Travel & Culture

Things sure are different here…

  • The First Seven Days

    Day 1 – the first day in Japan is never truly the first day. After 10 hours in the air and two hours navigating train stations and riding the shinkansen, it is well past dusk when you arrive at your destination.
    When I awoke on my real first day, in a single bed, atop a mattress and pad with a single sheet tangled around me, it still wasn’t real. My wife was sleeping soundly on the ground beside me. My legs ached. I wondered how I would do it and what I would do.

    Day 2 – I worked in the garden yesterday. It consists of a few tightly packed trees in a bed of pea gravel and a four foot strip of weeds on two sides of the house. It was quiet. The neighbors smiled and said hello. Today, being trash day, roused my wife early and she came back upstairs soon after in a huff.
    “Where are the weeds?” She asked. “They need to go out with the trash. My mom says they will get rotten if you leave them in a pile.”
    I stretched and rubbed my eyes. “They’re spread out in the weeds on the side of the house,” I said, “ I know they will rot; they’ll decompose.” I was starting to get frustrated.
    “Where is the pile?”
    “I told you there isn’t a pile, they’re spread out. You’d have to rake them out of the grass on the side of the house.”
    The “grass” on the side of the house was a mass of foot-and-a-half tall weeds. Gardening here was going to bring a lot of unforeseen difficulties. Asuka stomped out of the room and I rolled out of bed, pulling on a t-shirt and shorts. It was eight o clock and already hot. When I went downstairs to take a leak, Asuka came to me again. My brain was complaining.
    “It’s ok, don’t worry about it,” she said, “you don’t have to worry about it.”
    By this time my toothbrush was in my mouth and I grumbled.
    “You don’t have to worry about it.” She said again.
    Through a mouthful of suds I mumbled, “yes I do. I’m not going to throw it in the trash every time I work in the garden.” She was at a loss.
    I went into the little stall to piss and I spoke to her father, his picture still looking down on us from beside Asuka’s brother on the wall. “How did you do it, Katsumi?” I asked the man who married the descendant of samurai, himself descended from farmers. “How did you deal with people who are convinced that dirt is dirty and insects are bad?”

    Day 3 – We cleaned. We argued. I unpacked a box of books. Motoko, my mother-in-law, wanted to hire me to do some work around the house. I refused, via Asuka, on the grounds that I’ve had enough experience working for family for a while.
    Prior to my arrival in Japan, I was in California working for my dad. Let’s just say money makes time with family far more complicated and far less pleasant. I told her I’d happily do some work around the house, as it will be our shared space, but I’d rather not complicate things by being paid.
    I replaced a screen in one of the windows and argued with Asuka some more. The heat makes us irritable. I told her, “Just do what you have to do to get along with your mother! If we get kicked out of here we’re screwed. We have nowhere else to go. I go back to the US, where I start over from scratch, and you stay here, where you start over from scratch. You decided to forfeit your visa. I don’t know what you’d do. Just please, try to get along with your mother.”
    She gets frustrated with her mom “doing things.” I get frustrated with her telling her mom not to. I went for a walk. When I arrived at 7-11, I bought some crap in a plastic bottle, and some other crap in a plastic bag, and stood outside and smoked a cigarette. There are no trash cans in Japan, and ashtrays are few and far between, but there’s one in front of 7-11.
    After a moment I was approached by a tall, well-dressed man. We exchanged “konichiwa.”
    He asked, “doko, something something something,” which I assumed was, “where are you from?”
    “America, something something, California, something.”
    “Oh! His eyes brightened a bit, “Nihongo hanashimasuka?”
    I smiled, the Japanese word for Japanese being one I recognized. “Chotto.” I pinched with my forefinger and thumb and squinted.
    He smiled, “Boku wa chotto Eigo o hanashimasu.” He spoke a little English too.
    We introduced ourselves, bowed, shook hands, and then he asked me if I knew about Japanese Buddha. It was already starting to feel a little like I was talking to a Johova’s Witness, but he was a nice enough guy, and I had nothing better to do, so we chatted about religion and work for a little while longer before he invited me to pray with him.
    This wasn’t my first experience with Japanese Buddhism, and it certainly wouldn’t be my last. The conversation wasn’t tiresome, I wasn’t looking for an exit, and he seemed an interesting enough person, so when he asked if I’d join him in his car, there was very little of that, “am I going to get raped?” Suspicion that exists elsewhere in the world.
    Almost without hesitation, I agreed. Less than an hour later I had been given a string of beads, a prayer book, and had my name recorded in some kind of registry. Hopefully Lord Ahura Mazda won’t hold it against me when I go to see Ra in Valhalla.
    We chanted together, I friended him on Facebook and walked home. He said I should pray two times a day, facing Mt. Fuji. “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō.” I didn’t.

