A friend of mine asked me just today how I was finding living in Conakry. I did not have a great answer. I said it has been ok. And it has been. Really. It has also been challenging. There have been days when I thought I would hit this milestone, three months here, and say “Three months down, only thirty-three to go!” The truth is I have not yet formed an opinion. I am only beginning to get into the swing of things.
It is no secret that Guinea can be a challenging place to live – for Guineans and expatriates alike. The State Department does struggle with getting personnel to serve here; it is what is called a “historically difficult to staff” (HDS) post. To recruit Foreign Service Officers to work in Guinea there are extra financial incentives. There is a high post differential (currently a 30% bump in pay) and also an additional 15% bonus if one agrees to stay a third year at this two-year posting. Even with these extra monetary inducements there are still vacant positions.
I do not know, however, what all has been difficult because it is Guinea or because it is hard to move and to start over in a new job in a new country. I have lived in challenging places before. Each of my tours with the Defense and State Departments has had some difficult aspects from Jakarta (25% post differential; terrible traffic, terrorist attacks, religious and ethnic divides) and Ciudad Juarez (10% post differential , 15% danger pay; gang and narco-trafficking violence, desert dryness, major visa post), to Shanghai (15% post differential; language/cultural differences, lots of crowds, major visa post) and Malawi (25% post differential when I arrived; one of the poorest countries in the world, limited flights in and out, limited entertainment venues in town). Now though I think of all of these places with great fondness. They were all good tours.
I arrived in Conakry at the tail end of June, part of the “summer transfer season” that sweeps embassies and consulates worldwide every year. This past summer seems to have particularly transitional for our embassy in Conakry. I think my experience of it was exacerbated by the timing of my arrival. Many staff were on their way out. I would meet someone and he or she would tell me, “I am leaving tomorrow/next week/next month.” In other cases, the person incumbering the position had already departed and the incoming officer had yet to arrive, leaving gaps. I struggled to complete the Embassy check-in procedures because there was either no one to check in with or the person was soon on their way out. This contributed to the isolating feeling I already had as a newly arrived employee.
At my previous tour, in Malawi, we arrived mid-August. At the end of that week, the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) organized a “sips and snacks” event at a colleague’s house where all Embassy staff and families could join. Just three weeks after arriving, our social sponsor and family took C and I on a weekend trip in the south of the country. Five weeks after arriving, the Ambassador held a welcome picnic at her residence for all the Embassy, new and old, to meet one another. Eight weeks after arriving, C and I joined a CLO-organized safari trip in Zambia over a long weekend. And around three months after arrival, C and I took our first trip to Lake Malawi.
Nothing remotely like any of this has happened yet in Guinea.
Besides my early summer arrival date being likely at least party at fault for the rougher start, there is also the rain. Guinea has two seasons: hot and dry and hot and wet. The wet, rainy season is very, very wet. I recall reading somewhere that Conakry is the fourth rainiest capital in the world. The monsoonal season begins in late May/early June. For context, the annual rainfall for Washington, DC, is 43 inches; for Conakry it is 149 inches. Conakry may see as much rainfall in the month of July as DC gets all year.
That is not to say that there are not nice days. There have been some gloriously bright sunny days. In fact, our first week in country was deceptively rain-free. The accumulation of this amount of rain though also has its affects on soil and infrastructure. I do not know what the roads here might look like when its the dry season. In Malawi at least there were some attempts to fix roads and fill potholes that had eroded during the rains. That may or may not happen here. Right now though many of the capital’s roads are in poor shape and easily flood making the traffic situation and travel more challenging.
For me, it feels like it is taking longer to settle here. One reason may be the longer time it has taken to receive my effects. My Household Effects (HHE) arrived a little less than eight weeks after we arrived in Conakry. That is pretty good. However, the unaccompanied baggage (UAB), the smaller air shipment that is supposed to be items you want as soon as possible, that took 11 weeks to get to Conakry. At my other posts, UAB arrived pretty quickly: Ciudad Juarez (it was in my entry when I arrived at my new home!), Shanghai (2.5 weeks after arrival), and Malawi (12 days after arrival). Granted the pandemic and the residual staff shortages and global logistic and supply chain issues have led to longer shipping times. Still, I had not expected to wait so long.
