Our destination was the small town of Itako, all of a 20 minute drive from home. Itako is famed for its canals, boat rides, and especially, the occassion of our visit, the annual Itako Ayame Matsuri (Itako Iris Festival), which draws 500,000 visitors to this town of 25,000. Itako is also well known for their delicious unagi - broiled eels. Yum. The town was abuzz this day. The streets were lined with boxes of marigolds, brooms and rakes were flying everywhere, reed screens were being put up to hide rusty metal sheds and other objectionable objects from view, and men with weed whackers (whiz-bizzers as my mother calls them) were clearing tall grass along the canals.
I might have thought they were being extra hospitable just for Pandabonium and K, but I knew better. His Imperial Majesty AKIHITO, the 125th Emperor of Japan, and Her Imperial Majesty MICHIKO, Empress of Japan, were going to visit within a few days to see the iris flowers and plant a tree or two in honor of Arbor day. Que the trumpets! Fanfare!
Arbor day is a peculiar occassion where heads of state in various parts of the world plant a few symbolic trees and make speeches about nature, peace, and future generations, all the while, the corporations of those same countries are busy cutting and burning the rainforests of the world at the rate of about 78 million acres per year. During the course of a brief 20 minute speech, another 3000 acres will disappear. As Mark Twain said, "It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense."
In the USA, Resident Bush's performance was no exception. On the first US Arbor day in 1872, a million (MILLION!) trees were planted. This number has diminished somewhat over the years to, well, uh, one actually. But the ceremony still maintains its noble stature. As Dave Barry would say, "I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. " The following account is compiled from the AP report and the White House official web page as indicated:
President Plants Tree at White House in Honor of Arbor Day
AP -"The young American chestnut was already sitting in its hole in the ground and a fresh pile of dirt was waiting nearby when the President -- wearing a business suit -- strode out to throw on three shovelfuls and pronounce his Arbor Day commemoration complete.
THE PRESIDENT: Glad you all are here. Ready, Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY JOHANNS: I'm ready.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I'm honored -- we're honored to be here with the Secretary of Agriculture, as well as Marshal Case, who is head of the American Chestnut Foundation. We are planting an American chestnut tree here at the White House. This is the 133rd year of Arbor Day. Our message is to our fellow citizens, plant trees -- it's good for the economy and it's good for the environment.
AP: "We don't want to get carried away," laughed President Bush...
As well, Marshal informs me that the American Chestnut Foundation has worked very closely with the Agriculture Department to coming up with a disease-resistant strain of the American chestnut. And he says we're making good progress, and that one day the American chestnut, which had been wiped out by blight, will be coming back. And this is our little part to help it come back.
So, Mr. Secretary, are you prepared?
SECRETARY JOHANNS: I am ready. Let's --
THE PRESIDENT: A man known for shoveling a lot of things. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY JOHANNS: Exactly.
THE PRESIDENT: Ready to go?
SECRETARY JOHANNS: Yes, I am ready.
THE PRESIDENT: All right, let's do it.
AP: Each man pitched spadefuls of dirt into the hole holding the green-leafed sapling -- Bush mock-grunting at the effort, presidential dog Miss Beazley underfoot and Johanns only nearly missing the president's pants leg at one point. Bush then quickly called it a day and headed back inside the White House.
Several National Park Services workers moved in to finish the job..."
PANDABONIUM: If only Miss Beazley had peed on Bush's foot...
I don't know what the Emperor had to say on Arbor day. Probably something equally inspiring.
As we entered Itako and approached the main canal, each street corner was staked out with several women (not what you are thinking!) in traditional cotton prints and reed hats and scarves waving down cars and stopping pedestrians to offer.... boat rides. They are called "musume sendo" which means "boatman's daughter". These women were probably a lot more successful at attracting customers back around, say, 1955, when they still had their youth! K bargained a bit and got a decent price for a boat ride as well as free parking for the day.
We were the only customers in the six-passenger boat as it putted down the canal - the gondolier style bamboo pole has long been replaced by an outboard motor. This change was necessitated not as one might assume by the aging of the boat ladies, who have been hanging on to this trade for half a century, but rather because the town dredged the canals making them too deep for poles to be an effective means of locomotion. We did pass other boats with muscular oarsmen propelling them with a single oar at the stern. Weddings here in Itako have brides in white kimono sitting in an oar powered boat going down the canal to meet their groom (or is it up the creek to meet their doom?). Shops offer paper dolls depicting them along with iris themed scarves and handkerchiefs made with local dyes.