    Day 4 – It’s Monday. I woke up early, hoping to hear back from the English Adventure Camp I applied for. I made a cup of coffee and an egg sandwich and surfed Facebook. It’s 8 o’clock now and getting hot. 
    We went downtown to buy a cellphone and I blew 200 yen on an impossible claw game, just to prove to myself once again that they really are impossible.
    We had somen for dinner. It was delicious, but not as good as I remember.
    Before bed Asuka told me about a job she had applied for. Fertility clinic, ethical gray area. We spend 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week at work. It should be doing something we value, something that doesn’t tear us apart inside. Ethical gray area, Orion, Enagic.

    Day 5 – we woke up early and Asuka’s mom made ME breakfast. She must’ve known her daughter would push getting ready to the last instant. We rode the bus downtown and took the elevator to the 5th floor of the government building. It was a little past 9 and our appointment was at 9:30. Plenty of time. The 5th floor was quiet. There were hard hats hanging on the ends of desks stacked with boxes and no receptionist. We looked at the directory, confused. This is construction… not the floor we’re supposed to be on… We piled back into the elevator with a few other people carrying hard hats and wearing suits, and went back downstairs to talk to reception.
    After a few moments of Asuka frantically searching her phone for the email, “oh shit.” We were supposed to be somewhere else. “Do you have any cash?” She asked, as we spotted a cab parked nearby.
    I waved at the driver, who looked a little disappointed to be ending his break, and I sat quietly while Asuka pointed at her phone and read the address. He knew where the building was, with little help, and got us there on side streets at top speed. Cab drivers must go through a lot of brakes.
    As we walked through the front doors I glanced at the time, 9:28. We stepped out of the elevator onto the 5th floor to two nervously smiling faces who didn’t look like they did this very often. What “this” was, I had only a very vague idea.
    They were supposed to help me find work, that’s all I really knew. They asked some questions, showed us a few booklets (which I couldn’t take) and basically wanted to know why the hell a gaijin would want to work on a farm in Japan anyway, and what’s so special about organic farming?
    Asuka did her best to translate, and I walked away a bit deflated on the whole farming idea. It was unlikely any of the farmers spoke English, and if I wanted to work for them I’d have to call them or contact them myself, find out if they speak English, find out where they are and how to get there without a car, find out what they grew and if they even needed help, and most likely volunteer my time for a while.
    I flipped through the 200 farms listed in one of the heavy catalogues. The weight of reality grew.
    The translation drifted in, intermittently, “lots of foreign workers from Southeast Asia…” “if you don’t have a car, how will you get to the farm?” “You should talk to your neighbors.” “Lots of elderly people with land who may need help.”
    I started taking pictures of every page in the catalogue. Websites, phone numbers, smiling faces with Mt. Fuji in the background, bountiful harvests.
    We bowed and said our thank yous and goodbyes. I frowned.
    After lunch we went to the government building and filled out paperwork for an hour or two. I signed up for government health insurance and social security, and got a new stamp on the back of my visa. It all seemed like a huge waste of time and money, but a necessary one if I planned to start a life here.
    At the end of the day, as I prepared salmon, kabocha and salad, I felt a little better, but still had the deep down desire to punch something. I finished up, bowed, said my “gochisoosamadeshita,” and walked outside to watch the thunderstorm build over the mountains.

    Day 6 – losing track of days. I must be on day 7 or 8 now. Haven’t done a journal entry in a little while. I guess that means I’ve been here for a week. I’m still no closer to finding a job, and I’ve made little progress unpacking my bags or getting projects done around the house. It seems to be an endless cycle of cooking, cleaning, bathing, and walking around.
    I didn’t smoke any cigarettes yesterday. It’s the first time I can say that for a while, not for lack of wanting, mind you. I even tried to buy a pack from the vending machine, but they require some kind of tobacco industry-provided age identification card. The alternative being the convenience store, I passed. I would’ve had to interact with someone in Japanese, and ask for something I hate to want. Totally not worth it.
    I walked up into the woods, or “the mountain,” as I call it. I haven’t been up there since the last time I was here, about a year ago. I’ve come to truly appreciate that place for its beauty and it’s refuge. I’ve been visiting those woods since 2007, twelve years ago now, and it has always been a place of peace and tranquility.
    The sound of cicadas, the spiderwebs stretched out across the trail, the butterflies and twisted roots and massive beetles buzzing about, are only interrupted by the polite passerby, or the uproar of the grandstands cheering a goal in the city below.

