Just West of the Midwest Chapter 5: All in a Day’s Week

Day in and day out, for the last six weeks, upon returning home after a hard day of teaching English to the young minds of rural Japan, there’s an unmistakable twinge in my stomach each time I approach the mailbox, a desperate, glimmer of hope that when I open it-

“Creeeeaaaaak!”

– there will be at least one letter from at least one person who dares call me friend.

Much to my chagrin, I swing the door open and bend down, sweat falls into my already tear-stung eyes and the only thing I find inside is the faint echo of my last visit.

“Damn – damn – damn…”

“No letters – letters – letters…”

And I walk to the stairs of my apartment, sighing and crying.

Crying and sighing.

Look, when we said good-bye in July, I didn’t think it meant, “Talk to you when you get back.”

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This is how I feel each time I approach my mailbox. Student/Teacher storyboard artwork.

The only other thing that has frustrated me as of late is the language barrier. My understanding and ability to speak Japanese has improved, but only slightly. I just have to stop being so inhibited and so worried about saying something truly embarrassing, such as “Show us your package,” as opposed to “A pleasure to meet you, Prime Minister Kaifu.”

I do find, however, that after a few beers I can convince myself that I’m practically fluent and the words (as well as the often intense intonations of the language) come flowing out. My office got quite a kick out of the fact that I responded to a recent comment with: “Eeeehhhhh?” (To say this correctly, the voice should gradually rise several octaves. It’s kind of like the equivalent of our “Huh?” but, quite honestly, far more effective.)

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At the Board of Education office with Akiko-san.

At first I thought that working in an office where no one spoke English was going to be rather difficult, but I’ve discovered it’s to my advantage. Being forced to learn the language is both challenging and a great way to build relationships.Akiko-san, the young lady who sits across from me at the Board of Education, is trying hard to use English – everyone is – while I struggle with my Japanese.

She’s advancing at a much faster pace than me.

Everyone is.

Nevertheless, I try not to get too discouraged and have to be content to learn a few new phrases each day. As it happens, going through my own struggles has made me better understand how I might be able to help my students learn English.

I’ve also been feeling rather lusty lately.

(Wow, where did that come from?)

As in most countries, the male populous of Japan has its share of toothless, pot-bellied, pock-ridden slobs who feel that if they’re going to take a chance on a woman it might as well be me, but man… some of the men here are so dang handsome.

Case in point, I met this incredibly good-looking elementary school teacher at a community volleyball game on Saturday who set my heart – as well as my lower regions – afire.

His name is Tanaka. He’s single, about my height (there is a God), and has a face that would surely launch a thousand sighs from you American women.

We met at a post-volleyball party as Yamamoto-sensei introduced me to each and every individual there. I was shaking hands, bowing, kissing babies and was nearly elected into office, before we got to this delectable, young teacher. The group he was with invited me to sit on the tatami next to him and although I preferred the idea of sitting on top of him, protocol forbid it.

Akiko-san snapped pictures while the hunky teacher and I chatted – or at least tried. He doesn’t speak much English. (Ask me if I cared.) Maybe I’ll send you all a copy of the aforementioned photo after I’ve had the negative blown up life-size. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll have it blown up a little larger than life so that he can be taller than me.

Many at the post-volleyball party departed soon after, including the man I now wished to father my children, so I spent the remainder of the evening eating and drinking and drinking and drinking with my employers, co-teachers and co-workers. Sam and another AET, Ted, arrived in Shintomi at about 6 p.m. only to find they were far behind. It wasn’t long, however, before their plates were piled high and glasses filled.

And kept filled.

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Yamamoto-sensei (raising his glass) at the Community Center volleyball tournament. photo by ac frohna

It’s a Japanese custom never to let a companion’s glass get less than half full and they take this responsibility very seriously.Following the post-volleyball party was, of course, a visit to a local Karaoke Bar. There is NEVER only one event to attend when you go out in Shintomi and, I assume, Japan. In fact, you’re often expected to go to at least two more places before calling it a night. Even then, the men are often on their way to a fourth and fifth place.

While at the karaoke bar, my bosses and co-workers had their first chance to hear Sam sing.

God love her.

The sweet, utterly tone deaf diva.

At one point, a newcomer to the party (oblivious to Sam’s previous, ear-splitting performances that evening) moved to hand Sam the microphone. To my great astonishment, I watched several of my companions – who, as Japanese, seem culturally and morally obligated to urge EVERYONE to sing – jump from their seats to grab the microphone before the lovely, but terribly tortured songbird had the chance, offering excuses on her behalf.

Don’t feel too bad.

Sam continues to perform, unabashedly and unapologetically, every chance she gets.

After a while, Sam, Ted and I splintered off to a different Shintomi establishment where we encountered a wedding party celebrating, and where, by the end of the evening, I attempted to teach a young man in the party a truly conservative version of the Lambada.

I think I made a new best friend.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 6: My Town of Shintomi Board of Education Family

Considering these are the folk I spend most of my time with, I thought it might prove helpful to offer a quick run down of My Town of Shintomi Board of Education Office Family: Kuranaga-kacho (above left) is the office’s section chief, a tiny, little, married man with coke bottle glasses. He is the “Papa-san” of the office. He has a devilish sense of humor and a HUGE heart. He is quick to smile, to test me and to tease me. When he and I spend time together, I’ve noticed his facial expressions vacillate somewhere between unabashed bewilderment and downright delight.

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photo by ac frohna

Oki-Hosa (above right) is the Assistant Section Chief. He is the family’s nerdy, forty-something uncle with a buzz cut, a big, persistent, genuine smile and an almost noiseless laugh – nearly imperceptible without seeing his facial expressions and body movements. Married with children in some of my classes, Oki-Hosa has a penchant for doing everything by the book and has made it clear that as Assistant Section Chief, I am officially HIS responsibility.

