With school in full swing, my teachers and I seem to have gotten our routines down. That’s not to say I have the same regimen for each teacher.
Far from it.
In fact, my teachers’ classroom styles are as different as their personalities.
At Tonda Chugakko, the largest and most centrally located of the elementary schools, there is Yamamoto-sensei. If you remember, I met him during the very first moments on Kyushu soil. Yamamoto-sensei seems to be the senior English teacher in the Shintomi School District and he certainly has the most commanding presence, despite his diminutive dimensions.
Probably in his late 50s, Yamamoto-sensei is always well-groomed, always dressed in a white shirt (well worn, but well pressed), tie and slacks. His mastery of the English language is excellent and although his teaching style tends to be a little too formal for my liking (and I’m quite sure his students would agree), he’s well respected and liked – at least by me. Before each class, he goes over what the students are expected to learn that day and how I’ll be participating, which usually entails clarifying pronunciations and taking part in dialogues.
Unfortunately, most of the dialogues do little to detour from the terrible textbooks the students are forced to learn from. However, he’s NEVER ONCE made me feel unwelcome or unwanted.
And he’s quick to smile.
Especially when he sees how the students light up when I enter the classroom.
Hatekeyama-sensei is the other English teacher at Tonda. Probably in her early forties, she has a lovely round face that reflects a rather happy individual.
Full of giggles.
Full of life.
And from what I’ve seen, full of love for and from her students.
When necessary, she can also scare the crap out of misbehaving students (and me for that matter) when her gentle voice and pleasing demeanor turn in a flash to booming and formidable. Thankfully, she’s never had a harsh word for me. In fact, before each class we have together, we sit in the teachers’ room and chat.
Not only does Hatekeyama-sensei carefully go over what we’ll be doing in class that day, she also gives me freedom to create my own dialogues, stray from the formal class routine and follows my often unscripted plan with a grace and gaiety that I find delightful and inspiring.
Hashimoto-sensei is the English teacher at Kaminyuta Chugakko, the smallest and most rurally located of my schools. I would have to guess that she is in her sixties – even though her dyed jet black hair tries to hide it – maybe 4’9″ (on tippy-toes) and very near retirement.
Every day I’m scheduled to participate in her classes, she picks me up at my apartment in her tidy, little, white car. Barely able to see over the steering wheel (and that’s with the use of a pillow), Hashimoto-sensei very slowly and very, very cautiously drives past rice fields and forests to the modest but well-kept elementary school far from town.
I love our little journeys together.
She’s not only very kind and very thoughtful, she is also very accepting of my presence.
Even though she has the worst grasp of English of any of my teachers.
Yet this has never intimidated her – even during our first couple of classes together when nerves and language barriers could have set us on the wrong path.
When she saw that I wasn’t there to judge, expose or condemn her, she gained confidence.
Now, Hashimoto-sensei wears her broken English like a badge of honor.
And with the patience befitting a saint, she helps me with Japanese.
I adore her.
Finally, at Nyuta Chugakko, another very small, humble and rural school I visit, there is Kubota-sensei.
With a face like a rabbit and a head like an egg (and a personality to match) Kubota-sensei is certainly a very, very nice man and has been very kind to me. (He also picks me up on days I’ll be visiting his classes.) It’s just that he seems far more interested in learning about all the eccentricities of the English language rather than in teaching it.
His students are clearly bored out of their minds.
The problem is that even though his English is excellent, he doesn’t know how to convey his love of the language in his lessons; which, like Yamamoto-sensei, never veer from the textbook.
Kubota-sensei does tries to connect with his students through music.
But turning on the CD player so the kids can read the lyrics and sing along to out of date pop tunes, while I sit idly by, doesn’t seem to be a good use of anyone’s time. And when I do take an active role in his classes, it seems to be more as a human tape recorder rather than a classroom assistant.
However unsuccessful or ineffective I might feel in the classroom at times, I’m still confident that my influence on the students of the Shintomi School District will most strongly be felt outside class visits.
Maybe during lunch time. (Each school visit, I’m assigned to eat with the students of a particular class.) Or during recess, when I’m able to wander the hallways, playgrounds and school gardens and join students in a game of ball or hopscotch.
