Just West of the Midwest Chapter 9: Two Gaijin, One Thief and Seven Police

Sam and I had five days off from school and decided that after doing some chores at our perspective homes, we would meet for a few days of sightseeing around Hyuga.

Despite the fact that typhoon number 22 was making its way across the island.

The first night I arrived in Hyuga, we headed out to find some food and drinks and ended up at an establishment we’ve been to before called Hard-Boiled. (I have no idea why and my guess is those who named it don’t have a clue either.)

The establishment was empty, except for the bartender, Kyoto, who is a teacher at one of Sam’s schools, moonlighting at the bar at night. Kyoto and I had met previously and I have to say he left a good impression on me for having an excellent sense of humor. Sam likes to tease Kyoto about speaking English (which he can manage, but only slightly), but I’m more interested in practicing Japanese and Kyoto proves very patient and supportive.

Comfortably bellied-up to the bar, Sam, Kyoto, and I spent the remainder of the night teaching each other English and Japanese phrases.

Oh yeh… and drinking.

By the time we leave the bar, Sam and I had downed just about every type of concoction Kyoto and the other bartender on duty could conjure and were literally holding each other up as we made our way through the rain and up the hill to Sam’s house.

It’s about 4 a.m.

I don’t know how we managed, but we stayed up talking – at least until the room stopped spinning – and then turned off the lights.

The next day, we dragged ourselves out of bed only to discover that the bad weather had gotten worse and there was little use in making any sightseeing plans. So, we easily fell asleep again until about noon, when we finally decided to dress and head out for some food to sop up the alcohol still churning in our stomachs.

Neither of us could find our wallets.

Being in the sorry state we were in the previous night, we figured we’d either lost them on the way home, or left them at the bar.

Strange though.

I’m sure I took my wallet (which contained 7,000 yen, about $53) out of my pants and set it on the kitchen table at Sam’s after we got home.

Then again, things were a little foggy.

Not overly concerned, we headed to the bank and took out more money.

(By the way, here in Japan, cash is King. We’re even paid in cash.)

And after buying groceries, we headed straight to Hard-Boiled.

NO. Not to drink, but to see if anyone was there.

Not a soul was in sight.

So, we decided to return that night to inquire about our missing wallets.

And stumbled home at 3:30 a.m.

No lectures, please. We’ve heard them all.

When we got home, I went to put the remaining cash I had into a brand new wallet which I chose not to carry that night, thinking there’s NO WAY I’m going to lose another wallet.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In a matter of moments, Sam and I discovered that missing is not only my new wallet, but my camera, her camera and her wallet.

It’s then a faint lightbulb appeared over our alcohol-addled brains.

“We are idiots!” I moaned. “We didn’t lose anything, we’ve been robbed – and not once, but twice!”

This time they got my cash card, my American Express card, and another 15,000 yen ($115.00).

Not knowing where to turn at such an ungodly hour, we returned to Hardboiled and told the owner what happened. Hoping he might have seen some suspicious character follow us out of the bar.

I don’t know.

Maybe somebody wearing a striped shirt and a mask.

He didn’t.

So, the bar owner called the police and reported the crime and we spent the next hour at the police station trying to explain the circumstances. Afterward, we returned home and to bed, only to be woken three hours later by the alarm we set in order to greet the Hyuga police who’d soon be arriving to investigate the scene of the crime.

Once we dragged our sorry asses out of bed, Sam went in search of someone with a good grasp of English; while I waited at Sam’s house, tidying up and trying to get the smell of alcohol and stale cigarettes out of the air.

At about 9 a.m., the police arrived.

And much to our complete and utter dismay, not one, not two, not three, but SEVEN representatives of the Hyuga Police Department invade Sam’s home.

They have cameras.

Notepads.

Fingerprinting kits.

Walkie-talkies.

The works.

And for the next three hours, they proceeded to question us (through our interpreter) about our activities of the last two nights. Needless to say, they’re shocked by our late-night carousing and (although they would be hard-pressed to admit it), more than slightly amused by the haggard, smelly, foreign women before them.

Undoubtedly fostered by the fact that Sam and I are laughing through most of the investigation.

Not that the situation is the least bit amusing.

It’s just that we were running on very little sleep.

Even less food.

And boatloads of booze is still coursing through our systems.

The longer the investigation took, the giddier we became.

Until we were so slap-happy that any question we were asked was followed by fits of uncontrollable laughter – made even worse when Sam and I were required to stand at the various crime scenes, pointing to the spot where the perpetrator had taken the items, while an officer snapped photos.

They told us this is routine.

We laughed again.

They laughed along.

Sam made coffee for everyone and shared some British goodies and souvenirs sent to her in a care package from home and after all that’s required of us had been completed, we sat back and watched the policemen perform their various duties.

A few wandered outside to look for strange footprints.

Another officer attempted to lift fingerprints off the desk where some of our stolen items had been.

Unfortunately, I had to admit to washing the desk earlier that morning in my efforts to tidy up the place before the police came.

This brought the house down.

As the merry investigation progressesd, Sam discovered that also stolen were some earrings and a bracelet. In order for the police to get a better idea of what the items looked like, Sam pulled out a photo album and showed the officers recent pictures, which happened to be of the two of us in our travels.

I watched as half of the Hyuga Police force handed the album from man to man – each of whom spent far more time than necessary skimming through the pictures.

Maybe they liked Sam’s photographic skills.

Maybe we were kind of like a freak show.

Bizarre.

A little grotesque.

Hard to look away.

Maybe they were trying to get a better grasp of just how ingrained our stupidity is.

Whatever the reason, all seven officers finally wrapped things up and depart.

Each with a tiny Union Jack fluttering in their hands.

And Sam and I spent the remainder of the day eating heavily, watching movies and trying to forget the past 48 hours.

Later that afternoon, the phone rang.

It’s one of the policemen from earlier that day who claims he has one last question to ask. This ruse is quickly uncovered when, before the phone call ends, he asked Sam out on a date.

