Just Wet of the Midwest Chapter 32: Festival Fever

bdc6a-32-3
Photo by acfrohna

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

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

dcb0a-32-5
photo by ac frohna

A stream of objects and people. Colorfully costumed.

Radiant.

Graphic.

Assembled in ensembles.

Moving en masse.

0327e-32-1
photo by ac frohna

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

Great rivers of color and movement.

Drifting and converging.

a4579-32-2
photo by ac frohna

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

588d4-32-6
photo by ac frohna

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

Especially the young women.

baca0-32-4
photo by ac frohna

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

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

Their skin, milky white.

And lips, cherry red.

Hidden smiles behind colorful fans.

Or delicate, porcelain hands.

fc4b2-32-7
photo by ac frohna

Each kimono, bright and splendid.

Each obi, so masterfully and uniquely tied.

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

5fdd2-32-8
photo by ac Frohna

Quintessential.

Exquisite.

Timeless.

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

Across streets.

From tree to tree, house to house.

Swimming against the currents of wind.

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

95f64-38-3

Healthy.

Perseverant.

Such as the carp fighting its way up stream.

Where, it is said, lie the great falls.

Where stands a gate.

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

90673-18-2
photo by ac frohna

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

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

Honor the blossoms.

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

Beneath their brief, but intoxicating peak.

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

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

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

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

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

Convenient.

If not slightly lily-livered.

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

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

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

Sometimes all at once.

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

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

f5317-32-9

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.

c72e4-32-10
photo by ac frohna

All I Can Say Is…

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

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 33: Capital City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We couldn’t believe our luck.

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

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

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

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

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

A pungent mixture of folklore and tradition.

Ritual and rule.

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

Saturating the woods.

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

Thick and settled atop the worn surfaces.

The aroma is almost tangible.

Digestible.

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

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

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

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

In a matter of moments, we were lost.

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

No matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

f4483-33-10
Photos by acfrohna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dc9bb-34-5
3e6be-33-4

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

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

Life should reflect a perfect harmony with nature.

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

Dang.

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

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

What, you might ask, did I see?

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

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

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

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

Its smile and countenance is both intimidating and beguiling.

Tranquil and composed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until I remembered.

I learn only to be contented.

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

I learn only to be contented.

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

590ec-33-7

It was a good day.

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

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 34: Luckiest Gal Alive

It was just before winter vacation began.

On a Sunday. About 7 p.m.

I had just returned from spending the night in Hyuga with Sam.

I was tired, dreading work the next day, and longing for my vacation to begin, when the doorbell rang.

Assuming it was one of my neighbors, or one of their children, I slowly made my way to the door trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t visit or play. When I opened the door, I found a young man there.

Without the normal Japanese formalities and ceremonial language associated with a visit, the young man simply and silently began to enter my front hallway. Assuming he was one of my students (who, in hindsight, would have been a student who had been held behind a few years), I gently put my hand to his chest and bluntly told him I was tired and would see him at school during the week. I then closed the door and returned to re-reading a story I was working on.

A few minutes passed and the doorbell rang again.

With a great sigh, I dragged myself to the door and opened it, once again, to find a young man standing there.

Now, I’m assuming it was the same young man.

The reason I wasn’t – nor will I ever be 100% sure is because, this time, the young man at my door was wearing sunglasses.

He was also wearing a hat.

And a mask.

He didn’t say a word, but was breathing heavily. And it wasn’t because of the three flights of stairs he had just climbed. To my great horror, I looked down to see the intruder had his penis in his hand and was masturbating.

He tried to force his way in.

I attempted to slam the door on his pathetic, little dick.

There was a struggle.

But my adrenaline overpowered the little maggot and I finally managed to push him from my apartment and lock the door. My hands and body were shaking violently as I slumped to the ground.

What the fuck just happened?

I didn’t know what to do.

I didn’t know who to call.

I first tried friends who lived in neighboring towns, but couldn’t reach a soul.

Then I called Junko, who helps me at the Community Center. It was a conversation I NEVER expected to be having with her.

While I waited for Junko (who had called the Shintomi Police, as well as Oki-San and Kuranaga-san) to arrive, I sat in the corner of my apartment.

Weeping.

Trembling.

Angry.