Or during my walk to Tonda Chugakko, the grocery store, the river, or the Town Hall, when I’m often met by a slow-moving, giggling gaggle of smile-hiding girls who stop everything to walk beside me and talk to me.
My arrival on the scene compels them to use English; while at the same time, they have the opportunity to see me attempt Japanese.
We talk about music.
Mostly Back Street Boys.
And we talk about our lives.
Even the intentionally slower pack of bravado-laden boys (who usually follow close behind,) bent on showing off their physical prowess more than their grasp of English, are eager to spend time with me.
It’s rather hard to believe that by the time this letter reaches you, my dear friends, that I will have been here for four months. It’s getting so that I can barely keep track of the time as the days and weeks whiz past with little proof that they even existed.
Except, that is, for the constant memories that amass in my heart and in my mind.
Thank goodness for the occasional photograph which captures one brief moment, one genuine smile, one friendly face, that I hope in the years to come will help to keep my memories of Japan alive.
Recently, I have been giving a considerable amount of time (during most of which I should have been sleeping) to the most important decision I currently face.
To stay or not to stay – that is the question.
In fact, I think I’ve contemplated my future even more than the dark Prince of Denmark.
And, after weighing the pros and cons…
So far, it’s been a wonderful experience.
In two years, my Japanese is bound to improve.
I have a lot of time to read and write.
I have a world of adventure right at my fingertips.
Everyone here wants me to stay.
It gives everyone back home a good excuse to save their money and finally plan that trip to Asia.
I’ll never have sex again.
Most people here will still be having conversations with my breasts (eye-level, folks).
I’ll never find any clothes my size.
This isn’t the most intellectually stimulating job.
I miss my friends and family.
I’ll never get my family and friends to visit.
… I’ve decided to stay. I know this probably won’t come as a shock to many of you. After all, I was looking for something more long term even before I set foot on Japanese soil. I will, however, be home for a visit at the end of August for my brother, Jim’s wedding.
So, that’s that. If all goes well with my review, I’m here for a while longer, which means there will be plenty more opportunities for all of you to get that inaugural letter out.
Come on kids!
I’m beggin’ ya!
I’ll take a stamped envelope for God’s sake!
Now… on to what’s been happening here.
On the potential romance front please refer to item one in the “cons” section above. I have not seen Kyoto (Remember the bar-tending teacher in Hyuga?) since his public announcement of his intentions, but I plan on heading up to Hyuga in a couple of weeks.
We’ll see if he’s a man of his publicly-spoken words.
Here in Shintomi, I’ve learned of another dating potential. If you’ll recall the 27 pink roses I received from the Town Hall Computer Boys for my birthday, I recently learned they were actually from one fellow in particular, Toshi, who also bought me the champagne. When Akiko unveiled his not-so-secret-now crush, I told her all that was left were diamonds and I’d be his love slave.
Either the translation missed the mark, or the joke did.
I’m guessing it was the latter of the two.
I decided to share the birthday bubbly with Akiko and a few of the folks from the computer department who we’ve been out with several times in Miyazaki, the capital of the prefecture.(Our first night out, we went to an Italian restaurant – they chose – and I was very amused when I noticed that as the courses began to arrive, all of our Japanese companions watched Sam and I very closely before attempting to use the over-complicated Western cutlery.)
Anyway, we planned an evening at Tomioka-san’s home where we popped the DP and had loads of wonderful food. At the end of the evening, after Akiko took Toshi and Sunada (another computer boy) to the train station, Akiko returned to inform me that, according to Toshi, I was his “Stand by Me.”
I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.
Neither did Akiko.
Whatever the intent, I’m thinking it was meant to be romantic and, so far, it’s the closest thing to an outright flirtation that I’ve gotten from him – or anyone for that matter. I know it seems I have little to complain about with two men in two towns seemingly interested in me, but the fact is if I can’t even get to a date out of either of them.
At this rate, I might as well buckle down for a long, lonely winter.
I shouldn’t complain though.
I did have a date with TWO handsome, young men recently.
There’s only one hitch.
They are two of my 14 year-old students from Kaminyuta Junior High, Mikiyo and Naotomo, who got up the nerve to ask me if I’d go to the movies with them in Miyazaki last Saturday. When I said yes to their invitation, they were so excited, they ran screaming down the school halls causing a huge commotion.
