After graduation from college I moved to Japan to polish my Japanese, before my first career move working for a Japanese news wire. I lived in a small town in Fukui prefecture called Maruoka. (The Japanese Ministry of Education sponsors short term contracts for foreigners to work in schools and government offices to assist in fluency in English. I also participated for several years in similar projects in the US through the Japanese Embassy, pairing Japanese language students with visiting government officials as guides and conversation partners.)
The town where I lived was called Maruoka (meaning “circle hill”) on the plains to the west of the Japan Alps. Maruoka has one of the oldest surviving feudal-era wooden castles in the country. The castle is affectionately called Kasumi-ga-jo (cloud/mist castle) as there are stories of feudal era attacks from other clans who went in search for the castle, but were unable to find it due to its being enshrouded in fog.
During the harvest festival in Maruoka’s downtown, I saw a group of men and women from the “Kasumi Taiko” troupe circling a large taiko drum. The group leader saw me staring tantalized in the front row of the onlookers and invited me to jump in to try improvising rhythms with the group.
They said I was reasonably good and invited me to join their weekly practices. After a fair bit of training I was able to join the group in their performances at weddings and cultural festivals around the prefecture.
The main island of Japan, called Honshu, was formed by the collision of two tectonic plates. The center of the island rises up as the Pacific plate subducts and forces the Othostk plate up toward the sky, forming a mountain range commonly called the “Japan Alps.” They are fantastic for hiking. Small agrarian towns line the valleys. Many of them still preserve the thatched roof architecture from centuries back.
Just north of where I lived is the city of Kanazawa and the Noto peninsula. Huge tiered rice paddies are grown along the coast because the mountain terrain is less hospitable to farmers.
After my contract was over, two of my friends suggested I join them in a 800 kilometer bike ride from Kanazawa to Shimonoseki. As we rode along the coastal route via Matsue, it was not as difficult as conquering the mountain routes. Discovering much of the rural areas of Japan outside the populated cities on bike is one of my favorite memories of Japan.
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