With luggage in the back seat and a potted plant in my lap, I sat through what must be the longest route through Kyoto. The bridge by Arashiyama Park was jammed with a world of tourists. They were there to see the leaves fall, blocking traffic for hours in the process. I took daily walks through that park, even when I didn’t live across the street from it, which was what I was on the way to do. Bored with te leaves, I looked out the window for something else.
There was no sign of Halloween anywhere. There was no Thanksgiving to come. But Christmas was on the way. Billboards depicted an alien character called Cap’n Santa. He’s a mutated mix of Long John Silver and Santa Claus. He offers scripty reminders of a “Holy X’mass”. The signs say that “Santa Crars is coming to town!”. They’ve been up since September.
After the third red light, Mr. Morisada, my host father decided to break the silence. He doesn’t normally stop at red lights. It was an awkward silence.
“This is a BMW” he said, beaming with pride. Cars are status symbols in Japan, more so than they are in America. His car has all sorts of features: a broken headlight, a bent fender, a muted radio, a spastic heater, a passenger side door that doesn’t fully close, power windows with no power, and an automatic seat belt with a mind of its own. But by God, it’s a BMW !
We climbed out of that car finally, and put the luggage on the tatami mat in my new room. There was a window sill for the plant. It faced the back of a bathhouse. The industrial scenery of the smokestack and the neon placards that point to it have often shown me the way to this new home.
I didn’t stay there long though. I was only there for a weekend. There was hardly time to get acquainted with my new family, which included an 83 year old grandfather, two seperate houses, and 3 teenage host-siblings. Then, it was off tothe bus bound for Hiroshima.
After a regiment of questions as to the whereabouts of my extra socks, film for the camera, wallet, etc. I assured Mrs. Teraishi “Don’t worry.”
“Worry is the way of Mom.” she said. I was gone for 2 weeks.
The bus was loaded with exchange students from all over the world. We dubbed it “The Bus of Babble” because, in order to keep track of all the conversations, one would have to be able to speak more than 10 languages. I can only speak three, so my closest travel companions were the ones from South Africa, Australia, Argentina, and Canada. Our first stop was a rest area, replete with a classic car show, and the mysterious “Pagota of Gas”. This huge, green plastic structure provided ample shade for a picnic. But the only food to be had was gas station style microwaved pizza.
After a few more hours on the road, the tour took us to an amusement park. None of coulod fit in any of the seats to any of the rides, save those of “The Love Log Flume”. But the greatest attraction, by far, was the plastic barnyard animals. There were three of them, or rather, the rear ends of a plastic pig, elephant, and a lion. These rumps were mounted on the wall, like hunting trophies. (aren’t you supposed to mount the head?) And should you choose to slap the pig, as you pase for a picture with it, as I did, all the animals squeal and belch. The noise came as some surprise, form a speaker hidden within the bowels of these beasts.
In the hotel room that night, the boys from Argentina and South Africa kept me up all night with their strange tales of life in Japan, and other things. Both of them claim to have been here too long. They also claim to know members of the Japanese mafia, the Yakusa when they see them. Thanks to thier stories, I now have a trove of trivial information. Such as the proper way to blow glass. the process, or at least the account I heard of it, involves tools with names like “hot rod” and “glory hole”
Tired, we stumbled back onto the bus in the morning. And we did eventually get to see Hiroshima.
Japanese tourism is not what most of us had expected as a way to spend a vacation. Instead of lesirely sightseeing with a bit of relaxation on the side, the purpose of a Japanese formal tour is to cram as much activity into a short period as possible. Tourism here does have the one universal feature of travel, the gift shop. The guide says “on your left is our honorable store” Its frustrating for foreigners, especially if they have a preconception of what it is that they want to see. The role of a host in Japan is to anticipate what the guest ought to have. So a tour is likely to display faked versions of old tradition with a bit of “modernized Americanism”, since we are after all, accustomed to TV It’s easy to believe that Japan is a doll house sometimes.
