at the "fumoto"
NOT MENTION ANYWHERE THAT I WAS GOING TO BE LIVING TWELVE MILES FROM AN
San is the majestic volcano that so dominates the landscape of central
Iwate prefecture. It is at the center of the agricultural area of
Iwate, with Shizukuishi`s famous Koiwai Farms (can you say "Ben
and Jerry`s" in Japanese?) a mere twenty kilometers away. It
is also clearly visible from the capital city, Morioka, and one
could estimate that a good half million people will look at it in
the course of a normal day. It is also a huge tourist attraction
with its surrounding ski areas, onsens (hot springs), ryokan (rural
lodges), the mountain itself, and its accompanying ridges, forests,
and hiking trails attracting many skiers and outdoor enthusiasts
to Iwate from faraway places. Not to mention more than a few world-famous
volcanologists, as the World Geothermal Conference was held in Morioka
last year, right in the shadows of our friend, Mount Iwate.
Iwate-San also came
to my attention a little later than one would expect. In June of 1998,
I received a package of information from the Iwate Prefectural Government,
as I was going to spend the next three years, teaching at the Iwate
School for the Blind, as a member of the JET (Japanese Exchange and
Teaching Program.) In the information packet was a map of Morioka, my
home until July 2001. I also received a few brochures, clearly not translated
by a native speaker (Unless you consider "abundanted pretty whiteness
of snowy crystals", "Let`s Skiing" and "In 1993
very much of worldly people comed to World Alpine Ski championship first
finals at Raindrop-Rock ski place in Iwate"...natural), that trumpeted
Iwate`s special features. I learned that one can gorge themselves on
soba noodles in a traditional "wanko soba" eating contest.
I learned that Iwate is one of the worlds leading producers of sea urchin...now
don`t get me wrong...as I love most types of sushi, and did long before
I came to Japan, but if you make me eat that.. that..."stuff",
you better pass along a bottle of ketchup...make it a big one too. I
learned that a famous Japanese poet called Takuboku
in English, for the sake of levity...), lived in Iwate and there is
a museum at his honeymoon site. I think there may also be a museum or
two at love hotels he frequented with his mistresses, and a memorial
to a place he once brushed his teeth at, but please do not quote me
Curiously absent from this information package was, at least in blatantly
obvious form, mention of the flagship landmark of the prefecture, Mt.
Iwate. Instead, there was the famous "Ishiwari-Zakura". It
is exactly what it says in Japanese; a "rock-splitting cherry tree",
a tree that has somehow grown adult through a crack in a huge rock.
Memorable? Yes...but not quite as commanding as a 2000-meter tall volcano
either. Interesting to see? Of course, but it is right next to the busiest
part of Morioka and four-lane traffic, it will occupy no more than five
minutes of your time in an appreciably exciting fashion.
The next information packet, that from the Iwate chapter of AJET, the
JET program members association was equally helpful. It was full of
all kinds of undecipherable slang, vague references, "in-jokes",
and witty putdowns of other members. They were probably designed to
get one to think that Iwate was one twelve month long "buzz",
and your AJET "sempai"(senior) guides were omnipotent. These
tidbits were of absolutely no use to a person who had never been to
Iwate. It contained a guide to all the best places to buy hamburgers
in Iwate (McDonalds? When you are less than 100 miles from the world
freshest and most delicious sushi?), where to shop for bagel chips,
Dr.Pepper, and Milo bars, stories about current members making funny
mistakes in Japanese, and the phone number for Foreign Buyer`s Club,
even a few actual helpful bits of information. However, IT DID NOT MENTION
ANYWHERE THAT I WAS GOING TO BE LIVING TWELVE MILES (20 KILOMETERS)
FROM AN ACTIVE VOLCANO!
The little precious bit of information about Iwate San did not even
come my way in three days of JET orientation in Tokyo. No, I did not
become aware of that, until I was on the bullet train heading for Morioka,
literally, and figuratively, the "last stop" on the shinkansen.
By that time, turning back was not an option..... It came my way through
a fellow first year JET, who had been an exchange student in Japan before.
Later in this trip, he related to me a story about how Japanese people
have "drinks with fish eyes and pureed guts in them!" Later,
he bought a yogurt drink with blueberries in them and passed it over
to me. Of course at that time I DID NOT KNOW that they were blueberries,
or the liquid was yogurt! I think you get the picture. Swallowing that
first gulp was one of the bravest things I have done in my life. The
expression on my face must have been worth a million dollars. Of course,
this did nothing to enhance the believability of his "volcano story".
