Just West of the Midwest Chapter 14: Pulling an All-Nighter

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Photo by acfrohna

Last weekend, I headed northwest to the Heike Mountains, or more specifically, Nishimura, with Sam, Kyoto and several of his friends, for the Yokagura.

Relating to the festival we saw last weekend in Shiba, this all-night event celebrates the tale of the Genji and Heike clans. Although the story remains somewhat vague, from what I’ve been able to piece together, the two clans, the Genji and the Heike, were bitter rivals fighting for power over the lands. The Genji proved to be the more powerful of the two; thus the Heike, when realizing their ultimate defeat, retreated to the mountains of Kyushu.

The Yokagura, or Banquet of the Gods, is the Heike celebration of their lives in the mountains, their good crops, their continued growth, as well as their continued protection from the Genji.

The festival we were about to see has taken place for many generations, though, sadly, I discovered that this particular event is slowly becoming a thing of the past as the youth raised on the mountain are “looking for greener pastures” in the urban centers. Presently, I’m told, there are only 38 families remaining on the mountain and every year that number grows smaller. As a result, the Kagura dancers performing the 33 storytelling dances from dusk until dawn, are primarily men in their 50s and 60s.

It was just before sunset when we arrived at the festival and a strong winter chill was already setting in as we lay our tatami to the left of the stage and surveyed our surroundings. There was a small but lively crowd of about a hundred people, ranging in age from newborn to near death, drifting from one group to another, or huddled by the various fires strewn around the entire circumference of the stage.

Before I even had time to take it all in, an elderly gentleman approached me with a thick, bamboo pole as long as himself, carved out to serve as a pouring vessel. He motioned for me to find a cup and upon my doing so, he tipped the pole as steaming shyochu (a local distilled beverage made from sweet potatoes) spilled into my glass, warming my already numbing fingers.

I thanked him, we toasted, “Kampai” and off he went in search of another soul in need of warm spirits.

The Kagurayado (stage) was set beside an old school that had been abandoned some ten years prior, as residents on the mountain began to dwindle. In search of a bathroom, I entered the dimly lit building, peeking into rooms here and there, letting my imagination hear the faint echo of school children’s laughter, followed by the sweet, but stern voice of a young school teacher calling her class to order.

The old building smelled of a place forgotten.

Musty and forlorn.

Yet at the same time, there was a palpable sensation of life around every corner, as the mountain flora and fauna began to reclaim the building.

A single, bare bulb cast a ghostly light down a long, dusty hallway. Still on a mission, I saw this as a sign that I was headed in the right direction, so down the hall I went. Each step I took along the warped and weatherbeaten floorboards creaked and groaned and resonated all around me, as if to announce to the shadows that a stranger had arrived. About halfway down the corridor, I saw a flash of colors through some dirty panes of glass, so I walked into a tiny classroom where, still hanging on the wall, I found a yellowed and cracked map of the world.

Without hesitation, I reached out a finger and placed it on the tiny island of Kyushu.

Beside the map were old pictures of what I assumed were famous faces and legendary events.

Faded.

Decaying.

Neglected.

It was as if the stories themselves were passing into oblivion, as was the mountain culture just beyond the old school’s walls.

Right next to these dim relics was a beautifully abstract wood carving which, unlike everything that surrounded it, was mysteriously free of spiderwebs, layers of dust and, for that matter, decay. Closing my eyes, I reached out and rubbed my fingers across the delicate engravings. Eager to reveal some message in its form.

The wood was warm and smooth to the touch, undoubtedly from the many fingers both past and present, which like myself, were inexplicably drawn to the carving. Deep in thought and touch, I was startled when I suddenly heard a loud, steady drum beat begin outside.

The sun was setting.

The dances were beginning.

And I was reminded of my reason for being there.

With one last, lingering glance around the abandoned classroom, I turned and wandered very slowly back through the old schoolhouse trying to remember every quiet, dim detail.

By the time I had “completed my business” and located Sam and the others, the stage (which represents a shrine to the Gods) had on it four dancers. My companions had begun to prepare some hot soup over a small burner, so I snuggled beneath a blanket, deeply breathed in the smell of the broth simmering and turned to the stage to watch the first of the many dances to come that night.

As I was told, each dance tells of a different legend relating to the history of Japan – from the creation of the Gods to the birth of mankind. The dancers’ costumes were simple, white kimono which were altered ever-so-slightly (adding a mask, a coat, a scarf, a sword) when a new character arrived or a new tale was being told. Apart from an occasional prop, such as a basket or chair (and the golden shrine – which remained stationary at the back) the staging was also very simple and all parts – both male and female – were performed by men.

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Photo by acfrohna

For the first dance, the performers held in their right hands white fans – on each, a symbol of the sun. With graceful, sweeping motions, they made the sun rise and set at their bidding. In their left hands were tree-shaped instruments made of brass bells that clamored louder and louder the more lively the dance became.

For the most part, the Kagura is slow and methodic, like a spider spinning its web, but depending upon the main character who takes the stage, the dance can range from reverential to comic.

The Good Wife took the stage and told her tale.

The Fox entered and departed as a Princess.

The Gods followed.

The further the evening progressed, the more men from the audience began to reel alongside the stage, mirroring the motions of the dancers.

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Photo by acfrohna

Desperate to stay warm as the mountains enveloped us in a dark, raw chill, we huddled together and, at the sight of hot shyochu approaching (despite the inevitability of one nasty hangover in the morning), we raised our glasses toward the bottle – or the pole – and partook in one drink after another. Strangely enough, as the evening wore on, I was surprised at how remarkably sober I remained and could only attribute it to the cold mountain air and brisk, wintry winds.

Every now and then, I turned my attention to the audience to watch the faces react to the scenes on the stage and the events transpiring around them. With several layers wrapped around me and still chilled to the bone, I observed a pretty, but silly young woman dressed in shorts, shivering by the fire.

Too vain (or too stupid) to wrap herself in the nearest blanket – or friend. Just who, way up here in the mountains, was she dressed to impress?

Maybe the Gods understood.

Besides this, however, I found the people I encountered all through the night to be genuinely warm and welcoming. Like old friends, there was a sense of ease and comfort I’ve seldom felt elsewhere in my life. Each newcomer to the event was treated as if they were long expected and sorely missed. And all night long – no matter how the dynamics of a group changed – the conversations never wavered, but flowed as effortlessly as small creeks spill into a large river without interrupting the river’s journey.

We shared our food, our drinks, our blankets, our fires and the experience as one big, happy family.

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Photo by acfrohna

The first time I bothered to look at my watch since the festival began, it read 5:15 a.m. I made a brief attempt at sleep, but decided I would be far more comfortable writing and warming myself by the fire. After all, it was only a short time until the morning sun would appear and begin to warm things. And I liked being surrounded by all the unfamiliar, friendly faces.

All my companions had fallen asleep, or wandered to another part of the festival, so I sat quietly, smiling at the sleepy but happy faces that passed my way.

The legend of the eight-headed snake was next. A god danced across the stage, plunging his sword into a giant serpent (made of straw) until revealed to the audience in the belly of the beast was a magnificent sword which would make this God Emperor of Japan.

At least that’s what I think the very sweet gentleman sitting nearby told me.

By the end of the dance, the cold had become too much for my tired and shivering body, so I wandered toward the car and there found Kyoto, who had just woken from a nap. He made up a cozy little bed for me in the back of the Jeep, turned on an auxiliary heater, tucked me in and headed back to the stage area.

What a sweetheart, I thought as I blearily looked to my watch.

It was 6 a.m.

About three hours later, I woke to the sounds of voices near the jeep. The sun and the heater working together made the inside of the jeep so toasty that the thought of emerging from my cocoon and peeling off the many layers wrapped around me brought an actual tear to my eye. Nevertheless, I climbed from the jeep and saw Kyoto just a few feet away, smiling and in good spirits – despite the fact that I had stolen his sleeping arrangements.

Imagining how dreadful I must have looked, following a cursory greeting, I made a quick retreat to the toilets where I splashed my face with icy water from an outdoor tap, rinsed my mouth and for the first time in 12 hours and looked at my reflection in a nearby window.

Only to find that I looked far worse than I felt.

My eyes were sunken, red and swollen.

My unruly “bed-head” was unrelentingly untamable (making me look eerily similar to the Heat Miser).

My lips were pale, dry and cracked.

My teeth covered with slick layers of scum.

And frankly, my breath could have slain that eight-headed snake.

So, I stealthily crept to my bag where I threw on my sunglasses and a cap and eventually made my way toward the stage where the remaining crowd was gathering for the final dance of the festival.

I felt instantly better when I saw that EVERYONE looked as unreservedly crappy as I did.

The next thing I knew, despite my urgent pleas to remain a mere spectator, I was being dragged to the dancers’ dressing room and wrapped in the traditional costume, complete with hat, bells and sword. Feeling how I felt and looking the way I did, I was absolutely mortified by the thought of going out on a stage – let alone having to dance – and found only slight comfort when I turned around to see Samantha being involuntarily volunteered to undergo the same humiliation.

I should explain that we weren’t only picked out of the crowd for our incredible morning beauty, or as is most often the case, for our incredible foreignness. The final dance traditionally gathers participants from the audience. Kyoto and several others from the crowd were joining in, as well.

Our music cue began.

One of the main dancers insisted on my being the first one out the door after him. I wanted this honor about as much as I wanted to pickle my toes and eat them for breakfast, But I had little choice in the matter, as Kyoto urged (more like pushed) me from behind.

We arrived on stage and I immediately felt my face burning red with embarrassment, but in the spirit of the occasion, I did my best to follow the leader around and around the floor. Every once in a while, Sam and I would look to each other and burst out laughing.

For one very strange moment, I had the peculiar sensation – call it deja vu – that I had been in this very place, doing this very same thing before. It was so eerie that I had to stop in the middle of the stage and shake the feeling off.

Standing there, trying to make sense of this very queer sensation, I suddenly found myself being approached by an old man with a large branch in his hand. Laughing, he began to point directly at me and yell, “okii! okii!” (meaning big or large, which I can only hope was referring to my height). He then handed me the tree limb and gestured that I should begin swatting the other dancers with the branch.

I’m still not sure why, but when in Rome…

I headed straight to Kyoto and with a substantial “WHACK” thanked him for that shove into show business I received moments prior.

As if this public display wasn’t enough, another dancer approached me and placed in my hand a large phallic-shaped piece of wood as the crowd surrounding the stage began to guffaw. It didn’t take a genius to realize what this represented, but a mind muddled by lack of sleep and alcohol couldn’t help but ask.

Really sorry I did.

The dancer who had handed me the object, said, “That is the size of your pee-pee!”

I figured I was all in at this point, so I examined the wooden penis carefully (much to the delight of the audience) and then handed it over to Kyoto, whom I felt deserved the recognition more.

Why I became the object of such teasing, especially with Sam so nearby, is beyond me, but I decided that maintaining a stiff upper lip and my sense of humor was the best course of action and, believe it or not, I ended up having a hell of a lot of fun and received a rousing round of applause.

It’ll certainly be a memory I take with me for the rest of my life.

And isn’t making indelible memories what life is all about?

The night I returned from the Yokagura, I was exhausted from the all-nighter and fell into a deep, deep sleep. That is, until I was woken in the middle of the night by an eery, low rumbling, loud and steady.

At first, I thought it might be the sound of a slow moving freight train passing, but laying there with my eyes open and senses keenly alert, I was astounded by the din and the duration and suddenly felt as if I’d been transported back in time, imagining myself in WWII England during The Blitz.

I shuddered beneath my covers and remained with my eyes wide open – almost expecting the next sound to be that of bombs dropping.

What I finally realized I was hearing were the legions of planes on their way to Nyuta Baru American Air Force Base for the annual air show that began the following day.

Why they chose the middle of the night to do this, I still wonder about.

Whatever the reason, Akiko and I went to the show the next day where we saw many of my students who were not only excited to see me, but even more fired up when I spoke to several of the airmen and arranged for photo ops they never – ever – would have asked for themselves.

Well my friends, that should do it for now.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to write next. I have a super busy month ahead and then – hopefully – am off to Bangkok for winter break. I have to say, making travel arrangements here is proving about as easy as removing a recently discovered, gargantuan bugger from your nose, while your dentist is in the middle of examining your teeth… Catherine… but I’ll try.

I plan to be gone from December 23rd until January 3rd – just in case any of you want to call me- ha, ha, ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-cough, gasp, wheeze-ha!

My love to all and if you don’t hear from me, my best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy and SAFE New Year. My thoughts and my heart will be with you, while the rest of me will hopefully be lying languidly on a beach somewhere in southeast Asia.

Just west of the Midwest Chapter 15: Hong Kong Holiday

Even though our dreams of laying on a beach somewhere quickly began to fade as we found most resorts booked and travel prices far out of our range, Sam and I finally managed to make arrangements to travel to Hong Kong over the Christmas/New Year holiday.

Trying to avoid any more frustrations over the ridiculous nature of Christmas in Japan (A time of giving musical toilet paper holders and diamond-studded toothpicks, as well as a complete disregard for the true nature of the holiday, said the non-Catholic Catholic whose entrance into church starts the walls trembling and bleeding.), Sam and I headed across Kyushu to Kagoshima on Christmas Eve, where the following day we would catch our flight to Hong Kong via Dragon Airlines.

After dining on Okanomiyaki (a savory Japanese-style pancake would be the best way to describe this delectable fare) in a small establishment where we were, as usual, the focus of far too much attention, going to a karaoke bar (where our waiter was dressed in a plastic Frosty the Snowman costume and we were surrounded by gaggles of giggling, pouty-faced women), Sam and I went in search of any quiet, dark place where we could drink in peace and obscurity.

Sadly, all we found were streets filled with drunks bent on throwing obscene comments our way and an increasing desire to return to our hotel room where we could patiently wait for our plane to take us far, far away from the land of the Rising Sun, which has recently begun to test my patience and sunny disposition, God Damn It!

If some of you are thinking the “Honeymoon Period” in Japan has ended, you would be absolutely correct. However, don’t misunderstand. I’m still happy here and plan on staying for another year, but this isn’t heaven and I’m certainly no angel. Things here have been getting on my nerves lately, especially regarding what a foreigner living in rural Japan often has to deal with on a daily basis. The stereotypical assumptions of what many Japanese think it means to be a “gaijin” can be very, very frustrating. For this very reason, a vacation has become far more than a luxury.

It’s become an absolute necessity.

And we’re hoping a cosmopolitan environ such as Hong Kong will be just the ticket to restore our peace of mind and love of Japan.

Christmas Day we hopped aboard our plane and three hours later, we found ourselves descending over the bustling city of Hong Kong. After the initial shock of landing at the airport – which is akin to threading a needle, as the pilot must maneuver between a massive sea of skyscrapers in order to find the airstrip – we headed to the Bangkok Royal Hotel in the center of the shopping district of Kowloon.

Hong Kong is, more or less, divided into three major territories: Kowloon and the New Territory (which can be found on the mainland) and Hong Kong Island, just across the bay. From our first glimpse of the city through the window of the bus, Hong Kong looked frighteningly similar to my first impressions of Tokyo.

But this was soon proven entirely incorrect.

After settling into our very small and very dark (there being no window and obviously no fire regulations), but clean and cheap room, we headed into the light to check out our new surroundings, absolutely giddy to be somewhere other than Japan. It took only a few minutes of wandering down the street to see why Hong Kong is considered a shopper’s paradise. In a one block radius, we saw just about every kind of store imaginable.

And the streets were swarming with life.

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Photo by acfrohna

I can’t recall ever being in a city before where the ethnicities of its people were so diverse – a true melting pot. There are British, Chinese, African, American, Australian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, German, and on and on. As I walked and listened to all the different languages being spoken and looked at the magnificently diverse complexions and comportments, I couldn’t help but feel I’d just walked into this human spice shop where every sight and every smell sent my senses reeling with exciting possibilities. Even the common language of English being spoken here was brimming with a global variety of accents and inflections. And the atmosphere – combining the ancient and modern, Asian and Western, opulent and oppressed – created by this multicultural gathering was absolutely enthralling.

As the sun dipped behind the skyline and our stomachs ached for sustenance, Sam and I  began to scan the neighborhood for an inviting place to eat. Not knowing what we wanted and having every cuisine imaginable to choose from, we hoped we would be given a sign – a direction.

What we got, however, was even more confused.

The still teeming streets were now beginning to flicker and glow as neon lights and electric signs switched on, creating a collage of color, shape and motion; while the activity in motion below also fused together in a steady, colorful stream of people and automobiles.

Trucks were honking.

Shop owners were hawking.

Fish markets were squiggling.

The homeless and crippled were begging.

Street vendors barking.

And I was struggling to take it all in.

It was good to be out and about – and unnoticed –  here. To have the film of “gaijin” washed away. Or, at least, replaced by “just another bloody foreigner.”

We were finally drawn in by the smells of a Thai restaurant (cleverly called the Thai Cuisine Restaurant) and there, for the next several hours, we proceeded to order – and eat – enough food and beer for eight.

And that was our Christmas.

It was awesome.

The following day, Sam and I decided to venture over to Hong Kong Island, so we hopped on a crowded ferry and chugged across the bay. Like most of the public transportation in Hong Kong (which offers everything from trollies and trains to ferries and double-decker buses), it was fast and cheap, and very efficient. I realize this information might be as interesting to all of you as a rerun of “Gnat: the Tiny Wonder of the Insect World, an Historic Overview,” but considering the size and locality of things here, I thought it was worth mentioning.

So sue me.

After sitting down and perusing our newly purchased “Where to go and what to do in Hong Kong” books, we came to the conclusion that… we still didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to do or how to get there. In the end, we put our books back into our bags, licked our fingers, pointed them towards the sky…

and followed the wind.

This brilliant tactic eventually led us to a main thoroughfare and on to a tram headed “eastish”… Or maybe it was northward.

Whatever the case, neither Sam or I were going to let a little thing like a “plan” get in the way of having fun. What we soon discovered about Hong Kong was that around every corner there was something fascinating to discover. So, with no direction in mind, we found ourselves wandering up narrow, twisting roads, down long, steep, crooked stairs and through crowded markets where smells ranged from the putrid to the divine and the sights went from the truly grand to the utterly grotesque.

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Photo by acfrohna

At a fish market, I wandered from basket to basket taking it all in, lingering only once when I suddenly found myself transfixed by a fish monger who took a large eel from a writhing bucket of eels and “chop!” Grabbing both ends of the creature – still squiggling violently – he then tossed them into an old woman’s basket who couldn’t have looked more blasé about her half-dead dinner, bloody and squirming at the bottom of her basket.

Here, the taste for the unusual can bring you face to face with animals most would shudder at finding on their dinner plate. This reality came smashing down on me after wandering into a store filled with animals in cages: cats, owls, rats, armadillos.

I assumed the establishment was an exotic pet store.

Until the shop owner made the internationally recognized sign for shoveling “cat” in one’s mouth, followed by rubbing the stomach with a “that was yummy” look on his face. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised considering you can go into a local apothecary here and find items such as tiger balls, sea dog penis, antlers, ears and a variety of dried body parts that, frankly, aren’t meant to be anywhere but attached to their rightful owner.

All of a sudden, the thought of seeing the shop owner wrap up one of these helpless creatures knowing it was someone’s dinner forced me to shiver and make a hasty exit.

As we continued to wander around the city, I noticed that Hong Kong certainly has its share of excessively ugly modern architecture, but I was also overjoyed when we found, hidden signs of what was once not only a rich, ancient culture, but a powerful British Colony and a link to the Western World.

Intermixed with the tin shanties and grimy, characterless high-rises, there are cobbled streets that lead to charming manors, reflecting the grace and elegance of Victorian England. While smaller lanes house shadows of ancient dynasties.

Even though we failed to see any of the things we set our sights on, it was a really good day.

To sum up our activities: picture two women who’ve been living in a country where, for the past five months, they’ve been earning more money than they’ve ever made before and can’t spend any of it on really cool Japanese designers (such as Yoji Yamamoto), because their size, in Japan, is looked upon as something abnormal. Now picture the same two women in Hong Kong, a city where fashion is function, where clothes are available in every color and size AND at a fraction of the cost. It was a veritable shopping frenzy and we’re proud to report that not a single fashion-related fatality occurred as a result of our ungoverned enthusiasm. I also managed to check off my double-digit gift list for family, friends, and my Shintomi-cho family, and their friends and… associates. Gift giving is HUGE in Japan. Especially Omiyage, which are little souvenirs you’re expected to bring back from vacation for friends and co-workers.

Slightly depressed about having to be selfless and think of others, Sam and I quit shopping late in the afternoon and went to have a bite to eat.

Yes… and a few beers.

What are you, my parents?

We found ourselves at a restaurant we had read about called Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, where we were told there was great music and, even more important, rowdy Australian men with whom we could reaffirm our ability to attract and flirt with the opposite sex. So fun was this little excursion, we set our sights on returning later that evening.

When we did, we found the bar crowded and reverberating with Dixieland Jazz, laughter and clinking glasses. Sam and I found two seats right in front of the band and sat down next to a handsome man and his equally handsome friend. While awaiting our pitcher of beer, our attempts to display our subtle, feminine charms and our fancy new duds (still creased from the store folds) to our good-looking neighbors had an immediate effect.

The handsome pair departed.

Sadly, and somewhat ironically, they were replaced by two Japanese businessmen. Look, I have nothing against the Japanese businessman, per se, it’s just that I’m on vacation. A getaway from Japan. AND in a setting where English is the language of love and I was desperate to speak it!

Suddenly, as if good fortune was going to be my friend that day, a very, very, very handsome man (I’m talking John Lone in “The Last Emperor of China” handsome) situated himself just beside our table. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him and felt a courage – or a couple of beers – rouse my gumption. Seeing the perfect opportunity, I tapped him on the shoulder and offered to fill his empty beer glass. He accepted… smiled, and… turned back around to face the band.

Drat.

But shrugging it off in my definitive “men are pigs” manner, I turned to Sam with a shrug and returned to the music. A few moments later, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and turned to find the very, very, very handsome man handing me a drink and saying in this low, sultry, come hither, posh British accent, “It is Chinese tradition to always return a favor.”

And with that, he introduced himself.

His name is Raymond. He’s 29, a police officer with the rank of sergeant, and he speaks English beautifully. He is taller than me, sexier than anyone I HAVE EVER MET IN MY LIFE and has an infectious smile.

We talked and talked and talked.

We danced and drank and danced.

So excited about this possible tryst, I excused myself to the ladies’ room at one point during the evening. As soon as the door behind me closed, I uncorked a squeal of joy at my good fortune, startling the woman coming out of the stall, who slowly backed from the bathroom with her cautious eyes never once leaving me.

It was 2:30 a.m. when the bartenders finally drove out the crowds and us with it. Sam, who had spent the evening at a nearby table with an Austrian named Guntrab moved on with him, Raymond’s friend, Mike, called it an evening.

And then… there were two.

Raymond took me to a dark, smoky jazz bar where we danced and held each other tighter and tighter and… in order to preserve some level of self-respect… Flash forward to the next day when I returned to the Bangkok Royal Hotel with a smile on my face, a spring in my step and wanton, wickedly good memories of my first time in a Love Hotel (a common accommodation in Japan as well), where couples of all shapes, types and marital status, go to get it on.

Think pink neon.

Ceiling mirrors.

A round bed.

Red satin sheets.

And “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

I’d blush, but I don’t wanna.

Being with Raymond is not only exciting, but really easy.

If he just lived closer.Say… my apartment in Shintomi.

It seems that my chance for a great romance isn’t just a joke, it’s an interminable itch. Anyway, the day after the night at the Love Hotel, Sam (who was a good girl, but horribly hungover) and I decided that if we were going to feel this bad, then we had to at least look good. So, we dragged our sad bodies from bed, went to the nearest restaurant, ordered heaps of food (only half of which we were able eat due to the fact that our red, puffy eyes were bigger than our beer-soaked stomachs), and then walked into a salon right across the street.

An hour and two short, sassy haircuts later (photos would reveal our haircuts were certainly short, but not in the least bit sassy), Sam and I revealed ourselves to the outside world. However, we stayed in close range of our hotel for fear that any sudden urge to lapse into an alcohol-induced coma could be easily appeased. Even though the remainder of the day was about as un-cultural and uneventful as one could imagine, I did check a few more people off my gift list and then fell into a sound sleep early that night.

I might as well confess this right here and right now. The only days during our vacation that Sam and I were up before noon were when we either hadn’t gone to sleep the night before or had to wake up early to catch our plane home. Our motto: “We’re on vacation and can do what we damn well please.”

And if that wasn’t rationalization enough, how about the fact that even though Hong Kong is an exciting, diverse, fascinating city, it does lack cultural attractions.

Really!

It’s true, I tell you.

Sam and I did attempt a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of Art (one of the few museums in the city) and were disappointed to find it under renovation. We also visited the Space Museum and watched the Omnimax film “To the Limit.,” which I had already seen a year ago in Chicago.

But that was about it for cultural enlightenment. At least on our end.

The staff at the Royal Bangkok Hotel, on the other hand, were clearly finding Sam and I a most fascinating anthropologic study of two nocturnally driven, Western females with bad haircuts. In fact,  the only time they ever saw us come out of our windowless, cavelike dwelling was after dark. Only to return just before dawn. It wouldn’t have surprise me in the least if I had found the chambermaid stashing a stake beneath a stack of sheets when she cleaned our room.

But what we missed in experiencing the daylight hours of Hong Kong, I am proud to say, I made up for in the time I spent with Raymond taking in Hong Kong’s nightlife. Holding hands and stealing kisses, we roamed from one glittering alleyway to the next, taking in all the inner-city smells and sights, stopping in at one spot or another to listen to jazz, or dance at a disco, and then back out into the busy streets again to visit the late night food stalls and people watch.

The only unfortunate part was during our first official evening out together with Sam and Raymond’s friend – and boss – Mike (did I fail to mention that they were out with Raymond and I). The chemistry was that of water and fire. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Mike was proving to be a great big, balding, unwelcome, unrelenting, flaming ball of noxious gas. The more Sam turned down his increasingly adamant flirtations, the stronger his advances and the more uncomfortable everyone was becoming.

In order to help Sam get away from this raving putz, we were forced to call it a relatively early evening. Being that Raymond lived over an hour away and had an early shift in the morning, he asked if he could stay with Sam and I.

What did I think about spending the night watching the incredibly sweet and breathtakingly handsome Raymond sleep just inches from me?

The problem was that we had to do this without Mike the Menace knowing. Even though Sam couldn’t have been more clear in her revulsion of him, Mike had reached psycho status by the end of the night when he actually had the nerve to ask Sam to spend the night with him.

I’ve never known anyone to be so utterly clueless.

Or was it delusional?

So the plan was that Raymond would “leave” with his psychotic superior (Mike, by the way, is a Chief Inspector for the Hong Kong Police), pretend to be dropped off at the train station, and then meet us back at the hotel where Sam and I were anxiously waiting for him in our recently purchased matching polkadot pajamas. I lent Raymond a pair of shorts for sleeping in, then the three of us (Sam in her bed and Raymond and I snuggled up in mine) shared a few more laughs – many at Maniac Mike’s expense – and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

That is, until I felt a tap on my shoulder and opened my eyes to find Sam, with what was coming into focus as a panic-stricken face.

“I need your help,” she whispered loudly.

“For God’s sake, Sam,” I grumbled, “Can’t it wait until morning?”

“No, I don’t think so. This is SERIOUS, Anne.”

“What, Sam? What is sooooo serious?”

“Well…well…well… I, I, I pulled the sink from the wall and now the bathroom is flooding with steaming, hot water.”

I sat up and shook my head to make sure I heard her right.

“What did you say?”

“Our room is about to look like a suite on the Titanic. What should I do?”

“What do I look like Rosie the Plumber?:

This just confused my British chum.

Did you try turning the water off?

“No.”

“Well,” I croaked, as the hotel fire alarm drowned out my reply, “that might have been a good idea.”

“It might be time to call for help,” I yelled above the alarm and turned to see Raymond momentarily rouse and then roll over back to sleep.

Talk about your heavy sleeper. (I could have totally made out with him and he wouldn’t have suspected a thing.)

Anyhoo, Sam ran for help.

After assuring the steward that she was not smoking in bed, he sped into the room (pausing briefly when he saw a man in one of the beds) got to the water pipes, stopped the flooding, and began cleaning up the broken glass and water. Seeing I could be of little help, I rolled over to join Raymond still in a deep sleep. My last thoughts were how the hotel staff was going to interpret this new anthropological behavior: two girls with matching polka dot pajamas, one handsome stranger in woman’s shorts who was either sleeping heavily, dead drunk, in a coma, or dead, one sink pulled from the wall.

Hmmmmmmmm.

The next morning, Raymond, who, believe it or not, was absolutely oblivious to the aforementioned mishap, headed off to work at about 9 a.m., looking a little disheveled. Which, by golly, made him even more handsome.

Did I tell you he had an infectious smile?

Sam and I curled back up in our beds as she tried to explain exactly what had happened. Apparently, she got up to do what most… well… do in there, when she started having the spins. Naturally, in order to steady herself, she grabbed the nearest thing – the sink – and the rest is history.