It’s hard to find the right words for Hiroshima. Most of the men and women who lived through the day an atomic bomb was dropped on them can only say that they “met with it.” They choose not to talk about the melting babies, the people fused with their shadows, and the black rain thereafter. Likewise, the tour guide didn’t have much to say about it either. She began,“It was a peaceful day in Hiroshima. The birds were singing…”
A few from our group left the tour, which only included a meuseum full of plastic models of the city we were in. We took a walk around Peace Park, listened to the bells. Someone suggested that we find ground zero. There’s a husk of an old university building by the bridge where the bomb landed. Both of them are still standing. Only the bridge has been repaired. I stood on the bridge for a long time, just looking up. There weren’t any birds.
We went to an “American 50’s Diner” for lunch, and passed a school tour on the way. One of the kids in that class had chosen to wear a U.S. Air Force T-shirt to the Hiroshima museum. I’m not sure why.
It took another two days to get back to Kyoto. There, I met with another group of foreigners bound for the mountains. We spent a weekend hiking and camping in the mountains North of Kyoto. A pair of Spaniards enlisted me in a game of baseball which we played with logs and a rag ball. It was the first time most of us had seen anything resembling a jungle.
But the fun wasn’t over yet. At the end of that weekend, there was yet another excursion to go on, with yet another group of foreigners. This time to the Japan Sea, we stayed in a hotel right on the shore. I made fast friends with a girl named Nina from Australia. Nina told me about Nara, its a city near Kyoto. Nina went there, albeit reluctantly, to see the largest statue of the Buddha. Nara is famous for it. But Nina hadn’t wanted to go. So, she said she was even more apprehensive when she read that said “you can climb through Buddha’s nose!” Her companion said “c’mon, let’s go” and Nina said “no”. Somehow she ended up doing it anyway. Of course, it wasn’t the actual nose of the Buddha, which no one could really get to. It’s Just a detached giant nose, off to the side of the main attraction. Nina was glad of that because nobody was there to see her when she got stuck, with her rear end hanging out of Buddha’s nostril.
The thing I remember most about the Japan sea, is the fog. Fog, fog and more fog, all along the cold shore. It was only clear enough to see the sky for a while one night. But there wasn’t enough light to see the white sand, or the gum drop mountains on the other side of the sea. Stars, and preludes to the meteor shower, and the sound of water, that was all.
Nina asked me why I’d been chuckling to myself on and off all day. I was laughing at the old man who drew a map of Japan when Nina asked “So! Where the hell are we anyway?” He drew a map on a napkin
“He was humming along with the lines.” I told her, and imitated with a stick in the sand. “like a child trying to color between the lines” She laughed at that. “I imagine, when I imagine that there is God, that God drew the world in just the same way. Why else would Earth’s landmasses be so squiggly? The wandering lines are more fun to hum along with. It’s such a human thing.”
There was a long surreal silence. It can get so quiet in Japan sometimes. After a few minutes, Nina spontaneously decided to prove that she can sing the blues. But the sound of the water swallowed her song. And the waves came to wash away my map in the sand.
The next day, while touring a chopstick factory, I made a set of chopsticks to commemorate the occasion. The chopsticks start out black, there’s swirly colors behind the black, so you press the sticks against a spinning stone wheel until the color shows through. I played the wheel like a drum with the sticks, tap-tap-tapping instead of holding and rubbing like everyone else. And when the Irish girl behind me said “Dylan’s making stars.” I stopped and said “so I am”.
Stars aren’t yellow and green, red or blue. They’re only one color each, and they’re all white from here. But not on my chopsticks. I took those chopsticks home with me. I’m proud of them. My new host mother sets them on my place at the table for every meal.
I meet an older German man at a crosswalk. He complains that housewives with plants will occupy tonight’s trains, fresh from the temples. He says that tonight, nearly everyone in Japan will eat beans for dinner, one bean for each year of their life. ‘‘And tomorrow morning the trains will swell with geriatric gas’ he says.
There’s a café above three floors of pachinko machines. Its the only place in town with Internet computers so its usually awash with foreigners. Its called Aspirin because not being able to communicate is a headache. Today’s topic of conversation is an old one - Mr. Charisma. He’s something of an archetypal hero among the foreigners in Japan, albeit a tragic hero. Some say the man is from Barcelona, I heard New Jersey. But everyone agrees that he would have been an outcast wherever he’s from. Japan is where he had to go to make a name for himself. And what a name he’s made! The man is never ##end of document##