I just would have to see it for myself.
Naturally, when we arrived in Morioka, it was overcast for a few days,
and I did not actually see
Iwate-San until I had moved into my apartment in Morioka`s Kuroishino
neighborhood. My English Teaching supervisor said "Don`t Worry,
(the first of about 500,000 times he would say "Don`t Worry"
to me in three years... about 499,992 times it was not warranted..)
Kuroishino is on a big hill, even if it erupts you will be safe from
the lava here! (Actually, his English was not all that great and it
took about five minutes to get the message across)" Of course,
at that point all I could remember was the line from the trailer for
the Pierce Brosnan volcano movie "Dante`s Inferno", circa
1998; "Mt. St. Helens erupted with a force FIFTY TIMES that of
the first atomic bomb" rolling around in my head. In my mind, those
twelve miles to Iwate San could have been twelve feet, or even twelve
For my stay in Morioka, I always seemed to have a fair amount of paranoia
about the eruption of Mt. Iwate, and just as much about the Iwate government
being cash-depleted by such an occurrence (Providing my NOT being deep-fried
by the same occurrence!), and having a fairly decent paying job being
Of course, my paranoia is well founded. Iwate San has not erupted since
the nineteen twenties, and has been showing increasing signs of "geologic
activity"(that is an erudite way of saying "She is gonna BLOW
HER TOP one of these days!" ..or decades). I experienced my first
decent-sized earthquake in the fall of 1998 that, not surprisingly,
originated very close to Iwate San. If one has never experienced a "decent
sized" earthquake, it is as if you are approximately four or five
feet from the "shinkansen" (bullet train), as it passes by
you at full-speed.
For all three years of my JET stay, during the winter, steam coming
out of the mountain`s secondary crater was highly visible, especially
from the nearby ski areas I frequented. I handled this visible manifestation
of "geologic proclivity" better than one of my fellow JETS
(Laura Burritt, for those of you who are curious). Skiing one day at
Hachimantai Resort, tucked right under the peak, at the base, she just
simply refused to look at it the whole day. A truly amazing feat as,
from that close it was hard NOT to see the exuding steam.
Now in my second go-round in Iwate, I find myself working for the Nishine
Town Board of Education as an Assistant Language Teacher (job description
familiar to most readers, I assume) and "Kokusai Kooryuuin",
or "International Facilitator" (job description still unclear
to me, but involves the town`s exchange programs, and unskilled translation
and interpretation when necessary). Needless to say, Nishine is right
at the "base"(or "fumoto" in Japanese) of Iwate
San, and I am the Iwate foreign English teacher working closest to Mt.
Iwate (the closest foreigner would be Iwate stalwart Clarrie Riddley,
an Aussie, who with his Japanese wife, own a highly reputed horse farm
that actually is on the base of the mountain), and I am given much time
to "muse my surroundings" while residing and working at the
I am something of a believer in fate, and try to place faith in my intuition
as much as humanly possible. I have come to the conclusion that whatever
my destiny is for the moment, it is here. The circumstances of my job
(The interview was set up the day before I left, and was through a local
connection who had recommended me second for the job, but the first
choice had turned it down) support this intuitive feeling.
In the same vein, I now have very little apprehension about Mt. Iwate,
of which I had a decent amount of when I was here before. In fact, I
perhaps expended too much worry about Iwate-San in my time in Morioka.
As discoveries made now that I am in Nishine elicit.
For three years, I would hear at times, loud banging noises from the
general vicinity of the
"fumoto", this was often accompanied by a rush to window of
my apartment to witness what was transpiring. Invariably, I would see
nothing, or perhaps some clouds forming off the peak, which would temporarily
pique my morbid interest. Nowadays, I am quite aware that it is the
Japanese self defense forces with 70mm artillery weapons at their training
grounds practicing for...., well whatever threat it is they are preparing
for...foreigners looting after the next earthquake...an invasion by
a bunch of Swiss Girl Scouts looking for a place to picnic...foreign
steel companies "dumping" their products on the Japanese market
place at a much lower than domestic price (Kami Sama FORBID!)...Third-rate
major league retreads chasing after THEIR SACRED baseball records, Ironically,
these sacred " Japanese" records were set by, among others,
a half-Chinese man who refuses Japanese citizenship (Sadaharu Oh), a
half- African-American (Sachio Kinugasa), and a Japanese maverick whose
opinion of the "Japanese Traditional Way" of playing baseball
was generally translated as "IT SUCKS!" (Hiromitsu Ochiai).