No matter where one lives, having a place to come home to that is safe and comfortable and reflects your interests is key. In a tougher place like Guinea, that is arguably even more important. Now, though I am beginning to make this house more our home, there are also still quick a few boxes and piles of items around. We are still awaiting the supplemental HHE, the secondary shipment of items from the US. There will be more to unpack, sort through, and organize.
In the Foreign Service, the conventional wisdom is that it really takes six months before one can begin to truly feel at home in a new place. By that measure, I still have time to ease into the life here. Guinea and I are still trying to get to know one another.
I awoke on my last full day without my kiddo in Vianden, Luxembourg. I took one final walk along the river and one last look at the castle on the hill, before I headed back into Belgium.
With that one last solo day I figured it was best to head to where the name had become synonymous the world over with relaxation: Spa, Belgium.
Spa is an old, old town with lots of historic firsts and a UNESCO World Heritage designation to boot. Discovered by and used for mineral bathing by the Romans, Spa reportedly truly became a stopping of point for its curative waters from the 14th century. The world’s first casino opened in Spa in 1763 and the world’s first recorded beauty pageant was held there in 1888, won by an 18-year old Creole woman from Guadeloupe. In 2021, UNESCO recognized Spa and 10 other European towns for their historic value as Great Spa Towns of Europe.
Part of the designation centered on the other industries that built up around European spa towns like hotels, casinos, and beauty contests. In Spa, a postal system was set up in 1699 that allowed those lucky enough to be able to afford to travel and “take the waters” could then send letters and postcards to friends and family boasting of such.
At the Museum of the City of Waters, I learned that collectible items made in Spa became all the rage for visiting tourists. Hand hewn and painted decorative boxes or colorful delicate painted glassware sporting the name of the spa town were what 18th and 19th century tourists loved to bring home after being enticed by colorful tourist brochures.
My joint ticket also gave me entry to the Museum of Laundry. I had honestly expected little from this place but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of information and fascinating displays. An oft-ignored by-product of tourists and hotels is a proliferation in items needing laundered, from clothes to bed sheets to towels, and the people, usually women, who washed those items. The museum gives a history of laundering and the advances in technology that made washing and drying at least easier on the laundress (from washing machines and detergent to dryers and irons) if not more interesting. I ended up spending more than an hour there.
The big thing I was in town to do though was of course to soak in the waters of the Thermes de Spa, the facility for bathing in Spa’s thermal waters built in 1868 on a hill overlooking the town. My hotel helped me to make a booking to arrive at the spa at 6 PM where I would then have three hours to enjoy until closing. Unfortunately, right after I made my reservation and went to put on my suit I realized I had not packed it. Luckily though the bathing house sells inexpensive suits to silly tourists who forget theirs. Had I still been a backpacker watching my money carefully, this might have been a real dilemma, but I came to take the waters and I would do so even if it meant forking over more money.
I stayed about an hour and a half enjoying the large heated indoor pool, the heated outdoor pool, the sauna, and the Hammam. Just enough time to give those waters time to do some wonders.
The following morning I had one last hour-long stroll around Spa before saying goodbye. I needed to be at the Euro Space Center by 3 PM for a camper presentation, so I thought I would break up the hour and a half drive with a stop in Durbuy, Belgium’s smallest incorporated town.
Durbuy was once a thriving medieval village on the Ourthe River at the crossroads of commerce. Today it is a very small, very walkable historic town chock full of character. It is dominated by the Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel (unfortunately closed to the public), which stands alongside the river and bridge. Though the current castle is 18th century design, records indicate a castle stood there since at least the 11th century. The little warren of cobblestone streets adjacent to the castle are full of restaurants, bars, stores, and homes of stone and timber. I was kicking myself for not having more time here. Durbuy warranted an overnight stay so I had the time to slowly explore, especially after most of the tourists departed. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time. I had lunch and then headed to pick up C from space camp.
