A lovely American couple moved into the region this past year and they include me in their mailing list of updates home to family and friends. I love reading them, not just because they are funny and honest, but because it reminds me of what it was like my first year here as well. Everything was exciting, fresh, a new discovery. If I go through my photo album from that time there are exponentially more images of me doing mid-air jump shots in front of random Japanese tourist sites and flashing two-fingered peace signs like Winston Churchill was in town. If you flip forward in my album you’ll notice that pictures these days rarely have me in them, cause I spend most of my time trying to digitally immortalize Noah rather than keep an enduring record of my own stark aging process. Times change.
Additionally, my friend’s newsletter well explains how frustrating it can be to live in an existence where you can’t read, write or speak the local language. At times the politeness of Japanese culture doesn’t help any either. It’s actually been easier for me get things done in more abrupt cultures, like in parts of remote Russia, where they so desperately want to get rid of you that after you’ve pointed at and paid for the thing you want in the store window they turn away unsmiling and pretend that you no longer exist. But here, even though there is a mutual understanding that neither party will be able to verbally understand each other, the clerk or cashier will inevitably ask you all the same, beautifully complex respectful phrases they’ve been taught to say to everyone. Would you like a bag? Do you need a straw, chopsticks, a spoon? You just gave me 1000 yen. Do you have a point card? Your change is 22 yen. Are you sure you don’t have a point card? Do you want one? Here’s a coupon you can’t read and will never use. Thanks for your business. With all that extra linguistic dressing the most basic of tasks can feel overdrawn and more confusing than it ought to be. It took a while to get the hang of buying groceries, but I’m happy to say that I no longer break down in tears when I try to buy eggs or milk at the market. And just the other day, finally, after 4 years of hearing the same announcement played a hundred plus times over the loudspeaker at the local all night supermarket, I registered what it was saying. You must be 20 years old to buy alcohol and tobacco.
Now if you think of how utterly simple selecting and paying for food is, but how enormous a task it can become when you are essentially illiterate, you can appreciate how much more difficult everything else can end up being. Buying stamps, taking a bus, doing anything at the bank, ordering food at a restaurant with no picture menu, trying to get rid of Japanese speaking Mormons who turn up on your doorstep, telling a hair stylist to give you a trim, going to the doctor, going to the doctor with your sick son, going to the doctor again with your sick son after you went the first time and things didn’t get better, breaking a sweat trying to write your address, filling out your kids daycare sheet every morning, answering the phone at your desk, trying to fix your faulty internet, visiting the dentist or gynaecologist or immigration office (and no the immigration officer does not speak English for some reason), being pulled over by the cops, trying to get rid of the NHK cable guy trying to collect money for cable you don’t have, getting a driver’s licence, having your garbage rejected and not understanding why until someone smartly takes a magic marker and circles the forbidden item through the plastic bag, getting a cell phone (this one is the worst because not even a native speaker can understand the crazy phone plans), getting lost anywhere with or without a map, giving condolences to your neighbour after her husband dies, trying to differentiate between detergent, softener and bleach.
It goes on, and really it never stops even as you start to get a grip on the basic language skills, because inevitably the longer you stay, the more complex the problems become, and you end back at square one thinking how great you thought your Japanese was but then realizing actually how shitty it is. Yes, this was exactly where I found myself last week when Noah got sick and refused to eat anything for 3 days. The doctor said it was a throat infection, prescribed me all sorts of mystery medications that I would administer faithfully but saw little change. One night in lieu of taking him to the emergency room in fear that I couldn’t even tell the cabbie where to go, I called my sister on the other side of the world. She said…luke warm baths, cold compresses, lots of fluids…all simple reassuring things that helped me get a grip in that moment. It was so good to hear it in English. The next morning I stood at the gate of Noah’s daycare trying to ask if he could attend that day because his fever wasn’t so high. I repeated 3 times over in the worst possible broken Japanese “Is it ok? I can stay for a bit to watch him and make sure he’s fine.” No one understood me. Three times over and then I broke, bowed my head, put my hand over my eyes and just cried. Well, that got their attention. At least tears are universally understood. The one worker who always looks at me like I’m the most novice of mothers and that I have a lot to learn was the one who put her hand on my back asking me over and over “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
Ahhhh. What’s wrong? That was a good question. The problem was and is that even if I could speak perfect Japanese, there is no way I could tell her, because what’s wrong really cannot be verbalized in that sort of moment. It’s a feeling more than anything else, one that boils up to a point of uncontainable pressure, where your mind sort of short circuits as it searches for any possible word that will get the message through, but you can’t find it because you don’t know it and you feel utterly alone and helpless and frustrated because nothing, absolutely nothing is helping you be you and do what you would do in that moment if that moment was happening someplace else. Yes, it is the feeling you get when you lose yourself to a language. That’s it exactly. So instead of trying to say any of that, I told her “I’m not very good at Japanese.” I think she understood.