So nice to finally have that kind of reaction to going out with me mean something positive.
My young gentlemen treated me to burgers and a movie (“Total Recall” with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and tried very hard to use English the entire day (as I did the same with my Japanese). Everywhere we went, they proudly strutted on either side of me down the streets of Miyazaki as if I was Queen of the Universe. The more I drew attention to our trio, the prouder they stuck out their chests and cockadoodle-dooed.
Especially, when they ran across girls from their school.
When they walked me from the train station to the front door of my apartment at the end of the date(s), before saying good-bye, I kissed each of them on the cheek and thanked them for the lovely day out.
Then I left them on the other side of the door.
Slack-jawed and stunned.
Listening from within, I knew they’d recovered from the shock when I heard giggling, followed by feverish footsteps and excited conversation as they leapt down the stairwell (several steps at a time) and headed down the street.
Laughter echoing off the sides of the buildings until they were out of earshot.
If only the Queen of Everything hadn’t woken the following morning with a cold so monumental, a beheading would have been preferable. My office is freaking out and ready to send me to the hospital, but I’ve been quite insistent that this is not necessary. So, instead, they’re shoving gallons of green tea and every Japanese cold remedy they can think of down my throat.
They have a soda over here aptly called Pocari Sweat.
I agreed (and for the very last time, mind you) to make a speech at a local English teachers meeting recently. When I asked Yamamoto-sensei what I should talk about, he said anything – and then added, “Please include: life as a foreigner in Japan, my thoughts on the Japanese culture, team-teaching and the Japanese educational system… oh yeh, and please use some Japanese. You’ll be speaking for 40 minutes.”
Piece of cake.
That is, if the cake is flavorless and stale and sticks in your throat, causing you to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself.
I knew it would be awkward to translate only parts of my speech into Japanese, so instead I decided to write a short story that relates to my life here in Japan. I wrote the story in about two hours. It took me two weeks to translate. I worked on the speech for hours every day – getting help from Yoshino-san and Akiko-san (as well as every other member of the Board of Education – all of whom wanted to see me succeed), whether it was getting the grammar right or struggling with the pronunciation. The part of the speech I’d be doing in Japanese was only ten minutes long, but practicing it seemed as if it ran about ten hours.
On the day of the speech, I almost chickened out altogether. However, I eventually convinced my reflection not to be so damn spineless. And then I did it. I was shaking so badly at the beginning that it felt as if I was experiencing another tremor. (The very first of which I experienced recently while standing in front of one of my classes at Kaminyuta. The earth stopped shaking in a matter of seconds, but my knees were wobbly for hours.)
I’m proud to say I made it through with only a few minor stumbles. Afterward, many of the teachers were kind enough to tell me I’d done very well.
But I knew better.
I was awful.
I knew it.
They certainly knew it.
In the end though, I’m just proud I tried.
Dinner and drinks followed, so I was able to console myself in beer and oysters for several hours. The following week, I learned from Ted (a Miyazaki AET) that several of his teachers present at the event had formed the Anne Celano Fan Club.
Hey, maybe I wasn’t that bad after all.
Oh, who am I kidding?
But at least they respected the effort and for that, I’m eternally grateful.
With the heat of summer come a number of different festivals that are celebrated throughout the country. From July 13-15, there is the Bonmatsuri, or Bonodori (the festival of lanterns), a time for consoling the spirits of the dead with dance and music. During this celebration, hundreds upon hundreds of simple white, or beautifully hand-painted lanterns are lit throughout the towns.
Along the streets.
Down to the river.
Into the cemeteries and shrines.
Effusing with light this lively celebration of both gaiety and solemnity, the lanterns are lit so that ancestors may find their way back from the dead in order to bless the living.
Ancestors are highly honored here in Japan. They’re remembered not only during this celebration, but throughout the year through prayer and offerings of food, flowers, incense and tea.
Each night of the Bonmatsuri, tea is poured every hour for the visiting spirits. On the third night of the festival, hundreds of lanterns are floated down the local river. Each lantern sent in memory of an ancestor. Those which tip and extinguish, it’s said, represents a prayer that will go unheard.
