Saturday, March 08, 2008

Local History

If you've been following along, you may remember my post about visiting Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavillion, and having a wonderful volunteer guide while I was there. The guide and I had a lovely chat that day, and exchanged cards, promising to email. G (as I'll call her here) is originally from Host City, and so we talked about having lunch together sometime when she comes back to visit her family.

Today was the day we arranged. We met at the local station (I even found the right exit!). I'd brought along a couple of discount tickets for a restaurant near the station that another teacher had shown me, in case we wanted to eat close and G didn't have other ideas. But G had other ideas!

G had looked into a local museum, and since she'd never been, asked if I were interested in going and then having lunch. It sounded good to me, so off we went. The museum was a few minutes walk from the station, over near the river, but on the south side (I've walked along the north side before).

The museum is a building that used to be a famous inn and stopping place during the Edo period (and into the Meiji period, I think, from the pictures). As you'll recall from your Japanese history class (yeah, right :), the Edo period was from the early 17th to the mid/late 19th century (1603-1868, according to Wikipedia), during which time Japan was basically ruled by a Shogun (a military ruler) who held power in Edo (while the Emperor was in Kyoto, still). (I'm sort of confused, by my sense is that the Emperor was a figurehead, and that the Shogun ran things day to day and really controlled what was happening.) (Don't forget, Edo later gets called Tokyo.)

As part of the process of gaining/keeping control, there were daimyo, feudal lords, who were responsible for keeping power in their areas. So, in a way, for me, it sounds a bit like feudal Europe, or even England in some ways, with local peers controlling large areas, training troops in their area and such. And as with, say, Elizabeth in England, the Shogun was concerned that his (always his) feudal lords not gain too much wealth or power.

One of Elizabeth's strategies (or the strategy of her court, anyway), was to go on progress. Elizabeth and her court would leave London and visit some really important nobleman. What an honor! And then the nobleman would basically have to use a lot of his local resources to feed, house, and entertain the royal court. A few weeks later, Elizabeth would move on to a new nobleman's place, and the last guy would get back to rebuilding his fortune. The nobleman got an honor (a royal visit), and Elizabeth got her court fed, housed, and entertained, and the nobleman had a little less money to toss around to buy off people, raise an army, and so on. (There are some pretty cool records of the entertainments and such for Elizabethan progresses; note that progresses had other, WAY more official justifications and such, but economics are in the background.)

Same basic principle, but reverse the practice. In Japan, the daimyo were expected to make a big trip to Edo once every year or so to pay respects to the Shogun. Meanwhile, their wives were expected to live in Edo, sort of as friendly hostages of the Shogun. Yet another ingenious way to keep folks in line.

Back to my main story. The museum we went to today was a famous inn during the period (for several hundred years, it sounded like), because it was on the major road that went from Osaka to Edo, AND it's on a river that was a major trade route for moving goods. So, a lot of people came and went from the Inn, and it's pretty darned neat. I learned a lot, thanks to G helping me understand the woman at the museum who showed us around.

I love the folks at local museums. It's the same in the US. You usually get someone who just loves local history, is friendly, likes to tell a story, and off you go. This woman sang and did the working calls of people on the boats (both the people who pulled barges up and down, and the people who went out on smaller boats to sell food and goods to people on the larger boats). She told us about the dancing and entertainment that the inn had during the period.

When you go to a town or city, one of the interesting things is to figure out why the town is there, and why there and not, say, 10 miles down the road. Where I live in the Northwoods, along a bike path, there's a sign that talks about a town that once stood there and then got depopulated when trade patterns changed. So it was really fascinating for me to learn that Host City got started as a trade center and travel stop in this period, and was evidently quite a great place to do business. And now, though the reasons for its great growth in that period are long gone (no more daimyo traveling to and from Edo, and not much shipping traffic up and down the river that I've seen), all the other things that made it a city have helped it survive and become a modern city with lots of people and businesses.

I grew up along what had once been an important trade and travel route, so it's interesting to me that there are similar ways of dealing with some of the difficulties of travel. Where I grew up, at one time there was a system of stopping places about a day's travel from one another. And along the major road from Osaka to Edo, according to what I learned today, there was a system of stopping places about a day's travel from one another, and my Host City was part of that. (I grew up between the old time stopping areas, but you can still find evidence of them if you try.)

While we were talking to the woman at the museum, she had to take off for lunch (this I learned later), but G had asked her about a good restaurant in the area. So after we left the museum, we went to the restaurant she suggested. Here's what's amazing. The museum woman had talked to the people in the restaurant, and told them we were coming, so even though we came AFTER they'd finished their lunch hours and while they were prepping for dinner hours, they served us. G told me when we arrived, that the museum woman had asked them to expect us, and so they were happy to see us.

We had a wonderful lunch of sashimi, with soup and salad. It was really good, but... I have to laugh at myself. G was explaining what we were eating, and she started with the salad, which was a vinagared salad with baby eels. And the woman at the restaurant was so proud of the eels! Evidently they're quite the local seasonal specialty.

And yes, once I took a (surreptitious) close look, I could see the eyes of the baby eels (okay, little dark spots on the thicker end; I didn't get out a microscope or anything!). The eels were like thick threads, two or so inches long, light buff/grey in color. And at that moment, I just thought, okay, well, eels it is. And then G told me about the next dish, and it was (fried, I think) baby eels; the same thing, prepared differently. It's the thought of eels that just doesn't appeal to me, I'm sorry to say, but I sure as heck wasn't going to say that about the local seasonal delicacy!

And once I got my brain around eating eels (it's food, doesn't take me long to get to eating it!), they were fine; I liked the ones I think were fried more than the others (I don't want to think that they were raw, but... it was a sashimi place!). There were also traditional pickles, soup (but not miso, I was surprised to learn), three different kinds of fish (very nice!), and of course, rice. (I got a card from the restaurant, and hope I can find it again.)

Then we went for a walk along the river and G had me try the local sweet (I think every Japanese town has a local sweet!), which was a sort of pancake with (sweet) azuki bean (red bean) paste and a chestnut. Very nice!

G has invited me to come to her English speaking group, so I'm looking forward to that. All in all, a lovely day with lots of chatting, a very good lunch, and some learning thrown in for good measure!

Tomorrow, I'm going to tag along with one of the art history classes on a field trip; I'm expecting to enjoy myself and even learn some stuff along the way. I have to say, the folks teaching cultural stuff to the international students here really put together some great field trip programming!


  1. Bardiac, I have just LOVED following along with your cross-cultural adventures. It makes me wish I could experience all that you're getting to experience! What an opportunity. Thank you for sharing snippets and details with us.
    I don't think I've commented before, but I've been a reader of your blog for some time now. Just wanted to say that I enjoy it very much. I'm always excited when I get one of your posts in my feed.

  2. Awww, thanks, Catalyst!