The proclivities of the worlds seventh largest, and third most funded
Armed Forces (Whoops! "peaceful" self-defense force!!) aside,
I would occasionally hear what sounded like an air raid siren coming
from the direction of Iwate-Chan. In my slightly twisted mind it was
a civil defense or disaster warning, letting us know that the flames
of Hades, or at least Mauna Loa, Surtsey, or Etna was fast approaching.
Turns out the town of Nishine uses it to signal its schools that it
is lunchtime. Yes folks, a fate worse than immolation in pyroclastic
flow and lava.....school lunch! (Granted, to those in North America,
the latter may actually be the worse of the two.)
In the past, I was simply amazed at the calmness and nochalance Iwate
denizens would use answering my inquiries about Iwate-San. "Oh
if it erupts...it erupts...Shoo Ga Nai!("There is nothing that
can be done about it")". Now it is the locals who ask me "But..but
aren`t you WORRIED at ALL?"; They usually ask. "Shoo Ga Nai"
is my usual reply. OK, so maybe the possibility does cross my mind,
but no longer do the ghosts in my head cause me to be convinced of my
imminent demise at a slow, rolling, loud thunderclap, heard on a humid
summer night in a half-awake state.
I even have had several dreams about Iwate San erupting over the years.
Of course I have also had dreams about saunas and scantily clad Scandanavian
goddesses. Heck, I dream about talking dinasours, and sometimes their
Japanese is as bad as mine. Why, my dreams are surreal enough to be
painted by Salvador Dali, and have the soundtrack to them composed by
the Jefferson Airplane. I would prefer it if the Freudian analysts among
you DO NOT inform me of the results of your diagnosis.
During my time on JET, a few friends and I had considered hiking up
Iwate in the winter. These were the kind of friends who enjoy hiking
for an hour in ski boots at Hachimantai ski area in search of "some
fine powder". So what is hiking ten hours in winter for a kilometer
or three of unspoiled and uninterrupted waist-deep powder? In actuality
skiing Iwate is of dubious legality, as it is only open technically
during "hiking season".
Of course, "dubious legality" is not enough to stop all the
locals, despite their reputation for conservatism and strict adherence
to the law. The "outdoor grapevine" of Iwate has at least
a few stories floating around each winter. A pair of high-powered binoculars
or a telescope trained on the mountain in winter may well bear that
fact out. It has before.
As a skier in Iwate, with at least a slight sense of adventure, I must
it admit that thought has crossed my mind to ski it, at least a few
times. Perhaps each of the nearly sixty times I skied at a ski area
with a view of Mount Iwate, Also, the hundreds of times I passed it
by car, bus or train. Perhaps even every winter morning, when its view
was at my doorstep, or perhaps every winter evening, when it was there
to greet me upon my return from wherever. Certainly there was never
a more spectacular view in Kuroishino Nicchome. My former neighbor,
Toshiko, insists she saw a UFO in the Iwate vicinity (REALLY!), but
I never saw it, so Iwate San has always been the most outstanding sight
of the neighborhood. I bet the aliens were scouting for some good powder
too, seeing as the poles on Mars have turned to ice, good for an FIS-sanctioned
downhill, but not suitable for us terrestrial mortals.
Soon, for someone who has had Iwate San in their sights for three years
and four months, I will finally hike Iwate San for the first time. It
will be a part of my job as a dutiful servant of the people of
Nishine, Japan as it is the official "choomin" (townspeople)
hike. To add to my duty, it is also the official hike of one of the
Junior High schools I work at. Maybe I will teach them some English
along the way. Like; "My feet are fuckng sore from these blisters!"
If I recover in time (My memory easily recalls a friend who dubbed Mount
Fuji "Mount NASTY" after a summit hike!), I have another opportunity
at the end of the month. Why have I not hiked Iwate before you say?
Well for the first two-and-a-half years I was here it was illegal. This
was due to the deaths of two hikers due to poisonous gas inhalation
in 1998(Talk about your flatulence problems!). The ski season lasted
too long... and well it never happened until this opportunity.
Well, you never know, if I become accustomed to Iwate San, and there
is a decent patch of snow left, the equipment is right...Then again,
it is a little shy of the law...To quote the famous Sgt. Schultz of
Hogans Hero's "I zee NO-ZSING!"..."I heer NO-ZSING
!"..."I zay NO-ZSING!"
© Dean Ruetzler April 2003
Nishine (aka."West Root"), Iwate Prefecture, JAPAN
all rights reserved