In Shintomi, family and friends gathered in homes throughout the town to eat and drink and honor their deceased relatives. The first night was a perfect summer evening, as a cool breeze blew down the tiny streets of my town.
Through the farms and across our faces.
Carrying the sweet scent of life which, united with the laughter and the music, created an atmosphere that was comfortable and inviting.
Like a loved one’s long embrace.
Moving from house to house that night, performing a lively, uplifting dance for the dead, was a group of young men and women, many of whom were my students, dressed in the traditional summer yukata.
Splendid in their colors.
In their youth.
In their joy.
This would be the first of many nights of dancing and singing, fireworks and food, games and parades. All of which are a sheer delight to the eyes.
And succor to the senses.
There were countless occasions during the celebrations when I sat back with a friend or student by my side, or a fat baby on my lap, when I felt the urge to cry.
So happy to be a part of it all.
Last week, I spent four days in the mountains of Takaharu as a camp counsellor for some thirty senior high school students from around Miyazaki. It was all part of an International Relations project that gave these chosen students the opportunity to spend a few days, “Studying Abroad” in Miyazaki.
Takaharu, or more specifically, Ojibaru, is a beautiful camp site in the mountains, scattered with lovely, little cabins and a main event hall. Waterfalls and small rivers traverse the hilly scenery and at the center of it all stands a shrine built to honor the first Emperor of Japan, said to have been born in this very spot.
There were about a dozen other AETs and CIRs who took part in the event and we planned a number of games and activities, meals, talent shows, etc., to give the students a taste of our various cultures. Sam and I were put in charge of the opening day activities and decided to organize a scavenger hunt. Instead of simply having various items planted throughout the grounds, we decided to have the camp leaders dress up in various costumes. Upon finding them, the students would have to do as they ask. For instance, we had a sleeping princess in need of a kiss (Having her plastic tiara at the ready, Sam eagerly volunteered.); there were sailors you had to dance the hornpipe dance with; a pirate you had to have a sword fight with, a clown you had to juggle for, and so on. Everyone really got into the act and a good time was had by all.
Each cabin leader had six students Much to their glee, I nicknamed mine as soon as I got a feel for their personalities. There was Me-oh-my, Bashful, Cat, Plato, Confucius and Romeo.
Each leader also had a partner for the four day camp. My partner was James. Nice enough.
When not gripped by a catatonic stupor.
I managed to handle things well enough (including cooking three meals a day for eight people), while James – the poor thing (“Are things moving too fast for ya, son?”) stood by.
Taciturn, listless and useless.
There were many activities planned throughout the weekend, such as a tie-dye party, a dance, a casino, the English Language Olympics and a talent show during which all the cabins had to present an act. My cabin, which we called Shangri-la-de-dah, did one of the worst renditions of “All You Need is Love” imaginable, but had a great time despite our lack of talent.
By the end of the camp, I was exhausted, but happy that none of my campers (even the quiet one I called “Cat”, who hardly spoke a word the entire four days) wanted to go home. They even suggested that the camp next year should be an entire month.
Despite former oaths that I would never – EVER – appear on television again, I found a microphone being shoved under my nose and a T.V. camera closing in on my face on the last day of camp. The television crew caught me completely off guard while trying to cook the umpteenth meal for my crew in a small and steamy kitchen, during a 107 degree day.
As poor, pointless James stood by.
Saliva dribbling from the corner of his open mouth.(Okay, I made up the saliva part.)
I was very hot, very, very sweaty and frankly unnerved by the ambush. I tried to be patient and congenial as the reporter attempted speaking English. Apparently a student of the rote method. Watching the conversation reach new lows linguistically, I soon found myself begging him to speak Japanese just so we could wrap things before I became severely dehydrated from the profuse sweat pouring from my being.
It was a truly awful experience.One made even more ghastly when I was unfortunate enough to be given a tape of the televised event.This tape will never see the light of day and, if I can help it, be the very last of its kind. This time I mean it!
To celebrate the success of the camp, a few of us went to a disco in Miyazaki on Saturday.
That night, I was told I was a dead ringer for both Audrey Hepburn and Julia Roberts. Add these to recent comparisons to Jodie Foster and John Lennon and it all adds up.
All us Westerners DO look alike.
