Notes from Japan

A Ramble on Bizan

By Suzanne Kamata

        “The mountain in Awa rises in the sky like a nicely curved eyebrow
            Seeing it above the horizon, a boat is heading toward it
                     Where will it stay tonight?”
                  -from the Manyoshu, 8th century

In his 1919 essay, “Impressions of a Walk,” the Portuguese expatriate Wenceslau de Moraes [1]wrote of hiking up Bizan during koharu, “the small spring” – “a delightful and rapid transition from the suffocating heat of summer to the cool breeze of the winter.” After sailing around the world, Moraes settled in Tokushima for the last sixteen years of his life. He purportedly hiked up Bizan, the prefecture’s most emblematic mountain, every day.

I have lived in Tokushima Prefecture for over twenty years now, but it’s been a while since I’ve been on the mountain. A recent popular movie, “Bizan,” was filmed on its slopes as well as at the hospital where my children were born, and the university where I teach part time. Some of my students appear as extras in the festival dance scene toward the end. It is this movie that has spurred my own outing.

My excursion to the top of Bizan begins on a day between seasons as well.  A week or so ago, I was scraping ice from my windshield.  Now I am getting ready to set out without a jacket under a clear blue sky.  My plan is to drop my daughter off at school, and then walk to the ropeway station at the base of the mountain.  Caught up in the usual frenzy of morning preparations, I cannot seem to locate my backpack.   I stuff a field guide, my notebook, a photocopy of Moraes’ essay from his book Oyone and Koharu: Essays of a Portuguese Recluse in Japan, a novel, and sunglasses into a cavernous Louis Vuitton handbag my mother-in-law had given me as a gift. Then I load my daughter and her stuff into my car, and off we go.

Bizan, or “Eyebrow Mountain,” is visible from almost any point in Tokushima City. I see it every morning, off to the right, as I drive along the Yoshino River. It’s there, glimpsed through tall buildings, as I wait at a traffic light in the city. And it looms at the end of the main road stretching in front of the train station. Jackucho Setouchi, a Buddhist nun, and the most famous and prolific Tokushima-born writer, concurred in her book of autobiographical fiction Places, writing, “If I was playing by myself on the Nakazu wharf, or in the open field where once a year a circus came and set up tents, I could turn around and there was Mt. Bizan. I would look up to it in mild wonder.”

As mountains go, it’s not all that spectacular. Moraes referred to it as a hill. It is actually part of the Shikoku Mountain Range that stretches into southern Tokushima and is separated from the Sanuki Mountain Range by a river valley. There are taller peaks in the prefecture – Tsurugi-san, at 1955 meters, is the highest, but Bizan (294 meters), with its gentle slopes and more or less flat top, is perhaps the most distinctive. And the mountain is rich in culture and history.

After I drop my daughter off, I walk through Tokushima Park, then through a flurry of cars, blinking neon, and traffic signals chirping for the blind. I pass the shopping arcade, the headquarters of the religious cult Kofuku no Kagaku, and the red gates of a Shinto shrine to arrive at the Awa Odori Kaikan, which houses the ropeway station. From the base, the mountain appears easily surmountable – less than an hour to the top. But I’m not in the best of shape, and I have this heavy handbag, so I decide to take the gondola as planned.

The ride lasts about fifteen minutes. Up at the top there is a profusion of vending machines and small buildings – a café, a cell-phone transmission tower, and a white pagoda in the Burmese style. I recognise the pagoda from a scene from the movie. There is also a small museum devoted to Wenceslau de Moraes, perhaps Tokushima’s most famous expatriate. I make this my first stop.

Hiraoka-san, a small, genial grey-haired man in a jean jacket, gives me the grand tour in English.  The exhibit includes some of the many books written by Moraes – both the original Portuguese versions and Japanese translations – as well as photos, his writing desk, smoking implements and bowler hat.

On the wall there are scenes from the puppet play based on the life of Moraes. The script was written by Setouchi[2]. Under glass, I see a pamphlet from a Japanese movie inspired by the bushy-bearded European sailor.

Hiraoka-san shows me the letters of appointment Moraes received from three Japanese Emperors – those of the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras – for the position of Portuguese consul in Kobe. Moraes met with Emperor Meiji three times. There is also a model of the ship Moraes sailed on which Hiraoka-san says, “is like the one in Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp.”