After five nights apart, I felt absolutely giddy to arrive at the Euro Space Center auditorium to see my daughter at the presentation of graduation certificates. She was sitting front row right next to the doors as I came in, huddled together with the other American girl with whom she shared a dorm. C did not want to leave. I had wondered how she might handle five nights away at an unfamiliar place; five nights is the longest we have ever been apart but previously she was at her dad’s or my sister’s. I need not have worried; she told me she could have done another week.
We drove back to Brussels, returning the car at the airport and then taking the train to our city center hotel. C did not understand why I gave up the car, but, as I tried to explain, we had no use for it in the capital. I had very much enjoyed the freedom the car had given me to drive from town to town, but there had also been challenges on narrow old town streets, with parking, and when the GPS failed as I drove from Vianden to Spa.
We had three additional days in Brussels before our return to Guinea. On our first day, we walked from our hotel near the Brussels North train station to the Royal Palace. Like the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg, the Belgium Royal Palace is open to the public just once a year, six days a week for six weeks between mid July and September. Unlike the Grand Ducal Palace no guided tour is required and photographs are allowed. We did need to buy timed tickets but after arriving and going through security we were able to walk through at our own pace. That certainly worked better for C and I; I am pretty sure my daughter would not have enjoyed the German guided tour one bit.
After the palace visit we walked, meandering through Brussels Park, past the St. Michel and St. Gudula Cathedral, and back to the Great Square. We had lucked out to be in town and get tickets to see the Royal Palace but also it turned out that weekend was the festival for the Flower Carpet, held only the the three days on the weekend around Assumption Day, every other year. I do not know what the crowds are normally like, but I was surprised that as many people as there were on the Great Square, we could still easily walk get to the cordoned rope to have a view. We also easily bought tickets to the Brussels City Museum (which is very interesting in its own right!) with a balcony surcharge so that we could view the flower carpet from the third floor.
On our second to last day we visited the Magritte Museum, again putting in the steps on foot. I am a fan of surrealism and museum was top notch. What surprised me though was how much C enjoyed it. I had payed to get audio tours and selected the one for teens for C but she wanted more information than that was giving her and she asked to take mine. I didn’t get it back. From the museum we walked a little ways to have Thai for lunch and then rode “The View” an observation wheel near the Palace of Justice. Our route back to our hotel took us past key comic murals around the center of town.
Belgium has embraced comics as a so it was perhaps little surprise that we found more than a few stores catering to Japanese anime fans. My daughter C is one! This added to the high marks that C gave Brussels as the trifecta of waffles, fries, and anime was too much to ignore. We spent our last morning at the Comics Art Museum where we learned about the art of comics and animation. The most famous Belgian comics characters are probably the Smurfs and Tintin, that have a worldwide audience, but there is an incredibly rich culture of Belgian comics beyond these.
That afternoon we headed back to the area around the Magritte Museum and the Royal Palace to meet friends of ours from our Shanghai days. RG and BG are a Foreign Commercial Service family and their daughter OG had been in C’s preschool class in China. Though the girls only vaguely remembered each other when we first met for drinks, several hours later they were playing together as if no time had passed. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip — a reminder of the amazing connections we can make in this lifestyle despite our nomadic lives.
As we headed back to Guinea the following day, it was with a renewed sense of excitement for our new post. The first six weeks had been a rather challenging whirlwind and I am not going to lie that it was more than a little hard to leave behind the order and conveniences of Europe, but when our plane touched down in Conakry that evening I felt glad to be there. We were home.
I sat in the Euro Space Center parking lot for a few beats after dropping C off at space camp. It reminded me of when I took her to her first drop-off-and-depart birthday party. At first I did not know what to do with myself. This time, however, that period of confusion lasted much less time. I did know what I was doing. I set my GPS directions, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed to Luxembourg City. I was on a mission.
