Published: November 11th 2006May 15th 2002
There and back again. This time the “there” included three of the most famous cities of Japan, Kobe, a modern city by the sea, Osaka, a cosmopolitan wonderland, and the cultural heartland of the Japanese nation, Kyoto. It felt good to leave my farming village and head for the great world beyond, if only for the weekend. I admit that I was a bit envious of those English teachers who dwell in the cities. Theirs may not be the town where everyone knows your name, but surely the youth and vitality of twenty-something Japanese provide a certain je ne sais quoi to their lives that I am sorely lacking.
In Osaka, I got lost. Those of you who are aware of my notoriously awful sense of direction wouldn’t be surprised by that statement, of course. The difference, however, was wandering around at two in the morning, in a city five million strong that I had never visited before. I was searching for an apartment that had eight floors, give or take, and was opposite a Family Mart, the Japanese equivalent of a Quickie Mart. I wasn’t particularly scared that I was going to get mugged or beaten, this being Japan after all, but the thought that I would be forced to spend the whole night wandering around was less than appealing. I had my friend’s number in my pocket, and I resolved to give him a call. Unfortunately, the cell phone typhoon has swept the cities of Japan fairly clean of public telephones. When I was about to despair, I spotted in the gleaming spires of the city a orange neon sign proclaiming the le Floret Hotel, and salvation was at hand, or at least a telephone. I called him, he gave me directions, and two minutes I promptly got lost again. Then, I spotted an old guy selling fried octopus on the street. Anxiously, I loudly whispered, “Sumimasen,” (excuse me), and the gray-haired man turned away from the tentacles to peer out on what crazy foreigner was wandering the streets at that ungodly hour of the morning. We spent the better part of fifteen minutes talking, and I left with a napkin on which he had scribbled a map to get to a Family Mart.
I found my way there, but to my disappointment, there was no apartment in sight. Desperately, I ran inside the store and asked again for directions. The guy shrugged his shoulders, so I called again. This time, my friend gave me a couple more landmarks, and finally the guy at the Family Mart had an epiphany. He grabbed a bike and pointed for me to take another and we cycled to the apartment where I collapsed in exhaustion. I must have spent the better part of two hours wandering around the streets of Osaka and asked a dozen people for directions that night. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, however, I did find my way home.
In Kyoto, I went a’ geisha hunting. Geisha are a vital part of the storied history of the city, women who are fully trained in the arts of conversation, dance, tea ceremony, and traditional instruments. They dress in exquisite kimono and extensive makeup unfailingly white face paint and spend their evenings traveling from patron to patron; treating their extremely wealthy clients to an evening they won’t soon forget. A bum like me without connection wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of requisitioning one for the evening. Still, even we commoners can walk the cobblestone streets of ancient Gion, the entertainment quarter of Kyoto, to try to steal a glance of a geisha or a maiko (an apprentice geisha) hopping into a cab or rushing out of a teahouse. Geisha are elegant and graceful, but they are also fast on their feet. That night I failed to track one down, but I vow to return, camera around my shoulder, hoping beyond hope to capture the perfect photograph, a woman nearly ghost-like, with a dress that speaks of beauty and centuries-old tradition.
Sometimes the most interesting cultural encounters occur where you would least expect them too. Case in point: for the first time since I arrived in Japan, I ate at universally loved Mickey D’s. I entered the establishment expecting the girl at the cashier register to mumble, “What do you want?” followed by screaming the orders to the guys at the grill at airplane level decibels. Instead, we entered the two hundred-seat establishment to loud, almost raucous greetings of “Iraisshaimase” (Welcome). We were served promptly by the woman at the register who painstakingly described the special deals and answered my pointless questions. I really wanted a happy meal, but the portion of food was just too small. In the end, I opted for a cheeseburger, fries, and orange juice. It was just like old times, except it cost about five bucks, and the burger was the size of something you would get at White Castle. When I got back to the table, I started to partake of my fries when I noticed that ketchup was not present. I beckoned a waitress over who prompted returned with two packets, but charged me the equivalent of twenty cents! I was outraged, for a moment, but when I saw the workers go out of their way to intercept customers on the way to throwing out their trash, I thought this place isn’t so bad. Heck, they even apologize when you spill your drink, as they are mopping it up. Come to Japan where the customer is truly king.