Itako is located along the Tonegawa (Tone River) which in the Edo period was rerouted so as to make a canal system that allowed rice and other goods to be transported by boat all the way to Edo (now Tokyo), some 50 miles to the West. It also allowed the Shogun to come out to Itako and fool around. I'm not making that up either. Last century, another frequent visitor was Ujo Noguchi (1882-1945), a poet born in Ibaraki. He who wrote many famous folk songs, such as Akai Kutsu (red shoes), and some about Itako, which became popular throughout Japan.
Our boat lady was informative and gave us a nice ride, but there was not much to see except the canal, foot bridges and other boats because the iris beds are all beyond the banks and not visible. It think if would be a nicer attraction if they planted flowers on berms along the canal so that they could be viewed from the water, but I don't think the boat ladies and the flower garden people are on the same page.
After our ride we had a very good teishoku lunch at a restaurant overlooking the canal and gardens, then walked if off with a stroll through the flowers. Teishoku simply means "set lunch" and is usually served in a segmented box with a different food in each of the separate compartments. (See the lunch pictured in my post "Ume Festival: When Is An Apricot A Plum?") A good teishoku to try on Maui, by the way, is at Tokyo Tei restaurant on Lower Main Street. Order the "Teishoku B", and enjoy. Meanwhile back in Itako.... There are footpaths and bridges through the flowers and the gardens hold much more than iris flowers. Lotus ponds with several varieties of various colors add to the interest. They say there are over 500 varieties of iris grown here. A number of gardeners were busy weeding and tending to the lotus ponds in preparation for the royal visit.
Next to the gardens there was Japan Post van with an open side and built in counter for selling stamps. Japan Post often will set up shop in a booth or van like this at tourist sites or during festivals to sell stamps with related images. This one offered several sheets to choose from with pictures of iris flowers, brides in boats, and flowers of Ibaraki Prefecture. Vendors are also there to sell you iris and lotus plants so you can grow your own - good luck.
So, what about the Princess and the pea you ask? Um, that's pee, but OK, I'm getting to that.
On the way home we saw ten or twelve police riot buses full of uniformed officers - not in riot gear, just uniforms. They were practicing deployment for the royal visit. Over the next few days they would be seen everywhere around the Kashima City area. The Emperor and Empress would stay at the Kashima Central Hotel which is on a main route running North and South through the city. That route is one which one of my expat friends, Chuck, drives along to orchestra rehearsals. As this was a week before our concert, we had Sunday rehearsal and on his way in Chuck saw police on rooftops and at intersections all along the way. Kind of creepy.
Personally, I think the cops were there to make the royals feel important and boost their sagging egos a bit. They have oppressing affairs of state on their minds this year. One being their, shall we say, 'not-exactly-stunning' daughter, Princess Sayako (aka Princess Nori) who is finally getting married off at age 36 (whew!), albeit to a commoner.
Having been raised in the USA myself, and able to trace one and perhaps two ancestors on my mother's side to military service in the revolutionary war against King George III (of England - not the village idiot who thinks he is king now), I've never had much use for or interest in royal families. Still don't. Frankly, I'd see them all as an anachronistic joke were it not that some of them, such as England's, still have very real power to do harm. In fariness to the Heisei Emperor, he has also been making a series of visits to WWII sites, the most recent being Saipan, to honor all people killed in that war and raise consciousness about the devistating consequences of war.
Anyway, as I marveled at the bus loads of police, K told me that Empress Michiko had been to Kashima at least once before, some thirty five years ago, while Michiko was Crown Princess, and K was a mere child. She had visited local industries and retirement homes and so on (royals really don't know what to do with themselves these days and it's just as well if you ask me). K was in elementary school back then and stood alongside the road with her classmates waving flags as the Princess went by.
One of the stops for Princess Michiko was Sumitomo Metals, a very large steel plant in Kashima which makes hot and cold rolled steel plate. In preparation for her visit, Sumitomo completely remodeled a bathroom for her at a cost of one million yen. That was in 1970. Adjusted for inflation, that would be over 3,000,000 yen today, equivalant to nearly US$28,000. I could not help but wonder if the Princess even used those facilities during her visit. I can imagine the management at Sumitomo trying to figure out how to make sure she saw the wonderful porcelain conveniences they installed just for her. Offer cup after cup of tea perhaps? In the end, did she even powder her nose? I would hope that for $28,000 she would at least have taken a pee!