Can you believe it?

She gets a date out of the whole thing, while I’m out 22,000 yen ($170) and left with the frightening knowledge that there are several horrendous photos of me on file – or better yet, posted on the walls of the Hyuga Police Station – none of which will land me a date with anyone but the flasher who just happens to see my picture at the station while being booked for the 29th time.

Now one would think that the story is over, wouldn’t one?

Well then… one would be wrong.

We HAD to and I mean HAD to meet some people out that night.

The entire evening had been planned around us.

So, once again, we return to Hardboiled where I learned that Kyoto has the hots for me. He did not choose to share this bit of news by seductively whispering some sweet nothings in my ear, but announced his amorous intentions to the entire bar with the same subtly a male tiger uses when spraying his intended. (Audrey!)

I guess I’m flattered, but I’d have preferred a little wooing.

Besides that, the remainder of the evening was rather subdued and, believe it or not, Sam and I were home before one a.m.

And relatively sober.

I put my last 3,000 yen in my purse and after talking for a short while, we called it an evening.

Before I passed out – from exhaustion, mind you – I’m sure I heard a noise outside Sam’s house. However, I convinced myself that it was merely an overactive imagination spurred on by the past days’ events.

Wrong.

We woke the next morning to find that we’d been robbed.

Yet again.

Bringing the grand cash total to 25,000 yen.

I’m so very, very glad Sam and I chose to stay in Hyuga in order to save money for our Christmas vacation.

This, of course, led to another police investigation, but one not nearly as mirthful as the last.

The officers investigating this time are humorless and condescending.And clearly think Sam and I are a pair of brainless bimbos who don’t know their right boobs from their left.

Not that I can blame them.

To top it all off, we were called in to Sam’s office where her supervisor sternly lectured us on the fact that we have an image to uphold and that our behavior – although on our own free time – was unacceptable. (Even though that behavior was in the company of many of his other employees behaving the same way, but who are not being lectured. The difference? They’re all men.)

I was never more glad to see my little town and my futon.

But sleep was restless.

I was certain that first thing Monday morning, after hearing all the gory details from Sam’s supervisor, I was going to receive the same lecture from my superiors at the Board of Education.

Yet no lecture followed.

Kacho told me he got the anticipated phone call.

Hosa shook his head disapprovingly, but said nothing.

And then, as they turned back to their work, I can see they’re doing everything they can to hold back their smiles.

Did I tell you that I love my town?

That’s all for now, my friends.

May the sun shine brightly on your days. But not in your eyes, causing you to swerve recklessly into another lane, where you take out a few cement pylons and a brand new BMW, owned by a big man named Luigi, who doesn’t want to call the police.He’d just prefer to break your legs.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 10: Double Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, after weighing the pros and cons…

Pros:

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

Cons:

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

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

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

Come on kids!

I’m beggin’ ya!

A note.

A postcard.

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

Now… on to what’s been happening here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.

Neither did Akiko.

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

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

I shouldn’t complain though.

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

There’s only one hitch.

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photo by ac frohna

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

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

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

Especially, when they ran across girls from their school.

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

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

Slack-jawed and stunned.

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

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

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

They have a soda over here aptly called Pocari Sweat.

Just imagine what the medicine tastes like.

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

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

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

Things were off to a good start.

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

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

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

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

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photos by ac frohna

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

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

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

Resplendent.

Perfection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw, Mom, not wild boar AGAIN!”

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

Sheer volume.

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

And caged wild boars.

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

He really is a very sweet fellow.

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

Yes, he’s kind.

Yes, he’s fun – and funny.

Yes he’s single.

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

But I’m just not feeling “it”.

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

But I can’t help it.

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

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

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

I actually enjoy being single.

I like the freedom.

I like the flirtations.

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

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

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

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

And with that, on with the story at hand.

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

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

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

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

Kyoto was suddenly looking more attractive.

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

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

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

The scenery was extraordinary.

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

Subdued.

Serene.

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

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

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

In traditional clothing.

Earthenware. Art. Music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can hardly wait.

All I Can Say Is…<

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

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

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

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

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

Acutely focused.

Seeing nothing.

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

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

She wiped her glasses.

Then looked again.

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

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

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

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

Or was it an illusion?

But there he slept.

Motionless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A steadily accelerating drumbeat.

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

And the day was fading away.

So on he went.

Down the road.

Toward home.

Just west of the Midwest Chapter 15: Hong Kong Holiday

Even though our dreams of laying on a beach somewhere quickly began to fade as we found most resorts booked and travel prices far out of our range, Sam and I finally managed to make arrangements to travel to Hong Kong over the Christmas/New Year holiday.

Trying to avoid any more frustrations over the ridiculous nature of Christmas in Japan (A time of giving musical toilet paper holders and diamond-studded toothpicks, as well as a complete disregard for the true nature of the holiday, said the non-Catholic Catholic whose entrance into church starts the walls trembling and bleeding.), Sam and I headed across Kyushu to Kagoshima on Christmas Eve, where the following day we would catch our flight to Hong Kong via Dragon Airlines.

After dining on Okanomiyaki (a savory Japanese-style pancake would be the best way to describe this delectable fare) in a small establishment where we were, as usual, the focus of far too much attention, going to a karaoke bar (where our waiter was dressed in a plastic Frosty the Snowman costume and we were surrounded by gaggles of giggling, pouty-faced women), Sam and I went in search of any quiet, dark place where we could drink in peace and obscurity.

Sadly, all we found were streets filled with drunks bent on throwing obscene comments our way and an increasing desire to return to our hotel room where we could patiently wait for our plane to take us far, far away from the land of the Rising Sun, which has recently begun to test my patience and sunny disposition, God Damn It!

