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December 28, 2016
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RAPPLER | Sinulog: To Flow with the Current
January 13, 2017

SUN.STAR | In Praise of Onomichi’s Slowness

 

Not to include photos in this essay is intentional. I wonder who would read through everything and leave a feedback; say, it is long and boring. For listicle kind of reading, read “Why I Can’t Stop Raving about Onomichi” on my travel column on TV5’s Interaksyon.com. If you can find Cruising: Going Places, I wrote about Onomichi’s food scene in their July issue.

 

I fixed the hood of my jacket and made sure my ears were covered. I balled and pocketed my left hand. My right held the ninety-peso pack of sanitary pad—the cheapest I could find on the rack of Lawson, the nearest convenience store from Green Hill Hotel, our accommodation for the entire week.

On the other side of the pedestrian lane: two older women and a high school girl on a bicycle waited for the light to turn green. They were all prepared, all bundled up for the possible dropping of the temperature.

It was 12ºC when I checked the thermometer in the room before heading out, too cold for someone who had equatorial beaches for midweeks.

The two old women moved their heads toward each other, their mouths barely moved. Casually, they looked on both sides of the road and glanced at the traffic light. I could imagine them talking about the weather. The girl behind them gripped the bicycle’s handles; her face calm and relaxed. Perhaps for the three of them, it was yet another day in November.

Not for me.

On both sides of the pedestrian lane was an empty street—as silent as the midnight we arrived in this little city off the coast of Hiroshima, an hour plane ride away from Tokyo. Yet all three locals across the street had the air of elegance while waiting for the lawful time to cross the street. Even the high school girl did not have the look of impatience that must have been plastered in my face.

It was cold. There were no cars. Yet we waited on.

At seven in the morning, Onomichi looked and felt like an old woman sipping her tea by the window overlooking the bay. She is comfortable with the slowness of everything. Perhaps she listened to the little hush and hums of the passing boats as her careful pouring of her drink created ripples and little whirlpools in the cup.

This, of course, was a point of view of a Bisdak who crossed the forking streets in downtown Cebu like a robber on the run, who started her mornings listening to the crowing of the neighbor’s roosters and another neighbor’s occasional cackling for her brood to get up and prepare for school.

But I hid the rowdy Bisdak. I managed to assuage the temptation of crossing the empty street before the light turned green.

***

STOP. SHOWER. BIDET. Buttons, the toilet in my room had buttons. And I could change the intensity of the water. How amazing a toilet could get.

The night we arrived in the drizzling Onomichi, the first thing I checked out—it may sound funny, absurd even, when I got in my hotel room—was the toilet. Seeing a multifunctional toilet that could work wonders was an amusement for a citizen from a developing country whose public toilets are often a source of awkwardness and embarrassment.

Every time I enter a public toilet in Cebu, I entertain thoughts such as should I squat like an embarrassed frog or sit like an awkward princess?

I could hear friends’ voices calling me ignoy.

The thick difference from developed and developing—two words whose very definition relied on how the world perceived ed and ing—can be mocking. Japan is developed, established. The country where I am from struggles with its developingness.

From the glass walls, midnight drew closer. Drizzles glazed the empty streets below. No movement except for the blinking red traffic lights.

I turned the TV on and browsed through endless shows on Japanese. I surrendered my search and settled in one—a show highlighting women who had cats as the center of their universe.

I left the drapes open. From my room’s glass walls, the storied slope’s sleepy lights glimmered.

And by tomorrow morning, I knew I would use the buttons.

***

In their autumnal wardrobe, the leaves looked organic and natural on the wall, as if the houses were constructed with them in mind, as if there is a silent agreement going on between the walls and the leaves themselves to live at peace and in harmony.

I embarrassed myself to my fellow delegates from other countries with my constant “aaaah-ing” for the most ordinary of things: the drooping of wild flowers on the riprapped wall, the sightings of kaki (persimmons) and quaint little cups in a thrift shop.

