The weather is starting to cool, so last week my office bought me something to help me through the chilly nights.
It’s called a “kotatsu.” Translated, this means “foot warmer” and it’s an ingenious invention to help those deprived of an even more ingenious invention – central heating.
The kotatsu looks just like a standard, low to the ground, Japanese table, but lo and behold, if you look underneath, you’ll find a small space heater. The idea is to place a thin futon onto the tatami mat beneath the table, remove the top, place another comforter over the table frame and then return the top so that you can set food, drinks, books, etc, on it.
You then plug the table in, place your legs snuggly beneath the covers, and “Voila!” You (and your guests) are snug as bugs in a rug (and not the tatami kind which have recently been reported infesting the apartments of other JETs in the region).
As odd as this little device sounds, I would have killed for one of these in my drafty, little coach house in Chicago.
Speaking of oddities here in Japan, let me take this opportunity to talk to you about Pachinko, a tremendously popular pastime here. In fact, there seems to be a Pachinko Parlor in just about every other building in the commercial area of Miyazaki. Even little Shintomi boasts several.
I’ve never been more than a couple of feet inside one of these establishments simply because the deafening noise of bells and balls, combined with the glaring florescent and neon lights is enough to make me run screaming into the night like Dracula at the sight of daylight. However, from what I’ve been told, they’re a type of gambling establishment where rows and rows of people sit like zombies in front of these flashing boards, sticking yen after yen into them and fiddling with some buttons in the hopes that they’ll take home some winnings.
Or at least break even.
Each parlor has some ridiculous Vegas-like name and grotesquely outlandish exterior lighting to match. What would pull someone into these establishments night after night after night is beyond my comprehension, but whatever it is, is highly addictive and, from my sources, has been a scourge on Japanese society.
Since we’re talking about peculiar things about Japan (to be fair, maybe I should say “rural” Japan), let’s talk a little about automobiles. Japanese automobiles (the majority of which are white and about the size of the cardboard boxes you and I used to play in as kids) look quite normal… that is, on the exterior.
Step inside and it’s a different world altogether.
Except for the ever-present air-freshener on the dashboard of EVERYONE’s car, men and women’s autos differ drastically. For some strange reason, the men seem quite adverse to removing the plastic wrap which covers the upholstery of all new cars.
Even if their auto is years off the showroom floor.
One enters the vehicle feeling as if one is entering Aunt Marge’s forbidden living room.
You know the one.
Where everything is covered in plastic: carpeting, lampshades, sofas, chairs – the cat.
Yet you’re still not allowed in there.
I find this almost as amusing as inhaling the mind-altering fumes from the aging factory plastic. Not so amusing… the challenge of climbing in and out of the saran-wrapped upholstery without making unforgivable noises.
The women car owners are a completely different kettle of sushi. They do take the plastic off the upholstery… but only to replace it with fluffy pillows, stuffed animals, curtains (Yes, I said curtains.) and anything else you could possibly imagine – or not – hanging from the windows and mirrors. To top it off, this gargantuan-headed, animated cat, Hello Kitty, seems the number one design theme among females of all ages here. It’s freakish cartoon image is on everything from pillows to purses, window shades to floor mats; making entering one of these automobiles akin to experiencing a Disney movie.
Directed by John Waters.
Which brings me to the homes I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. Almost inevitably, the exterior gardens of the homes I visit are simple, elegant and serene, as are the traditional Japanese-style rooms. However, walk into what are considered the more Western-styled rooms and it’s like entering the set of the new teen horror flick, “Barbie Goes Mad,” or “Grandma from Hell,” where simplicity and elegance are swallowed up by the ever-present Hello Kitty-themed curtains.
And lace and ruffles for as far as your tear-filled eyes can see.
Another feature which I’ve found particularly odd is the fact that many new homes have separate bathroom facilities for men and women. I guess this does hearken back to the by-gone days of men’s and ladies’ parlors, but to include in the design the correlating stick figures on each door makes one feel as if they’ve entered Denny’s on Hwy. 41 rather than someone’s home.
Which brings me to another culture clash. (I’m on a roll. Don’t stop me now.)
As I told you in a previous letter, and as many of you already know, Japanese tradition requires the removal of shoes upon entering a person’s home. This inarguably makes a good deal of sense when the tatami rooms are often multipurpose – places to eat, sleep and entertain. The kicker is that traveling from room to room with bare or socked feet is a no-no. Instead you’re expected to put on provided slippers – and I’m sorry to say not precious, silky slip-ons (maybe with a little brocade, or perhaps some boa feathers and a slight heel) but slippers which look more like mental ward knock-offs, yet far uglier.
Upon entering someone’s home, you’re required to slip into these crimes-against-foot-fashion and make your way to the tatami mat where, as I said, you are expected to remove them. However, when nature calls (and it inevitably will, due to all the tea or beer you’re being served) and you must leave the tatami room in search of relief, you step back into these unsightly slip-ons and head in an incredibly inelegant, uncoordinated manner (due to the fact that these slippers are “one size fits all”) to the bathroom. Here, you’re expected to trade these lovely slabs of rubber (or plastic) for yet another pair of plug-ugly slippers, placed there specifically for use in the bathroom.
All in all, it seems an overly-complicated process just to prevent a few crumbs and some rogue dust bunnies from invading a room.
If only I had some money to invest in the Japanese slipper industry. I’d be set for life!
I certainly haven’t experienced a culture yet that doesn’t have it’s share of quirkiness, accentuated by tackiness. God Bless America.
Except maybe the Italians. (But that might be my heritage talking.)
These are simply my observations – things that strike me as unusual. Besides, it all evens out in the end. When the tables are turned, my habits and manners are frequently met with looks of complete confusion and curiosity. The other day, for instance, I was buying candles at my local grocers in order to create lighting in my apartment that doesn’t signal planes in for landings.
The lady behind the cash register was clearly puzzled.
She asked me (at least from what I was able to make out between recognizable words and hand gestures) if I was planning on praying a great deal. As I finally gathered from our broken conversation, candles here are used almost exclusively for placing on the small family shrines most people have in their homes. So when I answered no – not even attempting to translate “mood lighting” – I left the cashier behind shaking her head in wonder.
And now for a few other observations about my life here in Japan, which I like to call:
All I Can Say Is…
- Because Sam and I have become regulars at Hard-Boiled (We haven’t changed our bad habits, just the locks on Sam’s doors.), we’ve decided to establish a drinking club. Mom and Dad would be so proud. We call it the Hard-Boiled Bar Fly Club. Our motto is: “How do we like our eggs? Preferably unfertilized.” (Another proud moment.) Currently, Sam and I are the only members. All I can say is… I’m beginning to think Groucho Marx had it right when he said he’d never want to belong to a club that would have him as a member.
- There was a visitors’ day at Tonda Chugakko last week. I was team-teaching with Yamamoto-sensei while 30-some visitors looked on. One of those observers happened to be Tanaka-sensei, the cutey I met at the volleyball tournament . I know, I know, it’s hard to keep track. All I can say is… if I ‘d known he was coming I would have worn flats.