A short time later, the front desk called to say that our room was now considered dangerous (Funny actually, considering the fact that the flooded floors in our windowless room would be the only thing which might keep us safe in case of fire.) and would we mind switching rooms. So, we spent the next 12 hours packing, moving, eating, sleeping, waking, eating, sleeping, sleeping and then, add to that, a little more sleeping.

The following day we dragged our sorry butts out of the hotel (However, not before noon.) and got on a boat bound for the island of Lantau. There we rode an hour on a tour bus to the top of a mountain where lies a Buddhist Monastery.

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Photo by acfrohna

Both the ride up and the monastery were magnificent, but I would have preferred about 5,000 less tourists, more time to explore, a chance to use the riding stables nearby, and an hour or so to relax in the lovely tea garden we passed. But the incredibly irritating tour guide time schedule has little patience for pause, so back we hurried to the mainland.

It was New Year’s Eve and I had plans to meet Raymond at 11 o’clock at Ned Kelly’s, so Sam and I gussied ourselves up and got to the bar around 9 p.m. to find it packed to the rafters. Unable to find two seats, we stood by the bar and ordered a few beers. Before too long, a group of four men and one woman invited us to join their already crowded table.

The holiday spirit was everywhere, so we accepted and squeezed ourselves in.

We soon learned our companions were Federal Express pilots and crew and although the population should thank its lucky stars these guys aren’t flying lots of folks around, they were a hell of a lot of fun. Especially a fellow named Bob, who could swing dance like the east coast fellows I knew and adored back in college. We were on fire on the dance floor that night and despite the serious lack of space available for tripping the light fantastic, we caused little damage and had a blast.

It also took my mind off the fact that it was well past 11 o’clock and Raymond was no where to be found.

Trying to “see the glass half-fucking full” and focusing on our fine new company of friends, I managed to glance at the bar clock out of the corners of my eyes a mere six or seven times during the eleventh hour, but was completely beside myself with disappointment when the band began its countdown to ring in the new year.

Ten.

No Raymond.

Nine.

No Raymond.

Eight.

Still no Raymond.

I couldn’t take it and headed for the bathroom before everyone began to exchange kisses.

It’s funny, I thought as I quickly serpentined to the very back of the crammed saloon, this is the one night each year which affords a person the opportunity to let down their guard and do something they’d NEVER think of doing any other night of the year. Kiss a perfect stranger. And I was running away from it.

I turned and stood, looking out across the bar for a moment, thinking about how lovely the whole scene was. Glancing once more toward the entrance of the bar – no sign of Raymond – I turned to continue my temporary escape from the celebration. As I walked down the deserted back hallway, I began to pass by a very good-looking fellow. The next thing I knew, he grabbed me and planted a long, lovely kiss on my shocked face.

He then smiled, wished me a Happy New Year with a mysterious accent and vanished into the crowd.

Leaving me standing there.

Stunned.

Knees trembling.

As if I had just received my very first kiss.

Well, I thought to myself, if I was going to be stood up… that wasn’t a bad way to get over it. So, I headed back to our table with a glint in my eye.

And there stood Raymond.

Did I tell you he had an infectious smile?

He apologized for being late, explaining he was involved in an arrest. I told him that the safety of Hong Kong’s citizens was no excuse for standing up a person you’ve known for nearly a week. He laughed, apologized again, and vowed it would never happen again.

After receiving my long-awaited New Year’s kiss from Raymond, he introduced me to his friend, whom he had brought along to make amends for Mike the Molester from the other night (Whom, by the way, we had somehow been finagled into sightseeing with tomorrow.), but Sam already had her sights set on Bob the Fed Ex Pilot. So, Raymond’s friend soon excused himself, leaving the two of us to search for more romantic atmospheres.

It was, indeed, the happiest of New Years.

The next morning, Mike the Mental Case called at 10 a.m. about our excursion. Rolling over to see Sam was no where in sight – and not really expecting to – I asked Mike if I could call him back later, hung up the phone and instantly fell back asleep. Some time later, Sam returned with the same kind of grin I donned earlier that week and threw herself on the bed. From our prone positions, where we needed to use only our lip muscles, we spent the next hour exchanging stories – until the phone rang out like a siren, warning us of our doomed afternoon with Inspector Insanity. The only bright light to the event was that Raymond planned to meet us for dinner at what is supposed to be one of the best Szechuan restaurants in Hong Kong.

To try to sum up the afternoon: it went from bad to beastly, only to end up abominably.

And even though we were taken to some very interesting and legendary Hong Kong establishments, such as the Royal Jockey Club (being an inspector in Hong Kong must pay very well), the awesome atmosphere couldn’t overshadow the fact that this man was an incredibly pompous ass who didn’t care one iota for anything either Sam or I had to say.

About anything.

The fifteen years of experience Chief Inspector Asshole amassed in Hong Kong might have actually been amusing, but the more I tried to engage in this apparently one-man-show by asking questions and adding my two cents to the conversation, the more he turned his attention to hitting on Sam, which – quite frankly – was being received with about the same warmth as another bitter, gray day at the end of a Midwest winter. To top it all off, Raymond, who was supposed to be joining us later, called to say he wouldn’t be able to meet up for dinner that night. We were stuck – alone – with this horrible man for the remainder of what was proving to be the longest day in recorded history, unable to think of a way out of this increasingly uncomfortable trio.

To explain just how sad and delusional this guy was; while walking to the restaurant where we were supposed to be meeting Raymond, Mike the Masher kept making attempt after attempt to grab – and hold – Sam’s hand. Her response (and this is after telling him several times that she wasn’t interested) was a simple and brutally direct, “No!”

Oddly enough, he kept at it.

It was the weirdest thing to witness this travesty from a few paces behind. So persistent were his attempts to hold Sam’s hand that even slapping it away had little effect. In the end, she was forced to hold her arm behind her back. Even then, he reached back and attempted to grab her hand once more.

This was getting way too creepy.

Why we made no attempts to bail out at this point is strong testament to the damage alcohol has on the brain cells. Instead, we hurried through one of the most intensely tense (but intensely delicious) meals of my life. Preparing to breathe a collective sigh of relief when we pulled up to our hotel entrance, “Dr. Strangelove” offered one more perversity.

He attempted to kiss BOTH Sam and I goodnight.

Wow… if the safety of Hong Kong’s citizens depends upon this man… parents, lock up your children.

The next day, Sam and I happily escaped Hong Kong for Macau, a Portuguese settlement located an hour’s hovercraft journey from the mainland. The tourist books had Sam and I all excited for a day of roaming through an ancient, charming, seaside town with a piece of history around each quaint corner. What we found the moment we disembarked the hovercraft was a city overrun with high-rises, tacky casinos, seedy-looking characters and pawn shops.

Nevertheless, we were relieved to discover that tucked away, here and there, were at least some of the beautiful remains of the city’s past; statues and buildings which spoke of the town’s multicultural history, and, most important, a really good meal. This, however, was not enough reason to parlay the day into anything more than hanging out until the next hovercraft’s departure.

The brightest spot of the day was seeing Raymond that night who took us dancing with two of his friends. By the evening’s end, Sam went off to pull an all-nighter with the Iowa State Hockey team we met and I was left alone with Raymond to savor the last few moments of looking into his disarmingly handsome face before returning to Japan the day after tomorrow.

I did tell you he had an infectious smile, didn’t I?

We spent our final day in Hong Kong doing what you can do best in Hong Kong.

Shopping.

It was our last chance to get the final omiyage needed in order to avoid a major cultural faux pas back in Japan. I was supposed to see Raymond again tonight, but I didn’t hear from him and decided not to call, feeling as if our late nights together had probably caused him enough undue hardship at his incredibly taxing and dangerous job. But I did mail him a little note, thanking him for such wonderful memories of Hong Kong.

And sighed all the way to the airport.

That night, Sam and I got back to my apartment; unpacked, bathed and spent the remainder of the night quiet and introspective, sobered by the full realization of how different our lives are here; how really isolated from the rest of the world we sometimes feel on our little island of Kyushu.

I began to wonder whether vacations were really worth it. After all, I said to Sam, you’re always left to face the inevitable return to everyday life – which can feel even more disappointing than before you escaped.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Raymond.

He called to say how sorry he was we didn’t get to see each other my last night in Hong Kong. He asked when I planned to return. He also teased me with the suggestion that he might make it to Japan.

I did tell you he had an infectious smile, right?

Sorry… What was I saying?

Oh yeh, vacations. Are they really worth it?

Damn right they are.

Love to you all.

It’s my sincere hope that the new year ahead is filled with handsome men, starry nights, round beds, a stomach of steel and a sense of humor.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 16: A Lub Story

Don’t tell me. Let me guess.

I bet all of you have been sitting by your mail boxes for the past few weeks in eager anticipation of my next letter.

You’ve cancelled meetings, delayed chores, missed exciting social events.

All with the hope that the postman will bring a ray of sunshine in the form of a small white envelope from the Land of the Rising Sun.

And what follows?

Nothing. No letters.No postcards.No pictures.

Nothing but bills and big yellow envelopes announcing “You could have just won $3,000,000,000,000.00 from Ed McMahon.”

The Howie Fuggs Family were disbelievers too, but they sent in their forms and now they have more money than the Japanese have rice. Let’s talk to the Fuggs Family and let them tell you more:

Howie: God Damn, I’ve been scraping gum off the bottom of bus stop benches fer forty years. I never thought I’d have so much money!

Ed: And what are you going to do with all that cash, Howie?

Howie: What any man in my place would do, Ed. I’m going to finally buy myself that industrial-sized scraper!

Ed: That’s it? You’re going to buy a large scraper with 3 trillion dollars?

Howie: Hell no. I got my eye on a kick-ass leisure suit from Sears, plan to get my wife some electrolysis and move my family into a home they can be proud of – a top a the line Winnabeggie. And if I got somethin’ left after that, I plan to help make this world a better place!

Ed: And how’s that Howie? Donating to a wildlife fund, a peace organization, an environmental cause?

Howie: Hell no! I’m going to help put Jim and Tammy back where they belong – on God’s Playing Field.

Mrs. Fuggs: Amen.

Ed: …Someone hand me a hanky.

Mrs. Fuggs: Amen.

But I digress.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t feel too bad about not writing (only in the sense of not writing for writing’s sake) simply because I’ve had nothing to respond to. The least any of you could do is drop a brief, “Fuck off, whiner” note in the post. I mean, how sad is it that the last two letters I received were from – strangely enough – Ed McMahon (How did he find me here?) and Visa (How the HELL did they find me here?).

Whoever said, “No news is good news.” was full of crap.

As for things here… work has been extraordinarily busy. So, at the end of most days, I retreat to the seclusion of my apartment where I routinely procrastinate, avoiding all the things that might benefit me emotionally, spiritually, physically and/or intellectually. On the job front, I wasn’t sure (due to the usual bureaucratic red tape) whether I’d be able to renew my contract for next year, but was told yesterday that it was 99% sure that I could stay another year.

On the travel front, other than some weekends heading up to Hyuga or down to Miyazaki, I hadn’t gone anywhere until last weekend when Sam, Eleanor (another JET) and I went to Fukuoka (in the northern part of Kyushu) to see the Ramsey Lewis Trio at a bar there called The Blue Note. The concert was fantastic. Our table was just a few feet from the small stage and being the only westerners (besides the band) we were personally greeted by the trio as they took the stage.

And boy did they take the stage.

The Japanese crowd, although more lively than usual, was still quite subdued for our standards, so our snapping, clapping, swaying and tapping was looked upon with some curiosity. Later, however, the band revealed to us that they were quite happy to see some life in the audience. The concert ended to a standing ovation and the crowd began to pour out as if “Last Call” meant, “Get the hell out of here, before we sever a limb.”, until we found ourselves (with less than a handful of others) sipping our drinks and trying to figure out a way to talk to the band. As it turned out, we didn’t need a plan after all. The band came to us – or at least, Henry Johnson (rhythm guitar) and Chuck Williams (bass guitar).

Knowing they hailed from Chicago, I thought it would be a nice ice-breaker if I explained that that was where I was from, at which Chuck immediately said, “North Shore, right?” When I replied in the positive, the jazz guitarist with an apparent chip on his shoulder the size of the Sears Tower for my being born on the wrong side of town, soon departed. Henry didn’t seem bothered and ended up talking with us until we were kicked out of the Blue Note and then accompanied us to some other watering holes in the neighborhood until he had to call it an evening in order to catch an early flight the next morning.

Really nice man.

Failing to secure bus reservations for our return trip to Miyazaki, Sam called upon her latest beau, Hirada, who drove FIVE hours to come and get us.

Sam better put out for that fellow, or I will.

The trip home was through some of the island’s most beautiful scenery. We saw Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest in the world, the fjords and waterfalls of Kumamoto Ken and stopped at Kumamoto-jo, one of the premier castles in Japan – a spectacular sight with its 49 turrets. And the gardens were incredible. How can one properly describe the traditional Japanese garden?

Harmony. Serenity. Meticulously composed. Sheer perfection.

And to add to the experience, we were there just as the ume (plum) trees were blossoming. In fact, there was a line of photographers perched atop one of the castle walls which overlooked the largest group of trees, many of whom possessed camera equipment that must have cost the same as what a day in that damn Gulf War is costing. After strolling around the gardens, we soon found ourselves among the photographers and although we should have expected it, one of the photographers surprised us by turning his attention away from the magnificent scenery and asking us to go down among the trees for a few posed shots. Being very tired, slightly hungover and envisioning even more horrid images of us on public display, we politely declined, quietly skeedaddled and headed toward home.

On the romance front, I haven’t heard from Raymond and although I never really expected anything to come from a long distance relationship, there was, until very recently, a modicum of hope that he couldn’t live without me. I have tried to fill the gap by taking things a few steps further with Kyoto – when schedules permit – but I don’t think this will last too much longer. He made a fatal error – or should I say two – recently. One was mumbling something in his sleep about children – in English! As soon as I heard this, I picked my jaw up from the floor and quickly woke him from his dream with a few well placed slaps, a bucket of cold water and electric shock treatment. I didn’t tell him about what I heard and was hoping I misunderstood.

I didn’t.

Last weekend, after having a few cocktails and thumbing through his dictionary, Kyoto used the “L” word. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Oyasuminasai. Raishu ni hanashimasho. (Good night. Let’s talk next week.)

Kyoto: Anne. Chotto matte, ne? (Anne, wait a minute, okay?)

Me: Hai. Nan desu ka?(Yes. What is it?)

Kyoto: I…..I…..I lub yu.(I…..I….I love you.)

Me: Nani?(What the fuck did you just say?)

Kyoto: I….luuuuub….yuuuuuu.(He repeats very slowly as he lifts me off of the road.)

Me: Nani?!

Kyoto: %#^@%&&#%%*@&@^#!!!!!!!! I lub you!!!!(%#^@%&&#%%*@&@^#!!!!!!! I love you!!!)

Me: No, you don’t.

Kyoto: Hai.

Me: Kyoto… No… YOU DON’T.

Kyoto: Hai. I do!

Me: Kyoto, you don’t love me. You can’t love me. You barely know me. Hell, Kyoto, we can’t even hold a normal conversation!

Kyoto: Nani? Wakarimasen.(Meaning: I don’t understand a word you just said, but I still think I love you.)

… And the level of communication only went downhill from there.

He really is so very sweet. He’s also pretty dang good in bed AND we have had a lot of fun together. But the fact is, I don’t feel remotely in love with him and think it’s best I step away while he’s still busy thumbing through his dictionary trying to translate our last conversation. I really don’t want to hurt him anymore than I’m already going to by breaking things off now.

Damn my bewitching charm.

Seriously though, this sucks. I hate to lose his friendship… I guess I should have thought of that before I slept with him.

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All I Can Say Is…

  • I’ve watched and listened with both horror and amusement to some of the popular bands in the Japanese pop music culture. I’ve concluded that most are utterly talentless, clueless and tasteless, insipidly superficial and chockablock with brainless bimbos. These nitwitted ninnies (the majority of which are girl bands) take the stage and sing with voices which bring to mind the strange mating calls of the Australian wombat I once saw during the nature documentary, “Orgy in the Outback”. Add this lack of musical talent to dance routines which regularly resemble Howdy Doody (with a couple of broken strings), and I find myself feeling more than slightly nauseated, as well as, thoroughly offended. All I can say is… if the music world depended on “talent” such as this, the Bay City Rollers would now be buried in Graceland.
  • I’ve been feeling a little put off by the pressure some people have been giving me about my current level of Japanese. It’s ironic really. Most people here study English for a minimum of seven years and can’t speak more than a handful of words. Yet I’ve been here only seven months and although I’m no linguist, I’m able to get by. This, however, is not enough for many people and I’ve found they expect one of two things: either you’re fluent, or brain dead. All I can say is… this attitude has really motivated me to expand my Japanese %$*&#%@#! vocabulary.
  • The other day there was a knock on my door. I answered it to find two gentleman, representatives of the Japanese Postal Service, looking incredibly apologetic as they handed me the remains of what once appeared to be an envelope from the States. Even though the plastic bag containing the shredded remnants clearly and officially indicated that the damage had been done back in the U.S., the postal workers before me were prepared to take full responsibility. Both men offered a rapid and heart-wrenching series of “Gomen nasai” (apologies) for this unpardonable postal catastrophe, as well as a number of gifts, including a handkerchief and a kitchen towel. I had the distinct impression that they’d be willing to do anything I asked of them to make up for it. All I can say is… where were they when I totaled my Mom’s Audi.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 17: I Like Suffering

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Student artwork.

A few days have passed since I last picked up this letter and life has taken on new meaning! I’ll try to be brief.

Shut up. I said I’ll try.

Friday night, I almost made the grave mistake with a co-worker. Thank God, I came to my senses and recognized that I was simply caught up in the excitement of having my first, full-fledged intellectual conversation in Japanese that very same evening. The rationale for almost making such an irrational move: an overactive linguistic libido. As a result, I hid under the covers most of Saturday, cringing about what almost happened the previous night and how I was going to handle things on Monday.

However, the day wasn’t completely uneventful. I did manage to start a small fire in my kitchen.

It happened while melting facial wax on the burner.

At one point, I thought the entire apartment was about to be engulfed, especially after I decided to douse the waxy fire with water – sending the blaze twice as high.There were several minutes of sheer panic, most particularly when I found myself feeling my way through the smoke-filled apartment in order to find my dictionary and the Japanese word for “FIRE!!!!!” Even then, I hadn’t a clue how to dial for help.

I know now.

The incident so shook me up that I’ve decided to grow out my mustache. Give it a chance to really fill in – maybe do a handlebar style.

So, as you can imagine, the day which began on a bit of a shaky note was heading to all out tremors. And to top it all off, that night, I was expected to have dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Otiai (the Mrs. being in my Adult English Conversation class at the community center). This class is one of the favorite parts of my job because I have control over the lessons and, let’s be honest, the adults are far more eager to learn. For that very reason, I didn’t want to disappoint Mrs. Otiai, a super sweet lady. So I crawled out from beneath my smoky-smelling covers, brushed my mustache and headed out.

Even though I began the evening in a bit of a grumpy mood, this lovely couple soon turned things around for me. Mr. Otiai speaks English beautifully, but chose to speak to me in Japanese most of the evening, purposely speaking slowly and clearly for my benefit. His kindness gave me an immediate boost of confidence and I was able to prove, yet again, that I could hold my own. The three of us were having a delightful conversation and a delectable dinner in a small restaurant in Miyazaki – that is, until I found myself the object of much ogling by a young man sitting in the corner. (Believe me, I know how vain this sounds, but as I’ve told you, in these parts, if you’re a foreign female, you get stared at AND you’re usually a dead ringer for someone famous. I’ve been told I look exactly like Jodie Foster… and John Lennon. Go figure.)

As it happens, the Otiais knew the young man and invited him to join us, at which point he sat himself close enough to see my new growth facial hair. He introduced himself as Yukio, age 24, a parts salesman for Daihatsu, the proud possessor of four girlfriends and very little money.

Marry me.

Yukio didn’t know a word of English (Okay, he knew three.), yet I felt the urge to let him try. So, the beginning of our conversation went something like this:

Yukio: Oh my god (a peculiarly popular phrase in Japan), Good Morning.

Me: Good Evening, how are you?

Y: Oh yeeeeeehhhhh.

Me: Oh yeeeeehhhhhh?

Y: I like suffering.

Me: Excuse me?

Y: I like suffering.

Me: Well… everyone should have a hobby.

Mr. O: Anne?

Me: Yes, Mr. Otiai?

Mr. O: I think he means surfing.

Me: Oh, I see. You like SuRfing. Well, that’s very interesting. (A terribly unenlightened conversation follows.)

Y: You have a big head.

Me: Excuse me? Did you say I have a big head?

Y: Hai. (He says, grinning, as if he’d just paid me a huge compliment. I remain confused and more than slightly insulted he hadn’t mentioned my mustache.)

Mr. O: Anne.

Me: Yes, Mr. Otiai?

Mr. O: I believe he means to say that you are very smart.

Me: Oh, I see… Well, Yukio, you have a big head, too. (I, on the other hand, meant exactly what I said.)

Well, the one thing I can give Yukio credit for is perseverance. Undiscouraged, he continued to attempt wooing me – almost desperate in its tone. Sensing he would not be easily dissuaded, Mr. Otiai began telling the young Romeo about my “husband” – a huge, handsome, powerful, intelligent, gentle, jealous, ex-football-player-turned-Air-Force-pilot, who could squeeze an apple with his bare hand and make cider, named John.

I think I’m in love.

John, according to Mr. Otiai, was to be meeting us momentarily. Yet Yukio couldn’t be budged from his mission to win me over. He said he wished to meet my husband and challenge him to an arm-wrestling match – the winner taking me as the prize. Feigning deep concern, I tried to explain to my young admirer that “my husband” would likely rip his arm from its socket. Yukio decided that such a match would probably not be wise, but still insisted on meeting my imaginary mate. It was then the Otiais decided it was time to call it a night. As we left the restaurant, Yukio called out across the crowded restaurant that we would meet again. The last thing I heard was a smattering of laughter and applause from the other diners.

I was home early that night and climbed in bed with thoughts of whether I would ever find the “John” I was looking for.

At 3 a.m., the phone exploded in my ear.

I crawled toward the ringing and grabbed the phone, grumbling something into the receiver, waiting to hear who on earth would be calling me at this hour. That’s when I heard this familiar, low, sultry voice and my heart stopped.

“Hello, Anne. I’m sorry to be calling so late.”

“You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you Raymond? What time is it?” I asked as I tried to remember how to breathe.

“It’s 2 a.m. here. I just got off work and was thinking about you. I wanted to call and apologize for not contacting you sooner. I’ve been working 15 hours everyday and haven’t had any time… I miss you. When are you coming back to Hong Kong?…”

I tried to remain calm during our conversation, but I’m sure I sounded like a love-sick schoolgirl bubbling over and giddy. Raymond didn’t seem to notice. I suggested he come with me to Chicago for my brother’s wedding in May, but I doubt that will happen. So instead, I’m planning to spend a weekend back in Hong Kong as soon as both our schedules permit.

God only knows when that will be.

We had a tentative weekend marked out, until I was reminded that there was already a trip planned to Nagasaki with my office.

Damn! Damn! And double-damn! As you can tell, Raymond really got under my skin and it’s even possible he feels something similar. But until we see each other again, we won’t really know where this thing is going. Receiving his call also made me realize more than ever that my attraction to Kyoto has been for the wrong reasons and it must end.

No! I haven’t “officially” ended it with Kyoto.

For God’s Sake, what do you want from me?

I did, however, recently have Yoshino-san suggest – and translate – a “you must go your way and I must go mine” speech that she thought might be a more gentle rejection than my planned “It isn’t you.. well, actually, it is you” speech. I hate these awkward moments, especially when it comes to rejecting someone who, in all honesty, is a really nice guy!

Now don’t jump to conclusions. I’m not dumping Kyoto because of one phone call from a man a thousand miles away. I’m doing it because of what I felt with Raymond when we were together and how I feel when I think about him or hear his voice. It’s just not there with Kyoto. I know there’s a very good chance that Raymond and I will fail – or for that matter, never even have a chance to get off the starting block. However, that’s not the point. The point is, I’ve found someone who makes me want to hear the “L” word. Whatever the outcome, I foresee many sleepless nights of wonder until we see each other again.

See you all in May. Keep your fingers crossed and your parkas on. Hell might be freezing over seeing that I could actually have a date for this wedding!

May your days be filled with sweet things, but not the ones that have been lying in someone’s jeans pocket for god knows how long, collecting enough lint and pocket-debris to take on an eerie likeness of Sy Sperlman’s “before” picture for Hairline Creations…. or my new facial hair.

P.S. – Thanks to all those who finally got off their lazy asses and wrote. The pictures were great, Audrey. You’re ALL as ugly as ever.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 18: Spring in Shintomi

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Photos by acfrohna

Well, it’s my third week in the office due to the fact that it’s spring break and there’s no school. So, I’ve been trying to keep myself busy with various work-related activities, studying my Japanese and working on new stories.

Here in Shintomi, the temperature (and humidity) is on the rise. The cherry (sakura) blossoms are beginning to fall from the trees. Sad as it is to see the beautiful blossoms disappear, wildflowers are waking throughout the town.

Brightly colored petals are cropping up along the streets and the river banks.

In the parks and in the fields.

In neighborhood gardens and flower pots.

Brightening the gray, rainy days and my spirits.

I headed to the beach each day after work where I often find myself alone and loving every solitary moment. I’ve begun to jog again (okay, you can stop laughing now) and am finding it a great tension reliever – as is the long strip of deserted beach where, because of strong tides, no swimming is allowed. I must confess, I occasionally sing into the prevailing winds at the top of my lungs, dance a wild, unabashed, unbridled jig and have, more than once, built a sandcastle and then crushed it unmercifully like Godzilla – all without curious eyes watching me. During my recent jog-walks to the beach (about 2 miles) I have also discovered some charming parts of Shintomi that I hadn’t known existed.

Where old, wooden barns, stained with times gone by, stand at the edge of rice fields in their early stages of growth.

The young crop sprouts methodically and meticulously from its watery beds. In the reflection of each patch, the scattered clouds and light blue skies, the wooden shacks and passing strangers seem even more real, more earthy, more harmonious and serene than the world they reflect.

The winds often carry the scent of wildflowers mixed with the pungent, but pleasant aroma of the local dairy farms and the unmistakably salty smell of the ocean. It’s a strange but comforting combination that I wish I could bottle and save for years from now when memories of my time here have faded.

Passing the farms along my route, bowing to and greeting those I meet, I look to their furrowed faces and small, strong frames and am reminded of the toil in working the earth. The old men and women shuffle along, their backs twisted and bent from years of stooping over rice fields and under cows. Like rings on a tree, their faces are impressed with browned, rough wrinkles that mark their years.

Their smiles often toothless, but never missing warmth.Their eyes, drooped and tired, still exuding an extraordinary spirit, causing me to wonder, “What would I see if I looked from those eyes?”

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Occasionally, I run across some of my students playing ball at the steps of a small shrine, or hide and seek in an overgrown field that looks like fur on the back of a giant green dog. Nearly always, they stop in mid-motion and run to my side where they smile shyly and look to one another for the courage to speak.

I’m still amazed by the fact that even though I have become a familiar face, my presence can still cause such commotion – both quiet and un. I always try to melt away any apprehension with a warm smile, a little Japanese and, for my littlest students, a big hug.

Admittedly, it isn’t always easy because I’m simply not always in the most cordial of moods. Yet no matter how much I first strain my facial muscles into something kind and welcoming, by the end of nearly every encounter, I wear my smile as easily and comfortably as a pair of faded old jeans.

I’ve also had fun discovering the many small shrines tucked away down tiny streets and hidden alleys in my little town. Shrines are well-worn and well-loved here in Japan and even though I am a devout heathen (or at least heartily convinced that organized religions have been the source of much of the world’s prejudices and conflicts), I find the simplicity of Shintoism and Buddhism enticing. In truth, I enjoy spending time among the mossy green shrines, beneath the newly blossoming cherry trees, with my new community, giving thanks.

Akiko stood me before at an alter during the recent festival celebrating children and in her broken English, told me to clap three times and then bow, which I did. She then told me to hold the bow for as long as possible.

“The longer you hold,” she explained as she turned her own head toward me and gently smiled, “the more the spirits will see your devotion and the higher your blessings.”

I wanted to tell her how very blessed my life already was.

But I simply held my bow and smiled.Silent.Grateful.Contented.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 19 Burying the Fat Man

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Glover House and Garden, Nagasaki, photo by acfrohna

A couple of weeks ago, Sam and I went with my office to Nagasaki. We left Shintomi at 3 a.m. and arrived at the western coast of the island at about 8 a.m. At which point, we began a whirlwind tour of every tourist sight you could possibly see in one day. (Quite a change from the usual sloth-like behavior Sam and I have become accustomed to on our excursions.) If I had a choice – some kind of happy medium would be preferable.

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Glover House and Garden, Nagasaki, photo by acfrohna

We visited the Dutch Village (an odd theme park re-creating the Netherlands) and the Glover House and Garden, built by a Scottish trader who played a key role when Japan opened it’s doors to the outside world in the mid-19th century.