To avoid embarrassing myself any further, I headed back to Mt. Senkoji’s slope alone.

I based my entry point solely on the quaintness of the house before me: Kujakuso since 1933. It must be a restaurant, like the rest of the quaint establishments in Hondori Shopping District. Its façade has the feel and look of a creative home—a well-groomed dwarf pine tree and flowering shrubs crowding the plot and pots.

On my way up, I saw an old woman hammering down the wooden rail in front of her wooden house. I summoned my Japanese alter-ego, but all I could manage was a badly pronounced konnichiwa. Demurely, she smiled and kept on pounding the top of the rail.

At seven in the morning, Onomichi looked and felt like an old woman sipping her tea by the window overlooking the bay. She is comfortable with the slowness of everything. Perhaps she listened to the little hush and hums of the passing boats as her careful pouring of her drink created ripples and little whirlpools in the cup.

Here in Onomichi, old locals occupied themselves with daily inanities—walking, biking to the market, or even working on the street like the two old short women I saw in my first morning walk, squatting on the sidewalk, scraping the dark patches sticking to the concrete pavement. Despite looking too old, too fragile to work, they managed to clean a good part of the footpath.

“The stairs were too much for the old people,” shared Yuki-san, one of the organizers of this multiracial tour funded by HIDA, a government arm. The local government, she informed us, eyed the future of the abandoned houses around. Silent and abandoned, these old wooden houses felt like animate objects, like toys outgrown and now forgotten and useless.

Across the railway, there are around 500 abandoned houses per 2 km. As of November 2015, more than 20 houses are refurbished as cafes, apartment, meeting places.

Unable to endure the sight of storied houses rotting, Masako Toyota made it her passion to restore these abandoned spaces and reimagine their purposes.

From the poets’ eyes, there was something drawing about these wooden houses. Inside Gaudi House—named such for its extravagant design, an unlikely Japanese character—there was an empty room glowing in natural light. It was the tatami room, where any members of the family took refuge in the silence of its emptiness. There was nothing in that room except for an antique pot, ¾ filled with ashes. I could imagine the harsh winter nights in Showa period, the brownish algae green pot working overtime, heating up the sacred space.

In one of the forking human paths to Mt. Senkoji Temple, Tomoko woke up at four in the morning to open her small Neko No Te Pan (Cat’s Paw Bakery) and kneaded the dough needed for the day’s loaves and sweets. Small and unmarked, her bakery could be taken as one of the residences by the uninitiated of the little intricacies that only the locals know.

Air Café, located on the left of Komyoji Temple, although bearing a little sign felt like home as well.

This unassuming character, the willingness to blend in with the neighborhood, can be found in tiny, quaint, and family-owned cafes and rental apartments everywhere. It reminds me of a famous Japanese proverb: 出る杭は打たれ—the nail that sticks out gets hammered down—the guiding principle of most Japanese. It is a culture that I, a reluctant conformist in most parts of my life, have an issue with.

On the first morning, after browsing through Jump, the shonen manga magazine that housed Naruto, I peeked through the magazines, sealed off, unlike the rest in Lawson. Women clad in lacy intimates graced the pages. Their poses, some reclining against a sofa, reminded me not of adult magazines, but of a fashion catalogue for women. It must be their young faces and delicate shapes that convinced me that what I have in hand is not porn.

A high school student reading manga beside me inched farther when I giggled out my amusement of the protective seal. Perhaps he was embarrassed that I, a woman, picked up the magazine. Perhaps he was embarrassed that, of all the magazines in the rack, why did I pick up the sealed one.

The Japanese society expects conformity from its people. You should not stick out or else you become part of the culture of minority found in Akihabara—a section in Tokyo where the oddballs can be found.

In my solitary afternoon walk back to the slope, against the 3PM light, nobody was treading the same path with me. Silent, these little houses felt unobtrusive yet beautiful in their unassuming uniformity.