Some of us foreigners here like to throw around the term ‘expat’, trying to disguise the fact that what we really are, are temporary immigrants. Immigrant has always seemed like such a dirty word to us North Americans. It implies balconies full of garbage, smelly food, strange ways of dressing, clothing hanging any which way for days on end on the clothes line and sometimes left out when its raining, being late for everything, a lack of education or class or politeness and an all around inability to get with the program. I don’t know about you or anyone else, but that description pretty much sums up my Japanese life in a nutshell. Ask anyone in my neighbourhood where the foreigners live and they could tell you by the way we park our car or leave Noah’s toys lying around the back of our building. Or better still, just stand quietly for a minute or two and I am sure you will hear our loud western voices carrying through our paper thin walls amidst the other silent houses. Somehow my bike repair guy successfully found our apartment and dropped off my bike only with the knowledge that I lived somewhere over the hill from his shop. It’s a big hill. It’s almost a 20 minute walk.
All this is to say, now that i’ve experienced just exactly what it’s like to live the immigrant lifestyle, with all the language and culture barriers that come with it, I don’t think I could ever tolerate another person saying something as stupid as “You’re in a America now, act American!” It will also take all of my willpower not to throw something hard and heavy at that person’s head. You’d never hear a Japanese person say “You need to start acting Japanese.” In fact, I’m sure they don’t even think it’s possible. Their mindset is that someone who is not Japanese is going to have a very difficult time naturally acting like one, so why expect it of them? They are thrilled when we try and succeed, but they set the bar very low for foreigners in this department, which might explain why I still have so many good Japanese friends despite all the cultural blunders i’ve made. Some foreigners take a personal affront to this though, especially those who have lived here for a long period of time or who have married a local. The phrase “You will never be one of them” is often thrown around negatively, but the idea doesn’t bother me. Of course I’ll never be one of them. How can I be? I’m Canadian.
So here is where I would like to mention that there is no way in hell that I could be as happy as I am here in Japan without the amazing and absolutely selfless Japanese friends I have made who time and time again come to my rescue. To my neighbour who is usually coerced into explaining all of Noah’s daycare tasks and requirements, thank you. To my colleagues who not only helped me set up my life here, but still patiently remind me to this day of reminders that are clearly written in front of my face on the announcement board, thank you. To my dearest of dear friends who came to ultrasound sessions, interpreted at Noah’s birth, sat through emotional talks with my pastor, helped me fill out mountains of paperwork for every possible government office imaginable, and who waited on hold with tech support for more times than I can remember, thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m sorry, but I don’t think there is any way I could ever repay you for everything you’ve done for me. Even so, thank you.
Rainy season is supposedly upon us, but it’s been gorgeous as of late. I’m not complaining one bit. We had a few hard downpours this past week, and I was sure that we were officially in the thick of rapid bathroom mold growth and never drying laundry season. But after one day of biking home with puddles in my shoes, shoes which now smell permanently of trench foot, it’s been rather pleasant. Still, I know too well how deceiving the weather can be here in Kyushu, and my full body rain suit and dehumidifier stand ready. Some days the air is muggy and heavy with water that hasn’t decided yet if it should become a cloud or just hang there a little longer. Inevitably the indecision will break, and we’ll all be wet again until the end of June. Predictably, I will lose another umbrella. I’m sure of it. Sigh. All this is coming from a person considering a move to the west coast of Canada, where it doesn’t just rain for a month, but for an entire annual season. I’m going to have to check my sanity meter sometime soon.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine called me up and asked if I wanted to pay a visit to a Japanese missionary and her American husband one evening. I’d met the wife a year ago when she was here on her last Japanese tour, so I thought it would be nice to see her again. It was an interesting evening to say the least. I found myself in a stranger’s living room sitting around a low table and chatting with various other Japanese people I didn’t know. The evening progressed from chit-chat and snack eating into a sort of a mini church service. We sang a couple Japanese worship songs, thankfully ones I was familiar with, and then the floor was opened up for people to share anything that was on their heart or mind to share. It was quite amazing to sit there and listen to people talk very openly about the challenges they were facing and trying to overcome. One woman was in conflict with her siblings and they hadn’t talked to her for a very long time. Another woman shared about her daughter’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, causing her to overly worry about cleanliness and hygiene to the point that she washed and showered multiple times a day. The evening ended with me talking in depth with the American husband about his life growing up with an alcoholic father and then about his son who also had drug and alcohol dependency issues.
It was an amazing night of candid and open-hearted conversation, something that all too often feels missing here in Japan. Maybe spilling our guts comes more naturally to us North Americans. ‘The more information the better’ seems to be our modus operandi. It’s easy to be personally oblivious to this until you’ve spent a bit of time in a place like Japan, surrounded by a culture of few words, words that are spoken softly, not to mention delicately chosen. I find myself tuning out of fast paced fluent conversations when I’m with large groups of English speaking friends, as if my mind can’t connect with the quickly changing subject matter or absence of pauses for reflection.
The Japanese, so far as I can tell, are very private people. I learned quickly to keep my questions and conversations neutral lest I wander into a who-can-win-this-blank-stare-and-uncomfortable-silence competition the quickest. Matters of love and politics are best avoided. Food, however, seems to always be a safe topic in the office, and it’s usually what I hear people speaking the most passionately about. Sadly, I tend to find out personal details about people by accident through other colleagues (read: office gossip). And often, because I’m the foreigner, I’m the last to know about pretty much everything.
