There’s a never-ending cycle of organized social festivals found throughout the year in Japan where I’ve been able to experience this culture in all its splendor, ceremony and sameness. The festivals usually involve synchronized dancing, a copious amount of drinking and eating, and the generally happy gathering of a remarkably large and similarly dressed extended family.
Somewhere – at some point – at nearly all of these festivals, there’s a parade.
A stream of objects and people. Colorfully costumed.
Assembled in ensembles.
Moving en masse.
From the streets, as an innocent onlooker, it’s a delight to watch the well-oiled cogs of the Japanese community at play.
Great rivers of color and movement.
Drifting and converging.
On January 16th, there’s the national holiday, Seijinshiki (Seijin meaning adult or grown-up), which is a celebration for those reaching the age of twenty.
Towns and villages throughout the country sponsor “Coming of Age” ceremonies. It’s hard not to get lost in the elegance and awkward grace of these young adults.
Especially the young women.
So rich in color and texture that anything or anyone surrounding them dissolves into the background.
Their black, shiny hair curled and twisted with flowers and ribbons.
Their skin, milky white.
And lips, cherry red.
Hidden smiles behind colorful fans.
Or delicate, porcelain hands.
Each kimono, bright and splendid.
Each obi, so masterfully and uniquely tied.
Reading like a family crest of silk, ribbon and embroidery.
On March 3rd, even though the festival originally marked the passage of 5 years for boys, Koimatsuri (Boys Day), now shares the pond with Kodomo-no-Hi (Children’s Day) and Hina-matsuri (Girls’ Festival). During this celebration, brightly colored Koi streamers flutter overhead everywhere.
From tree to tree, house to house.
Swimming against the currents of wind.
Symbolizing the hope that the children of Japan will be strong.
Such as the carp fighting its way up stream.
Where, it is said, lie the great falls.
Where stands a gate.
Beyond which is a dragon’s life for the determined koi.
In first part of April there is the fantastically fragrant Cherry Blossom season (Hanami) during which celebrations to welcome spring take place day and night beneath the blossoming trees.
The other day at work, Kuranaga-kacho told Akiko and I to go.
Honor the blossoms.
So, the two of us drove to Saitobaru Burial Mounds where we lazily strolled down the rows of cherry trees.
Beneath their brief, but intoxicating peak.
Relishing, amid the petals, our temporary release from the office.
After the graduation ceremonies in March, come the entrance ceremonies in April.
During this time, there are also parties to say good-bye to old office mates and hello to new co-workers when transfers, promotions and retirements happen in one broad sweep.
Just as in mid-December, there is a Bonnenkai, or Year End Office party, during which failures, frustrations and disappointments are forgotten and only successes are toasted.
Oddly enough, this notion strikes the same chord as the unspoken day-after-drinking protocol in Japan. Whatever happens the night before, remains in the already-forgotten past by morning.
If not slightly lily-livered.
Especially since this applies mostly to men who seem to imbibe – and misbehave – far more than the women here do.
Even with the festival-filled days of summer past, the Japanese fill the cooling days and typhoon season with athletics, as well as cultural and harvest celebrations, such as the Tsukumatsuri (Festival of the Moon) in September.
Being the Land of the Rising Sun, you’d think they’d worship that big red ball on their flag a bit more. But here in Japan, men and women (especially the women) shun the sun with scarves, hats and parasols.
Sometimes all at once.
Instead, they worship the moon and love spending time celebrating its greatness beneath its fair light.
And no fall – or spring – would be complete in Japan without Ensoku, an athletic festival. Exercise is elemental to the Japanese way of thinking. It’s not only a part of school life, but office and social life.
I remember attending my first Ensoku at Tonda Junior High. The school grounds and surrounding woods were an ocean of sea green, genderless, gym suits milling about or engaged in some planned activity or another.
I swam among them.
Joining a search.
Or a game.
Making them use English.
Struggling with my Japanese.
I always love the time I have outside class with my students. When the eyes of their sensei are no where in sight. And the distance to the front of the classroom has disappeared.
All I Can Say Is…
Yet another birthday has passed and even though I kept things far more subdued than last year, I still managed to celebrate plenty. In addition to flowers, a boatload of handkerchiefs and more booze than is good for me, my office family gave me an unbelievably cool Canon 35mm camera. All I can say is… if they get any more endearing I might consider adopting each and every one of them.