In 1998, when I was living in the western part of Japan, I took a vacation to visit my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany. We decided to take a multi-day driving trip to Luxembourg City along the Moselle River. My uncle was behind the wheel as we meandered along with the river, through small riverside towns. We stopped frequently for castles and wineries (for my aunt and uncle, not me) and other beautiful vistas. We made a lot of private family jokes along the way that my aunt and I still rehash again and again. Like when we left the fried camembert from lunch in the car overnight outside the B&B and the car stunk to high heaven the next day. Or when we visited Trier and my uncle and I lay in wait from my aunt as she came out of McDonald’s so we could cluck our disapproval. You really had to be there. On the third day we drove into Luxembourg. I had long been awaiting this, to walk the 1000 year old streets of the old town. But what did we do? We had dinner, went to bed, and the next day we went to the Villeroy and Boch Outlet Factory to get some replacement porcelain pieces for my aunt’s dinnerware set. Then drove back to Frankfurt. That never sat well with me (though my aunt and I laugh about it), so here I was, 24 years later, to right that wrong.
I was a bit nervous as I approached the capital. I had been okay driving out of the Brussels airport and on to highways and to small towns, but here I was about to enter a major European City. On Google Maps it seems simple and straightforward enough, but I could see the one way streets here and there and anticipated there could be a problem. There was. Google Maps kept directing me down a pedestrian street. I drove past it the first time, but on my second go turned in thinking, maybe it isn’t actually pedestrian only? Except it ended in a sidewalk café. My three point turn in front of diners felt more like a ten point turn in slow motion with everyone staring at me. I pulled over in front of a shop shuttered for the evening, as if I were just there to conduct some business that I had every right to be parked on a pedestrian street in Luxembourg to do, so that I could call the hotel. As I drove around, the friendly hotel receptionist Yves gave me directions. I was still required to drive up that pedestrian-only street, just from the opposite direction, and then park briefly in front of the hotel for check-in. After check-in Yves told me, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “And now we will park, which is an adventure in and of itself.”
He was not kidding. I got back in my car and made another 3-5 point turn on the pedestrian street, trying to avoid the low pillars blocking the area in front of the adjacent museum, the couple on the park bench, and people just strolling by, and then followed Yves, who was on foot, about 50 meters away. There he put in the code on a key pad on the side of a building and he motioned me to drive into an elevator. Yes, an elevator for cars. One floor down I drove out and met Yves who directed me to park the car into a grooved walkway on a circular panel in the floor. I did so and then exited the vehicle. “You have the parking brake on, right?” Yves asked. “I think so,” I answered, “It’s a rental and rather a new model, so I think that is what this symbol means.” “Ah, yes,” Yves replied, “these new cars make the parking automatic. We need the brake on or it will be catastrophic.” And with that ominous prediction, he had me fold in the side mirrors, and leave the car. Yves then pushed some more codes into another wall panel. Glass doors sealed around the circle and then the car spun around, lifted up slowly, and then the floor dropped out and the car disappeared. Underground apparently it is sorted into small car slots by a robot. I imagine its a bit the vinyl Matchbox car container I had as a kid, just on a really grand scale. And there my rental sat for three days, nice and safe. I had dropped C off only two hours before and I had already had these adventures in driving and parking!
I stayed at the beautiful Hotel Parc Beaux Arts, located smack dab in the middle of the old city, not even 600 feet from the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace. The building dates back to the 15th century and some parts of the stone work are original. I lucked out with the only room to have a loft, with the king bed located on a partial second floor. I loved it.
