Just West of the Midwest Chapter 1: The beginning

Long centuries ago, when the world was a shadowy mist, the islands of Japan were born of the sea. Among the many gods inhabiting the misty abode were Izanagi and Izanami.

One day, while they were standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, talking with each other, Izanagi said: ‘I wonder what is down below us?’ This aroused Izanami’s curiosity, and they began to think how they might find out.

Taking the Jewel Spear of Heaven, Izanagi lowered it into the air and swung it around in an effort to strike something, for he could not see through the dense mist. Suddenly, the spear touched the ocean. When Izanagi raised it, salty water dripping from it was dried by the wind, becoming hard, and forming an island in the middle of the sea.

‘Let us go down and live on the island,’ said Izanagi. And so they descended from the Floating Bridge of Heaven to live on the island.

~as told by Morton Wesley Huber in his book, Vanishing Japan, published in 1965

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Student/Teacher storyboard artwork

Dedicated to my girlfriends: Audrey, Caralyn, Catherine, Jean, Maria, Megan and Betsy, to whom I wrote these shared journals. Without their kudos (the best coming in the form of laughter) and encouragement (especially in rereading their letters twenty years later) I never would have been inspired to document the good, bad, brazen and bizarre experiences during my two years in Japan.
To my Shintomi Family, who never failed to share their love and their lives with me and, who never – ever – questioned the many hours I spent at the Board of Education Office writing these journals when I really should have been working.

And then, of course, to Sam, who helped me live it and then joyously re-visit it 20 years later.

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Photo by acfrohna

August 11 to December 13, 1990; Getting the Hell Out of Dodge

This is the first officially unofficial correspondence to all my dear friends back home since arriving in Japan just seven days ago. I’ve been here in Tokyo for an orientation with 1,500 JET, AETs (Japanese Exchange in Teaching, Assistant English Teachers) from across the English-speaking globe. Sadly, 100% of all the attractive, English-speaking men I’ve met here are going to be everywhere BUT the village where I’ll be employed. Even sadder is that this piece of news made top priority in the lineup of what is and what is not going on in my life. But I have to be honest in saying to all of you, I’m hoping the next year proves to be far more… abundant, shall we say, than the past male-starved millenium has been for me in Chicago.

Climbing our way back to higher ground, or at least to sea level… my time in Tokyo has been very interesting. I’ve only been able to catch a glimpse of this populous metropolis, this eensy-weensy economic powerhouse, but my first impression is that it is very glittery, very crowded, very, VERY expensive, expansive and a feat in organized chaos. Personally, I can see a weekend sourjourn here during the year to explore its darker “Blade Runner” feel, but after the past five years struggling to make ends meet in the big city back home, I’m looking forward to a little country livin’.

My rural haven will be south of Tokyo.

On the island of Kyushu.

In the prefecture of Miyazaki.

Shintomi Cho, the town where I’ll live and work, is a tiny farming village of about 19,000 people (“tiny” for Japanese standards) and is best known for the vegetables grown there.

It’s said that the region where I’ll be residing is where the Gods initially descended from the heavens and reigned over the country and I’m anxious to explore everything from the volcanic crater of Mt. Aso to the wild horses and monkeys roaming Nichinan Kaigan.

While in Tokyo, I’ve had a chance to see Graham.

If you’ll think back to the onset of all this, Graham (who was a participant in the JET Program during its first two years and is now living here in Tokyo) is the reason I’m writing to you from half-way across the world. As you well know, ever since the latter part of his tumultuous relationship with my sister, Mia, I had become his sounding board and, in turn, he was obligated to listen to me gripe about my miserable existence.

Graham knew I was struggling – working three dead-end jobs (the total income of which put me snuggly just below poverty level), trying to finish my Masters in English at DePaul University.

Dealing with past due bills.

And a fucked-up-friend-turned-temporary-roommate.

Wanting desperately to get the hell out of Dodge.

“Have you ever thought about going to Japan?” was how he began the conversation.

I hadn’t.

But leaving behind my insolvent, sexless, sorry-ass subsistence in the Windy City had me instantly thinking about it.

After all, I’d travelled.

Explored.

Why not Japan?

The next thing I knew, I was filling out my application to the Japanese Ministry of Education for a year’s employment in the JET (Japanese Exchange in Teaching) Program and crossing my fingers.

Admittedly, this exciting, new prospect made it very difficult for me to concentrate on all the books and notebooks piled high in my pint-sized apartment in Chicago. Be that as it may, in a few, short weeks, I was expected to take the comprehensive exams which would determine whether I would earn my M.A. in English, or find myself in exorbitant debt for naught – as us literary types like to say.

Despite the daunting task of cramming a Dickensian proportion of literature into my brain – while at the same time trying to keep my lettered ass above water on the reality homefront – I mustered up enough resolve to buckle down and concentrate.

I got through my exams and continued in my daily struggles (trying not to put too much hope on my getting into the JET program) until the day I received a call from a sugary-voiced lady from the Japanese Consulate in Chicago who informed me I had made the final cut and was scheduled for an interview.
This was it, my ticket outta here!

Don’t be nervous, I told myself repeatedly, don’t panic and whatever you do, Anne, for God’s sake…. don’t screw this up.

When the day of the interview came, I was led into a large banquet hall where, along the back wall, a long table with a starched, white tablecloth stretched from one side to the other. Behind the table with pens and clipboards, pitchers of water and stacks of files, sat a panel of (if I recall correctly) somewhere between 8 and 80 people, all reviewing my incredibly unremarkable dossier.
The next thing I knew, I was in the thick of it.

“Yes, I’ve travelled abroad.”

“No, I don’t think being far from home will be an issue.”

“I’d much prefer being located rurally. This way, I feel I could get to know the people, the culture and even the lanuage better.”

“No, I don’t speak a word of Japanese, but I’m anxious to learn.”

“I think international understanding is vital to the fabric of our global community.”

I was on fire!

And not just my stomach, which was smoldering with coffee, cigarettes and a steady diet of cottage cheese and baked potatoes (both filling and cost effective!).

I felt it.

They saw it.

I even made them laugh (or at least smile). I showed them a confiident, poised individual dedicated to a common cause.

I was a “Let’s Do This Thing!”, never-say-die, woman-of-the-nineties – which my research and pep talks with Graham assured me would go over well with the my Japanese interviewers.

It did.

I was accepted into the program soon after and started making plans to wrap things up in Chicago as tidily as posiible. My about-to-be-former, far-too-well-to-do-to-be-freeloading friend was told she needed to find other living arrangements.

I gave my notice to all my places of employment, started selling my furniture, packing up my life, and reassuring remaining friends, family – and myself – that all would be well.

At least better than what my life had become in Chicago.

Which left me so destitute that if it hadn’t been for the love and generosity of my Aunt and Uncle (my father, having his lion’s share of financials woes) I wouldn’t have had a penny until my first paycheck in Japan.

And so, here I am in Tokyo, staying in one of the top hotels in the city, where we are being treated – dare I say it – like media-hounded celebrities. (This program has received a lot of press in Japan – both positive and negative.)
It’s just too bad we’re having to endure a tortuous amount of terminally uninspiring seminars attempting to prepare us not only for our new jobs, but our new lives in this ancient, unfamiliar culture.

The good news is that I’ve found another workshop-challenged cohort in my new British friend, Sam, who’ll be living in the city of Hyuga, about 45 minutes north of me.

STOP right where you are my friends. Sam is short for Samantha and although she isn’t a he, she and I have instantly bonded and are happy to begin our adventure together as a “we.”

So what exactly is it that “we” have gotten ourselves into?

Sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the JET program was not only designed to promote international understanding (a lofty task, indeed), but even more important, was created to advance the efforts of teaching and learning English as a second language.

Most Japanese kids begin taking English classes very early on and are required to study through high school. The problem is that for as long as anyone could remember (at least since the American occupation in post-WWII Japan), Japanese students have been taught the language by rote – memorization and repetition. In addition to what most now consider an outdated and incredibly unsuccessful teaching method, the English being used in the textbooks is so awkward and archaic that it has little to bear on the real world or real language.

So, the JET program gathers English-speaking persons from around the world and scatters them among the classrooms of Japan where they work alongside Japanese English teachers in order to bring a new energy and inspiration to uninteresting, outdated textbooks and ineffective teaching techniques.

Some people love the idea, while others both openly and inaudibly (the Japanese don’t like to cause public scenes), yet indubitably express their disapproval – the quietest outcry coming from the teachers who only know the language as it reads in the textbook; and we were assured that each of us will likely encounter at least one of these “teachers by rote” in our roster of classroom partners.

The most valuable thing I came away with from the seminars we attended this week was that there is clearly a lot of work to be done and high expectations on all parts. On the whole, however, I think we can make a difference and I’m excited to get started.

So, onward ho.

To Shintomi-cho, on the eastern shores of Miyazaki Prefecture, on the largest of the southernmost islands, Kyushu.

My new home away from home.

I’ll write again once I’ve settled in.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 2: Just West of the Midwest

With the orientation behind us, twenty-three of us boarded a plane bound for Miyazaki City, the capital of the prefecture where we would be employed. After landing, claiming our baggage, and moving as a nervous pack of science rats through a giant maze, fellow participants in the experiment began to scatter as each found their respective town representatives, or (if you insist on continuing with this analogy) “pieces of cheese.”

After exchanging strained and anxious smiles with Sam from across the room, I found myself chin to forehead with Yamamoto-sensei (sensei, meaning teacher), who will be working with me at one of the three middle schools I’ll be teaching at: Tonda, Nyuta and Kaminyuta Chugakko.

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Me with Oki-Hosa (l) and Yamamoto-sensei (r)

He was joined by two other gentlemen (Oki-Hosa and Kuranaga-kacho) from the Board of Education where I’ll be stationed before the school year begins and where I’ll have a desk when I’m not scheduled for a school visit.

If anything can be said about this unexpected detour from a hot shower and a deep sleep, it’s that I now have the bowing and proper greetings down flat.

I found quick comfort in the fact that these men seemed as nervous as I.

Although the town had been assigned an American AET the year prior, she was of Japanese-American descent and far less, “exotic-looking” than what had just walked through the airport gates. And what did they really know about this conspicuously-sized American gaijin (gaijin, meaning “outsider,” though if you ask most tactful Japanese, they’ll attempt to make it sound far less insulting).

We made it through introductions (Yamamoto-sensei acting as translator) and before there was time for an uncomfortable pause, the entire JET entourage was led into a large room at the airport for a press conference.

Despite the unexpected arrival of “Aunt Flo” (who had just barged onto the scene with a bloody vengeance), the completely overblown media attention, AND the overwhelming desire I had to slither from the scene, the televised event passed without international incident.

Afterward, the two cars they sent for me (in case I overpacked…which I did) were packed up and I settled into the back seat of the lead car.

Breathing a long sigh of relief.

Knowing I was soon headed to my new apartment.

Where I planned to unpack, unwind and sleep for an exorbitant amount of time.

As we headed north to Shintomi, the surreal nature of everything that had happened over the past week suddenly began to fade and the reality of the situation became as clear as the spotless windshield I was gazing out of as the Japanese farmland whizzed past.

Holy crap, Batman. I’m here… and for a year!

During the half hour ride, Yamamoto-sensei restlessly thumbed through my file – which I have since learned was copied and given to nearly every member of the Town Hall and nearly every teacher/faculty member where I’ll be team-teaching.

Who subsequently shared it with just about every member of the village who is old enough to read.

Yamamoto-sensei attempted to break the ice by asking a lot of questions about my life – marriage being near the very top of the list. In other words, at 27 years old, why am I not?

As attempts were made to keep the driver and passengers from experiencing a moment’s silence, I smiled, answered their questions, and occasionally gazed out of the car window as we whizzed past the scenery of Japan’s Pacific coast.

Thick and green to its very rocky edge in one place.

Long stretches of desolate beaches a few miles further along.

As we left the highway for smaller, narrower streets, I saw the coastal scenery quickly replaced by flat meadows, thick with yellow, creeping to the edge of a river.

On the other side of which – more yellow, stretching to meet a range of misty mountains.

Down the road a bit, as my tired gaze grew more gauzy and my hosts more comfortable in the silence, we passed one rice paddy after the next, neat and tidy.

Perfect rows.

Perfect stillness.

Each patch perfectly reflecting the surrounding trees and tropics, sun and sky. Making my mind wander toward visions of patchwork quilts, windswept prairies, rows of young corn, “knee-high by the Fourth of July.”

Thoughts of home.

We passed fields upon fields of ripening vegetables – daikon and cabbage, sweet potatoes and carrots, each pungent and promising; and one watery channel after another where, Yamamoto-sensei explained, eels (a staple in Japanese cuisine and Shintomi’s economy) are raised.

As we passed a moist, green pasture scattered with grazing cattle, I noticed buildings appearing in greater frequency. First, it was merely a weatherbeaten, old farmhouse or outbuilding at the side of the road, but soon the streets began to fill with tiny shops and modest houses.

Faded but orderly.

Well-groomed and practical – if not beautiful – schools and offices playgrounds.

Yet amid the unassuming architecture, I noticed everywhere shadowy shrines and inviting gardens – the elegant undertones of customs and colors – which made me want to wander aimlessly and as soon as possible.

As we wound our way through town, all of the gentlemen in the car pointed at places of interest and of use, but I wasn’t really listening.

My mind was reeling with how utterly unfamiliar this was going to be from the last five years I spent floundering in Chicago.

I’m up for a World of different.

However, at this point in my adventure, the only thing I wanted to encounter was my apartment.

And a pillow.

My hosts had their own agenda.

First, I was paraded through the corridors of Shintomi’s Town Hall.

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Shintomi Town Hall, photo by acfrohna

If anything could be said about this unexpected detour from a hot shower and a deep sleep, it’s that I now have the bowing and  proper greetings down flat.

And this is no easy task, my friends, for there are many complexities which make up the Japanese Office Culture.

This industry of industry.

This world of uniformed workers, where business cards are handed out like handshakes and three-tiered greetings, as well as ceremonious departures are as much a part of life as crew cuts, white shirts, green tea, exercise, ties clips, white gloves, parasols and sensible shoes.

Walking through the town hall for the very first time, surrounded by my pint-sized, Board of Education posse, I was led into a machine gun round of official, formal introductions with every Head Hancho from every department.

The final, official, formal greetings of the day was at the Board of Education office where I’ll be working. There, I met the Superintendent, a soft-spoken man who quietly arrived, presented the rest of his staff, showed me my desk and then quietly disappeared into the crowd of curious bystanders.

So there I stood in my new office.

This peculiar environment of pushed together desks with thick, yellowing, plastic desk-protectors, folders, forms and neatly stacked file cabinets.

My new bosses and co-workers hovering silently nearby as I swayed with exhaustion.

I was soon whisked away by an expanded posse of SIX.

Both little, white cars now filled to capacity.