Revolted.

In total disbelief that it had happened.

Again.

Except this time, at a whole new, ugly level.

“What the hell is wrong with men?” I moaned as I rocked back and forth, semi-fetal.

It’s bad enough that I’ve had to be victim to it in the assorted public places I’ve had the misfortune of being in. But hell, I could usually chalk it up to bad timing – being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This, however, was altogether different.

It wasn’t a drunk in a bar.

Or a letch in a crowd.

I didn’t accidentally stumble upon it.

This was at the threshold of my home.

It was with intent.

It was with force.

I began to shudder anew as I thought about what might have happened had I not been able to shut the door between us.

What brings a person to such acts?How does a person learn such behavior?And how will this sickness manifest itself in the future if the young man doesn’t get caught and get help

Is there even help to be had?

“Oh God,” I thought with another severe shudder causing me to heave more sobs, “this friggin’ psycho might be living right next door, or just down the street from one of the little girls in the neighborhood.”

At that thought, I found myself at the toilet moments later.

Vomiting violently.

As I leaned against the back of the bathroom wall wiping the bile from my mouth, I felt an immense anger for not having done more. He might have been wider, but I had the size advantage. I could have easily pushed him down the flight of cement steps just a few feet from my front door. Or at least done some major damage with a powerful kick to his exposed groin.

But all I could do was shut the ugly scene behind the door as quickly as I could.

Now HE was out there.

Junko, the police, and the others arrived on the scene and we went through what happened several times, with Junko translating what was clearly making her very, VERY uncomfortable.

So much so that I was soon questioning just what she was telling the police. Especially after I was informed that the incident wasn’t of a “sexual nature.”

Are you fucking kidding me? A masked man attempts to force his way into my apartment with his dick in his hand and it isn’t being considered a sexual assault?

What fucking century is this?

I was stunned into silence and far too emotionally wrecked to try to argue. So, I sat back and watched as one of the five policemen inspected the area where the struggle took place.

He was looking for fingerprints.

A wave of nausea passed over me again as I watched in horror as the black dust revealed  fingers clenched around my front door.

Finally, after a couple of hours, and at my insistence I would be fine, I sent everyone home and was soon soaking in a hot tub.

Trying to wash away the awful feeling that I had done something to deserve it.

________________

After not sleeping a wink, I found myself at Kaminyuta Junior High the next day hiding from everyone when I wasn’t expected to be in front of a class. Quite frankly, I was on the verge of tears at every moment and simply couldn’t hold a conversation.

I kept looking into the many innocent faces of the 11-15 year old boys I teach and couldn’t help but feel incredibly sad that some of them might turn into the mess that arrived at my door the night before.

I also continue to struggle with the idea that there’s a reason these things keep happening to me.

It can’t be a long and promiscuous sex life. For god’s sake, I was a senior in college before I lost my virginity. And in the years since, trysts have been few and far between.

I’ve never even been comfortable making eye contact with the opposite sex. Especially after the variety of degenerates who have foisted their sickness my way.

Yet this nagging feeling that I somehow deserve every perversion heaped upon me still lurks in the shadows.

Most acutely, this last one.

After all, I haven’t exactly been chaste here. I guess I figured while the going is good…

Nor have I tried to be very covert in my dalliances.

And this is a small town.

Maybe, I keep thinking over and over, I brought this on myself.

But then there’s another voice.

And it’s strong.

It says that that’s a bunch of self-loathing crap.

Deep down inside I know that I didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.

Yet it keeps finding its way to me.And I’m forced to keep asking the same question.

Why?

I know that a couple of weeks on the beaches of Malaysia will help put this incident further to the back of my mind. And, in time, I’ll be able to laugh about it. Like I have all the others.

Maybe not so much laugh, this time, as let go.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 37: The End Is Near

Time and time again, I’ve been meaning to write in this strange, public journal of mine but have, as of late, found myself distracted and disheartened by the thought of leaving Japan; amplified by the fact that I’ve been packing up things I’m planning to ship home by surface mail.

As a result, my apartment is looking rather sad and barren and I’m feeling more than a little forlorn, especially with no job prospects to return to and the hope of going back to school for my Ph.D. dwindling with my bank balance.

