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Yakumo Fee Nah Ney October 21, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in City Park, cryptic envelopment, Mardi Gras Indians, music, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, The Odd, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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We go in the Wisteria Gate because the crowd is so large and the Japanese Garden in New Orleans is so small. We end up at the back of the crowd as the tour guide makes his spiel, and as everyone finally moves into the garden my friend pulls me back toward the plaque in front so she can read it.

She thinks the name Yakumo Japanese Garden is funny. I’m trying to explain to a gentleman with foreign-accented English why the name Yakumo Nihon Teien (Yakumo Japanese Garden) is funny to a New Orleanian. There’s no quick way to explain Jocomo fee nah nay except to say it’s a Mardi Gras Indian chant rooted in Creole and leave it at that. While we are talking a Japanese gentleman comes up and begins to earnestly read the plaque at the entrance. “And Yakamein,” my friend reminds me, “don’t forget to tell him about yakamein.” The Japanese man bends neatly at the waist to read to the bottom with the practiced habit of bowing rather than hunching over as I did. He comes up from reading the bottom of the plaque and stands admiring it. A woman behind me says something in Japanese, and the man turns to pose beside the plaque. “That’s Yakumo’s great-grandson,” she says in English over her camera, and I frantically dig for the phone. He is Bon Koizumi, a professor at the University of Shimane, Junior College and Adviser to the Lafacadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Matsue, I learn when I exchange my embarrassingly cheap and a bit tattered business card for his elegant one, trying to bow just a bit deeper as much for the embarrassing card as the honor. without getting into a contest that leads me to tip over, feinting like a lineman trying to draw an offsides so that I bow just a bit lower and come up last without provoking a second bow. It is not just an exchange of cards. It is a special moment, Yakumo’s great-grandson in the garden named for him on the day of Japan Fest.

Bon Koizumi, great-grandson of Yokumo Koizumi (Lafcadio Hearn), in the Yakumo Japanese Garden in New Orleans.

This is an above average Japan Fest for me. After an early set by Kaminari Taiko I manage to watch the entire tea ceremony. In the past it was done in a small room and the doors were closed once it began, but this year it has been moved to the atrium. Once I’m done snapping pictures, I try to sit on my heels with my feet folded under and realize if I want to be invited to participate, I’m going to need a year of stretching and practice before I could sit in that position for 30 minutes. I catch most of the Kendo demonstration, and decide to take their offer to go up on stage and give one of them a few good whacks on the helmet. I take a card. (Another thing to do? Really?). I find the Haiku Society and enter the one I wrote the night before. I don’t know the man behind the table but he recognizes my name as last year’s winner, and we make arrangements to get my book prize. Always nice to make an impression. I once again stump the women who will write your name in calligraphy on a book mark with my annual request for Dancing Bear in traditional characters. The younger woman who draws mine resorts to voice searching some site on her iPhone but manages to make me another temple bell pendant for this year. I wander through the Go room and pick up a pen made from recycled paper at the City of Matasue table. Matasue is a sister city to New Orleans, based in part on Hearn’s residence in their city and our’s. I grabbed some lunch from Ninja sushi, and manage to chop-stick up the last few grains of rice from my plate one by one.

I’m having a fantastic time, and I haven’t met Bon Koizumi yet.

My particular friend and my son text me within minutes of each other. Both have decided to come. Awkward, the little sing-song voice in my head telsl me but it turns out fine. Later they sat and chatted naturally as I went to buy us waters, another fortuitous moment in the day. I buy them wristbands and my son is off to the anime room upstairs but I notice the ikebana table is already torn down. It is four o’clock and I forgot that the times had been shifted to work around the 5k race this morning. It is all over except for the final taiko set. She and I wander back into the hall full of vending tables and I go back to see if the porcelain plate, a fluted rectangle with a high-gloss tropical ocean blue finish in one triangular patch, and the other rough clay with fine striations like the rakings of a karesansui garden. Miraculously it is still there. I’m dead broke and trying not to buy anything but I desperately want one of the miniature net floats, the glass balls bound in a net of rope that I have seen before in Quarter shops long ago. I had a long conversation with the couple behind the table when I first stopped there earlier in the day about the full-sized float, telling them they used to wash up on Grand Isle and such places. They didn’t know they were found in the Gulf. We discuss the wide-ranging Japanese fishing fleet and ocean currents while I occasionally pick up and admire the plate, then wander off empty-handed.