Added to the evening’s entourage are Board of Education staff members: a young woman, Akiko-san, a middle-aged woman, Yoshino-san, as well as Hiejima-kakaricho, the office’s chief clerk.

Within moments of leaving the Town Hall, our tiny parade pulled up to Shin Machi Shin Danchi and my apartment complex, which looks about as welcoming as a cell block.

With no traces whatsoever of the simple, elegance of Japanese architecture I’d envisioned for months prior to my arrival, I have to admit I was a little disappointed.

This disappointment was immediately vanquished when I saw I had little to complain about. My apartment is very spacious.

More room than I need, really, especially considering multiple generations of Japanese families regularly share one the very same size.

I have three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom which boasts (there is a God) a good, ol’ sit down, Western toilet. I’ve quickly discovered that this is more of a luxury than I had ever, in my wildest dreams, imagined. I don’t know if this applies only to the more rural parts of Japan, but nearly everywhere I go and have to “go” I am forced to practice the fine art of squatting over a porcelain hole in the ground.

Because of this ungainly position, it’s probably fortuitous that someone, somewhere in Japan invented a little recording device for public bathroom stalls. Devices which has been designed to play music to veil the potentially embarrassing sounds associated with relieving oneself.

I’ve even heard the recording of a toilet flushing used for the same purpose.

Go figure.

As unaccustomed to squatting as I am (especially where no tent is pitched), bathroom visits have also become a muscle-burning workout, during which time the grunts and groans one hears emanating from my stall might be seriously misconstrued.

The Western toilet, however, is about the only thing familiar about the apartment.

Two of the rooms, divided by a screen, have tatami floors where I spend most of my time. Not only because this is where I unroll my bed each night, but because this is where my heating/ac unit is installed and being a sub-tropic region with cold winters and hot, humid summers this will surely be my favorite fixture in the apartment.

It certainly won’t be the florescent lighting installed in the ceiling of every room – the turning on of which casts a morbid pall over my complexion.

And my mood.

… nor will it be the Japanese-style bathtub.

What could be so different about a bathtub, you ask?

Ah ha, my friends, this isn’t the long, low receptacle we’ve all come to know and love; where one soaks in hot water and Mr. Bubbles after a grueling day.

The official story is that you’re not supposed to wash off in a Japanese-style tub at all, but suds yourself up outside the bath (which resembles more of a box), rinse, and then step into the tub for a soak.

Before any of this can happen, the water must be heated.

That’s right. After I fill the large, plastic box with H20, I’ve been instructed to ignite the pilot light (situated on the side of the tub), turn the dial to the desired temperature… and wait.

About 30 minutes.

The water in the kitchen also requires heating.

And there is no oven.

Only a two burner stove top.

A rice cooker.

And an itsy-bitsy washing machine that might be able to squeeze in one pair of jeans.

The grand tour of my new digs felt like a scene out of Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.”

Convicts chained together.

The entire Shintomi Board of Education shuffling from room to room.

I began to feel the weight of the past days on my eyelids and was trying to figure out how I could gently persuade my gang to ‘git.

What was I thinking?

The seven of us piled back into the cars and headed off to a local restaurant for a welcome dinner. It was here I met Junko-san, a quiet, apologetic type, who’ll be assisting me in teaching a series of adult English classes at the Community Center.

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l to r: Kuranaga-kacho, Yamamoto-sensei, Oki-Hosa, Yoshino-san, Akiko-san and Junko-san

She relieved Yamamoto-sensei of some of the translating duties as we dove into a feast of fresh fish and cold beer. This is definitely something I WILL NOT have to get used to. Every morsel and every sip of it was heaven sent.

Throughout the evening, I felt anxious glances greeting my every motion. Their unspoken curiousness and unasked questions were palpable. How would I handle hashi (chopsticks)? How long will it be before we can communicate with each other? How can she put away that much beer? How does someone of that size not collapse under the sheer weight of herself?

Actually, their genuine concern for my comfort was of great comfort.

The only instance that brought a moment’s worth of awkwardness was when I first sat down at the restaurant. As is customary whenever I sit on the floor, I crossed my legs.

Keep in mind, I was wearing shorts and tights.

I had failed to notice that all three women were sitting primly and properly on their knees, with their hands folded gently on their laps, and would have continued to be utterly ignorant of this unseemly, unfeminine posture had it not been for Yoshino-san, who approached me quietly from one side.

And slipped a handkerchief over my… how do I put this delicately?

Crotch.

Not a word was spoken about it (not that I would have understood it anyway) and I made an effort for the remainder of the evening to at least attempt sitting with my legs folded to the side.

I did try sitting on my feet in the same manner my female companions, but soon discovered that the leg flailing brought on by cramps caused by maintaining this position for more than 10 seconds would have proven far more embarrassing than an innocent, little groin shot.

When the dinner was over, I was relieved to learn that the women (Junko, Yoshino and Akiko) would be taking me back to my apartment, while the men continued celebrating my arrival at a local Karaoke bar.

The Karaoke bar, if you are not familiar with it, hails from these parts and can be found on nearly every corner of every community – large or Lilliputian.

They are usually small, dark establishments which serve (at least in Shintomi-cho) an array of alcohol – as long as it’s whiskey, shochyu (a local fermented beverage made from sweet potatoes) or beer.

A fixture in nearly every karaoke bar is the Mama-san. Usually in her 50s, dressed in a dazzling kimono or a baffling brocade suit (better suited for a sofa), caked in make-up without looking like it, this tiny, but near-terrifying presence lords over the bar with polite yet stern solemnity, making sure that patrons are well-served and, if over-served, rowdiness is kept to a minimum.

And then, of course, every Karaoke bar is equipped with music videos and microphones.

Now, the kind of music played here is not something a buck will buy you from an old juke box, but a series of sappy sounding, sing-along melodies played on a video screen, ranging from traditional Japanese ballads to obscure renditions of American Jazz standards.

At some point in the evening, each person (and EVERYONE is expected to participate) is handed a microphone and asked to sing their chosen song to a captive and politely captivated audience.

Sometimes you might find yourself standing on a small, spotlit stage and other times, you’re able to hide in a dark booth in the corner. Either way, you are socially obligated to belt out a tune.

For those of us not familiar with the traditional Japanese songs, most local establishments have a handful of Western melodies, such as “Yesterday” (Which, by the way, offers a five minute video of naked Japanese girls writhing on the screen); “My Way,” “Love Me Tender,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Moon River,” and the ever-popular, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

I wish I could say that I am able to perform this ritual in the unassuming shadows.

But that would be silly.

It’s become painfully obvious that I don’t go unnoticed doing anything – anywhere in Shintomi.

However, I’ve learned that the drunker my audience, the more appreciative they are.

And the drunker I am, the better I think I sound.

So I’ve learned to hold off on my song until the end of the evening.

With that said, my first evening in Shintomi finally came to a close.

As the men from my new office continued on with the celebration, Akiko, Yoshino and Junko brought me back to my apartment and after making sure I was settled in, left me on my own for the very first time since I set foot in Shintomi.

As soon as the door closed, my exhaustion morphed into nervous excitement.

I circled the apartment.

A few times.

I unpacked my things.

I called Sam, who was also feeling anxious and nervous.

Which made me feel much better.

So did a soak in the tub.

That’s right.

I soaked IN the sudsy tub for an hour.

Protocol be damned!

Then I tossed and turned on my futon until I heard a neighborhood rooster crow early the next morning.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 3: Dazed and Confused

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Photo by acfrohna

At about 7 a.m., as I laid in my futon surveying my new surroundings, I heard some kind of nearby machine come to life in a series of clicks.

Followed by several bongs (and not the good kind).

And then a sickeningly sweet, yet strangely soothing voice of a woman who was wishing me (and from the sound of it, the remainder of the town), “Ohaiyo Gozaimasu” (Good Morning).

Still groggy from a restless night’s sleep, I couldn’t tell exactly where the voice was coming from, so I crawled from my bed and, assuming it to be emanating from somewhere outside, I opened the sliding door which leads out onto a small balcony overlooking the town.

I waited for the voice to speak again.

When it did, I realized that the voice wasn’t coming from the streets.

It was coming from my apartment.

So, I followed it until I found what I like to call the Clicky Machine mounted in the corner of the room just off the kitchen. The device, so I was later by Yamamoto-sensei, is used to warn the citizens of Shintomi of impending foul weather and such.

Foul weather or fair, it will act as a communal alarm clock each and every morning during my stay here.

So much for hitting the snooze button.

After slowly dressing and making some tea, I headed downstairs where, at precisely 9 a.m., Yamamoto-sensei arrived to take me to meet the mayor of Shintomi and more high ranking, local officials.

When we arrived back at Shintomi Town Hall, I was led into a reception room and there, with my introduction speech now soggy and crumpled in my hands, I waited with eight men and a local photographer.

Each silently watching my every move.

Shy smiles and nods of acknowledgement giving way to the only motion left in the room.

The clock’s second hand… ticking… away… the minutes.

Eventually,  we were led into the mayor’s office where I would be welcomed with a short speech.

Followed by my feeble, yet remarkably long-winded “thanks for having me here” speech in both Japanese and English.

Followed by several campaign-style photo-ops.

When the preliminary formalities were concluded, I was motioned to have a seat on the mayor’s leather couch and in doing so made some unfortunate sounds as my perspiring thighs rubbed against unsympathetic upholstery.

Rattled and red-faced, I smiled weakly.

Then I noticed that each man in the room had a copy of my bio.

Nothing in there is going to get us through this any faster, my friends.

Thank goodness, the day ended with Akiko-san inviting me to a jazz festival in the neighboring town of Saito.

It was the fist time since arriving that I remembered to breathe.

Initial Observations:

  • I’ve never been so excited; while at the same time so petrified.
  • So far, I’ve met the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, the governor of Miyazaki prefecture and the mayor of the Shintomi.
  • They’re all at least five inches shorter than me.
  • Japanese is not an easy language to learn. Think of everything you know about our native tongue and… forget it. It doesn’t apply. However, I’m studying hard (ok, I’m studying) and I should be able to face the general Japanese public by sometime early next year.
  • The people of Shintomi are lovely and thoughtful.
  • But they only drive little, white cars.
  • I visited my first store in Shintomi on my own the other day to look for a reading lamp to replace the overhead florescent lighting installed throughout my apartment. I found a lamp, approached the counter and nervously attempted Japanese, but ended up playing a highly animated game of universal charades instead. I somehow managed to purchase the lamp, brought it home and – feeling a strong sense of accomplishment – plugged it in.
  • It’s frickin’ florescent.
  • I might have a chance at “romance” here having already been propositioned by two men.
  • Sadly, both were thirty years older… and about five inches shorter than me.
  • It’s Saturday night and I’m writing to you instead of being out there looking for aforementioned romance, or at least a little fun.
  • It seems Japanese women aren’t allowed too much fun.
  • I’ll be playing in a community volleyball tournament next week. This might be the only time my height will be advantageous.
  • The Japanese seem to have a million different rituals, gestures, sayings, etc.
  • Customs precede your every move.
  • Kindness and respect are not considered special efforts but are a given and vital part of daily existence.
  • At first these “givens” seem a trifle overwhelming – the greetings and the multiple “thank yous”, the blessings, the bowing and kneeling – even eating and drinking appear far too complicated. But as I begin to find my footing in these new surroundings, I’m learning to appreciate the grace in each motion and every saying.
  • I went to Miyazaki for yet another unremarkable JET orientation and then went shopping with Sam. Miyazaki has some fantastic clothing stores.
  • None of the clothes fit.
  • The town bought me a satellite hook-up so I can keep in touch with the happenings in the world on the English-speaking station.
  • I’m starting to talk to the television.
  • Everyone I meet wants to know how old I am, why I don’t wear make-up, why I’m not married, why I came to Japan, why I wanted to teach rurally, what I like to eat, what color are my eyes, what size are my shoes, how long are my legs?… Christ… didn’t they read my file?
  • I miss you all terribly and vow that if you don’t write soon I’ll throw myself into a boiling batch of miso soup.
  • I probably won’t drown because my head will be 5 inches above broth.

You think I’m exaggerating.

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Just West of the Midwest Chapter 4: The Finer Points of Flop Sweat

First thing this morning, I’m driven to the Community Center where, before the onset of their annual Tsunahiki (Tug of War), I’m to greet all 1,000 middle school students whom I’ll be teaching this year.I knew I’d be expected to say something to the young crowd, but I’d been so preoccupied with coming up with a speech for my meeting with the mayor and an upcoming conference in Miyazaki, that I arrive at the center completely unprepared.

Being August in this sub-tropic region it is sweltering and because of my very strong desire to cover up my psoriasis, I’m completely overdressed.  So, by the time I step foot into the packed gymnasium, I’m dripping with sweat.

I don’t mean perspiring.

I mean DRIPPING with sweat.

There are beads of perspiration pouring down my face. stinging my eyes, soaking my top and drenching my hair.

Leaving me longing for a handkerchief.

Or better yet, a very large bath towel.

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This is how my day felt… I’m the one with the horns. (Student/Teacher artwork)

As I stand to the side, trying desperately to pay attention to the speeches being given on my behalf, literally quivering with anxiety over what I’m going say, I look down to the shiny, polished wooden floor at my feet and am aghast to see an actual puddle of nerves.

I fidget with my damp shorts. I fuss with my wristwatch.

I feel the unrelenting urge to weep and long for a cool, dark place to hide.

Dizzy with heat, I hear my name. It sounds like it’s being spoken underwater.

Akiko-san (who’s been standing at my side, attempting to sooth my conspicuous distress with her sympathetic smile) gently nudges me forward.

Legs still wobbling, I step toward the microphone.

First step.

You can do it, Anne.

Second step.

There’s nothing to be nervous about.

Third st-

The next thing I know, the customary slipper I’ve been required to slip into before stepping onto the pristine gymnasium floor, is catapulting ahead of me into the first row of the surprised student crowd.

Some duck.

Others giggle.

I cringe as I retrieve my footwear from the first row and turn back to the microphone. It feels like I’m walking in the shallow end of a pool.

I search desperately for the very first words I’d speak to my students.

“Ohaiyo gozaimasu,” I stutter into the microphone as the sound of my shaky voice reverberates off the gymnasium walls, mocking me.

“Atsui, desu ne? [Hot, isn’t it?].” I stammer, attempting to laugh.

Nothing but silence.And a lot of staring.

I introduce myself in Japanese, apologize for my poor grasp of the language and stand there before the hushed crowd, trembling.

Grasping for words.

Even my native tongue evades me.That is, until I hear myself say, “I expect to see you all in class with smiles on your faces.”

At which point I bring my index fingers to the corners of my mouth and actually pull up a smile.

A freaky, sad clown smile.

What an idiot.

What deafening silence.