If some of you are thinking the “Honeymoon Period” in Japan has ended, you would be absolutely correct. However, don’t misunderstand. I’m still happy here and plan on staying for another year, but this isn’t heaven and I’m certainly no angel. Things here have been getting on my nerves lately, especially regarding what a foreigner living in rural Japan often has to deal with on a daily basis. The stereotypical assumptions of what many Japanese think it means to be a “gaijin” can be very, very frustrating. For this very reason, a vacation has become far more than a luxury.

It’s become an absolute necessity.

And we’re hoping a cosmopolitan environ such as Hong Kong will be just the ticket to restore our peace of mind and love of Japan.

Christmas Day we hopped aboard our plane and three hours later, we found ourselves descending over the bustling city of Hong Kong. After the initial shock of landing at the airport – which is akin to threading a needle, as the pilot must maneuver between a massive sea of skyscrapers in order to find the airstrip – we headed to the Bangkok Royal Hotel in the center of the shopping district of Kowloon.

Hong Kong is, more or less, divided into three major territories: Kowloon and the New Territory (which can be found on the mainland) and Hong Kong Island, just across the bay. From our first glimpse of the city through the window of the bus, Hong Kong looked frighteningly similar to my first impressions of Tokyo.

But this was soon proven entirely incorrect.

After settling into our very small and very dark (there being no window and obviously no fire regulations), but clean and cheap room, we headed into the light to check out our new surroundings, absolutely giddy to be somewhere other than Japan. It took only a few minutes of wandering down the street to see why Hong Kong is considered a shopper’s paradise. In a one block radius, we saw just about every kind of store imaginable.

And the streets were swarming with life.

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Photo by acfrohna

I can’t recall ever being in a city before where the ethnicities of its people were so diverse – a true melting pot. There are British, Chinese, African, American, Australian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, German, and on and on. As I walked and listened to all the different languages being spoken and looked at the magnificently diverse complexions and comportments, I couldn’t help but feel I’d just walked into this human spice shop where every sight and every smell sent my senses reeling with exciting possibilities. Even the common language of English being spoken here was brimming with a global variety of accents and inflections. And the atmosphere – combining the ancient and modern, Asian and Western, opulent and oppressed – created by this multicultural gathering was absolutely enthralling.

As the sun dipped behind the skyline and our stomachs ached for sustenance, Sam and I  began to scan the neighborhood for an inviting place to eat. Not knowing what we wanted and having every cuisine imaginable to choose from, we hoped we would be given a sign – a direction.

What we got, however, was even more confused.

The still teeming streets were now beginning to flicker and glow as neon lights and electric signs switched on, creating a collage of color, shape and motion; while the activity in motion below also fused together in a steady, colorful stream of people and automobiles.

Trucks were honking.

Shop owners were hawking.

Fish markets were squiggling.

The homeless and crippled were begging.

Street vendors barking.

And I was struggling to take it all in.

It was good to be out and about – and unnoticed –  here. To have the film of “gaijin” washed away. Or, at least, replaced by “just another bloody foreigner.”

We were finally drawn in by the smells of a Thai restaurant (cleverly called the Thai Cuisine Restaurant) and there, for the next several hours, we proceeded to order – and eat – enough food and beer for eight.

And that was our Christmas.

It was awesome.

The following day, Sam and I decided to venture over to Hong Kong Island, so we hopped on a crowded ferry and chugged across the bay. Like most of the public transportation in Hong Kong (which offers everything from trollies and trains to ferries and double-decker buses), it was fast and cheap, and very efficient. I realize this information might be as interesting to all of you as a rerun of “Gnat: the Tiny Wonder of the Insect World, an Historic Overview,” but considering the size and locality of things here, I thought it was worth mentioning.

So sue me.

After sitting down and perusing our newly purchased “Where to go and what to do in Hong Kong” books, we came to the conclusion that… we still didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to do or how to get there. In the end, we put our books back into our bags, licked our fingers, pointed them towards the sky…

and followed the wind.

This brilliant tactic eventually led us to a main thoroughfare and on to a tram headed “eastish”… Or maybe it was northward.

Whatever the case, neither Sam or I were going to let a little thing like a “plan” get in the way of having fun. What we soon discovered about Hong Kong was that around every corner there was something fascinating to discover. So, with no direction in mind, we found ourselves wandering up narrow, twisting roads, down long, steep, crooked stairs and through crowded markets where smells ranged from the putrid to the divine and the sights went from the truly grand to the utterly grotesque.

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Photo by acfrohna

At a fish market, I wandered from basket to basket taking it all in, lingering only once when I suddenly found myself transfixed by a fish monger who took a large eel from a writhing bucket of eels and “chop!” Grabbing both ends of the creature – still squiggling violently – he then tossed them into an old woman’s basket who couldn’t have looked more blasé about her half-dead dinner, bloody and squirming at the bottom of her basket.

Here, the taste for the unusual can bring you face to face with animals most would shudder at finding on their dinner plate. This reality came smashing down on me after wandering into a store filled with animals in cages: cats, owls, rats, armadillos.

I assumed the establishment was an exotic pet store.

Until the shop owner made the internationally recognized sign for shoveling “cat” in one’s mouth, followed by rubbing the stomach with a “that was yummy” look on his face. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised considering you can go into a local apothecary here and find items such as tiger balls, sea dog penis, antlers, ears and a variety of dried body parts that, frankly, aren’t meant to be anywhere but attached to their rightful owner.

All of a sudden, the thought of seeing the shop owner wrap up one of these helpless creatures knowing it was someone’s dinner forced me to shiver and make a hasty exit.

As we continued to wander around the city, I noticed that Hong Kong certainly has its share of excessively ugly modern architecture, but I was also overjoyed when we found, hidden signs of what was once not only a rich, ancient culture, but a powerful British Colony and a link to the Western World.

Intermixed with the tin shanties and grimy, characterless high-rises, there are cobbled streets that lead to charming manors, reflecting the grace and elegance of Victorian England. While smaller lanes house shadows of ancient dynasties.

Even though we failed to see any of the things we set our sights on, it was a really good day.