In his mid-thirties and married, Hiejima-kakricho (above center) is the Board of Education’s Chief Clerk. He is reserved in his words, his smile and his sense of humor. All of which are alive and well, yet wielded at the most unlikely moments.

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Yoshino-san (above right) is the office Mama-san, with a small but sturdy build, a boyish hairstyle, but a natural, feminine grace. She is single, thoughtful, quick to laugh and quick to scold. She is stern but nurturing and as loyal – and protective – as an old bulldog.

Akiko-san (above right of me) is the youngest in the office. She is single, has a slight frame and what seems to be common among Japanese girls and women, a page boy-style cut. She is sweet and soft-spoken, but has a sly, sisterly wit. She’s been my local tour guide, a kindly tutor in all things Japanese and an excellent friend. I surprise her often, frighten her a little and make her laugh. A lot.

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Tomioka-san (above with me) is Head of the Town Hall’s Computer Department. Even though he is not part of the Board of Education, Tomioka-san is a regular face in our office due to the fact that his office is just down the hall. He is the “cooler”, more laid back uncle, the family’s “black sheep” who shuffles rather than steps and always has a cigarette dangling from his left hand. He thrives on distracting people from their work with a joke, or a story. He always looks like he needs a haircut and would clearly prefer to be somewhere – anywhere – but at work in his office. He never fails to make me laugh.

I was given a load of praise from my bosses this week. They seem quite pleased with my performance thus far, despite the sleeveless top I wore to a recent school function. I’m quite sure my popularity has a little to do with the fact that Shelly, my predecessor, was apparently a very private individual. It seems she didn’t go out very often and, much to everyone’s chagrin, she also didn’t drink.

I do both.

Happily.

Not that that should matter. But if the truth be told, a little alcohol goes a long way to relax people, take down inhibitions and let go of experience-stealing insecurities; and honestly, even though this job is important to me, even more important is that I grab all the experiences I can while I’m here. What better way than to immerse myself in the lives of the people who surround me? So, when they ask me to join them, I do.

Otherwise… what’s the point of leaving your own backyard?

It’s a lovely feeling knowing that I have an entire community looking out for me (not just my office) and although the attention isn’t always easy, it’s never unappreciated. At least not yet.

Even though they feed me and feed me and feed me.

And then worry I might gain weight.

They praise me, encourage me and gently correct me when they feel I’ve gone astray.

They also guide me, direct me and lead me, for fear I might lose my way. If I have to go to the post office, someone accompanies me. If I have to meet an electrician at my apartment, two people tag along. When I had to go to Miyazaki for yet another orientation, Yoshino-san took the train with me, using the excuse she had errands to do in the city.

They do, however, let me go to the bathroom on my own. Ironically, this is where I would most like a female companion due to the fact that men and women share the same bathroom on my floor at the town hall. The women do have stalls, but in order to get to them, one has to pass by the urinals.

Go figure.

Thankfully, a new building – with separate bathrooms – is under construction as we speak.

But I’m truly grateful for the caring guardianship. It’s a far cry from what several of my JET colleagues have been going through. Poor Jeremy (a super lovely fellow from New Zealand), for example, has been having a really bad time with his host town. He and another AET, Janelle, have not only been systematically ignored by their office (hardly having a word spoken to them thus far), but are being given few school visits and are left with little to do each and every day. Add this to the fact that on the very first night of their arrival, the officials in charge dropped the two off at empty apartments, with no futon, no bedding, no furniture and, most certainly, no welcome dinner party.

Jeremy said his heart left for home that very night.

How could you possibly blame him? Very sad. I feel very welcome and wanted here. They make me feel as if we’re all in this together. Which makes me feel as if maybe I’m not that far from home, after all.

All in all, the initial fears I felt since all of this began have slowly melted away. We’re discovering that despite the vast differences in our lives, we come from the same world where people laugh when something’s funny and cry when something’s sad. Where the sun rises in the morning and sets at night.

The only difference for me is that around each corner, at the start of each new day, with the learning of each new word, I’m greeted by a new adventure and filling the void I’ve been feeling in my life for so long.

Not-So-Side Notes:

  • I began classes last week and found my students very noisy, but anxious to listen. Let’s see what happens after the novelty of my first few visits and the excitement of hearing about where I’m from wears off. I’m quickly learning how very important the teacher is to the fabric of the Japanese family. Parents look for guidance and advice from their children’s teachers and welcome regular home visits. Together, they talk about everything from behavioral and familial issues to future goals and expectations. Teachers are highly respected in Japan – revered even – and rewarded with high salaries and excellent benefits.
  • There is an undeniably military feel about the Japanese School system. Not only in how tighty things are run, but even in how things look. Especially with regard to the students.The typical boys’ elementary school uniform is black pants, a white shirt, white tennis shoes and a black Nehru jacket. Even their serviceman-style buzz cut reeks of the armed forces. Girls’ uniforms may vary in color, but the theme is always nautical in nature, complete with sailor tops, pleated skirts, as well as the quintessential Page Boy cuts.
  • Fascinating to me is the fact that all of my students are responsible for cleaning their schools. Each day, the entire student body grabs their assigned mops, buckets, rags, etc., and clean the classrooms, bathrooms, the offices and hallways. They wash blackboards, scrub floors, scour toilets, empty trash. I think it not only offers a sense of pride – ownership – of their school, but it also teaches one to respect the process and all it takes to make things work.
  • There is a strong sense of community, and an even stronger sense of conformity woven into the fabric of Japanese culture.Yet I can see inklings of revolt in the younger generations. Slight and more than slightly tinged with likeness. But change is coming and the desire for individuality, perfectly understandable.
  • I saw a rugby match last weekend. Pant, pant, pant. Grunt, sweat, grunt. (And that was just me watching from the sidelines.) I went to the event with Akiko and, afterward, we chatted with her Rugby friends who invited us to a party. It was at that very moment that Akiko helped me to understand something I read about the Japanese culture before arriving, but was not sure I understood.Their reluctance to say, “No.” I jumped at the party invitation and turning to Akiko, asked if she wanted to go. With a look of absolute terror on her face, she said the word “hai” (or yes), but was shaking her head “NO!”  I was confused. I was stymied. Eventually, I took the international symbol of frantically jerking one’s head left to right, then right to left, and so on, as the stronger of the conflicting responses. Afterward, as we climbed into Akiko’s car, she let out a nervous giggle. Followed by a reeeeeeeally looooong sigh of relief. I knew then I had made the right decision.
  • I went to a Benneltons in Miyazaki and saw lots of cute clothes. Unless I can amputate 30 pounds and several inches from my body, I won’t be buying anything of them.
  • I received word from DePaul University. I passed my comprehensive exams and officially have my Master of Arts in English. And there was much rejoicing.
  • Sam and I decided on either Bangkok, Singapore, or Burma, for our two weeks off during the Christmas break. Wherever we go, we hope to find long, deserted beaches, stores that carry clothes our size and men who know how to follow through on flirtations.
  • I attended a Kendo (Japanese fencing) lesson because I thought I might be interested in learning this ancient art. I quickly learned I would be consistently hit on the head with a bamboo pole. Maybe I’ll try Kyudõ (archery).
  • If anyone cares to send a care package I would love to have a decent sized towel. The ones I find here barely wrap around my head, let alone any other part of my body. Also sparse in these parts: decent toothpaste, effective deodorant, ingredients for pasta sauce, good music, Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” AND, of course, LETTERS!
  • I’m desperately trying to get used to having to constantly remove my street shoes (be it school, office, or someone’s home) for a pair of incredibly unattractive rubber slippers which I regularly launch ahead of me into the path of innocent bystanders.
  • I met a Major based at Nyuta Baru Air Force Base here in Shintomi and he’s invited me to visit. Let’s see… me and hundreds of American Fly-boys. What to do, what to do…
  • Although I don’t have to make a decision until December, I’m thinking I might sign up for another year.
  • I went to the beaches of Kojima with Sam and Ted where we saw wild monkeys. When the tide was out, the three of us walked out to the island where the monkeys live. Beautiful, but slightly stressful knowing our adventure had to be timed with the tides, otherwise we’d be spending the night with our primate pals.The beaches were stunning and almost completely deserted except for a very kind and generous family who shared their picnic and their jet ski.
  • I was recently invited to a chicken farm where I was gifted a dozen freshly laid eggs. The gesture brought a tear to my eyes. Or was it the tons of pungent chicken shit wafting through my nose?
  • How about that crisis in the Middle East?
  • Also heard about Stevie Ray Vaughan… bummer.

Juat West of the Midwest Chapter 7: School Days

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Meeting some of my students at Nyutabaru Air Force Base Air Show. Photo by acfrohna.

With school in full swing, my teachers and I seem to have gotten our routines down. That’s not to say I have the same regimen for each teacher.

Far from it.

In fact, my teachers’ classroom styles are as different as their personalities.

At Tonda Chugakko, the largest and most centrally located of the elementary schools, there is Yamamoto-sensei. If you remember, I met him during the very first moments on Kyushu soil. Yamamoto-sensei seems to be the senior English teacher in the Shintomi School District and he certainly has the most commanding presence, despite his diminutive dimensions.

Probably in his late 50s, Yamamoto-sensei is always well-groomed, always dressed in a white shirt (well worn, but well pressed), tie and slacks. His mastery of the English language is excellent and although his teaching style tends to be a little too formal for my liking (and I’m quite sure his students would agree), he’s well respected and liked – at least by me. Before each class, he goes over what the students are expected to learn that day and how I’ll be participating, which usually entails clarifying pronunciations and taking part in dialogues.

Unfortunately, most of the dialogues do little to detour from the terrible textbooks the students are forced to learn from. However, he’s NEVER ONCE made me feel unwelcome or unwanted.

And he’s quick to smile.

Especially when he sees how the students light up when I enter the classroom.

Hatekeyama-sensei is the other English teacher at Tonda. Probably in her early forties, she has a lovely round face that reflects a rather happy individual.

Full of giggles.

Full of life.

And from what I’ve seen, full of love for and from her students.

When necessary, she can also scare the crap out of misbehaving students (and me for that matter) when her gentle voice and pleasing demeanor turn in a flash to booming and formidable. Thankfully, she’s never had a harsh word for me. In fact, before each class we have together, we sit in the teachers’ room and chat.

And laugh.

A lot.

Not only does Hatekeyama-sensei carefully go over what we’ll be doing in class that day, she also gives me freedom to create my own dialogues, stray from the formal class routine and follows my often unscripted plan with a grace and gaiety that I find delightful and inspiring.

Hashimoto-sensei is the English teacher at Kaminyuta Chugakko, the smallest and most rurally located of my schools. I would have to guess that she is in her sixties  – even though her dyed jet black hair tries to hide it – maybe 4’9″ (on tippy-toes) and very near retirement.

Every day I’m scheduled to participate in her classes, she picks me up at my apartment in her tidy, little, white car. Barely able to see over the steering wheel (and that’s with the use of a pillow), Hashimoto-sensei very slowly and very, very cautiously drives past rice fields and forests to the modest but well-kept elementary school far from town.

I love our little journeys together.

She’s not only very kind and very thoughtful, she is also very accepting of my presence.

Even though she has the worst grasp of English of any of my teachers.

Yet this has never intimidated her – even during our first couple of classes together when nerves and language barriers could have set us on the wrong path.

When she saw that I wasn’t there to judge, expose or condemn her, she gained confidence.

Now, Hashimoto-sensei wears her broken English like a badge of honor.