I quickly thank everyone and as I’m returning to my place… I slip on my very own puddle of flop sweat, just barely averting an ass plant, yet propelling the very same slipper into the hushed and bewildered crowd of teachers and administrators standing behind me.

So much for first impressions.

As the students disperse and regather into their tug-of-war groups, I make my way back to Akiko’s friendly, forgiving smile and signal her to lead me to the nearest bathroom.

There, I stick my head beneath the sink and unsuccessfully attempt to drown myself.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 5: All in a Day’s Week

Day in and day out, for the last six weeks, upon returning home after a hard day of teaching English to the young minds of rural Japan, there’s an unmistakable twinge in my stomach each time I approach the mailbox, a desperate, glimmer of hope that when I open it-

“Creeeeaaaaak!”

– there will be at least one letter from at least one person who dares call me friend.

Much to my chagrin, I swing the door open and bend down, sweat falls into my already tear-stung eyes and the only thing I find inside is the faint echo of my last visit.

“Damn – damn – damn…”

“No letters – letters – letters…”

And I walk to the stairs of my apartment, sighing and crying.

Crying and sighing.

Look, when we said good-bye in July, I didn’t think it meant, “Talk to you when you get back.”

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This is how I feel each time I approach my mailbox. Student/Teacher storyboard artwork.

The only other thing that has frustrated me as of late is the language barrier. My understanding and ability to speak Japanese has improved, but only slightly. I just have to stop being so inhibited and so worried about saying something truly embarrassing, such as “Show us your package,” as opposed to “A pleasure to meet you, Prime Minister Kaifu.”

I do find, however, that after a few beers I can convince myself that I’m practically fluent and the words (as well as the often intense intonations of the language) come flowing out. My office got quite a kick out of the fact that I responded to a recent comment with: “Eeeehhhhh?” (To say this correctly, the voice should gradually rise several octaves. It’s kind of like the equivalent of our “Huh?” but, quite honestly, far more effective.)

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At the Board of Education office with Akiko-san.

At first I thought that working in an office where no one spoke English was going to be rather difficult, but I’ve discovered it’s to my advantage. Being forced to learn the language is both challenging and a great way to build relationships.Akiko-san, the young lady who sits across from me at the Board of Education, is trying hard to use English – everyone is – while I struggle with my Japanese.

She’s advancing at a much faster pace than me.

Everyone is.

Nevertheless, I try not to get too discouraged and have to be content to learn a few new phrases each day. As it happens, going through my own struggles has made me better understand how I might be able to help my students learn English.

I’ve also been feeling rather lusty lately.

(Wow, where did that come from?)

As in most countries, the male populous of Japan has its share of toothless, pot-bellied, pock-ridden slobs who feel that if they’re going to take a chance on a woman it might as well be me, but man… some of the men here are so dang handsome.

Case in point, I met this incredibly good-looking elementary school teacher at a community volleyball game on Saturday who set my heart – as well as my lower regions – afire.

His name is Tanaka. He’s single, about my height (there is a God), and has a face that would surely launch a thousand sighs from you American women.

We met at a post-volleyball party as Yamamoto-sensei introduced me to each and every individual there. I was shaking hands, bowing, kissing babies and was nearly elected into office, before we got to this delectable, young teacher. The group he was with invited me to sit on the tatami next to him and although I preferred the idea of sitting on top of him, protocol forbid it.

Akiko-san snapped pictures while the hunky teacher and I chatted – or at least tried. He doesn’t speak much English. (Ask me if I cared.) Maybe I’ll send you all a copy of the aforementioned photo after I’ve had the negative blown up life-size. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll have it blown up a little larger than life so that he can be taller than me.

Many at the post-volleyball party departed soon after, including the man I now wished to father my children, so I spent the remainder of the evening eating and drinking and drinking and drinking with my employers, co-teachers and co-workers. Sam and another AET, Ted, arrived in Shintomi at about 6 p.m. only to find they were far behind. It wasn’t long, however, before their plates were piled high and glasses filled.

And kept filled.

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Yamamoto-sensei (raising his glass) at the Community Center volleyball tournament. photo by ac frohna

It’s a Japanese custom never to let a companion’s glass get less than half full and they take this responsibility very seriously.Following the post-volleyball party was, of course, a visit to a local Karaoke Bar. There is NEVER only one event to attend when you go out in Shintomi and, I assume, Japan. In fact, you’re often expected to go to at least two more places before calling it a night. Even then, the men are often on their way to a fourth and fifth place.

While at the karaoke bar, my bosses and co-workers had their first chance to hear Sam sing.

God love her.

The sweet, utterly tone deaf diva.

At one point, a newcomer to the party (oblivious to Sam’s previous, ear-splitting performances that evening) moved to hand Sam the microphone. To my great astonishment, I watched several of my companions – who, as Japanese, seem culturally and morally obligated to urge EVERYONE to sing – jump from their seats to grab the microphone before the lovely, but terribly tortured songbird had the chance, offering excuses on her behalf.

Don’t feel too bad.

Sam continues to perform, unabashedly and unapologetically, every chance she gets.

After a while, Sam, Ted and I splintered off to a different Shintomi establishment where we encountered a wedding party celebrating, and where, by the end of the evening, I attempted to teach a young man in the party a truly conservative version of the Lambada.

I think I made a new best friend.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 6: My Town of Shintomi Board of Education Family

Considering these are the folk I spend most of my time with, I thought it might prove helpful to offer a quick run down of My Town of Shintomi Board of Education Office Family: Kuranaga-kacho (above left) is the office’s section chief, a tiny, little, married man with coke bottle glasses. He is the “Papa-san” of the office. He has a devilish sense of humor and a HUGE heart. He is quick to smile, to test me and to tease me. When he and I spend time together, I’ve noticed his facial expressions vacillate somewhere between unabashed bewilderment and downright delight.

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photo by ac frohna

Oki-Hosa (above right) is the Assistant Section Chief. He is the family’s nerdy, forty-something uncle with a buzz cut, a big, persistent, genuine smile and an almost noiseless laugh – nearly imperceptible without seeing his facial expressions and body movements. Married with children in some of my classes, Oki-Hosa has a penchant for doing everything by the book and has made it clear that as Assistant Section Chief, I am officially HIS responsibility.

In his mid-thirties and married, Hiejima-kakricho (above center) is the Board of Education’s Chief Clerk. He is reserved in his words, his smile and his sense of humor. All of which are alive and well, yet wielded at the most unlikely moments.

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Yoshino-san (above right) is the office Mama-san, with a small but sturdy build, a boyish hairstyle, but a natural, feminine grace. She is single, thoughtful, quick to laugh and quick to scold. She is stern but nurturing and as loyal – and protective – as an old bulldog.

Akiko-san (above right of me) is the youngest in the office. She is single, has a slight frame and what seems to be common among Japanese girls and women, a page boy-style cut. She is sweet and soft-spoken, but has a sly, sisterly wit. She’s been my local tour guide, a kindly tutor in all things Japanese and an excellent friend. I surprise her often, frighten her a little and make her laugh. A lot.

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Tomioka-san (above with me) is Head of the Town Hall’s Computer Department. Even though he is not part of the Board of Education, Tomioka-san is a regular face in our office due to the fact that his office is just down the hall. He is the “cooler”, more laid back uncle, the family’s “black sheep” who shuffles rather than steps and always has a cigarette dangling from his left hand. He thrives on distracting people from their work with a joke, or a story. He always looks like he needs a haircut and would clearly prefer to be somewhere – anywhere – but at work in his office. He never fails to make me laugh.

I was given a load of praise from my bosses this week. They seem quite pleased with my performance thus far, despite the sleeveless top I wore to a recent school function. I’m quite sure my popularity has a little to do with the fact that Shelly, my predecessor, was apparently a very private individual. It seems she didn’t go out very often and, much to everyone’s chagrin, she also didn’t drink.

I do both.

Happily.

Not that that should matter. But if the truth be told, a little alcohol goes a long way to relax people, take down inhibitions and let go of experience-stealing insecurities; and honestly, even though this job is important to me, even more important is that I grab all the experiences I can while I’m here. What better way than to immerse myself in the lives of the people who surround me? So, when they ask me to join them, I do.

Otherwise… what’s the point of leaving your own backyard?

It’s a lovely feeling knowing that I have an entire community looking out for me (not just my office) and although the attention isn’t always easy, it’s never unappreciated. At least not yet.

Even though they feed me and feed me and feed me.

And then worry I might gain weight.

They praise me, encourage me and gently correct me when they feel I’ve gone astray.

They also guide me, direct me and lead me, for fear I might lose my way. If I have to go to the post office, someone accompanies me. If I have to meet an electrician at my apartment, two people tag along. When I had to go to Miyazaki for yet another orientation, Yoshino-san took the train with me, using the excuse she had errands to do in the city.

They do, however, let me go to the bathroom on my own. Ironically, this is where I would most like a female companion due to the fact that men and women share the same bathroom on my floor at the town hall. The women do have stalls, but in order to get to them, one has to pass by the urinals.

Go figure.

Thankfully, a new building – with separate bathrooms – is under construction as we speak.

But I’m truly grateful for the caring guardianship. It’s a far cry from what several of my JET colleagues have been going through. Poor Jeremy (a super lovely fellow from New Zealand), for example, has been having a really bad time with his host town. He and another AET, Janelle, have not only been systematically ignored by their office (hardly having a word spoken to them thus far), but are being given few school visits and are left with little to do each and every day. Add this to the fact that on the very first night of their arrival, the officials in charge dropped the two off at empty apartments, with no futon, no bedding, no furniture and, most certainly, no welcome dinner party.

Jeremy said his heart left for home that very night.

How could you possibly blame him? Very sad. I feel very welcome and wanted here. They make me feel as if we’re all in this together. Which makes me feel as if maybe I’m not that far from home, after all.

All in all, the initial fears I felt since all of this began have slowly melted away. We’re discovering that despite the vast differences in our lives, we come from the same world where people laugh when something’s funny and cry when something’s sad. Where the sun rises in the morning and sets at night.

The only difference for me is that around each corner, at the start of each new day, with the learning of each new word, I’m greeted by a new adventure and filling the void I’ve been feeling in my life for so long.

Not-So-Side Notes:

  • I began classes last week and found my students very noisy, but anxious to listen. Let’s see what happens after the novelty of my first few visits and the excitement of hearing about where I’m from wears off. I’m quickly learning how very important the teacher is to the fabric of the Japanese family. Parents look for guidance and advice from their children’s teachers and welcome regular home visits. Together, they talk about everything from behavioral and familial issues to future goals and expectations. Teachers are highly respected in Japan – revered even – and rewarded with high salaries and excellent benefits.
  • There is an undeniably military feel about the Japanese School system. Not only in how tighty things are run, but even in how things look. Especially with regard to the students.The typical boys’ elementary school uniform is black pants, a white shirt, white tennis shoes and a black Nehru jacket. Even their serviceman-style buzz cut reeks of the armed forces. Girls’ uniforms may vary in color, but the theme is always nautical in nature, complete with sailor tops, pleated skirts, as well as the quintessential Page Boy cuts.
  • Fascinating to me is the fact that all of my students are responsible for cleaning their schools. Each day, the entire student body grabs their assigned mops, buckets, rags, etc., and clean the classrooms, bathrooms, the offices and hallways. They wash blackboards, scrub floors, scour toilets, empty trash. I think it not only offers a sense of pride – ownership – of their school, but it also teaches one to respect the process and all it takes to make things work.
  • There is a strong sense of community, and an even stronger sense of conformity woven into the fabric of Japanese culture.Yet I can see inklings of revolt in the younger generations. Slight and more than slightly tinged with likeness. But change is coming and the desire for individuality, perfectly understandable.
  • I saw a rugby match last weekend. Pant, pant, pant. Grunt, sweat, grunt. (And that was just me watching from the sidelines.) I went to the event with Akiko and, afterward, we chatted with her Rugby friends who invited us to a party. It was at that very moment that Akiko helped me to understand something I read about the Japanese culture before arriving, but was not sure I understood.Their reluctance to say, “No.” I jumped at the party invitation and turning to Akiko, asked if she wanted to go. With a look of absolute terror on her face, she said the word “hai” (or yes), but was shaking her head “NO!”  I was confused. I was stymied. Eventually, I took the international symbol of frantically jerking one’s head left to right, then right to left, and so on, as the stronger of the conflicting responses. Afterward, as we climbed into Akiko’s car, she let out a nervous giggle. Followed by a reeeeeeeally looooong sigh of relief. I knew then I had made the right decision.
  • I went to a Benneltons in Miyazaki and saw lots of cute clothes. Unless I can amputate 30 pounds and several inches from my body, I won’t be buying anything of them.
  • I received word from DePaul University. I passed my comprehensive exams and officially have my Master of Arts in English. And there was much rejoicing.
  • Sam and I decided on either Bangkok, Singapore, or Burma, for our two weeks off during the Christmas break. Wherever we go, we hope to find long, deserted beaches, stores that carry clothes our size and men who know how to follow through on flirtations.
  • I attended a Kendo (Japanese fencing) lesson because I thought I might be interested in learning this ancient art. I quickly learned I would be consistently hit on the head with a bamboo pole. Maybe I’ll try Kyudõ (archery).
  • If anyone cares to send a care package I would love to have a decent sized towel. The ones I find here barely wrap around my head, let alone any other part of my body. Also sparse in these parts: decent toothpaste, effective deodorant, ingredients for pasta sauce, good music, Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” AND, of course, LETTERS!
  • I’m desperately trying to get used to having to constantly remove my street shoes (be it school, office, or someone’s home) for a pair of incredibly unattractive rubber slippers which I regularly launch ahead of me into the path of innocent bystanders.
  • I met a Major based at Nyuta Baru Air Force Base here in Shintomi and he’s invited me to visit. Let’s see… me and hundreds of American Fly-boys. What to do, what to do…
  • Although I don’t have to make a decision until December, I’m thinking I might sign up for another year.
  • I went to the beaches of Kojima with Sam and Ted where we saw wild monkeys. When the tide was out, the three of us walked out to the island where the monkeys live. Beautiful, but slightly stressful knowing our adventure had to be timed with the tides, otherwise we’d be spending the night with our primate pals.The beaches were stunning and almost completely deserted except for a very kind and generous family who shared their picnic and their jet ski.
  • I was recently invited to a chicken farm where I was gifted a dozen freshly laid eggs. The gesture brought a tear to my eyes. Or was it the tons of pungent chicken shit wafting through my nose?
  • How about that crisis in the Middle East?
  • Also heard about Stevie Ray Vaughan… bummer.

Juat West of the Midwest Chapter 7: School Days

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

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

Far from it.

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

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

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

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

And he’s quick to smile.

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

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

Full of giggles.

Full of life.

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

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

And laugh.

A lot.

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

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

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

I love our little journeys together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I adore her.

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

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

His students are clearly bored out of their minds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We talk about music.

Mostly Back Street Boys.

And we talk about our lives.

