, this Nagata-san was clad in an equally immaculate, crisp black suit, a gold watch peeking out from under a cuff, polished shoes, gold-rimmed glasses. I’ve just been to a funeral, he explained.

He had to call into work before we could set off. He parked the car on an angle on the street, just a shadow of a suggestion that it was meant to go in the already-full parking lot. Konnichiwa, the parking attendant said, that’s fine, I’ll keep an eye on it.

As we walked, (or, rather, I walked and Nagata-san strode, shoulders back, head upright) he pointed out the buildings: this is my brother’s store, that across the road is another of my buildings, see where it says Nagata. And this – turning the corner to a glittering, polished-marble storefront – is my jewellery store.

I was seated at a desk in the waiting area. Nagata-san picked up the phone at the desk: I’ve got a guest, can you bring me a coffee, and a few minutes later a girl with a smile as crisp and clean as her uniform emerged from a back room with a cup and saucer, fine china, good coffee. A young man in a well-tailored grey suit sat down and introduced himself, in flawless English, as Nagata. I lived in Sydney for five years, he said. We talked New Zealand and Australia and then Nagata-san emerged and we set off again.

I said to Nagata-san, is that your son, he speaks excellent English. No, he’s my nephew, Nagata-san said; I have two daughters but neither one is interested in taking over the business, so I’ve put that kid in charge of the store, he’s pretty capable. I’m getting ready to retire, which is why my wife and I built that house in Okinawa, but I’m not ready to quit work just yet, so I’m going back and forth for now. There’s a direct flight from Naha to Nagasaki, and then it’s not far by car to Sasebo.

What do you want to see in Sasebo, asked Nagata-san, and then he noticed the pamphlets I’d picked up at the train station: a flier for an oyster festival near the Kujukushima islands, a map of all the Sasebo burger shops. So we went to Kujukushima, where a thousand people were squatting around little concrete-block charcoal grills, grilling oysters, jumping back from the splattering oyster juices bursting out when the shells popped open. We don’t have to grill oysters, I can just eat some somewhere later, I said, gesturing at his suit. He hesitated. I wondered if this wasn’t really his thing. There’s a free spot right there, he said, pointing at a grill that had just been vacated. Why don’t you wait there and I’ll go get us some oysters.

He came back with a sack full of oysters and a box of charcoal. We lit the fire, put the oysters on the grill, ate them one by one. We must’ve been a funny sight among the casually-dressed picnicgoing families around us: a Japanese gentleman dressed for a funeral, a somewhat-bewildered foreign girl, squatting around a little fire in the hot mid-autumn sun, cracking open plump, briny oysters one after another.

How strange, he said, that you and your mother were just at my house in Okinawa, and now we’re here eating oysters in Sasebo. Funny, isn’t it, I said. But if you hadn’t come, he said, I would’ve never come to something like this. He gestured widely at the crowds squatting around us. This is really good, let’s get some more, and he went off to buy another sackful of oysters.

We drove in the silver Mercedes to a hillside overlooking the 208 islands of Kujukushima and then Nagata-san dropped me off at a dock where I boarded a tour boat. I have to go to a wedding now, he said, but call me if you get into trouble. Of course, I said; he bowed, I bowed, he disappeared into the glimmering afternoon sun.

Day 13: Nakada-san

Nakada-san is eighty-something and he has perfect eyesight. He works in his fields growing vegetables and wheat and when he’s not out there he’s in his workshop where he makes, by hand, these conical traditional straw hats. First he constructs the frame out of strips of bamboo. Then he cuts lengths of straw, from wheat he’s grown and dried himself, and, using a needle, sews them onto the frame. He doesn’t wear glasses, doesn’t need to, he says.

He lives in a wooden Okinawa-style house on Sesoko village. He’s lived there with his wife since he was in his twenties. Yes, he has children, but they’ve all gone to the honto, none of them wanted to stick around Sesoko. A lot of the vegetables they eat they grow themselves. They have a big shikwasa tree in their yard. You can take some with you, Nakada-san’s wife says, and by the time we leave we’ve been given a bagful.

Nakada-san’s wife shows us one of the finished hats. He makes them to order, for theatre and traditional dance troupes, and other people still interested in traditional crafts, she says. She says there are only three people left in Okinawa who still make these hats by hand.

Is this true, we ask Nakada-san. He says the younger generation aren’t interested enough to learn, or they’re too busy. When he passes, there’ll be no one to take his place. He says, stay longer next time and I’ll teach you how to make them. I’d love to, I say, and I genuinely mean it. But at the same time my heart contracts with guilt and future-regret because I know I probably never will go back and learn the art of Okinawan hat-craft from Nakada-san. Too busy, not interested enough, I’m as bad as the rest.