I’m trying to keep up with world events, so I won’t get too out of touch with the outside world. All I can say is… What the hell is going on out there?
Sam and I took a long weekend off and hopped on a ferry to visit one of Japan’s most famous cities, Kyoto.
We boarded a ferry in Hyuga, where for the next 14 hours we would share a large tatami room with the other passengers. By the time we arrived on board, all of our fellow travelers had already claimed their space, grabbed their blankets and their Japanese-style pillows (designed, clearly, by a sadomasochist) and found ways to entertain themselves.
We squeezed out a space on the tatami, settled ourselves in and had a few pleasant conversations with those we’d be sleeping near before the mandatory 10:30 p.m. lights out.
We arrived on the main island of Honshu, in the busy port city of Kobe, Thursday morning and from here took a series of trains, the last being the famed Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, which shot us into Kyoto. Before leaving the station, we made reservations at the Kyoto Century Hotel which we chose not only for its very reasonable rate in a very expensive city, but because it was located near the station and plenty of public transportation for getting around this ancient metropolis.
At 12,000 yen per night, we prepared for a dump, but reasoned that we would be spending very little time there. We paid for our rooms right at the station’s hotel desk. The woman who took our reservations then handed us a map of how to get there and a brochure of our accommodations. Sam glanced at the brochure and with a look of complete surprise on her face, handed it to me.
This must be a mistake, we thought. She must have given us the wrong brochure. We reserved a room at a dump and this place looked like a five star hotel.
“Well,” I warned my friend, “you know what they can do with good lighting and the right camera angle. Besides, these pictures were probably taken years ago.”
A short time later, when we arrived at our destination, I realized that I’d been completely mistaken. We were immediately greeted at the front entrance of the hotel by a handsomely uniformed valet who led us through the very elegant lobby, straight to the shiny reception desk.
We couldn’t believe our luck.
This place was lovely, sophisticated and far beyond our expectations and our current state of dishevelment. We scurried to our pristine and fashionable room, showered off ferry-life and headed out for an afternoon’s adventure.
Within moments of our very first stroll, I was already sorry we had a mere 2.5 days to spend in Kyoto, what was the nation’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868. Our first stop was the To-ji, one of the most famous in all of Japan. Around 796 A.D., Emperor Kammu transferred the capital of Japan from Nara to Kyoto and to honor this move, he built two huge Buddhist temples, To-ji (East Temple) and Saiji (West Temple).
Both temples were destroyed by fire but rebuilt during the Edo Period (1615-1868). Today, To-ji still stands and (at 171 feet high) is one of the tallest wooden towers in Japan. The gardens and ponds surrounding the temple were altogether awesome. A feat in carefully composed asymmetry and meticulous modesty.
Next, we visited the Goju No To, a five story pagoda – the highest in the country. The original pagoda was built in 826 A.D., but due to several fires, the existing structure (an exact replica) was built in 1644. It’s certainly not uncommon to learn that fire has been the cause of so much loss. Even the more “modern” pagoda we stood admiring was made entirely of wood. And not a single nail was used in its construction.
What resonates most deeply for me, however, are not the sights as much as the smells I encountered that afternoon.
A pungent mixture of folklore and tradition.
Ritual and rule.
Which wrapped around me like an old blanket each time I entered one of the historic structures. The incense, forever burning within, curling around and around the delicately carved figures and forms.
Saturating the woods.
Fusing with musty, dusty particles creeping in through the cracks and crevices.
Thick and settled atop the worn surfaces.
The aroma is almost tangible.
One… long… inhale… seems to tell a thousand tales.
Each time I left a building, I’d carry the smells with me as a faint reminder. I’d bury my nose in my clothes repeatedly. Until the profound fragrance faded.
After leaving the grounds of the temple, we wandered around the city, constantly being reminded of how small (and quaint, mind you) Miyazaki is. Where I live in Japan, it’s easy to forget about the remainder of the world. I’ve become accustomed to strange stares by passersby. But Kyoto is truly cosmopolitan.
Our stomachs began to remind us that we hadn’t eaten, so Sam and I pulled out our trusty Fodor’s and decided that what we wanted more than anything was something that wasn’t Japanese. We found a place called “Knuckles” which, according to our guide book, was owned by some ex-patriot New Yorkers who offered honest-to-goodness deli sandwiches. Checking out our rather ambiguous map, we determined the restaurant was in walking distance and started on our way.
In a matter of moments, we were lost.