Mostly mine.

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

And so they, too, try to communicate.

Each sad attempt.

Each silly mistake.

The bond grows stronger.

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

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 8: If This Is a Day to Celebrate My Birth, Why Do I Feel Like Death?

Before I begin reporting what’s been going on here lately, I have to send a super thanks to Catherine, Caralyn and Audrey for their much appreciated contributions to the “When in Rome – beg for care packages” Fund.

Not only did the contents bring a smile to my face, a sigh to my stomach and a twinge to my heart, but now I can hold my head up high each time I go to work knowing I’ve got my Dick Tracey “Glamora Girl Kit” to make me feel confident about being a real woman.

The first week of my third month in Japan has been so busy that my only plan for the upcoming weekend is to lock myself in my apartment and sleep. If I do have to go out into public, where there is little doubt that I’ll be the object of far too much attention, I plan on donning a very clever disguise so as to go unnoticed by my many fans here in Shintomi.

I plan on disguising myself as an old Jewish jeweler named Saul.

Wish me luck, or should I say, “B’Hatzlacha.”

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My birthday celebration at Kacho’s home during the Harvest Moon Festival.

Last Tuesday night, everyone at the Board of Education office was invited to Kuranaga-Kacho’s to celebrate Shukakutsuki, the Harvest Moon. Japanese legend is that if you look closely enough at the moon during this time of the year, you can see a rabbit mixing a bowl of rice for rice cakes.

His doing so is supposed to ensure a good season of crops.

It was a truly magnificent evening as a cool breeze made its way across the fields of rice and vegetables surrounding the house. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen and high, high, high in the sky sat the blue-white moon.

A bright, solitary eye set there to watch over the evening’s festivities.

We arrived at Kacho’s at dusk and found laid out on the lawn of his lovely home, a feast fit for the Emperor himself: fruits and fish, vegetables and meats, spirits and sake (much of which I’d never seen the likes of before) crowded the long, low table.

As we spent the next few hours indulging in the lavish dinner before us, which was the traditional and exceptionally delicious dish of Sukiyaki, I could sense secretive glances here and there and couldn’t help but wonder what my companions were up to. As their secret smiles became more and more obvious, especially after Kacho disappeared into his house, I guessed that they had planned a little something for my birthday.

They had.

Not only had Kuranaga-kacho’s wife baked me a cake, but she and her nieces (some of my students at Tonda) presented me with two lovely potted plants, which I hope to keep alive for the very first time in my less than stellar experiences with house plants. The folks at the office also chipped in and bought a cassette/cd player for my apartment.

Their continued kindness and generosity really got to me and in the middle of thanking them, I began to cry.

Embarrassed by this sudden outburst of emotions, I looked away from the long table of friends to Yoshino-san, sitting to my left. She, too, was crying.

When our teary eyes met, we both began to laugh and the happy evening was back on track.

And the birthday celebrations didn’t end there.
In fact, they continued on for quite a few days, during which time I was given:

  • lipstick from Yoshino-san and Akiko-san
  • earrings and a scarf from Oki-Hosa’s wife and daughter
  • rice bowls and hashi (chopsticks) from a girl that works in the computer room down the hall (whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t even know)
  • a birthday cake from the kitchen staff at Tonda Junior High
  • pajamas and towels from Sam
  • an ugly doll from one of the Masta’s (owners) at a Karaoke bar we frequent
  • a bottle of wine from Tomioka-san’s wife,
  • a bottle of champagne and roses from Tomioka-san
  • fruits and nuts from Junko-san
  • 27 pinks roses from Toshi and the other fellows who work in the computer room down the hall from my office, whom I’ve gotten to know during cigarette breaks
  • and all the students at Tonda sang me Happy Birthday

What on earth am I going to do when I return to being a nobody back in the States?

Who cares.

And the celebrations didn’t end there. (Even though, in hindsight, they probably should have.)

Samantha came down from Hyuga over the weekend to help continue the celebrations and after a few beers in my apartment, we headed out to a local karaoke bar. Now you might be asking yourself why we seem to be addicted to making asses out of ourselves with microphones, but the sad fact is, that we have no other choice in Shintomi.

It’s either karaoke or nothing.

There are no quiet, corner pubs or dusty ol’ saloons, no cozy wine bars, or lively juke joints – just these dark, windowless, characterless, little sing-a-long spots.

The first one we walked into was nice and peaceful.

Sam and I were enjoying the lack of attention.

Please understand that it’s not overblown egos at work here. The simple fact is that as one of very few female gaijin living in the area, we tend to get noticed.

It also doesn’t hurt that Sam is a tall, beautiful blonde and I’m… well….I’m tall.

However, we soon found the quiet atmosphere and only the two of us to look at, rather unappealing and decided to call it an evening. We were resolutely steering a course for home when we heard strange cat-calls from the third floor of a building just behind us.

At first, Sam and I continued toward my apartment.

Indignant and disapproving.

But, almost simultaneously, we looked to one another, shrugged, and with a “What the hell?” headed up the staircase.

At the top, we found a group of men who had apparently been imbibing for quite some time. It was clearly a celebration of some sort and the focus was a young man who wore a painted-on beard, with a scarf and belt wrapped around his head – sheik style.

We never did find out what that was all about, but we did find ourselves in another Shintomi karaoke bar previously unbeknownst to us. This one, however, was packed to the brim with men.

Hallelujah!

From the moment of entry (maybe I should rephrase that), our glasses were kept filled and we were treated like starlets aboard a Navy destroyer that was on leave for the first time in 12 years.

I also met an older gentleman, a local businessman, who said he’d been wanting to speak with me since my arrival. It seems he’s interested in finding an English teacher for his employees and although I explained I was under contract and kept quite busy with my present job, he urged me to consider something for next year and handed me his card.

Eventually, this large group of men left the establishment, en masse.

Sam and I, however, stayed.

And drank.

A lot.

Which I am now dearly paying for with a headache the size of Godzilla.

And a smoldering stomach which Yoshino-san keeps force-feeding green tea.

Each time the evening’s libations threaten to reappear in a fiery flame of vomit, I  lay my head down on my plastic-coated desktop and curse the day my mother gave me life.

My office wants to me to go out with them again tonight. All I want to do is crawl into the fetal position from which I sprang.

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 14: Pulling an All-Nighter

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Photo by acfrohna

Last weekend, I headed northwest to the Heike Mountains, or more specifically, Nishimura, with Sam, Kyoto and several of his friends, for the Yokagura.

Relating to the festival we saw last weekend in Shiba, this all-night event celebrates the tale of the Genji and Heike clans. Although the story remains somewhat vague, from what I’ve been able to piece together, the two clans, the Genji and the Heike, were bitter rivals fighting for power over the lands. The Genji proved to be the more powerful of the two; thus the Heike, when realizing their ultimate defeat, retreated to the mountains of Kyushu.

The Yokagura, or Banquet of the Gods, is the Heike celebration of their lives in the mountains, their good crops, their continued growth, as well as their continued protection from the Genji.

The festival we were about to see has taken place for many generations, though, sadly, I discovered that this particular event is slowly becoming a thing of the past as the youth raised on the mountain are “looking for greener pastures” in the urban centers. Presently, I’m told, there are only 38 families remaining on the mountain and every year that number grows smaller. As a result, the Kagura dancers performing the 33 storytelling dances from dusk until dawn, are primarily men in their 50s and 60s.

It was just before sunset when we arrived at the festival and a strong winter chill was already setting in as we lay our tatami to the left of the stage and surveyed our surroundings. There was a small but lively crowd of about a hundred people, ranging in age from newborn to near death, drifting from one group to another, or huddled by the various fires strewn around the entire circumference of the stage.

Before I even had time to take it all in, an elderly gentleman approached me with a thick, bamboo pole as long as himself, carved out to serve as a pouring vessel. He motioned for me to find a cup and upon my doing so, he tipped the pole as steaming shyochu (a local distilled beverage made from sweet potatoes) spilled into my glass, warming my already numbing fingers.

I thanked him, we toasted, “Kampai” and off he went in search of another soul in need of warm spirits.

The Kagurayado (stage) was set beside an old school that had been abandoned some ten years prior, as residents on the mountain began to dwindle. In search of a bathroom, I entered the dimly lit building, peeking into rooms here and there, letting my imagination hear the faint echo of school children’s laughter, followed by the sweet, but stern voice of a young school teacher calling her class to order.

The old building smelled of a place forgotten.

Musty and forlorn.

Yet at the same time, there was a palpable sensation of life around every corner, as the mountain flora and fauna began to reclaim the building.

A single, bare bulb cast a ghostly light down a long, dusty hallway. Still on a mission, I saw this as a sign that I was headed in the right direction, so down the hall I went. Each step I took along the warped and weatherbeaten floorboards creaked and groaned and resonated all around me, as if to announce to the shadows that a stranger had arrived. About halfway down the corridor, I saw a flash of colors through some dirty panes of glass, so I walked into a tiny classroom where, still hanging on the wall, I found a yellowed and cracked map of the world.

Without hesitation, I reached out a finger and placed it on the tiny island of Kyushu.

Beside the map were old pictures of what I assumed were famous faces and legendary events.

Faded.

Decaying.

Neglected.

It was as if the stories themselves were passing into oblivion, as was the mountain culture just beyond the old school’s walls.

Right next to these dim relics was a beautifully abstract wood carving which, unlike everything that surrounded it, was mysteriously free of spiderwebs, layers of dust and, for that matter, decay. Closing my eyes, I reached out and rubbed my fingers across the delicate engravings. Eager to reveal some message in its form.

The wood was warm and smooth to the touch, undoubtedly from the many fingers both past and present, which like myself, were inexplicably drawn to the carving. Deep in thought and touch, I was startled when I suddenly heard a loud, steady drum beat begin outside.

The sun was setting.

The dances were beginning.

And I was reminded of my reason for being there.

With one last, lingering glance around the abandoned classroom, I turned and wandered very slowly back through the old schoolhouse trying to remember every quiet, dim detail.

By the time I had “completed my business” and located Sam and the others, the stage (which represents a shrine to the Gods) had on it four dancers. My companions had begun to prepare some hot soup over a small burner, so I snuggled beneath a blanket, deeply breathed in the smell of the broth simmering and turned to the stage to watch the first of the many dances to come that night.

As I was told, each dance tells of a different legend relating to the history of Japan – from the creation of the Gods to the birth of mankind. The dancers’ costumes were simple, white kimono which were altered ever-so-slightly (adding a mask, a coat, a scarf, a sword) when a new character arrived or a new tale was being told. Apart from an occasional prop, such as a basket or chair (and the golden shrine – which remained stationary at the back) the staging was also very simple and all parts – both male and female – were performed by men.

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Photo by acfrohna

For the first dance, the performers held in their right hands white fans – on each, a symbol of the sun. With graceful, sweeping motions, they made the sun rise and set at their bidding. In their left hands were tree-shaped instruments made of brass bells that clamored louder and louder the more lively the dance became.

For the most part, the Kagura is slow and methodic, like a spider spinning its web, but depending upon the main character who takes the stage, the dance can range from reverential to comic.

The Good Wife took the stage and told her tale.

The Fox entered and departed as a Princess.

The Gods followed.

The further the evening progressed, the more men from the audience began to reel alongside the stage, mirroring the motions of the dancers.

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Photo by acfrohna

Desperate to stay warm as the mountains enveloped us in a dark, raw chill, we huddled together and, at the sight of hot shyochu approaching (despite the inevitability of one nasty hangover in the morning), we raised our glasses toward the bottle – or the pole – and partook in one drink after another. Strangely enough, as the evening wore on, I was surprised at how remarkably sober I remained and could only attribute it to the cold mountain air and brisk, wintry winds.

Every now and then, I turned my attention to the audience to watch the faces react to the scenes on the stage and the events transpiring around them. With several layers wrapped around me and still chilled to the bone, I observed a pretty, but silly young woman dressed in shorts, shivering by the fire.

Too vain (or too stupid) to wrap herself in the nearest blanket – or friend. Just who, way up here in the mountains, was she dressed to impress?

Maybe the Gods understood.

Besides this, however, I found the people I encountered all through the night to be genuinely warm and welcoming. Like old friends, there was a sense of ease and comfort I’ve seldom felt elsewhere in my life. Each newcomer to the event was treated as if they were long expected and sorely missed. And all night long – no matter how the dynamics of a group changed – the conversations never wavered, but flowed as effortlessly as small creeks spill into a large river without interrupting the river’s journey.

We shared our food, our drinks, our blankets, our fires and the experience as one big, happy family.

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Photo by acfrohna

The first time I bothered to look at my watch since the festival began, it read 5:15 a.m. I made a brief attempt at sleep, but decided I would be far more comfortable writing and warming myself by the fire. After all, it was only a short time until the morning sun would appear and begin to warm things. And I liked being surrounded by all the unfamiliar, friendly faces.

All my companions had fallen asleep, or wandered to another part of the festival, so I sat quietly, smiling at the sleepy but happy faces that passed my way.

The legend of the eight-headed snake was next. A god danced across the stage, plunging his sword into a giant serpent (made of straw) until revealed to the audience in the belly of the beast was a magnificent sword which would make this God Emperor of Japan.

At least that’s what I think the very sweet gentleman sitting nearby told me.

By the end of the dance, the cold had become too much for my tired and shivering body, so I wandered toward the car and there found Kyoto, who had just woken from a nap. He made up a cozy little bed for me in the back of the Jeep, turned on an auxiliary heater, tucked me in and headed back to the stage area.

What a sweetheart, I thought as I blearily looked to my watch.

It was 6 a.m.

About three hours later, I woke to the sounds of voices near the jeep. The sun and the heater working together made the inside of the jeep so toasty that the thought of emerging from my cocoon and peeling off the many layers wrapped around me brought an actual tear to my eye. Nevertheless, I climbed from the jeep and saw Kyoto just a few feet away, smiling and in good spirits – despite the fact that I had stolen his sleeping arrangements.

Imagining how dreadful I must have looked, following a cursory greeting, I made a quick retreat to the toilets where I splashed my face with icy water from an outdoor tap, rinsed my mouth and for the first time in 12 hours and looked at my reflection in a nearby window.

Only to find that I looked far worse than I felt.

My eyes were sunken, red and swollen.

My unruly “bed-head” was unrelentingly untamable (making me look eerily similar to the Heat Miser).

My lips were pale, dry and cracked.

My teeth covered with slick layers of scum.

And frankly, my breath could have slain that eight-headed snake.

So, I stealthily crept to my bag where I threw on my sunglasses and a cap and eventually made my way toward the stage where the remaining crowd was gathering for the final dance of the festival.

I felt instantly better when I saw that EVERYONE looked as unreservedly crappy as I did.