I’m still unsure of where I’ll be living, but if I don’t spend the first couple of weeks with my family (most of whom have migrated north to Wisconsin, the Land of Cheese), I’m going to be disowned, disinherited and disemboweled. After this, I’ve decided that my best course of action (if I plan on finding employment that doesn’t require muck boots and a shovel) is to move down to Chicago, move in with my sister, Mia (She doesn’t know this yet… well… she does now.), and hit the pavement.

If anyone you know is looking for an overeducated underachiever, with little direction, less money and lots of debt, I’m your woman!

As for life here in the Land of the Rising Sun, a short time ago, the nation went through its annual shifting of positions. Teachers, salesclerks, office workers, principles, etc., are transferred to new locations, promoted, retired – what have you – and replaced by both new and familiar faces. It’s usually standard for a person to stay in one position for a certain number of years (teachers, for example, normally stay at a school for 5 years) and then are required to go elsewhere.

As a result of this annual shift, my adorable and completely lovable, Hashimoto-sensei retired and was replaced by Shingaki-sensei. I now also have two new teachers at Nyuta and Kaminyuta – both teaching my first grade English classes. One of these teachers can’t speak any English and does her best to avoid me whenever possible. Thank god this was not the case any time during my last two years here because I would have been miserable and terribly frustrated.

I feel so very fortunate that each of my teachers: Yamamoto-sensei, Kubota-sensei, Hashimoto-sensei and Hatakeyama-sensei, have been such wonderful and ever-enthusiastic teaching partners (even if the job itself has been less than perfect). I feel truly blessed to have known and worked beside each of them.

The biggest change during this season of change, however, was the fact that Oki-Hosa, Yoshino-san and Kuranaga-kacho (the three people still at the Board of Education office who had been with me from the very beginning) also moved on to new positions within the Town Hall. When I was informed this was happening, I was (to say the least) taken aback and broke into uncontrollable tears in the middle of my office.

But I could hardly help it.

Not only did this change bring even greater focus to the end of my job and my fast approaching departure, but intensified the emotion of having to say good-bye to three very special members of my strange and ever-amusing Shintomi family. Not having them there at the Board of Education Office everyday has not only proven to be very, very sad, but very awkward. The new people in my office are really very nice, but we don’t – couldn’t – have the same rapport.

Not with the time left and so much water under the bridge.

When hearing the news, I had an inconsolable emotional outburst which was not only witnessed by everyone in the Board of Education Office, but everyone in the adjacent Community Offices, as well as by all of my principals (who happened to be there for a meeting that day). Word of my tear-filled reaction quickly made its way through the Town Hall and, as I soon learned, spread like wildfire through each of my schools, to the Community Center and beyond.

I felt like an utter fool.

My Shintomi family, on the other hand, was overjoyed by the fact that I was so miserable.

As far as school goes, I have my good days and my bad days, like any job. The new first graders are, as always, adorable and give me reason to smile. The other day, after making my first visit to a classroom and introducing myself, I finished my little speech and said my good-bye, to which the entire class replied in loud voices with gigantic smiles, “See you later, Alligator.”

It was too precious.

After class, they all came running up to me to ask what “See you later, Alligator” meant.

I did my best to explain, but focused more on teaching them a little more nonsensical English. Now, if I say to them, “See you later, Alligator,” they reply with exuberance unmatched, “In a while, Crocodile!”

My job here is done.

———————————

At the end of April, Japan celebrated Golden Week, which (as I might have explained in an earlier correspondence) is named for the unusual amount of holidays that fall within a week of one another, such as: Greenery Day, Memorial Day and Children’s’ Day. So, Sam and I took the week off and, watching our yen, decided to stick around Miyazaki and make it a relaxing, healthy holiday.

Honestly!

I went up to Hyuga, rented a bicycle, and for the next week (which gave us perfect weather everyday), we cycled, sunned and swam. Not knowing where we were going or exactly what our plans would be, we simply hopped on our bicycles each morning and took off to remote parts of the region.

These were not very difficult to find.

All we had to do was turn off the one main highway that runs along the coast of Miyazaki Ken and we’d soon find ourselves in the middle of nowhere; where little mountain villages popped up amid the rice fields, beside the ocean, atop a mountain.

