FIVE CROWDED DAYS
Trip Start Feb 24, 2010
28Trip End Oct 14, 2010
And henceforth, it was with mixed emotions that I set off for China - a country that would soon be employing me to teach university English.
The $1050 I had saved up went quickly. $160 went toward a tourist visa for China, $574 for a roundtrip ticket between Minneapolis and Beijing, and $8 was for an emergency supply of peanut butter and jelly.
The reason the flight was so cheap was because Karen Cochran, a retired stuardess who loves dancing to 80s' music in my hometown, had given me one of her airline's "buddy tickets". I even got to sit in first class, where the main activity was toasting with our fine wines to the plight of the suckers in economy class. "What!? They've no bread in economy class? Let them eat cake!"
I even got a free stopover in Japan, of any length I chose. I chose: five days. I owed all these perks to my love of The Cure and David Bowie and INXS and 80s' music.
"I'll run away with you." - sung, magically, by The Cure
"I want to be big in Japan. All right! Hey, can I sleep by your side? It's so easy when you're big in Japan." - Alphaville
I had a list of about fifteen Japanese shrines and mountain villages and picturesque bays and onsen I wanted to visit, but mostly I though it'd be beautiful to see any scene under snow. Red-faced, white-furred monkeys in a snowy tree? A local woman and Uma Thurman sword-fighting in front of Mt. Fuji? Or just any snow. I figured I could rely on hitchhiking to get me to some of these sites, or at least one of ...
Japan was very crowded. Commerical avenues in towns became crowded countryside became towns. Cars streamed on two-lane highways with no room for shoulders. Most drivers managed to not even glance at me as I hitchhiked. When they stopped, I was cramped in tiny cars, and our progress was slow due to rural stoplights. And the roadside air was sometimes choking. (About 40% of the people I saw wore surgical masks, some even while inside and working.)
So, during my five days of hitchhiking and living in my tent, I didn't see much besides a lot of rain. But, on the plus side, a lot of Japanese got to see a dirty, scraggly American.
I remained very happy, though, because I was outside and alive. While living in a house in Michigan, my hair had thinned considerably, and I came up with the theory: "Lack of sunlight causes baldness." Have you ever seen a bald farmer? Or a bald banana-picker? Or a bald aborigine or indian, before the white man came? I haven't.
The point is I was happy, and I did enjoy some good moments in Japan. For example:
1. The small city of Narita, home to Tokyo's international airport, also contained the quiet Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, and I found myself there the first night. On a large urban mound, stone stairs led to different levels of plazas, gardens, and forest paths. Brown, orange, or red temples sat on the plazas; their roof tiles sailed like waves, and their awnings arched wickedly. The gardens smelled of sweet dander and Australian beaches, and were covered in green-gray mossy mistiness. An orange tree looked like a segmented, furry-headed worm, or a tree from the movie, Avatar. It reminded me of what my brother, a conservation biologist, had said of people's reactions to the movie: "A lot of people see the alien planet and wish they could go there. They don't realize our planet could and should be that beautiful."
2. I asked Ooshtosh, a 41-year-old, boy-sized deliveryman: "Shinto? Buddhism? Religion - you?" Our communication wasn't the best. He said, "Kendo. Samurai ... samurai spirits."
3. In a tiny house that served as a countryside restaurant, the balding businessman with an overworked face, seated next to me, asked my age. Then, he said, "Thirty years. You are very young. Why?" And I was totally stumped. I had no idea how to answer such a question. Oh, the riddles of the ancient Orient! But, then, he continued the question. "... in Japan? Business?"
4. An orange-faced, flat-faced beauty named Sauri invited me into her orange compact car. Her lengthy black hair was worn down, over a blue sweater over red, long sleeves, above a jean skirt over black leggings. We laughed easily, and touched hands and arms flirtatiously. She dipped into her own language: "Aru? Ko-ki-ko." She'd be turning twenty-four in three days - the same day as Intelligent Eyes' birthday - and she seemed to invite me to her party. But, I wasn't going to be around then ...
5. A young man named Yamauchi, who seemed slow but spoke the best English, was my final ride returning to Narita. His burly, bespectacled body wore a sky-blue-and-white "Yokoska" jacket; thin gold dragons ran down the arms, and the word "JAPAN" and other dragons were on the back. Talking about his favorite musican James Brown, or his favorite baseball team from Hanshin, he got excited. "Hanshin Tigers - Yamauri Giants ... rival! ... OLD rival!" He listed "Exile" as a great Japanese band, and "Godzilla" as a great Japanese movie.
those were the best memories. Many of the worst moments ocurred when I was trying the food.
1. In the aforementioned countryside restaurant, sturdy bamboo walls surrounded low tables you had to sit or kneel around. I was given, at the bar, a tiny bowl containing: the hard, purple tentacles of a creature that pulls things into caves and eats them; and a flimsy piece of a flimsy squid that had evidently died of a bad rash. DISGUSTING. The main course was thin noodles swimming in soy sauce, with egg halves, strips of thin, succulent beef, hardy squid discs, scallions, and peanuts. GOOD, BUT TOO MUCH SOY SAUCE.
2. In the food court of a department store, I bought a furry, fried ball that contained gushy egg-white and a hu-u-uge yolk. WEIRD. I also bought fried balls of dough with barbecue sauce on them, some of which contained the aforementioned purple tentacles, others contained shrimp. YUK. "These tentacles must be what they feed dumb foreigners," I thought.
3. Lightly-breaded, fried pork on a stick. YUM! Transparent dessert balls that were a mix between marshmallow and gum, topped with a thick sesame sauce. VERY FILLING; OKAY.
4. Yamauchi highly recommended the "Yoshinoya Big Bowl", a big bowl of rice and mangled, soggy beef available at the Yoshinoya fast-food chain. DISGUSTING.
I could've tried more foods, but I'm glad I didn't.
I spent my final hours in Japan in the best place: the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. Amongst the forest paths, a chain of three peaceful lakes dipped over waterfalls to meet one another and were surrounded by stone bridges, big bonsai trees, and pink orchards of newly-flowering trees. I meditated on a round peninsula, thinking the sound of the waterfall, feeling the muscular movements of bright orange carp, hearing the wind through the ferns, being the rounded shoreline, wondering when I'd get back here - or somewhere like it.
Thanks to Ooshtosh; Kauri & Kioko; Yo-ich; Sauri; and Yamauchi for rides!