We stopped in a local establishment, refreshed ourselves with some ale, and asked for directions, which entailed boarding a bus and walking another ten minutes – all for this promising deli menu, which ended up being little more than a disappointing pair of puny, sorry-ass sandwiches that any true New York deli owner would have given the finger.
After paying a bill which surpassed the national debt, we found our way back to the hotel where we climbed into bed and set our alarm for an early start the next morning.
Our first destination the next day was Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. Our goal was to not only see the shrine (built in the early part of the 1600s), but to attend an antique market that would be taking place outside the temple that very weekend.
When we finally arrived at our destination – after being pushed around by an overanxious group of old ladies who had apparently had a heapin’ helpin’ of Geritol that morning – we found the stalls we were looking for, but were disappointed to discover that most offered little more than food and tacky tourist souvenirs.
We bought some roasted corn and figured we’d wander around the market a little more with the hopes of finding something – anything – of interest. However, other than some cool, but useless plastic toys (certainly without the many applications the plastic tiara had bestowed) there was nothing of interest.
Somewhat despondent, we headed into the shrine, roamed from building to building snapping pictures, making funny faces at the little children we caught staring at us, and reading up on the history of the buildings. Quite a complexity of maturity levels, eh?
On our way out, we noticed a side street where a number of stalls were set up and although we had little hope of finding anything of interest, we made our way over and… lo and behold, THERE was the market we had been looking for.
The stalls were filled with marvelous items – both old and new. There was hearty earthenware and delicate china, intricately carved brass and wooden chests and elaborate, hand-painted screens.
Yet what excited Sam and I most were the stalls filled with kimono and obi.
At one of the very first stalls, I found a stunning, white, embroidered wedding kimono (actually, it’s the long coat worn over the kimono) and instantly fell in love with it. Painstakingly hand-stitched down the entire front and back and along each sleeve were flowers and cranes of gold, silver and orange.
I wanted it more than anything I’ve seen since my arrival in Japan.
So beautiful was this coat and in such fine condition that I feared asking its price knowing it was likely well out of my price range, but I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t at least inquired. When the old woman running the stall said 5,000 yen (the equivalent of about $45) I nearly fainted. Unable to contain my excitement, I nearly pounced on the garment.
At which point the old woman decided to jack the price up to 10,000 yen.
I quickly retorted. Surprising her with my Japanese. Reminding her of her first price.
The deal was struck and I was overjoyed with my extraordinarily beautiful garment. Sam, too, purchased a lovely, pure white kimono and we both found a few lovely obi as well. I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to examine our purchases more carefully, but we had more sightseeing to do and an entire day ahead of us. With our treasures in hand and big smiles on our faces, we next visited Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion – one of the most famous sites in all of Japan – as breathtaking as it is renown.
Built in the 1220s as a private residence for Kintsune Saionji, the Golden Pavilion is a three-story structure set at the edge of a pond. The first floor was designed in the architectural Shinden-zukuri, or palace style. The second floor, the Buke-zukuri, was styled as a Samurai house; while the third floor was designed to reflect a Karayo, or Zen Temple. Both the second and third floors are covered with gold leaf and Japanese lacquer.
On a sunny, calm day (like the one we were experiencing) one can see a perfect reflection of the pavilion in the Kyoko-chi, or Mirror Pond. The Kinkau-ji was designed specifically along the lines of Buddhist thinking.
Life should reflect a perfect harmony with nature.
And what a truly splendid, harmonious spot it was. Made even more spectacular by the serenity of the gardens surrounding it. The only regret was the constant influx of unavoidable crowds which made it almost entirely impossible to sit back in peace and enjoy the surroundings as they were meant to be enjoyed. If only I had been born into Japan’s 13th century upperclass.
Also on our list of sites seen that day were Ryoan-ji and Koryu-ji (ji, if you haven’t figured out yet, means castle). Both were certainly resplendent sites to behold, but what I found even more fascinating were the gardens; especially the famed Rock Garden at Ryoan-ji.
This garden simply consists of 15 rocks and white gravel, believed to have been first laid out by a painter/gardener at the end of the 15th century. This garden is considered the embodiment of Zen art. It’s said that each person who visits it sees something entirely different in the rock and gravel formations. It’s up to each individual to determine what that might mean.
What, you might ask, did I see?
Well… that each piece of gravel represented all the people hovering around the temple, making it impossible to keep any train of thought, let alone delve into a deep appreciation of the art of Zen.
