sheep shearing and sister cities: day three on the north island.

On the air from Waitomo to Raglan, radio announcers play host to a series of debates, fielding calls and staying neutral. Callers fight over changing the driving age from fifteen to sixteen, on amending drink-driving laws – new ideas including a zero tolerance for under-20s and a reduced BAC for adults –  on the scrambled job of the Civil Defence after a recent tsunami, and predictions of who they think will win the World Cup. This is what the nation worries about.

I wasn’t so worried one warm March afternoon as I made my way further north. From the map on the seat beside me, I knew I would come first to Te Kuiti. The town was already on my radar, having seen it before from the viewing car of the Overlander train I’d taken from Wellington to Auckland in January. Our conductor, Allan, had drawn our attention to the seven-meter statue of a shearer and his sheep just as a stand of trees eclipsed it from my view, leaving me two seconds too late to get a good shot. This now felt like revenge and a little like cheating, as if an anonymous caller in the middle of the night had tipped me off, rather than letting me stumble across this – Te Kuiti, Sheep Shearing Capital of the World – on my own.

The original name for Te Kuiti is Te Kuititanga, from the Maori word for “the valley” or “the narrowing.” The town has since narrowed its interests towards that of its capital status, with even the bad puns to prove it. A sign just off main street advertises its annual Running of the Sheep, the Great New Zealand Muster, on the 10th of April – “Everyone’s flocking to Waitomo,” it questionably claims – and a salon on Rora Street goes by the name of Shear Art Hair Design.

Te Kuiti does nothing to debunk the stereotype of sheep that dominates New Zealand’s international reputation. If anything, it revels in it, rolling around in the cliche like a sheep in the pasture and using the connection to its full advantage. A sign next to the over-sized shearer gives a series of facts, sounding like a high school cheerleader arguing her after-school activity is, like, so a real sport. “The world record shearing attempts are equivalent to doing back-to-back marathons,” it reads. “The average heart rate equals 133 beats per minute and the average energy used equals 5,167 kilo cals per day.” Each statistic the sign offers is just another nail in the coffin, cementing the stereotype for all posterity: the 48.1 million sheep in New Zealand, the peak number of 70.3 million in 1982, and the 213,000 tons of wool the currently produces. The statue, built in 1994 from cement-filled plaster-of-Paris, stands as if to say, you couldn’t be more right about us.

I found myself insetad more interested in a small Japanese garden across the street. What’s a town with a population just shy of 4,500 doing with such a feature? I should know by now, however, that these things have a way of popping up all over the world. There doesn’t seem to be a Japanese city without its sister relationship to a dozen global cities, no matter its size. Once, I travelled to Uhersky Brod, a small Czech town three hours southeast of Prague. I took a train with a friend and we arrived knowing little of what we’d find but that it was the hometown of my maternal great-grandparents. What awaited us was a charming town square, a museum devoted to John Amos Comenius, and – not surprisingly – a Japanese friendship garden.

And so the Tatsuno Japanese Garden of Te Kuiti fits oddly together with the sheep shearing motif and a small heritage railway house open to the public. On a website sponsored by Columbia University for an undergraduate class, “Buildings and Cities in Japanese History,” student Elizabeth Kim writes on the theory behind the well-known gardens:

“The characters for garden, niwa and sono, underscore an inherent principle in garden design. This concept is based on the balance between nature and man-made beauty. Niwa, or according to the Chinese pronunciation, tei, means territory or wild nature. Sono, or en, means bordered fields or controlled nature. In this way, the compound word niwa sono, or more commonly said as teien, in itself establishes the fundamental dichotomy in the principle of Japanese garden aesthetic.

Elements common to the tradition of viewing gardens are present in Te Kuiti as well. An elegant stone lantern, circular stepping stones, winding path and wooden bridge, and the ike, an asymmetrical pond designed to reflect the shape of that found in nature. But there’s another connection I didn’t expect. A bronze sign holds a poem written in flowing characters, the translation of which reads:

“The relationship between the glowworms and the fireflies going across the ocean [to] each other.”

As it turns out, fireflies and glowworms are families within the same species – cousins, if you will, whose glow can be found around the world and provides a little more credibility to this notion of linking Te Kuiti to a Japanese counterpart. What a beautiful idea, then, of a trail of bioluminescence crossing the vast Pacific to another island nation.

Before carrying on, I stop by a beautifully carved Maori meeting house as well as the railway heritage house, where an aged volunteer gives me a private tour of its 1920s decor, and I leave thinking always of the pieces that make up these little towns…

Pieces whose peculiar randomness seems to entrust you, the visitor, the passer-by, with the task of putting it all together.

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