Tendo is a city of about 60,000, situated where the rice-paddies meet the foothills on the east side of the wide, sprawling Yamagata valley. Fran’s flat is on the western bounds of town, with a clear view across the valley towards the mountains beyond – when I can find her camera cable I’ll be taking loads of photos. Yamagata prefecture gets a lot of snow, and Tendo was half buried the stuff when I arrived, but in an utterly controlled way – shovelled off the streets and pavements and piled up conscientiously in backlots.
Buildings in these parts are almost all very new (Tendo was only founded in the fifties, apparently), and generally bland, with neither the standard depressing ugliness or occasional inspired flair of Western modern architecture. Hard edges, blocky shapes and right angles predominate; doors slide, or open outwards, and there are no chimneys anywhere. They all seem to be built to a very high standard and, unexpectedly for a nation stereotyped as ultra-conformist, there’s a high degree of individuality in the buildings themselves; though almost all houses follow the basic two-storey, first-floor-terrace pattern, they all seem built to different plans and no two actually look alike; there’s a roadside eclecticism much more genuine and endearing than the insecure suburban English trend of attempting to bling out identical semis with aftermarket windowpanes. Shopfronts and city buildings, too, have this strategic ugliness yet tactical grace: the broad styles are functional and unimaginative, but the detail is individual and very attractive.
After arriving and getting myself acquainted with the kotatsu (a table about a foot off the ground, with a blanket around it and an electric heater underneath: possibly the best thing Japan has ever invented), we went out to celebrate my arrival with soba – thin, square buckwheat noodles; a Tendo regional speciality. Tendo has lots of regional specialities, another being shogi (Japanese chess), and tombstone-shaped shogi pieces adorn the city’s manhole covers, bollards, the tops of some buildings, and whatever else people can think of. So the walk to the soba joint was an exercise in spotting shogi pieces, and in trying not to be unnerved by the thousands upon thousands of crows which gather on all the overhead wires at dusk (and there’s lots of wiring: power lines are almost all above-ground in Japan, I think as an earthquake precaution.)
The soba place had a breastshot waterwheel outside, which I assume was some reference to milling the buckwheat flour, and was warm and full of tasty food smells, with staff in orange overalls and blue aprons happily waving us in. As well as the big bowl of noodle soup, with two huge prawns in tempura batter, they gave me a little bowl of pickled vegetable things, another of miso soup, and unlimited quantities of buckwheat tea. An elderly couple next to us, overhearing English chatter, said hello! England! Beatles country! and Fran engaged them in some Japanese conversation while I nodded and smiled along. Tendo people are generally extremely friendly, but, lacking any other way of communicating, I seem to be forced to smile a lot. This is extremely uncharacteristic and uncomfortable for me.
On Sunday, we took a train over to Yamagata City, the prefecture capital, to book our shinkansen tickets for the return journey. The train wasn’t crowded, but was extremely warm, and definitely built for Japanese people; the dangling overhead handles whacked me on the head more than once, and I had to bend over to see out of the windows. The tickets, bought from a rather intricate vending machine were 230 yen – about £1.70 – each direction, but they don’t do return journeys here. A party of small girls, after spending some time staring surreptitiously at the foreign giant, whispering to one another and working up their nerve, ventured “What country are you from?” to me, and were seemingly delighted when I returned “England” – and subsequently shocked when Fran asked them in Japanese who their English teacher was (turned out to be her neighbour and fellow ALT Mindy, who I’d briefly met arriving in Tendo; good work there.)
Roads, waterways and the ground itself all have a landscaped, carefully constructed quality to them. Rivers are allowed to run pretty much wild and free outside the towns, but as soon as there’s a hint of human habitation or industry they’re running through managed, manicured artificial channels, steep-sided squares for the smaller streams and double levees for the great broad rivers. If I had to pick one thing that epitomised civil engineering here, it would be the concrete-tiled artificial embankment; they’re everywhere, on riverbanks and railway cuttings, forming roadside abutments and the foundations of houses.
At Yamagata station, we secured our reservations at the ticket office after some milling around outside wondering whether it was the appropriate place; an older gentleman, seeing our confusion, came up to us saying “May I help you?”, and, like the kids on the train, looked thoroughly surprised when Fran answered him in Japanese. After that, we went on a brief adventure to locate a cinema Fran remembered, but found that they weren’t showing The Hobbit after all. The film posters in the lobby all focused closely on characters’ faces.
We wandered the streets for a bit, and then went to a fast-food-y gyuudon place for an early lunch. You put your money into a vending machine in the little lobby, press the buttons next to your dish of choice, and it issues you a ticket which you then present to the serving staff inside. Having been warned about Japanese portion sizes, I bought the 480-yen super-size, which actually turned out to be overkill – I could barely finish it! The food was simple – bacon-thin strips of beef on sticky Japanese rice – but extremely tasty, and our bit of table came equipped with various sauces and a jar of pickled ginger. For another 50 yen I bought an egg which, beaten with and poured over the rice, was delicious as well as binding it all together and making it much easier to eat with chopsticks.
In the evening, after returning to Tendo, we went out for dinner with the other JETs – Mindy, her fellow Kiwi Aaron, and an American chap called Chris; Aaron drove us to an all-you-can-eat yakiniku place. Yakiniku is a pretty close second to the kotatsu in the hierarchy of Japanese Stuff I Think Is Amazing – we sat at a table fitted with a grill in the centre, and were provided with endless plates of incredibly tasty thin-sliced raw beef. The meat grew fattier by our third and last plate – I don’t know if that was the restaurant dropping us subtle hints and trying to limit their losses to the ravenous foreigners, or just that they had run out of the good stuff.
After that, we went for karaoke, which I’ve never done before. Seeing as I a) can’t really sing, b) the only songs I actually know really well are obscure hipster trash which weren’t on the machine, I embarrassed myself terribly with the only two songs I tried solo (and probably on the duets as well, but the glory of it was that I couldn’t tell.) And the point of karaoke is to have fun and be entertained, rather than demonstrate any actual skill… I’m going to keep telling myself that, anyway. (Fran, of course, broke these rules due to being an amazing singer, but pff, she’s just a show-off.) The other JETs are all great fun and totally lovely; it’s really nice to see that Fran’s fallen in with such good folks.
We returned to Chez Fran, hoarse, happy and thoroughly meated out.