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.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 12: Mountain Splendors, Mousy Men and Massive Ego Trips

Last weekend was a three-day holiday due to the Emperor’s Enthronement, so it was decided that me, Sam, Kyoto (the teacher/bartender that supposedly has the hots for me), and several of his friends would head to a festival in the mountains in the northern part of the prefecture.

I spent a very quiet Saturday night in Hyuga with Sam (it’s been known to happen) and early Sunday morning, Kyoto arrived at her doorstep in his Jeep, sans roof and doors.

Things were off to a good start.

About 45 minutes into the trip, we met up with the remainder of our party (which consisted of 4 cars and 8 people) and off we headed to Shiba for the Hietsuki-bushi Festival. The festival is a re-enactment of the love story between a young samurai of the Genji Clan and a Samurai’s beautiful daughter of the Heike Clan – the sworn enemies of the Genji. The epic feud (much like our Romeo and Juliet) between these two families to control Japan during the 12th century is one of the most famous of all the Japanese legends.

After enjoying the brisk but beautiful ride up, we came upon the tiny mountain town. Squeezing into a parking space and then squeezing through the crowded, narrow streets of the old village, we slowly serpentined our way through the masses to the parade route where – for once – my height had me at an advantage for being able to see over most of the crowd.

I began to hear a slow, low drum beat in the distance and anxiously waited for the procession to begin, watching the on-lookers around me as they, in turn, gave Sam and I a good looking-over. Slowly, the pageantry made its way in front of us and I was soon transported back in time, as all signs of the present faded away and my eyes focused solely on the ancient ceremony which strode past.

The soldiers, both young and old, marched by in somber procession clad in armor that clicked like winter branches against an icy wind. From behind them, I heard the steady, slow and mighty steps of mountainous horses as they made their way up the small street lined with hundreds of eager faces. A horse whinnied, which drew my attention toward the handsome and statuesque Samurai astride a massive, DaVinci-like steed.

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photos by ac frohna

Adorned in a rich tapestry of armor, he stood so tall and grand on his mount that he seemed to reach the ashen clouds above. He looked straight ahead, somber, dignified and determined in his role of lover and soldier. His almost perfect, almond-shaped eyes, shaded by thick, feathery lashes drew me into one, long gaze and spurned a desire for him to turn my way. Yet he never shifted his purposeful gaze. I watched he and his companion until they rode out of sight, at which point I turned my attention to the next procession that would prove even more enchanting than the last.

What I assumed to be Ladies in Waiting were next to pass before us. The kimono they wore were of such colors that a rainbow would have wept at the sight of them. Perched upon their heads were large, round headdresses draped in a white fabric that thinly shrouded the upper parts of their bodies, with the exception that through the front of the veiling you could just make out their silken, white complexions and dark, painted lips. I thought nothing could be more beautiful, more divine, until, close behind, I saw four soldiers carrying upon their shoulders the platform which held the Samurai’s love.

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To try to find the words to describe her beauty is almost like trying to capture an autumn day in the palm of your hands. But when she passed my way, and our eyes met for a brief moment, I felt as if I had stared into an ethereal light.

Resplendent.

Perfection.

The slow beating of drums and the low rumbling of horns approaching from behind the beautiful, young lover intensified the already intensely hypnotic scene.

“Now this,” I whispered into the din of the crowd, “is the Japan I’ve been looking for.”

As I looked over the heads to Sam, who stood a few feet away, we both smiled, silently acknowledging how fortunate we were feeling. Even the intrusive attention Sam and I were receiving during the breathtaking procession did little to quell the joy I felt. I figured the sighting of two gaijin was probably a less common occurrence in this tiny, mountain village, than was this splendid festival. So, I simply kept my frustrations at bay, offering a friendly smile and hearty “Hello” to all who wanted to greet us with the one of the two English words they knew.

When the cavalcade disappeared behind the walls of the rickety, old village, Kyoto and I hopped back into the jeep (Sam now rode in one of the other cars, no doubt in order to give Kyoto and I some “alone” time – the manipulative wench.) and led the way further up the mountain, along the narrow, curving roads, passing one pastoral scene after the other. Somewhere along the way, as we edged along the road overlooking the valley far below, I noticed something rather peculiar in front of an old, tumbledown shack teetering on the mountain’s edge. It was a large, medieval-looking cage of rusted metal bars and within it, two immense, hairy beasts. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me and what I actually saw were, perhaps, two very large family dogs But a little further along, I saw a similar scene and turned to Kyoto with such a look of bewilderment that both he and I began to laugh.

