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February 02 Issue

Helen Ruggieri
As with all things Japanese there is an art to using umbrellas and during the long rainy season you have time to learn it.

June and part of July is the rainy season (tsuyu baiu) in Japan. The cold winds out of Siberia float over the warm Pacific waters and their love making produces rain. The winds rise, the rain begins, light, but constant. The sky is gray and overcast. Everyone whines about the weather as we do about snow. It is depressing. Once it rained for seven days in a row. The skin between my toes began to disintegrate. My cough sounded more like a quack. Two pairs of sandals dissolved. Dirty clothes piled up in the basket. Rain, rain, go away.

Given the assurance of rain (it makes the rice grow those chipper sorts squeal), you never travel without an umbrella. You always know you’ll need one. Folding umbrellas are not popular although I do see folks taking them out of their backpacks quite often. You have to fold them up and stuff them in a plastic bag. The pop-up umbrellas are favored. They pop open at the touch of a button. Quicker operation and valued for ease of use upon entering and exiting busses or taxis or other types of transportation which call for rapid movement.

As with all things Japanese there is an art to using umbrellas and during the long rainy season you have time to learn it. As you walk the crowded streets of Tokyo umbrellas bob up and down as those approaching gauge the rhythm of your walk and the pace of your approach multiplied by your height. The umbrellas pass without collision as eye contact reveals our intentions. Up, down, up down. We march along in a great rhythmic bobbing stream. The dance.

In New York City during a rainy August afternoon I noticed this agreement was not in force. People barrel along looking down, never noticing or caring about other umbrellas and their positions. Most New Yorkers used their umbrellas to clear themselves a space by knocking your umbrella aside. Not in Yokohama where the art is observed and civility is prized. If you do accidentally ruffle an umbrella, you call, sumimasen, hoping to excuse your clumsiness.

If you exit a bus or taxi first, you open your umbrella and hold it over the head of the person exiting behind you until he pops open his umbrella and so on. It takes a little agility, but you soon get on to it. It is a lot like getting the placement of shoes properly fixed so you can exit and enter places with grace. You do not like to hop around like a demented stork while trying to get foot one into the correct shoe which you left facing in the wrong direction.

As you enter stores there will be a container holding long plastic bags in which to deposit your umbrella while you browse. This prevents dripping over the premises. As you exit there is a container to recycle the wet plastic. Some shops have a rail outside to hand the umbrellas. No one steals them either. No one even takes your umbrella by accident. You gain an intimate knowledge of the characteristics of your umbrellas so you can pick it out of a crowd of others – all black pop-ups.

At the new Opera House in Tokyo there is an umbrella rack in the lobby to hold the thousands of umbrellas that the audience members have deposited. You twist in your umbrella and lock the lever. Each one has a chit with a number on it. This isn’t to preent umbrella thieves from making off with your parasol, but to prevent endless sorting upon exiting. You have the number so it is easy (and no charge either) to find the correct umbrella.

On some days a high wind accompanies the rain – twenty or thirty miles per hour – and driving sideways. Umbrellas, being what they are, cave, blow in or out or away. Abandoned spokes on a handle will hang like ominous robotic birds from unlikely places – power lines, limbs of trees, tops of hedges. On sunny days between the rains thousands of umbrellas hang from hooks and rails to dry out. Entire streets are filled with giant colorful blossoms (not all umbrellas are black). Peach and red and flowered and striped, they grow from every available perch.

On gomi pick up days discarded umbrellas perch from the lips of black plastic bags, rest on the curb, in the gutter. The most creative recycling of discarded umbrellas I saw during my visit to Japan was on a small strip of land between the highway and an exit ramp. A homeless person had constructed a huge shelter of umbrellas – more like a sculpture, a work of art, a great congregation of umbrellas billowing out like a geodesic dome.
© Helen Ruggieri 2002


Sculptor – builder
your home is more beautiful -
spontaneous composition

Helen Ruggiere
The old Japan, the old ways, will disappear. This generation wants change.

FootHills Publishing is proud to announce the publication of Helen Ruggieri's new book, Character For Woman Character For Woman is a collection of haibun (prose and haiku) and poetry inspired by her recent stay in Japan. Helen says of the work: "I think you have to be born Japanese to write a true haibun, but I don't see any problem with stealing ideas from other cultures and bending them to my American way of thinking. I kept a journal during a recent visit to Japan and the entries were a way of thinking for me. I wanted to describe what I saw and experienced so that I could understand and remember. The haiku seemed to stick themselves in as capsulizations. The haibun is an interesting form and as one who has long been interested in poetry and journal keeping, it seemed a natural extension as well as a way to blend east and west. Apologies to Basho, but I was looking at the moon and not his finger." Helen Ruggieri spent a semester as a visiting professor at Yokohama College of Commerce. She lives in Olean, NY and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, Bradford, PA. She received a Sasakawa fellowship from the Nippon Foundation for the study of Japanese culture. Her poetry book, Glimmer Girls, is available from Mayapple Press. Character For Woman is a 60 page, hand-stitched perfect-bound book. This is Helen's first FootHills Publishing release. To order by mail send $10.00 per book plus $1.25 shipping and handling per address sent to. (New York State Residents please add 80 cents sales tax per book) FootHills Publishing P.O. Box 68 Kanona, New York 14856 To order on-line using our secure server CCNOW, go to:

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