Moraes first came to Japan as a member of the Portuguese navy. He’d been to other places – Mozambique, where, according to his translator Kazuo Okamoto, he’d fallen “violently and foolishly in love” with Arrussi, a woman referred to as “Miss Africa”; and Macao, where he’d bought and married Atchan, the mixed race daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, with whom he’d had two sons and then deserted– before he took on the position of Portuguese consul in Kobe in 1899. Moraes married 25-year-old Oyone, in 1900, when he was 45 years old. She died at the age of 38, and her ashes were entombed at Chonji Temple in Tokushima, where Moraes took up residence in 1913. He visited her tomb daily, but her relatives denied his request to have his own ashes buried with hers. He later lived with Oyone’s cousin, Koharu, who became his common law wife. She, too, died young.

Moraes lived in a house at the base of Bizan, where he enjoyed gardening and, presumably, writing. He published two collections of essays about Tokushima in his native language – Oyone and Koharu and Bon Odori in Tokushima: Essays of a Portuguese Hermit in Japan.  With his long white beard and kimono dyed with the locally grown indigo, he must have caused quite a stir among the locals. His first impression of Tokushima was “that along the way to the modest domicile which had been destined for me was a dominating and agreeable impression of – green. Green plunging into my aesthetic eyes! Green that rushed into my nose. Green, nothing more – an impression so strong, so all-inclusive that I could scarcely pay attention to the details of the scene spread in front of me.”

And yet he did manage to write in great detail and with much feeling of everything he observed around him. From the mountain, he saw “the houses thickly clustered together – small houses, and of wood of course — extend over a vast plain of silt on the complex waterways of the river Yoshino, from the coast to the foot of the hill ranges which bound it: a population of nearly seventy thousand, including four or five Europeans of whom I am one, but this, of course, is not mentioned in the books.”

From the top of Bizan, one can still see an expanse of greenery, the harbour adrift with boats, and ships in the Kii Channel. On a clear day, Awaji Island is visible. Down below, while wooden houses remain, white concrete apartments, schools, and office buildings tend to dominate. Shikoku is still the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands, but Tokushima Prefecture now has a population of approximately 810,000, of about 6,000 whom are foreigners.

I am one of them, a woman from the United States. Like Moraes, I seek to convey the atmosphere and culture of Tokushima to the people of my native country, most of whom have never heard of this place, through my writing. Like Moraes, I have settled here with a spouse.  But of course, I am not nearly so conspicuous as he was. In twenty-first century Tokushima, my blond hair blends with the dyed hair of the youth of the city. And I’m not a hermit, not hiding from the world.

Thinking to fortify myself before heading off on one of the designated walking trails, I duck into the Bizan café just outside the gondola station.  I stand before a vending machine offering tickets for the usual fare – curry rice, pilaf and udon – but a woman bustles out from a back room and makes an “X” with her fingers.  The shop isn’t open for business yet.

I meander down to a weathered wooden bench shaded by walnut and bayberry trees.  Off in the distance, I can hear a train rumbling over the tracks; closer by, birds twitter and chirp and the brush rustles with life. I’m told that there are rabbits and monkeys on this mountain, as well as a fair share of stray cats and dogs. Here and there, signs warn of mamushi, a reddish brown snake with leopard spots whose bite can be fatal. In the early 1900s, residents sought to ward off the snakes with exorcisms written on paper. Moraes himself wrote, “My humble house is completely defended with these pieces of paper.”

I wander until I come across a white gazebo, complete with weathervane. According to a plaque, this structure was a gift from Saginaw, Tokushima’s sister city. It reminds me of a bandstand in Michigan where I grew up, of sitting on a blanket with my grandparents in summer, listening to a small orchestra. In a few months, it will offer a retreat from the blazing sun. Now, I stand under its roof and gaze out at the ribbon of river. Straight ahead, on the opposite bank, I can see the school where my son is learning to write Chinese characters.

I walk a bit more, past the statue of Moraes and his dog, past the rhododendron bushes with their first intimations of spring, a hint of red, and down the hill to – what’s this, an apartment building? No, it’s a government-sponsored hotel – the Bizan Kanpo. My daughter’s kindergarten once had a sleepover at this place.  I remember now that we walked up this hill for a night-time festival. The parents and teachers supervised while the children played ring toss games by lantern light. In the morning we performed “radio exercises” in the park.