We were having a wonderful time, mind you, but I often felt that even though our Japanese companions were looking at everything, they weren’t really “seeing” anything. Except, that is, for our visit to the Atomic Museum and Nagasaki Heiwa Kōen (Peace Park).

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Kuranaga-kacho, me, Sam, Oki-Hosa, Yoshino-san at Nagasaki Heiwa Kōen (Peace Park).

As you’ll remember from your history lessons, Nagasaki was the unfortunate, second recipient of the atomic bomb. Early on the morning of August 9, 1945, the “Fat Man” was dropped on this coastal city, instantly killing some 73,000 people and injuring (let’s be honest, slowly killing) about 74,000 others. That’s nearly 150,000 out of a population of 240,000.

Nagasaki wasn’t the original target, either. But due to bad weather, the choice was made to drop it here.

Shiroyama Elementary School was ground zero.

At one end of Heiwa Kōen, sits a giant buddha-like statue. His left hand extends out to the world, palm facing down in a gesture calling for peace among all people. His right arm points to the heavens, to the clouds from where the bomb was dropped. His eyes are closed – not to the death and destruction, but in a prayer to end all wars and to offer all victims a prayer for eternal peace.

At the opposite end of the park lies the Fountain of Peace honoring all those who died when the bomb was dropped and to the many who died afterward from the contaminated waters they drank to quench their thirst and cleanse their wounds. The fountain sprays its water upwards, in the shape of a dove’s wings and all are welcome to drink from it.

The place is lovely, yet somber, and overlooks Nagasaki, now an incredibly charming city on the East China Sea.

It’s hard to imagine what this very spot looked like 46 years ago.

After the “Fat Man” paid a visit.

The museum, however, drew a graphic, horrid, painful picture.

The subject of nuclear war is certainly not new to me. Afterall, I have a B.A. in “How We’ve Screwed Things Up on Earth” (aka Sociology). I was even an organizer and the Master of Ceremonies at an anti-nuclear protest in college. But god almighty. I was standing in the very same spot where just a few decades ago, thousands lay burned and mutilated.

Weeping and screaming.

I was also standing beside two colleagues who had been children when their country’s challenge to the world was met with atrocious consequences.The museum had black and white pictures enlarged to life size showing scenes of charred bodies which looked like nothing more than sand figures eroded by the wind.

Of a city flattened in seconds.

Of chaos and confusion.

One picture in particular will stay etched in my memory for many years to come – a mother, badly burned, holding her infant child to her breast. The baby, also burned, trying desperately to find nourishment from his mother’s battered body.

Over 20 million lives were lost in WWII, but it was the babies and children I saw that day and the haunting similarities of my students’ faces in theirs that made me ache.

There was no doubt about it…

at exactly 11:02 a.m., on August 9, 1945, hell fell from the skies of Nagasaki.

With spirits deflated, we made this the last stop of the day and headed to our hotel where we could wash off the film of sadness and gather together in peace and friendship.

That night, we lifted our moods with an elaborate dinner, good company and lighthearted conversation.

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As for the rest of happenings here, Monbusho (the National Education Office) finally gave the go ahead for renewing my contract and so we’ve been busy planning next year’s schedule. It looks like everyone here is pleased with the decision and another year’s employment takes a load off my mind as well.

Sam and I will be heading to Korea in a few weeks, after which I’ll be heading back to Chicago for my brother’s wedding. I haven’t heard from Raymond lately, so there go my plans for having a handsome date for the event – or, for that matter, a steamy romance with a Hong Kong police officer. I knew it was going to be difficult to make this baby fly, but I hoped it would’ve at least gotten off the ground. I must admit, however (she says as she blushes), the male situation has picked up a bit here.

Maybe it’s due to my ever-increasing grasp of the language, my always effervescent personality, or maybe a few of the men here have simply become tired of waiting to get their hands on my big, American breasts. Whatever it is, I’m enjoying the attention.

No… I haven’t exactly ended it with Kyoto.

No lectures, please!

We hardly ever see one another and the blow-off speech I translated is really geared to that kind of relationship. Anyway, he has tickets to Keith Jarret (no, not Leif Garret!) in Miyazaki this weekend.

In my own defense (inspired by reading a recent article about the dating scene in Japan), there is a serious lack of dateable females in Japan. According to this article (and I certainly believe EVERYTHING I read) women here are often finding themselves with several different boyfriends – each suited for different purposes: expensive dinners, running errands, buying presents, etc. The article goes on to say that dateable men are expected to have the following: the basic, nice car, good fashion sense, money, a good job and… (wait for it)… a smooth complexion a razor simply can’t offer. That’s right ladies, young, single Japanese males are now expected to have facial electrolysis in order to please their women.

Who says Japanese women have no power?

It does, however, makes me wonder how Japanese men feel about female facial hair (being still unwaxed and fire-free)? In light of this new information, I figure it’s okay to continue going on the occasional weekend excursion with Kyoto.

All I Can Say Is….

  • A few weekends ago, I spent great sums of money and an entire day in Miyazaki City searching for the proper ingredients with which to make Chicken Cacciatore for some friends I’ve invited over from the office. I managed to find everything down to the mushrooms, borrowed a carload of pots, pans, dishes and silverware, set a beautiful western-styled table and cooked all day Sunday. All I can is… if that dinner was a reflection of my outer beauty, I’d be Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe all rolled into one!
  • Speaking of food. I’m always amazed by the amount of food the average Japanese can put away. They claim that it’s ALL good for you and won’t make you heavy. All I can say is… why then, after a year of eating the exact same food, do I trigger the local earthquake siren when I jog?
  • Locally and nationally, elections are currently taking place in Japan and the campaigning is fierce. Strapping concert-sized speakers to the roofs of little, white cars and vans, candidates scour (or should I say scurge) the cities of Japan. My town’s mini, mobile daises (which menacingly roam the streets at all hours) have, on several occasions already, jerked me from nightmares of a strangely similar ilk. From the bowels of their gas propelled soapbox, the candidate and his wife call out unending campaign promises, followed by an absolute overindulgence of “Arigato Gozaimasu,” delivered by a voice that causes one to question when it was that Minnie Mouse became a helium addict. All I can say is… if the Japanese had used similar tortures on Allied prisoners in WWII (“Make it stop!! For god’s sake, MAKE IT STOP!!”), the Japanese would now own ALL of our major corporations, instead of just 95% of them.

I hope this letter finds friends and family in excellent health and good spirits, with love in your heart and peace in your mind… and maybe a tranquilizer gun at your shoulder, aimed at all extraordinarily loud and irritating politicians.

I love you all and think of you often.

Just west of the Midwest Chapter 20: Along Came a Spider

Upon returning from a weekend trip away recently, Sam was spending the night and preparing a bath when I heard a blood-curdling scream. Seconds later, she came running into the bedroom, pale and moaning.

“Anne, there’s an enormous spider in the bathroom! Please, you have to go in there and kill it!”

Now, mind you, you know how I feel about killing anything. So, I simply turned to my dear, arachnophobic friend and said, “Just leave it be, Sam. It’s not going to hurt you.”

“I don’t think you understand,” she squealed. “This is not your ordinary spider! It’s… it’s HUGE. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“Please,” she begged with an unmistakable sense of urgency and fear, “just go into there and look.”

Rolling my eyes and sighing at her silliness, I slowly made my way to the bathroom to allay her fears and remove the poor, maligned creature. However, by the time I got there the offending arachnid had disappeared.

I looked high and low.

Behind the tub.

Under the towels.

The innocent, little thing had obviously skittered away.

I informed Sam the spider had departed and that she could return to preparing her bath, but she refused to re-enter the bathroom and spent the rest of the evening looking fearful and suspicious, relentless in her attempts to convince me that what she’d seen was certainly the result of nuclear fallout. I, however, merely attributed her anxiety to an irrational fear of nature’s web-spinning wonders and didn’t give the incident much thought.

Until a few days later.

I will never doubt my dear friend again.

Returning from grocery shopping with arms full, I stepped into the kitchen and there, in the center of my kitchen floor, was, indeed, the most colossal, the hairiest, the ugliest spider that I’d ever had the displeasure of seeing without a glass enclosure between us.

Now I want all of you to put your right hand in front of your face and spread your fingers out as far as they can go. That, my friends, was the size of my eight-legged intruder.

I dropped the bags of groceries where I stood and did the only thing I could think of doing.

I ran in circles around my apartment.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” I sniveled and wailed as I ran from room to room, avoiding the kitchen at all costs, soon realizing this was accomplishing absolutely nothing and that the longer I panicked, the greater the opportunity the spider would have to return to wherever it was lurking inside my apartment.

I knew I had to act.

“Crap,” I whimpered aloud. “I have to kill it!”

I couldn’t fathom killing anything that size. Nor could I imagine tucking myself into my floor level futon that night knowing that the spider (who easily had the weight advantage) was still crawling about. So, I resolved to grab the nearest  – and heaviest  – book I could find and headed to the kitchen, summoning what little grit and determination I could muster.

The bristly beast was still there.

Taunting me with its stillness.

I crept as close to the spider as I deemed safe, raised the book over my head, shuddered, took aim, closed my eyes and…

“SLAM!”

I expected spider guts galore.

Was prepared to see appendages – still squiggling –  crawling my way. Or, at the very least, hear something of substance being crushed by the biblio-blow I just delivered.

But the enormous arachnid just went “Poof!”

And disintegrated like a dust bunny.

Although I was surprised by the lack of corporeal remains, I was confident the creature was no more.

The following day, I bragged of my bravery to the folks at the office. When they finished laughing, Kacho explained that the spider had likely molted (shed its hairy frickin’ exoskeleton for god’s sake!) and was probably still in my apartment. When Yoshino-san saw the panic-stricken look on my face, she tried to assure me that the humongous trespasser was not poisonous. There was absolutely no reason to worry.

I haven’t slept well for days.

I keep waking with night sweats.

And images of a child-sized spider sitting on my chest.

Holding eight very, heavy books over its head.

If you don’t hear from me in the next few weeks…

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 21: Journey to Pusan, Part One

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There were absolutely oodles of places Sam and I wanted to visit throughout Southeast Asia, but as our vacation neared, we found it more and more difficult to make plans due to the fact the American Embassy continued to warn Westerners of certain hotspots of anti-American sentiment as the Gulf War continues. So, of all places, we ended up heading to Pusan, South Korea.

As usual, Sam and I began our trip (like most any excursion which requires our waking before the noon whistle blows) in extraordinarily bitchy moods.

“I hate the morning.”

“I hate life.”

“I hate everyone.”

We arrived at Hyuga Train Station with plenty of time to spare because I, Patty Paranoia, deemed it that way. I have to admit, my obsession with early arrivals all began back in my college days when, after misreading my departure time for a trip back to school, my mother and I had to make it to O’Hare Airport (45 minutes away) for a plane expected to take off in an hour. Not only did my mother’s insane serpentining through Eden’s Expressway traffic scar me for life, but the fact that after making it on board just moments before the airplane door closed, a man – all settled and snug in my appointed seat – was forced to leave the plane.

Trembling, sweaty and apologetic, I was forced to face not only his look of absolute disgust, but was certain the entire plane was wholeheartedly on his side.

I swear there was even some hissing.

Anyway, arriving at the station way ahead of time gave us ample opportunity to pick apart nearly every traveller who had the untimely luck to pass in front of us. Once on board the train and finally settled into two seats together (Our travel agent from hell had an incredible amount of difficulty coming to terms with the fact that traveling together might have actually meant a desire to be sitting on the same train as one another… I told you I’m not a morning person.), Sam and I sat back for the next four hours, watching northern Kyushu float by us covered in morning mist.

As the fog lifted, so did our grim moods.

Being Golden Week, a period which consists of nine different holidays, including the Emperor’s birthday, Constitutional Memorial Day and Greenery Day, we watched a parade of people get on and off the train on their way to and from various vacation spots, short excursions to visit family and friends, etc., and soon found ourselves being herded along with the massive crowds onto the ferry that would take us to Korea. Before long, we discovered that our reserved bunks were about as inviting as a sleepover in the center of Union Station. But they were, at least, a place to lay our heads and we figured we’d only return to them after all the fun was to be had on the boat.

Little did we know, there was absolutely no fun to be had on the boat.

Within the first few minutes on board, we also began to get a bad feeling about things. As we were setting our belongings into our bunks (which although curtained, offered little sanctuary from the chaotic passageway), an odd, little man approached us and asked if we would carry some extra bottles of whiskey into Korea for a little, old lady.

All right now… we may have been robbed multiple times in a row recently, but who was he kidding!

I wanted to tell him to “pull the other one,” but felt the translation might present even more of a problem. So, I told him we already had too much to carry. Scanning our meager amount of luggage, I thought he’d try to press his request, but after hemming and hawing and making Sam and I squirm for a few moments, he mumbled something in Korean (and I’m certain it was nothing but pleasantries) and walked away.

Sam and I looked to one another, then to our sad, tiny bunks and meager belongings, and decided the best course of action would be to check out the remainder of the boat, leaving nothing of value behind. Although we certainly hadn’t expected the QEII, neither did we expect the lack of anything that might take our mind off the next eight hours of travel to Korea.The ship’s gloomy dining room was rushing people in and out at such an alarming rate (I saw an old lady with a walker burning rubber), the idea of sitting there for any more time than was necessary to clear our plates was out of the question. Our next destination was, of course, the bar where time tends to pass very quickly for us.

Until we saw the bar. A small, unsavory room, dingy and dilapidated.

Filled with the saddest array of lecherous-looking men hunched over large cans of beer.

I looked to Sam and admitted that I felt our entering this establishment might be akin to walking into solitary confinement at a male prison wearing nothing but g-strings. However, my dear and slightly damaged friend insisted it was our only choice. She further rationalized that it wasn’t as if we hadn’t become experts in warding off unwanted advances in bars. Being two young, unaccompanied, female foreigners with abnormal capacities for alcohol has made us experts on the subject. So, we walked into the sorry-looking establishment, ordered a couple of warm beers and found an empty table in the corner, where our overinflated egos quickly ruptured as a result of not being the object of anyone’s attention.

After a walk on the deck, we returned below to our bunks, where we found a cross-eyed stranger standing there, staring at us as we approached. Even as we attempted to settle into our tiny spaces, the odd, little man continued to stand there and stare at us. Sam asked if we could help him with anything.

No response.

He just stared.

Finally having enough of this Asian Svengali, we firmly asked him to leave, offering the international “SHOO!” symbol.

He responded by holding up his passport.

As if this was the key to everything.

But still, he refused to budge.

We found the only way to rid ourselves of his creepy, death-stare was to climb into our respective bunks, close our respective curtains and fake our sudden deaths.

It was about 7:30 p.m.

Good thing the evening ended so early. The following morning we were woken at 6 a.m. by noises that would have jarred a coma patient to consciousness. Our ship’s captain (Let’s just call him Ahab, shall we?) apparently got some sadistic pleasure out of rousing everyone on board (hours before it was truly necessary) by playing – at full blast – a repertoire of music which would have made a Barry Manilow Radio Marathon seem heaven sent. The effect of the ear-piercing wake-up call was a mad rush by all passengers (excluding Sam and myself) to be first in line for the disembarkation which was to take place in TWO HOURS.

With our bunks regrettably situated only a few short feet from one of the exits to the upper deck, we found that not a minute passed without the exit door slamming shut, or a group of passengers scurrying by, bellowing to one another as if they were at opposite ends of the boat, as opposed to just a few inches away. I finally decided that it was best to rise and dress rather than put myself through any additional torture. Sam soon followed.

Now considering that even if I were to be woken by a beautiful man whispering sweet nothings into my ear, as he lay a breakfast tray with Eggs Benedict, strong coffee and a bouquet of lilacs on my lap, I would still be inclined to be a little grumpy…you can imagine my mood on this fine morning. Still, we gathered our things, washed the sleep from our faces and headed on deck where – at a safe distance – we watched passengers vie for space in line.

I tried to comfort my increasing agitation, but found my thoughts racing back to the question of why it is that we humans – we “thought-processing, highly developed” creatures  – still move in reactive herds? Turning away from the scene, which seemed only to stoke our sour morning moods, Sam and I looked for solace in the harbor scenery. Perhaps a sighting of some colorful, local marine life would raise our spirits.

All we saw were people, everywhere, guiltlessly tossing refuse into the utterly polluted waters of Pusan. I pity any aquatic life who has to call these waters home.

If things didn’t start looking up soon, I conveyed to Sam with a disheartened glance, I was going to regret my ever leaving the sanctity of my cozy, clean apartment in Shintomi. Customs and Immigration crawled along at its usual pace, while Sam and I found ourselves trying to ignore our agitations and foul moods with thoughts of hot showers and a good meal.

But not without one more irritant.As luck would have it, this came from the same little man who had approached us the day prior about carrying his “grandma’s extra whiskey.” We had noticed him standing directly behind us in line some time before and, after casually scanning our bags for possible smuggled goods stashed in our luggage while our heads were turned, decided that his proximity was mere coincidence. That is, until the man tapped Sam on the shoulder and began to ask her questions about our trip to Korea.

Even though Sam had told him that we were there for a short holiday, the odd, little man asked if we were looking for jobs. If so, he said with a licentious wink, he could introduce us to “some people.” Not liking where the conversation was headed and feeling as if we now both REALLY needed a bath, we managed to push our way further up the line, ignoring the angry stares of those we cut in front of.

So far, Korea was not proving a paradise.

Finally through customs, we made our way to the tourist desk where a stone-faced, young woman’s only assistance came in the form of tossing us a few, dusty pamphlets and a list of tourist hotels. So, we wandered into the port city of Pusan on the tip of the Korean Peninsula, with no direction and more than a little apprehension.

We exchanged some yen for won (talk about a mathematical nightmare) and decided to find the nearest diner where we could take a good look at a map of the city. It didn’t take long before a larger than life “COFFEE SHOP” sign beckoned us with the promise of the comforts of home. Inside the shop, however, home was still far, far away.

The interior looked as if Laura Ashley and Sugar Sizzle, the Star Stripper of Sioux City, had been design partners, employing a wanton use of lace and chintz, frills and absurdly feminine fandangles, intermingled with the unmistakable aura of corruption and sleaze. Yet poor ambience was not the leading factor in our deduction that this was not like any coffee shop to which either of us has ever been. Instead, it was when we were directed to a booth – nearest the exit – and noticed that Sam and I were the only females not clad in skin-tight shirts, crotch-high mini-skirts, five inch heels and enough make-up to make Elizabeth the First seem like a natural beauty. Combine this with the vicious glares we were getting from the “girls working” in this establishment, Sam and I felt it best to gulp down our scalding coffee (mouth burns be damned) and skeedaddle out of there before our seats even had a chance to get warm.

Stepping back into the daylight, I shuddered, feeling as if I had briefly been transported into the dark recesses of a man’s brain where exists a world where the woman follow a few simple rules: keep the attire slutty, the mouth closed, the brains empty, the drinks full and your legs open.

With little direction and a growing sense of doom, we headed into several nearby hotels where we were quickly rejected by surly desk clerks who claimed each hotel was full up. Even though everything about their body language and demeanor said they simply wanted to be rid of us.

We finally managed to find a room (for one night) at The Royal Pusan – oddly enough, affiliated with The Royal Bangkok where Sam and I stayed in Hong Kong. (Obviously word of our misadventures there had not traveled through the hotel chain’s grape vine, or we would have been sleeping on the docks that night.)

After dropping our bags and showering – twice – we headed out to see if the underbelly of Pusan would roll over. We spent the remainder of the day wandering through a shopping district where we hoped to find clothes – shoes especially, not available in our sizes in either Japan or Hong Kong. By day’s end, all we owned was the knowledge that even more Asian shoe salesmen were left in our wake, shocked and slack-jawed, scratching theirs heads, as they re-examined their foot-sizers.

Speaking of sales clerks… I’m not sure whether I had something in my teeth, or Sam looked particularly untrustworthy, but I noticed that from the moment we set foot in nearly every single store that day, a salesperson was right on our heels. And when I say right on our heels, I mean to say that if I had decided to try any clothes on, I would have had to have found clothes big enough to accommodate two human beings.

I’m talking close.

So, after several hours of unrelenting discouragement, we turned our energies to eating. On our way back to the hotel, we began hearing strange chants.

Growing louder and louder.

Drawing closer and closer.

The louder the chanting became, the more ominous everything came to feel.

The buildings seemed to loom closer overhead.

The clouds in the sky felt thicker.

Grayer.

The sounds of the city – except for the muffled incantations rising above everything – went silent.

We had just made it to the entrance of our hotel, when from around the corner, in the middle of one of the main streets of the district, came a hoard of university students demonstrating against what we later learned to be the death of a student in Seoul, as a result of police brutality. We watched their peaceful demonstration for a few minutes and then went to our room to change and relax before heading out again to see a movie. An hour later, as we exited the hotel, the scene had changed.

We saw two large groups of students, many sitting in the middle of the busy thoroughfare and, now, an equal number of riot police facing them. More than the solemn, powerful chants rising from the students, I found myself moved to anxious unease by the appearance of these armed warriors. For “warriors” seems the best way to describe them.The legion of young men standing before me were not only armed with a slew of intimidating weaponry, but clad from head to toe in protective gear, which uncannily resembled the ancient armor of the Samurai Warrior.

In one hand, each held a large shield.In the other, a club.

Pitch black helmets reached to their shoulders and a clear, plastic mask covered their very, very young faces.

Some stood expressionless; while other revealed an undeniable expression of superiority, a disturbing perception of power these young men wielded – both in their arms and in their minds. I couldn’t help but picture what those expressions would turn to if, or when, it came time to raise their shields and employ their clubs. Would their protective masks shield the truth?

MIGHT DOES NOT MAKE RIGHT.

Man hasn’t changed.

Only his weapons.

As we watched the various factors draw nearer to one another, our better judgement told us this was not our fight and so we quietly left the troubled scene. Hoping in our hearts that calm and reason be the victors of the day. As we moved just a few blocks from the protest, Sam and I were surprised to see how unaffected the rest of the city was. The streets were filled with people casually wandering in and out of stores, from one open market to the next, from restaurant to restaurant, bar to bar, person to person, until the unending scenes of nightlife couldn’t help but force the tense confrontation to the back of our minds.

Before heading into the theater, we roamed through a nearby market to see what interesting items the vendors might be offering.

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Photos by acfrohna

There was an abundance of delicacies from the sea, as well as from the earth. Some of which enticed my senses; while others nearly triggering a gag reflex. Roasted silk worms were certainly one of the fares which I’ll not soon forget. With the help of a lot of pantomime and a little Japanese, I was told by the very sweet and very, very, very wrinkly old lady selling the strange silky morsels, eating these Anthropoda Insecta Lepidoptera would help one become beautiful.

“Like me!” she explained pointing to her puckered, pruny face and toothless smile.

Throughout the market there was a remarkable variety of dried seafood and I’m not talking smoked salmon here folks, but squid, for example, which has been gutted, flattened, salt preserved and stacked by the hundreds, ready for anyone with the hankering. I never found out exactly how these things were eaten (I assume they’re rehydrated for cooking), yet I couldn’t help but picture someone holding one of these squids by the stiffened tentacles and sucking on it like a Slo-Poke.

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After watching the movie, “Dances with Wolves,” Sam and I headed back in the direction we thought our hotel was, but soon ended up in a seedy (let me correct that, YET ANOTHER seedy) part of Pusan. Directionless, we unwisely wandered down streets where the lights were sparse and leering men ample, desperately searching for any familiar landmark.We remained relatively calm. Even after finding ourselves making a full circle back to the theater after an hour.

We never lost hope.

And we never once let go of each other’s arms.

After another hour of wandering, we finally made it back to our hotel where we ordered a couple of beers and fell asleep before the first bottle had even been emptied.The following day, we woke to face the unpleasant task of having to find other accommodations for the remainder of our stay. We tried to talk our hotel clerk into another night, but to no avail. I made several calls that morning, but soon found every place booked and was beginning to panic that we’d be left on the streets of Pusan.

Feeling hopeless, we returned to the front desk of our hotel and pleaded our case one last time. If they couldn’t help us, we begged, could they recommend somewhere – someone – that might. Eventually, we softened up the hotel manager. (Tears really come in handy in such cases.) He made a call, gave us an address and told us to talk to Mr. Choi when we got there.

Considering everything about our trip so far, it all sounded a little odd and the possibility that we were about to be sold into slavery did cross our minds, but it was that or the streets. So, we hopped into a cab and went in search of Mr. Choi.

It soon became clear that we were moving out of the city center. The higher the cab fare rose, the more nervous energy we spent trying to convince ourselves that everything was going to be just fine. Twenty minutes later, the cab pulled into a neighborhood that looked about as uninviting as a hungry dog at a cat rally. Sam and I squeezed each other’s hands, were about to say our farewells, “It was good while it lasted.”, when… the cab pulled up to a very pleasant looking building that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Much to our great relief, the inn turned out to be quite charming and Mr. Choi, equally so.

And even though there was one futon and two of us, the room was clean, it had a shower, a bathtub (which was bigger than the futon) and it was ours for the rest of our visit. As we sat back in our new room, we both began to breath again and had a good laugh.

Thank god for friends you can always, ALWAYS manage to laugh with.

After settling in, we went for a walk around our new surroundings and were pleased to come upon the national park, T’aejongdae, almost immediately. It was undoubtedly one of the prettiest places in all of Pusan and after studying a map of the park, we learned that the road which lay before us wound its way through several hundred acres of reserved land and, every so often, offered a special stopping place where one could view the ocean, rest, have a bite to eat, or something to drink. It felt as if we had just stumbled upon Shangri-La.

Feeling altogether giddy about finding a place in Pusan that didn’t send shivers up our spines, we purchased some plastic tiaras from a local vendor and off we went in search one particular spot on the park map that we simply couldn’t pass up: “Husband Waiting Rock.”

There was a story there somewhere… and it goes something like this:

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There was a sad princess named Sam,
Who longed for one thing – for a man.
But not any ol’man would suffice,
For most men that she knew were mere mice.

He had to be strong and sincere.
He had to give gifts – mostly beer.
Fine traits she deemed run the gamut,
For Sam was a Princess, God Damn It!

For years, Sam had made this her goal,
But then time began taking its toll.
Then one day, a strange wizard – with the breath of a lizard
Said, “Your Highness, to Korea you must go!”

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So packing her bags and her crown,
The Princess made tracks from her town.
As the waves beat her boat and she prayed just to float,
Came a clue as to where she was bound.

On the map was a park, T’aejongdae,
where she knew, without doubt, was her guy.
For what better place, for a woman in her case,
Then where “Husband Waiting Rock” lies!

Her first stop was the rocks by the sea,
For she was sure it was where he would be.
With a beer, there she waited – her breath slightly bated.
“If he doesn’t come soon I shall wee!”

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Losing hope, she searched in the wood,
But her manhunt still proved no darn good.
So back down she strode, where the men were old toads
And her stomach turned as sour as her mood.

At the beach, there were men who laid claim
That the rocks they all held were the same,
But they were rocks – and no more, not the one she searched for.
Hey, the princess was no stupid dame!

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Soon the sun threatened to set
And poor Sam was filled with regret,
When the wizard appeared, grinning smugly ear to ear,
“I’m here, my dear Princess, don’t fret.”

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The wizard began to explain,
“Princess Sam, your search was in vain.
For I led you here, because I want you, Dear!”
Sam gasped, screaming, “Are you insane?”

“Are you telling me there is no rock?
And that finding a man was a crock?”
The wizard just glared, the Princess got scared
And a knee to his balls went unblocked!

Princess Sam left the wizard all bent
And off to the station she went.
With a sigh and a moan, in her cabin, all alone.
“Oh well, there are studs I can rent!”

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And she lived happily ever after.

Stay tuned for Journey to Pusan – Part Two: Student Saviors.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 22: Journey to Pusan, Part Two – Student Saviors

After amusing ourselves endlessly with our fractured fairytale, we found a spot by the ocean where we could sit and relax for a while. A few moments passed, when from behind we heard an American, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” Considering our options, we chose to be nice and turned to find an American man and three young Korean men, who were university students there in Pusan and eager to practice English with foreigners.

They hardly needed to bother.

Mr. Lee #1, Mr. Lee #2 and Mr. Huh all spoke English better than both Sam and myself – or at least myself, as British Sam would quickly point out. Even though their proficiency in English was an indisputable fact, the American (we’ll just refer to him as the Irritating One from this point on) wouldn’t let any of them get a word in edgewise.

We’d ask them questions about Korea.

He would answer.

We’d them about what they were studying.

He would answer.

Now one might conclude that this man was slightly insecure and tried to make up for it by directing the conversation – nonstop. However, this conclusion might lead to a feeling of compassion for the man and I can’t, in good conscience, allow this to happen. He was a complete and utter bore, a butt-insky and a real bummer.

Enough said. (Except… I would have liked to have throttled the pest with my bare hands.)

Nevertheless, when we weren’t being forced to focus all attention on the Irritating One, we found ourselves engaged in lively conversations with our new friends as we strolled back around the park, chatting and laughing and learning about Pusan’s coastal history, as well as a little something about Korean culture, as well as our companions – all of whom were studying International Economics at Pusan University.