And with the patience befitting a saint, she helps me with Japanese.

I adore her.

Finally, at Nyuta Chugakko, another very small, humble and rural school I visit, there is Kubota-sensei.

With a face like a rabbit and a head like an egg (and a personality to match) Kubota-sensei is certainly a very, very nice man and has been very kind to me. (He also picks me up on days I’ll be visiting his classes.) It’s just that he seems far more interested in learning about all the eccentricities of the English language rather than in teaching it.

His students are clearly bored out of their minds.

The problem is that even though his English is excellent, he doesn’t know how to convey his love of the language in his lessons; which, like Yamamoto-sensei, never veer from the textbook.

Kubota-sensei does tries to connect with his students through music.

But turning on the CD player so the kids can read the lyrics and sing along to out of date pop tunes, while I sit idly by, doesn’t seem to be a good use of anyone’s time. And when I do take an active role in his classes, it seems to be more as a human tape recorder rather than a classroom assistant.

However unsuccessful or ineffective I might feel in the classroom at times, I’m still confident that my influence on the students of the Shintomi School District will most strongly be felt outside class visits.

Maybe during lunch time. (Each school visit, I’m assigned to eat with the students of a particular class.) Or during recess, when I’m able to wander the hallways, playgrounds and school gardens and join students in a game of ball or hopscotch.

Or during my walk to Tonda Chugakko, the grocery store, the river, or the Town Hall, when I’m often met by a slow-moving, giggling gaggle of smile-hiding girls who stop everything to walk beside me and talk to me.

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My arrival on the scene compels them to use English; while at the same time, they have the opportunity to see me attempt Japanese.

We talk about music.

Mostly Back Street Boys.

And we talk about our lives.

Mostly mine.

Even the intentionally slower pack of bravado-laden boys (who usually follow close behind,) bent on showing off their physical prowess more than their grasp of English, are eager to spend time with me.

And so they, too, try to communicate.

Each sad attempt.

Each silly mistake.

The bond grows stronger.

And that’s what all of this is about, isn’t it?

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 8: If This Is a Day to Celebrate My Birth, Why Do I Feel Like Death?

Before I begin reporting what’s been going on here lately, I have to send a super thanks to Catherine, Caralyn and Audrey for their much appreciated contributions to the “When in Rome – beg for care packages” Fund.

Not only did the contents bring a smile to my face, a sigh to my stomach and a twinge to my heart, but now I can hold my head up high each time I go to work knowing I’ve got my Dick Tracey “Glamora Girl Kit” to make me feel confident about being a real woman.

The first week of my third month in Japan has been so busy that my only plan for the upcoming weekend is to lock myself in my apartment and sleep. If I do have to go out into public, where there is little doubt that I’ll be the object of far too much attention, I plan on donning a very clever disguise so as to go unnoticed by my many fans here in Shintomi.

I plan on disguising myself as an old Jewish jeweler named Saul.

Wish me luck, or should I say, “B’Hatzlacha.”

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My birthday celebration at Kacho’s home during the Harvest Moon Festival.

Last Tuesday night, everyone at the Board of Education office was invited to Kuranaga-Kacho’s to celebrate Shukakutsuki, the Harvest Moon. Japanese legend is that if you look closely enough at the moon during this time of the year, you can see a rabbit mixing a bowl of rice for rice cakes.

His doing so is supposed to ensure a good season of crops.

It was a truly magnificent evening as a cool breeze made its way across the fields of rice and vegetables surrounding the house. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen and high, high, high in the sky sat the blue-white moon.

A bright, solitary eye set there to watch over the evening’s festivities.

We arrived at Kacho’s at dusk and found laid out on the lawn of his lovely home, a feast fit for the Emperor himself: fruits and fish, vegetables and meats, spirits and sake (much of which I’d never seen the likes of before) crowded the long, low table.

As we spent the next few hours indulging in the lavish dinner before us, which was the traditional and exceptionally delicious dish of Sukiyaki, I could sense secretive glances here and there and couldn’t help but wonder what my companions were up to. As their secret smiles became more and more obvious, especially after Kacho disappeared into his house, I guessed that they had planned a little something for my birthday.

They had.

Not only had Kuranaga-kacho’s wife baked me a cake, but she and her nieces (some of my students at Tonda) presented me with two lovely potted plants, which I hope to keep alive for the very first time in my less than stellar experiences with house plants. The folks at the office also chipped in and bought a cassette/cd player for my apartment.

Their continued kindness and generosity really got to me and in the middle of thanking them, I began to cry.

Embarrassed by this sudden outburst of emotions, I looked away from the long table of friends to Yoshino-san, sitting to my left. She, too, was crying.

When our teary eyes met, we both began to laugh and the happy evening was back on track.

And the birthday celebrations didn’t end there.
In fact, they continued on for quite a few days, during which time I was given:

  • lipstick from Yoshino-san and Akiko-san
  • earrings and a scarf from Oki-Hosa’s wife and daughter
  • rice bowls and hashi (chopsticks) from a girl that works in the computer room down the hall (whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t even know)
  • a birthday cake from the kitchen staff at Tonda Junior High
  • pajamas and towels from Sam
  • an ugly doll from one of the Masta’s (owners) at a Karaoke bar we frequent
  • a bottle of wine from Tomioka-san’s wife,
  • a bottle of champagne and roses from Tomioka-san
  • fruits and nuts from Junko-san
  • 27 pinks roses from Toshi and the other fellows who work in the computer room down the hall from my office, whom I’ve gotten to know during cigarette breaks
  • and all the students at Tonda sang me Happy Birthday

What on earth am I going to do when I return to being a nobody back in the States?

Who cares.

And the celebrations didn’t end there. (Even though, in hindsight, they probably should have.)

