Japan 1997-2000 Part One: Three Years in Little Stick

Having recently wrapped up a four-year tour in Malawi, I find myself thinking more on the only other place I have lived for three consecutive years as an adult: Kogushi, Japan. This is especially so as my Japanese-speaking SUV not so long ago reminded me of my memories of the wonderful holiday of Setsubun. These are some of my reminiscences from that time.

In July 1997, I boarded a plane in northern Virginia, with a one day stopover in Los Angeles, to head to my English teaching assignment in rural Japan with the Japanese Exchange Teaching (JET) program through the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports. I very much enjoyed the long flight as I had been bumped – for reasons I cannot recall – to the upper deck business class where I was given chocolate bon-bons and watched movies on a mini VCR player, but I was less keen on the three day Tokyo Orientation. In my journal I wrote that it was a combination of death by presentation, much of which was in the manual I had already poured over cover to cover, and feeling uncomfortable around the other participants, who seemed to have come to Japan for the sole purpose to drink and talk about drinking. I just wanted to get to my new home.

From Tokyo those of us new JET program participants bound for Yamaguchi Prefecture flew to the Yamaguchi-Ube airport. At the small prefectural airport there was a lot of excitement on our arrival. A large group of persons with balloons and a sign cheered loudly over the arrival of one guy in our group. Another woman’s welcome committee gifted her a kimono, which is an incredibly thoughtful (and expensive!) present. One by one the 20 or 30 so other JETs were happily bundled off with their townsfolk until just I stood there. Two men stood across the way. One young, in his 20s, sporting a helmet-like stiff haircut around his round boyish face and wearing a red tracksuit with white shirt, giving him the appearance of an awkward teenager. The other, a handsome lean man in his 50s, stood languidly with an air of just repressed annoyance. He looked at me, said my name, and when I nodded, he said, “you’re with us.”

Not the most auspicious of beginnings.

They took me to eat at a noodle shop in Ube, drove me the one hour to Kogushi, to my new home, and then deposited me unceremoniously in my new apartment. There only message was that they would be back for me the next day to take me to a meeting with the local police. Then they left me.

At the police station, I was confronted with two quintessential small-town cops. Two middle aged men with paunches that sat with languid ease in their chairs as they described to me their duties in Japanese, a language I had had only two weeks of night classes on from the Miami Dade Community Center. I waited patiently for translation. I was told that should an emergency happen at my apartment, they could be there in 10-15 minutes. They said this with great pride, and a touch of ego, clearly intending to instill a sense of confidence in me of their abilities. I was dubious given I could run from my apartment to their little station in five minutes.

Kogushi, is a farming and fishing town of approximately 5,000, that along with four other similar sized towns, hugs an indented portion of coastline located in Yamaguchi prefecture, the western most part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. Kogushi in Japanese is written 小串 or “ko” meaning “little” and “gushi” meaning “skewer” or “spit” like a kabob skewer – you can see the character itself is a stick with two pieces of meat represented by squares. Frankly, I loved this and came to refer to it as “Little Stick.”

My place was a small flat located on the second floor of a compact two story apartment block consisting of only two apartments upstairs, two downstairs. It was located on the corner of the coastal road that led from Shimonoseki, the prefecture’s largest city up to historic Hagi and beyond, and the short road that dead-ended at Hibiki High School, the base school where I taught English. My balcony faced a gas station that was right out of 1950s USA. When cars pulled in a bell would ring and a team of uniformed Japanese staff members would swarm the car cheerfully calling いらっしゃいませ (Irasshaimase) or “Welcome!” Unlike in the US, Japanese gas stations were, at least in 1997-2000, full service. It was charming, except for when I wanted to sleep in on the weekend and that darn chime and swell of excessively happy greetings would grate on my nerves. Just across the coastal road was the Kogushi train station. Trains only stopped at Kogushi about twice an hour from around six in the morning to eight at night. I mostly enjoyed living so close to the station, except in the early morning hours, around five AM, when the train sat idling, awaiting its first passengers.

My apartment was what was called a “1LDK” as it had one bedroom and a living, dining, and kitchen area.  Though honestly the dining and kitchen area were one, in Japan, the spaces are much smaller than in the U.S. and had it just been a “K” the kitchen would have been the size of a closet.  The kitchen floor was an unfortunate burnt orange and golden pattern linoleum and was outfitted with just two hot plates (no oven) a half-size mint green refrigerator; it was a color combination right out of the 1970s.  My toilet and bath were separate – with the bathroom basically being a room encased in plastic.  Upon entrance, the shower was an area around three feet square with a bright blue hard plastic bottom and sides.  The other half was a three-foot-deep square bright blue bath tub with a cover.  A very Japanese design with the intention for family members clean up first with the sitting shower and then soak in the tub – and had I had other family members, we would have all soaked in the same tub water.

The floors of the bedroom (about 8 x 6 feet) and the living room (maybe 10 x 10 feet?) were of tatami, a Japanese flooring of tightly woven straw). I was thrilled to have tatami mats, as it made my home genuinely Japanese. In the bedroom, I had a small plastic single bed frame topped with a futon alongside the balcony side. It was here in this bed one morning in August that I woke to the gentle rocking that signaled a minor earthquake. This also lent authenticity to my arrival in Japan. The whole other side of the room was dedicated to a large closet built into the wall with sliding doors covered in decorated washi paper. There were no rod to hang clothes, just a shelf to fold and stack items. There was also no A/C. When I moved in in August it was quite hot and I could not sleep. Though my place was small, it was still three rooms, and there was only one wall-mounted heating and cooling unit located in the living room. I also discovered in winter that same unit did little to combat the cold that seeped in through the un-insulated walls. When I arrived home in winter I would sit in the living room with my coat still on for a good 30 to 60 minutes before the wall heater provided enough warmth for me to shed my outer layers. Given this situation, I opted to only sleep in my living room – splayed out on top of my futon with the A/C on in summers and in winter, I placed the futon on a heated carpet (cleverly called a ホットカーペット hot-to-kā-pet-to) and slept under an electric blanket lying next to my kotatsu (a low table with a heating element). I thought the reputation of Japan as this super developed country was rather undeserved as I sweat profusely or shivered for warmth in my home or at school. I don’t think I shall ever forget the words for hot (atsui) or cold (samui) in Japanese because it is what the students (and I and the teachers) uttered the most during particular seasons.

