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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I could hardly help it.

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

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

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

I felt like an utter fool.

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

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

It was too precious.

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

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

My job here is done.

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

Honestly!

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

These were not very difficult to find.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gods Help Me!

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

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

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

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

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

He answered with a lecherous smirk.

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

He doubled over in pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who the hell is Hiro, you might ask?

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

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

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

Ice cold beers always at the ready.

Smiles as plentiful as the noodles.

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

Simply awesome.

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

It’s just plain sweet.

Without a tinge of sadness or regret.

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

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Unimaginable.

This will be my last piece of correspondence from Japan.

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

Children born. Careers have changed.

Loves have been lost. Wars have been fought.

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

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

Wrought by experience, intense and profound.

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

The familiar faces of the shopkeepers.

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

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

Neighbors keeping the gossip vine tended.

Little giggles behind hidden smiles.

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Photo by acfrohna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only once have I dared to cross its threshold.

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

The brief moment I did linger made me wonder.

Should I have more faith?

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

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

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

Or run up the bank to show off their finds.

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

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

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

Leaping over yard obstacles.

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

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

I’ve never let him down.

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Photo by acfrohna

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

Sometimes I’ll make up stories.

And places.

Just to see the looks on their faces.

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

Until I hand them my bulky school bags to carry.

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

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

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

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

My bad days.

And my really bad days.

To my stumbles, my forays and follies.

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

To try something different.

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

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

I’ve had a consistent hangover for days.

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

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

And I relent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middled by sashimi.

Which the Masta knew to be my absolute favorite food.

Carrots were carved into coral.

Marinated seaweed was flowing from shells.

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

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

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Photo by acfrohna

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

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

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

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Photo by acfrohna

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

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

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

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

Probably not the best idea.

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

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

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Photo by acfrohna

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

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

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

And me a whiny, nagging drudge.

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

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

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Photo by acfrohna

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

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

In my town.

In my apartment.

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

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

That makes me truly proud and very happy for them.

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

The following is the speech I have planned:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so much at stake if we don’t.

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

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

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

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

You will ever be a part of my heart.

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

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

I have become a better person for it.

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

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

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

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

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