At one point, we stopped at a cliff’s edge (Don’t think I didn’t momentarily contemplate “accidentally bumping” the overbearing American.) where stood a statue of a Mother and her child. Mr. Lee #1 explained that this particular spot had became a popular “jumping off point” for suicides. So much so, that the Korean Government erected this statue as a symbol of Motherly Love, with the hope that this image of strength and forgiveness would prevent another person from making such a tragic decision.

Had the presence of the statue made a difference?

Maybe a few, they all shrugged.

Eventually, we left the park together and decided to eat at a local establishment the students frequented. It was our first true taste of traditional Korean cooking and it was delicious. Far spicier than anything that appears on a Japanese Table.

What a great experience. Such really good guys, fun and informative – and an awesome meal day.

We were satiated and ready to head back to our room so the students could continue on with their day – now night – out. Before leaving, however, they decided they would be our tour guides, so we planned to meet in front of Pusan Station at 9 a.m. the following morning. It was so refreshing to have seen the lighter side of Pusan. We were beginning to think this city had little to offer someone who wasn’t either a smuggler, a sex offender, or a hooker.

Just to remind us of Pusan’s more dubious dealings, fate did manage to slip one more salacious encounter between us and the haven of our hotel, when steps from the front door, we heard a call from behind and turned around to see a large man running towards us waving his hands as if he was flagging an air force jet in for landing. Reaching us, he plowed to a halt and with his hands planted on his hips, chin thrust forward and chest out, he proudly exclaimed, “I am RUSSIAN!”

“I am… Anne?”

“I am SAM!”

An awkward pause followed.

“Vhat is your room number?!”

Sam and I were a little confused and assumed what he really meant was how much did our room cost. So, we told him.

“No,” laughed the LOUD RUSSIAN, “Your ROOM what ROOM are you in?”

Before we had a chance to reply, a young man from the inn opened the door and frantically waved us in and away from the RUSSIAN’s misdirected hooker radar. Man, you don’t even have to dress the part here. It seems that if you’re a female in this town, you must be a working girl. Oh well, at least we had T’aejongdae today and who-knows-what adventures (preferably g-rated) tomorrow.

———————

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Photos by acfrohna

Our final day in Pusan was a truly lovely one, spent with our new friends.
The Irritating One was history, but the lovely Miss Jang, a fellow student, joined us.

Our new friends took us all over the city – from the mountains, where we wandered through Pomosa Temple and sat playing games by a creek running through nearby woods – to the ocean, where miles and miles of beaches and thousands and thousands of people lined its shores.

We travelled by foot and by cab, by train and by bus. We ate ice cream and kimchi, drank soda and beer. We talked politics and religion, about loving and living, cultures and climates.

And we laughed.

A lot.

As the day drew to a close, Sam and I had to return to the station to collect our bags and find our boat. Our companions insisted on being with us up to the very last moment. Neither Sam or I minded in the least. Even though we had known these people just a little over 24 hours, I felt as if we had been friends for a very, very long time and saying good-bye felt far worse than I had anticipated. I think part of the reason why we had such a great time with our university pals was because they offered much needed light against the dark side of Pusan and we were exceedingly grateful for their kindness. We exchanged addresses and each new friend vowed they would come to Japan after graduating next year.

But we all knew how such promises are seldom kept and said our poignantly sad good-byes, knowing we would never meet again.

Onto our boat Sam and I climbed, where we learned there were no bunks available.There wasn’t even space enough to stretch out on the tatami in the large public room. So, after agreeing to pay an extra 3,000 yen for “first class” accommodations, we were led to our room.

The most unimaginably depressing space ever designed by a human being.

There were no beds or bunks, but instead two ancient futon. Musty and soiled. And two scratchy, moth-eaten blankets that looked as appealing as the tortuously puke green, poo brown, puss yellow, polka-dotted wallpaper plastered against our four stained and windowless walls. Yet this travesty of aesthetics didn’t discourage us as much as the fact that there wasn’t a single vent through which fresh air (or any air for that matter) might be circulated. Even the paper screen, behind which we hoped to find some kind of vent, was created to hide a nonexistent portal to the outside world.

The individual who designed this space surely must have taken their own life.

And most likely in this miserable space.

Which might also explain some of the stains.

Feeling little desire to spend the next 14 hours trapped in our first-class crypt, we wandered the boat, hoping that some new entertainment feature had been added since Thursday.

It hadn’t.

We passed some time playing with our food in the dining room and watching the sun set over Korea, but then returned to our room with 13.5 hours to reflect on our peculiar, puzzling, uplifting, downtrodden and dead-surprising sojourn to Korea. Five minutes later, we were fully engaged in making the following list.

Various Suggestions for What to Do on a Long Boat Journey, in a Dark, Windowless Room, in the Middle of the Sea:

1. Time-wasting activity: Count the puke green, poo brown and puss yellow dots on the wallpaper.
Time Spent: 7 minutes.
Result: Estimating the room’s dimensions, we all too quickly concluded that our cabin had approximately 1,575,000 puke green, poo brown and puss yellow dots on the wall.
2. Time-wasting activity: Come up with 101 different ways to use a plastic tiara. (The tiara must, of course, be purchased prior to attempting this time-wasting activity.) Two tiaras offer the participant even more leeway for thinking up truly stupid, time-wasting activities.
Time Spent: Believe it or not, 15 minutes.
Result: Given a “nothing is too ridiculous or tasteless” guideline, this game can offer a good several minutes of time-wasting activity – and even rear its ugly head when the game has long since stopped being amusing.
3. Time-wasting activity: Suggest one person read aloud to the other.
Time spent: Immediately rejected with a wisecrack and a quick stab at one more way to use a plastic tiara.
4. Time-wasting activity: Simulate the study of Japanese by picking up books and asking each other easy questions.
Time Spent: Less than it took to count the puke green, poo brown, puss yellow dots on the walls.
Result: Finding new ways to avoid studying by coming up with as many lame excuses as possible, such as: “I’m feeling terribly faint from the lack of air.”, “We can’t waste precious oxygen!”, “The puke green, poo brown, puss yellow dots on the walls are making me nauseous.” and the ever-popular, “I can’t concentrate with you wearing that ridiculous plastic tiara.”
5. Time-wasting activity: Suggest it’s getting late and it might be time to go to bed.
Time Spent: 10.25 hours.
Result: Being woken the next morning at 6 a.m. by both an old lady bellowing and “music by which to commit suicide” blaring from the other side of our windowless window, as well as one more faintly amusing stab at what to do with a plastic tiara.

And there endeth the story of our journey to Pusan, Korea. It took longer to write than it did to experience.

May this letter find your life filled with plastic tiaras, pleasant encounters, peaceful demonstrations, plenty of fresh air and not a poo brown polka dot in sight.

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Just West of the Midwest Chapter 23: Omar, Oh Men!

Two weeks after my return to Japan, I agreed to participate in an International Exchange Salon, held in Miyazaki. My friend, Vance, a CIR (Counselor of International Relations, yet another government program designed to enlighten Japanese to the Western world and vice versa) organizes these little get togethers and asked several of us to help save what had become international events of anti-social significance.

Known for our delightfully droll demeanors, we were to be undercover agents, of sorts, assigned to add some special, secret agent “social” to the scene. In accepting this mission, our main task was to participate in the televised learning of the Koto, a thirteen string instrument. This will now be my third appearance on Japanese television and I must say…

I don’t like it.

Not one bit.

Especially when the film footage consists mainly of scenes of me making a complete ass out of myself. This event was no exception. I believe I took being musically ungifted to an entirely new level. Even my sweet, demur, pint-sized-sensei wanted to take a slug at me for drawing such pain from the ancient, stringed instrument. Despite – or maybe because of my inhumane ineptitude – I was eventually able to draw several participants out of their shells and into conversations and the afternoon went far better than was anticipated. Especially after I spotted the arrival of… Omar.

Now who might… Omar… be?

Just this dark, handsome German who works at a local Italian restaurant, whom one can’t help but fantasize about. Not just because he has the looks of a handsome prince from a fairytale, but because he’s oh so much more than a drop-dead gorgeous hunk of man. Just to name two of the fascinating things about him: he speaks five different languages (rapidly approaching his 6th with Japanese) and is interested in studying the cultivation of shitake mushrooms.

Okay, I didn’t find the latter all that interesting, either.

At least I didn’t until I learned that one of the best towns for shitake cultivation is my sweet, little, town of Shintomi.

Seizing the opportunity and trying to remain as calm as possible (while still mentally undressing him in a forest of fungi), I ripped a piece of paper from the nearest source, wrote down my name and number, turn-ons and turn-offs, and handed it to him with an offer to take him out for dinner or drinks.

“See you in Shintomi, then,” Omar smiled as he floated from the room like a Roman God on a cloud chariot.

My female companions, all having watched my brazen behavior, stood silent and green with envy; while the men nearby whispered something about him probably being gay.

“Say what you will, oh jealous ones,” I sighed and smiled. “For I simply seized the day. Let’s just hope he finds me as interesting as mushrooms.”

“Tall order,” someone mumbled.

“I heard that!”

I have to admit that it must be awfully difficult to keep up with the men I keep mentioning, but honestly, they all seem to go nowhere – and quickly. For example, I unwittingly (I thought a group of us where meeting at a gallery opening) agreed to go out with Sunada, one of the boys from the computer room down the hall recently. The first stop on our night out was his mother’s art gallery in Miyazaki where there was no opening; just me, Sunada and his mother. It was a place I had passed by and admired on numerous visits to the city, so it was a pleasure to be invited in.

The gallery was filled with lovely pottery and ceramics from around Japan and in the back was where Sunada’s mother had her studio. Although I wasn’t terribly impressed with her paintings, there were several I liked and commented on. Sunada asked which was my favorite and I pointed out one which I was told was titled, “Last Supper.” The next thing I knew, both mother and son had decided I should receive the painting as a gift. Although I felt the painting was far too generous, here in Japan, it’s very hard to say “no” to such an grand gesture for fear such a refusal would be considered extremely insulting. So, I thanked Sunada’s mom profusely and then off the two of us went for dinner at a local tempura restaurant where he and I were having a lovely time eating and laughing.

That is, until someone in the restaurant recognized me. Oddly enough, I didn’t know the man, which makes what I’m about to relay to you even more bizarre.

The man who recognized me was the husband of one of my adult students at the community center – a lovely lady whom I’ve come to adore. Now mind you, I had little problem with the man introducing himself. The part that rubbed me the wrong way was that the next person he introduced me to was his mistress. Now what on earth would have made this cheating sack of dog shit decide that instead of continuing his two-timing tryst incognito (with me none the wiser), he would boldly introduce himself and his bimbo? And then, after ordering us a bottle of bogus wine, lecherously whisper in my ear that this chance meeting was “our little secret?”

I was pretty fucking mad. In fact, I was so pissed off by this unnecessary encounter that I dragged Sunada out of the restaurant, leaving the bottle of bribery unopened on the table and proceeded to have a bit of a meltdown. I know that extramarital affairs are a common occurrence here (so are the number of housewives who are closet alcoholics), but I don’t have to like it. And I certainly don’t want to be drawn in as a knowing party.

Eventually, I did manage to put this awkward event to the back of my mind, after which Sunada and I continued our night out. At the end of the evening, Sunada escorted me to my front door (after unsuccessfully urging me to spend the night at his apartment in Miyazaki) and was given a friendly kiss on the cheek. As I entered the quiet sanctity of my apartment, I grabbed the stack of mail from the entrance table, threw off my shoes, made myself a green tea, and settled onto my futon where I went through my mail. On the very bottom of the pile was a letter from Raymond.

He missed me, it said. He thought about me every day and hoped I hadn’t forgotten him.

He asked when I was coming to Hong Kong again.

I wrote back that night and ended the letter promising that if he got some time off, I would come. Thinking about Raymond while I drifted off to sleep… all the other men I’ve met here – even Omar – pale by comparison.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 24 Damp Weather and Wet Rags

Last weekend, most of the Miyazaki AETs met for one final bash before those not renewing their contracts left for their respective countries. Louis, a CIR in Nango-cho reserved a cabin for us on a small island off the southeastern coast of Kyushu, called Oshima. Sam, Doug and I drove down together and met everyone else at the ferry that would take us to the island.

The island has only a handful of year-round residents and after taking in the scenery during our hike up to the cabin, I felt they must be the wisest people in all of Japan. The scenery, despite the overcast and pouring rain (this being the onset of the rainy season), was magnificent.

Lush.

Green.

Peaceful.

As did most of my colleagues, I assumed that the “cabin” Louis rented for us was going to be nothing more than four walls and the basic necessities. So, you can imagine our surprise when we came upon a brand new chalet-style residence that overlooked a tiny bay. The place was huge. It had a large kitchen, three main rooms, two large onsen (Japanese-style hot tubs), as well as several bathrooms and showers.

And that was just the first floor.

Upstairs, there were two enormous tatami rooms, separated by an even larger room with a balcony and a loft, where hammocks were installed so that one could enjoy the view while gently swaying. Most everyone seemed to get along well during the weekend, which – considering how different some of us are – was quite remarkable.

There were, however, a few campers who couldn’t seem to extract the icebergs from their asses long enough to crack a smile. I honestly wouldn’t have minded much, except that they didn’t hesitate to show their disapproval at the general merry-making being had by the majority. I was truly perplexed as to how some of these individuals managed to do something as venturesome as taking a job in Japan. Especially considering the serious nature of the operation they must have undergone to have their personalities removed.

Well, it takes all kinds, doesn’t it?

Ignoring the utterly ignorable, a good time was had by nearly all.

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Thank goodness, Jeremy’s personality remained in tact. Photo by acrfrohna

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 25 Teachers in Takanabe Tortured by AET Trying to Talk in Foreign Tongue

I agreed (and for the very last time, mind you) to make a speech at a local English teachers meeting recently. When I asked Yamamoto-sensei what I should talk about, he said anything – and then added, “Please include: life as a foreigner in Japan, my thoughts on the Japanese culture, team-teaching and the Japanese educational system… oh yeh, and please use some Japanese. You’ll be speaking for 40 minutes.”

Piece of cake.

That is, if the cake is flavorless and stale and sticks in your throat, causing you to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself.

I knew it would be awkward to translate only parts of my speech into Japanese, so instead I decided to write a short story that relates to my life here in Japan. I wrote the story in about two hours. It took me two weeks to translate. I worked on the speech for hours every day – getting help from Yoshino-san and Akiko-san (as well as every other member of the Board of Education – all of whom wanted to see me succeed), whether it was getting the grammar right or struggling with the pronunciation. The part of the speech I’d be doing in Japanese was only ten minutes long, but practicing it seemed as if it ran about ten hours.

On the day of the speech, I almost chickened out altogether. However, I eventually convinced my reflection not to be so damn spineless. And then I did it. I was shaking so badly at the beginning that it felt as if I was experiencing another tremor. (The very first of which I experienced recently while standing in front of one of my classes at Kaminyuta. The earth stopped shaking in a matter of seconds, but my knees were wobbly for hours.)

I’m proud to say I made it through with only a few minor stumbles. Afterward, many of the teachers were kind enough to tell me I’d done very well.

But I knew better.

I was awful.

I knew it.

They certainly knew it.

In the end though, I’m just proud I tried.

Dinner and drinks followed, so I was able to console myself in beer and oysters for several hours. The following week, I learned from Ted (a Miyazaki AET) that several of his teachers present at the event had formed the Anne Celano Fan Club.

Anime Anne

Hey, maybe I wasn’t that bad after all.

Oh, who am I kidding?

I sucked.

But at least they respected the effort and for that, I’m eternally grateful.

Just West of the Midwest Chpater 26: We Wish We Were Well

Last Saturday, I was up bright and early and on a 7:30 a.m. train to Miyazaki. Not for shopping, sightseeing, or even a lovely breakfast, mind you, but to pick up trash along the Oyodo River. It all started a few weeks back when my friend, Vance, asked some of us if we wanted to do some rafting.

“Sure,” I said eagerly. I hadn’t been rafting since my summers in Colorado and I was itching to do it again. I signed my name on the dotted line, paid my fee, and only then did Vance offer more details. It seems that for the past 15 years, a rafting race called the Ikada Kudari has been run on the Oyodo River from Takaoka to Miyazaki. But it’s not just any ol’ race. Contestants are also required to build their rafts from scratch.

Not exactly the whitewater excursion I had in mind.

Good thing I adore Vance. He’s such a great guy – with his big Beagle eyes and huge grin – funny as hell, animated as all get out, and speaks Japanese with such proficiency that I love to just stand back and watch him blow most Japanese away.

Vance and I were our team’s only representatives on the day of the river clean-up (a warning sign, in hindsight), but we happily joined a crowd of about 500 people strolling along the grassy banks picking up an odd piece of refuse here and there. While talking with people along the way, I learned that there would be a total of 90 rafts and about 1,000 people involved in the race and that our team would be the first gaijin – sorry, “foreign” team ever to participate.

After the clean up, Vance and I headed out of Miyazaki to where the raft and most of our other team members were. There would be a total of nine people, including two Japanese girls, Miho (who arrived at the site with her boyfriend in tow wearing a lime green track suit, criticized the raft and, two minutes later, departed) and Miki, whom we would not meet until the day of the event.

When I initially caught sight of our raft through my sweat-soaked eyes (it was about 100 degrees F and 5,000,000% humidity) I knew we had a long, long, long day ahead of us.

Earlier that week, we had come up with a team name of “The Sirens” named for the mythical mermaids who lured sailors to their deaths with their songs. Looking at our sad, half-built, wholly unsound vessel, however, I was now confident that the only thing we would be tempting was our own fate.

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The contraption being built was supposed to stay afloat for the 6 hour journey down river, but all I saw was a lopsided platform that couldn’t possibly stay afloat for 6 minutes – let alone hold a team of nine. But as the Japanese say, “Ganbatte!” (Do your best!) and we did just that. By the end of the day, and after many revisions, the original design (which was about as balanced as a drunk on a roller-coaster) was modified and we were almost completely confident the platform could, quite possibly, stay somewhat afloat.

We also came up with an additional environmentally-themed slogan which matched both our ecological concerns and our sentiments at day’s end:  “We Wish We Were Well.” We even created a large banner to bring aboard which was the image of the Earth – cracked and bandaged.

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The next weekend, we made our final revisions, delivered it to the riverside, hoisted our team flag and joined in the opening night festivities. Once again, without the assistance of our Japanese teammates. The only reason we can now figure why they wanted to be a part of this event was to have the novelty of saying they were on the gaijin, sorry, “foreign” team.

At the opening event that night, I ran into several of the fellows from my town hall’s computer department, including Sunada. Apparently, they’ve been in the race for the past 3 years and boasted that they would certainly beat us the next day.

Race? I’m just looking to stay afloat!

That evening, we ate and drank to our hearts – and stomachs’ – content. We danced and sang, agreed to do a couple of television interviews and, at the end of the night, there was a raffle. Believe it or not, for the very first time in my life, I won a prize, a really nice CD/Radio/Cassette player!

As for the next day’s race… when we first dropped it into the water, I found myself almost as embarrassed as the time in 8th grade when Blake Heron (on behalf of Tom Peterson, 8’11”) broke up with me (at the time about 3’7″) at the beach in front of all my friends. Blake said that Tom said that it was because I told him to “shut up,” but I knew it was because everyone thought we were a joke.

Our Japanese team members finally showed up minutes before we were to disembark and I have to admit that Miki (the gal I had not previously met) turned out to be quite lively and fun. Miho (once again wearing that damn lime green sweat suit), however, was about as bearable as the black plague.

Despite how mortified I felt hopping onto our sad, little receptacle, I have to admit I was soon having a great time – thanks to Audra and especially, Vance, who (clad in his khakis, white button-up, white gloves, sunglasses and green fedora) looked a sight lounging and laughing as if our raft was a yacht in the Hamptons. And so we began our journey, slowly floating down the river on this warm, overcast day, passing and being passed by rafts of all shapes and sizes.

Some of the rafts were truly spectacular. Decorated from bow to stern. Complete with gadgets and devices. Ranging in design from the sublime to the ridiculous. One team built a raft which resembled the Red Baron’s bi-plane, complete with spinning propeller. Another was built from the frame of an actual automobile. There was a giant Buddah, a monstrous devil, an Egyptian barge, an enormous Japanese folk dancer whose arms and legs moved. And my favorite, a massive black beetle whose legs, wings and antenna all moved, propelled by a bicycle in the belly of the insect.All in all, the rafts were awesome and we were soon comforted by the fact that at least four other rafts that we saw were as ugly as ours. This gave us strength to hold our heads high.

At least high enough to down a few beers.

Our raft got off to a good start and soon showed every sign that it might actually stay above water for the entire journey. As we made our way down river, we exchanged drinks, jokes and food with other rafts. (Side note: I unwittingly ate tongue for the third time since being in Japan. If it happens again, I plan to cut out my own.) Except for a few sand bank hazards and a couple of very timid areas of whitewater, the Oyodo is a mild river, which meant much of the time we took turns paddling just to keep moving.

At least most of us did.

Miho, that paragon of lime green polyester, never lifted a finger.

And Cherri only pretended to paddle.

Despite a few mutinous moments, we did manage to act as a team. We were also surprised that we were not only passing many of the entrants, but witnessed raft after raft break apart or run ashore while ours not only stayed together, but stayed the course. Many of those who ran ashore simply couldn’t be bothered to turn their attention from their grills to find the right current to move down river. It was clear that everyone was simply there to have fun and enjoy the day. And not a single raft followed any of the event rules – no alcohol, no swimming, no feet dangling.

In the end, The Sirens actually made great time, finishing 6th out of one hundred teams. We blew Sunada and the other computer boys out of the water. One of their two rafts sank, while the other arrived an hour after us. Our team didn’t stay for the closing ceremonies because we had to get our raft moved to an abandoned lot and completely disassembled before heading home and to work the following day.

Miho conveniently got seasick and disappeared before the disassembly of the raft began.

I hope she threw up all over her lime green sweat suit.

Final Tidbits

  • Last week, I had my last Eikaiwa (Adult English Conversation Class) for the year at the Community Center and they threw a party afterward. I’m really going to miss this group. They were always so much fun to be around. I can only hope my next group will be as pleasant.
  • I learned last month that Yamamoto-sensei was diagnosed with cancer. He went into the hospital last week and had most of his left lung removed. I went with Kubota-sensei to visit him and was surprised to see how well he seemed to be doing… considering. Man, I’ve got to quit smoking.
  • Two of my Kyoiku Inkai (Board of Education) Family, Akiko-san and Hiejiima-kakaricho, have been moved to different positions in the Town Hall and I’m very saddened by their departure from my office. My remaining office family has informed me that they never want me to leave Shintomi. I told them it was a lovely thought, but that I honestly couldn’t see myself being an AET for more than another year. They’ve decided to make it their goal to make me fluent by the end of my contract so that I can apply for a CIR (International Relations) position. If I accomplish this, they’ve promised to buy and renovate an old, abandoned schoolhouse I’ve fallen in love with near the beach. Much of this was discussed under the cozy blanket of food and drink. However, it’s nice to dream. And even nicer to be wanted and loved.
  • Last weekend was the first free weekend I’ve had in months and I enjoyed it all by myself. I went to the beach on Saturday and was the only one for miles. With no swimming at the beach due to heavy currents, I simply basked in the sun, read and wrote. Relishing the peace and solitude. That is, until two Jeeps filled with obnoxious teenagers came screaming onto the beach, revving their engines just a few feet from me and attempting something vaguely similar to wolf whistles. I desperately wanted to give them the finger and tell them to “Fuck off!”, but there were two inherent flaws in this. One: They likely wouldn’t understand what “Fuck Off!” meant (or at least what I meant by it). Two: Japanese youth seem to think that giving someone the finger is equivalent to a friendly wave, or a peace sign. The only other downer that day was getting a flat tire on my bicycle.
  • I was put into an awkward cultural corner the other night when I was given the honor of being served whale. I detest the idea that these gentle giants are still being slaughtered and really abhorred the idea of eating it, but I had no choice. Refusing the honor would have been a grave insult to my host. Damn, that sucked. And to the curious, remember back to the National Geographic photos of Inuit chewing on blubber and imagining what that must taste like? That’s exactly what it tastes like. Cold, greasy, flavorless blubber.

My love to all and here’s hoping that your summer days are mild and breezy, instead of so hot and sticky that one day, as you innocently walk down the street, you fall prey to someone’s discarded chewing gum and in the same fashion as the prehistoric tar pits, you begin to trap small animals, children, city refuse and other nasty, little life forms on the bottom of your shoe until you, yourself, are merely one more victim who has fallen prey to the Juicy Fruit nightmare that haunts us all.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 27: With Friends Like This…

Where to begin, where to begin?

I was going to start by once again scolding all of those who have done diddly to keep in contact with me, but I have to be honest… if you haven’t made the effort by now, it’ll take nothing less than a miracle to get you to change your ways. So, you’ve been saved from at least another half page of bitching.

You lucky dogs.

I believe I told you in my last correspondence that I had plans of going to a Jazz Festival in Saito at the beginning of August. Well, I did go and the music was great. I went with a couple of my friends from the Town Hall who I always manage to have fun with. During the concert, we met up with some of their friends and for the very first time since being here, I encountered a group of people who were either too afraid to talk to me (despite my efforts), or simply weren’t interested in trying and I felt very left out of the whole scene.

I made up the excuse that I was going to say “Hi” to some people I knew at the concert (which was initially true) and then sat myself under a tree and enjoyed much of the evening solo. The highlight had to be the big band orchestra from Kagoshima which played a rousing set of Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser, Jimmy Dorsey and Count Basie. The band actually had the normally timid Japanese audience tapping their feet with more gusto than usual. Some even danced! What was even more remarkable was that every single band member was under the age of 13! That’s right, this was an ELEMENTARY School band.Talk about your mind blowers!

I also ran across another AET at the concert, Alan, who lives in Saito, and we talked for a little while. Now normally, I’ve found that spending any amount of time with Alan is about as attractive a prospect as spending two years on a deserted island with a guy named Vinnie, who resembles the missing link, except that Vinnie wears a leopard Speedo and enough gold chains around his neck and rings on his fingers to make Fort Knox take stock. But on this particular night, Alan was NOT coming onto me like a RUSSIAN in Pusan and even introduced me to two of his very nice friends.

At the end of the evening, I made my way back to those I came with and didn’t seemed to have been missed for a moment. Oddly enough, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. I was tired and musically satiated and just wanted to go home and go to bed.

—————————

I heard from Raymond several times at the beginning of the month. He wrote once and called twice requesting I return to Hong Kong for his 30th birthday. He was very excited about the plans and told me he would ask for the time off and call me back during the next week.

It’s been three weeks.

Raymond’s birthday was yesterday and I haven’t heard a word from him.

WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS GOING ON?

I want to try to focus on the positive here. Between sending money home to pay for the M.A. I received but am slowly losing all grasp of and saving money for Christmas in Malaysia, I probably shouldn’t be planning any trips to Hong Kong, but Holy Crap! I’d sell the family dog (Sorry, Bree) to see Raymond again.

I just wish I understood why he makes these plans and then disappears. I’m sure he has some valid excuse, right?

Such as: his arranged marriage was set for last week; all the phone lines in Hong Kong have been engaged; he’s been busy rounding up all the bad guys in the city and bringing them to justice.

Christ, I hope it’s one of these and not that he’s been injured on the job… or worse.

I’m not sure I can take these highs and lows and this long distance, non-relationship romance anymore.

——————————-

I also heard from Sakimura last week.

I don’t know if I told you about him.

We dated for a little while a while ago. (Yes, I finally ended things with Kyoto and No, I haven’t been just sitting by the phone pining for Raymond.) Then I was unceremoniously dumped.

Sakimura is always a lot of fun to talk to. He’s also very tall, speaks English very well and is super handsome to boot.

No wonder he dumped me.

I should have guessed something was up when he called again out of the blue. We were having a very nice chat on the phone and then he began to hem and haw about something.

It went down something like this:

The scene.

It’s about 11 p.m. and I’m staring at some strange T.V. game show where the object is to make the contestants go through a number of incredibly ridiculous stunts so that they can win a “Hello Kitty” pillow and a free trip to the hospital for broken ribs. Sakimura has been trying to spit something out, but doesn’t know where – or how – to begin.

Me: What’s on your mind?

Him: Well… there’s been something I’ve been meaning to tell you.

Me: Yes?

Him: Remember when I told you I had many girlfriends and you said you didn’t believe me because I didn’t seem the type?

Me: Yes. I believe you were rather insulted.

Him: Well… the truth is… you were right. You’ve been the only one.

Me: Really?

Him: Well… this is very hard to say…

Me: Just say it.

Him: You’ve been the only one… except… except… except for my fiancé. I’m getting married in October.

Me: Excuse me?

Him: My fiancee is coming to Miyazaki at the end of the month.

Me: Well, congratulations. I’m very happy for you. (And the funny thing is, I was. After all, we only dated for a short time and I was well past the hurt of being dumped – yet again.)