As I found my frustration build with the arrival of each new tour group, I managed to discover a peaceful corner of the garden where a washbasin stood. Carved in the stone along the rim is the inscription (translated in a brochure), “I learn only to be contented.”
Choosing to take to heart one of the most important rules of Zen philosophy, I left the crowded temple with a stronger sense of inner peace.
Our final stop was a visit to Koryu-ji where they have a collection of some of the nation’s most priceless statues, including the Miroku Bosatsu, one of the most renown images of Buddah. The delicately carved face of the Miroku Bosatsu is said to perfectly embody inner peace and that gazing upon it can actually help one to heal. It’s exceptionally beautiful and after close examination of the statue, I couldn’t help but feel as if the carving was, indeed, created from a divine image.
Its smile and countenance is both intimidating and beguiling.
Tranquil and composed.
I couldn’t help but feel serene from the sheer study of it.
Our final day in Kyoto began with the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art. All I can really say about our visit is… there isn’t much to say. Except that I felt it was, at best, a representation of modern mediocrity. With greater hope of seeing some inspiring exhibits at the National Museum of Art, we headed that way, but soon found a line blocks long due to a special Matisse exhibit – and we simply couldn’t see wasting our last day standing in a line.
We moved on to Nijo-jo, a 35 room castle built in 1603 by the powerful Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. He erected it after winning a battle against rival forces and unifying Japan.
Nijo Castle epitomizes the timeless refinement and uncomplicated appeal of Japanese design. Each shikiri (sliding partition, a mainstay in Japanese architecture) in every room of the castle was gold-leafed and hand-painted to reflect various scenes of nature. Whether the towering strength of the pine tree which dominates the mountains of Japan, or the gossamer intricacy of the butterfly.
The wood carvings found throughout the castle’s chamber are also some of the largest and most intricate ever made in Japan. So masterfully carved that I couldn’t be sure the craftsmen were not, themselves, divine.
One of my very favorite parts of the castle was the main entrance, known as “Yoru-uguisu”, or the Nightingale. The dark wood floors were especially designed by the ruling Shogun to warn residents of all who entered the castle late at night. More specifically, enemy intruders.
As soon as you step foot onto the boards which run the outer length of the first wing, a warbling sound, similar to that of a Nightingale, sounds, informing guards quartered nearby of trespassers.
It’s undoubtedly the most pleasant alarm system ever designed and does everything to support an atmosphere bent on showing the Tokugawa’s earthly cunning and power, yet at the same time, a deep desire not disturb the beauty and serenity of the nature which surrounds him.
The castle gardens were just beginning to hint of their autumn colors. It was easy to get lost in its well-orchestrated beauty and hard to believe that a buzzing metropolis was just on the other side of its massive walls. So flawless was the scenery that I momentarily found myself feeling painfully awkward and aware of my own imperfections.
Until I remembered.
I learn only to be contented.
Sitting on a bench overlooking the gardens, I closed my eyes and repeated the phrase over and over again in my mind.
I learn only to be contented.
In the silence surrounding me, I finally began to understand the peaceful environs as not simply beauty to be admired, but a perfect reflection of the delicate balance between man and nature.
It was a good day.
My love to all and may this letter find you content to be contented.
I had just returned from spending the night in Hyuga with Sam.
I was tired, dreading work the next day, and longing for my vacation to begin, when the doorbell rang.
Assuming it was one of my neighbors, or one of their children, I slowly made my way to the door trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t visit or play. When I opened the door, I found a young man there.
Without the normal Japanese formalities and ceremonial language associated with a visit, the young man simply and silently began to enter my front hallway. Assuming he was one of my students (who, in hindsight, would have been a student who had been held behind a few years), I gently put my hand to his chest and bluntly told him I was tired and would see him at school during the week. I then closed the door and returned to re-reading a story I was working on.
A few minutes passed and the doorbell rang again.
With a great sigh, I dragged myself to the door and opened it, once again, to find a young man standing there.
Now, I’m assuming it was the same young man.
The reason I wasn’t – nor will I ever be 100% sure is because, this time, the young man at my door was wearing sunglasses.
He was also wearing a hat.
And a mask.
He didn’t say a word, but was breathing heavily. And it wasn’t because of the three flights of stairs he had just climbed. To my great horror, I looked down to see the intruder had his penis in his hand and was masturbating.
He tried to force his way in.
