Morning: Took local bus to kuraland, a street of storehouses in a town called Masuda. The kura were magnificent, their plain exteriors hiding extraordinary interiors.
The first kura sold keeki setto (cake and coffee set). Owner wore a lime green polo neck. He had a very generous smile. He seemed a genuinely happy person, as if he had just won the lottery, or as if he had just realised people will pay good money just to sit in his garage.
There are 45 kuras in Masuda, 14 are open to the public. Hardly any tourists about. But a recent boom in interest in kura-viewing, even an official kura day, Oct 27th, when husbands lock their wives in the larder then go out and get leathered. That may have been Lottery Winner’s joke. Or mine even – but I think he`d have found it very funny.
Lottery Winner also spoke with real joy about walls and doors. The bankvault-thick kura walls, he explained, are made of soil, water and ground-up straw mixed together and then sealed with white shikkui (plaster). The walls were thick enough to stop fires and burglars. In event of a fire, the owners cover any gaps with miso to stop smoke getting in.
Kuras have two overlapping doors: the otoko (male), and onna (female) door. The female door, on the left, gets closed first. Like a true gentleman, the male door waits his turn.
Many of Masuda`s storehouses share a special feature; they are built inside another building – a house within a house. This provides the kura protection from the heavy snowfall and ensures all-year round access. It also means from outside, all the buildings look the same; snow made everyone equal.
The best kura was in the former Ishita House (J). On the 2nd floor of the kura, a bear pelt and the now extinct Japanese wolf pelt were laid out, as well as British porcelain from the Johnson Bros. (1881) – now apparently owned by a Chinese company. A wooden door slid across to cut off access to the second floor, “not to deter ninjas but to keep rats out,” the volunteer guide explained.
The owners of this house was so wealthy they had a 3rd floor extension built for a better view of the fireworks festival. Famous artists like Leonard Fujita stayed here and painted in exchange for rent. Scavengers.
AFTERNOON: Walked through drizzle in search of the fruit of hope, the apple, celebrated in a post-war song that was considered too weak for release in wartime. “The apple is so cute / So cute is the apple….” The Apple Song was the soundtrack for the 1945 film, Soyokaze which was filmed in Masuda.
It was wet in the orchards and the apples are still weak. Many were wrapped up to protect them from insects. Hope now hides itself inside a paperbag. There were few paparbags on each tree. Many good apples are pruned, sacrificed so those left have more space to grow bigger. It is either big hope or no hope.
I`ll stop that now.
EVENING: Back in wet Yokote. Drums, flutes and fireworks brought people to the riverside for the children`s Nemuri Nagashi (Banish sleep) Festival. Groups of kids, all divided by district, pushed boats around town. The candle-lit boats were made of straw and mounted on wheels.
Younger children played with sparklers in puddles. The rain grew heavier. pink fireworks exploded against the grey sky. Two old men supping beer from cans compared their views on candle placement. The taiko drumbeat remained as relentless as the river racing behind us. It was fantastic, an incredible amount of energy and hope in a place that had looked like concrete death.
Yokote, all is forgiven, I love you.