Now I see a few people picnicking on benches, and I’m sorry that I didn’t bring my own lunch.  I’m famished by this time, so I make my way back to the café, which is now open. I order a bowl of noodles and settle at a table covered with tie-dyed indigo cloth. There are only a couple of other customers – a pilgrim dressed all in white, his peaked straw hat resting on the counter as he takes a break between temples – and a man who works on the mountain. As I eat, I look out upon Shiroyama, a hill hunched at the center of the city, the site of the ancient shogun’s castle, and the town hall where the record of my marriage is stored.

Although I purchased a round-trip ticket on the ropeway, I decide to hike down.  How hard could it be? I find the shortest route on the map, one that I think will take me to my starting point, but almost immediately I wonder at the wisdom of this decision. All morning I have been tramping up and down concrete steps and sidewalks, but this is an actual hiking trail.  The steep, narrow path is strewn with dry leaves, which may be slippery. I don’t have a walking stick, and instead of a backpack, I’ve got this handbag hooked over my arm. There is also the question of snakes.

Nevertheless, I begin to pick my way down the incline, imagining Moraes nearly a century ago in these same woods in his kimono. I grab onto tree trunks and seek purchase on protruding roots and rocks. My thighs burn with the effort.

The forest is so dense that I can’t see the city beyond. No one is on the trail behind or ahead of me. No one knows where I am. It’s an odd feeling, here in this densely populated country where I am so seldom truly alone. All I can hear is the wind in the trees, and what I take to be birds rustling the leaves as they forage for food.

Although I’m tempted to pull out my field guide and try to identify some flora or fauna – were those grey-tailed birds that just flew past starlings or brown-eared bulbuls? – there are no stumps for sitting, no spots for rifling through my bag.  I keep going until I spot a paved road through the trees. The trail seems to suddenly drop off to this road.

It’s a couple of meters to the ground below. I start looking for a sturdy branch that I might be able to use to vault myself down, and then I see a businessman strolling up the road. Maybe he’s out for his daily constitutional. Crouched here on the side of the mountain with my Louis Vuitton bag, I suddenly feel ridiculous. I hold myself very still and hope that he doesn’t notice me. When he’s out of sight, I manage to scoot down without scraping myself on the rocks.

Through the trees I can now see some familiar landmarks, and I know that no matter where I end up, I’ll be able to find my way back. And then I come to a set of stone stairs, and I remember climbing these very steps fifteen or sixteen or maybe seventeen years ago to drink with friends beneath the cherry blossoms.

I see that paper lanterns printed with “Asahi Beer” have already been strung across the path in anticipation of this year’s flower viewing. Soon, it will be time for the azalea festival in the Sako neighbourhood where my husband grew up.

Almost a hundred years ago, Moraes was enraptured by the pink and purple blossoms.  In May of 1915 he wrote, “How beautiful the mountains are! The azaleas, above all, are most delicious, and the charm of this rosy colour, the profusion of blooms, transforms the entire mountain into a garden. I contemplate the spectacle, resting on an old piece of tumulus stone; the mountain where I am is a cemetery, as is almost every slope of this land. And in sight of the graves I want to shout, ‘Get up, you who are sleeping, come and enjoy with me the rapture of these flowers! You cannot be dead when all of nature is awaking!”

I think of these words when I see the jizo along the path. These are stone statues tied with red bibs, which represent the spirits of dead infants, especially aborted or stillborn babies.  Brooms made from twigs have been left beside the shrines for caretaking. Moraes, who lost both his first Japanese wife, and his second common-law wife, Koharu, was often preoccupied with death. Though he wrote of the burgeoning nature on Bizan, he also wrote of the jizo, funeral processions, the tending of the butsudan, posthumous names, and the crematorium on the mountain.

At last, I come out in front of the red-gated shrine next to the gondola station. I pass the stone shishi – guardian lion-dogs – and a statue of a figure performing radio exercises, and then I’m on flat ground.

After I pick up my daughter from school, I drive along the Yoshino River and look to the left, to Bizan. I can pick out the hotel and the cell phone transmission tower, and the slope where I’d made my way down.  This mountain has been here for centuries —   it is the burial site of feudal lords, an inspiration to poets and novelists, a home to small animals, and a film location. 