But from the path I trod on, I stared at the houses and asked myself how would one know if the house is abandoned or lived in when they all have the sense of absence from the outside?

***

I learned physics in Shimanami Kaido. A famous destination for foreign and local cyclists in Onomichi, this two-day cycling route depleted my fit ego and weakened my unprepared knees.

From the very start, I had a hard time choosing the right bicycle for myself: there is the lady bike, an electric bike for the unprepared, and the typical manly mountain bike. After several change of mind, I settled for an alloy foldable bike, similar to what I have in Cebu though I knew I should have picked the electric bike. But unlike the rowdy Bisdak, my stubbornness could not be tucked in completely.

The uphill was unforgiving to my knees. It was the second day of my period. There were three islands to pedal on. I was the last in the pact.

I struggled. I panted. I sweated.

Could not bear the sight of my idiotic struggle, Hide-san, the designated tail of the trail, advised that I should turn the shifter to 1 if we were on an uphill battle and 5 if the terrain was flat.

For a slow city like Onomichi, cyclists—some in their 50s or older—overtook me and pedaled on until they disappeared in the curve.

My feet found reasons to take a break from pedaling. To our right was the bay adorned with outcrops in their autumnal splendor. Leeks, carrots, and other produce accented the fields to our left. Orchards of hassaku, little seedless orange Onomichi is known for, punctuated the fields that thrived in this saline season.

This unassuming character, the willingness to blend in with the neighborhood, can be found in tiny, quaint, and family-owned cafes and rental apartments everywhere. It reminds me of a famous Japanese proverb: 出る杭は打たれ—the nail that sticks out gets hammered down—the guiding principle of most Japanese. It is a culture that I, a reluctant conformist in most parts of my life, have an issue with.

Hide-san covered his eyes, comical as he was, pretending he did not see me stopping once again to gaze a bit longer of the things around us. Our companions blazed on.

Pedaling through Mukaishima, Innoshima, and Ikuchijima—three islands out of the six-island cycling route—was relaxing in most parts and taxing in some.

Cycling this part of Hiroshima became a summary of sort on how the locals lived their lives in the countryside.

I remember Tomoko Sato from Saitama, a student in her 60s, who taught yoga and walked around with pedometer attached in her waistband and would never go to bed unless she reached 10 000 steps a day.

We would start our Skype lessons with her narrating how her day went. Sometimes she would show up by my computer monitor, catching up her breath.

“I took a walk outside with our dog,” she would say between her breaths.

Old age, for most Japanese, is never a reason to be sedentary. Sometimes this principle is rather stubborn. More than once, I found myself staring at the old people of Onomichi about to ride their bicycles. Could they make it? Or would they topple down from the sheer effort of pedaling on? Their deliberate slowness, which is understandable for their age, made me think of a bicycle that badly needs oiling.

But more than once, they proved themselves to be more than capable. In their autumnal attire, they mounted their bicycles with a basket in front and went off, leaving me amazed of their willful stubbornness.

***

An old woman passed by and gestured if we wanted her to take our photo. We were in the port below our hotel. I returned her warm smile and said it was okay, we were about to be done. She continued her way to the ferry, still smiling. Our smiles, I hope, conveyed the sweet message our contradicting language failed to do.

I was not prepared of such warm greeting. Especially on our first morning. Feeling embarrassed of my own prejudices against Japan, I kept reminding myself that this was not Tokyo.

Or even Tokyo itself, I would like to believe, had parcels of warmth tucked in somewhere.

A place has no singular face.

Coldness, like winter over Hokkaido, can be as real yet as scarce character of the Japanese. Coldness cannot be equated to busyness.

“Tokyoites are very busy. Always work, work, work,” my students, mostly businessmen and working moms, sometimes commented. One time, a Japanese businessman took his English class over Skype while walking the busy streets of Tokyo. To make the class entertaining, he videoed the scenes before him: men wearing the same tailored black suits walking in haste.