Still laughing, Kyoto asked me if I knew what “inoshishi” was.

Responding with an even greater look of confusion, he pulled over at the next cage and gave me a good look at the objects trapped within. I now know the word for huge, smelly, hairy, black, wild boar. Obviously, these are not house pets, but what appears to be common fare for the mountain folks here.

“Aw, Mom, not wild boar AGAIN!”

Although I cringed at the thought of the creatures’ inevitable demise, , I had to remind myself that the only difference between this and passing a pig farm back home…

Sheer volume.

We drove on for quite some time, getting further and further from civilization.

And caged wild boars.

The further we drove, the more I was enjoying the day, despite the cooling temperatures and lack of protection from the elements. I simply wrapped myself in Kyoto’s jacket and found warmth from his smile.

He really is a very sweet fellow.

But before you “awwwwww” in unison, I’m just not feeling the sparks.

Yes, he’s kind.

Yes, he’s fun – and funny.

Yes he’s single.

And he’s showing me a Japan I would never see on my own.

But I’m just not feeling “it”.

Good thing you’re all thousands of miles away because I’m quite sure that last comment would have summoned hearty slaps from each of you.

But I can’t help it.

If there’s no chemistry, there’s no chemistry.

Before you verbally assault me, however, I’m not giving up altogether. We continue to do more and more things together and I enjoy his company, so let’s just see where that takes us.

Honestly, I was lying in bed last night thinking about all of this and it hit me.

I actually enjoy being single.

I like the freedom.

I like the flirtations.

I like the fact that I’ve made certain choices in my life without having to consider how it will affect another individual.

It’s only the lack of sex that really sucks.

And until someone comes along to change my mind about all of this, there’s not much I – or for that matter, you – can do about it.

So, offering forth my very best raspberry, I salute you!

And with that, on with the story at hand.

The further we headed up the mountain, the narrower and less travelled the roads became until they were barely more than dirt ruts towered over by tall pines and snow-capped peaks. About an hour passed when Kyoto finally pulled over beside a river and with his huge, crooked grin, informed me we had arrived. Crossing through the river (there was no bridge), with the caravan close behind, we began to set up camp on an embankment close to where the river tumbled over a waterfall and continued on its southern course through the mountains.

Firewood was collected, tents were pitched and sleeping gear was stowed. For Sam and I, this consisted of several pastel-colored comforters from Sam’s house.

What can I say, camping gear did not make the short list of “Things to bring to Japan.”

We stuffed the blankets into our tent and tried our best to ignore the obvious… Most likely, we were going to freeze our asses off that night.

Kyoto was suddenly looking more attractive.

Though our camping gear was sparse, our fellow campers accoutrements made up for it. At first, I thought they’d overdone it by bringing practically an entire kitchen and three-quarters of their living room, but I had to admit that all of these luxuries added to our enjoyment of the evening. After settling in, the women (of course) began food preparation and although Sam and I offered repeatedly, they politely refused our assistance. I didn’t know whether to be indebted or indignant, but after sitting next to the fire with a blanket wrapped around me and a beer in my hand, I quickly chose the former and spent the remainder of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and stargazing.

I did, in fact, freeze my ass off, but managed to wake the next morning with a surprisingly sunny disposition. Especially considering there were several points during the evening when I couldn’t decide whether to cry – as I shivered uncontrollably through the various stages of Hypothermia – or simply skip all the stages of freezing to death and slip into a sleepy coma.

After a leisurely breakfast (which Sam and I, once again, had absolutely nothing to do with) we packed up our gear, cleaned up our mess and headed further north through the mountains.

The scenery was extraordinary.

The autumn colors were at their peak and being in the jeep made me feel as if I had plummeted into a pile of leaves. It’s hard to compare the fall colors here to those I grew up with on the shores north of Chicago, except to say that the autumn of my upbringing bellows and blazes and brags of its fleeting beauty; while here, on the island of Kyushu, autumn floats in with a whisper.

Subdued.

Serene.

All along the gravel road which took us further and further into the forest, waterfalls cascaded down the mountainside. As we passed nearby in our open vehicle, I could feel the icy mist against my wind-blown cheeks. I felt so alive and so happy to be alive that I was sure an irrepressible squeal of delight would force its way through my throat at any moment.  But startling Kyoto while he maneuvered along the edge of these precarious roads was probably not the best idea, so I suppressed my urge into a smile so unyielding that it made my face hurt.

We stopped and drank from one of the waterfalls. It was sweet and cold and clear. And flooded my mind with wonderful memories of the summers I spent at camp in Colorado.