Him: I’m sorry. Are you very upset? (Apparently, Sakimura, seemed to think my reaction would have been more akin to threatening suicide if he didn’t ditch his fiancé and run back to me.)

Me: No, Sakimura. I’m not upset.

Him: You’re not!?

Me: No, I told you. I’m very happy for you. I do wish you had told me this from the start, but I still think it’s wonderful news.

Him: But… I… well…

Me: Well what?

Him: I still want to be friends.

Me: Of course we can still be friends. (Now silly me. I was thinking he actually meant FRIENDS. You know, buddies, pals, etc.,)

Him: Even after I’m married.

Me: Of course, I’m sure we’ll be friends for a long time to come.

Him: (Once again feeling confident.) I would like to see you right now, but I’ve been drinking and don’t dare drive. I really want to spend the night with you.

(The lightbulb FINALLY flickers on.)

Me: Are you saying you want to continue sleeping with me? [I said we dated for a short time, I didn’t say we never had sex. (You try and watch “Basic Instinct” on a date with an attractive and charming man and see where it gets you!) You want me to be your mistress? (I laughed.) I don’t think so, Sakimura. Good luck to you… and even more so… Good luck to your wife.

Him: But…I-

But our conversation was over – as was our “friendship.”

Although I was a bit surprised, I wasn’t altogether shocked. After all, infidelity seems to be a time-honored male custom here in Japan. I must admit, he was so charming and handsome that I did – for a split second – contemplate the affair, at least until the fiancé arrived at the end of the month. But then I heard Sam in my head.

“What’s he like?” she would have said if she’d been privy to the conversation. “Forget it, Anne. He isn’t worth it.”

And the Sam in my head was absolutely right.

No man is.

Final Tidbits:
We’ve added a couple of Canadians to our list of favorite people to hang out with, Greg and Jeff.

Both Saskatchewanians. One from a place called Swift Current.The other from a place called Moose Jaw. Both derive great pleasure in slamming Americans (join the wildly popular club), but mostly do so with a wicked and witty sense of humor. I, in turn, do my best to retaliate and the exchange has become an entertaining challenge.

He’s a cop from Moose Jaw…

He’s a cop from Swift Current…

Together… they spell trouble.
(‘Cause they can’t spell it alone.)

Their job… to hunt down anti-Canadian sentiment.

Their mission… to ask people to PLEASE stop.

Coming to a theater near you!

“CANADIAN COPS: They can get you a beer… or they can get you dead!”

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 28: The Dead, The Young and One Dirty, Old Man

With the heat of summer come a number of different festivals that are celebrated throughout the country. From July 13-15, there is the Bonmatsuri, or Bonodori (the festival of lanterns), a time for consoling the spirits of the dead with dance and music. During this celebration, hundreds upon hundreds of simple white, or beautifully hand-painted lanterns are lit throughout the towns.

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Photo by acfrohna

Along the streets.

Down to the river.

Into the cemeteries and shrines.

Effusing with light this lively celebration of both gaiety and solemnity, the lanterns are lit so that ancestors may find their way back from the dead in order to bless the living.

Ancestors are highly honored here in Japan. They’re remembered not only during this celebration, but throughout the year through prayer and offerings of food, flowers, incense and tea.

Each night of the Bonmatsuri, tea is poured every hour for the visiting spirits. On the third night of the festival, hundreds of lanterns are floated down the local river. Each lantern sent in memory of an ancestor. Those which tip and extinguish, it’s said, represents a prayer that will go unheard.

In Shintomi, family and friends gathered in homes throughout the town to eat and drink and honor their deceased relatives. The first night was a perfect summer evening, as a cool breeze blew down the tiny streets of my town.

Through the farms and across our faces.

Carrying the sweet scent of life which, united with the laughter and the music, created an atmosphere that was comfortable and inviting.

Like a loved one’s long embrace.

Moving from house to house that night, performing a lively, uplifting dance for the dead, was a group of young men and women, many of whom were my students, dressed in the traditional summer yukata.

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Photo by acfrohna

Splendid in their colors.

In their youth.

In their joy.

This would be the first of many nights of dancing and singing, fireworks and food, games and parades. All of which are a sheer delight to the eyes.

And succor to the senses.

There were countless occasions during the celebrations when I sat back with a friend or student by my side, or a fat baby on my lap, when I felt the urge to cry.

So happy to be a part of it all.

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Photo by acfrohna

Last week, I spent four days in the mountains of Takaharu as a camp counsellor for some thirty senior high school students from around Miyazaki. It was all part of an International Relations project that gave these chosen students the opportunity to spend a few days, “Studying Abroad” in Miyazaki.

Takaharu, or more specifically, Ojibaru, is a beautiful camp site in the mountains, scattered with lovely, little cabins and a main event hall. Waterfalls and small rivers traverse the hilly scenery and at the center of it all stands a shrine built to honor the first Emperor of Japan, said to have been born in this very spot.

There were about a dozen other AETs and CIRs who took part in the event and we planned a number of games and activities, meals, talent shows, etc., to give the students a taste of our various cultures. Sam and I were put in charge of the opening day activities and decided to organize a scavenger hunt. Instead of simply having various items planted throughout the grounds, we decided to have the camp leaders dress up in various costumes. Upon finding them, the students would have to do as they ask. For instance, we had a sleeping princess in need of a kiss (Having her plastic tiara at the ready, Sam eagerly volunteered.); there were sailors you had to dance the hornpipe dance with; a pirate you had to have a sword fight with, a clown you had to juggle for, and so on. Everyone really got into the act and a good time was had by all.

Each cabin leader had six students Much to their glee, I nicknamed mine as soon as I got a feel for their personalities. There was Me-oh-my, Bashful, Cat, Plato, Confucius and Romeo.

Each leader also had a partner for the four day camp. My partner was James. Nice enough.

When not gripped by a catatonic stupor.

I managed to handle things well enough (including cooking three meals a day for eight people), while James – the poor thing (“Are things moving too fast for ya, son?”) stood by.

Taciturn, listless and useless.

There were many activities planned throughout the weekend, such as a tie-dye party, a dance, a casino, the English Language Olympics and a talent show during which all the cabins had to present an act. My cabin, which we called Shangri-la-de-dah, did one of the worst renditions of “All You Need is Love” imaginable, but had a great time despite our lack of talent.

By the end of the camp, I was exhausted, but happy that none of my campers (even the quiet one I called “Cat”, who hardly spoke a word the entire four days) wanted to go home. They even suggested that the camp next year should be an entire month.

Despite former oaths that I would never – EVER – appear on television again, I found a microphone being shoved under my nose and a T.V. camera closing in on my face on the last day of camp. The television crew caught me completely off guard while trying to cook the umpteenth meal for my crew in a small and steamy kitchen, during a 107 degree day.

As poor, pointless James stood by.

Glassy-eyed.

Motionless.

Saliva dribbling from the corner of his open mouth.(Okay, I made up the saliva part.)

I was very hot, very, very sweaty and frankly unnerved by the ambush. I tried to be patient and congenial as the reporter attempted speaking English. Apparently a student of the rote method. Watching the conversation reach new lows linguistically, I soon found myself begging him to speak Japanese just so we could wrap things before I became severely dehydrated from the profuse sweat pouring from my being.

It was a truly awful experience.One made even more ghastly when I was unfortunate enough to be given a tape of the televised event.This tape will never see the light of day and, if I can help it, be the very last of its kind. This time I mean it!

To celebrate the success of the camp, a few of us went to a disco in Miyazaki on Saturday.

That night, I was told I was a dead ringer for both Audrey Hepburn and Julia Roberts. Add these to recent comparisons to Jodie Foster and John Lennon and it all adds up.

All us Westerners DO look alike.

Greg, the AET from Saskatchewan I told you about previously, was part of the camp and joined us. In fact, he’s become a regular part of our happy, little entourage and has become a good friend to both Sam and I. He’s not only a lot of fun to hang out with and very, very humorous, but one whom I’m confident I could rely on in times of need.

For my part, it’s a rather confusing relationship. Perhaps this is because I have a bit of a crush on Greg.

And why not?

A man who can make me laugh as much as he does has always been a turn on. Add this to a great smile, sweet disposition, and abundant creative talents (he is a fantastically funny cartoonist)… how can I help it? But the signs are confusing. I don’t know whether he sees me more as the “sister” type and admittedly, I often feel the same sort of “brotherly” love.

There are times, however, when I feel there might be a spark of attraction coming from him, but neither he (nor I, for that matter) has ever “stepped into the breach,” so to speak. Which is fine, really, because I’d rather just hang out and enjoy his company and friendship rather than mess with things. I’m guessing he feels the same way.

Anyway, our happy, little band of brothers and sisters ended up dancing in Miyazaki until 4 in the morning and then, after downing some burgers, arrived back in Shintomi at the crack of dawn where the entire group crashed in my apartment.

As for any other activities worth reporting, well… I can’t say this is newsworthy, but certainly noteworthy.

Now all of you well know of my uncanny ability to attract lewd behavior across the globe.

There was my first encounter: the penis rubbed against my leg in a crowd in Italy. The masturbating man with the raincoat in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York. The flaccid drunk on the Tube in London. The under-the-table-masturbator at the Brat Stop in Wisconsin. The early morning, open door, front seat jack-off in Chicago.

Well, I’m sorry to report that it’s happened again. I can now add Japan – and of all places, Shintomi – to my list of lewd encounters. At least this time, no actual sighting of a penis was involved.

I went to the beach last Saturday and, as usual, it was completely deserted. It was a beautiful, sunny day and so I stretched out my beach towel, turned on some music and began to soak in the sun. I was singing along with Bonnie Raitt when the tape ended and I sat up to turn the cassette over.

It was then I discovered a strange, old man pacing back and forth just a few feet in front of me. Doing my best to ignore him, with the hope he would simply go away, I turned to lay on my stomach, closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the music. But even with my eyes closed, the music blaring in my headphones and the waves crashing on the shore, I sensed his presence.

Still present.

I opened my eyes to find that the old letch was now laying behind me, about four feet to my right.

Ogling me.

“Konichiwa,” he grinned, revealing what few teeth remained.

I made no reply, but offered only a dirty look in response to his invasion of my personal space and turned away. A few minutes passed and opening my eyes to peak beneath my folded arm, I looked to the spot I had last seen the old perv and sighed with relief that I no longer saw him there.

Yet something still didn’t feel right.

I immediately rose from my stomach and turned over to find this dirty, decrepit, little, old man laying directly behind me.

I’m talking inches.

Staring up my ass.

I leapt up and started screaming.

I really don’t know any dirty language in Japanese, but I screamed that he was very rude, that this was a big beach and that he should go elsewhere, or I would scream for the police.

It was then I also realized that the doddering deviant was now wearing only his underwear.

Well, that’s when every fowl word I knew in my native tongue erupted from my mouth and I grabbed the nearest piece of driftwood with which to beat the lecherous smirk off his face.

This finally sent him on his way. No doubt to jerk off behind a dune somewhere.

Oddly enough, I didn’t feel the least bit frightened. I’m confident that with the adrenaline rush I was experiencing I could’ve snapped the decaying degenerate in half without much effort.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so damn pissed off that this had happened to me YET AGAIN!

For God’s Sake! Why me?

And what’s even worse is that my sanctuary – my miles of desolate beach where I could be away from the ever-curious people of my village – no longer felt like a safe haven.

Total Bummer.

All I Can Say Is…

  • Typhoon season is once again upon us. All I can say is… the humidity and heat here make me feel like a moldy, unrecognizable leftover wrapped in Saran wrap that someone tossed from a speeding car, two months prior.
  • Now that my Japanese has improved most people around me are speaking at their normal speed. All I can say is… What the hell are they talking about?
  • Sam is getting back from a three week trip to England tonight and she’s planning on coming down to hang out at the beach here. Maybe that’s not such a good idea anymore. Anyway, not having her here for the past several weeks, I’m now certain that she’s been an absolutely vital part of my experience here. Without having Sam as a constant sounding board, shoulder to cry on, confidant, etc., I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have renewed for a second year, or for that matter, enjoyed my first year as much as I did. She’s been there to talk to me about everything. And nothing. On innumerable occasions, she’s helped me get things off my chest so that I can face the next day with a brighter outlook. All I can say is… Thank the Gods for good friends.
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My love to all. I miss you and think of you often – except when in the presence of a man so good-looking that I find every cell of my body trying desperately to find a way to make him believe that I’m the woman of his dreams and that he is my love slave. That is, until I find him all too passé and dump him for the guy with all the money who’ll jet me around the world, taking me to places like Rio and Monte Carlo, where I’ll ditch him for a Duke who believes I am the Venus de Milo personified and whisks me away to his castle where I meet and decide to run away with his poor, but charming valet, Francesco, who ends up dumping me for some big-breasted bimbo named, Wanda, because of a little trick she can do with a maraschino cherry and a g-string.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 29: Virgin Territory

I’ll be brief.

I deflowered a virgin.

I’m ashamed to admit that it’s all a bit blurry. It happened during a recent night of carousing in Shintomi with some friends. I met a young man (legal age – at least I think so), Kenji, who was in this local bar WITH HIS DAD.

It all began innocently enough.

There was a little flirting.

There was a little dancing.

There was, of course, a lot of drinking. 

And the next thing I knew – despite the cautions from his dad not to fall prey to the wicked, wanton, Western woman – the young man left the bar with me. We went to another bar with my friends, but the two of us eventually ended up at my apartment where he confessed his purity.

Maybe I felt as if I had total control for the first time in my sexual life. Perhaps I was a little drunk – not only on alcohol, but with the carnal power I had over this young innocent.

I can’t defend it. Or even excuse it, for that matter. 

I can just confess that I took full advantage of it with little concern for what would follow.

The next evening, Kenji returned to my apartment with an armful of stuffed animals he’d spent the entire day trying to win at a local arcade and the hopes that we would repeat last night’s performance. However, I was hungover and sick with shame over my overtly brazen behavior.

I did invite him in, but only to explain, as gently as I could, that there would be no repeat of last night’s activities. He was so very, very, VERY sweet and so very excited about his first foray into manhood that it was hard to refuse his gentle entreaties.

Probably because in the light of the new day, he suddenly seemed so very, very young. 

He eventually left. Broken-hearted.

And I, having returned from my power trip, was all that remained.

Repentant and miserable.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 30 – Paradise Lost

Mark, called me a few days ago. 

Although I could hear how tired he sounded, there was something else to his tone that I couldn’t put my finger on.

It sounded as if he was talking into an empty glass.

Then it hit me.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“I’m sitting in the family room,” he answered gloomily. “Just me and a few boxes are all that’s left.”

An enormous lump formed in my throat.

Suddenly, I felt not just thousands of miles, but light-years from home.

It was certainly not new news that my parents were moving from the house I grew up in. 

My father had, in fact, been struggling to hold onto it for quite some time and we all knew the end was near. But when I heard my brother’s voice reverberate against the barren walls of what was once the heart of our home, I felt as if my limbs had turned to lead and nearly dropped the phone.

For nearly twenty years our home in Shoreacres had been a wonderful, wooded haven – not only for my parents, my brothers, my sisters and myself, but for a myriad of friends and relatives who relished their time there.

Lounging on sofas.

Swimming in the pool.

Diving into the refrigerator.

Climbing down the bluff.

Watching storms pass over Lake Michigan.

And fireworks up and down the shore.

Many rights of passage were initiated there.

Bones and heartaches mended there.

A marriage celebrated.

Another continuously tested. 

Runaway ponies wrangled.

Strays (of the canine, feline and human kind) fostered there.

Schemes hatched. 

Boundaries broken. 

Imaginations nurtured.

It was a truly spectacular – almost magical – place to grow up.

The two of us couldn’t speak for the next few minutes. When we finally found our voices again, there was little left to say.

We each managed to choke out a “Good Night.” Then, I quietly set the receiver down and stared into my darkened apartment on the other side of the globe.

There would be no going home again.

I wept, trembling, until I fell into a restless sleep.

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Just West of the Midwest Chapter 31: If This Isn’t a Disco, Why Am I Dancing?

It all began with a phone call.

Sam: Anne, I have a favor to ask.

Me: Why do I already not like the sound of that?

Sam: Now I want you to keep an open mind. Think of it as a possibility for a truly interesting experience.

Me: Now I REALLY don’t like the sound of it.

Sam: You haven’t even let me tell you what it is!

Me: You haven’t given me any indication that I should.

Sam: Just hear me out.

Me: Why should I?

Sam: Because if you don’t, I’ll have all the disgusting pictures I have of you blown up to life-size and distributed throughout the ken. You won’t be able to go anywhere without every single man, woman and child running from you in horror. Eventually, you’ll find the only time you can slither from your home is at night, under hat and cloak, when all people (except those as heinous as yourself) lay in their beds – trying to sleep – but waking, time and time again, screaming your name and trembling with fear.

Me: I think you’ve made your point.

Sam: Little children will create games using your picture in mask form-

Me: All right, Sam, I get the picture. Just ask what you have to and leave me to my misery.

Sam: There’s a festival in Hyuga at the end of September and my office wants you and I to join in.

Me: That’s it? You want me to help out at a festival?

Sam: There’s a little more to it than that… They want us to dance.

Me: Dance? You mean the Twist, the Tango, the Hustle – something like that?

Sam: Not exactly.

Me: Well EXACTLY what kind of dance are we talking about here?

Sam: The kind that has us dressed in yukata, straw hats and geta [traditional footwear] and dancing down the streets of Hyuga for a few hours.

Me: Ha-ha.

Sam: So what do you think?

Me: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-

Sam: Really, it’ll be larks. I think we should do it.

Me: Ha-ha-ha-ha-hee-hee-hee-hee, ho-ho-ho-ho, haw-haw-haw-

Sam: Is that a yes?

Me: Not if my life and those of my family depended on it.

Sam: I don’t think you’re being very open-minded about this.

Me: Oh, my mind is wide open! I can just see it now – the two of us stuffed into undersized yukata, falling over our feet and making total asses of ourselves in front of the entire city of Hyuga [population 300,000], most of whom already think we’re freakishly amusing! No way. You better get those photo negatives to the store-ha, ha, ha, ha, ’cause there is no way in hell I’m doing it – hee hee hee hee – US, dancing down the streets of Hyuga – ha ha ha ha – don’t make me laugh!

Sam: Anne?

Me: Ha ha ha ha – yes, Sam? – hee hee hee hee-

Sam: I’ve already told them we’d do it.

Me: -ha-ha-ha-Huh?

Sam: They’ve already ordered the yukata, geta and tabi [split-toed socks] for us… Come on, Anne, we’ll only dance for an hour and then make our excuses.

Me: Sam, I don’t seem to be getting through to you. My answer is an unequivocal, undeniable, incontrovertible, “NO!”

(Scene flashes forward a few weeks later to the city of Hyuga.)

Me: This really isn’t happening.

Sam: Actually, it is.

(I have no witty comeback, but merely throw my dear friend my bitchiest look.)

Me: So, tell me again when this nightmare will unfold?

Sam: 11 o’clock.

Me: And what time do they want us there?

Sam: About 10 o’clock.

Me: And that’s when we practice the dance?

Sam: Practice?

Me: Yeh. That’s the thing you do when you’re expected to perform something you’ve never seen or heard before. Call me a perfectionist, but I always like to make sure I understand exactly how I’ll be making a complete ass out of myself.

Sam: We’ll practice after we get into costume. Don’t worry. It’s not that difficult.

Me: Said the tightrope walker to the one-legged man.

Sam: Don’t be so negative. This is going to be fun. Remember the Yokagura?

Me: Yes! It was utterly humiliating.

Sam: Well, yes, WHILE you were doing it. But now that you look back on it…

Me: May I remind you, Sam, that that was a 10 minute dance in front of 20 or 30 very tired, very drunk or very hungover people, at 6 o’clock in the morning, on top of a mountain. This is dancing down the streets of Hyuga, in broad daylight, in front of thousands of people – stone sober – for several hours.

Sam: There’s a slight difference, isn’t there?

Me: Only slight.

Sam: But they’ll never be able to recognize us with those big, straw hats on.

(I simply offer a “Who are you kidding?” look.)

Sam: Well, whatever the case… Come on, we have to pick Maria up at the train station.

Me: Maybe I can throw myself in front of one.

Sam: I heard that!

Now Maria is a new friend of ours who lives in Nobeoka, a town just to the west of Hyuga. She teaches privately at an all-Girls’ Catholic School there. Originally, she comes from Manchester, England. She’s a very colorful character and always bound to bring something lively to a situation.

We found her waiting at the station in a mood altogether different from our own.She was actually looking forward to the event. So cheery and upbeat was Maria that she almost lifted my sour mood.

This slight surge in my will to live, however, soon catapulted downward when we entered a large room brimming with chattering and excitement. That is, until a spine-tingling silence fell upon the crowd of women when they caught sight of the three of us as we walked through the door.

I swear I could hear a pin drop.

In Tokyo.

Once the initial shock of seeing us wore off, the chattering began anew and, one by one, we were taken through the process of getting into costume.

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Picture, if you will, a large room in which 40-50 very shy Japanese women are desperately trying to undress and dress without showing more than their wrists. At the same time, three Western women are running around the room, half-naked, trying to convince their dressers that it isn’t necessary to locate full length slips for them to wear beneath what they already feel will be the hottest and most uncomfortable outfit they’ve worn since the invention of the polyester jumpsuit.

The physical differences between Sam, Maria and I and the 50 or so Japanese women who stood before us seems too obvious to mention. However, it must be pointed out that the main difference – or should I say six main differences which would undoubtedly give us away as foreigners – was quite clearly our breasts, which were being bound and stuffed into gowns originally designed without any consideration of the mammary glands whatsoever.

We couldn’t help but notice many of the women glancing our way, “down” their way, and our way again, followed by gasps and concealed giggles.

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Me: How are you doing over there, Sam?

Sam: I’m fi-ay-ay-ow-ay-ne.

Me: Are you sure? Your color looks a bit off. Maybe your obi is too tight.

Sam: I’ll be alri-if-I-don-breafor-the-nex-few-hours.

Me: Where’s Maria?

Sam: Dono-

Maria: Here luv.

(I turned but all I could see was a sea of ark-shaped straw hats with giant, pink paper flowers.)

Me: Where?

Maria: Don’t ask me. I can’t see a bloody thing with this hat on.

Me: I believe that’ll be more of a blessing than a curse.

Maria: Anne?

“Bump.”

Me: I’m here!

Maria: Anne?

“Thump.”

Me: Left, Maria. Now a little to the right.

Maria: Anne?

“CRASH!”

Me: Hey! You look great!

Maria: So do you?

Me: How do you know, you can’t see me.

Maria: Exactly.

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Me: I feel ridiculous.

(Sam enters, fully costumed.)

Sam: Come now. You’ll be able to tell your children about this.

Me: I’m not sure how childbirth will be physically possible after the way I’ve been bound up.

Sam: Don’t bitch, just breathe! Now let’s go learn that dance!

The dance we were being taught embodies a woman praying to the Harvest moon for her one true love. I was praying just to make it through the day without the need of therapy. Or an ambulance.Our practice session lasted about ten minutes until the three of us decided we were helpless and hopeless and that our only chance for coming out of this event with a shred of dignity was to employ the “duck and cover” strategy.

The parade began outside the Hyuga Town Hall where our dance group formed two lines and followed behind a little, white car with a big, white loudspeaker (they really love this device) that piped out the music we would be “dancing” to. After a few practice turns around the parking lot, we quickly discovered that we had no idea what we were doing.

Our fellow dancers kept assuring and reassuring us that no one would even notice us. Yet it was hard to find comfort in these promises each time one of Sam’s students passed our supposedly “inconspicuous” trio and screamed, “Samansa-sensei!”

To make matters worse, we were asked to stand at the very head of the line. Putting a total kibosh on our plans to mimic the dancers in front of us.

As if this wasn’t going to prove awkward enough, as the procession began, we were being touted as a “special attraction” to the day’s events, with the loudspeaker announcing our presence in the group every few minutes.

Necks strained all along the parade route to catch a glimpse of the “gaijin-san.”

The three of us tried to keep our conversations down to a minimum, so as not to make us too easy to pinpoint, but each time one of us looked at the other, we couldn’t helped but crack up.

Now don’t get me wrong, the dance was truly lovely and the women were both charming and graceful in their performance.

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I couldn’t help but be very appreciative of my front row seat.

It’s just that I never really got the hang of it and was constantly being reminded of my ineptitude each time another familiar face burst through the crowd with a video camera in hand and a huge grin on their face.

“I AM NOT ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!”

Nevertheless, the next couple of hours managed to pass with relative ease and we soon found ourselves paused at a shrine with hundreds of other parade participants. We watched a holy man pray for our health and then stood back as a group of about thirty men, all clad in white, took hold of a portable shrine, or “mikoshi” and began the procession once more.

We followed behind. Watching the men carry the tiny shrine. Gently rocking it to and fro. Like a boat sailing atop the ocean waves.

I was spellbound.

Until the music from our little, white car with the big, white speaker called us to realign and begin the procession again. Eventually, we broke for lunch and returned to the town hall where we had an hour to rest up before dancing the remainder of the parade route.

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It was then we learned that the event would go on until 6 o’clock that evening. Maria and I slowly turned toward Sam.

“What?” she laughed nervously. “It’s not that bad. We’re having fun, aren’t we? Believe me, you’ll thank-“

I had her in a headlock and Maria was giving her one hell of a “noogie” when the call of “Bieru” [beer] caused us to halt our assault and run toward the bearer of libations.

With time to kill before the procession began again, we took the opportunity to wander around the town hall to see all the other parade participants. We stopped where the local high school and junior high brass bands were warming up and that’s when Sam and I decided to do some dancing which we were far more familiar with. I led and the two of us swung and twirled, turned and jived around the parking lot (a true feat wrapped in yukata), but soon ran out of breath and stopped to a round of applause. At least now there was proof that we weren’t complete clumsy oafs.

Drawing a short straw plucked from my hat, Maria went in search of more beer, returning a short time later with a look of utter disappointment.

Sam: Where’s the beer?

Maria: …gone…

Me: Gone? That’s ridiculous. It can’t be gone. Are you sure you looked in the right place?

Maria: Oh, I’m sure. I found the beer, but the bottles were all empty.

Sam: I don’t understand. We were the only ones drinking it and I specifically remember seeing an entire case. Now STOP KIDDING AROUND AND GIVE ME MY BEER!

Me: Calm yourself, Sam. There has to be a reasonable explanation… Now then… Maria…

(I said as I grabbed her shoulders and attempted to shake the truth out of her.)

Maria: For God’s sake, I’m telling the truth. You know those very shy, very demure, “Oh I-never-touch-the-stuff” ladies we’ve been dancing with? Well, they’ve been having a bloody party upstairs and drank every last drop. They’re practically swinging on the rafters.

(Suddenly, a roar of laughter could be heard as a group of about twenty women came rolling down the stairs of the town hall, smiles as wide and askew as the brims of their hats.)

Me: Well, I’ll be darned!

It has to be said that this little “pick me up” boosted morale considerably, almost to the point of mutiny. Once we began our dance again, we could hear rumblings from below the sea of straw hats behind us and the rising chant of “Bieru! Bieru! Bieru!” coming from our once “shy” little group of dancers.

The chant would continue and continue to grow louder until the little, white car with the big, white loudspeaker would be forced to stop and open the trunk containing more beer. In the end, I think we had more fun than any other group at the festival. These soft-spoken, unassuming women ended up showing a good deal of spunk.

I have to admit that 6 p.m. rolled around faster than I had expected it to and even though we were all exhausted by the day’s end, we left with smiles on our faces and truly warm feelings in our hearts.

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I have Sam to thank for “volunteering” me.

She was right.

It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

I so enjoyed myself that when I returned to the office the next Monday, I showed them the dance I did and told them what a great time I had.

This was a grave mistake.

They immediately signed me up to dance in a festival in Shintomi next weekend!

Just Wet of the Midwest Chapter 32: Festival Fever

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Photo by acfrohna

There’s a never-ending cycle of organized social festivals found throughout the year in Japan where I’ve been able to experience this culture in all its splendor, ceremony and sameness. The festivals usually involve synchronized dancing, a copious amount of drinking and eating, and the generally happy gathering of a remarkably large and similarly dressed extended family.

Somewhere – at some point – at nearly all of these festivals, there’s a parade.

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photo by ac frohna

A stream of objects and people. Colorfully costumed.

Radiant.

Graphic.

Assembled in ensembles.

Moving en masse.

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photo by ac frohna

From the streets, as an innocent onlooker, it’s a delight to watch the well-oiled cogs of the Japanese community at play.

Great rivers of color and movement.

Drifting and converging.

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photo by ac frohna

On January 16th, there’s the national holiday, Seijinshiki (Seijin meaning adult or grown-up), which is a celebration for those reaching the age of twenty.

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photo by ac frohna

Towns and villages throughout the country sponsor “Coming of Age” ceremonies. It’s hard not to get lost in the elegance and awkward grace of these young adults.

Especially the young women.

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photo by ac frohna

So rich in color and texture that anything or anyone surrounding them dissolves into the background.

Their black, shiny hair curled and twisted with flowers and ribbons.

Their skin, milky white.