When I come back, they remember me. We’re about to close up, he says, I’ll make you a deal on anything on the table. I pick up the plate. Ten dollars, he says. I smile and reach for the last miniature float and my wallet. As we turn to go I notice something I did not see before, or which was not on the table. It’s a clearly used walking stick inscribed with three Kanji characters. I love walking sticks and can’t resist picking it up, holding it in two open hands and staring after hefting it. The characters mean I have walked the three mountains, he tells me, explaining that pilgrims who visit the Three Mountains and climb to the Shinto temple at the summit of each have their walking sticks stamped with these characters. I think I manage a wow while nodding in appreciation and stand holding the stick out before me at forearms length in my open palms like a an altar boy holding the cloth for the priest at the consecration.

I will never know why, perhaps something about the way and length of time I hold the stick that way, my head moving slightly to take it in from handle to foot, stopping each time to rest on the three characters. Take it, he says.

What? I answer. Take it, he says. It’s yours.

I hardly know what to say. The couple are American enthusiasts. This is not the stereotypical story of admiring an Asian man’s watch too long or too enthusiastically.

Seriously? I ask again, impolitely I realize. I’m just dumbstruck by his offer.

Absolutely, he says with no further explanation,smiling, arms folded to end the discussion.

I don’t know what else to do but return the stick to is customary stance resting on the ground, and shake his hand and thank him.

Earlier I spoke with the architect who designed the Japanese garden, offering my admiration and hearing about his two summers studying in Japan. I offer to volunteer, to pick litter from the dry stream bed that wanders through the garden, the nod of karesansui in the small space, anxious to learn some of the secrets. I feel an invisible poke in the ribs through the corner of the eye from my friend. (Another thing to do? Really? When do you plan to sleep?). I tell him of the gardens I have seen in the U.S., and my dream of a pilgrimage to Japan to visit the gardens. We exchange cards; no bowing this time.

I have always spoken of my hope to visit the Prefecture of Kyoto in Japan and see the gardens as a pilgrimage. Now I stand in my house holding a pilgrim’s stick with its unearned, at least by me, inscription. Yamagata Prefecture is not near to Kyoto. Perhaps I will never climb the Three Mountains of Dewa if I go to Japan, but holding this object I think about the relationship between this gift and geis, the ancient Celtic curse of obligation. I know visiting the gardens of Kyoto is not just a bucket list dream of a man working paycheck to paycheck with no prospect of retirement beyond Social Security. It has always been more than just that but as I place the stick against the wall next to the front room bookshelves I know that I will go, that I must go. There was a reason for the gift neither I nor the gentleman who gave it to me understood at the time, an unspoken communication between the stones of the Shinto temples of Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono and those of the gardens of Kyoto and the American gardens I have seen, the stones I have seen today, a reminder of a dreamy, romanticized desire straight from the pages of Yakumo Koizumi become now an obligation of pilgrimage, no longer a possible indulgence of a man with time and money to spare but an ordained act of grace.


Postscript: Most readers will glance past the title and think it just a clever turn of phrase from a former headline writer, but there is something a bit deeper. The chants written down by Sugar Boy Crawford half a century ago and which became the song “Iko Iko” are phonetic appropriations from Creole, warped either by time or Sugar Boy’s phonetic transcription. Jocomo fi nou wa na né is one researchers assertion, meaning Jocomo caused our king to be born. Jocomo fi na né is approximately “Jocomo made it so”, and I think Yokamo did.

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