In a hundred years it will still be there.  I wonder what other expatriates and Japanese will write about Eyebrow Mountain a century from now. Who will Bizan next inspire?

The grave of Wenceslau de Moraes. Courtesy: Creative Commons

[1] Portuguese writer (1854-1929)

[2] Jackucho Setuchi, Japanese nun and writer (1922-2021)

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.


Notes from Japan

Marathon Blues

By Suzanne Kamata

Tokushima. Courtesy: Creative Commons

“Do you want to run the Tokushima Marathon with me?” my husband asked for the third year in a row.

The first time, three years before, I’d given him a flat-out refusal. The previous year, I’d promised to register, but then my brother had died suddenly, and I’d had to fly from our home on the island of Shikoku in Japan back to the United States for the funeral. My husband had run the race for the third time on his own. This year, though, I didn’t have an excuse. “Maybe,” I said.

To be honest, running a marathon has never been one of my life goals. Nor am I interested in bungee jumping, getting a tattoo, climbing Mt. Everest, or anything else that would cause pain or discomfort. I power walk four or five kilometers per day for my health, and I did run on my high school’s cross-country team, but I am not really into long-distance running any more. My New Year’s resolutions tend to be more aligned with pleasure: Try new wines. Read more poetry.

My husband, however, couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to run a marathon. He told me how satisfied I would feel afterwards. And we’d get swag – a T-shirt, a medal, a certificate worth framing. Maybe he also thought it was a fun activity that we could do together. He is a high school physical education teacher. He would think that.

The Tokushima Marathon course goes along the embankment of the Yoshino River right past our house. We live at the twelve-kilometer mark. In previous years, I’d used a tracking app to determine when he was about to run by. My daughter and I had then gone up the hill in time to cheer him on. Once, he’d shoved a jacket that he no longer needed into my hands as he’d dashed past us.

“What size T-shirt do you wear?” my husband asked.

I told him. I knew that he was registering me for the marathon, even though I had said, “maybe,” not “yes.” But perhaps I could just walk and run the first twelve kilometers, and then jog down the hill to our house. I could run that little bit as a tribute to my brother who had aspired to run a marathon himself. More than once, on my visits to see him, I’d found myself waiting at the finish line of some fun run or other. He had been such a devoted runner that he had been buried with his running shoes.

I started training. My husband usually didn’t put in any effort until a month in advance, and yet he still managed to complete the whole race. But I needed more time. I walked and ran and walked and ran instead of my usual regime. I did this at night after work. Then it started to get really cold, and my self-imposed training program started to fall apart.

Enter the new coronavirus. In January, we heard news of a deadly virus in Wuhan, and then a cruise ship full of afflicted passengers in Yokohama. Even though we were far away in Shikoku, by February local events were being cancelled. There would be no graduation ceremony at the university where I taught, no farewell party for professors who were leaving to teach elsewhere. Public schools began spring vacation a month early. I wondered if the Tokushima Marathon, which was scheduled for March, would be cancelled as well. I must confess that I secretly hoped it would be because I hadn’t kept up with my training and I didn’t want to disappoint my husband.

Of course, it was cancelled, like the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the national high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium and everything else. We were informed that there would be no refund of our registration fees, but we would get swag. I looked forward to receiving my Tokushima Marathon T-shirt, which I would wear ironically. I waited and waited for the package to arrive.

Finally, two bulky envelopes were delivered. Around this time, my husband and I were stuck together in the house with nothing to do. We’d already gotten rid of all of the stuff that didn’t spark joy. Our clothes were rolled neatly in our drawers. We were driving each other crazy. We opened the envelopes to find the finisher medals – ha! ha! – and no T-shirts, but an indigo-dyed handkerchief each.

“Let’s make these into masks,” my husband said.

At first, I protested. They were such nice handkerchiefs! But I already had a few indigo-dyed handkerchiefs which I never used, but which nevertheless sparked joy. If we cut them up and made them into handkerchiefs, at least they would serve a purpose.

My husband dragged our dining room table in front of the wide-screen TV in the living room. He found a mask-making tutorial on YouTube. He cut up the pieces, and I sewed them together. They turned out well! We wore them every day until the elastic started to lose its spring, and health experts declared that wearing paper masks was actually better than handmade cloth ones. And the medals? Well, maybe we will someday figure out something to do with those.

Masks stitched by Suzanne. Photo Courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.


