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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A stream of objects and people. Colorfully costumed.
Assembled in ensembles.
Moving en masse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Each kimono, bright and splendid.
Each obi, so masterfully and uniquely tied.
Reading like a family crest of silk, ribbon and embroidery.
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.
From tree to tree, house to house.
Swimming against the currents of wind.
Symbolizing the hope that the children of Japan will be strong.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?