My work mates seldom bring up loved ones in conversation. There is of course nothing wrong with keeping your work and home life separate, but I can’t tell you the number of times I have discovered that a teacher was married after a few years of knowing them, or that they have kids. Again, it could be the language barrier that is keeping me from hearing the tell tale “My girlfriend thinks that…” or “This weekend I took the kids to….”, lines that I was so used to in other jobs. Silent hints are also few, like family photos or cute kid drawings on their desks. Instead, you find pictures of their homeroom students, or screensavers with shots of their dog. Personal photos tend to be kept on cell phones where full control of who sees them can be exercised. As an aside, I usually discount the times that male coworkers have drunkenly referred to their wives as ‘the devil’ as actually talking about family.
Thinking back, I remember very specifically during my first year at our school an announcement was made at one of the morning meetings. Two teachers had just gotten married. One had married an office worker from our school and another a teacher in another school. No one really had much idea that these individuals were in dating relationships up until that point. In another case, a colleague whom I’d known for all of my stay in Japan was transferred. It was well known that she was married, her husband a teacher in a school across town. After she transferred we learned that she had in fact been divorced for a number of years. Even her closest friends at work had been oblivious.
Outside the workplace this same personal code of conduct exists as well. Just last week I went to my favorite salon in town. The owner of the shop is headstrong, honest and always gives me a great cut for a great price. I find myself in her establishment at least 3 or 4 times a year. This time I spent 5 hours there because I wanted to try out the infamous Japanese straight perm that so many of the women here subscribe to. I spoke on and off with the owner of the shop throughout the process. She told me she’d recently gone to Hawaii. I asked her if she went alone or with a friend. She said, with a friend. We covered all the bases and talked about the people, the beach, the shopping, the hotel and particularly about the low quality of the food. A couple days later I was out to lunch with the Japanese friend who had actually recommended the salon to me in the first place and who has known the owner for a long time. Our conversation led to the owner’s trip to Hawaii, and I was a little surprised (and also a little not surprised) to find out that she’d recently been married. The trip to Hawaii had been her honeymoon. It was the only detail she’d left out from our conversation that day.
I think this whole phenomena of privacy creates an illusion to some foreigners here that Japan is a sort of utopian society, where there is no violence, no conflict, no personal problems suffered by at least the people that we encounter in our own daily lives. It’s easy to think that way at first. Sales people are always happy and never seem to be having a bad day, colleagues never seem tired, neighbors are always smiling and giving you mystery fruits and vegetables from their gardens that you have no idea how to prepare or eat. It all seems so perfect. But the longer you stay, the more Japanese you pick up and the more time you spend with local friends, you realize that it’s all a sort of a kabuki performance, or a dance that is played out without missing a beat. It’s so real, so lifelike, but at the end of the day you know that all the characters are just actors and their lines have been memorized. The sales people are high school drop-outs, your overworked colleague is recovering from a mental breakdown and your neighbor drinks too much. Here in lies the truth about the Japanese, that they are a beautiful, stoic and proud people, but they are just like the rest of us.
One of the coolest job’s i’ve ever had was ushering and bar tending at the majestic and beautiful Massey Hall concert venue in Toronto. I sort of chuckle now and wonder how good I really could have been at my job, because I really didn’t drink much back then. I hated making martinis, because no matter which way I made them, dirty, dry, they always tasted horrible to me, so I had no idea if I was doing it right or not. Thankfully it was usually not that sophisticated a crowd that rushed our bar during intermission, and the only thing I had to do well was pour a bottle of beer, and fast. It’s funny to think that I learned how to pour two at once before actually ever drinking those same beers myself.
The hours at Massey weren’t exactly what one would call consistent. We only worked if and when there was a show, and sometimes we’d go weeks without a shift. In any case, most of the staff held other jobs. I was working as a barista at a coffee shop (which is also ironic, cause I didn’t really drink much coffee back then either). Massey was something you did, not for the money, but for the fun of it. How could you not be having an amazing time when you were getting paid to watch Sting, or Cindy Lauper, or Sigur Ros or Beck or The Flaming Lips or better yet, work their after party. I think I reached the pinnacle of my bar tending career when I was asked to stock Alice Cooper’s dressing room with drinks. His drink of choice, Starbucks Frappacinos. I became an instant fan right then and there.
What really made the job special though was the people I worked with. Our bosses and managers were always professional but cool, and my fellow coworkers were one big happy mess of interesting people. One guy was a lawyer, another girl a professional clown. There was a standup comedian, a cartoonist, a guy in real estate, a sports journalist, boys in bands (some semi famous, others very unknown), people who owned their own businesses and others who surfed friend’s couches not sure of their life’s direction just yet. Wether you were working the bar, tearing tickets at the door, or showing people to their seats, there was almost always someone else by your side helping you out. Conversation, story telling and swapping secrets were inevitably going to happen.
I love stories. Especially the ones that are told by people about themselves, the true ones that you never could have guessed, ever, even if you tried, but once you sat there and heard the whole thing through, everything about that person made so much more sense, and in fact life seemed to make more sense too. You know…the stories that people tell you that you don’t forget. The ones you can’t forget.