After getting settled in, I set out to explore the city on foot. Here I was walking in the UNESCO World Heritage town, parts of which are more than 1000 years old. I meandered past the Grand Ducal Palace and over to the Place d’Armes. I decided to find a place for dinner and headed over to a Mexican place I found online. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and already closing in on 9 PM, so the kitchen was closed. I had forgotten how late the sun goes down during a northern European summer. I Googled “best burger in Luxembourg” and found another place just about five minutes walk away. I had a nice, very late dinner, there, at a little table on the sidewalk, having the best burger in town, reveling in the fact that I was on my own in Europe for the first time in a very, very long time.
The next day, I went to the tourist information center to find out about tours of the palace and the casements. The casements, a network of subterranean tunnels built into the promontory rock of the old town, are one of the main tourist activities in the city. Unfortunately for me, the Bock Casements were closed for renovations and tours of the Petrusse casements were sold out until a week after I would depart. The Grand Ducal Palace, the official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, is only open for tours one month each year, excluding weekends. All the English tours were sold out. I thought, maybe I can muddle through with French? But no, I did not even get a chance to try as those tours too were sold out. There were only a few slots available in German. I had to take it or not get to go.
With my tour set up, I decided to just sightsee on my own. I signed up for a little tourist train to give me an overview of the historic town. The train was a little silly, I did not get too much from the commentary, but it did take me from the upper town to the lower, across the river, up the Rham Plateau, and back. The tourist train gave me the lay of the land and as soon as I returned to the start I then began exploring on foot. I walked and walked and walked. I absolutely love to walk and I miss taking long ones. My daughter is less keen. It was easy enough when she was still in a stroller; I walked a lot in Shanghai that way. But now she is older and she complains a lot. “Where are we going?” “How much longer?” “Are we there yet?” “Why do we have to walk?” I could walk just for walking sake in Luxembourg, without a real destination in mind, not knowing when I might stop and rest or turn back. It sure felt good.
At a quarter to 10 AM on my second full day, my last in Luxembourg City, I headed to the Place Guillaume II, the central square, to meet my tour group for the Grand Ducal Palace. My German tour. I speak a total of maybe 25 words of German, a combination of very basic greetings, numbers, foods, WWII war battle vocabulary, and cursing. Yet, the only way I was going to get a tour of the palace during this trip was to sign up for the German tour. I was not the only person with this idea as there was also a group of six Brazilians who appeared as clueless as I.
This was not the first time I had signed up for a tour in a language I did not speak in order to get in to some place. I recalled when I signed up for a tour in Polish in Malbork castle or the two day French and German tour in Tunisia or the Serbian tour of the Royal Compound in Belgrade (I have yet to put this story onto the blog). At one point I asked another tourist if they spoke English and she clucked her tongue in disappointment as she noted, “Do you really speak no German? That is a pity. This is a really good tour and she is giving lots of information.”
Perhaps it was a pity. But my choices were a tour in German, a tour in Luxembourgish, or no tour at all. I figured German was my best bet. And I still had my eyes. I could drink in the ornate furnishings and decor, gawk at the luxurious though overstuffed rooms, and wonder at the Grand Duke’s family’s passion for very large chandeliers. No photographs were allowed so I had to pay extra attention.
After my tour I opted for a Thai lunch (as I was trying to eat all the foods while I was able), and then resumed my walking until I could not walk anymore style of touring. I headed to the Pfaffenthal Panoramic Elevator that would take me, for free, from the High City to the Pfaffenthal quarter in the valley below, then walked to the 17th century Vauban Towers, up to Fort Obergrunewald (also built by Vauban), then through the gates beneath the Bock Casements, across the Alzette River, to Neumunster Abbey, then beneath La Passerelle, a 19th century vaulted aqueduct bridge, along the Petrusse River, til I climbed back up the High City at the Petrusse casements and Gelle Fra War Memorial, crossed the Adolphe Bridge and back, on to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, then back to my hotel. The weather was perfect and the walk was glorious. I finished up with a sampling of chocolates from The Chocolate House, located by the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace.
The following day I checked out of the hotel and retrieved my rental car from the depths of the mechanical parking garage and headed out of the city.