I attempted to slam the door on his pathetic, little dick.
There was a struggle.
But my adrenaline overpowered the little maggot and I finally managed to push him from my apartment and lock the door. My hands and body were shaking violently as I slumped to the ground.
What the fuck just happened?
I didn’t know what to do.
I didn’t know who to call.
I first tried friends who lived in neighboring towns, but couldn’t reach a soul.
Then I called Junko, who helps me at the Community Center. It was a conversation I NEVER expected to be having with her.
While I waited for Junko (who had called the Shintomi Police, as well as Oki-San and Kuranaga-san) to arrive, I sat in the corner of my apartment.
In total disbelief that it had happened.
Except this time, at a whole new, ugly level.
“What the hell is wrong with men?” I moaned as I rocked back and forth, semi-fetal.
It’s bad enough that I’ve had to be victim to it in the assorted public places I’ve had the misfortune of being in. But hell, I could usually chalk it up to bad timing – being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This, however, was altogether different.
It wasn’t a drunk in a bar.
Or a letch in a crowd.
I didn’t accidentally stumble upon it.
This was at the threshold of my home.
It was with intent.
It was with force.
I began to shudder anew as I thought about what might have happened had I not been able to shut the door between us.
What brings a person to such acts?How does a person learn such behavior?And how will this sickness manifest itself in the future if the young man doesn’t get caught and get help
Is there even help to be had?
“Oh God,” I thought with another severe shudder causing me to heave more sobs, “this friggin’ psycho might be living right next door, or just down the street from one of the little girls in the neighborhood.”
At that thought, I found myself at the toilet moments later.
As I leaned against the back of the bathroom wall wiping the bile from my mouth, I felt an immense anger for not having done more. He might have been wider, but I had the size advantage. I could have easily pushed him down the flight of cement steps just a few feet from my front door. Or at least done some major damage with a powerful kick to his exposed groin.
But all I could do was shut the ugly scene behind the door as quickly as I could.
Now HE was out there.
Junko, the police, and the others arrived on the scene and we went through what happened several times, with Junko translating what was clearly making her very, VERY uncomfortable.
So much so that I was soon questioning just what she was telling the police. Especially after I was informed that the incident wasn’t of a “sexual nature.”
Are you fucking kidding me? A masked man attempts to force his way into my apartment with his dick in his hand and it isn’t being considered a sexual assault?
What fucking century is this?
I was stunned into silence and far too emotionally wrecked to try to argue. So, I sat back and watched as one of the five policemen inspected the area where the struggle took place.
He was looking for fingerprints.
A wave of nausea passed over me again as I watched in horror as the black dust revealed fingers clenched around my front door.
Finally, after a couple of hours, and at my insistence I would be fine, I sent everyone home and was soon soaking in a hot tub.
Trying to wash away the awful feeling that I had done something to deserve it.
After not sleeping a wink, I found myself at Kaminyuta Junior High the next day hiding from everyone when I wasn’t expected to be in front of a class. Quite frankly, I was on the verge of tears at every moment and simply couldn’t hold a conversation.
I kept looking into the many innocent faces of the 11-15 year old boys I teach and couldn’t help but feel incredibly sad that some of them might turn into the mess that arrived at my door the night before.
I also continue to struggle with the idea that there’s a reason these things keep happening to me.
It can’t be a long and promiscuous sex life. For god’s sake, I was a senior in college before I lost my virginity. And in the years since, trysts have been few and far between.
I’ve never even been comfortable making eye contact with the opposite sex. Especially after the variety of degenerates who have foisted their sickness my way.
Yet this nagging feeling that I somehow deserve every perversion heaped upon me still lurks in the shadows.
Most acutely, this last one.
After all, I haven’t exactly been chaste here. I guess I figured while the going is good…
Nor have I tried to be very covert in my dalliances.
And this is a small town.
Maybe, I keep thinking over and over, I brought this on myself.
But then there’s another voice.
And it’s strong.
It says that that’s a bunch of self-loathing crap.
Deep down inside I know that I didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.
Yet it keeps finding its way to me.And I’m forced to keep asking the same question.
I know that a couple of weeks on the beaches of Malaysia will help put this incident further to the back of my mind. And, in time, I’ll be able to laugh about it. Like I have all the others.
It has come to my attention that there has been a great deal of Japan-bashing going on back in the United States lately. For shame and hang on… I’m about to get preachy!