Here, the modern monstrosities all too common among the urbanized landscape of Japan were replaced by old wooden houses and barns as quaint and pleasant as the natural environment which surrounds them. Narrow, winding roads led us through forests and fields where the smell of pine and wildflowers reminded us that there are still places that reject the mediocrity of modernity.

Occasionally, we’d stop and sit by a river flowing peacefully through the mountains, or rest on a bridge that offered a commanding view over farms and valleys, cooled and reinvigorated by the ocean breezes.

We explored one of the oldest parts of Hyuga, Mimitsu, where legend has it the very first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, set out to conquer all of Japan. The streets – barely wide enough to fit a small car – were lined with low, wooden houses and stores that although sun-bleached and weatherbeaten, were impeccably kept. If it hadn’t been for small traces of the modern world – such as telephone lines and gas meters – it would have been hard not to believe that our bicycles were, in fact, time machines which had transported us back a century.

We were equally entranced by the various smells and sounds of this tiny port village where the briny ocean breezes blended with the local fish market, and the calls of the gulls chimed in chorus with the chatter of old women on the steps of a shrine.

Each night, exhausted and thoroughly contented, we’d shop for a simple dinner, sit back to watch a classic tear-jerker, and look forward to the next day with childlike anticipation.

All sadness, all negative thoughts, were barred and banished.

——————————

Once again, I have people from all parts of Shintomi deciding that it’s time for me to settle down and get married. All are gravely concerned that I’m rapidly approaching the age considered well past “wedding cake” (a term used to describe an unmarried woman in her mid to late twenties) and that if I don’t want to marry a Japanese man, then they’ll pray to the various Gods that I will find one immediately upon my return to the States.

Gods Help Me!

Speaking of men… (you knew I would have to get back on that subject sooner of later) I had a bit of a run-in with one particularly primordial male the other night when I was out with Greg, Sam and Vance in Miyazaki.

The evening was progressing along quite well, when in transit from one place to the next, Sam was accosted by a fat slob in one of the crowded arcades. He actually came up and pinched her on the butt and proceeded to say lewd things to her.

With steam shooting from her ears and indignation in her trembling voice, she told me what had happened. Well… having had similar and by all standards far worse experiences both here, there and just about every-fucking where, I decided that it was finally time to put my foot down – or as it would prove in a few short moments – elsewhere.

Having enough alcohol and justifiable indignation coursing through me, I turned heel and, ignoring the fact that the ogre looked as if he could very well be a yakuza (Japanese Mafia), I met the fat offender face to face.

I told him that he was very rude to my friend and said that he shouldn’t have done that.

He answered with a lecherous smirk.

I answered with a hand on each of his gargantuan shoulders and a knee to his groin.

He doubled over in pain.

His friends standing nearby dropped their jaws and began to laugh. Passersby stopped in their tracks.

My friends (slowly backing away from the scene) prepared for the worst.

But the big ape was so shocked (and probably even more embarrassed) that I was able to turn from the scene with a dramatic flourish and stomp away without harm. Not a word was spoken until we were safely ensconced in a new establishment.

“Well,” I finally said with nervous laughter, “part of my role here is to promote international understanding… I think at least one person understands Western women a little better, don’t you?”

I have absolutely no regrets for my actions. In fact… it felt kinda good. A little like sweet vindication for all the pervs from my past.

——————————

I’m officially finished with work on July 17th, but plan on hanging around Shintomi for a couple of days to say my good-byes – and spend a little more time with Hiro.

Who the hell is Hiro, you might ask?

He is tall, dark, very handsome, a med student, not married, not engaged, not a thousand miles away, NOT a virgin, not a perv, and really, very charming. I met him when his mother, whom I know from the Community Center, invited me to join in a local celebration a few weeks ago.

The event at which we met seems to revolve around honoring somen noodles. I’m not really sure of the meaning behind the event, but the result is both delectable and delightful. All around the neighborhood, strange contraptions were set up in the streets in front of homes.Large bamboo trunks (which had been sliced in half lengthwise and dried) are propped at about a 30 degree angle and then fresh water is run down them like a culinary luge. From the top of the pole, the, shall we say, noodle bearer, takes a handful of freshly made somen noodles from a large bowl and drops them down the watery channel toward people sitting and chatting around and beside the noodle delivering apparatus.