The next thing I knew, despite my urgent pleas to remain a mere spectator, I was being dragged to the dancers’ dressing room and wrapped in the traditional costume, complete with hat, bells and sword. Feeling how I felt and looking the way I did, I was absolutely mortified by the thought of going out on a stage – let alone having to dance – and found only slight comfort when I turned around to see Samantha being involuntarily volunteered to undergo the same humiliation.

I should explain that we weren’t only picked out of the crowd for our incredible morning beauty, or as is most often the case, for our incredible foreignness. The final dance traditionally gathers participants from the audience. Kyoto and several others from the crowd were joining in, as well.

Our music cue began.

One of the main dancers insisted on my being the first one out the door after him. I wanted this honor about as much as I wanted to pickle my toes and eat them for breakfast, But I had little choice in the matter, as Kyoto urged (more like pushed) me from behind.

We arrived on stage and I immediately felt my face burning red with embarrassment, but in the spirit of the occasion, I did my best to follow the leader around and around the floor. Every once in a while, Sam and I would look to each other and burst out laughing.

For one very strange moment, I had the peculiar sensation – call it deja vu – that I had been in this very place, doing this very same thing before. It was so eerie that I had to stop in the middle of the stage and shake the feeling off.

Standing there, trying to make sense of this very queer sensation, I suddenly found myself being approached by an old man with a large branch in his hand. Laughing, he began to point directly at me and yell, “okii! okii!” (meaning big or large, which I can only hope was referring to my height). He then handed me the tree limb and gestured that I should begin swatting the other dancers with the branch.

I’m still not sure why, but when in Rome…

I headed straight to Kyoto and with a substantial “WHACK” thanked him for that shove into show business I received moments prior.

As if this public display wasn’t enough, another dancer approached me and placed in my hand a large phallic-shaped piece of wood as the crowd surrounding the stage began to guffaw. It didn’t take a genius to realize what this represented, but a mind muddled by lack of sleep and alcohol couldn’t help but ask.

Really sorry I did.

The dancer who had handed me the object, said, “That is the size of your pee-pee!”

I figured I was all in at this point, so I examined the wooden penis carefully (much to the delight of the audience) and then handed it over to Kyoto, whom I felt deserved the recognition more.

Why I became the object of such teasing, especially with Sam so nearby, is beyond me, but I decided that maintaining a stiff upper lip and my sense of humor was the best course of action and, believe it or not, I ended up having a hell of a lot of fun and received a rousing round of applause.

It’ll certainly be a memory I take with me for the rest of my life.

And isn’t making indelible memories what life is all about?

The night I returned from the Yokagura, I was exhausted from the all-nighter and fell into a deep, deep sleep. That is, until I was woken in the middle of the night by an eery, low rumbling, loud and steady.

At first, I thought it might be the sound of a slow moving freight train passing, but laying there with my eyes open and senses keenly alert, I was astounded by the din and the duration and suddenly felt as if I’d been transported back in time, imagining myself in WWII England during The Blitz.

I shuddered beneath my covers and remained with my eyes wide open – almost expecting the next sound to be that of bombs dropping.

What I finally realized I was hearing were the legions of planes on their way to Nyuta Baru American Air Force Base for the annual air show that began the following day.

Why they chose the middle of the night to do this, I still wonder about.

Whatever the reason, Akiko and I went to the show the next day where we saw many of my students who were not only excited to see me, but even more fired up when I spoke to several of the airmen and arranged for photo ops they never – ever – would have asked for themselves.

Well my friends, that should do it for now.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to write next. I have a super busy month ahead and then – hopefully – am off to Bangkok for winter break. I have to say, making travel arrangements here is proving about as easy as removing a recently discovered, gargantuan bugger from your nose, while your dentist is in the middle of examining your teeth… Catherine… but I’ll try.

I plan to be gone from December 23rd until January 3rd – just in case any of you want to call me- ha, ha, ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-cough, gasp, wheeze-ha!

My love to all and if you don’t hear from me, my best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy and SAFE New Year. My thoughts and my heart will be with you, while the rest of me will hopefully be lying languidly on a beach somewhere in southeast Asia.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 16: A Lub Story

Don’t tell me. Let me guess.

I bet all of you have been sitting by your mail boxes for the past few weeks in eager anticipation of my next letter.

You’ve cancelled meetings, delayed chores, missed exciting social events.

All with the hope that the postman will bring a ray of sunshine in the form of a small white envelope from the Land of the Rising Sun.

And what follows?

Nothing. No letters.No postcards.No pictures.

Nothing but bills and big yellow envelopes announcing “You could have just won $3,000,000,000,000.00 from Ed McMahon.”

The Howie Fuggs Family were disbelievers too, but they sent in their forms and now they have more money than the Japanese have rice. Let’s talk to the Fuggs Family and let them tell you more:

Howie: God Damn, I’ve been scraping gum off the bottom of bus stop benches fer forty years. I never thought I’d have so much money!

Ed: And what are you going to do with all that cash, Howie?

Howie: What any man in my place would do, Ed. I’m going to finally buy myself that industrial-sized scraper!

Ed: That’s it? You’re going to buy a large scraper with 3 trillion dollars?

Howie: Hell no. I got my eye on a kick-ass leisure suit from Sears, plan to get my wife some electrolysis and move my family into a home they can be proud of – a top a the line Winnabeggie. And if I got somethin’ left after that, I plan to help make this world a better place!

Ed: And how’s that Howie? Donating to a wildlife fund, a peace organization, an environmental cause?

Howie: Hell no! I’m going to help put Jim and Tammy back where they belong – on God’s Playing Field.

Mrs. Fuggs: Amen.

Ed: …Someone hand me a hanky.

Mrs. Fuggs: Amen.

But I digress.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t feel too bad about not writing (only in the sense of not writing for writing’s sake) simply because I’ve had nothing to respond to. The least any of you could do is drop a brief, “Fuck off, whiner” note in the post. I mean, how sad is it that the last two letters I received were from – strangely enough – Ed McMahon (How did he find me here?) and Visa (How the HELL did they find me here?).

Whoever said, “No news is good news.” was full of crap.

As for things here… work has been extraordinarily busy. So, at the end of most days, I retreat to the seclusion of my apartment where I routinely procrastinate, avoiding all the things that might benefit me emotionally, spiritually, physically and/or intellectually. On the job front, I wasn’t sure (due to the usual bureaucratic red tape) whether I’d be able to renew my contract for next year, but was told yesterday that it was 99% sure that I could stay another year.

On the travel front, other than some weekends heading up to Hyuga or down to Miyazaki, I hadn’t gone anywhere until last weekend when Sam, Eleanor (another JET) and I went to Fukuoka (in the northern part of Kyushu) to see the Ramsey Lewis Trio at a bar there called The Blue Note. The concert was fantastic. Our table was just a few feet from the small stage and being the only westerners (besides the band) we were personally greeted by the trio as they took the stage.

And boy did they take the stage.

The Japanese crowd, although more lively than usual, was still quite subdued for our standards, so our snapping, clapping, swaying and tapping was looked upon with some curiosity. Later, however, the band revealed to us that they were quite happy to see some life in the audience. The concert ended to a standing ovation and the crowd began to pour out as if “Last Call” meant, “Get the hell out of here, before we sever a limb.”, until we found ourselves (with less than a handful of others) sipping our drinks and trying to figure out a way to talk to the band. As it turned out, we didn’t need a plan after all. The band came to us – or at least, Henry Johnson (rhythm guitar) and Chuck Williams (bass guitar).

Knowing they hailed from Chicago, I thought it would be a nice ice-breaker if I explained that that was where I was from, at which Chuck immediately said, “North Shore, right?” When I replied in the positive, the jazz guitarist with an apparent chip on his shoulder the size of the Sears Tower for my being born on the wrong side of town, soon departed. Henry didn’t seem bothered and ended up talking with us until we were kicked out of the Blue Note and then accompanied us to some other watering holes in the neighborhood until he had to call it an evening in order to catch an early flight the next morning.

Really nice man.

Failing to secure bus reservations for our return trip to Miyazaki, Sam called upon her latest beau, Hirada, who drove FIVE hours to come and get us.

Sam better put out for that fellow, or I will.

The trip home was through some of the island’s most beautiful scenery. We saw Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest in the world, the fjords and waterfalls of Kumamoto Ken and stopped at Kumamoto-jo, one of the premier castles in Japan – a spectacular sight with its 49 turrets. And the gardens were incredible. How can one properly describe the traditional Japanese garden?

Harmony. Serenity. Meticulously composed. Sheer perfection.

And to add to the experience, we were there just as the ume (plum) trees were blossoming. In fact, there was a line of photographers perched atop one of the castle walls which overlooked the largest group of trees, many of whom possessed camera equipment that must have cost the same as what a day in that damn Gulf War is costing. After strolling around the gardens, we soon found ourselves among the photographers and although we should have expected it, one of the photographers surprised us by turning his attention away from the magnificent scenery and asking us to go down among the trees for a few posed shots. Being very tired, slightly hungover and envisioning even more horrid images of us on public display, we politely declined, quietly skeedaddled and headed toward home.

On the romance front, I haven’t heard from Raymond and although I never really expected anything to come from a long distance relationship, there was, until very recently, a modicum of hope that he couldn’t live without me. I have tried to fill the gap by taking things a few steps further with Kyoto – when schedules permit – but I don’t think this will last too much longer. He made a fatal error – or should I say two – recently. One was mumbling something in his sleep about children – in English! As soon as I heard this, I picked my jaw up from the floor and quickly woke him from his dream with a few well placed slaps, a bucket of cold water and electric shock treatment. I didn’t tell him about what I heard and was hoping I misunderstood.

I didn’t.

Last weekend, after having a few cocktails and thumbing through his dictionary, Kyoto used the “L” word. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Oyasuminasai. Raishu ni hanashimasho. (Good night. Let’s talk next week.)

Kyoto: Anne. Chotto matte, ne? (Anne, wait a minute, okay?)

Me: Hai. Nan desu ka?(Yes. What is it?)

Kyoto: I…..I…..I lub yu.(I…..I….I love you.)

Me: Nani?(What the fuck did you just say?)

Kyoto: I….luuuuub….yuuuuuu.(He repeats very slowly as he lifts me off of the road.)

Me: Nani?!

Kyoto: %#^@%&&#%%*@&@^#!!!!!!!! I lub you!!!!(%#^@%&&#%%*@&@^#!!!!!!! I love you!!!)

Me: No, you don’t.

Kyoto: Hai.

Me: Kyoto… No… YOU DON’T.

Kyoto: Hai. I do!

Me: Kyoto, you don’t love me. You can’t love me. You barely know me. Hell, Kyoto, we can’t even hold a normal conversation!

Kyoto: Nani? Wakarimasen.(Meaning: I don’t understand a word you just said, but I still think I love you.)

… And the level of communication only went downhill from there.

He really is so very sweet. He’s also pretty dang good in bed AND we have had a lot of fun together. But the fact is, I don’t feel remotely in love with him and think it’s best I step away while he’s still busy thumbing through his dictionary trying to translate our last conversation. I really don’t want to hurt him anymore than I’m already going to by breaking things off now.

Damn my bewitching charm.

Seriously though, this sucks. I hate to lose his friendship… I guess I should have thought of that before I slept with him.

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All I Can Say Is…

  • I’ve watched and listened with both horror and amusement to some of the popular bands in the Japanese pop music culture. I’ve concluded that most are utterly talentless, clueless and tasteless, insipidly superficial and chockablock with brainless bimbos. These nitwitted ninnies (the majority of which are girl bands) take the stage and sing with voices which bring to mind the strange mating calls of the Australian wombat I once saw during the nature documentary, “Orgy in the Outback”. Add this lack of musical talent to dance routines which regularly resemble Howdy Doody (with a couple of broken strings), and I find myself feeling more than slightly nauseated, as well as, thoroughly offended. All I can say is… if the music world depended on “talent” such as this, the Bay City Rollers would now be buried in Graceland.
  • I’ve been feeling a little put off by the pressure some people have been giving me about my current level of Japanese. It’s ironic really. Most people here study English for a minimum of seven years and can’t speak more than a handful of words. Yet I’ve been here only seven months and although I’m no linguist, I’m able to get by. This, however, is not enough for many people and I’ve found they expect one of two things: either you’re fluent, or brain dead. All I can say is… this attitude has really motivated me to expand my Japanese %$*&#%@#! vocabulary.
  • The other day there was a knock on my door. I answered it to find two gentleman, representatives of the Japanese Postal Service, looking incredibly apologetic as they handed me the remains of what once appeared to be an envelope from the States. Even though the plastic bag containing the shredded remnants clearly and officially indicated that the damage had been done back in the U.S., the postal workers before me were prepared to take full responsibility. Both men offered a rapid and heart-wrenching series of “Gomen nasai” (apologies) for this unpardonable postal catastrophe, as well as a number of gifts, including a handkerchief and a kitchen towel. I had the distinct impression that they’d be willing to do anything I asked of them to make up for it. All I can say is… where were they when I totaled my Mom’s Audi.

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.

Just west of the Midwest Chapter 20: Along Came a Spider

Upon returning from a weekend trip away recently, Sam was spending the night and preparing a bath when I heard a blood-curdling scream. Seconds later, she came running into the bedroom, pale and moaning.

“Anne, there’s an enormous spider in the bathroom! Please, you have to go in there and kill it!”

Now, mind you, you know how I feel about killing anything. So, I simply turned to my dear, arachnophobic friend and said, “Just leave it be, Sam. It’s not going to hurt you.”

“I don’t think you understand,” she squealed. “This is not your ordinary spider! It’s… it’s HUGE. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“Please,” she begged with an unmistakable sense of urgency and fear, “just go into there and look.”

Rolling my eyes and sighing at her silliness, I slowly made my way to the bathroom to allay her fears and remove the poor, maligned creature. However, by the time I got there the offending arachnid had disappeared.

I looked high and low.

Behind the tub.

Under the towels.

The innocent, little thing had obviously skittered away.

I informed Sam the spider had departed and that she could return to preparing her bath, but she refused to re-enter the bathroom and spent the rest of the evening looking fearful and suspicious, relentless in her attempts to convince me that what she’d seen was certainly the result of nuclear fallout. I, however, merely attributed her anxiety to an irrational fear of nature’s web-spinning wonders and didn’t give the incident much thought.

Until a few days later.

I will never doubt my dear friend again.

Returning from grocery shopping with arms full, I stepped into the kitchen and there, in the center of my kitchen floor, was, indeed, the most colossal, the hairiest, the ugliest spider that I’d ever had the displeasure of seeing without a glass enclosure between us.

Now I want all of you to put your right hand in front of your face and spread your fingers out as far as they can go. That, my friends, was the size of my eight-legged intruder.

I dropped the bags of groceries where I stood and did the only thing I could think of doing.

I ran in circles around my apartment.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” I sniveled and wailed as I ran from room to room, avoiding the kitchen at all costs, soon realizing this was accomplishing absolutely nothing and that the longer I panicked, the greater the opportunity the spider would have to return to wherever it was lurking inside my apartment.