Look. I’m not a blind supporter of this country simply because I happen to be living here. I see its faults and I strongly disapprove of certain aspects. I also feel that Japan has a lot more to learn about international cooperation. But then again, I can say the exact same thing about my homeland.
I can only hope that what I’ve been writing to you (and hope you’ve at least been glancing at) for over a year and a half) has taught you a little something about this country and that you are not among those who are blaming Japan for the problems the U.S. is facing. If anyone is to be blamed, how about those who promised change when we elected them to office?
Yet the problem really isn’t only with politicians, but with everyday people, everywhere. Especially people who have never tried to understand something – or someone – with different ideas, values, cultures, expectations, apprehensions, aspirations. Heck, I’ve struggledhere often to help people understand a little more about my culture, my lifestyle, our society and our history.
Admittedly, it’s been a long, slow process.
But we’re learning.
And that’s all that really matters.
Hate breeds hate.
Misapprehension creates conflict.
Ignorance nurtures prejudice.
So no more blame, or name calling.
Enough said. Unless you want to get statistical. In the past few years, Japanese companies have created jobs throughout the States. Nissan, as one example, has provided over 130,000 jobs for American workers in the Midwest alone.
Chew on that, Japan-bashers.
* * *
I mentioned in my last letter that there was a possibility of staying here for a third year. I was offered what, at first, appeared to be a very enticing position. I was to be teaching and more or less running (with Sam) an English School in Hyuga.
The salary seemed too good to be true and I thought of it as a great opportunity to teach English on our terms, without the often strict and unswerving guidelines set down by the Ministry of Education. However, after a great deal of soul-searching and serious thought to my future, I decided that accepting the offer was not in my best interest for a number of reasons; one of the most important of which is that I would be taking on a great deal of responsibility (with very little business experience) for starting a school from scratch. I certainly have learned a great deal about teaching English, but not nearly enough to take on such an enormous challenge.
Another reason for my declining the offer is financial in nature. The salary we were offered seemed fantastic – to begin with – but then we began to figure in expenses that we haven’t had to incur under our contract with the Ministry of Education. Taxes, housing, insurance and a list of various other comforts which would no longer be paid by the Japanese government. A very harsh reality indeed.
The most important reason for my not accepting the job, however, has to be that my heart is not really in teaching English as a second language. If I’m going to set my sights on a career in teaching, I would prefer the subject be literature – not language.
Suddenly, the salary, responsibility and the high expectations began to look more like a burden rather than a boom. I explained all of this to Mr. Maeda (the academy’s financial backer) and although I thought he was going to be very put out, he was, instead, very understanding and even offered help in seeking financial assistance regarding the possibility of studying Japanese literature at a local university.
Sam also decided not to take the position.
What does all of this mean?
Well, I’m still looking elsewhere for other job opportunities. However, my friends, it likely means I’ll be returning to the States in August.
And very near penniless.
Although I’m relieved to have finally made some of the tough decisions, the biggest regret I have is leaving my little town of Shintomi. It physically pains me to think about having to say good-bye to my life, my friends and my family here; that I’ll no longer find comfort in their warmth and compassion; joy in their laughter and their teasing; strength in their instruction and protection that guided me from the moment I set my bags down until now.
It will almost be like losing a beat of my heart.
Over the next few months, I expect times will prove tearful and chaotic, but I plan to make the most of my last moments in Japan.
I think I’ll be heading to China before heading home, but nothing is definite as of yet.
So, I’ll see you all in August.
* * *
Side Note: The Shintomi Police caught the depraved young man who tried to force his way into my apartment a couple months ago. I don’t know many details, but I had to sign a document declaring that I believe he must be punished within the full extent of the law.
Time and time again, I’ve been meaning to write in this strange, public journal of mine but have, as of late, found myself distracted and disheartened by the thought of leaving Japan; amplified by the fact that I’ve been packing up things I’m planning to ship home by surface mail.
As a result, my apartment is looking rather sad and barren and I’m feeling more than a little forlorn, especially with no job prospects to return to and the hope of going back to school for my Ph.D. dwindling with my bank balance.
I’m still unsure of where I’ll be living, but if I don’t spend the first couple of weeks with my family (most of whom have migrated north to Wisconsin, the Land of Cheese), I’m going to be disowned, disinherited and disemboweled. After this, I’ve decided that my best course of action (if I plan on finding employment that doesn’t require muck boots and a shovel) is to move down to Chicago, move in with my sister, Mia (She doesn’t know this yet… well… she does now.), and hit the pavement.