Greg, the AET from Saskatchewan I told you about previously, was part of the camp and joined us. In fact, he’s become a regular part of our happy, little entourage and has become a good friend to both Sam and I. He’s not only a lot of fun to hang out with and very, very humorous, but one whom I’m confident I could rely on in times of need.
For my part, it’s a rather confusing relationship. Perhaps this is because I have a bit of a crush on Greg.
And why not?
A man who can make me laugh as much as he does has always been a turn on. Add this to a great smile, sweet disposition, and abundant creative talents (he is a fantastically funny cartoonist)… how can I help it? But the signs are confusing. I don’t know whether he sees me more as the “sister” type and admittedly, I often feel the same sort of “brotherly” love.
There are times, however, when I feel there might be a spark of attraction coming from him, but neither he (nor I, for that matter) has ever “stepped into the breach,” so to speak. Which is fine, really, because I’d rather just hang out and enjoy his company and friendship rather than mess with things. I’m guessing he feels the same way.
Anyway, our happy, little band of brothers and sisters ended up dancing in Miyazaki until 4 in the morning and then, after downing some burgers, arrived back in Shintomi at the crack of dawn where the entire group crashed in my apartment.
As for any other activities worth reporting, well… I can’t say this is newsworthy, but certainly noteworthy.
Now all of you well know of my uncanny ability to attract lewd behavior across the globe.
There was my first encounter: the penis rubbed against my leg in a crowd in Italy. The masturbating man with the raincoat in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York. The flaccid drunk on the Tube in London. The under-the-table-masturbator at the Brat Stop in Wisconsin. The early morning, open door, front seat jack-off in Chicago.
Well, I’m sorry to report that it’s happened again. I can now add Japan – and of all places, Shintomi – to my list of lewd encounters. At least this time, no actual sighting of a penis was involved.
I went to the beach last Saturday and, as usual, it was completely deserted. It was a beautiful, sunny day and so I stretched out my beach towel, turned on some music and began to soak in the sun. I was singing along with Bonnie Raitt when the tape ended and I sat up to turn the cassette over.
It was then I discovered a strange, old man pacing back and forth just a few feet in front of me. Doing my best to ignore him, with the hope he would simply go away, I turned to lay on my stomach, closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the music. But even with my eyes closed, the music blaring in my headphones and the waves crashing on the shore, I sensed his presence.
I opened my eyes to find that the old letch was now laying behind me, about four feet to my right.
“Konichiwa,” he grinned, revealing what few teeth remained.
I made no reply, but offered only a dirty look in response to his invasion of my personal space and turned away. A few minutes passed and opening my eyes to peak beneath my folded arm, I looked to the spot I had last seen the old perv and sighed with relief that I no longer saw him there.
Yet something still didn’t feel right.
I immediately rose from my stomach and turned over to find this dirty, decrepit, little, old man laying directly behind me.
I’m talking inches.
Staring up my ass.
I leapt up and started screaming.
I really don’t know any dirty language in Japanese, but I screamed that he was very rude, that this was a big beach and that he should go elsewhere, or I would scream for the police.
It was then I also realized that the doddering deviant was now wearing only his underwear.
Well, that’s when every fowl word I knew in my native tongue erupted from my mouth and I grabbed the nearest piece of driftwood with which to beat the lecherous smirk off his face.
This finally sent him on his way. No doubt to jerk off behind a dune somewhere.
Oddly enough, I didn’t feel the least bit frightened. I’m confident that with the adrenaline rush I was experiencing I could’ve snapped the decaying degenerate in half without much effort. However, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so damn pissed off that this had happened to me YET AGAIN!
For God’s Sake! Why me?
And what’s even worse is that my sanctuary – my miles of desolate beach where I could be away from the ever-curious people of my village – no longer felt like a safe haven.
All I Can Say Is…
Typhoon season is once again upon us. All I can say is… the humidity and heat here make me feel like a moldy, unrecognizable leftover wrapped in Saran wrap that someone tossed from a speeding car, two months prior.
Now that my Japanese has improved most people around me are speaking at their normal speed. All I can say is… What the hell are they talking about?