One just like that was dropped at my feet by a debonaire friend and usher on a quiet and boring night down in the bar as I waited for the show to end and the after party to begin. It started with me brewing coffee and pouring us both a cup and then somehow through random chit chat the tale made its way out of his mouth, into my ears and burned itself on my mind forever. It was about how years ago while traveling through Thailand he found himself accepting a too good to be true offer to smuggle drugs onto a flight into Taiwan. And of course, being too good to be true, he was caught at the airport and sentenced to 12 years in a Taiwanese prison. His family could do nothing, except send him books and crossword puzzles, so aside from eating a lot of rice, he read quite a bit and learned how to speak Mandarin. Prisoners weren’t allowed out very often and it was hard to tell how much time was passing. He said he always knew a month had gone by when all the inmates had their heads shaved. Head lice was apparently a big problem. 4 years into his sentence, unannounced, he was released and deported back to Canada.
That’s the story. Through his retelling there were moments when he smiled, or chuckled a little bit over these memories. That was the intriguing thing about it. He could think about his experience, tell me everything, and even speak fondly about some things. It was as if there was something he found there within himself that he was happy to have stumbled upon. It was quite amazing. I have no recollection of anything he told me after that. I don’t know how long it was between his arrival home and that night that he leaned against the bar, sipping the horrible house coffee and sharing 4 years of his life with me in one conversation. I haven’t seen him or even heard his name spoken out loud in so much time, but I guess because this is my fourth and final year in Japan my mind has pulled his story up from its database trying to compare and draw a relationship between the two of us. In the end there isn’t much there in common. Except maybe the part about the rice.
If I saw him again, the first thing I would want to ask him is “Would you take it back?” And I think this is the question that all of us might ask ourselves when we end up trapped in the circumstances of our lives or actions. Would we take it back? Of course, who in their right mind would say “I really want to spend the best years of my young life sitting in an Asian jail with hijackers and gang members!” But if you did happen to end up in such a dark place, and lived through it, and came out the other side into freedom, would you want to change the person you’d become? Undoubtedly, it all depends on the person you were going in and who you chose to be coming out.
In our four years here in Japan we’ve seen some friends and acquaintances pass away; a student’s father, an old high school classmate, our elderly neighbour. When someone close to you dies, it’s always shocking, wether you expect it or not. But likewise, I find the death of acquaintances or friends of friends to be unsettling, because it manifests so much pain in the people you know and love. You want their suffering to subside, so you suffer a little with them. Everyone involved is so helpless to do anything and for some it can make being around the surviving family uncomfortable. You don’t know what to say and you don’t know what to do for them. It’s amazing that something as normal as dying feels so unnatural.
That said, the older I get, the more accustomed I seem to be getting with the concept of dying. I am happy for that, because obviously it is going to happen to each and every one of us. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that right now, but maybe when the day comes where I lose own parents or friends, it will be harder to deal with. For the time being though I feel like I can mentally cope with this process, at least when it happens to others. I am grateful to my mom and dad for never trying to protect me from the concept of mourning or trying to sterilize death. I remember being shown pictures of my grandfather’s funeral in India when I was about 14 or 15 years old. The pictures were of my uncles, literally holding their dead father’s body. Some were posed pictures with my grandfather positioned on someones lap. Others were shots of them carrying the body in their arms from one location to another. The funeral viewing was held in someones home and friends and family dug the grave themselves.
At the time I was a bit taken aback by those shots. It wasn’t so much the sight of the body, but of the act of people touching and holding it. I’d been to a couple funerals in Canada, but holding the body was completely out of the question. In fact at my Grandma Lieberman’s funeral (not a real grandmother, just a very close friend of the family) we were specifically directed not to touch the body, because it had gone through Jewish rites of purification. It was interesting to see my Indian family members pass around the pictures of Papa, because they didn’t seem to be perturbed at all. Instead they made comments about the flowers, about how good he looked in his suit, about the friends in the background who had been able to attend the ceremony. They brought up funny memories, they reminisced. There was no discomfort in the experience.
Recently, a close Japanese friend of mine lost a very dear family member to sudden and tragic circumstances. It was hard on their family and by the time I was made aware of the situation some time had passed. We spoke at length about what happened, how the funeral arrangements had unfolded, how the family was holding up. I felt blessed that my friend would share such intimate details with me. I learned that in Japan it is custom for a family to tend to the body themselves in preparation for the funeral. Washing it, applying makeup, doing their hair and dressing them in a favourite outfit. These are all things that the family is welcome to do themselves. My friend spoke tenderly about touching the face and body of her loved one. The family does not leave the body alone and stays with it to the very end. They sleep beside it at the funeral home, laying out futons on the floor next to the coffin. They stand by it when friends and family arrive to pay their condolences. When the body is finally cremated, they pick through the ashes with chopsticks and pass the bones to each other, placing them carefully in an urn to later place in a grave. For a culture that in life seems to emphasize personal space and privacy, departing takes on a stark contrasting level of intimacy.