If anyone you know is looking for an overeducated underachiever, with little direction, less money and lots of debt, I’m your woman!
As for life here in the Land of the Rising Sun, a short time ago, the nation went through its annual shifting of positions. Teachers, salesclerks, office workers, principles, etc., are transferred to new locations, promoted, retired – what have you – and replaced by both new and familiar faces. It’s usually standard for a person to stay in one position for a certain number of years (teachers, for example, normally stay at a school for 5 years) and then are required to go elsewhere.
As a result of this annual shift, my adorable and completely lovable, Hashimoto-sensei retired and was replaced by Shingaki-sensei. I now also have two new teachers at Nyuta and Kaminyuta – both teaching my first grade English classes. One of these teachers can’t speak any English and does her best to avoid me whenever possible. Thank god this was not the case any time during my last two years here because I would have been miserable and terribly frustrated.
I feel so very fortunate that each of my teachers: Yamamoto-sensei, Kubota-sensei, Hashimoto-sensei and Hatakeyama-sensei, have been such wonderful and ever-enthusiastic teaching partners (even if the job itself has been less than perfect). I feel truly blessed to have known and worked beside each of them.
The biggest change during this season of change, however, was the fact that Oki-Hosa, Yoshino-san and Kuranaga-kacho (the three people still at the Board of Education office who had been with me from the very beginning) also moved on to new positions within the Town Hall. When I was informed this was happening, I was (to say the least) taken aback and broke into uncontrollable tears in the middle of my office.
But I could hardly help it.
Not only did this change bring even greater focus to the end of my job and my fast approaching departure, but intensified the emotion of having to say good-bye to three very special members of my strange and ever-amusing Shintomi family. Not having them there at the Board of Education Office everyday has not only proven to be very, very sad, but very awkward. The new people in my office are really very nice, but we don’t – couldn’t – have the same rapport.
Not with the time left and so much water under the bridge.
When hearing the news, I had an inconsolable emotional outburst which was not only witnessed by everyone in the Board of Education Office, but everyone in the adjacent Community Offices, as well as by all of my principals (who happened to be there for a meeting that day). Word of my tear-filled reaction quickly made its way through the Town Hall and, as I soon learned, spread like wildfire through each of my schools, to the Community Center and beyond.
I felt like an utter fool.
My Shintomi family, on the other hand, was overjoyed by the fact that I was so miserable.
As far as school goes, I have my good days and my bad days, like any job. The new first graders are, as always, adorable and give me reason to smile. The other day, after making my first visit to a classroom and introducing myself, I finished my little speech and said my good-bye, to which the entire class replied in loud voices with gigantic smiles, “See you later, Alligator.”
It was too precious.
After class, they all came running up to me to ask what “See you later, Alligator” meant.
I did my best to explain, but focused more on teaching them a little more nonsensical English. Now, if I say to them, “See you later, Alligator,” they reply with exuberance unmatched, “In a while, Crocodile!”
My job here is done.
At the end of April, Japan celebrated Golden Week, which (as I might have explained in an earlier correspondence) is named for the unusual amount of holidays that fall within a week of one another, such as: Greenery Day, Memorial Day and Children’s’ Day. So, Sam and I took the week off and, watching our yen, decided to stick around Miyazaki and make it a relaxing, healthy holiday.
I went up to Hyuga, rented a bicycle, and for the next week (which gave us perfect weather everyday), we cycled, sunned and swam. Not knowing where we were going or exactly what our plans would be, we simply hopped on our bicycles each morning and took off to remote parts of the region.
These were not very difficult to find.
All we had to do was turn off the one main highway that runs along the coast of Miyazaki Ken and we’d soon find ourselves in the middle of nowhere; where little mountain villages popped up amid the rice fields, beside the ocean, atop a mountain.
Here, the modern monstrosities all too common among the urbanized landscape of Japan were replaced by old wooden houses and barns as quaint and pleasant as the natural environment which surrounds them. Narrow, winding roads led us through forests and fields where the smell of pine and wildflowers reminded us that there are still places that reject the mediocrity of modernity.
Occasionally, we’d stop and sit by a river flowing peacefully through the mountains, or rest on a bridge that offered a commanding view over farms and valleys, cooled and reinvigorated by the ocean breezes.