And lips, cherry red.

Hidden smiles behind colorful fans.

Or delicate, porcelain hands.

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photo by ac frohna

Each kimono, bright and splendid.

Each obi, so masterfully and uniquely tied.

Reading like a family crest of silk, ribbon and embroidery.

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photo by ac Frohna

Quintessential.

Exquisite.

Timeless.

On March 3rd, even though the festival originally marked the passage of 5 years for boys, Koimatsuri (Boys Day), now shares the pond with Kodomo-no-Hi (Children’s Day) and Hina-matsuri (Girls’ Festival). During this celebration, brightly colored Koi streamers flutter overhead everywhere.

Across streets.

From tree to tree, house to house.

Swimming against the currents of wind.

Symbolizing the hope that the children of Japan will be strong.

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Healthy.

Perseverant.

Such as the carp fighting its way up stream.

Where, it is said, lie the great falls.

Where stands a gate.

Beyond which is a dragon’s life for the determined koi.

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photo by ac frohna

In first part of April there is the fantastically fragrant Cherry Blossom season (Hanami) during which celebrations to welcome spring take place day and night beneath the blossoming trees.

The other day at work, Kuranaga-kacho told Akiko and I to go.

Honor the blossoms.

So, the two of us drove to Saitobaru Burial Mounds where we lazily strolled down the rows of cherry trees.

Beneath their brief, but intoxicating peak.

Relishing, amid the petals, our temporary release from the office.

After the graduation ceremonies in March, come the entrance ceremonies in April.

During this time, there are also parties to say good-bye to old office mates and hello to new co-workers when transfers, promotions and retirements happen in one broad sweep.

Just as in mid-December, there is a Bonnenkai, or Year End Office party, during which failures, frustrations and disappointments are forgotten and only successes are toasted.

Oddly enough, this notion strikes the same chord as the unspoken day-after-drinking protocol in Japan. Whatever happens the night before, remains in the already-forgotten past by morning.

Convenient.

If not slightly lily-livered.

Especially since this applies mostly to men who seem to imbibe – and misbehave – far more than the women here do.

Even with the festival-filled days of summer past, the Japanese fill the cooling days and typhoon season with athletics, as well as cultural and harvest celebrations, such as the Tsukumatsuri (Festival of the Moon) in September.

Being the Land of the Rising Sun, you’d think they’d worship that big red ball on their flag a bit more. But here in Japan, men and women (especially the women) shun the sun with scarves, hats and parasols.

Sometimes all at once.

Instead, they worship the moon and love spending time celebrating its greatness beneath its fair light.

And no fall – or spring – would be complete in Japan without Ensoku, an athletic festival. Exercise is elemental to the Japanese way of thinking. It’s not only a part of school life, but office and social life.

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I remember attending my first Ensoku at Tonda Junior High. The school grounds and surrounding woods were an ocean of sea green, genderless, gym suits milling about or engaged in some planned activity or another.

I swam among them.

Joining a search.

Or a game.

Making them use English.

Struggling with my Japanese.

I always love the time I have outside class with my students. When the eyes of their sensei are no where in sight. And the distance to the front of the classroom has disappeared.

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photo by ac frohna

All I Can Say Is…

  • Yet another birthday has passed and even though I kept things far more subdued than last year, I still managed to celebrate plenty. In addition to flowers, a boatload of handkerchiefs and more booze than is good for me, my office family gave me an unbelievably cool Canon 35mm camera. All I can say is… if they get any more endearing I might consider adopting each and every one of them.
  • I’m trying to keep up with world events, so I won’t get too out of touch with the outside world. All I can say is… What the hell is going on out there?

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 33: Capital City

Sam and I took a long weekend off and hopped on a ferry to visit one of Japan’s most famous cities, Kyoto.

We boarded a ferry in Hyuga, where for the next 14 hours we would share a large tatami room with the other passengers. By the time we arrived on board, all of our fellow travelers had already claimed their space, grabbed their blankets and their Japanese-style pillows (designed, clearly, by a sadomasochist) and found ways to entertain themselves.

We squeezed out a space on the tatami, settled ourselves in and had a few pleasant conversations with those we’d be sleeping near before the mandatory 10:30 p.m. lights out.

We arrived on the main island of Honshu, in the busy port city of Kobe, Thursday morning and from here took a series of trains, the last being the famed Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, which shot us into Kyoto. Before leaving the station, we made reservations at the Kyoto Century Hotel which we chose not only for its very reasonable rate in a very expensive city, but because it was located near the station and plenty of public transportation for getting around this ancient metropolis.

At 12,000 yen per night, we prepared for a dump, but reasoned that we would be spending very little time there. We paid for our rooms right at the station’s hotel desk. The woman who took our reservations then handed us a map of how to get there and a brochure of our accommodations. Sam glanced at the brochure and with a look of complete surprise on her face, handed it to me.

This must be a mistake, we thought. She must have given us the wrong brochure. We reserved a room at a dump and this place looked like a five star hotel.

“Well,” I warned my friend, “you know what they can do with good lighting and the right camera angle. Besides, these pictures were probably taken years ago.”

A short time later, when we arrived at our destination, I realized that I’d been completely mistaken. We were immediately greeted at the front entrance of the hotel by a handsomely uniformed valet who led us through the very elegant lobby, straight to the shiny reception desk.

We couldn’t believe our luck.

This place was lovely, sophisticated and far beyond our expectations and our current state of dishevelment. We scurried to our pristine and fashionable room, showered off ferry-life and headed out for an afternoon’s adventure.

Within moments of our very first stroll, I was already sorry we had a mere 2.5 days to spend in Kyoto, what was the nation’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868. Our first stop was the To-ji, one of the most famous in all of Japan. Around 796 A.D., Emperor Kammu transferred the capital of Japan from Nara to Kyoto and to honor this move, he built two huge Buddhist temples, To-ji (East Temple) and Saiji (West Temple).

Both temples were destroyed by fire but rebuilt during the Edo Period (1615-1868). Today, To-ji still stands and (at 171 feet high) is one of the tallest wooden towers in Japan. The gardens and ponds surrounding the temple were altogether awesome. A feat in carefully composed asymmetry and meticulous modesty.

Next, we visited the Goju No To, a five story pagoda – the highest in the country. The original pagoda was built in 826 A.D., but due to several fires, the existing structure (an exact replica) was built in 1644. It’s certainly not uncommon to learn that fire has been the cause of so much loss. Even the more “modern” pagoda we stood admiring was made entirely of wood. And not a single nail was used in its construction.

What resonates most deeply for me, however, are not the sights as much as the smells I encountered that afternoon.

A pungent mixture of folklore and tradition.

Ritual and rule.

Which wrapped around me like an old blanket each time I entered one of the historic structures. The incense, forever burning within, curling around and around the delicately carved figures and forms.

Saturating the woods.

Fusing with musty, dusty particles creeping in through the cracks and crevices.

Thick and settled atop the worn surfaces.

The aroma is almost tangible.

Digestible.

One… long… inhale… seems to tell a thousand tales.

Each time I left a building, I’d carry the smells with me as a faint reminder. I’d bury my nose in my clothes repeatedly. Until the profound fragrance faded.

After leaving the grounds of the temple, we wandered around the city, constantly being reminded of how small (and quaint, mind you) Miyazaki is. Where I live in Japan, it’s easy to forget about the remainder of the world. I’ve become accustomed to strange stares by passersby. But Kyoto is truly cosmopolitan.

Our stomachs began to remind us that we hadn’t eaten, so Sam and I pulled out our trusty Fodor’s and decided that what we wanted more than anything was something that wasn’t Japanese. We found a place called “Knuckles” which, according to our guide book, was owned by some ex-patriot New Yorkers who offered honest-to-goodness deli sandwiches. Checking out our rather ambiguous map, we determined the restaurant was in walking distance and started on our way.

In a matter of moments, we were lost.

We stopped in a local establishment, refreshed ourselves with some ale, and asked for directions, which entailed boarding a bus and walking another ten minutes – all for this promising deli menu, which ended up being little more than a disappointing pair of puny, sorry-ass sandwiches that any true New York deli owner would have given the finger.

No matter.

After paying a bill which surpassed the national debt, we found our way back to the hotel where we climbed into bed and set our alarm for an early start the next morning.

Our first destination the next day was Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. Our goal was to not only see the shrine (built in the early part of the 1600s), but to attend an antique market that would be taking place outside the temple that very weekend.

When we finally arrived at our destination –  after being pushed around by an overanxious group of old ladies who had apparently had a heapin’ helpin’ of Geritol that morning – we found the stalls we were looking for, but were disappointed to discover that most offered little more than food and tacky tourist souvenirs.

We bought some roasted corn and figured we’d wander around the market a little more with the hopes of finding something – anything – of interest. However, other than some cool, but useless plastic toys (certainly without the many applications the plastic tiara had bestowed) there was nothing of interest.

Somewhat despondent, we headed into the shrine, roamed from building to building snapping pictures, making funny faces at the little children we caught staring at us, and reading up on the history of the buildings. Quite a complexity of maturity levels, eh?

On our way out, we noticed a side street where a number of stalls were set up and although we had little hope of finding anything of interest, we made our way over and… lo and behold, THERE was the market we had been looking for.

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Photos by acfrohna

The stalls were filled with marvelous items – both old and new. There was hearty earthenware and delicate china, intricately carved brass and wooden chests and elaborate, hand-painted screens.

Yet what excited Sam and I most were the stalls filled with kimono and obi.

At one of the very first stalls, I found a stunning, white, embroidered wedding kimono (actually, it’s the long coat worn over the kimono) and instantly fell in love with it. Painstakingly hand-stitched down the entire front and back and along each sleeve were flowers and cranes of gold, silver and orange.

I wanted it more than anything I’ve seen since my arrival in Japan.

So beautiful was this coat and in such fine condition that I feared asking its price knowing it was likely well out of my price range, but I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t at least inquired. When the old woman running the stall said 5,000 yen (the equivalent of about $45) I nearly fainted. Unable to contain my excitement, I nearly pounced on the garment.

At which point the old woman decided to jack the price up to 10,000 yen.

I quickly retorted. Surprising her with my Japanese. Reminding her of her first price.

The deal was struck and I was overjoyed with my extraordinarily beautiful garment. Sam, too, purchased a lovely, pure white kimono and we both found a few lovely obi as well. I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to examine our purchases more carefully, but we had more sightseeing to do and an entire day ahead of us. With our treasures in hand and big smiles on our faces, we next visited Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion – one of the most famous sites in all of Japan – as breathtaking as it is renown.

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Built in the 1220s as a private residence for Kintsune Saionji, the Golden Pavilion is a three-story structure set at the edge of a pond. The first floor was designed in the architectural Shinden-zukuri, or palace style. The second floor, the Buke-zukuri, was styled as a Samurai house; while the third floor was designed to reflect a Karayo, or Zen Temple. Both the second and third floors are covered with gold leaf and Japanese lacquer.

On a sunny, calm day (like the one we were experiencing) one can see a perfect reflection of the pavilion in the Kyoko-chi, or Mirror Pond. The Kinkau-ji was designed specifically along the lines of Buddhist thinking.

Life should reflect a perfect harmony with nature.

And what a truly splendid, harmonious spot it was. Made even more spectacular by the serenity of the gardens surrounding it. The only regret was the constant influx of unavoidable crowds which made it almost entirely impossible to sit back in peace and enjoy the surroundings as they were meant to be enjoyed. If only I had been born into Japan’s 13th century upperclass.

Dang.

Also on our list of sites seen that day were Ryoan-ji and Koryu-ji (ji, if you haven’t figured out yet, means castle). Both were certainly resplendent sites to behold, but what I found even more fascinating were the gardens; especially the famed Rock Garden at Ryoan-ji.

This garden simply consists of 15 rocks and white gravel, believed to have been first laid out by a painter/gardener at the end of the 15th century. This garden is considered the embodiment of Zen art. It’s said that each person who visits it sees something entirely different in the rock and gravel formations. It’s up to each individual to determine what that might mean.

What, you might ask, did I see?

Well… that each piece of gravel represented all the people hovering around the temple, making it impossible to keep any train of thought, let alone delve into a deep appreciation of the art of Zen.

As I found my frustration build with the arrival of each new tour group, I managed to discover a peaceful corner of the garden where a washbasin stood. Carved in the stone along the rim is the inscription (translated in a brochure), “I learn only to be contented.”

Choosing to take to heart one of the most important rules of Zen philosophy, I left the crowded temple with a stronger sense of inner peace.

Our final stop was a visit to Koryu-ji where they have a collection of some of the nation’s most priceless statues, including the Miroku Bosatsu, one of the most renown images of Buddah. The delicately carved face of the Miroku Bosatsu is said to perfectly embody inner peace and that gazing upon it can actually help one to heal. It’s exceptionally beautiful and after close examination of the statue, I couldn’t help but feel as if the carving was, indeed, created from a divine image.

Its smile and countenance is both intimidating and beguiling.

Tranquil and composed.

I couldn’t help but feel serene from the sheer study of it.

Our final day in Kyoto began with the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art. All I can really say about our visit is… there isn’t much to say. Except that I felt it was, at best, a representation of modern mediocrity. With greater hope of seeing some inspiring exhibits at the National Museum of Art, we headed that way, but soon found a line blocks long due to a special Matisse exhibit – and we simply couldn’t see wasting our last day standing in a line.

We moved on to Nijo-jo, a 35 room castle built in 1603 by the powerful Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. He erected it after winning a battle against rival forces and unifying Japan.

Nijo Castle epitomizes the timeless refinement and uncomplicated appeal of Japanese design. Each shikiri (sliding partition, a mainstay in Japanese architecture) in every room of the castle was gold-leafed and hand-painted to reflect various scenes of nature. Whether the towering strength of the pine tree which dominates the mountains of Japan, or the gossamer intricacy of the butterfly.

The wood carvings found throughout the castle’s chamber are also some of the largest and most intricate ever made in Japan. So masterfully carved that I couldn’t be sure the craftsmen were not, themselves, divine.

One of my very favorite parts of the castle was the main entrance, known as “Yoru-uguisu”, or the Nightingale. The dark wood floors were especially designed by the ruling Shogun to warn residents of all who entered the castle late at night. More specifically, enemy intruders.

As soon as you step foot onto the boards which run the outer length of the first wing, a warbling sound, similar to that of a Nightingale, sounds, informing guards quartered nearby of trespassers.

It’s undoubtedly the most pleasant alarm system ever designed and does everything to support an atmosphere bent on showing the Tokugawa’s earthly cunning and power, yet at the same time, a deep desire not disturb the beauty and serenity of the nature which surrounds him.

The castle gardens were just beginning to hint of their autumn colors. It was easy to get lost in its well-orchestrated beauty and hard to believe that a buzzing metropolis was just on the other side of its massive walls. So flawless was the scenery that I momentarily found myself feeling painfully awkward and aware of my own imperfections.

Until I remembered.

I learn only to be contented.

Sitting on a bench overlooking the gardens, I closed my eyes and repeated the phrase over and over again in my mind.

I learn only to be contented.

In the silence surrounding me, I finally began to understand the peaceful environs as not simply beauty to be admired, but a perfect reflection of the delicate balance between man and nature.

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It was a good day.

My love to all and may this letter find you content to be contented.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 35: Languid in Langkawi

Our trip began on December 21st. Tauro, Sam’s latest boyfriend, kindly offered to drive us to the Miyazaki Airport, where we were to catch a flight to Fukuoka. There, we would then hop on another plane heading to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where we would spend the night and hop on another flight to the island of Langkawi in the morning.

Seemed simple enough.

Tauro, being an even greater “Patty Paranoia” than myself, insisted that we arrive at the airport two hours ahead of time. Neither Sam or I chose to argue because we figured we could check in, have a leisurely lunch at the airport, and then be off to our island paradise.

As a matter of fact, we had just been served that leisurely lunch I spoke of when an announcement came over the airport speakers. Sam and I couldn’t make all of it out.

But Tauro did.

Suddenly a look of, “If I tell them this bit of news, I’ll never live to see tomorrow!” came over his face. Apparently, our plane had broken down and there would be no flight to Fukuoka that day.

“That’s not funny, Tauro,” we repeated several times, refusing to believe they would cancel a flight just like that. And not just A flight, OUR flight.

Sam and Tauro went to the ticket counter to confirm the bad news and I stared down at the table of food, no longer in the least bit hungry. The cancellation was confirmed and our only choice now was to try to find a cab that would take us to Kagoshima, two hours away. From Kagoshima, the next flight we could take to Fukuoka – in order to make our connection to Kuala Lampur – was leaving at 3:05 p.m.

It was 1 p.m.

With the speed of Nike, we found a cab willing to make the long trek, threw our bags in back and began what would prove to be the most nerve-wracking two hour cab ride in my life.

Every so often, Sam and I would look to one another for support.

Only to find a face filled with anxiety. And a glimmer of the rage and despair which might ultimately unfold if we missed the flight.

I checked my watch every minute or so; while at the same time demanded the cab driver assure us we would make the flight.

Obediently, and with a strong sense of self-preservation, he answered how we wanted him to. Yet each time, his answer seemed a little less convincing.

The clock ticked away.

Our bodies continued to tense.

Our halfhearted smiles finally disappeared without a trace.

At 3 o’clock – on the dot – we arrived at Kagoshima Airport.

Racing through the corridors knocking innocent bystanders from our frenzied trajectory, we reached airport security. The clocks in our heads muffling everything and everyone around us, including the security guard who was asking for the second time to look inside Sam’s luggage.

The vision of the plane leaving the runway without us was now clear and unmistakable.

It seems the security guard who had chosen to prolong our nightmare either held a grudge against all Western tourists, tall blonds, citizens of the United Kingdom, or simply found life more difficult after that lobotomy, because he began to take every item out of her massive carry-on…one… by… one…

C-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y…s-c-r-u-t-i-n-i-z-i-n-g…e-a-c-h…i-t-e-m.

I’ve never been so close to killing a man.

S-l-o-w-l-y…h-e…g-a-v-e…u-s…t-h-e…o-k-a-y.

And then proceeded to p-u-t…e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g…b-a-c-k…i-n… t-h-e…s-a-m-e…m-a-n-n-e-r.

We couldn’t take it any longer. The two of us were simultaneously on the verge of a total mental collapse. Which certainly would have extended our visit with the security officers indefiitely. So, we grabbed the bag, all of Sam’s belongings, and stuffing them back in (leaving all fallen items up for grabs), ran toward our gate.

The furthest one away.

Sweating, panting, cramped and threatening to vomit up the lunch we didn’t eat, we finally, at long last, with nothing left to give, arrived at the gate.

Only to find the plane had been delayed for half an hour.

We threw our bags down where we stood and decided that this would not be a good day to quit smoking.

In Fukuoka, we met up with Maria (who was joining us), as well as Madeline and Robert (also with the JET program) who were traveling to Malaysia as well. I’m happy to report there were no more travel mishaps to speak of and by the following afternoon, we had made it to the lovely island of Langkawi where we happily began our two week sojourn into slothfulness.

At Robert’s suggestion, we went to the area known as Pantai Kok, a quiet, undeveloped spot on the beach and found a beachside cabin at the Kok Bay Hotel. Now when I use words such as “cabin” and “hotel,” let me assure you, you must erase any visions of Club Med you might have conjured in your head. Our cabin consisted of a double bed, a single bed (more like a slab of concrete on a frame), a fan, the ever-popular florescent lighting apparently adored in this part of the world, and a dimly lit toilet/shower (all in one, mind you) that looked like something out of a mid-century modern torture chamber.

But for the equivalent of about $10 a day, we quickly got over the initial shock.

Sam also decorated our temporary housing with some tacky Christmas decorations which warmed up the place considerably, and once we caught sight of the ocean, which lay a mere 50 yards away, and the mountains, which hovered behind us, we knew we had discovered our home away from home.

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Photo by acfrohna

We were especially pleased with our lodgings after tasting the first meal prepared at our “hotel restaurant” – a shack at the end of our row of cabins where the woman who owned the establishment (always with a couple of babies hanging from her hip and hand) cooked the most outstanding, savory, spicy, delectable meals we could have imagined coming out of a single wok.

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Photo by acfrohna

Maria stayed with us the first few nights, but much to our relief (more on that later), moved to her own cabin across from us for the remainder of the trip.

Much of our time was spent doing little of anything.

We got up. We went to the beach. We ate. We slept.We read. We listened to music.

We ate. We swam. We ate. We swam again. We went to bed.

However, we did manage to brush off the sand long enough to explore a little. On our first day, we got a ride into town from a local taxi driver, named Zaki, who was so very kind, equally honest, and who would become our main mode of transport for the remainder of our visit.

At first, we felt he was way too nice and that there had to be a catch, but after having many conversations with him during our 20 minute trips into town and hearing him say things such as, “In being nice to people, you have nothing to lose.” and really mean it, he soon gained our trust and admiration.

And never once let us down.

We were so immediately charmed by the Malaysian people we met and the places we saw that we formed a plan for the future. Sam was going to open up a coconut plantation, using the husks and shells to create tacky tourist souvenirs. While lounging at the beach, she closely studied the palm-tree climbing techniques of the natives and was ready to give it a go… had it not been for her apparent war wound from “The Big One.”

Maria was going to open “Maria’s Personally Relevant Religious and Feminist Symbols Gift Shop. And, as Sam planned it, I was to marry Zaki and spend the rest of my days having beautiful babies and cooking from a wok.

On our first full day, we went into town to do some shopping – disinfectant being the main priority considering our in-ground toilet and shower shared the exact same space – and soon discovered how incredibly inexpensive things were. This turned our errand run into a shopping frenzy.

Having become accustomed to the outrageous cost of living in Japan, we felt downright greedy and even a little guilty – as if we should be offering the local shops and stalls more money than they were asking. However, we soon learned that this gesture would have been quite a cultural no-no due to the fact that bartering is a custom here. Before understanding this, we couldn’t fathom why we seemed to be routinely shocking salespeople when we handed them full price.

They’d look at us… pause… and then lower the price of the item before we had a chance to argue.

On Christmas Eve, we sat on the porch of our cabin with a couple of beers and watched the sun set over the mountains. So did most of the people staying in the cabins all around us. It was like a strange community of nomads from all over the world who came to this small island to settle, if only temporarily, into a state of complete and utter calm.

At about 9 p.m., all of the electricity on our side of the island went out. A few moments later, hotel proprietors made their way from cabin to cabin with candles, which were placed on each porch, creating a warm glow that wove itself into the soft breezes and gently sweeping waves. We softly played Christmas songs on our cassette player and enjoyed the peace and harmony that the blackout had created among the cabin dwellers.

That is, until Maria decided that too much peace and harmony was a bad thing.

I must preface this by explaining that before we came on holiday, the three of us had decided that each would bring something to enhance the holiday season. Maria brought Christmas pudding and a bottle of whiskey. Sam brought decorations, party hats and poppers. I brought each of us underwater goggles, as well as star, heart and butterfly-shaped sunglasses for the beach. This, or so thought Sam and I, would be our presents to one another. Maria thought differently.

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Photo by acfrohna

That night, she presented us with additional gifts. But certainly not in the spirit of “tis better to give than to receive.” Somehow the subject of New Year’s resolutions came up, and after spewing off some ridiculous promises Sam and I knew we’d never keep, Maria discharged her resolution with such malice it made both Sam and I speechless.

“Well,” she spat out, “I know what my resolution is. I’m going to stop giving presents to people who don’t deserve them!”

Suddenly, the celebration didn’t feel very joyous anymore. As if Christmas had just been sucked into a big, black hole.

Now normally, I pride myself in being able to recover rather quickly from such negativity, but this was the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back. For some reason or another, Maria had been taking stabs at both Sam and I from the onset of the vacation. Actually, Sam received the brunt of Maria’s wrath and my only guess as to why this might have happened was because of our close friendship.

Which Maria seems to take offense to.

Sam and I made wholehearted efforts to salvage the remainder of the evening. To regain that sense of love and harmony.

Maria would have none of it.

Neither Sam or I wanted to make a scene and decided to call it an evening. Maria went to her cabin (which she had procured that day) and Sam and I slipped into ours, trying to make sense of what had transpired. We soon tired of the conversation, closed our eyes and attempted to sleep.

The area of cabins where we were staying had quieted down by 10 p.m. or so, with only an occasional utterance from vacationers returning to their rooms for the night. Our cabin was dark and still, except for a grumble and toss from Sam and an old ceiling fan that shakily squeaked, clanked and clattered around and around and around.

The sounds were just beginning to form a strange, methodic rhythm that was lulling me to sleep when we heard it…

“CROOOOOOOOOAK-clickety-click-clack-pop!”

“CROOOOOOOOOAK-clickety-click-clack-pop!”

From the way it resounded through the room, I was sure that whatever the creature was must surely have been the size of Mothra.

I stiffened and every single hair on my body raised to attention.

“CROOOOOOOOOAK-clickety-click-clack-pop!”

“What the devil is that?” Sam asked with a shiver.

“Who the hell do I look like, Marlin Perkins?” I whispered into the dark as I slid the covers over my head.

Sam was about to ask just who the heck Marlin Perkins was when-

‘CROOOOOOOOAK-clickety-click-clack-pop-CROOOOOOOAK!”

“Go turn on the lights and see what it is,” Sam commanded.

I suddenly found myself flashing back to my childhood. When my sister, Mia, who always climbed in bed last, would insist on my climbing out of bed to turn the lights out.

“YOU turn on the lights, Sam,” I insisted. “After all, you’re the one closest to the door.”

“Yes,” Sam shot back, “but the light switch is in the middle of the room.”

“Yes,” I maintained, “but we’re both, more or less, the same distance from the switch.”

Sam scooted her position on the bed further left.

“Not anymore,” she replied.

I couldn’t see, but I could just tell she had a grin from ear to ear.

“You’re so damn immat-”

“CROOOOOOOAK-clickety-click-clack-pop!”

“And just what am I supposed to do once I’ve turned the light on?” I whined.

Now Sam, obviously the brains of this operation, thought long and hard about the question.

“Find that THING and get it out of the room.”

“The Nancy Drew mysteries were based on your life, weren’t they?”

“Who?”

“CROOOOOOOOAK-pop-pop-CROOOOOOOOOOAK!”

“Never mind. All I know is that I’m not going to be able to sleep until I find out what’s making that noise.” With that, I mustered up my courage and, putting one foot on the wet and sandy floor, stretched as far as I could to reach the light switch.

Feeling eerily like Elastic Man, I found the switch, “click,” and jumped back in bed.

Flicker-flicker-flick went that damned florescent light. Our eyes readjusted and scanned the room for any strange, slimy, icky, exotic, creepy-crawly things.

Nothing.

“CROOOOOOOOOAK-pop!”

Both our heads spun to the light above the bed.

Nothing.

“It’s hiding,” Sam whispered.

“Are you sure you’re not related to Sherlock Holmes?”

Sam was just about ready to rebut, when she spotted something out of the corner of her eye.

“It’s COMING OUT!” she screamed.

I spun around with terror in my heart and cowardice racing through my veins.

AND THERE IT WAS!

… a tiny, green chameleon about the size of my index finger.

“That’s what’s been making all the noise?” I laughed.

“Now’s your chance, Anne. GRAB IT!”

“I’ll do no such thing,” was my reply.

“What are you talking about?”

“Those things are like our own little mosquito trap. It won’t do us any harm. Let it be.”

“Are you telling me you’re just going to let that strange creature spend the night in this room?”

“You’ve had worse spend the ni-”

“No need to get nasty.”

“No really. It’ll be fine. Now, why don’t you turn off the light so we can get some sleep.”

“You turn off the light… You turned it on.”

“I don’t believe you,” I grumbled as I stepped out of bed, yet again, to switch the light off.

A few moments passed.

‘CROOOOOOOOAK-clickety-click-clack-pop,” sang our little lizard friend.

Now comforted by the acknowledged size of the beast, I began to fall into a peaceful—

“BUUUUUUUUUUUZZZZZZZZZZWHIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRR!” came a sound out of no where.

“BUUUUUUUUUUUZZZZZZZZZZWHIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRR!” came the sound again as it swopped down around our heads.

Sam screamed.

I gasped.

“Are we to be plagued by every night creature in Malaysia?” bellowed Sam. “This one cannot stay. There is no room at the inn!”

I climbed out of bed.

AGAIN.

And turned on the lights to see a beetle the size of the car named after it, circling the room, ready to dive bomb again.

“For God’s sake, kill it,” yelled Sam.

At that precise moment, a downpour began outside.

“I can’t kill something that size,” I winced recalling my recent run-in with the spider in my apartment as I threw the switch back to off and jumped back into bed and under the covers.

“Maybe it’ll go away… Maybe the lizard will eat it.”

“Or vice versa,” Sam whined.

“Shhhhhhhh,” I urged my yellow-bellied friend. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“It’s not flying anymore. I’ll bet the lizard ate it.”

“Maybe you’re right,” my friend replied with little conviction.

“Of course I am. It’s the law of nat-”

‘WOOOOOOOOOOP-WOP-WOP-WOP-GRODLOOOOORG!”

‘BUUUUUUUUUUUZZZZZZZZZZWHIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRR!”