Armed with hashi and lightening fast reflexes, diners catch bite after bite of these cold, delicate, springy noodles as they shoot down the bamboo pole and then dips them into a bowl of yummy, light, salty, sweet sauce.

Ice cold beers always at the ready.

Smiles as plentiful as the noodles.

And yet another indelible experience that even the years ahead cannot possibly fade.

Simply awesome.

Since this wonderful culinary event, Hiro and I have spent quite a bit of time together and admittedly have big, huge crushes on each other. The loveliest thing about this romance, during these last days in Japan, is that there is a finality to it that has taken all the pressure off either of us to fulfill some pre-conceived notions and fantasies.

It’s just plain sweet.

Without a tinge of sadness or regret.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 38: Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Days

2dc7e-39-0

Unimaginable.

This will be my last piece of correspondence from Japan.

During these past two years – these last 766 days – marriages have been performed.

Children born. Careers have changed.

Loves have been lost. Wars have been fought.

Dreams have become clearer for some. And closer for others.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found my senses heightened by the knowledge of my approaching departure. The sights, sounds and tastes of Japan that have become as familiar to me as my own reflection, are now reborn.

Wrought by experience, intense and profound.

Even the daily walk from my front door to the Town Hall has been re-animated as I try to absorb any and all things I hope to remember about my little town.

The familiar faces of the shopkeepers.

The buckets of fresh lilies at the grocery store checkout that I purchased every week in big bundles. Making my return home at the end of each day sweet and welcoming.

The ever-present street cleaners with their straw hats, white scarves, gloves, boots and brooms, charged with whisking away mess.

Neighbors keeping the gossip vine tended.

Little giggles behind hidden smiles.

943a3-37-2
Photo by acfrohna

On this daily walk, I pass the old tailor’s shop where an elderly man sits behind a long, sliding glass door open to the street. Bent over an ancient sewing machine, barefoot and cross-legged, he always works with great care and concentration.

Yet nearly every day I’ve passed him in the past two years, he’s lifted his old, gray head and called through the cloudy glass door, “Konichiwa.”

Smiling and bowing over the handiwork still clutched in his wrinkled, old hands.

We’ve never formally met. But I’ve come to know his friendly, furrowed face well.

In the days he’s not been in his usual place, I’ve felt strangely disappointed – worried even – as if his absence would somehow irrevocably misalign the comfortable rhythm my life has found in Shintomi.

Just a few steps away from the tailor’s is a tatami weaver’s shop where, amid all the rice straw and mats of the workshop, resides an old, gray billy goat who bleats loudly each time I pass.

Such devotion to my comings and goings has never once failed to make me smile.

Off the main street, along a narrow path through thick, green woods, I’ve daily passed the twisted, well-worn steps leading to a small, wooden shrine which looks to be as old as time.

On the days when the ocean breeze blows through the woods, it coaxes the old, tarnished bell, hung above a carved, wooden offering box, to chime softly on its own.

Only once have I dared to cross its threshold.

For fear I might offend its devotees or worse, rouse its deities.

The brief moment I did linger made me wonder.

Should I have more faith?

Up a small hill, through a cluster of low, wooden houses, I see Kizukume River making its ways from the mountains of Miyazaki to the Pacific Ocean.

The days when the river is low, I can look down from the banks and watch a group of boys wading through the water, skipping stones and picking up various forms of life that failed to make it the final few miles.

Occasionally, if the boys catch sight of me, they’ll call me down.

Or run up the bank to show off their finds.

Explaining with great enthusiasm how they happened upon such a small wonder.

I’ll touch the object in their hands and make a face that evokes chuckles all around and after listening very closely to their latest adventure, I might just pick one of them up and spin them around; knowing that in doing so, it will only be a matter of moments before there’s a long line of neighborhood children who want me to make them fly, “Mo ichido!” (“Once more!”)

Down my street, for the past two years, I’ve been almost daily greeted by a dog on a chain (I don’t know his name) who will, without fail, race me from one end of his line to the other.

Leaping over yard obstacles.

And through a part of the bushes he’s trampled to extinction.

Panting and barking and wagging his tail at the end of the trodden trail, he ever-patiently awaits my customary scratch behind his ears.