Right: I can only recall it snowing once or twice the whole time I was in Kogushi and I immediately grabbed my camera to take a picture of the Shinto shrine in the fall snow. Left: The ridiculous giant heater that showed up in the teacher’s room at Hibiki High School on November 1 and was dismantled on March 31, regardless of the weather. You had to be right next to it to get any warmth. The classrooms had no heat.

The beach was just two blocks from my apartment. There really wasn’t much beach and it was littered with large cement tetrapods. Although designed to stop coastal erosion, which is a good thing (and are a runaway hit in Japan with an estimated 50% of the country’s coast decorated with these things), they are really unsightly. I can remember being annoyed at them from day one. And over time I came to find that Japan just seemed a bit obsessed with using concrete to cover up nature – to hold back the sea, to hold up hills, to cover over all manner of things. And I never once got in the water. But I did enjoy walking through my town and alongside the sea.

A few months into my first year I bought myself a fun little 50 cc motorbike. I wanted to be able to get around a bit quicker and go a bit further than the two times an hour up and down the coast train was going to get me. Mr. Yamamoto, my school supervisor, specifically said I should not get a motorbike, implying that it was really his decision how I lived my life, which made me want to get one all the more (and frankly sealed the deal). I loved tooling around on that thing.

Being an obvious foreigner in small town Japan could be difficult. At the supermarket, I might be just picking out some fruit or standing in line at the cash register as eager parents pushed their children toward me forcing them to sing their ABCs or some other English song. On the train or at the post office or on the street, people wanted to practice their English with me. It was often endearing, but it could also be exhausting. I might be followed on the beach by curious children or shop assistants ran away terrified when I asked them a question. But when I was on my motorbike, my dark-reddish-blond hair peeking out from my under my helmet looked like the dyed hair I saw on the 20-somethings who were seeking to stand out and rebel just a bit. On my motorbike, for just a wee bit, I blended. I was once stopped by a Japanese police officer on a straightaway some kilometers north of the city of Shimonoseki and his shocked gasp of “oh, its a foreigner!” (wah, gaijin desu ne!) is probably one of my absolute favorite memories from Japan. He was so flustered explaining to me that 50 cc motorbikes have a different speed limit from cars that he just waved me off without a ticket.

There were always little things to discover in and around my town. I especially enjoyed visiting onsen or hot springs. One town over from Kogushi is Kawatana Onsen – a somewhat famous hot springs resort town. It was here that kawara soba (green tea flavored buckwheat noodles served on a hot roof tile) was invented. The two attractions did bring tourists to this little part of the San-in coast. Once I tried the Kawatana Onsen (with a group of teachers from my school – which was a little bit awkward — Hi, nice to meet you, I’m new to town, want to go together to the bathhouse and be naked?), I was really taken with onsens. I road around Toyoura-cho (my district) and sometimes further afield on my motorbike bathing in different onsens. And when I traveled around Japan, I often went out of my way to visit an onsen.

As my time grew short in Kogushi, a nice Japanese teacher of English at my school loaned me her really good camera and while walking, riding my bike, or out on my motorbike, I would stop to take pictures of things that stuck out to me as something quintessential Japan or something I would really miss — such as the roof tiles or the vending machines or the shrines. Not all of those photos have survived, but I am glad for those I have.

It’s been harder to write this than I expected; the walk down memory lane a bit more difficult to see through the fog of 21 years. Halfway through writing this, I revisited Kogushi via Google Maps. Imagine my surprise to find my apartment still standing and nearly identical to how it was when I lived there — just a fresh spot of paint on the roof has spiffed it up a bit. The hedges are still there — it was back there, near the staircase to my apartment, when I fell in a manhole. In all the places in Asia I had been with open manholes and darkened streets, it was in the most developed that I fell in. There were two sewer holes there, one slightly smaller than the other, and some service person must have switched the covers by accident and when I stepped on the larger one, then covered by the smaller manhole, it flipped and one of my legs fell painfully in. I was dirty and scratched up, and I limped to my downstairs neighbors’ house to seek help. The couple opened their door but were not welcoming, seemingly terrified that the foreigner from upstairs had sought them out. As they did nothing but stare at me with wide, frightened eyes, I just limped back upstairs to my place and tended to myself.

The bookstore is still next door, the police station still down the street, the exterior of Hibiki High School still looks the same. The gas station that once stood across the street though is gone, replaced by a small parking lot. The mini-mart building still stands but appears boarded up. The supermarket is now a cafe. But otherwise, Kogushi seems to look much the same. The train station looks the same. There is still a hair salon near the station — where once some Japanese women, thrilled to have a gaijin in their salon, tried their best to style my hair but unfamiliar with non-Japanese hair did a rather poor job. The pharmacy is still there across the station square.

Though I do not remember all of my time in Japan as much has faded with the passage of time, my experiences during three years in Kogushi are very much part of who I am today.

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