I knew I had to act.

“Crap,” I whimpered aloud. “I have to kill it!”

I couldn’t fathom killing anything that size. Nor could I imagine tucking myself into my floor level futon that night knowing that the spider (who easily had the weight advantage) was still crawling about. So, I resolved to grab the nearest  – and heaviest  – book I could find and headed to the kitchen, summoning what little grit and determination I could muster.

The bristly beast was still there.

Taunting me with its stillness.

I crept as close to the spider as I deemed safe, raised the book over my head, shuddered, took aim, closed my eyes and…

“SLAM!”

I expected spider guts galore.

Was prepared to see appendages – still squiggling –  crawling my way. Or, at the very least, hear something of substance being crushed by the biblio-blow I just delivered.

But the enormous arachnid just went “Poof!”

And disintegrated like a dust bunny.

Although I was surprised by the lack of corporeal remains, I was confident the creature was no more.

The following day, I bragged of my bravery to the folks at the office. When they finished laughing, Kacho explained that the spider had likely molted (shed its hairy frickin’ exoskeleton for god’s sake!) and was probably still in my apartment. When Yoshino-san saw the panic-stricken look on my face, she tried to assure me that the humongous trespasser was not poisonous. There was absolutely no reason to worry.

I haven’t slept well for days.

I keep waking with night sweats.

And images of a child-sized spider sitting on my chest.

Holding eight very, heavy books over its head.

If you don’t hear from me in the next few weeks…

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 23: Omar, Oh Men!

Two weeks after my return to Japan, I agreed to participate in an International Exchange Salon, held in Miyazaki. My friend, Vance, a CIR (Counselor of International Relations, yet another government program designed to enlighten Japanese to the Western world and vice versa) organizes these little get togethers and asked several of us to help save what had become international events of anti-social significance.

Known for our delightfully droll demeanors, we were to be undercover agents, of sorts, assigned to add some special, secret agent “social” to the scene. In accepting this mission, our main task was to participate in the televised learning of the Koto, a thirteen string instrument. This will now be my third appearance on Japanese television and I must say…

I don’t like it.

Not one bit.

Especially when the film footage consists mainly of scenes of me making a complete ass out of myself. This event was no exception. I believe I took being musically ungifted to an entirely new level. Even my sweet, demur, pint-sized-sensei wanted to take a slug at me for drawing such pain from the ancient, stringed instrument. Despite – or maybe because of my inhumane ineptitude – I was eventually able to draw several participants out of their shells and into conversations and the afternoon went far better than was anticipated. Especially after I spotted the arrival of… Omar.

Now who might… Omar… be?

Just this dark, handsome German who works at a local Italian restaurant, whom one can’t help but fantasize about. Not just because he has the looks of a handsome prince from a fairytale, but because he’s oh so much more than a drop-dead gorgeous hunk of man. Just to name two of the fascinating things about him: he speaks five different languages (rapidly approaching his 6th with Japanese) and is interested in studying the cultivation of shitake mushrooms.

Okay, I didn’t find the latter all that interesting, either.

At least I didn’t until I learned that one of the best towns for shitake cultivation is my sweet, little, town of Shintomi.

Seizing the opportunity and trying to remain as calm as possible (while still mentally undressing him in a forest of fungi), I ripped a piece of paper from the nearest source, wrote down my name and number, turn-ons and turn-offs, and handed it to him with an offer to take him out for dinner or drinks.

“See you in Shintomi, then,” Omar smiled as he floated from the room like a Roman God on a cloud chariot.

My female companions, all having watched my brazen behavior, stood silent and green with envy; while the men nearby whispered something about him probably being gay.

“Say what you will, oh jealous ones,” I sighed and smiled. “For I simply seized the day. Let’s just hope he finds me as interesting as mushrooms.”

“Tall order,” someone mumbled.

“I heard that!”

I have to admit that it must be awfully difficult to keep up with the men I keep mentioning, but honestly, they all seem to go nowhere – and quickly. For example, I unwittingly (I thought a group of us where meeting at a gallery opening) agreed to go out with Sunada, one of the boys from the computer room down the hall recently. The first stop on our night out was his mother’s art gallery in Miyazaki where there was no opening; just me, Sunada and his mother. It was a place I had passed by and admired on numerous visits to the city, so it was a pleasure to be invited in.

The gallery was filled with lovely pottery and ceramics from around Japan and in the back was where Sunada’s mother had her studio. Although I wasn’t terribly impressed with her paintings, there were several I liked and commented on. Sunada asked which was my favorite and I pointed out one which I was told was titled, “Last Supper.” The next thing I knew, both mother and son had decided I should receive the painting as a gift. Although I felt the painting was far too generous, here in Japan, it’s very hard to say “no” to such an grand gesture for fear such a refusal would be considered extremely insulting. So, I thanked Sunada’s mom profusely and then off the two of us went for dinner at a local tempura restaurant where he and I were having a lovely time eating and laughing.

That is, until someone in the restaurant recognized me. Oddly enough, I didn’t know the man, which makes what I’m about to relay to you even more bizarre.

The man who recognized me was the husband of one of my adult students at the community center – a lovely lady whom I’ve come to adore. Now mind you, I had little problem with the man introducing himself. The part that rubbed me the wrong way was that the next person he introduced me to was his mistress. Now what on earth would have made this cheating sack of dog shit decide that instead of continuing his two-timing tryst incognito (with me none the wiser), he would boldly introduce himself and his bimbo? And then, after ordering us a bottle of bogus wine, lecherously whisper in my ear that this chance meeting was “our little secret?”

I was pretty fucking mad. In fact, I was so pissed off by this unnecessary encounter that I dragged Sunada out of the restaurant, leaving the bottle of bribery unopened on the table and proceeded to have a bit of a meltdown. I know that extramarital affairs are a common occurrence here (so are the number of housewives who are closet alcoholics), but I don’t have to like it. And I certainly don’t want to be drawn in as a knowing party.

Eventually, I did manage to put this awkward event to the back of my mind, after which Sunada and I continued our night out. At the end of the evening, Sunada escorted me to my front door (after unsuccessfully urging me to spend the night at his apartment in Miyazaki) and was given a friendly kiss on the cheek. As I entered the quiet sanctity of my apartment, I grabbed the stack of mail from the entrance table, threw off my shoes, made myself a green tea, and settled onto my futon where I went through my mail. On the very bottom of the pile was a letter from Raymond.

He missed me, it said. He thought about me every day and hoped I hadn’t forgotten him.

He asked when I was coming to Hong Kong again.

I wrote back that night and ended the letter promising that if he got some time off, I would come. Thinking about Raymond while I drifted off to sleep… all the other men I’ve met here – even Omar – pale by comparison.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 24 Damp Weather and Wet Rags

Last weekend, most of the Miyazaki AETs met for one final bash before those not renewing their contracts left for their respective countries. Louis, a CIR in Nango-cho reserved a cabin for us on a small island off the southeastern coast of Kyushu, called Oshima. Sam, Doug and I drove down together and met everyone else at the ferry that would take us to the island.

The island has only a handful of year-round residents and after taking in the scenery during our hike up to the cabin, I felt they must be the wisest people in all of Japan. The scenery, despite the overcast and pouring rain (this being the onset of the rainy season), was magnificent.

Lush.

Green.

Peaceful.

As did most of my colleagues, I assumed that the “cabin” Louis rented for us was going to be nothing more than four walls and the basic necessities. So, you can imagine our surprise when we came upon a brand new chalet-style residence that overlooked a tiny bay. The place was huge. It had a large kitchen, three main rooms, two large onsen (Japanese-style hot tubs), as well as several bathrooms and showers.

And that was just the first floor.

Upstairs, there were two enormous tatami rooms, separated by an even larger room with a balcony and a loft, where hammocks were installed so that one could enjoy the view while gently swaying. Most everyone seemed to get along well during the weekend, which – considering how different some of us are – was quite remarkable.

There were, however, a few campers who couldn’t seem to extract the icebergs from their asses long enough to crack a smile. I honestly wouldn’t have minded much, except that they didn’t hesitate to show their disapproval at the general merry-making being had by the majority. I was truly perplexed as to how some of these individuals managed to do something as venturesome as taking a job in Japan. Especially considering the serious nature of the operation they must have undergone to have their personalities removed.

Well, it takes all kinds, doesn’t it?

Ignoring the utterly ignorable, a good time was had by nearly all.

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Thank goodness, Jeremy’s personality remained in tact. Photo by acrfrohna

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

I agreed (and for the very last time, mind you) to make a speech at a local English teachers meeting recently. When I asked Yamamoto-sensei what I should talk about, he said anything – and then added, “Please include: life as a foreigner in Japan, my thoughts on the Japanese culture, team-teaching and the Japanese educational system… oh yeh, and please use some Japanese. You’ll be speaking for 40 minutes.”

Piece of cake.

That is, if the cake is flavorless and stale and sticks in your throat, causing you to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself.

I knew it would be awkward to translate only parts of my speech into Japanese, so instead I decided to write a short story that relates to my life here in Japan. I wrote the story in about two hours. It took me two weeks to translate. I worked on the speech for hours every day – getting help from Yoshino-san and Akiko-san (as well as every other member of the Board of Education – all of whom wanted to see me succeed), whether it was getting the grammar right or struggling with the pronunciation. The part of the speech I’d be doing in Japanese was only ten minutes long, but practicing it seemed as if it ran about ten hours.

On the day of the speech, I almost chickened out altogether. However, I eventually convinced my reflection not to be so damn spineless. And then I did it. I was shaking so badly at the beginning that it felt as if I was experiencing another tremor. (The very first of which I experienced recently while standing in front of one of my classes at Kaminyuta. The earth stopped shaking in a matter of seconds, but my knees were wobbly for hours.)

I’m proud to say I made it through with only a few minor stumbles. Afterward, many of the teachers were kind enough to tell me I’d done very well.

But I knew better.

I was awful.

I knew it.

They certainly knew it.

In the end though, I’m just proud I tried.

Dinner and drinks followed, so I was able to console myself in beer and oysters for several hours. The following week, I learned from Ted (a Miyazaki AET) that several of his teachers present at the event had formed the Anne Celano Fan Club.

Anime Anne

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

Oh, who am I kidding?

I sucked.

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

Just West of the Midwest Chpater 26: We Wish We Were Well

Last Saturday, I was up bright and early and on a 7:30 a.m. train to Miyazaki. Not for shopping, sightseeing, or even a lovely breakfast, mind you, but to pick up trash along the Oyodo River. It all started a few weeks back when my friend, Vance, asked some of us if we wanted to do some rafting.

“Sure,” I said eagerly. I hadn’t been rafting since my summers in Colorado and I was itching to do it again. I signed my name on the dotted line, paid my fee, and only then did Vance offer more details. It seems that for the past 15 years, a rafting race called the Ikada Kudari has been run on the Oyodo River from Takaoka to Miyazaki. But it’s not just any ol’ race. Contestants are also required to build their rafts from scratch.

Not exactly the whitewater excursion I had in mind.

Good thing I adore Vance. He’s such a great guy – with his big Beagle eyes and huge grin – funny as hell, animated as all get out, and speaks Japanese with such proficiency that I love to just stand back and watch him blow most Japanese away.

Vance and I were our team’s only representatives on the day of the river clean-up (a warning sign, in hindsight), but we happily joined a crowd of about 500 people strolling along the grassy banks picking up an odd piece of refuse here and there. While talking with people along the way, I learned that there would be a total of 90 rafts and about 1,000 people involved in the race and that our team would be the first gaijin – sorry, “foreign” team ever to participate.

After the clean up, Vance and I headed out of Miyazaki to where the raft and most of our other team members were. There would be a total of nine people, including two Japanese girls, Miho (who arrived at the site with her boyfriend in tow wearing a lime green track suit, criticized the raft and, two minutes later, departed) and Miki, whom we would not meet until the day of the event.

When I initially caught sight of our raft through my sweat-soaked eyes (it was about 100 degrees F and 5,000,000% humidity) I knew we had a long, long, long day ahead of us.

Earlier that week, we had come up with a team name of “The Sirens” named for the mythical mermaids who lured sailors to their deaths with their songs. Looking at our sad, half-built, wholly unsound vessel, however, I was now confident that the only thing we would be tempting was our own fate.

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The contraption being built was supposed to stay afloat for the 6 hour journey down river, but all I saw was a lopsided platform that couldn’t possibly stay afloat for 6 minutes – let alone hold a team of nine. But as the Japanese say, “Ganbatte!” (Do your best!) and we did just that. By the end of the day, and after many revisions, the original design (which was about as balanced as a drunk on a roller-coaster) was modified and we were almost completely confident the platform could, quite possibly, stay somewhat afloat.

We also came up with an additional environmentally-themed slogan which matched both our ecological concerns and our sentiments at day’s end:  “We Wish We Were Well.” We even created a large banner to bring aboard which was the image of the Earth – cracked and bandaged.

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The next weekend, we made our final revisions, delivered it to the riverside, hoisted our team flag and joined in the opening night festivities. Once again, without the assistance of our Japanese teammates. The only reason we can now figure why they wanted to be a part of this event was to have the novelty of saying they were on the gaijin, sorry, “foreign” team.

At the opening event that night, I ran into several of the fellows from my town hall’s computer department, including Sunada. Apparently, they’ve been in the race for the past 3 years and boasted that they would certainly beat us the next day.

Race? I’m just looking to stay afloat!

That evening, we ate and drank to our hearts – and stomachs’ – content. We danced and sang, agreed to do a couple of television interviews and, at the end of the night, there was a raffle. Believe it or not, for the very first time in my life, I won a prize, a really nice CD/Radio/Cassette player!

As for the next day’s race… when we first dropped it into the water, I found myself almost as embarrassed as the time in 8th grade when Blake Heron (on behalf of Tom Peterson, 8’11”) broke up with me (at the time about 3’7″) at the beach in front of all my friends. Blake said that Tom said that it was because I told him to “shut up,” but I knew it was because everyone thought we were a joke.

Our Japanese team members finally showed up minutes before we were to disembark and I have to admit that Miki (the gal I had not previously met) turned out to be quite lively and fun. Miho (once again wearing that damn lime green sweat suit), however, was about as bearable as the black plague.

Despite how mortified I felt hopping onto our sad, little receptacle, I have to admit I was soon having a great time – thanks to Audra and especially, Vance, who (clad in his khakis, white button-up, white gloves, sunglasses and green fedora) looked a sight lounging and laughing as if our raft was a yacht in the Hamptons. And so we began our journey, slowly floating down the river on this warm, overcast day, passing and being passed by rafts of all shapes and sizes.