Sam is getting back from a three week trip to England tonight and she’s planning on coming down to hang out at the beach here. Maybe that’s not such a good idea anymore. Anyway, not having her here for the past several weeks, I’m now certain that she’s been an absolutely vital part of my experience here. Without having Sam as a constant sounding board, shoulder to cry on, confidant, etc., I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have renewed for a second year, or for that matter, enjoyed my first year as much as I did. She’s been there to talk to me about everything. And nothing. On innumerable occasions, she’s helped me get things off my chest so that I can face the next day with a brighter outlook. All I can say is… Thank the Gods for good friends.
My love to all. I miss you and think of you often – except when in the presence of a man so good-looking that I find every cell of my body trying desperately to find a way to make him believe that I’m the woman of his dreams and that he is my love slave. That is, until I find him all too passé and dump him for the guy with all the money who’ll jet me around the world, taking me to places like Rio and Monte Carlo, where I’ll ditch him for a Duke who believes I am the Venus de Milo personified and whisks me away to his castle where I meet and decide to run away with his poor, but charming valet, Francesco, who ends up dumping me for some big-breasted bimbo named, Wanda, because of a little trick she can do with a maraschino cherry and a g-string.
Sam: Now I want you to keep an open mind. Think of it as a possibility for a truly interesting experience.
Me: Now I REALLY don’t like the sound of it.
Sam: You haven’t even let me tell you what it is!
Me: You haven’t given me any indication that I should.
Sam: Just hear me out.
Me: Why should I?
Sam: Because if you don’t, I’ll have all the disgusting pictures I have of you blown up to life-size and distributed throughout the ken. You won’t be able to go anywhere without every single man, woman and child running from you in horror. Eventually, you’ll find the only time you can slither from your home is at night, under hat and cloak, when all people (except those as heinous as yourself) lay in their beds – trying to sleep – but waking, time and time again, screaming your name and trembling with fear.
Me: I think you’ve made your point.
Sam: Little children will create games using your picture in mask form-
Me: All right, Sam, I get the picture. Just ask what you have to and leave me to my misery.
Sam: There’s a festival in Hyuga at the end of September and my office wants you and I to join in.
Me: That’s it? You want me to help out at a festival?
Sam: There’s a little more to it than that… They want us to dance.
Me: Dance? You mean the Twist, the Tango, the Hustle – something like that?
Sam: Not exactly.
Me: Well EXACTLY what kind of dance are we talking about here?
Sam: The kind that has us dressed in yukata, straw hats and geta [traditional footwear] and dancing down the streets of Hyuga for a few hours.
Sam: So what do you think?
Sam: Really, it’ll be larks. I think we should do it.
Me: Not if my life and those of my family depended on it.
Sam: I don’t think you’re being very open-minded about this.
Me: Oh, my mind is wide open! I can just see it now – the two of us stuffed into undersized yukata, falling over our feet and making total asses of ourselves in front of the entire city of Hyuga [population 300,000], most of whom already think we’re freakishly amusing! No way. You better get those photo negatives to the store-ha, ha, ha, ha, ’cause there is no way in hell I’m doing it – hee hee hee hee – US, dancing down the streets of Hyuga – ha ha ha ha – don’t make me laugh!
Me: Ha ha ha ha – yes, Sam? – hee hee hee hee-
Sam: I’ve already told them we’d do it.
Sam: They’ve already ordered the yukata, geta and tabi [split-toed socks] for us… Come on, Anne, we’ll only dance for an hour and then make our excuses.
Me: Sam, I don’t seem to be getting through to you. My answer is an unequivocal, undeniable, incontrovertible, “NO!”
(Scene flashes forward a few weeks later to the city of Hyuga.)
Me: This really isn’t happening.
Sam: Actually, it is.
(I have no witty comeback, but merely throw my dear friend my bitchiest look.)
Me: So, tell me again when this nightmare will unfold?
Sam: 11 o’clock.
Me: And what time do they want us there?
Sam: About 10 o’clock.
Me: And that’s when we practice the dance?
Me: Yeh. That’s the thing you do when you’re expected to perform something you’ve never seen or heard before. Call me a perfectionist, but I always like to make sure I understand exactly how I’ll be making a complete ass out of myself.
Sam: We’ll practice after we get into costume. Don’t worry. It’s not that difficult.
Me: Said the tightrope walker to the one-legged man.
Sam: Don’t be so negative. This is going to be fun. Remember the Yokagura?