“CROOOOOOOAK-clickety-click-clack-pop!”

Sam wept and moaned from beneath her covers.

I had had enough.

Once more, I was out of bed, switching on the lights and scanning the room for the maker of the new sound.

Nothing.

I looked for the tiny chameleon.

It was no where to be seen.

But… the beetle was within range.

Grabbing one of the party hats Sam brought, I climbed on the bed.

Legs shaking.

Hands quivering.

I inched my way toward the winged automobile.

I paused.

“I can’t do it, Sam.”

“Of course you can, Anne,” urged my candy-ass friend. “Now be brave. You’re a woman of the nineties!”

With that, I cupped the creature within the hat, against the wall. As it thrashed against the sides, I shouted for Sam to hand me a nearby brochure so that I could cap off the hat.

The creature was mine.

Slowly, I moved toward the door. Just as I was within reach, Sam let out a blood-curdling scream, “LOOK!”

I looked to the window on our cabin door and saw before me an incredibly large iguana suction-cupped to the glass with its long, taloned feet.

“WOOOOOOOOOOP-WOP-WOP-WOP-GRODLOOOOORG!”

My imagination registered a lizard the size of Manhattan. In actuality, it was about two and a half feet long.

“What do I do? What do I do!” I squealed still holding the beetle in the party hat.

Sam merely mumbled unrecognizable sounds from beneath the sheets.

The rain was now thundering against the tin roof.

The beetle was beating itself against the walls of the hat.

The lizard was still hanging around the florescent light, like a green-skinned coward.

The Iguana remained where it was. Its scaly belly pressed menacingly against the glass.

I slowly approached the door, rattled the doorknob with my trembling free hand and prayed. The lizard peacefully slid away into the darkness.

Flinging open the door, I tossed the beetle – party hat and all – into the torrent of rain and slammed the door behind me. After turning off the light for what I hoped would be the very last time that evening, I jumped into bed – worn out.

‘WOOOOOOOOOOP-WOP-WOP-WOP-GRODLOOOOORG!”

“CROOOOOOOOAK-clickety-click-clack-pop!”

“Screw it,” I mumbled as I closed my eyes and fell asleep to the sounds of Langkawi nightlife.

And the whimperings of Samantha.

And I didn’t even touch upon our encounters with the water buffalo and wild boar!
____________

On Christmas day, Rob and Madeline came to Pantai Kok and we had a very laid-back celebration, followed by an incredibly delicious dinner in town that night. At the restaurant, we met up with two girls whom we’d met on our shopping excursion and it was decided to meet them (and their sailing acquaintances) the next evening for drinks.

The following day, we hiked up the mountains behind our cabin to see some waterfalls we were told about and there we spent half the day swimming and sliding down smooth rocks into cool, clear mountain pools.

It was heavenly to be surrounded by so much green and such good company.

When we returned to our beach that day we found that Maria had found what appeared to us to be a holiday romance with a German girl named Andrea. Much to our great joy, this meant that Maria was now able to enjoy her vacation, which left Sam and I unfettered and free from guilt at a friendship gone awry. When Rob and Madeline left a few days later, we found ourselves spending much of the rest of our time with our new friend, Ian, and his 16-year-old son, Adrian.

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Ian, a full time, nomadic, Australian, sailing-type was taking his son on an adventure of a lifetime; traveling from sea to sea together on their boat “Silver Lining”.

Going where the wind blew them. Making money by offering tourists, like us, the chance to sail around the islands.

It was certainly a romantic notion – to go where the tides take you.

While on Langkawi, we met a lot of these wanderlust sailors hailing from across the globe – Germany, New Zealand, Finland, Australia, America. All doing their best to permanently avoid what all of us were there to only temporarily escape.

On New Year’s Eve, Sam, myself, and several of our new friends, decided to forgo the festivities being planned by various resorts around the island. Instead, we lit a bonfire on the beach, bought some champagne and beer, and had a little party of our own. It was here I met Tom and began a very brief, rather uneventful, holiday romance.

Brief side note: I’m sorry to say, I haven’t heard from Raymond for months and although I keep hoping to be pleasantly surprised by that long-awaited letter or phone call, I have to be realistic and have wretchedly resigned myself to the idea that this romance was never meant to be. Big… long… broken-hearted… siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.

Now back to the story at hand.

Tom, from what I’ve been told, is a rather well known sailor. As the skipper of his boat, “Nine Tails” he was the first man ever to circumnavigate the world in a catamaran. Tom is a handsome man of 48 – although I have to say that his demeanor was sometimes that of an 84-year-old. Maybe our age difference was a bit intimidating for him, or maybe it came from spending so much time alone.

Who knows.

I have to say that the “seven seas” sailors we kept encountering on Langkawi were undeniably charming and interesting folk. But strangely sullen.

Sadly disenchanted.

And, most certainly, out of touch.

You’d ask them how long they’d been at sea and they’d reply, “What year is it?”

Tom was no exception.

At first, I found it all very romantic, but the more I listened, the more I heard them relay their hardships, disappointments, failures, misgivings. Just like all us landlubbers. Ironically, they set out to avoid what no one can truly escape.

Life.

And to top it all off, these hale and hardy seafarers had thousands of stories to tell, but often only passing acquaintances to share them with.

I found this particularly sad.

Nevertheless, there was something alluring about Tom and I just couldn’t help but be enticed.

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At 16, Adrian was certainly getting his share of the sailor’s experience. He had dropped out of school to join his dad on this adventure, but one could tell, and he was quick to admit, that he was starved for companionship and the real world. For this very reason, Sam and I took him under our wing and gave him the little brother treatment for the remainder of our stay. He ate it up like a banana split.

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Photo by acfrohna

So lovely was Adrian that when it came time to say good-bye, I couldn’t help but feel deeply saddened. I’ve always found it very difficult to part from someone – no matter how long you’ve known them – with whom you’ve shared wonderful experiences. And it NEVER gets any easier.

Our seaside New Year’s Eve celebration ended with wedding festivities. That’s right, Sam married a French man named (and this must be said with an “outrageous accent”) Lauran. The nuptials had first been discussed during one of our recent sailing excursions, which included Lauran, who became immediately smitten with Sam. So, after leaving the beach for a local bar, our merry entourage gathered together the necessary items for a proper wedding – a bouquet, a groom, a bride, and Captain Ian to perform the ceremonies.

Ian became far too drunk to complete his charge, so I took over.

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Now Sam and I can say we’ve each been married in strange foreign lands to strange foreign men. I did tell you I got married a few months ago, didn’t I? It was after a community athletic festival. Kuranaga-Kacho performed the ceremony at a small after-party consisting of 20 men and myself. After my office papa-san consented to the marriage and was even willing to give me away (as well as perform the ceremony) I was wed to a young man, Miki.

I haven’t seen him since the reception.

Men.

Well, all in all, my vacation in Malaysia was one of the best of my life and leaving the beautiful island of Langkawi – and all the lovely people we met – was a bit gut-wrenching.

However, reality – or at least Japanese-reality – awaited and as tempting as the offers I had to become a crew member on several different sailing vessels were, I had to refuse.

Curses.

My love to all. I hope your holidays were happy ones and may your new year prove to be one filled with mystery and surprises, except for the insect and reptilian kind that make strange noises in the hidden recesses of a florescent-lit room, during a heavy thunderstorm, on a remote island in Malaysia, while your lily-livered friend hides under her covers, expecting you to eradicate them all.

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Just West of the Midwest Chapter 34: Luckiest Gal Alive

It was just before winter vacation began.

On a Sunday. About 7 p.m.

I had just returned from spending the night in Hyuga with Sam.

I was tired, dreading work the next day, and longing for my vacation to begin, when the doorbell rang.

Assuming it was one of my neighbors, or one of their children, I slowly made my way to the door trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t visit or play. When I opened the door, I found a young man there.

Without the normal Japanese formalities and ceremonial language associated with a visit, the young man simply and silently began to enter my front hallway. Assuming he was one of my students (who, in hindsight, would have been a student who had been held behind a few years), I gently put my hand to his chest and bluntly told him I was tired and would see him at school during the week. I then closed the door and returned to re-reading a story I was working on.

A few minutes passed and the doorbell rang again.

With a great sigh, I dragged myself to the door and opened it, once again, to find a young man standing there.

Now, I’m assuming it was the same young man.

The reason I wasn’t – nor will I ever be 100% sure is because, this time, the young man at my door was wearing sunglasses.

He was also wearing a hat.

And a mask.

He didn’t say a word, but was breathing heavily. And it wasn’t because of the three flights of stairs he had just climbed. To my great horror, I looked down to see the intruder had his penis in his hand and was masturbating.

He tried to force his way in.

I attempted to slam the door on his pathetic, little dick.

There was a struggle.

But my adrenaline overpowered the little maggot and I finally managed to push him from my apartment and lock the door. My hands and body were shaking violently as I slumped to the ground.

What the fuck just happened?

I didn’t know what to do.

I didn’t know who to call.

I first tried friends who lived in neighboring towns, but couldn’t reach a soul.

Then I called Junko, who helps me at the Community Center. It was a conversation I NEVER expected to be having with her.

While I waited for Junko (who had called the Shintomi Police, as well as Oki-San and Kuranaga-san) to arrive, I sat in the corner of my apartment.

Weeping.

Trembling.

Angry.

Revolted.

In total disbelief that it had happened.

Again.

Except this time, at a whole new, ugly level.

“What the hell is wrong with men?” I moaned as I rocked back and forth, semi-fetal.

It’s bad enough that I’ve had to be victim to it in the assorted public places I’ve had the misfortune of being in. But hell, I could usually chalk it up to bad timing – being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This, however, was altogether different.

It wasn’t a drunk in a bar.

Or a letch in a crowd.

I didn’t accidentally stumble upon it.

This was at the threshold of my home.

It was with intent.

It was with force.

I began to shudder anew as I thought about what might have happened had I not been able to shut the door between us.

What brings a person to such acts?How does a person learn such behavior?And how will this sickness manifest itself in the future if the young man doesn’t get caught and get help

Is there even help to be had?

“Oh God,” I thought with another severe shudder causing me to heave more sobs, “this friggin’ psycho might be living right next door, or just down the street from one of the little girls in the neighborhood.”

At that thought, I found myself at the toilet moments later.

Vomiting violently.

As I leaned against the back of the bathroom wall wiping the bile from my mouth, I felt an immense anger for not having done more. He might have been wider, but I had the size advantage. I could have easily pushed him down the flight of cement steps just a few feet from my front door. Or at least done some major damage with a powerful kick to his exposed groin.

But all I could do was shut the ugly scene behind the door as quickly as I could.

Now HE was out there.

Junko, the police, and the others arrived on the scene and we went through what happened several times, with Junko translating what was clearly making her very, VERY uncomfortable.

So much so that I was soon questioning just what she was telling the police. Especially after I was informed that the incident wasn’t of a “sexual nature.”

Are you fucking kidding me? A masked man attempts to force his way into my apartment with his dick in his hand and it isn’t being considered a sexual assault?

What fucking century is this?

I was stunned into silence and far too emotionally wrecked to try to argue. So, I sat back and watched as one of the five policemen inspected the area where the struggle took place.

He was looking for fingerprints.

A wave of nausea passed over me again as I watched in horror as the black dust revealed  fingers clenched around my front door.

Finally, after a couple of hours, and at my insistence I would be fine, I sent everyone home and was soon soaking in a hot tub.

Trying to wash away the awful feeling that I had done something to deserve it.

________________

After not sleeping a wink, I found myself at Kaminyuta Junior High the next day hiding from everyone when I wasn’t expected to be in front of a class. Quite frankly, I was on the verge of tears at every moment and simply couldn’t hold a conversation.

I kept looking into the many innocent faces of the 11-15 year old boys I teach and couldn’t help but feel incredibly sad that some of them might turn into the mess that arrived at my door the night before.

I also continue to struggle with the idea that there’s a reason these things keep happening to me.

It can’t be a long and promiscuous sex life. For god’s sake, I was a senior in college before I lost my virginity. And in the years since, trysts have been few and far between.

I’ve never even been comfortable making eye contact with the opposite sex. Especially after the variety of degenerates who have foisted their sickness my way.

Yet this nagging feeling that I somehow deserve every perversion heaped upon me still lurks in the shadows.

Most acutely, this last one.

After all, I haven’t exactly been chaste here. I guess I figured while the going is good…

Nor have I tried to be very covert in my dalliances.

And this is a small town.

Maybe, I keep thinking over and over, I brought this on myself.

But then there’s another voice.

And it’s strong.

It says that that’s a bunch of self-loathing crap.

Deep down inside I know that I didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.

Yet it keeps finding its way to me.And I’m forced to keep asking the same question.

Why?

I know that a couple of weeks on the beaches of Malaysia will help put this incident further to the back of my mind. And, in time, I’ll be able to laugh about it. Like I have all the others.

Maybe not so much laugh, this time, as let go.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 36: Nobody’s Perfect

It has come to my attention that there has been a great deal of Japan-bashing going on back in the United States lately. For shame and hang on… I’m about to get preachy!
Look. I’m not a blind supporter of this country simply because I happen to be living here. I see its faults and I strongly disapprove of certain aspects. I also feel that Japan has a lot more to learn about international cooperation. But then again, I can say the exact same thing about my homeland.
I can only hope that what I’ve been writing to you (and hope you’ve at least been glancing at) for over a year and a half) has taught you a little something about this country and that you are not among those who are blaming Japan for the problems the U.S. is facing. If anyone is to be blamed, how about those who promised change when we elected them to office?
Yet the problem really isn’t only with politicians, but with everyday people, everywhere. Especially people who have never tried to understand something – or someone – with different ideas, values, cultures, expectations, apprehensions, aspirations. Heck, I’ve struggled here often to help people understand a little more about my culture, my lifestyle, our society and our history.
Admittedly, it’s been a long, slow process.
But we’re learning.
Together.
And that’s all that really matters.
Hate breeds hate.
Misapprehension creates conflict.
Ignorance nurtures prejudice.
So no more blame, or name calling.
Enough said. Unless you want to get statistical. In the past few years, Japanese companies have created jobs throughout the States. Nissan, as one example, has provided over 130,000 jobs for American workers in the Midwest alone.
Chew on that, Japan-bashers.
* * *
I mentioned in my last letter that there was a possibility of staying here for a third year. I was offered what, at first, appeared to be a very enticing position. I was to be teaching and more or less running (with Sam) an English School in Hyuga.
The salary seemed too good to be true and I thought of it as a great opportunity to teach English on our terms, without the often strict and unswerving guidelines set down by the Ministry of Education. However, after a great deal of soul-searching and serious thought to my future, I decided that accepting the offer was not in my best interest for a number of reasons; one of the most important of which is that I would be taking on a great deal of responsibility (with very little business experience) for starting a school from scratch. I certainly have learned a great deal about teaching English, but not nearly enough to take on such an enormous challenge.

Another reason for my declining the offer is financial in nature. The salary we were offered seemed fantastic – to begin with – but then we began to figure in expenses that we haven’t had to incur under our contract with the Ministry of Education. Taxes, housing, insurance and a list of various other comforts which would no longer be paid by the Japanese government. A very harsh reality indeed.

The most important reason for my not accepting the job, however, has to be that my heart is not really in teaching English as a second language. If I’m going to set my sights on a career in teaching, I would prefer the subject be literature – not language.

Suddenly, the salary, responsibility and the high expectations began to look more like a burden rather than a boom. I explained all of this to Mr. Maeda (the academy’s financial backer) and although I thought he was going to be very put out, he was, instead, very understanding and even offered help in seeking financial assistance regarding the possibility of studying Japanese literature at a local university.
Sam also decided not to take the position.
What does all of this mean?
Well, I’m still looking elsewhere for other job opportunities. However, my friends, it likely means I’ll be returning to the States in August.
Jobless.
Homeless.
And very near penniless.
Although I’m relieved to have finally made some of the tough decisions, the biggest regret I have is leaving my little town of Shintomi. It physically pains me to think about having to say good-bye to my life, my friends and my family here; that I’ll no longer find comfort in their warmth and compassion; joy in their laughter and their teasing; strength in their instruction and protection that guided me from the moment I set my bags down until now.
It will almost be like losing a beat of my heart.
Over the next few months, I expect times will prove tearful and chaotic, but I plan to make the most of my last moments in Japan.
I think I’ll be heading to China before heading home, but nothing is definite as of yet.
So, I’ll see you all in August.
Until then…
* * *
Side Note: The Shintomi Police caught the depraved young man who tried to force his way into my apartment a couple months ago. I don’t know many details, but I had to sign a document declaring that I believe he must be punished within the full extent of the law. 

Although I should have felt relieved, I didn’t.
I just felt a little nauseous.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 37: The End Is Near

Time and time again, I’ve been meaning to write in this strange, public journal of mine but have, as of late, found myself distracted and disheartened by the thought of leaving Japan; amplified by the fact that I’ve been packing up things I’m planning to ship home by surface mail.

As a result, my apartment is looking rather sad and barren and I’m feeling more than a little forlorn, especially with no job prospects to return to and the hope of going back to school for my Ph.D. dwindling with my bank balance.

I’m still unsure of where I’ll be living, but if I don’t spend the first couple of weeks with my family (most of whom have migrated north to Wisconsin, the Land of Cheese), I’m going to be disowned, disinherited and disemboweled. After this, I’ve decided that my best course of action (if I plan on finding employment that doesn’t require muck boots and a shovel) is to move down to Chicago, move in with my sister, Mia (She doesn’t know this yet… well… she does now.), and hit the pavement.

If anyone you know is looking for an overeducated underachiever, with little direction, less money and lots of debt, I’m your woman!

As for life here in the Land of the Rising Sun, a short time ago, the nation went through its annual shifting of positions. Teachers, salesclerks, office workers, principles, etc., are transferred to new locations, promoted, retired – what have you – and replaced by both new and familiar faces. It’s usually standard for a person to stay in one position for a certain number of years (teachers, for example, normally stay at a school for 5 years) and then are required to go elsewhere.

As a result of this annual shift, my adorable and completely lovable, Hashimoto-sensei retired and was replaced by Shingaki-sensei. I now also have two new teachers at Nyuta and Kaminyuta – both teaching my first grade English classes. One of these teachers can’t speak any English and does her best to avoid me whenever possible. Thank god this was not the case any time during my last two years here because I would have been miserable and terribly frustrated.

I feel so very fortunate that each of my teachers: Yamamoto-sensei, Kubota-sensei, Hashimoto-sensei and Hatakeyama-sensei, have been such wonderful and ever-enthusiastic teaching partners (even if the job itself has been less than perfect). I feel truly blessed to have known and worked beside each of them.

The biggest change during this season of change, however, was the fact that Oki-Hosa, Yoshino-san and Kuranaga-kacho (the three people still at the Board of Education office who had been with me from the very beginning) also moved on to new positions within the Town Hall. When I was informed this was happening, I was (to say the least) taken aback and broke into uncontrollable tears in the middle of my office.

But I could hardly help it.

Not only did this change bring even greater focus to the end of my job and my fast approaching departure, but intensified the emotion of having to say good-bye to three very special members of my strange and ever-amusing Shintomi family. Not having them there at the Board of Education Office everyday has not only proven to be very, very sad, but very awkward. The new people in my office are really very nice, but we don’t – couldn’t – have the same rapport.

Not with the time left and so much water under the bridge.

When hearing the news, I had an inconsolable emotional outburst which was not only witnessed by everyone in the Board of Education Office, but everyone in the adjacent Community Offices, as well as by all of my principals (who happened to be there for a meeting that day). Word of my tear-filled reaction quickly made its way through the Town Hall and, as I soon learned, spread like wildfire through each of my schools, to the Community Center and beyond.

I felt like an utter fool.

My Shintomi family, on the other hand, was overjoyed by the fact that I was so miserable.

As far as school goes, I have my good days and my bad days, like any job. The new first graders are, as always, adorable and give me reason to smile. The other day, after making my first visit to a classroom and introducing myself, I finished my little speech and said my good-bye, to which the entire class replied in loud voices with gigantic smiles, “See you later, Alligator.”

It was too precious.

After class, they all came running up to me to ask what “See you later, Alligator” meant.

I did my best to explain, but focused more on teaching them a little more nonsensical English. Now, if I say to them, “See you later, Alligator,” they reply with exuberance unmatched, “In a while, Crocodile!”

My job here is done.

———————————

At the end of April, Japan celebrated Golden Week, which (as I might have explained in an earlier correspondence) is named for the unusual amount of holidays that fall within a week of one another, such as: Greenery Day, Memorial Day and Children’s’ Day. So, Sam and I took the week off and, watching our yen, decided to stick around Miyazaki and make it a relaxing, healthy holiday.

Honestly!

I went up to Hyuga, rented a bicycle, and for the next week (which gave us perfect weather everyday), we cycled, sunned and swam. Not knowing where we were going or exactly what our plans would be, we simply hopped on our bicycles each morning and took off to remote parts of the region.

These were not very difficult to find.

All we had to do was turn off the one main highway that runs along the coast of Miyazaki Ken and we’d soon find ourselves in the middle of nowhere; where little mountain villages popped up amid the rice fields, beside the ocean, atop a mountain.

Here, the modern monstrosities all too common among the urbanized landscape of Japan were replaced by old wooden houses and barns as quaint and pleasant as the natural environment which surrounds them. Narrow, winding roads led us through forests and fields where the smell of pine and wildflowers reminded us that there are still places that reject the mediocrity of modernity.

Occasionally, we’d stop and sit by a river flowing peacefully through the mountains, or rest on a bridge that offered a commanding view over farms and valleys, cooled and reinvigorated by the ocean breezes.

We explored one of the oldest parts of Hyuga, Mimitsu, where legend has it the very first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, set out to conquer all of Japan. The streets – barely wide enough to fit a small car – were lined with low, wooden houses and stores that although sun-bleached and weatherbeaten, were impeccably kept. If it hadn’t been for small traces of the modern world – such as telephone lines and gas meters – it would have been hard not to believe that our bicycles were, in fact, time machines which had transported us back a century.

We were equally entranced by the various smells and sounds of this tiny port village where the briny ocean breezes blended with the local fish market, and the calls of the gulls chimed in chorus with the chatter of old women on the steps of a shrine.

Each night, exhausted and thoroughly contented, we’d shop for a simple dinner, sit back to watch a classic tear-jerker, and look forward to the next day with childlike anticipation.

All sadness, all negative thoughts, were barred and banished.

——————————

Once again, I have people from all parts of Shintomi deciding that it’s time for me to settle down and get married. All are gravely concerned that I’m rapidly approaching the age considered well past “wedding cake” (a term used to describe an unmarried woman in her mid to late twenties) and that if I don’t want to marry a Japanese man, then they’ll pray to the various Gods that I will find one immediately upon my return to the States.

Gods Help Me!

Speaking of men… (you knew I would have to get back on that subject sooner of later) I had a bit of a run-in with one particularly primordial male the other night when I was out with Greg, Sam and Vance in Miyazaki.

The evening was progressing along quite well, when in transit from one place to the next, Sam was accosted by a fat slob in one of the crowded arcades. He actually came up and pinched her on the butt and proceeded to say lewd things to her.

With steam shooting from her ears and indignation in her trembling voice, she told me what had happened. Well… having had similar and by all standards far worse experiences both here, there and just about every-fucking where, I decided that it was finally time to put my foot down – or as it would prove in a few short moments – elsewhere.

Having enough alcohol and justifiable indignation coursing through me, I turned heel and, ignoring the fact that the ogre looked as if he could very well be a yakuza (Japanese Mafia), I met the fat offender face to face.

I told him that he was very rude to my friend and said that he shouldn’t have done that.

He answered with a lecherous smirk.

I answered with a hand on each of his gargantuan shoulders and a knee to his groin.

He doubled over in pain.

His friends standing nearby dropped their jaws and began to laugh. Passersby stopped in their tracks.

My friends (slowly backing away from the scene) prepared for the worst.

But the big ape was so shocked (and probably even more embarrassed) that I was able to turn from the scene with a dramatic flourish and stomp away without harm. Not a word was spoken until we were safely ensconced in a new establishment.

“Well,” I finally said with nervous laughter, “part of my role here is to promote international understanding… I think at least one person understands Western women a little better, don’t you?”

I have absolutely no regrets for my actions. In fact… it felt kinda good. A little like sweet vindication for all the pervs from my past.

——————————

I’m officially finished with work on July 17th, but plan on hanging around Shintomi for a couple of days to say my good-byes – and spend a little more time with Hiro.

Who the hell is Hiro, you might ask?

He is tall, dark, very handsome, a med student, not married, not engaged, not a thousand miles away, NOT a virgin, not a perv, and really, very charming. I met him when his mother, whom I know from the Community Center, invited me to join in a local celebration a few weeks ago.

The event at which we met seems to revolve around honoring somen noodles. I’m not really sure of the meaning behind the event, but the result is both delectable and delightful. All around the neighborhood, strange contraptions were set up in the streets in front of homes.Large bamboo trunks (which had been sliced in half lengthwise and dried) are propped at about a 30 degree angle and then fresh water is run down them like a culinary luge. From the top of the pole, the, shall we say, noodle bearer, takes a handful of freshly made somen noodles from a large bowl and drops them down the watery channel toward people sitting and chatting around and beside the noodle delivering apparatus.

Armed with hashi and lightening fast reflexes, diners catch bite after bite of these cold, delicate, springy noodles as they shoot down the bamboo pole and then dips them into a bowl of yummy, light, salty, sweet sauce.

Ice cold beers always at the ready.

Smiles as plentiful as the noodles.

And yet another indelible experience that even the years ahead cannot possibly fade.

Simply awesome.

Since this wonderful culinary event, Hiro and I have spent quite a bit of time together and admittedly have big, huge crushes on each other. The loveliest thing about this romance, during these last days in Japan, is that there is a finality to it that has taken all the pressure off either of us to fulfill some pre-conceived notions and fantasies.

It’s just plain sweet.

Without a tinge of sadness or regret.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 38: Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Days

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Unimaginable.

This will be my last piece of correspondence from Japan.

During these past two years – these last 766 days – marriages have been performed.

Children born. Careers have changed.

Loves have been lost. Wars have been fought.

Dreams have become clearer for some. And closer for others.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found my senses heightened by the knowledge of my approaching departure. The sights, sounds and tastes of Japan that have become as familiar to me as my own reflection, are now reborn.

Wrought by experience, intense and profound.

Even the daily walk from my front door to the Town Hall has been re-animated as I try to absorb any and all things I hope to remember about my little town.

The familiar faces of the shopkeepers.

The buckets of fresh lilies at the grocery store checkout that I purchased every week in big bundles. Making my return home at the end of each day sweet and welcoming.

The ever-present street cleaners with their straw hats, white scarves, gloves, boots and brooms, charged with whisking away mess.

Neighbors keeping the gossip vine tended.

Little giggles behind hidden smiles.

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Photo by acfrohna

On this daily walk, I pass the old tailor’s shop where an elderly man sits behind a long, sliding glass door open to the street. Bent over an ancient sewing machine, barefoot and cross-legged, he always works with great care and concentration.

Yet nearly every day I’ve passed him in the past two years, he’s lifted his old, gray head and called through the cloudy glass door, “Konichiwa.”

Smiling and bowing over the handiwork still clutched in his wrinkled, old hands.

We’ve never formally met. But I’ve come to know his friendly, furrowed face well.

In the days he’s not been in his usual place, I’ve felt strangely disappointed – worried even – as if his absence would somehow irrevocably misalign the comfortable rhythm my life has found in Shintomi.

Just a few steps away from the tailor’s is a tatami weaver’s shop where, amid all the rice straw and mats of the workshop, resides an old, gray billy goat who bleats loudly each time I pass.

Such devotion to my comings and goings has never once failed to make me smile.

Off the main street, along a narrow path through thick, green woods, I’ve daily passed the twisted, well-worn steps leading to a small, wooden shrine which looks to be as old as time.

On the days when the ocean breeze blows through the woods, it coaxes the old, tarnished bell, hung above a carved, wooden offering box, to chime softly on its own.

Only once have I dared to cross its threshold.

For fear I might offend its devotees or worse, rouse its deities.

The brief moment I did linger made me wonder.

Should I have more faith?

Up a small hill, through a cluster of low, wooden houses, I see Kizukume River making its ways from the mountains of Miyazaki to the Pacific Ocean.

The days when the river is low, I can look down from the banks and watch a group of boys wading through the water, skipping stones and picking up various forms of life that failed to make it the final few miles.

Occasionally, if the boys catch sight of me, they’ll call me down.

Or run up the bank to show off their finds.

Explaining with great enthusiasm how they happened upon such a small wonder.

I’ll touch the object in their hands and make a face that evokes chuckles all around and after listening very closely to their latest adventure, I might just pick one of them up and spin them around; knowing that in doing so, it will only be a matter of moments before there’s a long line of neighborhood children who want me to make them fly, “Mo ichido!” (“Once more!”)

Down my street, for the past two years, I’ve been almost daily greeted by a dog on a chain (I don’t know his name) who will, without fail, race me from one end of his line to the other.

Leaping over yard obstacles.

And through a part of the bushes he’s trampled to extinction.