To sum up our activities: picture two women who’ve been living in a country where, for the past five months, they’ve been earning more money than they’ve ever made before and can’t spend any of it on really cool Japanese designers (such as Yoji Yamamoto), because their size, in Japan, is looked upon as something abnormal. Now picture the same two women in Hong Kong, a city where fashion is function, where clothes are available in every color and size AND at a fraction of the cost. It was a veritable shopping frenzy and we’re proud to report that not a single fashion-related fatality occurred as a result of our ungoverned enthusiasm. I also managed to check off my double-digit gift list for family, friends, and my Shintomi-cho family, and their friends and… associates. Gift giving is HUGE in Japan. Especially Omiyage, which are little souvenirs you’re expected to bring back from vacation for friends and co-workers.

Slightly depressed about having to be selfless and think of others, Sam and I quit shopping late in the afternoon and went to have a bite to eat.

Yes… and a few beers.

What are you, my parents?

We found ourselves at a restaurant we had read about called Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, where we were told there was great music and, even more important, rowdy Australian men with whom we could reaffirm our ability to attract and flirt with the opposite sex. So fun was this little excursion, we set our sights on returning later that evening.

When we did, we found the bar crowded and reverberating with Dixieland Jazz, laughter and clinking glasses. Sam and I found two seats right in front of the band and sat down next to a handsome man and his equally handsome friend. While awaiting our pitcher of beer, our attempts to display our subtle, feminine charms and our fancy new duds (still creased from the store folds) to our good-looking neighbors had an immediate effect.

The handsome pair departed.

Sadly, and somewhat ironically, they were replaced by two Japanese businessmen. Look, I have nothing against the Japanese businessman, per se, it’s just that I’m on vacation. A getaway from Japan. AND in a setting where English is the language of love and I was desperate to speak it!

Suddenly, as if good fortune was going to be my friend that day, a very, very, very handsome man (I’m talking John Lone in “The Last Emperor of China” handsome) situated himself just beside our table. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him and felt a courage – or a couple of beers – rouse my gumption. Seeing the perfect opportunity, I tapped him on the shoulder and offered to fill his empty beer glass. He accepted… smiled, and… turned back around to face the band.

Drat.

But shrugging it off in my definitive “men are pigs” manner, I turned to Sam with a shrug and returned to the music. A few moments later, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and turned to find the very, very, very handsome man handing me a drink and saying in this low, sultry, come hither, posh British accent, “It is Chinese tradition to always return a favor.”

And with that, he introduced himself.

His name is Raymond. He’s 29, a police officer with the rank of sergeant, and he speaks English beautifully. He is taller than me, sexier than anyone I HAVE EVER MET IN MY LIFE and has an infectious smile.

We talked and talked and talked.

We danced and drank and danced.

So excited about this possible tryst, I excused myself to the ladies’ room at one point during the evening. As soon as the door behind me closed, I uncorked a squeal of joy at my good fortune, startling the woman coming out of the stall, who slowly backed from the bathroom with her cautious eyes never once leaving me.

It was 2:30 a.m. when the bartenders finally drove out the crowds and us with it. Sam, who had spent the evening at a nearby table with an Austrian named Guntrab moved on with him, Raymond’s friend, Mike, called it an evening.

And then… there were two.

Raymond took me to a dark, smoky jazz bar where we danced and held each other tighter and tighter and… in order to preserve some level of self-respect… Flash forward to the next day when I returned to the Bangkok Royal Hotel with a smile on my face, a spring in my step and wanton, wickedly good memories of my first time in a Love Hotel (a common accommodation in Japan as well), where couples of all shapes, types and marital status, go to get it on.

Think pink neon.

Ceiling mirrors.

A round bed.

Red satin sheets.

And “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

I’d blush, but I don’t wanna.

Being with Raymond is not only exciting, but really easy.

If he just lived closer.Say… my apartment in Shintomi.

It seems that my chance for a great romance isn’t just a joke, it’s an interminable itch. Anyway, the day after the night at the Love Hotel, Sam (who was a good girl, but horribly hungover) and I decided that if we were going to feel this bad, then we had to at least look good. So, we dragged our sad bodies from bed, went to the nearest restaurant, ordered heaps of food (only half of which we were able eat due to the fact that our red, puffy eyes were bigger than our beer-soaked stomachs), and then walked into a salon right across the street.

An hour and two short, sassy haircuts later (photos would reveal our haircuts were certainly short, but not in the least bit sassy), Sam and I revealed ourselves to the outside world. However, we stayed in close range of our hotel for fear that any sudden urge to lapse into an alcohol-induced coma could be easily appeased. Even though the remainder of the day was about as un-cultural and uneventful as one could imagine, I did check a few more people off my gift list and then fell into a sound sleep early that night.

I might as well confess this right here and right now. The only days during our vacation that Sam and I were up before noon were when we either hadn’t gone to sleep the night before or had to wake up early to catch our plane home. Our motto: “We’re on vacation and can do what we damn well please.”

And if that wasn’t rationalization enough, how about the fact that even though Hong Kong is an exciting, diverse, fascinating city, it does lack cultural attractions.

Really!

It’s true, I tell you.

Sam and I did attempt a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of Art (one of the few museums in the city) and were disappointed to find it under renovation. We also visited the Space Museum and watched the Omnimax film “To the Limit.,” which I had already seen a year ago in Chicago.

But that was about it for cultural enlightenment. At least on our end.

The staff at the Royal Bangkok Hotel, on the other hand, were clearly finding Sam and I a most fascinating anthropologic study of two nocturnally driven, Western females with bad haircuts. In fact,  the only time they ever saw us come out of our windowless, cavelike dwelling was after dark. Only to return just before dawn. It wouldn’t have surprise me in the least if I had found the chambermaid stashing a stake beneath a stack of sheets when she cleaned our room.

