Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Stranger in a Strange Land: Part 5

Climbing the steps ascending the Higashiyama-Amida Hill leading to Hideyoshi's tomb, Kyoto Japan, May 1987

A New Friend

Meiko was studying for her college entrance exams. She was very worried about her English test. She had spent many hours in a classroom learning from a textbook and a native Japanese speaker. Meiko wanted a real life experience and she wanted me to help her. It wasn't often that a Japanese High School student ran into a 20-something American girl on the streets of Kyoto--it just wasn't. Honestly, in America, we have the opportunity to mix and mingle with people from many cultures, speaking many languages, but we regularly take it for granted. I was not taught either at home or at school that I should embrace the opportunity to learn to speak new languages or encourage new customs... instead, most often we just questioned why, if people were in America, they didn't just speak English. And yet, over the years Michael and I have met many friends that speak three, four or five languages--and we are in awe. What a special gift.

Meiko's plan was for the two of us to spend at least one afternoon a week together exploring a new place. Well, a new place to me. She could practice her spoken English and ask me all the questions she wanted and I would get my own personal tour guide (and a little Japanese practice too). Meiko was sweet and polite and verbal and educated on all the places we visited and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together. It is sad to lose touch with such a special person. If our connection had happened today, we would have email and facebook and skype and all kinds of wonderful ways to stay in touch. We wrote letters for a while. She did very well on her exams and was attending University the last time we conversed. I wonder where she is today. I hope she made it out of Japan, at least for a visit.

Urban Hill Fukakusa

Michael and I continued loving our little Fushimi-ku apartment, however, it did not go unnoticed by neighbors that Gaijin were living in the neighborhood. Our apartment building was very close to the neighboring building... a much older building. The man directly across from us was not pleased that foreigners were living so close. He had a pretty serious drinking problem. On warmer evenings after returning from work, the neighbor would drink to the point of drunk and then stand out on the balcony and curse the Gaijin. We could understand enough of what was being said to know we weren't wanted. Sometimes I actually was out on the balcony during the outbursts as our laundry machines were out on the balcony. I always thought it was funny that for a country that was so technologically advanced during this time period, that their household machines were so archaic. There really weren't conventional dryers. There were these little tiny space saving underwear dryers that were kind of a fad back then, but we did not have one. We had a washer and it was manual cycle. Meaning between each cycle, everything was done manually. You would put your clothes in and run the water. Then add the detergent once the machine was full of water. Then set the wash cycle. Etc... so you had to keep a pretty close eye on it... meaning I would be on and off the balcony for the duration of the wash. I just pretended like I could not understand a word the guy was saying--and that would have been what he would have assumed anyway. Eventually the wife would drag her husband back into their apartment. It was unpleasant, but not scary. Apparently getting drunk and belligerently yelling obscenities about things you don't like is a worldwide phenomenon.

Our apartment building also had a reputation as a place for harboring "kept" women. The neighbor that we shared a wall with on the living room/bedroom side was one of these women. We believe her boyfriend was a member of the Japanese mafia. I cannot remember exactly how we knew this, probably rumors from Michael's Japanese friends. Anyway, there was regularly a lot of yelling and noise and sometimes the walls shook. I often saw this woman coming and going from her apartment at all times of the day. Like she did not have a regular job. She was attractive and always well dressed and never, ever looked at me. This probably helped me rationalize that the stories were true. One night when we were fast asleep the plastic panels in the fake shoji style sliding doors between our bedroom and living room started to shake. Michael slept through it but I bolted straight up and could not believe that whatever was going on in the apartment next door was causing THAT much shaking. I woke up Michael and said what do you think is going on? Once Michael shook the sleep off, he said EARTHQUAKE! and sure enough it was an earthquake, not the mafia guy next door enjoying a raucous night with his "kept" girlfriend.


I lived in Japan from the end of December through July. I did miss out on possibly the most beautiful time of the year, Fall. However, my favorite season, by far, during my time in Japan was Spring. Specifically Hanami Season, literally translated to flower viewing, but really it is all about the Cherry Blossom!

I took this picture in April 1987 at a park in Kyoto during cherry blossom season. In the photo is a Grandpa with his Granddaughter exploring the treasures of the creek. They probably brought a picnic and enjoyed it underneath the big full blossoms of the trees. This is custom in Japan. Such a wonderful and beautiful tradition. We so enjoyed sharing Hanami with our new Japanese friends. Something very special about this season is that it only lasts as long as the blossoms so people are totally dependent on nature. Depending on weather, the blossoms last a few days to a couple weeks. You never know how long they will last, so you must get out during the day and enjoy. You can even leave work and enjoy alcohol with your picnic. Not sure why alcohol is so important, but it is. We were lucky because the year we lived in Kyoto, cherry blossom season was nearly a full two weeks.

Stay tuned for more Japanese adventures.... including my altercation with a panda bear and a security guard!

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