The higher and higher we climbed, the sharper the air became and the more the autumn colors began to melt away, leaving in their wake forests of naked trees with branches as waxen and sullen as icicles set against a grey, winter sky.The further down the road we travelled, the more I began to understand the significance of the mountainscape, or fukei, which is reflected everywhere (besides those “western-styled” rooms) in Japanese culture.

In traditional clothing.

Earthenware. Art. Music.

Even the quintessential Japanese garden is designed to mirror what is seen in a natural mountain setting.

Once reaching the peak, we pulled to the side of the road and climbed out to have a look at where we had just been and there we stood, smiling and giggling and rubbing the cold out of our hands, until the caravan became anxious to move on.

We continued west through the spectacular countryside of Kumamoto-ken until we reached Naidai Jinkyo, an enormous red bridge that spans over a valley and river. The bright red of the bridge set against the deep greens of the fields and forests below was both dissonant and dynamic, making me feel as if there ever was a man-made object created to worship and respect the scenery it intrudes, this was it.

We bought some roasted corn from a vendor set up nearby and strolled to the center of the bridge where we gazed down below at the tiny village and geometrically aligned rice fields. From where we stood high above the rolling terrain, the sleepy countryside looked like the coolest model train set ever. Not wishing to miss a single perspective, I leaned over the edge of the bridge until my head began to spin and a brisk gust of wind set me right again.

As we wove our way back home, Kyoto asked me if I wanted to join him for a dance festival in Nishimura the following week and without a moment’s hesitation, I said yes. The festival is known as “Yokagura” or God’s Banquet. Beginning in November, the festival gives thanks for a good harvest and offers prayers for next year’s harvest. It’s a celebration during which people gather weekly at different homes (or public stages) called Kagura Yado. There, participants drink sake, sing and watch dancers perform the “Kagura”, ancient theatrical dances which, Kyoto tells me, tell tales of Gods and Goddesses and the creation of Japan.

The dances – and the celebration – last all night long.

I can hardly wait.

All I Can Say Is…<

  • The other day, as I was returning home after school, a little girl was walking just ahead of me after having purchased candy from the local grocer. Eager to bite into her sweet treat, she tore off the wrapper and threw it on the ground. I didn’t mean to startle her, but I’ve never been tolerant of littering. So, I picked up the wrapper, tapped her on the shoulder and explained in my broken Japanese that what she did was not good and would she please throw the paper in the garbage. I then continued on my way, looking back only once to see her still standing there –  wrapper in hand – as chocolate dribbled from the side of her mouth, desperately looking left and right for somewhere to deposit her trash. All I can say is… although she probably only understood half of what I was saying, I think I made an impact on her. I’m just not sure how much the environment will benefit from my scaring the crap out of a little girl.
  • Something happened at the office the other day which gave me hope that I was making some progress with my Japanese. Tomioka-san came into the office and noticed that I was wearing my Greek sailor’s cap in my usual manner – in reverse. He commented that my hat was on backward. Without hesitation, I corrected him – in Japanese – saying, “Actually, my head is on backwards.” The look of surprise on his face (and those who overheard our conversation) was absolutely priceless. Suddenly the entire office was laughing. All I can say is… for the first time since I arrived, I feel as if there’s a chance of hurdling myself over the language barrier.
  • Sam has been dating this guy in Hyuga and after they’d been out one night, he walked her home. When they got to the door, she thought she’d help him in his assumedly romantic endeavors by suggesting he give her a goodnight kiss on HER CHEEK. His response was simple and direct. He croaked, “SHY BOY!” and ran screaming into the security and dark of the night. Sam sat on her stoop for moments afterward trying to make some sense of it all. She then calmly picked herself up, walked into her house, stuck her head in a pillow and screamed. Combine this with the fact that I spent an entire weekend with Kyoto and he never even tried to hold my hand. All I can say is… there may be a lot of roosters around our proverbial hen houses here, but all they do is “Cock-a-doodle-don’t!”
  • As for things back in Shintomi… the other day, I got on my bicycle and went to Tonda Beach for the first time since my arrival. The beach is very close to my apartment and quite lovely, except for all the litter. It inspired me to talk to the Board of Education about arranging a clean-up day with my students and trying to get some trash cans, trash bags and t-shirts donated from local businesses for the event. All I can say is… if that little girl with the chocolate bar has spread the story of her scary encounter with me, I should at least be able to intimidate of few children to participate in the event.
  • I had my first visit to an elementary school this week. I visited Kaminyuta Shogakko and the entire school was led into the gymnasium to greet me. Two students welcomed me with speeches in English and I introduced myself in Japanese. I was then serenaded by all the students and was invited to play Dodge Ball during lunch break. During the course of the game, I was barely allowed to move my hands – or body – into action, as at least four children on either side of me held onto my arms, dragging me from one end of the playing field to the next, screaming, “Anne-san, Anne-san, Abunai! Abunai!” (Watch out!) I felt like a human wishbone. I loved every second. All I can say is… the stir my visit caused was no less exciting than a child’s first encounter with Santa Claus (and considering my recent weight gain, the physical similarities were eerie, to say the least).
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  • During the game, one little girl did not move from my side. Her teacher explained that even though my little companion did not like the game in the least, she was willing to risk being hit by the ball for a chance to be near me. And if this wasn’t enough, after lunch, I was presented with an armful of gifts the children had made in honor of my visit. There were beautiful origami figures, a paper necklace, paper dolls, an array of pictures illustrating famous Japanese cartoon characters, and even portraits of me. I was also bombarded with questions – one of the most popular being what kind of music I like. Sadly, the answers, Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra, and The Beatles left my tiny interviewers with lost expressions. As far as their knowledge of Western music goes, it’s either Michael – or Janet – Jackson, Madonna, New Kids on the Block – or nothing. All I can say is… music will NOT be our common ground for promoting international understanding.
  • As we drove away from school that day, many of the children ran beside the car, calling out my name and yelling good-bye, and for days, the thought of my visit has brought a huge smile to my face and a pang in my heart. All I can say is…. talk about your ego trip.
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Just West of the Midwest Chapter 13: A Very Short Story Loosely Based on the Truth