(edited to add: reading this later on, I didn’t mean to sound so horribly callous/uninterested! Of course I’m interested in learning from one of the last remaining craftsmen of Nakada-san’s kind. But I don’t think I’m interested enough to devote a lifetime to carrying on his legacy. -MR)

But I do hope I’ll see him again.

Day 9, Part 2: a party for Murata-san (Noodles with strangers, #2)

At lunchtime, mum got to talking to Wayama-san, the owner of the mozuku soba place. Usually we’re closed at dinnertime, he said, but tonight it’s the birthday of one of our regulars, and he’s shipped in all this steak: (he showed us a room full of boxes and boxes of meat), so we’ve invited some friends for a party of sorts, it’s 1500 yen per person (about NZ$25), you two should come along, it’ll be fun, I’ve prepared plenty of beer, wine and awamori.

So after an afternoon of swimming at Furuzamami beach we showered and went over to the mozuku place where, sure enough, a crowd had gathered, a barbecue of sorts had been set up in a big metal drum, the aroma of grilled meat wafted through the air, drawing us in.

It quickly became clear that although they were collecting money this wasn’t a party for just anyone; these people all seemed to know each other, either through living and working on the island (plenty of dive instructors and lifeguards) or because of friendships they’ve made by coming to Zamami again and again.

It was Murata-san’s birthday and he was the one who’d sent down about NZ$1500 worth of steak to Wayama-san, asking nothing in return except a party everyone could enjoy. Murata-san comes to Zamami to dive five or six times a year, and seems to know everyone there. The gathered crowd burst into a cheer when he arrived: Murata! Murata!

There was barbecued steak, served Korean-style with spicy sauces and gochujang and lettuce leaves to wrap it all, there was kimchi-cured dried squid that Murata-san had made himself, there was chicken and sausages and stir-fried vegetables, fried egg with agu (what’s agu? I asked the girl sitting next to me. Agu is pig, she said, Okinawan pig, and it’s really really good. She was right), and, for the tenuous link to this blog, there was yakisoba. Not the light, almost-delicate yakisoba of the night before, but the kind I’m more used to: thick, strongly flavoured, almost gluggy with a sweet soy sauce, noodles almost overcooked, served with plenty of shredded nori and red pickled ginger, it matched perfectly with my beer.

There was a birthday song, and a birthday cake, with candles the wind kept blowing out before Murata-san could. There’s no cake shop on the island, someone said, so one of the young mothers (lots of kids at this party) made it from scratch. It looked and tasted exquisite: light and fluffy and full of whipped cream and fruit.

The mayor of Zamami was there. He said the challenge for him is to keep people on the island, because there’s no high school so a lot of the time when the oldest kid in a family reaches high school age they’ll either go to the honto themselves and rent an apartment in Naha, or the mother will go with them, taking the younger children along, leaving the father behind. And most of the time when they go, they don’t come back, it’s more convenient, more exciting in the city after all. Do you have kids, we asked. Yes, he said, and his oldest’s gone across to Naha for high school, she’s in an apartment by herself, as a parent it’s hard. He wants to set up a system, maybe a dormitory or something in Naha for the kids of Zamami so that whole families don’t move across, so that the island population doesn’t dip even lower. But there’s a lot of red tape, he said.

After that there was too much Orion beer and awamori and chilled red wine and resulting nonsensical conversation for me to write down all the details here, but here are some photos I took:

Day 8, Part 1: Yui the goatherd

I’m riding my rented bike up a steep and winding hill road on the coast of Zamami island, getting ready to hop off and push it the rest of the way, when I hear the clank of bells and some rustling in the grass. Around the corner on the narrow road (and foraging in the bush lining it) is a small herd of rather large goats followed by a girl sweeping droppings off the road with a makeshift broom made from the handful of tall grass she’s clutching.

She says her name is Yui and she’s not from around here, she’s from Kanagawa in mainland Japan, but has been on Zamami for five months working at this place down the road, Robinson’s farmstay. Her time on Zamami is almost up and then it’s back to Kanagawa.

I say I’ve come from New Zealand and she says, so have these goats! I think. Or maybe from Australia. After this she’s planning on going to Australia for a working holiday, and maybe New Zealand too (do it! I say).

It’s a good pace of life here, she says. Her typical day usually goes like this: tidy the guest rooms in the morning, do some odd jobs around the farm. In the afternoon if she’s got a bit of free time she’ll take the goats on a walk. Where do you go, I ask. Oh, just up this road a bit further, and back again, wherever the goats take me.

She says she’s learned a lot from the goats, like the kind of plants they like to eat, and they’ve shown her some good spots around the island.

There aren’t many other young people around, she says, so it’s a pretty quiet life. There’s only a primary and middle school on the island, so once the kids get to high school age they’re all off to Naha. Most of them end up staying away, and few come back to live.

Another couple of curious onlookers has stopped by, so we say our goodbyes, and I continue the slow uphill slog.