I owed a favor to an old colleague whose private English students I had once stolen, so when he called and asked me to contribute my thoughts at an important government meeting to decide the future of CRT (Communicative Recess Taking) in Japan, I couldn’t say no—although I tried as many variations of “no” as I could think of.
I learned too late that the meeting would not be held anywhere near Tokyo Disneyland as I had hoped, but rather in the breadbasket of Japan’s rice industry, the great northern prefecture of Omagata. “Oh my,” I said when I located it on a map. It appeared the trip would require several changes of train, but my travel agent assured me I wouldn’t need to get a visa stamp or exchange any currency. My former colleague had to remind me, though, to bring an extra five or six layers of clothing for the brisk late summer evenings.
As the train came out of the last of the tunnels and raced down the northern face of the mountains, I saw mile after mile of concrete track reinforcement—the only view afforded me by my sub-basement-level seat on the Ayamari triple-decker shinkansen. I knew, however, that just on the other side of those blurred cement slabs were vast rice fields such as I’d never seen—and as it turns out, still have never seen. Every train stop celebrated the joys of growing rice with recorded arrival music sung by a chorus of singing frogs.
Omagata’s train stations are magnificent structures. Each one has an arching, airplane-hanger-sized roof over it, offering riders protection from the winter snow as well as from the pterodactyl-sized dragonflies that invade every summer. I would think an Omagata bid for the Winter Olympics would be bolstered by the ease with which shinkansen stations could double as ski jump ramps.
My first stop upon arrival at Omagata City was of course the Omagata da Vida Sake Museum. As a matter of fact, the train station was positioned so as to force passengers through the museum on their way out to the street. This inconvenience drew no complaint from me, however, and about two hours later I stepped out of the station/museum building, where I found my perturbed host waiting. I invited him back into the museum, bought him five “tasting tokens,” and all was quickly forgiven.
Rice in its many forms is the foremost concern and prevailing topic of discussion among Omagatans. A typical informal greeting goes like this: One person tips their hat and says “Gohan!” (“Table rice!”), to which the other replies with a smile, “Getouttahere!” (“I’ve certainly had my share today, thanks!”). I read somewhere that the local dialect has about 500 terms for the various states that rice appears in, from qanugglir (slushy rice) to nutaryuk (dry rice to be thrown at weddings) to pirrelvag (mountain of rancid rice dumped on one’s house as retribution for family dishonor). The restaurant we ate at had three menus: one each for food and drink, and one big fat one for rice varieties. Half-and-half options were allowed for the indecisive.
The people there are warm and friendly, with an easy sense of humor. And most of them achieve this disposition without any help from the local sake. They’re very accommodating as well. They made great efforts to speak to me in Japanese, which I found quite remarkable, at least until my host informed me that Japanese is actually the main language spoken up there. After dinner we went to a fabulous Irish pub, one of the best in Japan. (And as we know, Japan is world famous for its Irish pubs.) We sat, drank, and sang old favorites like “Sake in the Jar” and “Rice Paddy Murphy Died.”
I was a bit pressed for time on my return and had decided beforehand to fly home rather than take the train. So the next day my host kindly drove me out to Omagata’s new airport, cutely named “OMG We’re Flying!” Here, unfortunately, occurred the only sour spot of my whole trip, for which I must take full responsibility. In my rush through the crowds I inadvertently tipped over a stocky gentleman’s luggage, and in his anger he punched me right in the ricebasket.