But what we missed in experiencing the daylight hours of Hong Kong, I am proud to say, I made up for in the time I spent with Raymond taking in Hong Kong’s nightlife. Holding hands and stealing kisses, we roamed from one glittering alleyway to the next, taking in all the inner-city smells and sights, stopping in at one spot or another to listen to jazz, or dance at a disco, and then back out into the busy streets again to visit the late night food stalls and people watch.

The only unfortunate part was during our first official evening out together with Sam and Raymond’s friend – and boss – Mike (did I fail to mention that they were out with Raymond and I). The chemistry was that of water and fire. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Mike was proving to be a great big, balding, unwelcome, unrelenting, flaming ball of noxious gas. The more Sam turned down his increasingly adamant flirtations, the stronger his advances and the more uncomfortable everyone was becoming.

In order to help Sam get away from this raving putz, we were forced to call it a relatively early evening. Being that Raymond lived over an hour away and had an early shift in the morning, he asked if he could stay with Sam and I.

What did I think about spending the night watching the incredibly sweet and breathtakingly handsome Raymond sleep just inches from me?

The problem was that we had to do this without Mike the Menace knowing. Even though Sam couldn’t have been more clear in her revulsion of him, Mike had reached psycho status by the end of the night when he actually had the nerve to ask Sam to spend the night with him.

I’ve never known anyone to be so utterly clueless.

Or was it delusional?

So the plan was that Raymond would “leave” with his psychotic superior (Mike, by the way, is a Chief Inspector for the Hong Kong Police), pretend to be dropped off at the train station, and then meet us back at the hotel where Sam and I were anxiously waiting for him in our recently purchased matching polkadot pajamas. I lent Raymond a pair of shorts for sleeping in, then the three of us (Sam in her bed and Raymond and I snuggled up in mine) shared a few more laughs – many at Maniac Mike’s expense – and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

That is, until I felt a tap on my shoulder and opened my eyes to find Sam, with what was coming into focus as a panic-stricken face.

“I need your help,” she whispered loudly.

“For God’s sake, Sam,” I grumbled, “Can’t it wait until morning?”

“No, I don’t think so. This is SERIOUS, Anne.”

“What, Sam? What is sooooo serious?”

“Well…well…well… I, I, I pulled the sink from the wall and now the bathroom is flooding with steaming, hot water.”

I sat up and shook my head to make sure I heard her right.

“What did you say?”

“Our room is about to look like a suite on the Titanic. What should I do?”

“What do I look like Rosie the Plumber?:

This just confused my British chum.

Did you try turning the water off?

“No.”

“Well,” I croaked, as the hotel fire alarm drowned out my reply, “that might have been a good idea.”

“It might be time to call for help,” I yelled above the alarm and turned to see Raymond momentarily rouse and then roll over back to sleep.

Talk about your heavy sleeper. (I could have totally made out with him and he wouldn’t have suspected a thing.)

Anyhoo, Sam ran for help.

After assuring the steward that she was not smoking in bed, he sped into the room (pausing briefly when he saw a man in one of the beds) got to the water pipes, stopped the flooding, and began cleaning up the broken glass and water. Seeing I could be of little help, I rolled over to join Raymond still in a deep sleep. My last thoughts were how the hotel staff was going to interpret this new anthropological behavior: two girls with matching polka dot pajamas, one handsome stranger in woman’s shorts who was either sleeping heavily, dead drunk, in a coma, or dead, one sink pulled from the wall.

Hmmmmmmmm.

The next morning, Raymond, who, believe it or not, was absolutely oblivious to the aforementioned mishap, headed off to work at about 9 a.m., looking a little disheveled. Which, by golly, made him even more handsome.

Did I tell you he had an infectious smile?

Sam and I curled back up in our beds as she tried to explain exactly what had happened. Apparently, she got up to do what most… well… do in there, when she started having the spins. Naturally, in order to steady herself, she grabbed the nearest thing – the sink – and the rest is history.

A short time later, the front desk called to say that our room was now considered dangerous (Funny actually, considering the fact that the flooded floors in our windowless room would be the only thing which might keep us safe in case of fire.) and would we mind switching rooms. So, we spent the next 12 hours packing, moving, eating, sleeping, waking, eating, sleeping, sleeping and then, add to that, a little more sleeping.

The following day we dragged our sorry butts out of the hotel (However, not before noon.) and got on a boat bound for the island of Lantau. There we rode an hour on a tour bus to the top of a mountain where lies a Buddhist Monastery.

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Photo by acfrohna

Both the ride up and the monastery were magnificent, but I would have preferred about 5,000 less tourists, more time to explore, a chance to use the riding stables nearby, and an hour or so to relax in the lovely tea garden we passed. But the incredibly irritating tour guide time schedule has little patience for pause, so back we hurried to the mainland.

It was New Year’s Eve and I had plans to meet Raymond at 11 o’clock at Ned Kelly’s, so Sam and I gussied ourselves up and got to the bar around 9 p.m. to find it packed to the rafters. Unable to find two seats, we stood by the bar and ordered a few beers. Before too long, a group of four men and one woman invited us to join their already crowded table.

The holiday spirit was everywhere, so we accepted and squeezed ourselves in.

We soon learned our companions were Federal Express pilots and crew and although the population should thank its lucky stars these guys aren’t flying lots of folks around, they were a hell of a lot of fun. Especially a fellow named Bob, who could swing dance like the east coast fellows I knew and adored back in college. We were on fire on the dance floor that night and despite the serious lack of space available for tripping the light fantastic, we caused little damage and had a blast.

It also took my mind off the fact that it was well past 11 o’clock and Raymond was no where to be found.

Trying to “see the glass half-fucking full” and focusing on our fine new company of friends, I managed to glance at the bar clock out of the corners of my eyes a mere six or seven times during the eleventh hour, but was completely beside myself with disappointment when the band began its countdown to ring in the new year.

Ten.

No Raymond.

Nine.

No Raymond.

Eight.

Still no Raymond.

I couldn’t take it and headed for the bathroom before everyone began to exchange kisses.