It was only a 30 minute drive northeast from the bustling center of old Luxembourg the oldest town in the country on the border with Germany. Echternach grew up around the Benedictine abbey founded in the year 698. The current abbey has been built and rebuilt many times over the centuries, though parts of the original remain and the tomb of the abbey’s founder, Saint Willibrord, is inside. The Orangerie, part of the Abbey’s gardens, was established in 1736. It is currently used as a school and not open to the public. It turned out I was there during the monthly Wednesday market, so the town’s historic square was full of modern-day merchants. Initially, I found myself somewhat annoyed — I had wanted to really see the square and the buildings surrounding it, and instead I saw food trucks and white tents. I thought though, that there had probably been markets on that square or nearby for near on 1000 years. So, I walked around the town and had lunch, basically waited the market out, so I could catch a glimpse of it less crowded before I left.
From Echternach I drove another 30 minutes north to the town of Vianden. I had wanted to drive entirely in Luxembourg but eventually gave in to the GPS and I ended up crossing the Saeur River into Germany for at least half the trip.
I pulled into Vianden around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and after working out the parking (which just doesn’t seem straightforward in any European town) and getting into my room, I headed out soon to see Vianden Castle.
Vianden’s castle stands high on a steep hillside overlooking the Our River and the town. Once considered by UNESCO for inscription (but for some reason denied in 2013 – though the UNESCO plaque at the entrance tells nothing of its denial) it is still an outstanding fortress. The famous French writer Victor Hugo stayed four times in Vianden during his exile and reportedly found the castle “magnificent.” In 2019, CNN listed the castle as one of the 21 most beautiful castles in the world.
To get there, I walked. It was not far from the hotel where I stayed across the river, but to get there one has to head up a steep incline making it take longer than Google Maps would have you believe. Plus, I found lots to stop and admire along the way. I had little doubt that my daughter would not have been a fan. I am 100% sure she would have asked why we didn’t just drive up (which you can certainly do). But I was grateful for the opportunity to work my legs.
I spent probably an hour and a half in the castle. It was going on 5:15 when I looked out from the castle ramparts to see what looked like folks on an adjacent hill in the distance. I discovered there was a chairlift where I could probably have an amazing view of the castle. I checked online and found it was open until 6:30, with the last ride up at 6 PM, and if I walked quickly I could get there in about 15 minutes from the castle parking lot. I was going to go for it!
Had I been with my daughter I am not sure I would have made it. I had already been walking for hours that day — around Echternach, through Vianden, up to the castle, around the castle, and now I was going to speed walk my way to the chairlift station down the hill and across the river. I did make it though. The chairlift was a wee bit scary, but the views were worth it. I only stayed up top for the 15 minutes I had to make the last trip down. Then I could meander slowly back to my hotel where I savored a delicious meal finished off with a popular Belgian dessert — La Dame Blanche (vanilla ice cream topped off with dark chocolate syrup). A fitting reminder that the following day I would return to Belgium.
First, before I get into the trip itself, I want to explain how it is I found myself on nearly two weeks of leave not yet six weeks after arriving in Conakry. It is not my usual modus operandi to arrive at a new post and then take off so soon after. Then again, this is a new year, a new arrival time, at a new point in our lives. Earlier in the year, I looked ahead at our arrival in Conakry, and thought how it would be for my daughter C. We would arrive in Conakry just two weeks after the school year ended and still have seven long weeks before the new one would begin. We would be new people in the community, one in which there were not a whole lot of kids and many would be away for the summer. I needed something for C.
Poking around online I discovered that the Euro Space Center in Belgium has an overnight summer space camp and beginning in June, Brussels Airlines would be reinstating its three times a week flights between Conakry. Given that C had been expressing interest in more science-based classes, this seemed to be a sign from above. I checked in with the space camp organizers to find out if there was space available and which weeks were in English and then with my leadership at Post, who quickly approved my time off to get C to and from the camp. We were all set to go.