With a book that held no interest sitting open in her lap, she sat on the train bound for Shintomi-cho, quietly taking in the faces of the passengers surrounding her.

The conflicting smells of bento [box lunches] and local chicken farms filled the air, creating vastly different sensations that ranged from cravings to queasiness.

The idle train, which had been stopped for quite some time at Kawaminami Station waiting for a freighter to pass, sporadically shuddered and rattled. The taunting motion made her more and more anxious to be moving.

It had been a long and exhausting weekend and the only exercise her mind would allow was staring out the window at the Japanese countryside with the same glazed intensity of a mannequin in a store window.

Acutely focused.

Seeing nothing.

Until, from the murky depths of her gaze, she saw something strange in the woods just fifty feet from the train’s window. At first, all reason told her that what she saw was simply a pile of garbage. After all, just a short while ago, as the train rattled down the tracks toward home, she had mistaken ugly, metal silos for primitive grass shacks, attributing the error to her tired eyes and all but drained mental faculty.

Still… she stared at the object beneath the tree for quite some time.

She wiped her glasses.

Then looked again.

There, lying against an old, gnarly tree was an old man, dressed in the traditional, ancient attire of a Japanese farmer, sleeping.

His face was blackened and worn from the years of working all day in the fields. His rough, bony hands held tightly to a walking stick, as knobbly as the tree itself.

Squinting in an attempt to refocus, she waited for the scene to change.

Or, for the old man’s eyes to blink, his nose to twitch, his body to jerk – even slightly – in order to give life to this strange vision.

Or was it an illusion?

But there he slept.

Motionless.

Turning her attention back to the truth of the train car, where she hoped her mind would find a tangible distraction, she found nothing and no one which held the same interest than what she was sure she was imagining on the other side of the window.

She turned back to the object beneath the tree, expecting to see her ancient farmer replaced by a tarp or some fallen branches.

She shuddered as she focused again on the old man as he slept.

“This can’t be,” she laughed quietly and whispered to no one, becoming more and more uneasy at the sight of it.

Sliding to the edge of her seat, she looked around the train car for a friendly face who would lay this apparition to waste, but hesitated.

“Exactly what would I say?” she thought to herself. “Excuse me, but do you see that ghost beneath the tree?”

So, she remained silent and turned, once again, toward the window, intent on dispelling the strange manifestation once and forever.

Just as she turned, the train began to pull away.

Her heart began to beat faster, as she pressed her nose against the pane. She watched her one last chance to dispel the vivid vision fade into the distance.

The old farmer licked his lips and rubbed his tired eyes.

He stretched, long and slow, then rose from the shade of the tree.

As he righted his ragged straw hat and steadied himself with his walking stick, he cocked his head to hear a strange sound.

A steadily accelerating drumbeat.

The old man looked all around for the source of the sound, but it soon faded into the day.

And the day was fading away.

So on he went.

Down the road.

Toward home.

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.