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A rose among roots on Awajishima

by Simon Bartz

I’m bent over double, throwing up water I’ve just drunk. I can’t keep anything down.

“Excuse me. What are you doing there?”

I look up. She’s perhaps in her 30s and her wavy, auburn hair curls into her face, accentuating her small upturned nose and wide hazel eyes.

“And on my doorstep.”

“I’m sorry.”

I stagger down the lane only to collapse to the ground after a few steps. My fingers claw the cement path. A fat gray-and-white cat emerges from the doorway behind her, waddles up to me and rubs his bulky self against my head.

“Napoleon!” she softly calls, and he waddles over to her.

“You are sick. Come inside and I’ll call a doctor,” she tells me, helping me into the house. “Sorry about the mess,” she says. “This used to be a cafe, but now it’s stopped, kind of. I live upstairs.”

I slump on a cushion and above me are huge clusters of onions hanging from wooden beams. I shake and sweat. I can’t control my feet kicking out at random. One kick connects with Napoleon and he lets out an angry meow and wobbles quickly away.

“What are you doing here in Iwaya?” she asks, putting a glass of water on the chabudai (low dining table) next to me. “There’s not many gaijin (foreigners) around here.”

“I dunno,” I whimper, and when I close my eyes I see men in dark suits standing in shadows staring at me. They resemble secret-service goons; waiting for me to die so they can drag me off to Hell. I’m scared and open my eyes.

“Where’re you going?” she asks.

“I dunno. But please don’t call a doctor.”

She sits on a cushion near the window and lights a cigarette. “Beautiful day,” she says, looking outside. “My name’s Suzuka.”

The architects who designed Awaji Yumebutai (Awaji Island Project), near Iwaya in northern Awajishima, Hyogo Prefecture, were surely on drugs. Next to the Westin Awaji Island Hotel, where the bus dropped me off, it includes a greenhouse (so well-ordered it feels like a supermarket), some feeble gardens that make my backyard resemble those hanging around Babylon circa 600 B.C., a bizarre outdoor amphitheater (I didn’t know the Roman Empire stretched this far) and a conference center, which makes perfect sense, as the Westin and the Project are the kind of antiseptic places loved by briefcase-wielding executives who don’t know how to love.

“Have you been to Awajishima before?” asks the old man. I look at his wrinkled mauve nose. It’s like the ume-boshi (pickled plum) that I plop into shochu (a distilled spirit). “No,” I finally say. I met him on the 40-minute bus trip from Sannomiya Station to Awaji Island via the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, and he’s tagging along.

“We are crossing the longest suspension bridge in the world,” he had announced. “It was completed in 1998, is 3,911 meters long and 300 meters high.” He nose seemed to glow purple with pride.

I had a hunch he might be able to help me. A kind of destiny. But this is going nowhere. And I’m not even sure what I’m looking for. Or how to get it.

But when he mentions a cat museum my ears prick up like a feline.

“Do you like cats?” he asks.

“I used to.”

“Used to. You don’t anymore?”

“I’ve got bad memories.”

“Bad memories. You got scratched?”

“Kind of.”

“Kind of,” he repeats, chuckling. He has a quaint habit of repeating what I say. After several hours I manage to eat a little of the neginanban (buckwheat noodles with onion and bean curd) that Suzuka has kindly prepared for me.

“You should see a doctor.”

“I’m feeling better. Thanks,” I say, looking up at the onions and at the old counter, which has metal kitchen implements stacked on it. The smell of fried onions hangs in the air.

“My parents opened this shop about 20 years ago. We used to call it Tamanegiya. Awajishima is famous for its onions, the sweetest and best in Japan. We grow them slowly for seven months so they absorb more minerals and then hang them for a few months more to increase the flavor. Everything we made here consisted of at least 50 percent onions. I grew up smelling of onions. The boys made jokes about me in school.”

She laughs, lights a cigarette and dreamily looks out of the window at a black Yamaha SR400 motorbike parked outside, while stroking Napoleon, who sits on her lap licking his chunky paws.

“Do you think I’m weird?” she asks.

“You’re remarkably kind to a strange, sick gaijin. That’s a bit weird.”

“Anyway, my parents ran this shop, but my mother died in the (Great Hanshin) earthquake in ’95 while on a business trip to Kobe. She was selling onion cakes to supermarkets.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s quite ironic because the epicenter was here on Awajishima, but most of these old buildings survived. I was left with the shop, the cat. My father, who lives with his new wife in Osaka, sends me money, tells me to keep running the shop,” she says. “But I can’t. I’m too mad and not up to running a business. I still make my onion pound cakes, though, and my onion and gobo (burdock) doughnuts, and I share them with Napoleon. Fat boy eats anything.”

“What are you looking for?” she suddenly asks, and the rays of the sun catch her eyes as it emerges from behind the tall chimney of a sento (public bathhouse). Her eyes are wet and shimmering, and I think of Goshiki Beach (Five Colored Stone Beach) on the southwest coast of the island, where the stones are said to shine beautifully when the waves wash over them. I’ve never been there, but I like imagining it.

“I dunno,” I say.