Me: Yes! It was utterly humiliating.
Sam: Well, yes, WHILE you were doing it. But now that you look back on it…
Me: May I remind you, Sam, that that was a 10 minute dance in front of 20 or 30 very tired, very drunk or very hungover people, at 6 o’clock in the morning, on top of a mountain. This is dancing down the streets of Hyuga, in broad daylight, in front of thousands of people – stone sober – for several hours.
Sam: There’s a slight difference, isn’t there?
Me: Only slight.
Sam: But they’ll never be able to recognize us with those big, straw hats on.
(I simply offer a “Who are you kidding?” look.)
Sam: Well, whatever the case… Come on, we have to pick Maria up at the train station.
Me: Maybe I can throw myself in front of one.
Sam: I heard that!
Now Maria is a new friend of ours who lives in Nobeoka, a town just to the west of Hyuga. She teaches privately at an all-Girls’ Catholic School there. Originally, she comes from Manchester, England. She’s a very colorful character and always bound to bring something lively to a situation.
We found her waiting at the station in a mood altogether different from our own.She was actually looking forward to the event. So cheery and upbeat was Maria that she almost lifted my sour mood.
This slight surge in my will to live, however, soon catapulted downward when we entered a large room brimming with chattering and excitement. That is, until a spine-tingling silence fell upon the crowd of women when they caught sight of the three of us as we walked through the door.
I swear I could hear a pin drop.
Once the initial shock of seeing us wore off, the chattering began anew and, one by one, we were taken through the process of getting into costume.
Picture, if you will, a large room in which 40-50 very shy Japanese women are desperately trying to undress and dress without showing more than their wrists. At the same time, three Western women are running around the room, half-naked, trying to convince their dressers that it isn’t necessary to locate full length slips for them to wear beneath what they already feel will be the hottest and most uncomfortable outfit they’ve worn since the invention of the polyester jumpsuit.
The physical differences between Sam, Maria and I and the 50 or so Japanese women who stood before us seems too obvious to mention. However, it must be pointed out that the main difference – or should I say six main differences which would undoubtedly give us away as foreigners – was quite clearly our breasts, which were being bound and stuffed into gowns originally designed without any consideration of the mammary glands whatsoever.
We couldn’t help but notice many of the women glancing our way, “down” their way, and our way again, followed by gasps and concealed giggles.
Me: How are you doing over there, Sam?
Sam: I’m fi-ay-ay-ow-ay-ne.
Me: Are you sure? Your color looks a bit off. Maybe your obi is too tight.
Sam: I’ll be alri-if-I-don-breafor-the-nex-few-hours.
Me: Where’s Maria?
Maria: Here luv.
(I turned but all I could see was a sea of ark-shaped straw hats with giant, pink paper flowers.)
Maria: Don’t ask me. I can’t see a bloody thing with this hat on.
Me: I believe that’ll be more of a blessing than a curse.
Me: I’m here!
Me: Left, Maria. Now a little to the right.
Me: Hey! You look great!
Maria: So do you?
Me: How do you know, you can’t see me.
Me: I feel ridiculous.
(Sam enters, fully costumed.)
Sam: Come now. You’ll be able to tell your children about this.
Me: I’m not sure how childbirth will be physically possible after the way I’ve been bound up.
Sam: Don’t bitch, just breathe! Now let’s go learn that dance!
The dance we were being taught embodies a woman praying to the Harvest moon for her one true love. I was praying just to make it through the day without the need of therapy. Or an ambulance.Our practice session lasted about ten minutes until the three of us decided we were helpless and hopeless and that our only chance for coming out of this event with a shred of dignity was to employ the “duck and cover” strategy.
The parade began outside the Hyuga Town Hall where our dance group formed two lines and followed behind a little, white car with a big, white loudspeaker (they really love this device) that piped out the music we would be “dancing” to. After a few practice turns around the parking lot, we quickly discovered that we had no idea what we were doing.
Our fellow dancers kept assuring and reassuring us that no one would even notice us. Yet it was hard to find comfort in these promises each time one of Sam’s students passed our supposedly “inconspicuous” trio and screamed, “Samansa-sensei!”
To make matters worse, we were asked to stand at the very head of the line. Putting a total kibosh on our plans to mimic the dancers in front of us.