Samantha came down from Hyuga over the weekend to help continue the celebrations and after a few beers in my apartment, we headed out to a local karaoke bar. Now you might be asking yourself why we seem to be addicted to making asses out of ourselves with microphones, but the sad fact is, that we have no other choice in Shintomi.

It’s either karaoke or nothing.

There are no quiet, corner pubs or dusty ol’ saloons, no cozy wine bars, or lively juke joints – just these dark, windowless, characterless, little sing-a-long spots.

The first one we walked into was nice and peaceful.

Sam and I were enjoying the lack of attention.

Please understand that it’s not overblown egos at work here. The simple fact is that as one of very few female gaijin living in the area, we tend to get noticed.

It also doesn’t hurt that Sam is a tall, beautiful blonde and I’m… well….I’m tall.

However, we soon found the quiet atmosphere and only the two of us to look at, rather unappealing and decided to call it an evening. We were resolutely steering a course for home when we heard strange cat-calls from the third floor of a building just behind us.

At first, Sam and I continued toward my apartment.

Indignant and disapproving.

But, almost simultaneously, we looked to one another, shrugged, and with a “What the hell?” headed up the staircase.

At the top, we found a group of men who had apparently been imbibing for quite some time. It was clearly a celebration of some sort and the focus was a young man who wore a painted-on beard, with a scarf and belt wrapped around his head – sheik style.

We never did find out what that was all about, but we did find ourselves in another Shintomi karaoke bar previously unbeknownst to us. This one, however, was packed to the brim with men.

Hallelujah!

From the moment of entry (maybe I should rephrase that), our glasses were kept filled and we were treated like starlets aboard a Navy destroyer that was on leave for the first time in 12 years.

I also met an older gentleman, a local businessman, who said he’d been wanting to speak with me since my arrival. It seems he’s interested in finding an English teacher for his employees and although I explained I was under contract and kept quite busy with my present job, he urged me to consider something for next year and handed me his card.

Eventually, this large group of men left the establishment, en masse.

Sam and I, however, stayed.

And drank.

A lot.

Which I am now dearly paying for with a headache the size of Godzilla.

And a smoldering stomach which Yoshino-san keeps force-feeding green tea.

Each time the evening’s libations threaten to reappear in a fiery flame of vomit, I  lay my head down on my plastic-coated desktop and curse the day my mother gave me life.

My office wants to me to go out with them again tonight. All I want to do is crawl into the fetal position from which I sprang.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 9: Two Gaijin, One Thief and Seven Police

Sam and I had five days off from school and decided that after doing some chores at our perspective homes, we would meet for a few days of sightseeing around Hyuga.

Despite the fact that typhoon number 22 was making its way across the island.

The first night I arrived in Hyuga, we headed out to find some food and drinks and ended up at an establishment we’ve been to before called Hard-Boiled. (I have no idea why and my guess is those who named it don’t have a clue either.)

The establishment was empty, except for the bartender, Kyoto, who is a teacher at one of Sam’s schools, moonlighting at the bar at night. Kyoto and I had met previously and I have to say he left a good impression on me for having an excellent sense of humor. Sam likes to tease Kyoto about speaking English (which he can manage, but only slightly), but I’m more interested in practicing Japanese and Kyoto proves very patient and supportive.

Comfortably bellied-up to the bar, Sam, Kyoto, and I spent the remainder of the night teaching each other English and Japanese phrases.

Oh yeh… and drinking.

By the time we leave the bar, Sam and I had downed just about every type of concoction Kyoto and the other bartender on duty could conjure and were literally holding each other up as we made our way through the rain and up the hill to Sam’s house.

It’s about 4 a.m.

I don’t know how we managed, but we stayed up talking – at least until the room stopped spinning – and then turned off the lights.

The next day, we dragged ourselves out of bed only to discover that the bad weather had gotten worse and there was little use in making any sightseeing plans. So, we easily fell asleep again until about noon, when we finally decided to dress and head out for some food to sop up the alcohol still churning in our stomachs.

Neither of us could find our wallets.

Being in the sorry state we were in the previous night, we figured we’d either lost them on the way home, or left them at the bar.

Strange though.

I’m sure I took my wallet (which contained 7,000 yen, about $53) out of my pants and set it on the kitchen table at Sam’s after we got home.

Then again, things were a little foggy.

Not overly concerned, we headed to the bank and took out more money.

(By the way, here in Japan, cash is King. We’re even paid in cash.)

And after buying groceries, we headed straight to Hard-Boiled.

NO. Not to drink, but to see if anyone was there.

Not a soul was in sight.

So, we decided to return that night to inquire about our missing wallets.

And stumbled home at 3:30 a.m.

No lectures, please. We’ve heard them all.

When we got home, I went to put the remaining cash I had into a brand new wallet which I chose not to carry that night, thinking there’s NO WAY I’m going to lose another wallet.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In a matter of moments, Sam and I discovered that missing is not only my new wallet, but my camera, her camera and her wallet.

It’s then a faint lightbulb appeared over our alcohol-addled brains.

“We are idiots!” I moaned. “We didn’t lose anything, we’ve been robbed – and not once, but twice!”

This time they got my cash card, my American Express card, and another 15,000 yen ($115.00).

Not knowing where to turn at such an ungodly hour, we returned to Hardboiled and told the owner what happened. Hoping he might have seen some suspicious character follow us out of the bar.

I don’t know.

Maybe somebody wearing a striped shirt and a mask.

He didn’t.

So, the bar owner called the police and reported the crime and we spent the next hour at the police station trying to explain the circumstances. Afterward, we returned home and to bed, only to be woken three hours later by the alarm we set in order to greet the Hyuga police who’d soon be arriving to investigate the scene of the crime.

Once we dragged our sorry asses out of bed, Sam went in search of someone with a good grasp of English; while I waited at Sam’s house, tidying up and trying to get the smell of alcohol and stale cigarettes out of the air.

At about 9 a.m., the police arrived.