It’s funny, I thought as I quickly serpentined to the very back of the crammed saloon, this is the one night each year which affords a person the opportunity to let down their guard and do something they’d NEVER think of doing any other night of the year. Kiss a perfect stranger. And I was running away from it.

I turned and stood, looking out across the bar for a moment, thinking about how lovely the whole scene was. Glancing once more toward the entrance of the bar – no sign of Raymond – I turned to continue my temporary escape from the celebration. As I walked down the deserted back hallway, I began to pass by a very good-looking fellow. The next thing I knew, he grabbed me and planted a long, lovely kiss on my shocked face.

He then smiled, wished me a Happy New Year with a mysterious accent and vanished into the crowd.

Leaving me standing there.

Stunned.

Knees trembling.

As if I had just received my very first kiss.

Well, I thought to myself, if I was going to be stood up… that wasn’t a bad way to get over it. So, I headed back to our table with a glint in my eye.

And there stood Raymond.

Did I tell you he had an infectious smile?

He apologized for being late, explaining he was involved in an arrest. I told him that the safety of Hong Kong’s citizens was no excuse for standing up a person you’ve known for nearly a week. He laughed, apologized again, and vowed it would never happen again.

After receiving my long-awaited New Year’s kiss from Raymond, he introduced me to his friend, whom he had brought along to make amends for Mike the Molester from the other night (Whom, by the way, we had somehow been finagled into sightseeing with tomorrow.), but Sam already had her sights set on Bob the Fed Ex Pilot. So, Raymond’s friend soon excused himself, leaving the two of us to search for more romantic atmospheres.

It was, indeed, the happiest of New Years.

The next morning, Mike the Mental Case called at 10 a.m. about our excursion. Rolling over to see Sam was no where in sight – and not really expecting to – I asked Mike if I could call him back later, hung up the phone and instantly fell back asleep. Some time later, Sam returned with the same kind of grin I donned earlier that week and threw herself on the bed. From our prone positions, where we needed to use only our lip muscles, we spent the next hour exchanging stories – until the phone rang out like a siren, warning us of our doomed afternoon with Inspector Insanity. The only bright light to the event was that Raymond planned to meet us for dinner at what is supposed to be one of the best Szechuan restaurants in Hong Kong.

To try to sum up the afternoon: it went from bad to beastly, only to end up abominably.

And even though we were taken to some very interesting and legendary Hong Kong establishments, such as the Royal Jockey Club (being an inspector in Hong Kong must pay very well), the awesome atmosphere couldn’t overshadow the fact that this man was an incredibly pompous ass who didn’t care one iota for anything either Sam or I had to say.

About anything.

The fifteen years of experience Chief Inspector Asshole amassed in Hong Kong might have actually been amusing, but the more I tried to engage in this apparently one-man-show by asking questions and adding my two cents to the conversation, the more he turned his attention to hitting on Sam, which – quite frankly – was being received with about the same warmth as another bitter, gray day at the end of a Midwest winter. To top it all off, Raymond, who was supposed to be joining us later, called to say he wouldn’t be able to meet up for dinner that night. We were stuck – alone – with this horrible man for the remainder of what was proving to be the longest day in recorded history, unable to think of a way out of this increasingly uncomfortable trio.

To explain just how sad and delusional this guy was; while walking to the restaurant where we were supposed to be meeting Raymond, Mike the Masher kept making attempt after attempt to grab – and hold – Sam’s hand. Her response (and this is after telling him several times that she wasn’t interested) was a simple and brutally direct, “No!”

Oddly enough, he kept at it.

It was the weirdest thing to witness this travesty from a few paces behind. So persistent were his attempts to hold Sam’s hand that even slapping it away had little effect. In the end, she was forced to hold her arm behind her back. Even then, he reached back and attempted to grab her hand once more.

This was getting way too creepy.

Why we made no attempts to bail out at this point is strong testament to the damage alcohol has on the brain cells. Instead, we hurried through one of the most intensely tense (but intensely delicious) meals of my life. Preparing to breathe a collective sigh of relief when we pulled up to our hotel entrance, “Dr. Strangelove” offered one more perversity.

He attempted to kiss BOTH Sam and I goodnight.

Wow… if the safety of Hong Kong’s citizens depends upon this man… parents, lock up your children.

The next day, Sam and I happily escaped Hong Kong for Macau, a Portuguese settlement located an hour’s hovercraft journey from the mainland. The tourist books had Sam and I all excited for a day of roaming through an ancient, charming, seaside town with a piece of history around each quaint corner. What we found the moment we disembarked the hovercraft was a city overrun with high-rises, tacky casinos, seedy-looking characters and pawn shops.

Nevertheless, we were relieved to discover that tucked away, here and there, were at least some of the beautiful remains of the city’s past; statues and buildings which spoke of the town’s multicultural history, and, most important, a really good meal. This, however, was not enough reason to parlay the day into anything more than hanging out until the next hovercraft’s departure.

The brightest spot of the day was seeing Raymond that night who took us dancing with two of his friends. By the evening’s end, Sam went off to pull an all-nighter with the Iowa State Hockey team we met and I was left alone with Raymond to savor the last few moments of looking into his disarmingly handsome face before returning to Japan the day after tomorrow.

I did tell you he had an infectious smile, didn’t I?

We spent our final day in Hong Kong doing what you can do best in Hong Kong.

Shopping.

It was our last chance to get the final omiyage needed in order to avoid a major cultural faux pas back in Japan. I was supposed to see Raymond again tonight, but I didn’t hear from him and decided not to call, feeling as if our late nights together had probably caused him enough undue hardship at his incredibly taxing and dangerous job. But I did mail him a little note, thanking him for such wonderful memories of Hong Kong.

And sighed all the way to the airport.

That night, Sam and I got back to my apartment; unpacked, bathed and spent the remainder of the night quiet and introspective, sobered by the full realization of how different our lives are here; how really isolated from the rest of the world we sometimes feel on our little island of Kyushu.