I’ve never let him down.

2b7c3-37-1
Photo by acfrohna

Just outside my apartment building, there is a small playground where the children of my neighborhood gather. On the days that we meet, they explode with tales of their precious moments. And they ask the very same questions they’ve asked for two years about the strange place from which I come.

Sometimes I’ll make up stories.

And places.

Just to see the looks on their faces.

The boys like to show me how far they can jump, how fast they can run, how high they can swing and how strong they are.

Until I hand them my bulky school bags to carry.

My little playground friend, Miyata-kun, has made me a very special promise. Someday, he swears, we will marry.

At present, he tells me he is 7 years old.

He thinks it best that I return to Japan in 15 years, so he may fulfill his promise.

These familiar faces and places have been witness to my good days.

My bad days.

And my really bad days.

To my stumbles, my forays and follies.

They’ve been an essential part of a very fortunate choice I made two years back.

To try something different.

Never did I expect this place to feel so much like my home.

———————————

Word of my departure has spread throughout the town and people whom I’ve barely spoken to now seem to know my immediate and future plans better than I do. With this in mind, my weekly schedule has been insane due to the overwhelming number of farewell parties being thrown in my honor.

I’ve had a consistent hangover for days.

Now I’m sure many of you might think I have absolutely no self-control, but the fact is that the Japanese custom of keeping glasses full (in addition to my reputation for being able to handle astronomical amounts of alcohol), has resulted in my being plied with beer and Shochyu at every turn.

If I attempt to hold a hand over my glass to avoid another refill, I immediately read the disappointment on the faces of friends and my Shintomi family who want to make the most of my final days.

And I relent.

This is made even more difficult when, as the guest of honor, it would be considered rude if I didn’t accept a refill from every member of the party.

If only I could have been stealth enough to do what I once witnessed Yoshino-san do at a gathering. Having her glass filled, yet again, I watched out of the corner of my eye as she slyly dumped her drink (when all heads were turned) into a nearby potted plant – now deceased.

One particularly shining moment in all this farewell hullaballoo was a dinner I attended at a local establishment I frequented with Yoshino-san. I really wasn’t expecting much more than your typically lovely and delicious fare that evening, so when I was led to the private party room in back and opened the sliding door, I found myself (for the first time in a very long time) left utterly speechless by what I found.

The long table which lay before me was surely the most incredible display of culinary artistry I’d ever seen – and in two years of eating my way across Asia, that says a lot.

The Masta (owner) had turned the table before me into an extraordinary ocean scene. As if a fisherman had just pulled his net in from the water.

He had carved (I’m not even sure that’s the proper word to describe the cutting technique he used.) a large net out of daikon (a large, white, winter radish) and, as if twisting and flailing in one last desperate attempt to free themselves, there were a variety of heads and tails of fish rising through the net.

Middled by sashimi.

Which the Masta knew to be my absolute favorite food.

Carrots were carved into coral.

Marinated seaweed was flowing from shells.

I was overwhelmed by its exquisiteness and found my eyes filling with tears (I’ve been crying a hell of a lot lately), as I slowly made my way around the entire circumference of the table before sitting down, delighted and dumbfounded.

As if this farewell gift wasn’t enough, I was recently presented with a magnificent yukata (a summer kimono), complete with a beginner’s obi (pre-folded and formed into a lovely bow the color of goldenrod), geta and tabi. It is, without doubt, the loveliest and certainly the most special piece of clothing I have ever – or will ever – have. It was hand sewn by a lovely woman, Michiko Sei, the mother of one of my most passionate students of English.

fbc55-yukata2b-1
Photo by acfrohna

The yukata is made of a light cotton fabric. It has the deepest of blues as its background and drips with swathes of aqua blue which looks like rain pouring over the large pink camellias with their pale yellow centers in full bloom.

On the inside collar, the date (July 10, 1992), my name, and the name of the lovely woman who made this treasure is carefully embroidered, so that even as the years pass, the future generations I hope and help to create, will know of this very extraordinary time in my life.