As if this wasn’t going to prove awkward enough, as the procession began, we were being touted as a “special attraction” to the day’s events, with the loudspeaker announcing our presence in the group every few minutes.
Necks strained all along the parade route to catch a glimpse of the “gaijin-san.”
The three of us tried to keep our conversations down to a minimum, so as not to make us too easy to pinpoint, but each time one of us looked at the other, we couldn’t helped but crack up.
Now don’t get me wrong, the dance was truly lovely and the women were both charming and graceful in their performance.
I couldn’t help but be very appreciative of my front row seat.
It’s just that I never really got the hang of it and was constantly being reminded of my ineptitude each time another familiar face burst through the crowd with a video camera in hand and a huge grin on their face.
“I AM NOT ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!”
Nevertheless, the next couple of hours managed to pass with relative ease and we soon found ourselves paused at a shrine with hundreds of other parade participants. We watched a holy man pray for our health and then stood back as a group of about thirty men, all clad in white, took hold of a portable shrine, or “mikoshi” and began the procession once more.
We followed behind. Watching the men carry the tiny shrine. Gently rocking it to and fro. Like a boat sailing atop the ocean waves.
I was spellbound.
Until the music from our little, white car with the big, white speaker called us to realign and begin the procession again. Eventually, we broke for lunch and returned to the town hall where we had an hour to rest up before dancing the remainder of the parade route.
It was then we learned that the event would go on until 6 o’clock that evening. Maria and I slowly turned toward Sam.
“What?” she laughed nervously. “It’s not that bad. We’re having fun, aren’t we? Believe me, you’ll thank-“
I had her in a headlock and Maria was giving her one hell of a “noogie” when the call of “Bieru” [beer] caused us to halt our assault and run toward the bearer of libations.
With time to kill before the procession began again, we took the opportunity to wander around the town hall to see all the other parade participants. We stopped where the local high school and junior high brass bands were warming up and that’s when Sam and I decided to do some dancing which we were far more familiar with. I led and the two of us swung and twirled, turned and jived around the parking lot (a true feat wrapped in yukata), but soon ran out of breath and stopped to a round of applause. At least now there was proof that we weren’t complete clumsy oafs.
Drawing a short straw plucked from my hat, Maria went in search of more beer, returning a short time later with a look of utter disappointment.
Sam: Where’s the beer?
Me: Gone? That’s ridiculous. It can’t be gone. Are you sure you looked in the right place?
Maria: Oh, I’m sure. I found the beer, but the bottles were all empty.
Sam: I don’t understand. We were the only ones drinking it and I specifically remember seeing an entire case. Now STOP KIDDING AROUND AND GIVE ME MY BEER!
Me: Calm yourself, Sam. There has to be a reasonable explanation… Now then… Maria…
(I said as I grabbed her shoulders and attempted to shake the truth out of her.)
Maria: For God’s sake, I’m telling the truth. You know those very shy, very demure, “Oh I-never-touch-the-stuff” ladies we’ve been dancing with? Well, they’ve been having a bloody party upstairs and drank every last drop. They’re practically swinging on the rafters.
(Suddenly, a roar of laughter could be heard as a group of about twenty women came rolling down the stairs of the town hall, smiles as wide and askew as the brims of their hats.)
Me: Well, I’ll be darned!
It has to be said that this little “pick me up” boosted morale considerably, almost to the point of mutiny. Once we began our dance again, we could hear rumblings from below the sea of straw hats behind us and the rising chant of “Bieru! Bieru! Bieru!” coming from our once “shy” little group of dancers.
The chant would continue and continue to grow louder until the little, white car with the big, white loudspeaker would be forced to stop and open the trunk containing more beer. In the end, I think we had more fun than any other group at the festival. These soft-spoken, unassuming women ended up showing a good deal of spunk.
I have to admit that 6 p.m. rolled around faster than I had expected it to and even though we were all exhausted by the day’s end, we left with smiles on our faces and truly warm feelings in our hearts.
I have Sam to thank for “volunteering” me.
She was right.
It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
I so enjoyed myself that when I returned to the office the next Monday, I showed them the dance I did and told them what a great time I had.
This was a grave mistake.
They immediately signed me up to dance in a festival in Shintomi next weekend!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.