I began to wonder whether vacations were really worth it. After all, I said to Sam, you’re always left to face the inevitable return to everyday life – which can feel even more disappointing than before you escaped.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Raymond.

He called to say how sorry he was we didn’t get to see each other my last night in Hong Kong. He asked when I planned to return. He also teased me with the suggestion that he might make it to Japan.

I did tell you he had an infectious smile, right?

Sorry… What was I saying?

Oh yeh, vacations. Are they really worth it?

Damn right they are.

Love to you all.

It’s my sincere hope that the new year ahead is filled with handsome men, starry nights, round beds, a stomach of steel and a sense of humor.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 18: Spring in Shintomi

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Photos by acfrohna

Well, it’s my third week in the office due to the fact that it’s spring break and there’s no school. So, I’ve been trying to keep myself busy with various work-related activities, studying my Japanese and working on new stories.

Here in Shintomi, the temperature (and humidity) is on the rise. The cherry (sakura) blossoms are beginning to fall from the trees. Sad as it is to see the beautiful blossoms disappear, wildflowers are waking throughout the town.

Brightly colored petals are cropping up along the streets and the river banks.

In the parks and in the fields.

In neighborhood gardens and flower pots.

Brightening the gray, rainy days and my spirits.

I headed to the beach each day after work where I often find myself alone and loving every solitary moment. I’ve begun to jog again (okay, you can stop laughing now) and am finding it a great tension reliever – as is the long strip of deserted beach where, because of strong tides, no swimming is allowed. I must confess, I occasionally sing into the prevailing winds at the top of my lungs, dance a wild, unabashed, unbridled jig and have, more than once, built a sandcastle and then crushed it unmercifully like Godzilla – all without curious eyes watching me. During my recent jog-walks to the beach (about 2 miles) I have also discovered some charming parts of Shintomi that I hadn’t known existed.

Where old, wooden barns, stained with times gone by, stand at the edge of rice fields in their early stages of growth.

The young crop sprouts methodically and meticulously from its watery beds. In the reflection of each patch, the scattered clouds and light blue skies, the wooden shacks and passing strangers seem even more real, more earthy, more harmonious and serene than the world they reflect.

The winds often carry the scent of wildflowers mixed with the pungent, but pleasant aroma of the local dairy farms and the unmistakably salty smell of the ocean. It’s a strange but comforting combination that I wish I could bottle and save for years from now when memories of my time here have faded.

Passing the farms along my route, bowing to and greeting those I meet, I look to their furrowed faces and small, strong frames and am reminded of the toil in working the earth. The old men and women shuffle along, their backs twisted and bent from years of stooping over rice fields and under cows. Like rings on a tree, their faces are impressed with browned, rough wrinkles that mark their years.

Their smiles often toothless, but never missing warmth.Their eyes, drooped and tired, still exuding an extraordinary spirit, causing me to wonder, “What would I see if I looked from those eyes?”

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Occasionally, I run across some of my students playing ball at the steps of a small shrine, or hide and seek in an overgrown field that looks like fur on the back of a giant green dog. Nearly always, they stop in mid-motion and run to my side where they smile shyly and look to one another for the courage to speak.

I’m still amazed by the fact that even though I have become a familiar face, my presence can still cause such commotion – both quiet and un. I always try to melt away any apprehension with a warm smile, a little Japanese and, for my littlest students, a big hug.

Admittedly, it isn’t always easy because I’m simply not always in the most cordial of moods. Yet no matter how much I first strain my facial muscles into something kind and welcoming, by the end of nearly every encounter, I wear my smile as easily and comfortably as a pair of faded old jeans.

I’ve also had fun discovering the many small shrines tucked away down tiny streets and hidden alleys in my little town. Shrines are well-worn and well-loved here in Japan and even though I am a devout heathen (or at least heartily convinced that organized religions have been the source of much of the world’s prejudices and conflicts), I find the simplicity of Shintoism and Buddhism enticing. In truth, I enjoy spending time among the mossy green shrines, beneath the newly blossoming cherry trees, with my new community, giving thanks.

Akiko stood me before at an alter during the recent festival celebrating children and in her broken English, told me to clap three times and then bow, which I did. She then told me to hold the bow for as long as possible.

“The longer you hold,” she explained as she turned her own head toward me and gently smiled, “the more the spirits will see your devotion and the higher your blessings.”

I wanted to tell her how very blessed my life already was.

But I simply held my bow and smiled.Silent.Grateful.Contented.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 19 Burying the Fat Man

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Glover House and Garden, Nagasaki, photo by acfrohna

A couple of weeks ago, Sam and I went with my office to Nagasaki. We left Shintomi at 3 a.m. and arrived at the western coast of the island at about 8 a.m. At which point, we began a whirlwind tour of every tourist sight you could possibly see in one day. (Quite a change from the usual sloth-like behavior Sam and I have become accustomed to on our excursions.) If I had a choice – some kind of happy medium would be preferable.

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Glover House and Garden, Nagasaki, photo by acfrohna

We visited the Dutch Village (an odd theme park re-creating the Netherlands) and the Glover House and Garden, built by a Scottish trader who played a key role when Japan opened it’s doors to the outside world in the mid-19th century.

We were having a wonderful time, mind you, but I often felt that even though our Japanese companions were looking at everything, they weren’t really “seeing” anything. Except, that is, for our visit to the Atomic Museum and Nagasaki Heiwa Kōen (Peace Park).

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Kuranaga-kacho, me, Sam, Oki-Hosa, Yoshino-san at Nagasaki Heiwa Kōen (Peace Park).

As you’ll remember from your history lessons, Nagasaki was the unfortunate, second recipient of the atomic bomb. Early on the morning of August 9, 1945, the “Fat Man” was dropped on this coastal city, instantly killing some 73,000 people and injuring (let’s be honest, slowly killing) about 74,000 others. That’s nearly 150,000 out of a population of 240,000.