And much to our complete and utter dismay, not one, not two, not three, but SEVEN representatives of the Hyuga Police Department invade Sam’s home.

They have cameras.

Notepads.

Fingerprinting kits.

Walkie-talkies.

The works.

And for the next three hours, they proceeded to question us (through our interpreter) about our activities of the last two nights. Needless to say, they’re shocked by our late-night carousing and (although they would be hard-pressed to admit it), more than slightly amused by the haggard, smelly, foreign women before them.

Undoubtedly fostered by the fact that Sam and I are laughing through most of the investigation.

Not that the situation is the least bit amusing.

It’s just that we were running on very little sleep.

Even less food.

And boatloads of booze is still coursing through our systems.

The longer the investigation took, the giddier we became.

Until we were so slap-happy that any question we were asked was followed by fits of uncontrollable laughter – made even worse when Sam and I were required to stand at the various crime scenes, pointing to the spot where the perpetrator had taken the items, while an officer snapped photos.

They told us this is routine.

We laughed again.

They laughed along.

Sam made coffee for everyone and shared some British goodies and souvenirs sent to her in a care package from home and after all that’s required of us had been completed, we sat back and watched the policemen perform their various duties.

A few wandered outside to look for strange footprints.

Another officer attempted to lift fingerprints off the desk where some of our stolen items had been.

Unfortunately, I had to admit to washing the desk earlier that morning in my efforts to tidy up the place before the police came.

This brought the house down.

As the merry investigation progressesd, Sam discovered that also stolen were some earrings and a bracelet. In order for the police to get a better idea of what the items looked like, Sam pulled out a photo album and showed the officers recent pictures, which happened to be of the two of us in our travels.

I watched as half of the Hyuga Police force handed the album from man to man – each of whom spent far more time than necessary skimming through the pictures.

Maybe they liked Sam’s photographic skills.

Maybe we were kind of like a freak show.

Bizarre.

A little grotesque.

Hard to look away.

Maybe they were trying to get a better grasp of just how ingrained our stupidity is.

Whatever the reason, all seven officers finally wrapped things up and depart.

Each with a tiny Union Jack fluttering in their hands.

And Sam and I spent the remainder of the day eating heavily, watching movies and trying to forget the past 48 hours.

Later that afternoon, the phone rang.

It’s one of the policemen from earlier that day who claims he has one last question to ask. This ruse is quickly uncovered when, before the phone call ends, he asked Sam out on a date.

Can you believe it?

She gets a date out of the whole thing, while I’m out 22,000 yen ($170) and left with the frightening knowledge that there are several horrendous photos of me on file – or better yet, posted on the walls of the Hyuga Police Station – none of which will land me a date with anyone but the flasher who just happens to see my picture at the station while being booked for the 29th time.

Now one would think that the story is over, wouldn’t one?

Well then… one would be wrong.

We HAD to and I mean HAD to meet some people out that night.

The entire evening had been planned around us.

So, once again, we return to Hardboiled where I learned that Kyoto has the hots for me. He did not choose to share this bit of news by seductively whispering some sweet nothings in my ear, but announced his amorous intentions to the entire bar with the same subtly a male tiger uses when spraying his intended. (Audrey!)

I guess I’m flattered, but I’d have preferred a little wooing.

Besides that, the remainder of the evening was rather subdued and, believe it or not, Sam and I were home before one a.m.

And relatively sober.

I put my last 3,000 yen in my purse and after talking for a short while, we called it an evening.

Before I passed out – from exhaustion, mind you – I’m sure I heard a noise outside Sam’s house. However, I convinced myself that it was merely an overactive imagination spurred on by the past days’ events.

Wrong.

We woke the next morning to find that we’d been robbed.

Yet again.

Bringing the grand cash total to 25,000 yen.

I’m so very, very glad Sam and I chose to stay in Hyuga in order to save money for our Christmas vacation.

This, of course, led to another police investigation, but one not nearly as mirthful as the last.

The officers investigating this time are humorless and condescending.And clearly think Sam and I are a pair of brainless bimbos who don’t know their right boobs from their left.

Not that I can blame them.

To top it all off, we were called in to Sam’s office where her supervisor sternly lectured us on the fact that we have an image to uphold and that our behavior – although on our own free time – was unacceptable. (Even though that behavior was in the company of many of his other employees behaving the same way, but who are not being lectured. The difference? They’re all men.)

I was never more glad to see my little town and my futon.

But sleep was restless.

I was certain that first thing Monday morning, after hearing all the gory details from Sam’s supervisor, I was going to receive the same lecture from my superiors at the Board of Education.

Yet no lecture followed.

Kacho told me he got the anticipated phone call.

Hosa shook his head disapprovingly, but said nothing.

And then, as they turned back to their work, I can see they’re doing everything they can to hold back their smiles.

Did I tell you that I love my town?

That’s all for now, my friends.

May the sun shine brightly on your days. But not in your eyes, causing you to swerve recklessly into another lane, where you take out a few cement pylons and a brand new BMW, owned by a big man named Luigi, who doesn’t want to call the police.He’d just prefer to break your legs.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 10: Double Dating

It’s rather hard to believe that by the time this letter reaches you, my dear friends, that I will have been here for four months. It’s getting so that I can barely keep track of the time as the days and weeks whiz past with little proof that they even existed.

Except, that is, for the constant memories that amass in my heart and in my mind.

Thank goodness for the occasional photograph which captures one brief moment, one genuine smile, one friendly face, that I hope in the years to come will help to keep my memories of Japan alive.

Recently, I have been giving a considerable amount of time (during most of which I should have been sleeping) to the most important decision I currently face.

To stay or not to stay – that is the question.

In fact, I think I’ve contemplated my future even more than the dark Prince of Denmark.