I thought that it was a beautiful thing for my friend to have the chance to be so close to her loved one in the final days before the cremation. Maybe not everyone would agree though. Some might find the whole thing a little morbid. It’s the Christian thing to say “It’s just a body, it’s empty, nothing is there anymore”, as if that line of thinking is supposed to somehow soften the blow of all the memories and sadness we feel when we see the dead face of our friend or relative. As many times as I have uttered those same words myself, more recently I feel a change of heart. I can liken my sentiments to the feelings I have about a house. This year, Matt’s parents will be selling their North Dakota house to the city so that a levy can be built on their land. Flood waters reek havoc on their town every year, and finally a buyout was arranged to try and remedy the situation. His family has lived in that house for 35 years. All four brothers were raised there. It’s the place where Christmas presents were unwrapped, grandchildren learned to walk and where we were married in the backyard. The house will likely be destroyed, the pool filled in, the old oak tree in the back cut down. Sure, it’s just a house, but it conjures up deep feelings to know that it will be torn down after it is vacated. So then it wasn’t really just a house. It was also a home and it’s sad to think that no more memories will ever be made there again.
And of course, we can all say that it’s just a body, but it could also be a sister or a friend or a colleague. It’s hard to separate the relationship between the structure and core so suddenly because over time they become one in the same. The body and the house are the tangible symbols of the intangible life and spirit within that meant so much to us. Saying goodbye to just a spirit might make us feel empty. We can’t really put a face on it so to speak. So can it really be so wrong to mourn the passing of both?
I think having a child has made me understand the long healing process after such a profound experience a little bit better. When it comes to birth, it takes a long time to shape that new little person inside of you. It is beautiful and uncomfortable and physically altering. It’s a special 9 months. After that life comes into the world our bodies are shocked by their absence and repair themselves slowly. Honestly speaking though, they are never quite the same again. If any mother out their says otherwise, they’re lying. 2 years after Noah’s birth I am finally able to fit into my old jeans, but under them hidden stretch marks remain, amongst other physical changes. Still, I can live with this because it is a small cost to pay for bringing Noah into the world. Should I not expect the same from death? Our relationships with people are beautiful and messy and soul altering. They are special. When our loved ones leave us we are changed by the impact they had on our lives and their sudden absence from it . The pain softens bit by bit, and slowly we get back into our daily routines, but we can never be the same. They are gone, in body and in spirit, and when they left a little piece of us went with them. Is this too costly a price to pay for what we got in return? And further still, was there more that we could have given them before they left? I guess we all have to answer those questions for ourselves.
I’m not going to apologize. No, I will absolutely not apologize for life getting in the way of updating my blog. What I should apologize for is getting so down on myself and on life that I felt like I couldn’t share my feelings anymore with whatever crazy people actually read this blog. The last few months of typing silence has given me a chance to realize how dark and lost I’ve felt, but also how it’s up to me to pull myself up and choose a more well lit path. Still, life can certainly get depressing, especially if you get stuck returning to cnn.com every 5 minutes to see if there are any new developments on the latest American carnage. It doesn’t matter which one at this point. The blood from one flows into the other. Sometimes my little Japanese town’s newspaper headlines are much preferred. This is a place where they still report the winners of the local high school speech competition, and where baseball scores trump criminal activity.
I was having coffee the other day and the friend sitting across from me said, “You really need to start your blog up again. You know I live vicariously through the lives of others.” I thought it was funny at the time, and filed away a note in my mind that said “Do not start blog again, just because.” It’s so much easier to give up on things than to keep trying. And if I kept trying, I would have to keep wondering, what am I trying for? Well, that note kept turning up around my brain and bothering me. It bothered me because I like to write, and I like to share my thoughts, and I like to connect with people, so why give up doing what I love? So, I’m back. But i’m not sorry for leaving. No apologies, remember.
So, hey man, what’s the scutterbug? (Totally ripped this line off of urbandictionary.com). Well, we’re leaving Japan. It’s official. We are leaving in t-minus 3 months and counting, and it hardly seems like enough time to do all the little things that I managed to ignore doing over the last 4 years. All of a sudden I feel like I have to get as much as I can out of the culture, language and people as humanly possible, all at the same time as doing my normal 9-5, changing diapers and figuring out what to make for dinner. I realize I can only do so much, so I’ve resolved to just enjoy every day as much as I possibly can and to accept every experience wholeheartedly. Yes, it’s a somewhat vague resolution, but it seems to be working so far.
How do I feel about our departure? Honestly, I feel like I’m on death row. I am not even figuratively speaking. It’s hard to explain this to friends and family back home that have never spent extended time here in Japan. The word ‘safe’ takes on a whole new meaning in this country and the longer you stick around, the longer the list of American Things To Be Afraid Of gets. Guns, bombs, thieves, muslims, homeless people, black people, anybody not Japanese and not in the JET program. Yeah, it’s pretty bad. But this is the sort of strange mind altering occurrence that happens when you spend 4 years in a place where you pretty much have to beg someone to steal your stuff. I have seen a gun maybe once my whole time here. It was in a parade, and it looked about 50 years old. When I see a police car, it’s a big event to me. If I see a police car twice in one day, it’s almost positively the same one I saw earlier. The most violent public act i’ve seen here was… actually, i’ve never seen one. And, I can run at night through my town and feel far safer than running through a Canadian park during the day. So basically speaking, the moment I step off the plane in Toronto, I fully expect to either be shot or raped, or both. I know. I know! It’s nuts right. But all bets down, I’m sure I am not the only foreign expat living here that thinks this way. You simply can’t avoid it. Your brain slowly but surely takes on the Japanese mindset that Japan is safe, and America is definitely not. Coming home is going to take some real adjusting to.