    Entry 7 – I broke out in a heat rash as soon as I left the air conditioned bedroom today. I decided the only remedy was to get outside and sweat. After dinking around the house for a little while, I set out toward downtown, skirting the mountainside.
    The shrine at the base of the mountain was preparing some kind of festival, and was adorned with rectangular prism paper lanterns painted by schoolchildren. My guess: the assignment was to paint a picture of the most interesting thing you saw or did this summer. There were paintings of fireworks, food, fishing, Mt. Fuji, cows, a dragon, beetles, and all sorts of fun summertime activities. I assume the boy or girl that painted the dragon wasn’t paying attention to the assignment, but perhaps s/he really did spend the summer with a dragon.
    Once I had made it around the base of the mountain near downtown, I stopped at a vending machine and drank a bottle of clear, slightly sweet beverage as I read about the significance of the prayer I had incanted at the Buddhist prayer center the week prior. 
    As it turns out, “nam myo ho ren ge kyo” loosely translates to “devotion to the wondrous dharma of the lotus sutra.” I spent another hour or so reading about the lotus sutra, trying to understand what I had pledged devotion to.
    To tell the truth, I felt a little bit like I had been duped into swearing allegiance to something I didn’t fully understand or agree with. I love Buddha and all, just like I love Jesus, but I hate to swear allegiance to any dogma without complete understanding.
    This is probably part of the reason I still don’t consider myself religious, even though I do believe in God. But this is a topic for another day.
    After I had made it several pages into the Lotus Sutra, one of Sidharta Buddha’s most famous teachings, and the one most recognized by the Japanese, I put away the phone and smiled up at Mt. Fuji. It was wrapped in a shawl of clouds.
    I got back up and continued to walk. After a few moments, I noticed a small set of stairs leading up into the forest and I succumbed to the temptation. About 10 meters in, the trail was swallowed entirely by the bamboo.
    There was absolutely no trace another five yards in, and a few feet after that was an impenetrable wall of bamboo. I went off the trail, mindful of snakes, picked up a spider stick, and spent 4 or 5 hours bushwhacking my way to the ridgeline and admiring the wild of Japan.
    The city could be heard, but seldom seen, and, combined with the slope of the hill, provided an easy reference point to avoid getting lost in the dense wood.

    Late August, 2019.

  • The Cleaning of the Drains

    by Keegan Burke

    To every culture, there are merits, there are demerits, and there are those attributes that dance on the line between the two. It has been more than two years since I moved to Japan, and every season bares fresh insight into the complexities of Japanese culture.

    Spring is arguably the most beautiful time of year here. The forests, freshly green, are filled with butterflies, the chorus of birds, and flowers a gogo. The days are warm, and rain is intermittent, arriving often enough to clean the smell of barbeque smoke from the air and sprout sewn seeds, but not so often that it becomes a nuisance. The nights are cool and crisp, and children occupy themselves outdoors whenever they’re allowed.

    The unfortunate downside of springtime in Japan is the arrival of mosquitoes. As water pools in fresh cut bamboo trunks and concrete troughs, and puddles are concealed by newly sprouted foliage, mosquitos lay their eggs, and the cycle of vampirism begins. The warm days speed up the insect’s lifecycle from egg to larva to pupa to fully-grown flying bloodsucker. So, like much of the world, the people here wage war on (arguably) the world’s most hated species.

    I’ve seen many approaches to the mosquito problem. There are candles, and incense coils, and sprays. There are long sleeves and creams and nets. There are traps and zappers and odor emitters and electronic radio-signal repellants. Of course, there are screens on windows and the old-fashioned smack! There is one approach, however, that is ingenious, and in many ways, uniquely Japanese.

    Every spring, a flyer circulates and posters are hung up and supplies are distributed and people are organized to clean out the neighborhood storm drains. Due to Japan’s aging demographics and some rather antiquated gender roles, this job tends to fall to elderly men. So, around the middle of May, you may see street after street of old men on their knees, shoveling sludge into white, perforated bags, sorting out garbage, and sprinkling each freshly cleaned storm-drain with lime.

    To each culture, there are demerits and there are merits, but the sense of duty the Japanese people share to their community and their fellow human being certainly counts as the latter.


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