Then a week before our departure on the first Thursday in August, there were protests in Conakry. Demonstrations had been scheduled and cancelled before, or scheduled but not amounted to much. But these protests turned out to be more than expected. They lasted longer and were more violent and they spilled over into the following day. Though they did not block access to the airport, they did make the most direct route difficult, changing a 30 minute drive into a possible multi-hour journey. When protest organizers announced that there would be more scheduled the following Thursday, I asked my bosses if they would approve my leaving a day earlier; they approved wholeheartedly.
I spent several hours on the phone and online the Sunday before departure, working to change our flights. Brussels Airlines only flies Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; the Tuesday flight was full and the Saturday flight did not give me a comfortable margin to get C to space camp should it be delayed or cancelled. The agent tried to route me using miles as that was how I purchased my original flight, but the only routing was to Lisbon, through Munich with an overnight, and then on to Brussels. Unfortunately, the Munich flight on Lufthansa could not be confirmed due to a potential airline strike. We were contending with not only protests at our origin, but labor disputes in Europe that was part of the chaotic travel summer. That was not going to work. The United agent, however, could not directly book me on the Lisbon to Brussels flight, so I needed to book that one online myself, while keeping the agent on the line. I did not want to cancel my flight and return the miles until I had another flight secured. Finally, success.
All of this gave me a solid glimpse into how challenging it may be to take leave away from Conakry. There are limited flights, challenging schedules, usually with late evening or early morning departures, frequent delays, and higher price tags. Toss in a demonstration day and airline snafus and it just gets more interesting.
Our trip started on Wednesday at midnight on a four-hour flight to Lisbon. The flight left late and there was not enough time to really sleep. We had two hours on the ground and then another three hours to Brussels. It turned out the extra day was very helpful as we had little energy to do much of anything. Luckily, I had booked a hotel close to the airport and they let us check in early. After napping and relaxing, our only activity was to walk in the cute little neighborhood near the airport to the grocery store and back.
On our second day in country, we took an Uber to Laeken, the northern part of Brussels, to visit mini Europe and the 1958 World’s Fair landmark, the Atomium. Though these sites are listed as two of top ones to visit in Brussels, I did not visit them during my first trip to Belgium in 1998. I have no memory of even knowing they existed. Nonetheless, C and enjoyed hours there visiting the top sites of Europe in miniature and exploring inside the giant sculpture that marries science fiction and modern art. Afterwards, we took an Uber down to the stunning Grand Place. C and I were started to tire, but I wanted to give her just a glimpse of the majesty and beauty of probably the most stunning of European central squares. At first C complained she wanted to just go back to the hotel, but for a moment or two she completely forgot about that as we stood in that square. After we turned in wonder around at the architecture and fed our sweet tooth with some decadent ice cream from the Godiva chocolate shop and took a short stroll down to the Mannekin Pis, C told me that she no longer wanted to return to Paris very soon. “Mom,” she said, “we have been to Paris twice now, but I think I like Brussels more. I want to see more of Europe.” Mission accomplished.
The following morning, Saturday, we returned to the airport to pick up a rental car. I am usually a wee bit nervous starting out driving in a new country, but after the chaos of Conakry, the roads of Belgium were welcoming. We drove just an hour south to the Wallonian town of Dinant. In planning for our trip, I looked for the best places for us to visit south of Brussels on our way to the Euro Space Center. Other than Brussels, the biggest tourist draws tend to be Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, all to the north and northwest of the capital. The photos of Dinant kept pulling me back again and again and I knew if nowhere else, we needed to visit this town. It did not disappoint.
Dinant’s location, squeezed between a rocky promontory and the river Meuse, has guaranteed human interest for millennia. It’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is built into the rock face just below the 11th century citadel and alongside townhouses that range from 16th century to 20th. The oldest house in town is a 16th century townhome built by a Spaniard.