Nagasaki wasn’t the original target, either. But due to bad weather, the choice was made to drop it here.

Shiroyama Elementary School was ground zero.

At one end of Heiwa Kōen, sits a giant buddha-like statue. His left hand extends out to the world, palm facing down in a gesture calling for peace among all people. His right arm points to the heavens, to the clouds from where the bomb was dropped. His eyes are closed – not to the death and destruction, but in a prayer to end all wars and to offer all victims a prayer for eternal peace.

At the opposite end of the park lies the Fountain of Peace honoring all those who died when the bomb was dropped and to the many who died afterward from the contaminated waters they drank to quench their thirst and cleanse their wounds. The fountain sprays its water upwards, in the shape of a dove’s wings and all are welcome to drink from it.

The place is lovely, yet somber, and overlooks Nagasaki, now an incredibly charming city on the East China Sea.

It’s hard to imagine what this very spot looked like 46 years ago.

After the “Fat Man” paid a visit.

The museum, however, drew a graphic, horrid, painful picture.

The subject of nuclear war is certainly not new to me. Afterall, I have a B.A. in “How We’ve Screwed Things Up on Earth” (aka Sociology). I was even an organizer and the Master of Ceremonies at an anti-nuclear protest in college. But god almighty. I was standing in the very same spot where just a few decades ago, thousands lay burned and mutilated.

Weeping and screaming.

I was also standing beside two colleagues who had been children when their country’s challenge to the world was met with atrocious consequences.The museum had black and white pictures enlarged to life size showing scenes of charred bodies which looked like nothing more than sand figures eroded by the wind.

Of a city flattened in seconds.

Of chaos and confusion.

One picture in particular will stay etched in my memory for many years to come – a mother, badly burned, holding her infant child to her breast. The baby, also burned, trying desperately to find nourishment from his mother’s battered body.

Over 20 million lives were lost in WWII, but it was the babies and children I saw that day and the haunting similarities of my students’ faces in theirs that made me ache.

There was no doubt about it…

at exactly 11:02 a.m., on August 9, 1945, hell fell from the skies of Nagasaki.

With spirits deflated, we made this the last stop of the day and headed to our hotel where we could wash off the film of sadness and gather together in peace and friendship.

That night, we lifted our moods with an elaborate dinner, good company and lighthearted conversation.

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As for the rest of happenings here, Monbusho (the National Education Office) finally gave the go ahead for renewing my contract and so we’ve been busy planning next year’s schedule. It looks like everyone here is pleased with the decision and another year’s employment takes a load off my mind as well.

Sam and I will be heading to Korea in a few weeks, after which I’ll be heading back to Chicago for my brother’s wedding. I haven’t heard from Raymond lately, so there go my plans for having a handsome date for the event – or, for that matter, a steamy romance with a Hong Kong police officer. I knew it was going to be difficult to make this baby fly, but I hoped it would’ve at least gotten off the ground. I must admit, however (she says as she blushes), the male situation has picked up a bit here.

Maybe it’s due to my ever-increasing grasp of the language, my always effervescent personality, or maybe a few of the men here have simply become tired of waiting to get their hands on my big, American breasts. Whatever it is, I’m enjoying the attention.

No… I haven’t exactly ended it with Kyoto.

No lectures, please!

We hardly ever see one another and the blow-off speech I translated is really geared to that kind of relationship. Anyway, he has tickets to Keith Jarret (no, not Leif Garret!) in Miyazaki this weekend.

In my own defense (inspired by reading a recent article about the dating scene in Japan), there is a serious lack of dateable females in Japan. According to this article (and I certainly believe EVERYTHING I read) women here are often finding themselves with several different boyfriends – each suited for different purposes: expensive dinners, running errands, buying presents, etc. The article goes on to say that dateable men are expected to have the following: the basic, nice car, good fashion sense, money, a good job and… (wait for it)… a smooth complexion a razor simply can’t offer. That’s right ladies, young, single Japanese males are now expected to have facial electrolysis in order to please their women.

Who says Japanese women have no power?

It does, however, makes me wonder how Japanese men feel about female facial hair (being still unwaxed and fire-free)? In light of this new information, I figure it’s okay to continue going on the occasional weekend excursion with Kyoto.

All I Can Say Is….

  • A few weekends ago, I spent great sums of money and an entire day in Miyazaki City searching for the proper ingredients with which to make Chicken Cacciatore for some friends I’ve invited over from the office. I managed to find everything down to the mushrooms, borrowed a carload of pots, pans, dishes and silverware, set a beautiful western-styled table and cooked all day Sunday. All I can is… if that dinner was a reflection of my outer beauty, I’d be Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe all rolled into one!
  • Speaking of food. I’m always amazed by the amount of food the average Japanese can put away. They claim that it’s ALL good for you and won’t make you heavy. All I can say is… why then, after a year of eating the exact same food, do I trigger the local earthquake siren when I jog?
  • Locally and nationally, elections are currently taking place in Japan and the campaigning is fierce. Strapping concert-sized speakers to the roofs of little, white cars and vans, candidates scour (or should I say scurge) the cities of Japan. My town’s mini, mobile daises (which menacingly roam the streets at all hours) have, on several occasions already, jerked me from nightmares of a strangely similar ilk. From the bowels of their gas propelled soapbox, the candidate and his wife call out unending campaign promises, followed by an absolute overindulgence of “Arigato Gozaimasu,” delivered by a voice that causes one to question when it was that Minnie Mouse became a helium addict. All I can say is… if the Japanese had used similar tortures on Allied prisoners in WWII (“Make it stop!! For god’s sake, MAKE IT STOP!!”), the Japanese would now own ALL of our major corporations, instead of just 95% of them.

I hope this letter finds friends and family in excellent health and good spirits, with love in your heart and peace in your mind… and maybe a tranquilizer gun at your shoulder, aimed at all extraordinarily loud and irritating politicians.

I love you all and think of you often.