Panting and barking and wagging his tail at the end of the trodden trail, he ever-patiently awaits my customary scratch behind his ears.

I’ve never let him down.

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Photo by acfrohna

Just outside my apartment building, there is a small playground where the children of my neighborhood gather. On the days that we meet, they explode with tales of their precious moments. And they ask the very same questions they’ve asked for two years about the strange place from which I come.

Sometimes I’ll make up stories.

And places.

Just to see the looks on their faces.

The boys like to show me how far they can jump, how fast they can run, how high they can swing and how strong they are.

Until I hand them my bulky school bags to carry.

My little playground friend, Miyata-kun, has made me a very special promise. Someday, he swears, we will marry.

At present, he tells me he is 7 years old.

He thinks it best that I return to Japan in 15 years, so he may fulfill his promise.

These familiar faces and places have been witness to my good days.

My bad days.

And my really bad days.

To my stumbles, my forays and follies.

They’ve been an essential part of a very fortunate choice I made two years back.

To try something different.

Never did I expect this place to feel so much like my home.

———————————

Word of my departure has spread throughout the town and people whom I’ve barely spoken to now seem to know my immediate and future plans better than I do. With this in mind, my weekly schedule has been insane due to the overwhelming number of farewell parties being thrown in my honor.

I’ve had a consistent hangover for days.

Now I’m sure many of you might think I have absolutely no self-control, but the fact is that the Japanese custom of keeping glasses full (in addition to my reputation for being able to handle astronomical amounts of alcohol), has resulted in my being plied with beer and Shochyu at every turn.

If I attempt to hold a hand over my glass to avoid another refill, I immediately read the disappointment on the faces of friends and my Shintomi family who want to make the most of my final days.

And I relent.

This is made even more difficult when, as the guest of honor, it would be considered rude if I didn’t accept a refill from every member of the party.

If only I could have been stealth enough to do what I once witnessed Yoshino-san do at a gathering. Having her glass filled, yet again, I watched out of the corner of my eye as she slyly dumped her drink (when all heads were turned) into a nearby potted plant – now deceased.

One particularly shining moment in all this farewell hullaballoo was a dinner I attended at a local establishment I frequented with Yoshino-san. I really wasn’t expecting much more than your typically lovely and delicious fare that evening, so when I was led to the private party room in back and opened the sliding door, I found myself (for the first time in a very long time) left utterly speechless by what I found.

The long table which lay before me was surely the most incredible display of culinary artistry I’d ever seen – and in two years of eating my way across Asia, that says a lot.

The Masta (owner) had turned the table before me into an extraordinary ocean scene. As if a fisherman had just pulled his net in from the water.

He had carved (I’m not even sure that’s the proper word to describe the cutting technique he used.) a large net out of daikon (a large, white, winter radish) and, as if twisting and flailing in one last desperate attempt to free themselves, there were a variety of heads and tails of fish rising through the net.

Middled by sashimi.

Which the Masta knew to be my absolute favorite food.

Carrots were carved into coral.

Marinated seaweed was flowing from shells.

I was overwhelmed by its exquisiteness and found my eyes filling with tears (I’ve been crying a hell of a lot lately), as I slowly made my way around the entire circumference of the table before sitting down, delighted and dumbfounded.

As if this farewell gift wasn’t enough, I was recently presented with a magnificent yukata (a summer kimono), complete with a beginner’s obi (pre-folded and formed into a lovely bow the color of goldenrod), geta and tabi. It is, without doubt, the loveliest and certainly the most special piece of clothing I have ever – or will ever – have. It was hand sewn by a lovely woman, Michiko Sei, the mother of one of my most passionate students of English.

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Photo by acfrohna

The yukata is made of a light cotton fabric. It has the deepest of blues as its background and drips with swathes of aqua blue which looks like rain pouring over the large pink camellias with their pale yellow centers in full bloom.

On the inside collar, the date (July 10, 1992), my name, and the name of the lovely woman who made this treasure is carefully embroidered, so that even as the years pass, the future generations I hope and help to create, will know of this very extraordinary time in my life.

I honestly don’t know what I did to deserve such a very precious thing, but I will be forever grateful for the lovely people of Shintomi who have not only been extremely kind, but exceptionally generous.

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Photo by acfrohna

The other day, I had my last class at Nyuta Junior High. After class, as I was heading to the teachers’ room, a group of boys approached me and we began our usual session of ribbing each other. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded hundreds of my students – all of whom were trying to have one last chance to talk with me.

Someone asked me to sign their notebook. This began an outpouring of requests.

For the next half hour, I was signing books, notebooks, pencil cases, mats, hands, and every variety of school paraphernalia one could imagine.

Several girls also wanted a token to remember me by. They asked if they could have one of my earrings, but being rather expensive, I had to say no. They surveyed me from head to toe, trying to think of something they could take. We finally settled on some tiny locks of hair.

Probably not the best idea.

When they showed the strands to their friends, I was bombarded with similar requests.

I promised, instead, I’d stop by school next week with some mementoes which didn’t involve my going bald.

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Photo by acfrohna

Some of my students are having a rather hard time coming to terms with why I have chosen to “abandon” them. I’m continually being asked why I’m going back to the United States and why I don’t want to stay in Japan forever.

I’ve tried to make them understand, but I’m not sure I’ve been very successful.

Part of this has to be because I’m often menaced by the notion that I’ve made the wrong decision – even though, just below the surface, I know that staying is not an option. I know I need to step beyond my cozy, little job in Shintomi before the pleasant, but un-stimulating duties required of me become nothing but drudgery.

And me a whiny, nagging drudge.

That’s not how I want to remember my time here.

I also know the disquiet I feel is simply masked sadness knowing so many unavoidable, final good-byes lie ahead.

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Photo by acfrohna

I’ve told my students about the new teacher who will replace me. A girl from New Zealand, but they don’t seem to care.

I’m sure things will change the first moment this new face steps into their classrooms.  Although I have to admit that I like the idea of being considered irreplaceable and have recently found myself a little more than resentful at the thought of someone taking my place in the hearts of my students and friends.

In my town.

In my apartment.

Nevertheless, as they say here, “Shikata ga nai.”

It can’t be helped. Besides, the town is thrilled that they’re getting another AET, as they should be. To have been approved for a fourth year in a row is unusual, especially for such a small town. But because of the great reports they’ve received about my time here and Shelley’s (the AET here before me), they’ve been given another year in the program.

That makes me truly proud and very happy for them.

I was asked to prepare a good-bye speech (in Japanese) which I’m to present to the entire staff of the Shintomi Town Hall. Even though I should be used to this after two years filled with similar requests, I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold it together. Not only because of nerves, mind you, but raw, unconstrained emotions which have me blubbering round the clock lately.

The following is the speech I have planned:

When I was first told I’d be living in Shintomi-cho, I tried to locate the town in my atlas. According to the map, it didn’t exist. Yet I didn’t panic because I’ve always found that the smallest places in this world often present the biggest adventures.

When I arrived here two years ago, I certainly expected things to be different. But to be honest, EVERYTHING here was far more strange and curious than anywhere I’d ever been before. This was intensified by the fact that I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese and I knew very little about your culture, other than what I’d read in anticipation of my new job.

From the beginning, however, it’s been my desire to learn about Japan.

Not just as a witness to it, but a participant in it. For I believe that our eyes cannot teach us what our hearts never feel.

My heart was happy to discover the common bond we have to co-exist peacefully and our willingness to acknowledge – and accept – our differences, whether cultural or spiritual, economic or political.

There is a great deal we can learn from each other.

And so much at stake if we don’t.

And even though there have been days that I’ve been disappointed and frustrated by the people (both Japanese and foreign) who have refused to learn anything from one another, I have also experienced the great joy that comes from understanding that our differences can also be our greatest assets in becoming better people.

My Shintomi Family and the many friends I’ve made here have been kind enough to make my two years in Japan a shared adventure.

A shared learning experience. A time in my life that I will always be very, very proud of.

I want to thank all of you for this unforgettable, unpredictable, extraordinary adventure.

You will ever be a part of my heart.

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With the few remaining days left, I plan to make the most of it by annoying various friends in the Town Hall while they attempt to work, playing games with my students at lunch, joining in treasure hunts on the beach and fighting the urge to offer a teary farewell – possibly even a hug – to ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE I see on my way through town.

My seven hundred and sixty-six days here have been an incredible experience and will always be one of the most important times in my life.

I have become a better person for it.

To a small degree, I have experienced the prejudices of being a racial minority and have found it both infuriating and discouraging, enlightening and character-building. At the same time, I’ve greedily indulged in the special attention and privileges I was given for this very same reason.

I have seen ancient ceremonies on chilly mountain tops and participated in local traditions down the hot streets of summer.

I have learned much from the young and old I have befriended and hope that I have left nothing but fond memories in my wake.

Leaving my little town of Shintomi will be the most heart-breaking thing I’ve ever had to do.

My love to you all… it’s off to Beijing, then home… see you in August.

Just West of the Midwest: Epilogue

Sam stayed for two more years teaching English after I, as she put it, “cruelly abandoned” her. During this time, she and Jeff (Remember our friendly neighborhood Canadians?) got married.

Sam soon got pregnant and the newlyweds decided to return to Jeff’s homeland for a while. In Canada, they had their first child, Hannah. Sam and her new family lived in Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, for two years, where she taught ESL (English as a Second Language) part-time at a community college and where Jeff worked as a tour guide for Japanese tourists.

In 1997, Sam and Jeff decided to return to Japan, this time to Hiroshima and then, to Okayama where they taught for 7 years at a private girls’ junior high/high school. In 1998, they had their second daughter, Emily. Both girls were educated in the Japanese public school system until they decided to return to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Sam has continued teaching: first ESL, then high school, and now Kindergarten, at the only public elementary school in BC to teach Japanese as a second language. Jeff and Sam now own and operate a foreign language academy.

After keeping in touch over the years and finally reuniting after 20, Sam and I remain great friends who still continue to make each other laugh.

A lot.

I also reunited recently with Greg, our other fine Canadian friend, who also lives in Vancouver. He came to visit my family and I in Prescott and I’m pleased to report that we had an awesome visit which I hope will be repeated before another two decades pass.

So wonderful to see such heart behind old friendships.

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As for me, the years following my time in Japan proved less fruitful than Sam’s. I returned to Chicago where for the first year I, yet again, lived and struggled to make ends meet alongside my sister, Mia.

I managed to find yet another underpaid, dead-end job managing a photographer’s studio and the occasional gigs substitute teaching and freelance writing, until an ad in the newspaper prompted me to apply for a position in Italy, as a nanny.

Desperate to be abroad again, thinking it would be inspirational for fulfilling my (then) dream of writing children’s stories, I donned my best Mary Poppins garb (carpetbag and all) and talked my way into a job caring for a handful-of-a-seven-year-old boy and a sweet-tempered, round-faced two year old girl and (unbeknownst to me prior to my arrival) living the life of a cloistered nun in a once beautiful, ancient, multi-partitioned, family villa on the top of a mountain overlooking Lake Como in northern Italy.

Talk about your opposite ends of the spectrum.

This lasted just under a year until I resigned (both parties being quite happy about the decision) and returned to Chicago where, once again, I struggled to make a living and a life for myself, returning to old employers and old jobs which, however grateful I was for the opportunity, would lead me absolutely nowhere.

In 1994, having had enough of big city lights, butting heads with my sister, and living in the midst of some truly terrible neighborhoods, I headed north to join my parents and some siblings already living in Wisconsin. Here, I found an apartment, a job at a small newspaper and, eventually, my husband – and best friend, Kurt.

For a few years, I regularly corresponded with a couple of my friends and a few of my best students from Japan, but as the language began to fade from my memory from disuse and their letters became far more complicated, I regrettably stopped trying to respond.

For many years, I corresponded with Tom, the Australian sailor I had met in Malaysia. It was always wonderful to hear about where his sailing adventures had taken him of late, even though each letter seemed tinged with a profound sense of sadness and loneliness. Even more sad was when, after telling him of my impending marriage, Tom decided not to write any further. Saddest of all, however, was when fact-checking for this book, I learned that Tom had passed away a few years back.

During my twelve years in Wisconsin, while raising my two daughters, Eva and Sophia, I honed my craft as the master storyteller you see before you, working as a writer and editor for local and regional newspapers and magazines and writing four remarkably fascinating Wisconsin history books.

Moving to Prescott, Arizona in 2010 and finding myself unemployed and steaming headfirst into middle age, I knew it was time to tell my own tales.

Honestly, I had as much fun writing this as I did living it.

Well… almost.

And when my daughters read these pages, it’s my sincere hope they’ll still listen to my advice about life.

Most definitely NOT do exactly as I did.

Strive to do their own thing.

Have their own remarkable adventures.

And ALWAYS find good friends to both live and share them with.

The Ant and Other Farm Stories: Daybreak; illustrated by Jodi Maas

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Illustrations by Jodi Maas

 

As slowly and deliberately as the first, great yawn of the morning, life around Cunningham Farm wakes and stretches toward the new day.

An early spring storm blew across the land during the night, blowing things this way and that, bringing down new leaves and old branches.

The crisp, moist air smells sweet (almost good enough to eat) as a million rising suns reflect in a million clinging raindrops, making everything glisten and gleam.

Warm breaths rise from the barnyard and linger briefly in the cold, damp dawn as smoke begins to drift from the kitchen chimney and another day on the little farm begins for all – for both the big and the very, very small.

The Ant and Other Farm Stories: The Ant that Lives on Lauren’s Creek, illustrated by Jodi Maas

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Illustrations by Jodi Maas

There is a spot called Lauren’s Creek
on some land known as Cunningham Farm.
It’s a special place of which I speak
for although it’s quite small, it has charm.

On this creek, there lives an ant
who built his small house on its banks.
And as much as the walls made of mud tend to slant –
for his home, he gives plenty of thanks.

His name to human ears might appear
to make little sense whatsoever,
but if you read on, you will soon learn
of a practice that’s really quite clever.

For not all living creatures, you see,
have names like you and I.
They do not begin with an “s”, “a”, or “g”
and it’s not ours to always ask why.

Instead many animals use different sounds
to make their names known to their sort;
be it “baaahs” of the sheep, “woofs” of the hounds,
as well as the pigs that go “snort!”

Now as to the name of the ant mentioned here,
who presently lies fast asleep,
he’s known by all antfolk who live far and near
as the wise and most neighborly “Eeep.”

All cozy and warm in his house on the creek,
his six legs tucked snug in his bed,
Eeep’s nap is cut short by the start of a leak
that drips a big drop on his head.

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His eyes flutter open and look to the roof
when the water begins to pour down.
It’s then that he hears a distinctly close “WOOF!”
“Blast that dog!” he declares with a frown.

Climbing from bed, now soggy and mired,
Eeep stomps to the door leading out.
“Go away, you big beast, for I’m dreadfully tired!”
he calls in his loudest ant shout.

But the dog, who regrettably doesn’t speak “Ant”
pays no mind to the ant’s plea to “Shoo.”
He just romps down the creek with a wag and a pant,
leaving poor Eeep rather blue.

2. The Ant

”Now I’ll have to rebuild,” he replies with a moan.
“Since that beast came I’ve worked day and night,
I wish that dumb dog would go chew on a bone.
Always ruining my house isn’t right.”

Now the dog, known as Noble, to folk on the farm
really isn’t as bad as Eeep guesses.
For truly his purpose is not to do harm,
but he sometimes creates little messes.

And really, their difference in size is so great,
it’s not fair to give Noble the blame.
Although the ant’s house is in quite a bad state,
it was too small to see – that’s the shame.

But what can Eeep do with a problem so grand?
It’s quite clear that the dog will return.
“I’ve got it,” he cries. “It’s a sheer brilliant plan.
All my bad luck’s now surely to turn.”

So up Eeep climbs, to the banks of the creek
where he toils and struggles and strains.
That obstinate ant works for nearly a week,
until all of his energy drains.

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“My work’s now complete,” the ant says with a smile.
“This time Noble I’ll surely outsmart.
I’ll wait here and watch for that hound to pass by.”
Thus, behind a large mushroom he darts.

Eeep doesn’t wait long for the dog to arrive
for soon out of the bush he comes leaping.
Then into the creek the dog makes a grand dive;
while very nearby Eeep stands peeping.

”Oh please, please, please, let my hard work succeed,”
the ant wishes with all of his might.
“A good night’s rest I terribly need!”
His little heart pounds with such fright.

Then with great joy, Eeep sees what he wishes,
the dread Noble is changing his route.
“Yippee!” cries the ant, “my house has been missed!
No thanks to that big, ugly brute.”

3. Noble

The reason, you see, that the dog is outsmarted
is that now the creek flows left AND right.
Eeep through his labor the water has parted
-securing his home out of sight.

His house now lies left, on the narrower side,
where the water just trickles a trail.
And Noble, preferring his creeks deep and wide,
was sure to go right without fail.

Content that his troubles are finally through –
for at last there is no dog to dread –
now that the creek is divided in two,
with great glee, Eeep heads straight for his bed!

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The Ant and Other Farm Stories: Noble’s Deeds, illustrated by Jodi Maas

3. Noble

Noble, a Labrador black as the night
oversees all life on the farm.
With the sun, he bounds across the land.
With the moon, he makes sure none see harm.

With great pride, he meanders across the old farm
sniffing out every scent to be found.
With a wag of his tail and a bark here and there,
he covers each inch of the ground.

His name is quite apt, as you will see.
For his kindness and courage he’s known.
From the time he was only a wee, little pup,
a goodness he’s gallantly shown.

His coat is as shiny as silver and gold
His tongue is as pink as a rose.
His big, brown eyes watch with great care
all that goes past the tip of his nose.

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Now and again, there’s a rabbit to tease
or a chicken to chase ‘round the barn.
But then there’s a time to be sober and staid
when Noble must guard the old farm.

A few summers back, great trouble arose
when some children were playing with matches.
A bale of hay caught fire in the barn.
And we all know how quickly hay catches.

Now Noble, whose nose is as keen as they come
was the first to smell trouble nearby.
He raced to the barn and saw the great flames
and barked out a loud warning cry.

The children had found their way out of the barn,
but still left were two cows and a horse.
By now the thick smoke billowed out the barn doors
and the flames of the fire raged full force.

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From the field Farmer Jim had run to the scene
and called for all hands that could aid.
He knew that he’d have to go into that barn
if those animals were to be saved.

The smoke was too thick to be able to see
and the farmhands were set to resign,
when into the barn ran the farmer, called Jim
with Noble, his dog, close behind.

With wondrous speed, Noble found the poor beasts
all huddled in fright in one section.
He “Woofed!” and he “Woofed!” as loud as he could,
thus guiding the farmer’s direction.

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All were saved in the end, but the barn was destroyed.
All that’s left now are three walls of stone.
Yet oddly enough, it’s a functional spot
where Noble likes burying bones.

Like the barn, it’s most certain that things come and go
and sometimes the change is alarming.
In fact, on the day little Lauren arrived,
Noble watched his folk buzzing and swarming.

At first, Noble found this small creature a pest
as he sat there and watched her make faces.
But as the seasons gradually passed,
Lauren managed to earn Noble’s graces.

Now anytime little Lauren’s at play,
you’re sure to find Noble around –
giving wet doggy kisses on each rosy cheek
as they run, and they romp, and they bound.

Noble discovered change wasn’t so bad.
It adds more to the life that he tends.
Not only is Lauren a change that he loves,
she’s also his very best friend.

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The Ant and Other Farm Stories: Sweet Lauren, illustrated by Jodi Maas

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Illustrations by Jodi Maas

Lauren was born on a cool autumn’s eve
as the stars made a home in her eyes.
When Lauren cries, the whole farm grieves
and when she laughs, smiles rise.

When Lauren gained faith in her two tiny feet,
all life on the farm stopped to see.
One foot, then the next, she’d step and she’d step.
“Sweet Lauren,” all urged, “come to me!”

Now Lauren well knows every inch of the land.
She explores whenever she’s able.
She knows the farm better than any farmhand
from the edge of the fields to the stable.

She seeks out adventures with Noble close by,
finding castles in old broken shacks.
She closes her eyes and imagines she flies,
swooping down toward the old railroad tracks.

Each day that she heads down this old railroad line,
Lauren finds a new life to befriend.
Just as the time that she heard a great whine
and sensed there was something to tend.

Giving ear to the cries, Lauren finally discovered
a fat cat that was stuck in a hole.
It seems the poor kitty got stuck in the ground
when chasing her lunch – a small mole.

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The cat squiggled and squirmed with all of its might,
thus hoping to squeeze its way out.
But all of its squirming had worsened its plight,
for the cat was quite clearly too stout.

When the stuck cat heard Noble she clawed and she wriggled
and her tail pointed straight in the air.
Then Lauren kneeled down to the poor cat and giggled,
“Don’t worry, fat kitty, I’m here.”

“There-there, little kitty,” Lauren said with a pat,
as she eased her new friend from the ground.
Her sweet, gentle voice soon calmed the poor cat
and a purr was the very next sound.

On this farm, there’s a pond used for fishing,
where the frogs like to croak until morn’.
It’s also a good spot for wishing.
One came true when sweet Lauren was born.

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The Ant and Other Farm Stories: Farmer Jim, illustrated by Jodi Maas

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Farmer Jim’s a good, kind man who rises with the sun.
He works the fields from dawn to dusk, until his work is done.

It’s hard work but he likes it, just like his father had.
You see, he’s known the farming ways since he was just a lad.

He knows his farm is special and so do other folk.
“My magic elves do all the work,” the farmer always jokes.

This magic’s not like others, though, it has no spells or charms.
To Farmer Jim, the magic lives within his two strong arms.

His life is very fortunate, as most around agree.
He thanks his lucky stars and says, “My gosh, I’m glad I’m me.”

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He always greets the morning with “How are you, Today?”
And when the moon returns each night, it hears about his day.

His tractor is his oldest friend that he depends upon.
In turn, the engine never fails to run until they’ve done.

His animals are family – each field a worthy mate.
And when some years don’t fare so well, he smiles, “Next year… just wait.”

It’s in the farmer’s nature to smile and look ahead.
For it’s the best way you can live when all is done and said.

That’s why his wife so loves him and stands right by his side.
There’s naught about this home of theirs in which they don’t take pride.

In turn, the farm yields treasures for the kindness it receives.
For Farmer Jim believes in his land, thus the land, in the farmer, believes.

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The Ant and Other Farm Stories: Garden Kingdom, illustrated by Jodi Maas

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Illustrations by Jodi Maas

In a small patch of garden near the old farmhouse,
Lauren’s mother had some trouble with a troublesome mouse.

The reason for this conflict is as old as seas are deep.
In order for all life to live, all living things must eat.

Now feeling that the garden had enough to go around,
the little mouse saw little harm in eating what it found.

However, Lauren’s mother didn’t feel that this was fair.
It’s not that she is greedy and she doesn’t want to share.

It’s just that she works very hard to make the garden nice.
She also knows the mouse has other food that would suffice.

So, on the day she saw the mouse had gnawed at a potato
and then – as if this wasn’t enough – chewed up a prized tomato.

She stomped her feet and shook her head, “I’m lost without a clue!
How can I stop a mouse from doing what it’s born to do?

But if that naughty, little mouse continues at this rate,
I won’t have any food to put upon my family’s plate!”

Now Lauren, who’d been working in her own small garden patch
said, “Mother, I can help you if it’s Bess you want to catch.

She’s queen of all the field mice for as far as you can see.
It’s best if you just talk to her – invite her here for tea.”

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“I see,” smiled Lauren’s mother, “I must ask this mouse to tea?”
“Let me,” replied her daughter, “We’re as close as friends can be.”

“I’ll leave it up to you then,” smiled her mother as she turned,
“I’m sure she must be very wise with such a title earned.”

So Lauren went to find the Queen to bid the invitation,
while in the house her mother sighed, “That child’s imagination!

Imagine that! Invite a mouse for tea and conversation!…
And not just any mouse,” she laughed, “but one of such high station!”

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All morning Lauren’s mother laughed about her daughter’s plan.
Yet some voice deep inside her said, I wonder if she can?”

She watched as little Lauren set the table for the tea,
clearly wanting everything as perfect as can be.

Her daughter set the table with her finest cups of all –
for it’s not everyday that one has monarchy come call.

At three o’clock that afternoon sweet Lauren came inside.
“Well,” she said, “I’ve done my best – at least I know I tried.”

“I’m sure you did, my darling,” said her mother with a smile,
“You must be quite excited for she’ll be here in a while.”

But Mother, you don’t understand. The Queen has come and gone.
She said that she was sorry, but she couldn’t stay too long.”

“She said she hopes to meet you when she comes again for tea
and promised that from now on, they will let your garden be.

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Queen Bess has made a law for all the field mice on the farm.
They’ll be the cat’s next meal. she vowed, if any more is harmed.

Lauren’s mother hugged her and then whispered in her ear,
“That cat is really far too fat. Those mice have little to fear.”

And just as Queen Bess promise, all the mice stayed far away
and if you ask sweet Lauren’s mom, she’ll shake her head and say,

“Who’s to say that one can’t talk to life both big and small.
It seems that our girl, Lauren, knows the language of them all!”

 

The Ant and Other Farm Stories: Nightfall, illustrated by Jodi Maas

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Night wraps around the land like a great, cozy comforter, as life on and around the farm settles down for another winter’s eve. A gentle snowfall coats the fields and farmhouse with a frosty, white layer – like icing on a cake.

The sound of the wind against the windows and through the trees makes Lauren snuggle further beneath her blankets and cuddle closer to Noble curled contentedly at her side. In the dark of her room, she tries to imagine the shapes of each tiny snowflake and soon dreams of a land with castles made of ice and people made of snow; while Noble dreams of chasing rabbits and diving into snowdrifts.

Somewhere in their sleep, the two friends meet and walk side by side across the farm, making tracks in the snow everywhere they go to say hello to life on old Cunningham Farm.

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The End

Wisconsin Days: March

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Photo by ac frohna

The sun shines brightly through the bedroom window and beckons me to rise even before Eva begins her morning ritual of cooing me awake from the nursery next door. Stretching long and hard and hesitating before throwing the warm comforter aside I gaze out the window at the bright blue sky and bent, barren treetops. It has not been a very harsh winter, nevertheless it’s March and in the Midwest that means winter has already been two months too long.

Delaying the departure from my bed, I try to recall what the first days of spring smell like, instead of the stale odor of a house that hasn’t ushered in the outdoors for many months. Inhaling long and hard, I imagine the sweet smell of a newly mown lawn and the swelling winds just before a summer thunderstorm.

Closing my eyes and, rather than the same leafless branches I have seen since November, I picture the first tiny, bright green leaves about to unfurl all along the branches of the oaks, hickories, and maples in the neighborhood.

I even try to imagine a spring shower dampening my face and the cool moist dirt beneath my fingernails, and just as I am about to take a great, big, imaginary bite out of the freshly picked tomato, I hear my daughter gurgle and murmur and wrestle with her bunny. With a dreamy sigh, I toss back my covers expecting to be hit with a blast of winter cold, but much to my delight the late winter sun has filtered in and settled all around me. Climbing from bed, I make my way to the window and open it, hoping the day outside will be just as kind.

It takes no imagination to hear the enthusiastic morning warbles and cheeps, twitter and tweets of the birds already enjoying this happy hiatus from the cold. With a great big smile and an excited pang in my heart, I clap my hands and scurry to Eva’s room singing, “Spring is coming, Noodle, spring will soon be here. Let’s go outside and greet the day, for spring is very near!”

Rushing through our morning routines and happily neglecting my deadlines, I dress Eva and strap her to my chest, call for the dogs, and hurry outside to welcome the pleasant day. Although the cool winds still instantly summon thoughts of winter, there’s no mistaking a change of season is upon us.

I can feel it in my bones and smell it in the air.

As I wandered from one dormant garden to another, my excitement over the impending season is very powerful – so powerful that I feel as if I concentrate hard enough I can almost will the buds to spring from the earth before my eyes – and even find myself a little disappointed when nothing issues forth upon command.

Yet I know very well that life will soon stir without my urging.

As we slowly make our way over to the vegetable garden, I begin to make a lengthy mental list of all the things I’ll try to grow this summer and all that has to be done to prepare the beds for the coming harvests. I imagine Eva, now bundled up and bound to me, soon crawling across the sweet smelling earth and playing beneath the hot sun, taking her first steps across the dewy grass and chasing the summer-slim barn cats.

My smile grows even wider when I look ahead to the days when my daughter will have her own little garden patch where I will teach her the simple pleasures of digging in the dirt and making something grow.

With Timber and North at our heels, and Eva at my chest, I head across the prairie behind our home. Each time a blast of wind strikes our faces, I hear my daughter suck in the cold air and squeal with delight at being out of doors and out of our snowy asylum.

So on we continue, ignoring the remaining winter’s icy reminders.

Whispering in my daughter’s ear, I speak of spring; of swaying fields and stormy skies, of prairie grass and wild asparagus, of hillsides blanketed with wildflowers and woodlands scattered with secret patches of subtle flora, restrained and fleeting, of puddles of rain and fat, buzzing bees.

We walk and talk and throw sticks for the dogs all morning and in these hours, I, like the earth, stir toward reawakening.