Juat West of the Midwest Chapter 7: School Days

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

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

Far from it.

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

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

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

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

And he’s quick to smile.

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

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

Full of giggles.

Full of life.

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

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

And laugh.

A lot.

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

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

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

I love our little journeys together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I adore her.

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

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

His students are clearly bored out of their minds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We talk about music.

Mostly Back Street Boys.

And we talk about our lives.

Mostly mine.

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

And so they, too, try to communicate.

Each sad attempt.

Each silly mistake.

The bond grows stronger.

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

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 10: Double Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, after weighing the pros and cons…

Pros:

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

Cons:

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

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

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

Come on kids!

I’m beggin’ ya!

A note.

A postcard.

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

Now… on to what’s been happening here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.

Neither did Akiko.

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

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

I shouldn’t complain though.

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

There’s only one hitch.

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photo by ac frohna

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

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

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

Especially, when they ran across girls from their school.

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

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

Slack-jawed and stunned.

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

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

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

They have a soda over here aptly called Pocari Sweat.

Just imagine what the medicine tastes like.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 25 Teachers in Takanabe Tortured by AET Trying to Talk in Foreign Tongue

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.

Anime Anne

Hey, maybe I wasn’t that bad after all.

Oh, who am I kidding?

I sucked.

But at least they respected the effort and for that, I’m eternally grateful.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 28: The Dead, The Young and One Dirty, Old Man

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.

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Photo by acfrohna

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.

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Photo by acfrohna

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.

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Photo by acfrohna

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.

Glassy-eyed.

Motionless.

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.

Still present.

I opened my eyes to find that the old letch was now laying behind me, about four feet to my right.

Ogling me.

“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.

Total Bummer.

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.
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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.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 31: If This Isn’t a Disco, Why Am I Dancing?

It all began with a phone call.

Sam: Anne, I have a favor to ask.

Me: Why do I already not like the sound of that?

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.

Me: Ha-ha.

Sam: So what do you think?

Me: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-

Sam: Really, it’ll be larks. I think we should do it.

Me: Ha-ha-ha-ha-hee-hee-hee-hee, ho-ho-ho-ho, haw-haw-haw-

Sam: Is that a yes?

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!

Sam: Anne?

Me: Ha ha ha ha – yes, Sam? – hee hee hee hee-

Sam: I’ve already told them we’d do it.

Me: -ha-ha-ha-Huh?

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?

Sam: Practice?

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.

In Tokyo.

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.

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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.

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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?

Sam: Dono-

Maria: Here luv.

(I turned but all I could see was a sea of ark-shaped straw hats with giant, pink paper flowers.)

Me: Where?

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.

Maria: Anne?

“Bump.”

Me: I’m here!

Maria: Anne?

“Thump.”

Me: Left, Maria. Now a little to the right.

Maria: Anne?

“CRASH!”

Me: Hey! You look great!

Maria: So do you?

Me: How do you know, you can’t see me.

Maria: Exactly.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Maria: …gone…

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.

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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!

Just Wet of the Midwest Chapter 32: Festival Fever

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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.

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photo by ac frohna

A stream of objects and people. Colorfully costumed.

Radiant.

Graphic.

Assembled in ensembles.

Moving en masse.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.