*Addendum: For any expats out there that want to preserve their on-edge, on-guard feelings whilst living in ‘safe’ Japan, might I suggest reading the Crime section of Japan Today. There are enough stories on there about random stabbings, people living with dead bodies, and yakuza/gang activity to make you feel a little more at home. But truthfully, ignorance is bliss.
While Japan may epitomize what it means to be a workaholic, it also has some very good national holidays. I think Canada would be a kinder and healthier nation if we adopted such occasions as Respect For the Aged Day, Greenery Day, Health and Sports Day and the little known but much loved Marine Day. Interestingly, in Japan it can be hard to tell that you are in the midst of a holiday, mostly because everything stays open. Banks and schools are closed, but anything that has to do with food or shopping is open for business. You’d be crazy not to keep your boutique or bakery open on the one day where people have the time to get out and spend their money. And spend their money they do. On holidays in our town there is even a line-up outside the hole-in-the-wall greasy-chopstick restaurant near our house.
Last week was what is known in Japan as Golden week. It’s almost an entire week of national holidays strung together. If you play your cards right and take a little time off, then you are looking at a nice 9-day long holiday. Matt and I spent a few of these days in our hometown, but we finally did what everyone else was doing and took to the road. Some friends had chosen to take off to Korea for the week, another journeyed to Saitama to run a marathon. We packed up the car with our little 2-man tent, surfboards, and baby paraphernalia and headed south to the beach town of Aoshima to see what kind of waves there were to be had.
On our drive south, we noticed the various unfamiliar license plates. Lots of people from everywhere were traveling down our packed, 1-lane poor excuse for a highway. A lot of them were surfers with boards strapped to the roof of their cars. Surfers also can’t seem to resist a good board-shop bumper sticker or rearview window decal, so they were easy to spot. Along the way we stopped at one of Matt’s usual surf spots. The lot was packed full of vehicles from every corner of southern Japan and they didn’t look like they were going anywhere fast.
A parking lot full of squatting surfers is an interesting site to see. Some set up huge tents, equipped with cots and folding tables and chairs, others live out of their station wagons or mini vans. People bring their scraggly longhaired kids, who when they aren’t surfing too, are weaving through the parked cars on their skateboards. They assemble their camp stoves and they create spaces to hang their drying wet suits. They play with their dogs and their leashed up cats, wax their boards, fearlessly show off their tattoos and walk barefoot on the pavement. If they aren’t surfing, they’re sleeping, eating, or smoking.
This location was not an anomaly. The entire length of the coast was packed with every kind of wave rider; long boarders, boogie boarders, wind surfers, short boarders. You name it and they were out there. We discovered upon our arrival in the south that there was a surf competition being held in Aoshima, and it was even more of a zoo there than up in our neck of the woods. It seemed insane that so many people with the same hobby would all be out doing the same thing at the same time. I wondered if any surfers had decided to do something different that week, like go to the movies or stay home and
organize their record collection, or take a trip into the mountains. By the looks of it, it didn’t seem likely.
This assembly of like minded-hobbyists seemed to go beyond ocean enthusiasts. Out on the open road there were packs of bikers straddling their shiny Harley’s in seemingly brand new leather chaps. There were roadsters too, looking slick in restored vintage convertibles, sporting bizarre haircuts and sleeve length tattoos. We found families forever posing in front or random monuments and scenic backdrops, taking photographic evidence that they were in fact where they stood at that moment on their holiday.
We spent two days down south enjoying the sun, watching Matt catch his waves, introducing Noah to the concept of a tent and driving right to southern tip of Kyushu to see the wild horses of Cape Toi. After a couple nights in a tent too small for a family of three, we trucked it back home for a night of proper rest. With one day left in our precious Golden Week, we decided to take up an invitation to go rock climbing with a student of Matt’s. The rock faces were about an hour north of us, so again we were in the car, this time speeding through the valleys and mountain tunnels of Oita. It was some of the prettiest scenery I’d seen in a long time and I was secretly pleased to know it was just beyond our backyard.
Upon arriving at the rock faces, of which there were a good variety, I was surprised to see the number of climbers scurrying up the dangerous cliffs and facades. I was under the impression that this place was known only to the locals, but Matt’s student told us this area was pretty popular with climbers and that most of the people there that day were likely from out of town. So, again, the Golden Week hobbyist parade continued.
One family we met, with a very calm and polite 10 year-old son, said they’d come all the way from Fukuoka. I asked them how often they climb, in which they said just about every week at an indoor climbing gym. The boy professed that his main hobby of choice was climbing, even though he also liked baseball. The mother (or the aunt, not quite sure about who was who) had arms like a python. Here we were sitting in front of a 20 meter rock face, one that scared the crap out of me just by looking at it, and she goes on to tell us that she’s climbed cliffs some 300 meters high. Is that even possible? Indeed, all the other climbers also seemed of a very high caliber, climbing impressive walls with deep overhangs and challenging holds.
