The Shikoku Mountain Blues

by Zach Mann on February 17, 2012 · 0 comments

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About half-an-hour up the mountain from Okawa is a house on stilts, balancing over a ravine, abandoned. A handful of rickety structures lean into the hillside nearby, the homes of old hermits who tend their own rice paddies and manage to survive without driving to the convenience mart in town.

We didn’t see any people as we passed. We hadn’t seen anyone since Okawa, a riverside village that Josh had called home for three years and that Wikipedia calls the the smallest town located on the four main islands of Japan. It was just the three of us in the Daihatsu, chugging up a snowy incline in the middle of nowhere.

“There was an exiled emperor who lived in this area,” Josh said, gesturing to the mountainous horizon where patches of fog and drifts of snow covered myriad shades of evergreen. The trivia fit the mood.

Stranger with Hokkaido dogs - Okawa, Japan
Later we stood outside the car, breathing warmth into our palms. Then, after hours without seeing another person, a stranger appeared out of the fog. He walked toward us, carrying rope in one hand and waving with the other, while two Hokkaido dogs skipped at his heels. We waved back and wondered: What the Hell was he doing out here, atop our empty mountain?

“Guess which one’s the mother,” he said, gesturing at his dogs with a glowing grin, and Josh translated. We guessed wrong, and the dogs smiled at us with panting tongues and rolled in the snow.

Josh pointed up an icy road and asked where it led. The stranger took one look at the Daihatsu and its 12-inch wheels, then replied, “Don’t go that way.”

He asked about us, where we were from, and what we were doing there. Josh answered on our behalf, while Mele and I stood and smiled, until the stranger said – in English, with effort – “Do you know Fuji?”

We teetered back onto our heels. Then we all laughed.

Mojoyama Mississippi Art Gallery - Motoyama, Japan
Mojoyama Mississippi Art Gallery - Motoyama, Japan Mojoyama Mississippi Art Gallery - Motoyama, Japan
A few hours earlier we had lunch in the town of Motoyama, about halfway between Kochi City and Okawa. After an hour of winding one-lane roads, through pastures of grazing red beef cattle, the Daihatsu came across the four-thousand person town sitting on a river bend. More specifically, we’d arrived at Fuji’s little piece of the Shikoku mountains.

The weather couldn’t decide between snow or drizzle, so it took turns. Fuji led Mele and me to his gallery, a storage bunker on the riverbank decorated with spray paint. Two dogs bounded at our ankles. One had a mo-hawk shaved into his fur. The other had the same style, inverted.

Fuji pointed to one of the dogs as it leaped past us. “I named him Minke, because,” he said, in passable English, and winked, as if to say: Get it? Get it? We didn’t.

This was the man whose local celebrity was heralded even at the tops of mountains, Fujishima Koichi – a local artist who doubled as a restauranteur, musician, documentarian and jokester (though in our experience, the jokester eclipsed the others).

Fuji and Josh - Missy Sippy Cafe - Motoyama, Japan
I asked Fuji why his gallery was called Mojoyama Mississippi. Fuji responded, “Mojo, I like. I wanted ‘Mojo Motoyama Mississippi,’ but my ex-girlfriend, she said it was too long, so,” and he shrugged apologetically.

Inside the bunker, walls and tables were covered in art, finished and unfinished, his own and the work of friends. In the main room hung a series of his portraits: photographs of bums in London, of potheads in Amsterdam, and of blues musicians in Chicago, Tennessee and of course Mississippi.

In one corner a pack of painted couches faced a homemade stage, flooded with red and blue lights. Every month or so young folk might come by and watch Fuji wail a little blues on his guitar. In fact, Fuji has road tripped through America’s South on more than one occasion, using his talents with a guitar as currency to hang out on porches in boondocks from Mississippi to Memphis, proof that even though Fuji is from a little town in the mountains of Shikoku, he’s got soul.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Like when he giggles and snorts, points to the stage and tells Mele, “You’re an actress. Go! Act!” Then laughs at himself and chases a dog.

Missy Sippy Cafe - Motoyama, Japan
Missy Sippy Cafe - Motoyama, Japan Missy Sippy Cafe - Motoyama, Japan
It’s the vehemence in which Fuji expresses himself that makes him so unique. In the drab town of Motoyama, where the majority are over sixty-five years old, it’s delightful overkill. Fuji broadcasts his passions on his sleeve, on his rented storage bunker, and all over the brightly colored Missy Sippy Café.

“Why is it called that?” I asked Fuji as we crossed the street toward the restaurant. He responded, “My ex-girlfriend, she didn’t like ‘Mississippi,’ so I said, how about Missy… Sippy?” And he left that as answer, shrugging apologetically.

Stepping into the café is like stepping into someone’s home, except in this house, the walls and shelves reflect the inside of Fuji’s head. Album covers from Mississippi John Hurt to Memphis Slim emulate wallpaper while blues memorabilia and artifacts from Fuji’s travels decorate the rest of the interior.

We sat at what felt like someone’s dining room table, listening to blues on vinyl. In one corner fire crackled in a wood-burning stove, around which Minke and his friend slept in piles. Other rooms had couches and futons for friends to sleep off the alcohol or to stay overnight, in case the snow kept falling and the roads to Kochi City closed. At Fuji’s, Japanese etiquette meets Southern hospitality.

Missy Sippy - Motoyama, Japan
Chicken George's Plate - Missy Sippy - Motoyama, Japan Curry - Missy Sippy - Motoyama, Japan
While there are hints of the Southern in Missy Sippy Cafe’s food, mostly its Fuji’s eccentricity that shines on the menu. Devised from construction paper and scissors, the list is small but interesting, with a multicultural spread of samosas and spring rolls and something called “Brown Nose Hamburg.”

Mele and I ordered a Japanese-style curry and “Chicken George’s Plate,” stove-top dishes that have been described to me as Japanese comfort food, but seem more like diner fare with a couple extra spices from the pantry. Those added flavors are enough to set Missy Sippy Cafe’s food apart from the regular carousel of Japanese cuisine, another reason why the Kochi expat community tends to gravitate toward Motoyama around mealtime.

Fuji joined us for tea and cookies after the meal, teasing Josh and giggling to himself. We sat back, digesting, and I thought about where we were, in the middle of the Shikoku mountains at a blues-themed café, with snow falling outside. Even if I’d come across Missy Sippy in West Oakland I would have balked. I had to wonder, what the hell was this place doing here, in the Tosa countryside?

This wasn’t just a piece of dixieland in Japan. This was one man’s miniature kingdom, a vibrant landmark in its own right, Shikoku’s very own Mt. Fuji. The Tosa mountains’ exiled emperor was Fujishima Koichi, unapologetically keeping his own traditions alive.

'We Pray the Brooze' - Missy Sippy - Motoyama, Japan

Missy Sippy Cafe
1102-1 Motoyama
Nagaoka, Kochi Prefecture 781-2615


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