Since I recently returned from a visit to Aomori Prefecture, also known as Tsugaru, I was delighted to find an English translation of a book written by of one of that area’s prominent authors – Yojiro Ishizaka. I didn’t pick up this book because I was familiar with its writer but because this area is also the hometown of my wife. It may seem a silly way to choose my reading material but I’ve been to Tsugaru often and my love for the place grows with every visit.
Although writers from Tsugaru are quite popular in Japan, only a few have been translated into English. To give you an idea of how popular Ishizaka is in Japan, there are nearly 80 movies based on his works.
As translator Sawada mentions, most scholars focus on the writings of Osamu Dazai (also from Tsugaru) whose novels give a pessimistic image of Tsugaru, emphasizing the region’s poverty, rough weather, and lack of development. Another writer from the area, Zenzo Kasai, also portrays Tsugaru in a rather bleak light. However, Ishizakal gives a perspective that’s quite opposite from the portrayals provided by Dazai or Kasai
In Ishizaka’s own words, “I myself do not want to be like Kasai or Dazai, who inflicted pain and sorrow on their families for the sake of their writing. It is not commendable to ravage private lives for the purpose of drawing a good picture, composing great music, or producing superior literature.”
This is a collection of short stories all set near Ishizaka’s hometown of Hirosaki located in the Northeast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, the area also known as Tsugaru. All the stories are set in a time before the industrial revolution and center around the protagonist Yuichi Makii, who is introduced in the first story as a sixth grade youth and son of the local doctor.
Yuiichi is excited about the upcoming Neputa Festival, which lasts for one week starting at the beginning of August. Huge colorful floats parade through the streets while musicians play flutes accompanied by the loud sounds of a taiko drum. However, the Neputa festival is only a backdrop to the story of Yuiichi’s friendship with the town prostitute Gen on whom Yuiichi has a crush.
Another story features Yuiichi’s first oyama sankei, a Tsugaru tradition of ascending Mount Iwaki, which is called the Mount Fuji of Tsugaru and is considered to be a sacred mountain. At its base is Iwakiyama Jinja (Mount Iwaki Shrine), a national shrine the locals refer to as Oku Nikko (Nikko in the recesses). Yuichi intends to climb the mountain with a couple of his friends but things don’t go as he has planned. But not wanting to shame himself by going home after his parents had reluctantly consented to his going, he is determined to make the ascent.
Aomori Prefecture is full of interesting places. There is a place called “Kirisuto no Haka” which translates to “Jesus’s Tomb.” (Yes, there really is such a place and yes, I have been there.) So I was not surprised to find Yuichi traveling with a missionary and his assistant as they try to spread the word of Christ in Tsugaru. I can still picture the missionary trying to explain the concept of Hell to the children of the village because most of the adults ignore his sermons—or the missionary getting angry at Yuichi for praying at a Shinto shrine and telling him he is not praying to the true God.
In the final story, a different character, also named Yuichi (but with the last name of Ida) returns to Tsugaru for the first time in ten years. Although he’s been back on numerous occasions, it was usually only for a day or two and purely for business. On this latest trip, he decides to stay for an extended period of time, planning to spend his days walking around town, meeting friends, taking naps. But after a week, he becomes bored and decides to visit the hot springs at Dake and spend the night at one of the inns. While he is wandering around, he notices a woman who reminds him of his first visit to the hot springs.
As the title suggests, these stories are about the everyday life of growing up in Tsugaru: from participating in local festivals, to making a pilgrimage up a sacred mountain; fighting with rival neighborhood kids or trying to get in to a show free at the Yanagi theater. These stories celebrate the joy of growing up in Tsugaru (Aomori Prefecture).
There is something special about reading stories set in places you have visited yourself. On my latest excursion to Aomori, I went to the hot springs at Dake. My first visit to a shrine for the New Year was at Mount Iwaki Shrine, and although the Neputa Festival is celebrated in August, there is a place called Neputa Mura in Hirosaki where you can check out the colorful floats and even try your hand at beating one of the large taiko drums. With all these places still fresh in my mind, I felt as if I were reading my own diary, except all these stories are set in pre-industrial Japan.~Ernie Hoyt