I honestly don’t know what I did to deserve such a very precious thing, but I will be forever grateful for the lovely people of Shintomi who have not only been extremely kind, but exceptionally generous.

f79f5-38-1
Photo by acfrohna

The other day, I had my last class at Nyuta Junior High. After class, as I was heading to the teachers’ room, a group of boys approached me and we began our usual session of ribbing each other. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded hundreds of my students – all of whom were trying to have one last chance to talk with me.

Someone asked me to sign their notebook. This began an outpouring of requests.

For the next half hour, I was signing books, notebooks, pencil cases, mats, hands, and every variety of school paraphernalia one could imagine.

Several girls also wanted a token to remember me by. They asked if they could have one of my earrings, but being rather expensive, I had to say no. They surveyed me from head to toe, trying to think of something they could take. We finally settled on some tiny locks of hair.

Probably not the best idea.

When they showed the strands to their friends, I was bombarded with similar requests.

I promised, instead, I’d stop by school next week with some mementoes which didn’t involve my going bald.

f55bc-38-4
Photo by acfrohna

Some of my students are having a rather hard time coming to terms with why I have chosen to “abandon” them. I’m continually being asked why I’m going back to the United States and why I don’t want to stay in Japan forever.

I’ve tried to make them understand, but I’m not sure I’ve been very successful.

Part of this has to be because I’m often menaced by the notion that I’ve made the wrong decision – even though, just below the surface, I know that staying is not an option. I know I need to step beyond my cozy, little job in Shintomi before the pleasant, but un-stimulating duties required of me become nothing but drudgery.

And me a whiny, nagging drudge.

That’s not how I want to remember my time here.

I also know the disquiet I feel is simply masked sadness knowing so many unavoidable, final good-byes lie ahead.

08141-37-7
Photo by acfrohna

I’ve told my students about the new teacher who will replace me. A girl from New Zealand, but they don’t seem to care.

I’m sure things will change the first moment this new face steps into their classrooms.  Although I have to admit that I like the idea of being considered irreplaceable and have recently found myself a little more than resentful at the thought of someone taking my place in the hearts of my students and friends.

In my town.

In my apartment.

Nevertheless, as they say here, “Shikata ga nai.”

It can’t be helped. Besides, the town is thrilled that they’re getting another AET, as they should be. To have been approved for a fourth year in a row is unusual, especially for such a small town. But because of the great reports they’ve received about my time here and Shelley’s (the AET here before me), they’ve been given another year in the program.

That makes me truly proud and very happy for them.

I was asked to prepare a good-bye speech (in Japanese) which I’m to present to the entire staff of the Shintomi Town Hall. Even though I should be used to this after two years filled with similar requests, I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold it together. Not only because of nerves, mind you, but raw, unconstrained emotions which have me blubbering round the clock lately.

The following is the speech I have planned:

When I was first told I’d be living in Shintomi-cho, I tried to locate the town in my atlas. According to the map, it didn’t exist. Yet I didn’t panic because I’ve always found that the smallest places in this world often present the biggest adventures.

When I arrived here two years ago, I certainly expected things to be different. But to be honest, EVERYTHING here was far more strange and curious than anywhere I’d ever been before. This was intensified by the fact that I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese and I knew very little about your culture, other than what I’d read in anticipation of my new job.

From the beginning, however, it’s been my desire to learn about Japan.

Not just as a witness to it, but a participant in it. For I believe that our eyes cannot teach us what our hearts never feel.

My heart was happy to discover the common bond we have to co-exist peacefully and our willingness to acknowledge – and accept – our differences, whether cultural or spiritual, economic or political.

There is a great deal we can learn from each other.

And so much at stake if we don’t.

And even though there have been days that I’ve been disappointed and frustrated by the people (both Japanese and foreign) who have refused to learn anything from one another, I have also experienced the great joy that comes from understanding that our differences can also be our greatest assets in becoming better people.

My Shintomi Family and the many friends I’ve made here have been kind enough to make my two years in Japan a shared adventure.

A shared learning experience. A time in my life that I will always be very, very proud of.

I want to thank all of you for this unforgettable, unpredictable, extraordinary adventure.

You will ever be a part of my heart.

——————————

With the few remaining days left, I plan to make the most of it by annoying various friends in the Town Hall while they attempt to work, playing games with my students at lunch, joining in treasure hunts on the beach and fighting the urge to offer a teary farewell – possibly even a hug – to ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE I see on my way through town.

