Dini Armstrong, now Scottish, has worked in journalism and psychology. She is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing and has published short stories and flash fiction. Her pithy style got her into trouble from age six, when, after writing a particularly seditious piece about a vengeful cat with explosives, she had to promise to her stepdad never to write again. She lied.
Journey to the Kagayaku Smile
Look at her, it’s only the fuckin’ subway but she’s being a pure wet wipe. Nineteen, actin’ like a snivelling wean.Warning! Beware of gap or high step. There’s somethin’ no right in the heed with that one. Emergency Alarm – pull handle to alert driver. It’s Glesga, no Beirut. Pure monochrome Tetris - everyone in grey work claes, fightin’ tae squeeze into an empty space. And then there’s her flashy red raincoat, silly wee cunt. To open door in emergency, break glass. She cannae even get her breathin’ right: in, two, three, hold your breath, out, two, three, four, hold your breath. Clenchin’ the fists, two, three, four, release, two, three, four. She’s still no right, the stupid bitch. Text 61016, report crime or incidents on your train. Serial killers, the lot of them. There’s no way out while the train’s movin’. Do not leave the train when doors are closing. No toilet. She’ll shit hersel right here, squashed against this lot, reekin’ o’ shite. Don’t be mean, keep your seat clean. There it is, her gut’s crampin’. They’ll remember the fanny in the red raincoat alright.Mind the Gap. * Arrived safely at Kansai Airport in Osaka this morning. When I told the security officer at passport control that I am here to study Taiko drumming, she asked me for proof. In my head I went straight into warrior pose, started twirling my drumsticks - her colleagues clapping. In real life, mind you, I just showed her the confirmation email from the dojo. At the ripe old age of forty-six, you would think 23 hours on two planes would wipe me out, but I was still buzzing, so I went straight to Osaka Castle (beautiful in the cherry blossom season) and then to the rooftop of the Daimaru shopping centre (great views over the rainy city). Had to take a moment up there. Can you imagine, me, in Japan, all by myself! People were cycling with one hand, umbrella in the other. I bought a pastry – thought I’d play it safe and chose one that looked like a croissant, but it was filled with bean paste. Learned how to ask for hot chocolate – hotto chocoreto o dozo. There were vending machines in the streets, selling hot and cold drinks – and some that sell ice creams (filled with, yes you guessed it, bean paste). The subway system here is a bit of a handful, took me a while to get my head around it. Conductors wear smart blue suits and white gloves. Not like that single wee circle we have in Glasgow. A number of passengers wear surgical masks – mostly the white disposable ones, but some have been upgraded to a fashion accessory. Sharing germs is frowned on - fair enough, I guess. People are so friendly - a couple of teenagers approached me, keen to practice their English. It went something like this: ‘Hai, yu maindu ifu I speaku a litteru Ingurisu?’ ‘Sure, what would you like to talk about?’ ‘Whea aru you furomu?’ ‘Glasgow, it’s in Scotland.’ ‘Ah, Gurasugo, Outulanderu.Jamie is very naisu, no?’ The girls started giggling. I mean, fuck, who is the cliché now? Oh, I haven’t told you about the best thing – toilets are electric, with heated seats. They greet you when you sit down, and you can choose a background noise so no one can hear you “flushing”. Mine played a birdsong. It also had a water jet and a bum-drying function. I read somewhere that, after Fukushima, when the country ran out of electricity, the first thing they switched off was neon signs, then gradually more and more public services, until companies had to hold business meetings in candlelight. Only after that did they turn off the toilet seat warmers. Not only was the country going down the crapper – it had to do it without soothing background music! I managed to order food in Japanese today, mighty proud of myself. Well, they displayed plastic models of all their dishes, and I pointed … * “Look at yer ugly wee mug, all fat and bloaty with yer snivelling,” he says and forces her to look into the mirror. She is six years old, and it’s easy for her brother to grab her by the neck and twist her head any way he wants to – he is thirteen years older. She wouldn’t even try to resist – sometimes he makes her lie face down in a tiny wooden box in the cellar, used for ammunition in the war. He locks the lid and whispers to her. He will bury her alive. Or maybe he will let her out. He is never sure. She looks at her face in the mirror, it’s twisted with fright, and snot runs out of her big red potato nose over her lips. Her eyelids are pink and swollen. Five hours and thirty-two minutes until Mammy comes home. * Found my way to Fukui last night, even though no one here speaks English, my Japanese is all but buried in a dusty old box in the back of my brain, and all the signs are in Kanji. Do you remember when I found that old folder from uni, full of essays in Kanji – and I knew I had written them but couldn’t read any of it? Handed omiyage (pressies) to the owner of the guest house – shortbread and tea cakes – before I met the rest of the students. The course leader (and translator) informed us that no makeup or nail varnish was allowed. That’s me fucked. I buzzed around like a crazy person in the morning, trying to find someone who sold nail