And, after weighing the pros and cons…

Pros:

  • So far, it’s been a wonderful experience.
  • In two years, my Japanese is bound to improve.
  • I have a lot of time to read and write.
  • I have a world of adventure right at my fingertips.
  • Everyone here wants me to stay.
  • It gives everyone back home a good excuse to save their money and finally plan that trip to Asia.

Cons:

  • I’ll never have sex again.
  • Most people here will still be having conversations with my breasts (eye-level, folks).
  • I’ll never find any clothes my size.
  • This isn’t the most intellectually stimulating job.
  • I miss my friends and family.
  • I’ll never get my family and friends to visit.

… I’ve decided to stay. I know this probably won’t come as a shock to many of you. After all, I was looking for something more long term even before I set foot on Japanese soil. I will, however, be home for a visit at the end of August for my brother, Jim’s wedding.

So, that’s that. If all goes well with my review, I’m here for a while longer, which means there will be plenty more opportunities for all of you to get that inaugural letter out.

Come on kids!

I’m beggin’ ya!

A note.

A postcard.

I’ll take a stamped envelope for God’s sake!

Now… on to what’s been happening here.

On the potential romance front please refer to item one in the “cons” section above. I have not seen Kyoto (Remember the bar-tending teacher in Hyuga?) since his public announcement of his intentions, but I plan on heading up to Hyuga in a couple of weeks.

We’ll see if he’s a man of his publicly-spoken words.

Here in Shintomi, I’ve learned of another dating potential. If you’ll recall the 27 pink roses I received from the Town Hall Computer Boys for my birthday, I recently learned they were actually from one fellow in particular, Toshi, who also bought me the champagne. When Akiko unveiled his not-so-secret-now crush, I told her all that was left were diamonds and I’d be his love slave.

Either the translation missed the mark, or the joke did.

I’m guessing it was the latter of the two.

I decided to share the birthday bubbly with Akiko and a few of the folks from the computer department who we’ve been out with several times in Miyazaki, the capital of the prefecture.(Our first night out, we went to an Italian restaurant – they chose – and I was very amused when I noticed that as the courses began to arrive, all of our Japanese companions watched Sam and I very closely before attempting to use the over-complicated Western cutlery.)

Anyway, we planned an evening at Tomioka-san’s home where we popped the DP and had loads of wonderful food. At the end of the evening, after Akiko took Toshi and Sunada (another computer boy) to the train station, Akiko returned to inform me that, according to Toshi, I was his “Stand by Me.”

I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.

Neither did Akiko.

Whatever the intent, I’m thinking it was meant to be romantic and, so far, it’s the closest thing to an outright flirtation that I’ve gotten from him – or anyone for that matter. I know it seems I have little to complain about with two men in two towns seemingly interested in me, but the fact is if I can’t even get to a date out of either of them.

At this rate, I might as well buckle down for a long, lonely winter.

I shouldn’t complain though.

I did have a date with TWO handsome, young men recently.

There’s only one hitch.

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photo by ac frohna

They are two of my 14 year-old students from Kaminyuta Junior High, Mikiyo and Naotomo, who got up the nerve to ask me if I’d go to the movies with them in Miyazaki last Saturday. When I said yes to their invitation, they were so excited, they ran screaming down the school halls causing a huge commotion.

So nice to finally have that kind of reaction to going out with me mean something positive.

My young gentlemen treated me to burgers and a movie (“Total Recall” with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and tried very hard to use English the entire day (as I did the same with my Japanese). Everywhere we went, they proudly strutted on either side of me down the streets of Miyazaki as if I was Queen of the Universe. The more I drew attention to our trio, the prouder they stuck out their chests and cockadoodle-dooed.

Especially, when they ran across girls from their school.

When they walked me from the train station to the front door of my apartment at the end of the date(s), before saying good-bye, I kissed each of them on the cheek and thanked them for the lovely day out.

Then I left them on the other side of the door.

Slack-jawed and stunned.

Listening from within, I knew they’d recovered from the shock when I heard giggling, followed by feverish footsteps and excited conversation as they leapt down the stairwell (several steps at a time) and headed down the street.

Laughter echoing off the sides of the buildings until they were out of earshot.

If only the Queen of Everything hadn’t woken the following morning with a cold so monumental, a beheading would have been preferable. My office is freaking out and ready to send me to the hospital, but I’ve been quite insistent that this is not necessary. So, instead, they’re shoving gallons of green tea and every Japanese cold remedy they can think of down my throat.

They have a soda over here aptly called Pocari Sweat.

Just imagine what the medicine tastes like.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 11: Strange Sightings, or Hello Kitty, Good-bye Style

The weather is starting to cool, so last week my office bought me something to help me through the chilly nights.

It’s called a “kotatsu.” Translated, this means “foot warmer” and it’s an ingenious invention to help those deprived of an even more ingenious invention – central heating.

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The kotatsu looks just like a standard, low to the ground, Japanese table, but lo and behold, if you look underneath, you’ll find a small space heater. The idea is to place a thin futon onto the tatami mat beneath the table, remove the top, place another comforter over the table frame and then return the top so that you can set food, drinks, books, etc, on it.

You then plug the table in, place your legs snuggly beneath the covers, and “Voila!” You (and your guests) are snug as bugs in a rug (and not the tatami kind which have recently been reported infesting the apartments of other JETs in the region).

As odd as this little device sounds, I would have killed for one of these in my drafty, little coach house in Chicago.

Speaking of oddities here in Japan, let me take this opportunity to talk to you about Pachinko, a tremendously popular pastime here. In fact, there seems to be a Pachinko Parlor in just about every other building in the commercial area of Miyazaki. Even little Shintomi boasts several.

I’ve never been more than a couple of feet inside one of these establishments simply because the deafening noise of bells and balls, combined with the glaring florescent and neon lights is enough to make me run screaming into the night like Dracula at the sight of daylight. However, from what I’ve been told, they’re a type of gambling establishment where rows and rows of people sit like zombies in front of these flashing boards, sticking yen after yen into them and fiddling with some buttons in the hopes that they’ll take home some winnings.

