Week 5: A Snail on a Bullet Train

Time feels so distorted here. I live fourteen hours in the future, but I feel like time is slipping through my fingers. Everyone here is scrambling, racing towards International Week, and with it our departure from Technos. At our Monday meeting, Selena mentioned our farewell party for the first time, and it took me aback for a moment. It’s not as though I feel I have wasted my time in Japan, per say, or that I would necessarily ask for more, but it took me by surprise. In just a month’s time, I have found myself on an internal rollercoaster, riding from elation to anxiety to awe to loneliness and finally to a sense of contentment. I am, to some extent, a different person than the one who stood in the boarding line at O’Hare Airport, and only now am I settling down enough to feel the extent of that change catching up with me.

I think a bullet train is an apropos mental image of this. On Saturday, I boarded a Shinkansen, one of the many high-speed bullet trains that connect Japan’s major cities, and initially, I didn’t feel like we were going that fast. Only after we had picked up speed after a few stops near Tokyo did I see a vast sea of brown and pastel-colored rooftops beneath cloud-obscured mountains whiz past my window. Yet the Shinkansen itself is remarkably smooth, gliding along the specially-built rails in a way that passengers can’t physically feel the high speeds. Time feels like it’s moving same as usual, but only when you step back and look around do you realize how fast you’re truly going.

How ironic then, that the place I was riding the Shinkansen to encouraged quite the opposite. Near Odawara City, Kaisei Town was holding its annual Ajisai Festival, an event were the main attraction is rows and rows of beautifully blooming hydrangeas. Festival goers are encouraged to “be like snails,” taking their time roaming the hydrangea-lined footpaths against the backdrop of expansive rice paddy fields and distant mountains. This was the last weekend of the festival, so some of the bushes were a little wilted from the summer heat, but others, particularly the blue hydrangeas, were stunning.

Of course, there were other things to do at the festival besides seeing the flowers. There were food stalls, little flea market tents, and tables selling souvenirs of the festival’s very cute mascot Ajisai-chan, as well as a main pavilion that held various performances. As I made my way to the pavilion, I followed the sound of thunderous drumming that turned out to be a singular drummer, playing with so much strength and frenzy that at one point his drumstick went flying off stage, but then he just picked up a spare stick and kept going like a boss. Other performances had that particular brand of Japanese quirkiness, such as when the Ajisai-chan mascot was joined by someone dressed as the man from Pen Pineapple Apple Pen, an image that I’m sure will stay with me for decades.

However, there was one act that I just couldn’t sit through, which involved a group of baby and adult Japanese macaques. Now, I work at a zoo during my summers, so I’m not wholly opposed to animals as a form of entertainment. However, there was something unsettling about seeing these creatures, dressed up in flashy clothes and held by trainers with leashes, being prompted to perform dangerous tricks despite visible signs of fear and discomfort. I asked some students at Technos about it, and they said they didn’t like those shows, either, but no one at the festival seemed particularly perturbed by it. I certainly don’t mean to shame the animal trainers or the festival planners; after all, America has its fair share of animal mistreatment, especially in the meat industry. I simply mention this as the first time a cultural difference in Japan has caused me distress.

Of course, the concept behind the festival as a whole was a huge cultural departure. I mean, can you imagine a situation in which thousands of Americans would congregate at a large event simply to admire some flowers? And yet that’s exactly what I found myself doing, as I sat down on one of the secluded benches between two hydrangea shrubs, and listened to nothing but the murmur of people and a tiny brook lined with pails for people to water the flowers.

Admittedly, I used to be a lot better at sitting still and enjoying nature before college turned me into somewhat of a workaholic. But I think that this experience came at just the right time for me, at a point where the future is something that weighs heavily on my mind. Sitting and munching on some taiyaki and kakigori (flavored ice shavings) gave me the chance for some much-needed calm and self-reflection, which I think is part of the appeal of festivals like these.

After the festival, I spent the rest of my time at Odawara Castle, which served as the stronghold of the powerful Odawara Hojo clan during Japan’s Warring States Period. The castle, which is visible above the treetops even as you exit Odawara Station, is surrounded by breathtaking gardens, where I ran into a live taiko performance by a group of high-school students. The students brought such a high-energy performance, as they chanted a rousing kakegoe chorus of “sore sore sore!” while they danced and played; much to my amazement, one of the girls who led the group never stopped smiling, even as she was sweating and short of breath.

The inside of the castle has been renovated into a museum which contains relics from the Warring States Period, including swords and armor from the Odawara Hojo clan. While pictures weren’t allowed inside the castle, I was able to capture the view from the top balcony just before heading home before the evening rain.


That’s all for now; see you guys next week.

One thought on “Week 5: A Snail on a Bullet Train

  1. Great post–lots of interesting stuff. I do take issue with one thing you said, though: “I mean, can you imagine a situation in which thousands of Americans would congregate at a large event simply to admire some flowers?” Chicago Flower Show. Every spring. I’ve never been there in person, but I’ve seen the pics and videos. Literally, thousands of Americans congregating at an event simply to admire some flowers. And I think they have the equivalent in all major American cities. You should check it out some year! (I should check it out some year!)

    Like

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