Notes from Japan

Bridging Cultures Through Music

Suzanne Kamata brings to us people, experiences and cultures from Japan

Masaki Nakagawa. Photo provided by Suzanne Kamata

For Kobe native and YouTube sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, a university trip to Latvia turned out to be a life-changing experience.

Nakagawa was a student of international culture in the Integrated Arts and Sciences Department at Tokushima University. By his own admission, he wasn’t a great student – his TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) score was around 200 – but he had an avid interest in other cultures. He first studied abroad in Korea, where he improved his English language skills, and later, in 2014, went with a Tokushima University professor to Riga for a summer seminar. He felt an immediate connection with the small, European country.

“I felt like this is the country I will live in in my future,” he says via webcam. From the very beginning, he loved the people, the language, the atmosphere, the many historical buildings, the food, and the drinks.

“Someone told me that maybe I was Latvian in a past life,” he jokes.

Although the university did not have an official exchange program with any Latvian university at that time, he decided that he would go there for foreign study. During his seven months abroad as a student at the University of Latvia, he discovered that while most Latvians knew quite a bit about Japan, few Japanese people had any idea about them. He made it his goal to create more links between the two countries. Kobe is already the sister city of Riga, but he created a project to promote a sister city relationship between Tokushima and Jelgava, which is ongoing.

From a young age, Nakagawa has also been a musician. His mother was a piano teacher, so naturally he began playing the piano at the age of three. However, when he was fourteen-years-old, he bought his first guitar. “I still have it,” he says. “It is my important thing.” In high school, he played guitar and sang vocals in a band.

During his visit to Latvia, he discovered the importance of music in that country. “Latvia is a musical country,” he says. “They love dancing with music, eating with nice music. The Latvian language is quite beautiful, and Latvian songs are very, very beautiful.” He also found that singing in Latvian was an effective way to study.

After graduating from university, he got a job at Mercedes, where he continues to work as a store manager, however his passion for Latvia remained. He decided to combine his loves for Latvia and music. “As a musician, I can connect countries,” he says.

In 2017, he learned “Mana dziesma” (“My song”), which was originally performed by Brainstorm, one Latvia’s most famous bands, and made a recording of himself singing it while playing the guitar. Then, he uploaded it to YouTube. The video received an astonishing 150,000 views. Nakagawa realized that he was onto something, and he continued to record and upload videos.

In some videos, he sings in Latvian against a Japanese background, such as along a river in Kyoto. In others, he sings in a combination of Latvian and Japanese in a Latvian setting. Recently, he has begun to add Japanese subtitles. While he continues to record Latvian favorites, he has also written and recorded original songs in both languages.

His popularity has continued to grow, leading to interviews in magazines, on the radio, and on Latvian television. By his estimate, he has appeared on television in that country “twenty or thirty times.”

When asked if he is perhaps the most famous Japanese person in Latvia, he laughs. “Maybe.”

When the president of Latvia visited Japan for the coronation of the new emperor, Nakagawa was invited to perform at a closed reception at the Latvian Embassy in Tokyo. He had a chance to talk to the president and the first lady, who, as it turned out, was a big fan.

His most recent TV appearance, via Zoom, marked the occasion of his one millionth view on YouTube, the 100th year of Latvian-Japanese friendship, and of his latest single, “Es Lepojos Ar Tevi,” recorded with German musician Joran Steinhauer, another lover of Latvia. A few years ago, the two friends collaborated on a YouTube series called “Masaki Learns Latvian” in which Steinhauer taught Nakagawa two or three phrases per episode. “Es lepojos ar tevi”, which means “I’m proud of you,” is the first phrase that Nakagawa learned. This song in Latvian, uniquely created by two foreigners, premiered on the TV show “900 Seconds” in April of this year.

Nakagawa has been branching out a bit in his musical career, writing songs for aspiring idol groups in Japan, and singing on Japanese anime soundtracks. His vocals can be heard in the theme song for the anime “Dark Hero Yoshitsune” which will be released nationwide in Japan in fall 2021. Fans can follow his activities via Instagram at

He maintains, however, that developing relations between Latvia and Japan is his main priority. “As a musician, I really would love for people to know about Latvian culture.”

Nakagawa with his girlfriend Arta Voicehovska, who works as Coordinator for International Relations Latvia-Japan at Higashikawa Town Hall in Hokkaido

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.