Or at least break even.

Each parlor has some ridiculous Vegas-like name and grotesquely outlandish exterior lighting to match. What would pull someone into these establishments night after night after night is beyond my comprehension, but whatever it is, is highly addictive and, from my sources, has been a scourge on Japanese society.

Since we’re talking about peculiar things about Japan (to be fair, maybe I should say “rural” Japan), let’s talk a little about automobiles. Japanese automobiles (the majority of which are white and about the size of the cardboard boxes you and I used to play in as kids) look quite normal… that is, on the exterior.

Step inside and it’s a different world altogether.

Except for the ever-present air-freshener on the dashboard of EVERYONE’s car, men and women’s autos differ drastically. For some strange reason, the men seem quite adverse to removing the plastic wrap which covers the upholstery of all new cars.

Even if their auto is years off the showroom floor.

One enters the vehicle feeling as if one is entering Aunt Marge’s forbidden living room.

You know the one.

Where everything is covered in plastic: carpeting, lampshades, sofas, chairs – the cat.

Yet you’re still not allowed in there.

I find this almost as amusing as inhaling the mind-altering fumes from the aging factory plastic. Not so amusing… the challenge of climbing in and out of the saran-wrapped upholstery without making unforgivable noises.

The women car owners are a completely different kettle of sushi. They do take the plastic off the upholstery… but only to replace it with fluffy pillows, stuffed animals, curtains (Yes, I said curtains.) and anything else you could possibly imagine  – or not – hanging from the windows and mirrors. To top it off, this gargantuan-headed, animated cat, Hello Kitty, seems the number one design theme among females of all ages here. It’s freakish cartoon image is on everything from pillows to purses, window shades to floor mats; making entering one of these automobiles akin to experiencing a Disney movie.

Directed by John Waters.

Which brings me to the homes I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. Almost inevitably, the exterior gardens of the homes I visit are simple, elegant and serene, as are the traditional Japanese-style rooms. However, walk into what are considered the more Western-styled rooms and it’s like entering the set of the new teen horror flick, “Barbie Goes Mad,” or “Grandma from Hell,” where simplicity and elegance are swallowed up by the ever-present Hello Kitty-themed curtains.

And lace and ruffles for as far as your tear-filled eyes can see.

Another feature which I’ve found particularly odd is the fact that many new homes have separate bathroom facilities for men and women. I guess this does hearken back to the by-gone days of men’s and ladies’ parlors, but to include in the design the correlating stick figures on each door makes one feel as if they’ve entered Denny’s on Hwy. 41 rather than someone’s home.

Which brings me to another culture clash. (I’m on a roll. Don’t stop me now.)

As I told you in a previous letter, and as many of you already know, Japanese tradition requires the removal of shoes upon entering a person’s home. This inarguably makes a good deal of sense when the tatami rooms are often multipurpose – places to eat, sleep and entertain. The kicker is that traveling from room to room with bare or socked feet is a no-no. Instead you’re expected to put on provided slippers – and I’m sorry to say not precious, silky slip-ons (maybe with a little brocade, or perhaps some boa feathers and a slight heel) but slippers which look more like mental ward knock-offs, yet far uglier.

Upon entering someone’s home, you’re required to slip into these crimes-against-foot-fashion and make your way to the tatami mat where, as I said, you are expected to remove them. However, when nature calls (and it inevitably will, due to all the tea or beer you’re being served) and you must leave the tatami room in search of relief, you step back into these unsightly slip-ons and head in an incredibly inelegant, uncoordinated manner (due to the fact that these slippers are “one size fits all”) to the bathroom. Here, you’re expected to trade these lovely slabs of rubber (or plastic) for yet another pair of plug-ugly slippers, placed there specifically for use in the bathroom.

All in all, it seems an overly-complicated process just to prevent a few crumbs and some rogue dust bunnies from invading a room.

If only I had some money to invest in the Japanese slipper industry. I’d be set for life!

I certainly haven’t experienced a culture yet that doesn’t have it’s share of quirkiness, accentuated by tackiness. God Bless America.

Except maybe the Italians. (But that might be my heritage talking.)

These are simply my observations – things that strike me as unusual. Besides, it all evens out in the end. When the tables are turned, my habits and manners are frequently met with looks of complete confusion and curiosity. The other day, for instance, I was buying candles at my local grocers in order to create lighting in my apartment that doesn’t signal planes in for landings.

The lady behind the cash register was clearly puzzled.

She asked me (at least from what I was able to make out between recognizable words and hand gestures) if I was planning on praying a great deal. As I finally gathered from our broken conversation, candles here are used almost exclusively for placing on the small family shrines most people have in their homes. So when I answered no – not even attempting to translate “mood lighting” – I left the cashier behind shaking her head in wonder.

And now for a few other observations about my life here in Japan, which I like to call:

All I Can Say Is…

  • Because Sam and I have become regulars at Hard-Boiled (We haven’t changed our bad habits, just the locks on Sam’s doors.), we’ve decided to establish a drinking club. Mom and Dad would be so proud. We call it the Hard-Boiled Bar Fly Club. Our motto is: “How do we like our eggs? Preferably unfertilized.” (Another proud moment.) Currently, Sam and I are the only members. All I can say is… I’m beginning to think Groucho Marx had it right when he said he’d never want to belong to a club that would have him as a member.
  • There was a visitors’ day at Tonda Chugakko last week. I was team-teaching with Yamamoto-sensei while 30-some visitors looked on. One of those observers happened to be Tanaka-sensei, the cutey I met at the volleyball tournament . I know, I know, it’s hard to keep track. All I can say is… if I ‘d known he was coming I would have worn flats.