Monday, February 11, 2008

Three Weeks in Japan and Religion’s Already Found Me

This morning I opened my apartment door to find an elderly Japanese couple standing there. In their hands were folded sheets of paper with colorful renderings of a man and woman sitting in a pumpkin patch with beaming smiles and moose in the background. They held one out to me, and from their mouths spilled the ceaseless stream of verbiage that I have come quite accustomed to in only my short time in Japan. (The Japanese, in their perpetual politeness and unrelenting pleasantries, never stop talking.) The elderly couple at my doorstep held out their colorful folded paper, insisting I take one, and in their oral torrent and incessant bowing I discerned only two words: Jehobah’s Witteness. Even in Japan, it seems, there are religious people with pamphlets. Which isn’t too surprising, because I’ve always been that guy. The one invited by strangers to various bible study groups. The one who, as a lifeguard at the YMCA, was asked by an elderly woman doing water aerobics if he had found Jesus. The one who has been told on more than one occasion, “I’ve prayed for you.” (Thanks). So, it makes sense that religion would find me on the other side of the world. And while admittedly, I wouldn’t mind being left alone with my spirituality for a short time while in Japan, I can’t hold a grudge, because aside from being relentlessly flushed by my clumsy exchanges with the locals and the bitterly cold weather, I am immensely happy and infatuated with this country. The culture shock is a sweet vice that I find myself inhaling deeply like a dense cloud of opium as I cruise down the sidewalk on my new yellow bicycle. I am at once bewildered and unsurprised at the Japanese people. They are indifferent yet hospitable. Conventional yet rebellious. Rigid yet benevolent. I have been forced off the sidewalk when room isn’t made for me to pass while riding my bike, yet stopped and asked if I dropped 30,000 yen (the rough equivalent to $300) at a bank. I went to dinner the other night and excused myself to the restroom to wash my hands. With no hand drier and no paper towels to be found, I was prepared to dry my hands on my pants like a goddamned degenerate until I heard a gruff voice bellow from behind, “Hai dozo.” and turned to see an elderly man in a crisp suit offering his folded handkerchief to me. It was a gesture of goodwill that, while small and seemingly inconsequential, I reckon will stay with me. Others will too. Like Taka, for instance, the owner of a knife shop who asked me if I would be willing to visit him once a week so he could practice his English. I think I just might. Or the cashier at our grocery store who talks to me, spewing incomprehensible Japanese every time he rings me up, managing to eke out only one word in English. Today’s word of the day was ‘holiday’. Or the grandmother to whom I teach English, Toshiko, who named her dog Thomas Edison. And the schoolgirls. Christ, the schoolgirls. In America, the image of ripe young Japanese women in schoolgirl uniforms is by and large pornographic. In Japan, though, it’s totally legit. At all times of day, every day of the week, Japanese schoolgirls swarm the train stations like ants, with their knee-highs and skirts swishing at me in submissive conformity. It takes all my mustered strength not to run through the streets pointing at random and yelling, “You’re naughty! You’re naughty! You’re naughty!” But I don’t. Instead, I’m a soundless observer on the train, appearing to be absorbed by my book while others doze off around me, anxiously text message on their cell phones or stare blankly at their feet. My favorite moment of each day (aside from when I open the door to our apartment and see my wife’s glowing face fresh out of the shower and checking email) is my first isolated moment when I sit awaiting the 9:49 pm train from Fuji back to Numazu. The station is practically bare, save for a few people I see regularly at that particular time: The middle-aged man who sits with his legs crossed and moves only to blink. The high-school student with his unbuttoned top button and loosened tie, intently playing his Nintendo DS. The twenty-something woman who looks part vampire part prostitute, her pale bare legs showing veins in the revealed skin between her mini-skirt and stockings. They are my train comrades. I love each and every one of them deeply and reflect on these emotions as I publicly sip a tall can of beer and listen to Wu Tang on my iPod. I suppose the people of Japan are no more peculiar than those of my own country, but coupled with their amusing rituals, I can’t help but be charmed. A few mornings ago I ordered a cup of coffee to go from a place called Mister Donut. The man at the counter placed a lid on my cup of coffee, put the cup of coffee in a plastic bag, sealed it with specially branded Mister Donut tape, then placed that paper bag in a larger plastic bag and slid it across the counter before bidding me good day. I hadn’t the heart to stop him amidst this meticulous process nor did I have the heart to remove my coffee from its several layers of protection until well past the view of the shop. So, for several blocks I walked with my bag of coffee dangling at my side. Sigh. Each evening, upon completing my train commute from Fuji to Numazu, I pedal my way home and reflect not only on my day, but also on my first impressions of this country and its people. With my religious pamphlet folded neatly in the breast pocket of my pinstripe suit, I cruise down the sidewalk on my new yellow bicycle. The bitter cold whips at my cheeks, my heart beats rapidly, and my blood pumps like the surge of Japanese pouring from the mouths of passersby. I’m smitten, and I don’t care who knows it.

4 comments:

Carter said...

I wonder if Japanese people think the same thing about Americans when they move here.

terryo said...

I love MR DONUT!!! I don't think we were there for the Japan stores, but they used to be here in the states and I remember they had these water glasses you could buy and collect with cute mr donut characters.

ah memories.

ah old people.

Also - I love the NAUGHTY GIRL visual. awesome.

nantran said...

I like your stories.

Ella Pink said...

lol I think one of those people came to my door this morning. stayed silent and waited for them to leave XD