Silence, the internal one, is the most sought-after yet the hardest to achieve.

Everyone rushed towards their destinations. Shibuya Crossing was the metaphor I had in my head. Even my young students, aged six to ten, had a scheduled life: wake up at five, study, prepare for school, go to Kumon, do homework, have dinner, and attend English lesson on Skype, take a bath, and go to bed.

The Japanese has a special word for death by overwork: karoshi, a word my Tokyoite contacts knew too well.

Tokyo, through the Skype lens, was too hurried, like a photo of a busy street in a 1/8 shutter speed. But this megacity’s busyness could not be felt here in Onomichi.

Even the energetic Hondori Shopping district did not have the bad vibes, did not have the paralyzing restlessness found in big cities. Like a river taking its time to flow down, the local shoppers, be it walking or riding their bicycles, take their time to look at the yellowing of the leaves, at the flowering plants, at the so-called unessential. And this is how Onomichi got me.

Most shops looked like places run by artistic homemakers, like they cared more about their shops’ look than how much they earned at the end of the day. Succulents in tin cans in a wooden DIY shelf. Rows of potted plants, some in their autumnal fervor. Candles, dried herbs hang upside down in a café. Two potted trees—one was a tamarind and another I could not recognize—made a barbershop look like someone’s posh living room.

At Sobako, a soba restaurant, four Leica camera were hanged next to the kitchen door. Black-and-white photographs of the locals attending to their everyday lives adorned the walls.

One particular phothraph captured the morning light casting a shadow on the little alley leading to the bay. Who took these photos, I wondered.

The two owners of the soba restaurant got out from the kitchen to ask us about our buckwheat noodle dinner. Each held a camera. My question was answered right away. The owners, the cook themselves, moonlight as photographs, documenting the lives of their little city.

For someone who sought energy from creative individuals, the people in Onomichi became an inspiration. Creativity is the core value of their work.

It was the back alleys photographed by the Sobako owners that made me see Japan in an entirely different light—the early morning kind of light: soft and kind.

One morning, I approached an old man angling by the bay. His dog, a dachshund, curled up by his feet. Like him, the dog was calm and did not mind me, a stranger, petting him. Like the old woman by the jetty, the old man gave a soft smile, never uttered a word, and continued on attending his line.

Not far, by Toshio Yodoi’s Beach sculpture were five grandpas chatting while looking after a toddler who was so amazed by the marigolds blooming in the little garden below the sculpture. Across the street, a woman bought a loaf of bread in a little bakery and rode her bicycle, her gaze fixed in front.

In front of Ministry of Commerce and Industry, old locals ran a bazaar of used clothes and snacks. The air had a faint smell of fried sweet potato. A yacht’s machine hummed nearby.

Everyone, the way I felt and saw them, was wrapped in their own comfortable silences. For the restless, it made me wonder, how did they achieve such?

The elaborate tea ceremony and Zazen (seated meditation) we tried in Senkoji Temple might explain this relaxing, elaborate slowness of everything.

Our last day in Onomichi had the chaos and ruckus of goodbyes. As our multicultural team exchanged hugs on the boardwalk facing the bay, a woman in her 60s sat alone on the bench, a notebook laid open on the table in front of her. She remained oblivious of the loudness around her.

Her gaze was fixed, her right hand busy sketching the bay before her.

As the bus slowly roused to movement, I kept looking at her, thinking silence, the internal one, is the most sought-after yet the hardest to achieve.

 


This essay, divided in to two parts, first appeared in SunStar Cebu on December 1, 2016, and December 8, 2016 respectively.

 

 


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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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1 Comment

  1. Teesh says:

    Hi Jona! You don’t even need a photo – I can clearly visualize your writing. It felt like reading a book about traveling. I felt like I was biking and walking with you. I wish I could write even a quarter as good as you.

    PS Pooping in a modern multifunctional toilet is one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life.

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