Some of the rafts were truly spectacular. Decorated from bow to stern. Complete with gadgets and devices. Ranging in design from the sublime to the ridiculous. One team built a raft which resembled the Red Baron’s bi-plane, complete with spinning propeller. Another was built from the frame of an actual automobile. There was a giant Buddah, a monstrous devil, an Egyptian barge, an enormous Japanese folk dancer whose arms and legs moved. And my favorite, a massive black beetle whose legs, wings and antenna all moved, propelled by a bicycle in the belly of the insect.All in all, the rafts were awesome and we were soon comforted by the fact that at least four other rafts that we saw were as ugly as ours. This gave us strength to hold our heads high.

At least high enough to down a few beers.

Our raft got off to a good start and soon showed every sign that it might actually stay above water for the entire journey. As we made our way down river, we exchanged drinks, jokes and food with other rafts. (Side note: I unwittingly ate tongue for the third time since being in Japan. If it happens again, I plan to cut out my own.) Except for a few sand bank hazards and a couple of very timid areas of whitewater, the Oyodo is a mild river, which meant much of the time we took turns paddling just to keep moving.

At least most of us did.

Miho, that paragon of lime green polyester, never lifted a finger.

And Cherri only pretended to paddle.

Despite a few mutinous moments, we did manage to act as a team. We were also surprised that we were not only passing many of the entrants, but witnessed raft after raft break apart or run ashore while ours not only stayed together, but stayed the course. Many of those who ran ashore simply couldn’t be bothered to turn their attention from their grills to find the right current to move down river. It was clear that everyone was simply there to have fun and enjoy the day. And not a single raft followed any of the event rules – no alcohol, no swimming, no feet dangling.

In the end, The Sirens actually made great time, finishing 6th out of one hundred teams. We blew Sunada and the other computer boys out of the water. One of their two rafts sank, while the other arrived an hour after us. Our team didn’t stay for the closing ceremonies because we had to get our raft moved to an abandoned lot and completely disassembled before heading home and to work the following day.

Miho conveniently got seasick and disappeared before the disassembly of the raft began.

I hope she threw up all over her lime green sweat suit.

Final Tidbits

  • Last week, I had my last Eikaiwa (Adult English Conversation Class) for the year at the Community Center and they threw a party afterward. I’m really going to miss this group. They were always so much fun to be around. I can only hope my next group will be as pleasant.
  • I learned last month that Yamamoto-sensei was diagnosed with cancer. He went into the hospital last week and had most of his left lung removed. I went with Kubota-sensei to visit him and was surprised to see how well he seemed to be doing… considering. Man, I’ve got to quit smoking.
  • Two of my Kyoiku Inkai (Board of Education) Family, Akiko-san and Hiejiima-kakaricho, have been moved to different positions in the Town Hall and I’m very saddened by their departure from my office. My remaining office family has informed me that they never want me to leave Shintomi. I told them it was a lovely thought, but that I honestly couldn’t see myself being an AET for more than another year. They’ve decided to make it their goal to make me fluent by the end of my contract so that I can apply for a CIR (International Relations) position. If I accomplish this, they’ve promised to buy and renovate an old, abandoned schoolhouse I’ve fallen in love with near the beach. Much of this was discussed under the cozy blanket of food and drink. However, it’s nice to dream. And even nicer to be wanted and loved.
  • Last weekend was the first free weekend I’ve had in months and I enjoyed it all by myself. I went to the beach on Saturday and was the only one for miles. With no swimming at the beach due to heavy currents, I simply basked in the sun, read and wrote. Relishing the peace and solitude. That is, until two Jeeps filled with obnoxious teenagers came screaming onto the beach, revving their engines just a few feet from me and attempting something vaguely similar to wolf whistles. I desperately wanted to give them the finger and tell them to “Fuck off!”, but there were two inherent flaws in this. One: They likely wouldn’t understand what “Fuck Off!” meant (or at least what I meant by it). Two: Japanese youth seem to think that giving someone the finger is equivalent to a friendly wave, or a peace sign. The only other downer that day was getting a flat tire on my bicycle.
  • I was put into an awkward cultural corner the other night when I was given the honor of being served whale. I detest the idea that these gentle giants are still being slaughtered and really abhorred the idea of eating it, but I had no choice. Refusing the honor would have been a grave insult to my host. Damn, that sucked. And to the curious, remember back to the National Geographic photos of Inuit chewing on blubber and imagining what that must taste like? That’s exactly what it tastes like. Cold, greasy, flavorless blubber.

My love to all and here’s hoping that your summer days are mild and breezy, instead of so hot and sticky that one day, as you innocently walk down the street, you fall prey to someone’s discarded chewing gum and in the same fashion as the prehistoric tar pits, you begin to trap small animals, children, city refuse and other nasty, little life forms on the bottom of your shoe until you, yourself, are merely one more victim who has fallen prey to the Juicy Fruit nightmare that haunts us all.

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

With the heat of summer come a number of different festivals that are celebrated throughout the country. From July 13-15, there is the Bonmatsuri, or Bonodori (the festival of lanterns), a time for consoling the spirits of the dead with dance and music. During this celebration, hundreds upon hundreds of simple white, or beautifully hand-painted lanterns are lit throughout the towns.

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Photo by acfrohna

Along the streets.

Down to the river.

Into the cemeteries and shrines.

Effusing with light this lively celebration of both gaiety and solemnity, the lanterns are lit so that ancestors may find their way back from the dead in order to bless the living.

Ancestors are highly honored here in Japan. They’re remembered not only during this celebration, but throughout the year through prayer and offerings of food, flowers, incense and tea.

Each night of the Bonmatsuri, tea is poured every hour for the visiting spirits. On the third night of the festival, hundreds of lanterns are floated down the local river. Each lantern sent in memory of an ancestor. Those which tip and extinguish, it’s said, represents a prayer that will go unheard.

In Shintomi, family and friends gathered in homes throughout the town to eat and drink and honor their deceased relatives. The first night was a perfect summer evening, as a cool breeze blew down the tiny streets of my town.

Through the farms and across our faces.

Carrying the sweet scent of life which, united with the laughter and the music, created an atmosphere that was comfortable and inviting.

Like a loved one’s long embrace.

Moving from house to house that night, performing a lively, uplifting dance for the dead, was a group of young men and women, many of whom were my students, dressed in the traditional summer yukata.

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Photo by acfrohna

Splendid in their colors.

In their youth.

In their joy.

This would be the first of many nights of dancing and singing, fireworks and food, games and parades. All of which are a sheer delight to the eyes.

And succor to the senses.

There were countless occasions during the celebrations when I sat back with a friend or student by my side, or a fat baby on my lap, when I felt the urge to cry.

So happy to be a part of it all.

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Photo by acfrohna

Last week, I spent four days in the mountains of Takaharu as a camp counsellor for some thirty senior high school students from around Miyazaki. It was all part of an International Relations project that gave these chosen students the opportunity to spend a few days, “Studying Abroad” in Miyazaki.

Takaharu, or more specifically, Ojibaru, is a beautiful camp site in the mountains, scattered with lovely, little cabins and a main event hall. Waterfalls and small rivers traverse the hilly scenery and at the center of it all stands a shrine built to honor the first Emperor of Japan, said to have been born in this very spot.

There were about a dozen other AETs and CIRs who took part in the event and we planned a number of games and activities, meals, talent shows, etc., to give the students a taste of our various cultures. Sam and I were put in charge of the opening day activities and decided to organize a scavenger hunt. Instead of simply having various items planted throughout the grounds, we decided to have the camp leaders dress up in various costumes. Upon finding them, the students would have to do as they ask. For instance, we had a sleeping princess in need of a kiss (Having her plastic tiara at the ready, Sam eagerly volunteered.); there were sailors you had to dance the hornpipe dance with; a pirate you had to have a sword fight with, a clown you had to juggle for, and so on. Everyone really got into the act and a good time was had by all.

Each cabin leader had six students Much to their glee, I nicknamed mine as soon as I got a feel for their personalities. There was Me-oh-my, Bashful, Cat, Plato, Confucius and Romeo.

Each leader also had a partner for the four day camp. My partner was James. Nice enough.

When not gripped by a catatonic stupor.

I managed to handle things well enough (including cooking three meals a day for eight people), while James – the poor thing (“Are things moving too fast for ya, son?”) stood by.

Taciturn, listless and useless.

There were many activities planned throughout the weekend, such as a tie-dye party, a dance, a casino, the English Language Olympics and a talent show during which all the cabins had to present an act. My cabin, which we called Shangri-la-de-dah, did one of the worst renditions of “All You Need is Love” imaginable, but had a great time despite our lack of talent.

By the end of the camp, I was exhausted, but happy that none of my campers (even the quiet one I called “Cat”, who hardly spoke a word the entire four days) wanted to go home. They even suggested that the camp next year should be an entire month.

Despite former oaths that I would never – EVER – appear on television again, I found a microphone being shoved under my nose and a T.V. camera closing in on my face on the last day of camp. The television crew caught me completely off guard while trying to cook the umpteenth meal for my crew in a small and steamy kitchen, during a 107 degree day.

As poor, pointless James stood by.

Glassy-eyed.

Motionless.

Saliva dribbling from the corner of his open mouth.(Okay, I made up the saliva part.)

I was very hot, very, very sweaty and frankly unnerved by the ambush. I tried to be patient and congenial as the reporter attempted speaking English. Apparently a student of the rote method. Watching the conversation reach new lows linguistically, I soon found myself begging him to speak Japanese just so we could wrap things before I became severely dehydrated from the profuse sweat pouring from my being.

It was a truly awful experience.One made even more ghastly when I was unfortunate enough to be given a tape of the televised event.This tape will never see the light of day and, if I can help it, be the very last of its kind. This time I mean it!

To celebrate the success of the camp, a few of us went to a disco in Miyazaki on Saturday.

That night, I was told I was a dead ringer for both Audrey Hepburn and Julia Roberts. Add these to recent comparisons to Jodie Foster and John Lennon and it all adds up.

All us Westerners DO look alike.

Greg, the AET from Saskatchewan I told you about previously, was part of the camp and joined us. In fact, he’s become a regular part of our happy, little entourage and has become a good friend to both Sam and I. He’s not only a lot of fun to hang out with and very, very humorous, but one whom I’m confident I could rely on in times of need.

For my part, it’s a rather confusing relationship. Perhaps this is because I have a bit of a crush on Greg.

And why not?

A man who can make me laugh as much as he does has always been a turn on. Add this to a great smile, sweet disposition, and abundant creative talents (he is a fantastically funny cartoonist)… how can I help it? But the signs are confusing. I don’t know whether he sees me more as the “sister” type and admittedly, I often feel the same sort of “brotherly” love.

There are times, however, when I feel there might be a spark of attraction coming from him, but neither he (nor I, for that matter) has ever “stepped into the breach,” so to speak. Which is fine, really, because I’d rather just hang out and enjoy his company and friendship rather than mess with things. I’m guessing he feels the same way.

Anyway, our happy, little band of brothers and sisters ended up dancing in Miyazaki until 4 in the morning and then, after downing some burgers, arrived back in Shintomi at the crack of dawn where the entire group crashed in my apartment.

As for any other activities worth reporting, well… I can’t say this is newsworthy, but certainly noteworthy.

Now all of you well know of my uncanny ability to attract lewd behavior across the globe.

There was my first encounter: the penis rubbed against my leg in a crowd in Italy. The masturbating man with the raincoat in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York. The flaccid drunk on the Tube in London. The under-the-table-masturbator at the Brat Stop in Wisconsin. The early morning, open door, front seat jack-off in Chicago.

Well, I’m sorry to report that it’s happened again. I can now add Japan – and of all places, Shintomi – to my list of lewd encounters. At least this time, no actual sighting of a penis was involved.

I went to the beach last Saturday and, as usual, it was completely deserted. It was a beautiful, sunny day and so I stretched out my beach towel, turned on some music and began to soak in the sun. I was singing along with Bonnie Raitt when the tape ended and I sat up to turn the cassette over.

It was then I discovered a strange, old man pacing back and forth just a few feet in front of me. Doing my best to ignore him, with the hope he would simply go away, I turned to lay on my stomach, closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the music. But even with my eyes closed, the music blaring in my headphones and the waves crashing on the shore, I sensed his presence.

Still present.

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

Ogling me.

“Konichiwa,” he grinned, revealing what few teeth remained.

I made no reply, but offered only a dirty look in response to his invasion of my personal space and turned away. A few minutes passed and opening my eyes to peak beneath my folded arm, I looked to the spot I had last seen the old perv and sighed with relief that I no longer saw him there.

Yet something still didn’t feel right.

I immediately rose from my stomach and turned over to find this dirty, decrepit, little, old man laying directly behind me.

I’m talking inches.

Staring up my ass.

I leapt up and started screaming.

I really don’t know any dirty language in Japanese, but I screamed that he was very rude, that this was a big beach and that he should go elsewhere, or I would scream for the police.

It was then I also realized that the doddering deviant was now wearing only his underwear.

Well, that’s when every fowl word I knew in my native tongue erupted from my mouth and I grabbed the nearest piece of driftwood with which to beat the lecherous smirk off his face.

This finally sent him on his way. No doubt to jerk off behind a dune somewhere.

Oddly enough, I didn’t feel the least bit frightened. I’m confident that with the adrenaline rush I was experiencing I could’ve snapped the decaying degenerate in half without much effort.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so damn pissed off that this had happened to me YET AGAIN!

For God’s Sake! Why me?

And what’s even worse is that my sanctuary – my miles of desolate beach where I could be away from the ever-curious people of my village – no longer felt like a safe haven.

Total Bummer.

All I Can Say Is…

  • Typhoon season is once again upon us. All I can say is… the humidity and heat here make me feel like a moldy, unrecognizable leftover wrapped in Saran wrap that someone tossed from a speeding car, two months prior.
  • Now that my Japanese has improved most people around me are speaking at their normal speed. All I can say is… What the hell are they talking about?
  • Sam is getting back from a three week trip to England tonight and she’s planning on coming down to hang out at the beach here. Maybe that’s not such a good idea anymore. Anyway, not having her here for the past several weeks, I’m now certain that she’s been an absolutely vital part of my experience here. Without having Sam as a constant sounding board, shoulder to cry on, confidant, etc., I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have renewed for a second year, or for that matter, enjoyed my first year as much as I did. She’s been there to talk to me about everything. And nothing. On innumerable occasions, she’s helped me get things off my chest so that I can face the next day with a brighter outlook. All I can say is… Thank the Gods for good friends.
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My love to all. I miss you and think of you often – except when in the presence of a man so good-looking that I find every cell of my body trying desperately to find a way to make him believe that I’m the woman of his dreams and that he is my love slave. That is, until I find him all too passé and dump him for the guy with all the money who’ll jet me around the world, taking me to places like Rio and Monte Carlo, where I’ll ditch him for a Duke who believes I am the Venus de Milo personified and whisks me away to his castle where I meet and decide to run away with his poor, but charming valet, Francesco, who ends up dumping me for some big-breasted bimbo named, Wanda, because of a little trick she can do with a maraschino cherry and a g-string.