varnish remover. The one time I get a pedicure! I almost missed our tiny train. The journey through the countryside was mesmerising – field after field against the backdrop of the Miyama mountains. To get to the dojo we had to walk through the woods, along a small river, past little shrines with stone figurines wearing tiny handknitted hats and capes. Apparently, they still have bears here, but we didn’t see any. Our laughter might have scared them off. Outside the dojo we had to shout “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu!” before entering my version of heaven. Beautiful lacquered hardwood flooring, mirrored walls, and around twenty-five of the most gorgeous dark red Nagado drums, made from a single piece of Keyaki wood and cowhide. In Shinto, if something is made of a former living being, it still contains their spirit. In beating the drums, we re-awaken them, which is why players have to give all their energy. I don’t know about all that, but I swear I heard angels sing when I spotted the Okedo – a drum so huge, an entire cow is needed to provide the drum skin. It has to lie on its side to allow the player to beat the skin side-on. After Zazen meditation, the sensei made us do drills for hours, because, he said, the body learns best how to adjust to the proper position when something starts to hurt. And sure enough, when I thought I couldn’t lift my arms anymore, my body found the strength from somewhere. Even better, the pain taught me which wrist to turn a little to the right, or which arm to lift just a little higher, to prevent future injury. In the breaks, ‘Pokari Sweat’ and ‘Calpis’ drinks kept us going. I had blister plasters on three of my fingers on the right hand and four on the left – I needed two for the index finger! We compared war wounds on the train ride home. In the evening I strolled around Fukui – a strange little city, famous for its dinosaur fossils. Giant animatronic versions of a Fukuiraptor and a Fukuisaurus were fighting each other in front of the train station. Parts of the city looked industrial, with all the charm of a concrete car park. From time to time, I stumbled across a Buddhist temple and enjoyed a few minutes of peace and reflection. I still can’t get used to seeing swastikas everywhere – originally a Sanskrit symbol for wellbeing, they were later used in Buddhism for good luck. When I got hungry, I bought a giant maple pastry – a tennis ball sized profiterole, filled with vanilla cream – sweetened with Maple syrup, not bean paste – result! Crime rates are extremely low here, so it feels perfectly safe to wander around alone. In cafés, people leave their handbags and laptops on their table while ordering drinks at the counter. I ended up near the river. You can see it in the photos – hundreds and hundreds of cherry trees in full blossom are lining the path. They are illuminated with a paper lantern each, swinging eerily in the night breeze. The sweet Sakura scent is intoxicating. We practiced cross drumming today. You cannot imagine how much fun that is. Everyone plays in rows before the big wall mirrors, and we hit the beat over two drums, sometimes three, crossing over, with increased speed, watching our reflections for accuracy. Some of the others kept hitting their arms or got stuck, but I kept going, faster and faster, until it felt like flying. I didn’t even notice how much I was smiling, but the sensei stopped at my drums and proclaimed I had a kagayaku egao – a shining smile. * It’s her seventh birthday and she is waiting for her guests to arrive. She’s invited all the kids in her class. Mum has set the table for twenty, made four cakes and bought balloons and napkins. The invitation cards say 2pm, but no one is here yet. Maybe the traffic is bad, mum says. At 4pm she starts crying, and at 5pm they clean everything away. Her brother sat in the front garden yesterday, for everyone to see, naked and shouting, until someone called the police, but mum persuaded them to bring him back home. “He can’t help it when he does stuff like that. It’s his illness.” There’s no one else to babysit Susanna when mum’s at work. He shaved off all his hair, even his eyebrows and eye lashes. * I haven’t told you much about the other students here. They come from all across the globe – Canada, USA, Hong Kong, Australia and a couple from our Scottish dojo. We hang out all the time – we have breakfast (grilled fish, rice and homemade tofu), we travel to the dojo, we have tea together with the sensei after practice. Today we taught him how to say “pure dead brilliant” with a Glaswegian accent. Because we always try to stay as long as possible, we inevitably end up running along the river to catch the last train back, tea sloshing around in our stomachs. Most evenings we have supper together at the hotel, with fresh vegetables from the owner’s allotment. We need to get to know each other well, because sometimes we play Futari style – it’s a way of improvisation with one other person that requires being able to read their body language in order to anticipate what they will play next – and match it. The better you know each other, the better you play. The more you bond during drumming, the more you want to be friends. On Sunday, we all went to the Hanami – it’s a small festival where families come together to watch the blossoms and have picnics on the grass along the river. There are stands that sell sweets, drinks and hashimaki (filled pancakes on chopsticks). A lot of sweets are cherry blossom flavoured – even KitKat! We didn’t