All of this definitely gave me the impression that Golden Week in Japan is everyone’s golden opportunity to do what they love to do most, and maybe what they wish they could be doing every other day of the year. I also get the feeling that these hobbies are something people take very seriously. They aren’t just casual pastimes that they tend to every month or so. They are concentrated efforts that people work at diligently. A Japanese hobbyist is an impressive specimen to behold and the whole weeklong experience had a contagious air to it all. Indeed, by the end of it I found myself secretly wanting to be a part of a surfing clique or a climbing posse. With a surf-addicted husband and little boy who is already climbing the walls of our apartment, I suppose it’s inevitable, right?
The North American media has been doing an interesting job of reporting the first few significant Tsunami debris items to arrive on the shores of the Pacific Coast. Eventually, I am sure they will cease to care about each and every plank of wood or bottle that washes up. For now though, people seem genuinely concerned about returning more significant items to their rightful owners. I find this touching considering that there is a good chance the owner might have lost most, if not all, of their worldly possessions, and that’s if they are still alive.
The first large item to surface was a badly battered fishing boat spotted off the coast of Alaska. The owner was contacted and stated that he did not want it back, so after some failed efforts were made to get close to the vessel, the US Coast Guard opened fire and sank the boat. They speculate that it was unsafe to board and could pose a danger to other vessels. That’s fair to say, but to sink a boat, possibly with a tank full of diesel doesn’t seem all that responsible to me either. I guess coast guard target practice takes precedence over environmental preservation out there in Alaska. I wish they had managed to bring it to shore, but I suppose there is plenty more where that came from on its way. Better luck next time.
Next was the soccer and volleyballs found by an Alaskan man who enjoys beach combing. In an interesting twist of fate, the wife of the man happens to be Japanese, so she could read the inscriptions written all over the student memento’s. They were successfully able to track the owners down in Japan and plan on returning them shortly.
Finally, there is the most recent case of the cube truck container that washed ashore on one of the small islands of Haida Gwai. A man exploring a remote beach on his four-wheeler found it and opened it up. He discovered a few golf clubs, some random camping equipment, and a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. The bike was encrusted in salt and a bit battered, but in fair condition. A determined soul went out there, put the bike on the back of a truck, and carted it back to the main land. The Japanese owner was located and the bike will be shipped back to him care of Harley-Davidson. They have also promised to restore the bike if it is feasible.
The current estimate is that there is about 1.5 million tones of Japanese Tsunami debris still floating in the Pacific Ocean. It is thought that another 3.5 million tons actually sank just off the coast of Japan. The truth is, it’s actually not possible to tell what sank and what’s still floating. It’s probably safest to just say ‘a lot sank and some of it is coming your way.’ Hopefully people will continue to treat found objects with some care and respect and do what they can to return the items to their original owners. I know the Japanese would do exactly that if our current roles were somehow reversed.
Update: Here is a recent CBC article about the amount of debris that is starting to wash ashore, and the concerns that the community has with how to dispose of it.
April was an epic-fail for writing. I must have sat down a half a dozen times and tried to squeeze something meaningful out of my brain, but I never got very far. Not to make excuses, but the last month and a half has been excessively busy and it’s been hard to concentrate on any one thought for too long. It seems like only lately I’ve been able to get some sort of mental bearing back, so here’s a recap on what I should have been writing about, but couldn’t get out the door.
March was a month of births and deaths. Right about the time that my new nephew was born, an old high school friend finally succumbed to her long-fought cancer and passed away. It was not as hard as it should have been to say goodbye, maybe because the physical distance between us softened the blow. I hadn’t seen her in many years. It was her illness that actually brought us back in contact. I’m grateful for the year that I was able to share correspondence with her before she went, but wish I’d been better at staying in touch before that. I hate to be that guy who only turns up for funerals. I’d rather be the one that’s at all the birthdays and weddings. So far my track record is pretty mediocre.
March 11th marked the one-year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. Even though we weren’t affected where we live, I still get an eerie feeling when I jog through town. The streets and buildings are all so similar to those in the hundreds of images and videos floating around the web. I can’t help but feel like the only difference between them and us was coastal location. There is a major fault line just off our shores as well, so the potential for something similar is not unthinkable. Now I look at our levees and know how useless they are.
One notable change over the last year is that all the schools have posted tsunami signs on their front gates that list their distance from the coast as well as their elevation. Most are within 5km from shore and are usually less than 10 meters above sea level, which would put them all underwater within 20 minutes of a big earthquake. It’s no wonder that I still find myself looking for emergency escape routes and wondering about the architectural soundness of local structures. Perhaps it’s a similar feeling to the 9/11-claustrophobia I get when standing between tall skyscrapers. Other than that, it’s hard to tell what has changed for the people of Miyazaki. I don’t even check our local radiation levels anymore.
I finished my 10km race. I didn’t break any records or even come close to being in the top 15 runners, but I finished, and I was proud of myself for sticking to my training and finishing in good form. As I was running, two thoughts kept going through head. The first was “This sure feels longer than 10km.” The second was “Half marathon? Hell no!” But after I crossed the finish line a feeling of euphoria quickly washed over me and in that moment I convinced myself that a half-marathon is the obvious next step. It’s a bit of a ways off, but I’m aiming for a December race, which gives me lots of time to eat ice cream over the summer before I start seriously training in the fall.