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

It all began with a phone call.

Sam: Anne, I have a favor to ask.

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

Sam: Now I want you to keep an open mind. Think of it as a possibility for a truly interesting experience.

Me: Now I REALLY don’t like the sound of it.

Sam: You haven’t even let me tell you what it is!

Me: You haven’t given me any indication that I should.

Sam: Just hear me out.

Me: Why should I?

Sam: Because if you don’t, I’ll have all the disgusting pictures I have of you blown up to life-size and distributed throughout the ken. You won’t be able to go anywhere without every single man, woman and child running from you in horror. Eventually, you’ll find the only time you can slither from your home is at night, under hat and cloak, when all people (except those as heinous as yourself) lay in their beds – trying to sleep – but waking, time and time again, screaming your name and trembling with fear.

Me: I think you’ve made your point.

Sam: Little children will create games using your picture in mask form-

Me: All right, Sam, I get the picture. Just ask what you have to and leave me to my misery.

Sam: There’s a festival in Hyuga at the end of September and my office wants you and I to join in.

Me: That’s it? You want me to help out at a festival?

Sam: There’s a little more to it than that… They want us to dance.

Me: Dance? You mean the Twist, the Tango, the Hustle – something like that?

Sam: Not exactly.

Me: Well EXACTLY what kind of dance are we talking about here?

Sam: The kind that has us dressed in yukata, straw hats and geta [traditional footwear] and dancing down the streets of Hyuga for a few hours.

Me: Ha-ha.

Sam: So what do you think?

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

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

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

Sam: Is that a yes?

Me: Not if my life and those of my family depended on it.

Sam: I don’t think you’re being very open-minded about this.

Me: Oh, my mind is wide open! I can just see it now – the two of us stuffed into undersized yukata, falling over our feet and making total asses of ourselves in front of the entire city of Hyuga [population 300,000], most of whom already think we’re freakishly amusing! No way. You better get those photo negatives to the store-ha, ha, ha, ha, ’cause there is no way in hell I’m doing it – hee hee hee hee – US, dancing down the streets of Hyuga – ha ha ha ha – don’t make me laugh!

Sam: Anne?

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

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

Me: -ha-ha-ha-Huh?

Sam: They’ve already ordered the yukata, geta and tabi [split-toed socks] for us… Come on, Anne, we’ll only dance for an hour and then make our excuses.

Me: Sam, I don’t seem to be getting through to you. My answer is an unequivocal, undeniable, incontrovertible, “NO!”

(Scene flashes forward a few weeks later to the city of Hyuga.)

Me: This really isn’t happening.

Sam: Actually, it is.

(I have no witty comeback, but merely throw my dear friend my bitchiest look.)

Me: So, tell me again when this nightmare will unfold?

Sam: 11 o’clock.

Me: And what time do they want us there?

Sam: About 10 o’clock.

Me: And that’s when we practice the dance?

Sam: Practice?

Me: Yeh. That’s the thing you do when you’re expected to perform something you’ve never seen or heard before. Call me a perfectionist, but I always like to make sure I understand exactly how I’ll be making a complete ass out of myself.

Sam: We’ll practice after we get into costume. Don’t worry. It’s not that difficult.

Me: Said the tightrope walker to the one-legged man.

Sam: Don’t be so negative. This is going to be fun. Remember the Yokagura?

Me: Yes! It was utterly humiliating.

Sam: Well, yes, WHILE you were doing it. But now that you look back on it…

Me: May I remind you, Sam, that that was a 10 minute dance in front of 20 or 30 very tired, very drunk or very hungover people, at 6 o’clock in the morning, on top of a mountain. This is dancing down the streets of Hyuga, in broad daylight, in front of thousands of people – stone sober – for several hours.

Sam: There’s a slight difference, isn’t there?

Me: Only slight.

Sam: But they’ll never be able to recognize us with those big, straw hats on.

(I simply offer a “Who are you kidding?” look.)

Sam: Well, whatever the case… Come on, we have to pick Maria up at the train station.

Me: Maybe I can throw myself in front of one.

Sam: I heard that!

Now Maria is a new friend of ours who lives in Nobeoka, a town just to the west of Hyuga. She teaches privately at an all-Girls’ Catholic School there. Originally, she comes from Manchester, England. She’s a very colorful character and always bound to bring something lively to a situation.

We found her waiting at the station in a mood altogether different from our own.She was actually looking forward to the event. So cheery and upbeat was Maria that she almost lifted my sour mood.

This slight surge in my will to live, however, soon catapulted downward when we entered a large room brimming with chattering and excitement. That is, until a spine-tingling silence fell upon the crowd of women when they caught sight of the three of us as we walked through the door.

I swear I could hear a pin drop.

In Tokyo.

Once the initial shock of seeing us wore off, the chattering began anew and, one by one, we were taken through the process of getting into costume.

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Picture, if you will, a large room in which 40-50 very shy Japanese women are desperately trying to undress and dress without showing more than their wrists. At the same time, three Western women are running around the room, half-naked, trying to convince their dressers that it isn’t necessary to locate full length slips for them to wear beneath what they already feel will be the hottest and most uncomfortable outfit they’ve worn since the invention of the polyester jumpsuit.

The physical differences between Sam, Maria and I and the 50 or so Japanese women who stood before us seems too obvious to mention. However, it must be pointed out that the main difference – or should I say six main differences which would undoubtedly give us away as foreigners – was quite clearly our breasts, which were being bound and stuffed into gowns originally designed without any consideration of the mammary glands whatsoever.

We couldn’t help but notice many of the women glancing our way, “down” their way, and our way again, followed by gasps and concealed giggles.

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Me: How are you doing over there, Sam?

Sam: I’m fi-ay-ay-ow-ay-ne.

Me: Are you sure? Your color looks a bit off. Maybe your obi is too tight.

Sam: I’ll be alri-if-I-don-breafor-the-nex-few-hours.

Me: Where’s Maria?

Sam: Dono-

Maria: Here luv.

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

Me: Where?

Maria: Don’t ask me. I can’t see a bloody thing with this hat on.

Me: I believe that’ll be more of a blessing than a curse.

Maria: Anne?

“Bump.”

Me: I’m here!

Maria: Anne?

“Thump.”

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

Maria: Anne?

“CRASH!”

Me: Hey! You look great!

Maria: So do you?

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

Maria: Exactly.

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Me: I feel ridiculous.

(Sam enters, fully costumed.)

Sam: Come now. You’ll be able to tell your children about this.

Me: I’m not sure how childbirth will be physically possible after the way I’ve been bound up.

Sam: Don’t bitch, just breathe! Now let’s go learn that dance!

The dance we were being taught embodies a woman praying to the Harvest moon for her one true love. I was praying just to make it through the day without the need of therapy. Or an ambulance.Our practice session lasted about ten minutes until the three of us decided we were helpless and hopeless and that our only chance for coming out of this event with a shred of dignity was to employ the “duck and cover” strategy.

The parade began outside the Hyuga Town Hall where our dance group formed two lines and followed behind a little, white car with a big, white loudspeaker (they really love this device) that piped out the music we would be “dancing” to. After a few practice turns around the parking lot, we quickly discovered that we had no idea what we were doing.

Our fellow dancers kept assuring and reassuring us that no one would even notice us. Yet it was hard to find comfort in these promises each time one of Sam’s students passed our supposedly “inconspicuous” trio and screamed, “Samansa-sensei!”

To make matters worse, we were asked to stand at the very head of the line. Putting a total kibosh on our plans to mimic the dancers in front of us.

As if this wasn’t going to prove awkward enough, as the procession began, we were being touted as a “special attraction” to the day’s events, with the loudspeaker announcing our presence in the group every few minutes.

Necks strained all along the parade route to catch a glimpse of the “gaijin-san.”

The three of us tried to keep our conversations down to a minimum, so as not to make us too easy to pinpoint, but each time one of us looked at the other, we couldn’t helped but crack up.

Now don’t get me wrong, the dance was truly lovely and the women were both charming and graceful in their performance.

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I couldn’t help but be very appreciative of my front row seat.

It’s just that I never really got the hang of it and was constantly being reminded of my ineptitude each time another familiar face burst through the crowd with a video camera in hand and a huge grin on their face.

“I AM NOT ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!”

Nevertheless, the next couple of hours managed to pass with relative ease and we soon found ourselves paused at a shrine with hundreds of other parade participants. We watched a holy man pray for our health and then stood back as a group of about thirty men, all clad in white, took hold of a portable shrine, or “mikoshi” and began the procession once more.

We followed behind. Watching the men carry the tiny shrine. Gently rocking it to and fro. Like a boat sailing atop the ocean waves.

I was spellbound.

Until the music from our little, white car with the big, white speaker called us to realign and begin the procession again. Eventually, we broke for lunch and returned to the town hall where we had an hour to rest up before dancing the remainder of the parade route.

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It was then we learned that the event would go on until 6 o’clock that evening. Maria and I slowly turned toward Sam.

“What?” she laughed nervously. “It’s not that bad. We’re having fun, aren’t we? Believe me, you’ll thank-“

I had her in a headlock and Maria was giving her one hell of a “noogie” when the call of “Bieru” [beer] caused us to halt our assault and run toward the bearer of libations.

With time to kill before the procession began again, we took the opportunity to wander around the town hall to see all the other parade participants. We stopped where the local high school and junior high brass bands were warming up and that’s when Sam and I decided to do some dancing which we were far more familiar with. I led and the two of us swung and twirled, turned and jived around the parking lot (a true feat wrapped in yukata), but soon ran out of breath and stopped to a round of applause. At least now there was proof that we weren’t complete clumsy oafs.

Drawing a short straw plucked from my hat, Maria went in search of more beer, returning a short time later with a look of utter disappointment.

Sam: Where’s the beer?

Maria: …gone…

Me: Gone? That’s ridiculous. It can’t be gone. Are you sure you looked in the right place?

Maria: Oh, I’m sure. I found the beer, but the bottles were all empty.

Sam: I don’t understand. We were the only ones drinking it and I specifically remember seeing an entire case. Now STOP KIDDING AROUND AND GIVE ME MY BEER!

Me: Calm yourself, Sam. There has to be a reasonable explanation… Now then… Maria…

(I said as I grabbed her shoulders and attempted to shake the truth out of her.)

Maria: For God’s sake, I’m telling the truth. You know those very shy, very demure, “Oh I-never-touch-the-stuff” ladies we’ve been dancing with? Well, they’ve been having a bloody party upstairs and drank every last drop. They’re practically swinging on the rafters.

(Suddenly, a roar of laughter could be heard as a group of about twenty women came rolling down the stairs of the town hall, smiles as wide and askew as the brims of their hats.)

Me: Well, I’ll be darned!

It has to be said that this little “pick me up” boosted morale considerably, almost to the point of mutiny. Once we began our dance again, we could hear rumblings from below the sea of straw hats behind us and the rising chant of “Bieru! Bieru! Bieru!” coming from our once “shy” little group of dancers.

The chant would continue and continue to grow louder until the little, white car with the big, white loudspeaker would be forced to stop and open the trunk containing more beer. In the end, I think we had more fun than any other group at the festival. These soft-spoken, unassuming women ended up showing a good deal of spunk.

I have to admit that 6 p.m. rolled around faster than I had expected it to and even though we were all exhausted by the day’s end, we left with smiles on our faces and truly warm feelings in our hearts.

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I have Sam to thank for “volunteering” me.

She was right.

It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

I so enjoyed myself that when I returned to the office the next Monday, I showed them the dance I did and told them what a great time I had.

This was a grave mistake.

They immediately signed me up to dance in a festival in Shintomi next weekend!

Just Wet of the Midwest Chapter 32: Festival Fever

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Photo by acfrohna

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

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

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photo by ac frohna

A stream of objects and people. Colorfully costumed.

Radiant.

Graphic.

Assembled in ensembles.

Moving en masse.

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photo by ac frohna

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

Great rivers of color and movement.

Drifting and converging.

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photo by ac frohna

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

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photo by ac frohna

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

Especially the young women.

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photo by ac frohna

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

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

Their skin, milky white.

And lips, cherry red.

Hidden smiles behind colorful fans.

Or delicate, porcelain hands.

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photo by ac frohna

Each kimono, bright and splendid.

Each obi, so masterfully and uniquely tied.

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

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photo by ac Frohna

Quintessential.

Exquisite.

Timeless.

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

Across streets.

From tree to tree, house to house.

Swimming against the currents of wind.

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

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Healthy.

Perseverant.

Such as the carp fighting its way up stream.

Where, it is said, lie the great falls.

Where stands a gate.

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

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photo by ac frohna

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

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

Honor the blossoms.

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

Beneath their brief, but intoxicating peak.

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

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

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

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

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

Convenient.

If not slightly lily-livered.

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

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

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

Sometimes all at once.

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

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

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I remember attending my first Ensoku at Tonda Junior High. The school grounds and surrounding woods were an ocean of sea green, genderless, gym suits milling about or engaged in some planned activity or another.

I swam among them.

Joining a search.

Or a game.

Making them use English.

Struggling with my Japanese.

I always love the time I have outside class with my students. When the eyes of their sensei are no where in sight. And the distance to the front of the classroom has disappeared.

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photo by ac frohna

All I Can Say Is…

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

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 33: Capital City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We couldn’t believe our luck.

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

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

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

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

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

A pungent mixture of folklore and tradition.

Ritual and rule.

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

Saturating the woods.

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

Thick and settled atop the worn surfaces.

The aroma is almost tangible.

Digestible.

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

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

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

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

In a matter of moments, we were lost.

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

No matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photos by acfrohna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life should reflect a perfect harmony with nature.

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

Dang.

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

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

What, you might ask, did I see?

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

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

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

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

Its smile and countenance is both intimidating and beguiling.

Tranquil and composed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until I remembered.

I learn only to be contented.

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

I learn only to be contented.

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

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It was a good day.

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

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 34: Luckiest Gal Alive

It was just before winter vacation began.

On a Sunday. About 7 p.m.

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

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

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

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

A few minutes passed and the doorbell rang again.

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

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

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

He was also wearing a hat.

And a mask.

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

He tried to force his way in.

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

There was a struggle.

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

What the fuck just happened?

I didn’t know what to do.

I didn’t know who to call.

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

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

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

Weeping.

Trembling.

Angry.

Revolted.

In total disbelief that it had happened.

Again.

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

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

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

It wasn’t a drunk in a bar.

Or a letch in a crowd.

I didn’t accidentally stumble upon it.

This was at the threshold of my home.

It was with intent.

It was with force.

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

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

Is there even help to be had?

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

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

Vomiting violently.

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

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

Now HE was out there.

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

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

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

What fucking century is this?

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

He was looking for fingerprints.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most acutely, this last one.

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

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

And this is a small town.

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

But then there’s another voice.

And it’s strong.

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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.