understand what the little kids were shouting when they pointed at the goodies, nor the parents when they answered, but you could tell, it was the universal “I want one” – “Not until you’ve had your dinner.” * It’s hiding under the table time again. She’s as quiet as a mouse and breathes into her woolly sleeve so he can’t hear her. She knows he will catch her eventually, but maybe she can make the time with him a bit shorter. Today will be bad, she can always tell. He does that thing where he stops moving and suddenly an arm jerks upwards – and back down again so quickly it makes you wonder if you really saw it. And he talks and gets angrier and angrier and tells her what he will do to her when he finds her. She tries to stop it, but warm pee is soaking her winter tights. She shrinks herself into a little ball and stops moving altogether. * Yesterday we played with a group of Japanese students at the Dojo. The drums were arranged in a circle: twenty-five Nagados, and we each played individual solos, improvised, in front of everyone. You should have seen me - I was definitely grinning from ear to ear this time. I can’t believe I did it, played into the quiet ji-uchi beat of the others, creating booming loud DONs in the middle of the drum and yappie little karakakas on the wooden rim – ending everything in a martial arts warrior pose. The beats flowed out of me like a seasoned rapper spitting rhymes. I wasn’t scared. I was having fun! Today was our last night here and the sensei ordered us all onto a bus. We had no idea what was coming. I still don’t like surprises, so I went really quiet. We drove for two hours, through some less than inspiring industrial areas. A reminder that this is real. The bus stopped in front of a small local theatre. There were large posters advertising beautiful male Taikomochi - historically, the first geishas were male. The sensei led us inside and we expected to maybe watch a show. But there were no other guests there. He took us backstage and we met the performers – all still in their day clothes, no makeup. We guessed maybe we were allowed to see their rehearsal? But then the sensei called in his Japanese students, and they rolled in our drums. That’s when it began to dawn on us. We were here to play! I took another look at one of the posters. At the very bottom, in Katakana writing, it mentioned the foreigners who play Taiko, and a time: the show was to start at 7.30pm. That was 90 minutes away. I was so scared, my mouth went completely dry, and that did not get better once we became aware that members of the public started to arrive and noisily fill the seats. By the time the fourth act was over, the stage lights dimmed almost entirely. We could hardly see as we rolled our drums into position, two rows on either side of the stage, forming a V-shape, with the giant Okedo at its apex, at the back of the stage. We had to stand perfectly still in that darkness, when a spotlight came on, illuminating only the sensei and his giant Okedo drum. He stood in perfect stance, his back to the audience, like a marble sculpture of a praying mantis in front of a giant moon, both arms stretched towards the sky, elongated by drumsticks as thick as rolling pins, one leg stepped backwards to brace himself for the impact of the soundwave about to reverberate back at him. Without warning, he struck a single beat, producing a deep bass sound that exploded into the theatre. The audience, who had been chattering throughout the previous acts, fell silent. Softly at first, caressing the skin with almost imperceptible flicks of his wrists, the sensei started to produce the gentlest of beats, as if asking for permission, before his movements gained more confidence. His drumsticks wandered outwards, exploring the drum, vertically, cyclically, in and out like the tide. His rhythms became more and more complex, spurred on by the audience clapping and shouting their Kakegoe. We were shouting, too, short sounds like Ha! or Yaa! or even loud grunting noises. And then, sharply, he paused. One second, two seconds, then the lights came on and we all started to play – in perfect unison. We played the mitsu-uchi rhythm without thinking, it was as if the drums were playing themselves. Even the sensei joined in, playing the same base rhythm, gently, just one of us. After a short while, the solos started. One by one, each player showed their own moves, their own style, while the others continued the base rhythm, quietly, giving the soloist the limelight. As my turn drew nearer, I was aware of my heartbeat, but it seemed to melt into the rhythm of the group. And then it was time. I listened out for the queue – a specific final beat which indicated that the player next to me was finished. I gathered the drumsticks in a circular motion, raised my right arm as high as I could – and brought it down onto the drum skin with such confidence that the skin of my neighbour’s drum reverberated, and his sticks were pushed out of his hand. He stepped back from his drum and made space for me. I took the hint – my arms started to play over both drums – crossing over faster and faster. The audience was cheering me on. I took more risks, twirled the sticks before bringing them down, spun around between beats and jumped both feet in the air to summon the strength of my body’s own gravity before finally striking that last beat – then froze into the warrior pose. I was smiling in that limelight, full Kagayaku style, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. * Got there in the end, hen. **