My seven hundred and sixty-six days here have been an incredible experience and will always be one of the most important times in my life.

I have become a better person for it.

To a small degree, I have experienced the prejudices of being a racial minority and have found it both infuriating and discouraging, enlightening and character-building. At the same time, I’ve greedily indulged in the special attention and privileges I was given for this very same reason.

I have seen ancient ceremonies on chilly mountain tops and participated in local traditions down the hot streets of summer.

I have learned much from the young and old I have befriended and hope that I have left nothing but fond memories in my wake.

Leaving my little town of Shintomi will be the most heart-breaking thing I’ve ever had to do.

My love to you all… it’s off to Beijing, then home… see you in August.

Wisconsin Days: March

0BF6B682-D919-426B-B964-689C03C01AEA
Photo by ac frohna

The sun shines brightly through the bedroom window and beckons me to rise even before Eva begins her morning ritual of cooing me awake from the nursery next door. Stretching long and hard and hesitating before throwing the warm comforter aside I gaze out the window at the bright blue sky and bent, barren treetops. It has not been a very harsh winter, nevertheless it’s March and in the Midwest that means winter has already been two months too long.

Delaying the departure from my bed, I try to recall what the first days of spring smell like, instead of the stale odor of a house that hasn’t ushered in the outdoors for many months. Inhaling long and hard, I imagine the sweet smell of a newly mown lawn and the swelling winds just before a summer thunderstorm.

Closing my eyes and, rather than the same leafless branches I have seen since November, I picture the first tiny, bright green leaves about to unfurl all along the branches of the oaks, hickories, and maples in the neighborhood.

I even try to imagine a spring shower dampening my face and the cool moist dirt beneath my fingernails, and just as I am about to take a great, big, imaginary bite out of the freshly picked tomato, I hear my daughter gurgle and murmur and wrestle with her bunny. With a dreamy sigh, I toss back my covers expecting to be hit with a blast of winter cold, but much to my delight the late winter sun has filtered in and settled all around me. Climbing from bed, I make my way to the window and open it, hoping the day outside will be just as kind.

It takes no imagination to hear the enthusiastic morning warbles and cheeps, twitter and tweets of the birds already enjoying this happy hiatus from the cold. With a great big smile and an excited pang in my heart, I clap my hands and scurry to Eva’s room singing, “Spring is coming, Noodle, spring will soon be here. Let’s go outside and greet the day, for spring is very near!”

Rushing through our morning routines and happily neglecting my deadlines, I dress Eva and strap her to my chest, call for the dogs, and hurry outside to welcome the pleasant day. Although the cool winds still instantly summon thoughts of winter, there’s no mistaking a change of season is upon us.

I can feel it in my bones and smell it in the air.

As I wandered from one dormant garden to another, my excitement over the impending season is very powerful – so powerful that I feel as if I concentrate hard enough I can almost will the buds to spring from the earth before my eyes – and even find myself a little disappointed when nothing issues forth upon command.

Yet I know very well that life will soon stir without my urging.

As we slowly make our way over to the vegetable garden, I begin to make a lengthy mental list of all the things I’ll try to grow this summer and all that has to be done to prepare the beds for the coming harvests. I imagine Eva, now bundled up and bound to me, soon crawling across the sweet smelling earth and playing beneath the hot sun, taking her first steps across the dewy grass and chasing the summer-slim barn cats.

My smile grows even wider when I look ahead to the days when my daughter will have her own little garden patch where I will teach her the simple pleasures of digging in the dirt and making something grow.

With Timber and North at our heels, and Eva at my chest, I head across the prairie behind our home. Each time a blast of wind strikes our faces, I hear my daughter suck in the cold air and squeal with delight at being out of doors and out of our snowy asylum.

So on we continue, ignoring the remaining winter’s icy reminders.

Whispering in my daughter’s ear, I speak of spring; of swaying fields and stormy skies, of prairie grass and wild asparagus, of hillsides blanketed with wildflowers and woodlands scattered with secret patches of subtle flora, restrained and fleeting, of puddles of rain and fat, buzzing bees.

We walk and talk and throw sticks for the dogs all morning and in these hours, I, like the earth, stir toward reawakening.