Awajishima attracts more than 300,000 Kansai people a year who want a cheap summer escape to good beaches. But this is winter. The old man and I eat at a soba shop at Tsuna port terminal, which is halfway between Awaji Yumebutai and Sumoto City, and then suffer an interminable wait at an exposed bus stop, freezing, and staring at the rusting hulks of moored fishing boats in Osaka Bay, while being pelted by sizable hail stones.

“Have you ever been to Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture?” the old man asks me, putting his face right next to mine so I can hear him over the insanely loud whistle of the wind.

“Yes, I wrote a story about it.”

“Well, Lake Biwa and Awajishima are a similar shape and size. You know, the god of creation, I guess he was bored, so he scooped up the area that now forms Lake Biwa and dumped it in the Inland Sea to form Awajishima. So the legend goes.”

The bus arrives after an hour and takes us to nearby Higashiura and Nakahama Minoru’s Cat Art Museum. Nakahama, now 64, is a local artist and cat fanatic, and he often visits the museum that exclusively shows his work, setting out his canvas or paper on the floor for an impromptu workshop while people sit, watch and listen.

“The Portrait of Cats” is 76 cats long and stretches the length of one huge wall. “These are the cats Nakahama knows well,” says the old man. “Ichitaro lives at the electric shop,” he says, pointing at a cat. “Otomi belongs to the gas station,” he says pointing at another. “And Don,” he says, pointing at a big fat cat, “Don was seen wandering in a back street. Perhaps a stray. Look how fat he is; he’s like the Godfather of cats.”

As well as the drawings there are also ceramics and kakemono (hanging scrolls), all adorned with cats, and also posters of cats lined up geometrically — a parody of a mandala. “I suppose he wanted to glorify the cats to the level of Buddha,” says the old man, chuckling. “I’m afraid a serious priest would feel angry to see cats used in this sacred picture.”

The museum shop sells postcards, framed pictures, T-shirts and cups covered with Nakahama’s art. “I want to buy you a postcard,” says the old man. I choose “Don.” The attendant at the counter says, “This is the only museum in Japan where you can see so many cats painted in this sumi-e (ink pictures) style.” This info doesn’t come as a shock: Galleries of sumi-e cats are hardly popping up everywhere and jostling with shrines, onsen and geisha for top spot on a tourist’s itinerary.

Next to the exit, a huge painting titled “The cats that bring memories back” has 120 cats on it; each one reminding Nakahama of a period of his life.

“If you’re feeling better, we can go for a ride on my motorbike.”

Her fan flutters across her face, hiding all but those big hazel eyes. “Do I look more beautiful like this?” she asks. “Or like this?” She holds the fan above her head like a flamenco dancer.

“You need your own wheels to get round this island,” she says, putting the fan on the chabudai. “There’re no trains and few buses.”

Outside, she wraps Napoleon in a blanket and puts him in the motorbike’s top-box, kick-starts the engine and the three of us burn off down the street. “What about helmets?” I shout.

“Don’t worry. There’s hardly any cops around here.”

We speed furiously along the coastal road, heading south, passing Yumebutai, the World Peace Daikannon Statue and Tsuna. We take corners recklessly in seemingly abandoned old fishing villages. “You’re gonna kill us!” I shout as the low sun sets alight the emerald water of Osaka Bay, creating a huge twinkling silver field, like a soccer pitch on which a billion diamonds have been scattered. Then I hear a blaring horn and everything goes black. I wake up shouting.

“Are you OK?” asks the nurse. “Another bad dream?”

And then I wake up for real. Covered in sweat. I’m in Suzuka’s house, but she’s not here. I wait until the next morning. She doesn’t return. No Suzuka. No Napoleon.

It’s freezing so the old man and I take a taxi to Higashiura Hot Spring Hana no Yu, which pumps up water from 1,300 meters below that is saturated in sodium bicarbonate, which is said to promote smooth skin. We sit outside in a hot tub, watching light snow fall around us.

“Were you crying in the cat museum?” he asks.

“No. The wind had blown some grit into my eye,” I explain.

We take a bus back to Iwaya, stroll along the town’s shotengai (old-style shopping street) and investigate some of the narrow alleyways that criss-cross it. Colorful streets lined with family-run businesses, ramshackle buildings, shrines etc. Suddenly I see movement out of the corner of my eye. Wavy auburn hair. Can’t be. I run down the narrow lane and don’t stop until I get to Suzuka’s house. It’s boarded up. I look through a crack. No onions hang from the ceiling and the place has a musty smell.

The old man catches me up. “What is it?” he asks.

“Nothing. My mind’s playing tricks on me,” I say.

“Playing tricks,” he repeats, chuckling and rubbing his plummy proboscis.

I say goodbye to the old man and board the ferry for the 15-minute trip to Akashi on the mainland. As we pull away from Iwaya I take the postcard out of my pocket. So Napoleon is now the Don. He must have been bossing his new alleyway when Nakahama spotted him. I smile wanly and look out across the cold blue water at the biggest suspension bridge in the world, which looks pretty, all lit up at night.

Nakahama Minoru’s Cat Art Museum, www.nekobijyutukan.com. Higashiura Hot Spring Hana no Yu, open 11:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., ¥500, tel: (0799) 74-0101. Awaji Island Tourist Association, www.awaji-navi.jp/ Kyoto to Sannomiya takes one hour by train and is ¥1,060. From there, the bus to Yumebutai takes 45 minutes and is ¥900. simon.bartz888@japantimes.co.jp