We explored one of the oldest parts of Hyuga, Mimitsu, where legend has it the very first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, set out to conquer all of Japan. The streets – barely wide enough to fit a small car – were lined with low, wooden houses and stores that although sun-bleached and weatherbeaten, were impeccably kept. If it hadn’t been for small traces of the modern world – such as telephone lines and gas meters – it would have been hard not to believe that our bicycles were, in fact, time machines which had transported us back a century.
We were equally entranced by the various smells and sounds of this tiny port village where the briny ocean breezes blended with the local fish market, and the calls of the gulls chimed in chorus with the chatter of old women on the steps of a shrine.
Each night, exhausted and thoroughly contented, we’d shop for a simple dinner, sit back to watch a classic tear-jerker, and look forward to the next day with childlike anticipation.
All sadness, all negative thoughts, were barred and banished.
Once again, I have people from all parts of Shintomi deciding that it’s time for me to settle down and get married. All are gravely concerned that I’m rapidly approaching the age considered well past “wedding cake” (a term used to describe an unmarried woman in her mid to late twenties) and that if I don’t want to marry a Japanese man, then they’ll pray to the various Gods that I will find one immediately upon my return to the States.
Gods Help Me!
Speaking of men… (you knew I would have to get back on that subject sooner of later) I had a bit of a run-in with one particularly primordial male the other night when I was out with Greg, Sam and Vance in Miyazaki.
The evening was progressing along quite well, when in transit from one place to the next, Sam was accosted by a fat slob in one of the crowded arcades. He actually came up and pinched her on the butt and proceeded to say lewd things to her.
With steam shooting from her ears and indignation in her trembling voice, she told me what had happened. Well… having had similar and by all standards far worse experiences both here, there and just about every-fucking where, I decided that it was finally time to put my foot down – or as it would prove in a few short moments – elsewhere.
Having enough alcohol and justifiable indignation coursing through me, I turned heel and, ignoring the fact that the ogre looked as if he could very well be a yakuza (Japanese Mafia), I met the fat offender face to face.
I told him that he was very rude to my friend and said that he shouldn’t have done that.
He answered with a lecherous smirk.
I answered with a hand on each of his gargantuan shoulders and a knee to his groin.
He doubled over in pain.
His friends standing nearby dropped their jaws and began to laugh. Passersby stopped in their tracks.
My friends (slowly backing away from the scene) prepared for the worst.
But the big ape was so shocked (and probably even more embarrassed) that I was able to turn from the scene with a dramatic flourish and stomp away without harm. Not a word was spoken until we were safely ensconced in a new establishment.
“Well,” I finally said with nervous laughter, “part of my role here is to promote international understanding… I think at least one person understands Western women a little better, don’t you?”
I have absolutely no regrets for my actions. In fact… it felt kinda good. A little like sweet vindication for all the pervs from my past.
I’m officially finished with work on July 17th, but plan on hanging around Shintomi for a couple of days to say my good-byes – and spend a little more time with Hiro.
Who the hell is Hiro, you might ask?
He is tall, dark, very handsome, a med student, not married, not engaged, not a thousand miles away, NOT a virgin, not a perv, and really, very charming. I met him when his mother, whom I know from the Community Center, invited me to join in a local celebration a few weeks ago.
The event at which we met seems to revolve around honoring somen noodles. I’m not really sure of the meaning behind the event, but the result is both delectable and delightful. All around the neighborhood, strange contraptions were set up in the streets in front of homes.Large bamboo trunks (which had been sliced in half lengthwise and dried) are propped at about a 30 degree angle and then fresh water is run down them like a culinary luge. From the top of the pole, the, shall we say, noodle bearer, takes a handful of freshly made somen noodles from a large bowl and drops them down the watery channel toward people sitting and chatting around and beside the noodle delivering apparatus.
Armed with hashi and lightening fast reflexes, diners catch bite after bite of these cold, delicate, springy noodles as they shoot down the bamboo pole and then dips them into a bowl of yummy, light, salty, sweet sauce.
Ice cold beers always at the ready.
Smiles as plentiful as the noodles.
And yet another indelible experience that even the years ahead cannot possibly fade.
Since this wonderful culinary event, Hiro and I have spent quite a bit of time together and admittedly have big, huge crushes on each other. The loveliest thing about this romance, during these last days in Japan, is that there is a finality to it that has taken all the pressure off either of us to fulfill some pre-conceived notions and fantasies.