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Car Culture

 

Showers of Light and Analog Getaways

 

A travel story with a difference

Words by Peter Lyon

Photos by James Whitlow Delano and Peter Lyon

 

One of my favorite Japanese words is 'komorebi.' A combination of four characters, it eloquently captures the essence of a phenomenon which cannot easily be expressed in English. Arguably the best translation might be sunlight shining through the trees, but even this phrase is just that, a translation.

In fact, Japan's fascination with nature and its well-defined four seasons has given rise to dozens of poetic words like samidare, meaning early summer rain, or nagokaze meaning gentle spring breeze, which cleverly express natural phenomena in two or three characters and can often be found in haiku or Japanese poems.

These words are not taught in university level language courses, or at least they weren't back in the early 80s in Australia when I studied the language. But once learned, such phrases lead to a whole new appreciation of a language, an appreciation that blossoms when you escape the confines of Tokyo's megalopolis and get out into the countryside.

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As a motor journalist, I often find myself test driving new cars in Hakone or Ibaragi on quick evaluation sessions that normally last only a few hours. On a trip to Nakamachi town in Ibaragi prefecture one afternoon in early March, however, I found myself with more time to take in the countryside and enjoy the arrival of spring after my usual test drive. Not pressured to return a test car -- Nissan 350Z Roadster - by a certain time, I took a quiet scenic route in the borrowed convertible, soaked up the komorebi sunshine and reflected on how and why I started learning Japanese all those years ago.

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In the early 70's, teenagers in the US, Europe and Australia were mesmerized by the hit TV series Kung Fu. Its focus on Far Eastern philosophy, spiritual training and martial arts instruction was as shocking and addictive as the Flower Power movement of the late 60's. Everything about Kung Fu was exotic. But while this show was based on a Chinese discipline, China in the 70's was still a world away from the everyday lives of westerners.  

However, Japan was Australia's biggest export partner, and Japanese was being taught in schools. You could buy Japanese cars and watch your favourite shows on Japanese TVs. And you could learn karate and judo at local gyms. So, sparked by my initial fascination in Kung Fu and the inspired eastern philosophical wisdom presented by actor David Carradine, I began learning Japanese at high school. From early on, our teachers instilled in us that language is culture and vice versa and I strove to learn as much about Japan and its culture as I could. Then in 1979, at the end of my first year at university, I came to Japan for the first time searching for the exotic, spiritual way of life that we had learned about in school. But it was nowhere to be found, not in the big cities at least. So I went to stay with a friend in a tiny town in Yamanashi prefecture and was surprised by what I found.  

 

At 75 years of age, my friend's grandfather had never met a foreigner before. And although he had lost friends in the war, he welcomed me as if I was a long lost nephew. He took me down to their field to dig for potatoes and chop wood for the fire. Obviously I had done similar activities in Australia with my relatives, but to do these things in a foreign culture and in a different language became my first true Kung Fu experience. In a foreign land you find yourself becoming a sponge, trying to absorb as much as you can. I felt like Cane himself. 

I would be the first one to admit that living in the digital society that is Tokyo has made me a little impatient, and tolerance levels may have waned marginally. That's why a trip to somewhere like Nakamachi, to drive the open roads, breath in the clean air and chat with the locals is the perfect opportunity to just slow down and recollect where the passion for learning came from in the first place.  

 

Areas I like to frequent are not found in any guide book. These are places I call my 'analog getaways' simply because they are so far removed from the digital age, so distant from the computers, cars, cell phones and cameras that occupy my every waking moment. One such area some 90 minutes north of Tokyo that I enjoy visiting is Nakamachi in Ibaraki. Exiting the Joban expressway at Naka, you come to an open expanse of paddy fields where the only sign of life is a small soba noodle shop. 

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Plonked in the rice fields like an oasis, Soba-en Satake serves some of the best noodles I've ever tasted. Bathed in early spring sunshine, Satake has its own organic garden where the staff grow herbs, mushrooms and spring onions. As I walked around the back of the shop to see the garden that morning, one of the staff called in my direction asking me to help her pull a couple of spring onions from the ground which had frozen overnight. I could feel another Cane experience coming on. These ladies serve fresh noodles with a smile but talk to you as if you were an old school buddy. There's none of the pretence or haste found in so many restaurants in Tokyo. Time seems to slow down and the atmosphere is addictive.

Bidding Satake's staff farewell, I drove towards the mountains. By this time, my cheeks and forehead started to feel a cool moist change in the air. In Tokyo, I drive with the recycle air button on permanently, not permitting noxious diesel fumes to enter the cabin. But out here in the middle of Ibaraki with hardly any traffic, I can't get enough fresh air. I want to bottle it up and take it home. Driving a convertible exposes you to countless stimuli and makes you very aware of your five senses. I could even hear the faint song of a Nightingale in the distance. It's at times like this that your mind starts to wander, to the things that made great impressions on you.  

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I remembered the time when I was 18 attending my first Japanese class at university. Seeing the characters flowing forth from my lecturer's fude brush was eye-opening. Every letter seemed like a work of art. Then we were introduced to ink and charcoal drawings and even learned about basic Japanese architecture including the time-honored warabuki straw-thatched rooves that I found scattered around the Nakamachi area.  

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Having driven some 40 minutes north-west, I came to a 500m long tunnel. The air was cool and crisp on my face and the light had faded to a soft yellow. After exiting the tunnel, I turned left at the first intersection and headed towards another oasis. Located by itself next to a river at the lowest point of a valley, Le Temps, is the ultimate analog getaway.  

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A cross between a cafe and an antique museum, this two-storey building houses an amazing collection of wall clocks, watches and cameras spanning the last century. In addition to well-known names such as Leica and Minolta, the owner, who has been collecting for 25 years, also serves coffee in the same cups and saucers used in the White House. When I eat my noodles at Satake, I feel as if time has slowed down. Here at Le Temps, it seems to stop. Surrounded by dozens of clocks and watches on every wall, none of them ticking, I thought that the presence of so many time-oriented instruments would sub-consciously hasten my coffee drinking when I first visited this place many years ago. But the reverse happened. This cafeL is always surprisingly relaxing and time seems infinite. And the fact that you can’t pick up digital signals for mobile phones inside this cafe seems so poetic.

 

Next time, I might go during the 'koh-yoh' season when the leaves turn red and yellow. Ah, there's another Japanese word that's hard to put into English.

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COPYRIGHT(C)2004 PETER LYON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.