April marked the start of the Japanese fiscal year, and therefore promised lots of mandatory and optional work parties. This did very little for my paycheck, and also didn’t help my blood pressure levels every time I had to try and find a last minute babysitter. I finally got fed up and didn’t attend a big welcome party, (party #4 of about 6 or 7). Unfortunately I had already paid for it, but I really didn’t care at that point. Every responsible friend I know had already babysat for me over that two-week period, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone to do it twice. I also don’t want to get in the habit of putting my job before my child. There has to be a limit to how many drinking parties are reasonable to attend when it cuts into the already limited working-mom time I have with my son. I’ll never get over this part of Japanese work culture. I consider it a huge waste of money and time. I wonder if anyone else thinks so, but so far no locals have ever confessed such scandalous thoughts to me.
So that’s the past month or so in a large nutshell. Now that I have all these things off my brain, maybe I can focus better on what is happening in the present instead of always trying to evaluate the past. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
Next week I’m running in a 10km race. It’s a race that I anticipate I will not win, nor come anywhere close to winning. Coming in last is actually a very real possibility. Lucky for me I never signed up with the intention of placing in the top ranks. The only thing I want out of it is the personal satisfaction of saying to myself “I did it, so there. Suck eggs, Self!”
I guess you could say that my desire to shape up is how this all started, but not how its ending.
I’ve run before, but never this far. I haven’t consistently applied myself to an athletic challenge like this since back in high school when I was on the basketball team. Even then, I remember very clearly that I was the slowest runner on the team. So slow in fact, that when our team ran suicide drills, it was often me that didn’t cross the end-line in time and the entire group would have to repeat the brutal drill again. Sometimes twice. Yes, now I remember. I really hated running back then. And while I can’t say that I love running now, I think I have moved away from abhorring it and have grown to appreciate it.
After my son was born, I was so disappointed with my body. Every part of me seemed out of wack. My boobs were huge, my hips had widened, my gut was soft and squishy and shapeless, and to make me feel even less attractive, my hair was falling out. (Why does no one ever tell you about the hair loss thing until you are actually pregnant?) In short, I felt pretty low. Then a few months ago I found a local race brochure in our mailbox, and on a whim I decided to join.
During my 3 months of training, I have learned that my biggest running-nemesis is not actually my body, but my mind. Every day that I set out to run, without fail, I dilly dally for a good 20 minutes before being able to get out the door, sometimes even longer. I pre-occupy myself with choosing music on my iPod, taking a last chance pee, feeding the baby, perfectly tying my hair or lacing up my shoes to just the right tightness. Yup. You guessed it. I’m stalling. And all through my little pre-jog stall-ritual my mind says to me “You don’t really want to do this. It’s going to hurt. You’re going to be out of breath. You might not make it to the end without walking. It’s raining and you don’t want to get wet. Did I mention that it’s going to hurt?” My inner-monologue does a great job of slowing me down and making me reluctant to take the most important step, being the first one. Even when I finally start pounding the asphalt, it jabbers on and on about not being able to make the next kilometer, or being thirsty, or about a stitch in my side. I am truly my own worst, and most relentless enemy.
This is the amazing thing. By the end of every single one of my runs, my mind, proven wrong and defeated by the fact that I did indeed finish what I set out to do, has nothing left to say me. Complete and utter silence. I love that. It’s a wonderful feeling to succeed at something that someone said you couldn’t do, particularly when that someone is your own self. Tasting that sort of accomplishment is indescribable. It leaves you believing you could do even more! You wake up realizing that you’ve come further than you ever imagined you could. What then was really holding you back? Often times, just a bunch of unfounded voices in your head.
Sometimes the voices are real though. Recently, someone said to me “You know, I’m sure if you really wanted to you could go out today and run 10km. And, why bother even training for a race you know you aren’t going to win?” They had a point. If I wanted to run 10K, why not just go out and do it? I could do it right now and get it over with if I really wanted to. Of course, without training the chances of injury would definitely be higher, and without any preparation I would miss out on all the little challenges and victories that come with a good regimen. All the changes in my body, the increase in my energy levels, improved eating habits and the decrease in the guilt that sometimes comes with loving food too much, they wouldn’t exist. All the people who greet me as I run through town, the buildings I notice, the satisfaction of going a little bit farther than last time, of finding myself on a road I’ve never been before, none of it would happen otherwise.
Aside from that, I wonder if I did spontaneously step outside and run 10km, would I even think of running a full marathon the next day? Probably not. Sure, I could joylessly struggle through a shorter race with little or no training, but I wouldn’t stand a chance if I did the same thing with a more serious distance, let alone even have a desire to take a go at it. I likely wouldn’t finish, and if by some miracle I did, I’d keel over at the end of it, just like the original marathon hero Pheidippides. So in the end it’s not really about winning the race, but rather about finishing it well and wanting to run even farther beyond the finish line.
All that said and done, if you aren’t doing anything this upcoming Sunday why not come down to Hyuga and watch the race. The 10K runners start at 9am, rain or shine. You can cheer us on, maybe catch a little bit of the running fever yourself and watch me happily win as I lose the race.