C and I walked up the steps to the Citadel, where we spent at least 90 minutes enjoying the historic displays and panoramas. We took the cable car down and had lunch alongside the river and later an hour long tourist boat cruise on the Meuse. This little town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, so we also were on the hunt to find as many of the painted saxophone sculptures around town, as well as a golden saxophone, and a saxophone shaped water clock, and the statue of Adolpe Sax sitting in front of his former home.
In the afternoon we drove six kilometers south to the 19th century manor home turned hotel where we would spend the evening. After a long day of walking and sightseeing, C crashed immediately in the room. I took a short stroll around the grounds, drinking in the quiet, the nature surrounding the manicured lawns. We are still getting used to Conakry and I have no doubt that the vibrant, chaotic city will grow on us, but its difference from the grand historic cities and laid back countryside of Europe suddenly felt quite stark.
In the morning, before heading to our next destination, I drove a short way up the road to try to catch a glimpse of the Walzin Chateau, an imposing gothic-revival castle that stands on a cliff overlooking the Lesse River. I had quite by accident seen it on Google Maps as I was planning out our drive. Unfortunately, the best few of the castle is across the river and on some private land, which we quickly found we could not cross (the barbed wire fence and the “do not trespass” signs were pretty clear). So, we could see it only in profile before we gave up, returned to the car, and then drove on to Han-sur-Lesse.
I had had this idea. C loves animals and has a particular fondness for wolves and foxes. When working out what to do before dropping her off at space camp on Sunday evening, I found a wild animal park only 20 minutes north of the Euro Space Center. The Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottoes de Han looked like it had some nice walking trails where we could see wolves. I planned for an hour or so walking and then lunch and perhaps time at the caves. I am afraid I did not do much more research than that.
It turns out the park is huge. Set on 620 acres of land, the park has both forested areas and wide lawns. At the ticket counter, I learned we should have a minimum of THREE hours to walk all the trails. A quick look at the map and I calculated we would likely have to cut short the expedition and return to the tourist center after the first trail.
Right away we got off on the wrong foot. We waited for the historic trolley train to take us to the first trailhead, but there seemed to be no train coming for at least 15 minutes. I insisted that we just go ahead and take the walking trail to the walking trail. This did not go over well with C who angrily stomped alongside. It went over even less after 20 minutes when we heard the trolley pass us by. We made it to the start of the trail after nearly 30 minutes and the first animals were just large highland cows and wild boars, both of which were far back in the enclosures and frankly not something we had a hankering to see. I got the full force of C’s pre-teen silent treatment (which isn’t all that silent because it involves random stomping, some small rock kicking, and the occasional heavy sigh).
This is not at all how I had hoped this would go. I told C this. I got some deep heat seeking laser eye flashes in return. I said we could turn back at the first opportunity, but C noted that in doing so we would skip the wolf and lynx enclosures. These were now her sole raison d’être. I had dragged her here and so we *would* see these animals. I agreed. And then things got better. The walking trail really is nicely maintained and includes a small sky bridge course with a view over the valley. We saw animals, including the wolves. We had some ice cream. We rode a open bus for the last section and returned to the park entrance by trolley. On the pedestrian street of Han-sur-Lesse we found one place still open for a late lunch at nearly 4 PM. The Belgian fries were restorative. Then off we were to space camp!
At the Euro Space Center, C and I completed check-in procedures and then together we were shown to her dorm room where she would sleep and hang out for the next five nights. We picked out her bed, a bottom bunk, collected the bedding and got her set up. Other kids, including another American, were arriving. Then suddenly it was time for me to go; I did not quite what to do with myself. My daughter’s first overnight camp and I decide it should be in a foreign country?! Of course I did…we spend most of our lives living and traveling in foreign countries. But what did I do now? C noted that some of the other campers had their favorite stuffies with them so she asked if I would return to the car and bring her hers. I happily did so, grateful for something to do. But once I handed it over C gave me a very meaningful look, telling me it was time for me to go.
I headed to the parking lot and off on my own adventure.
It has been topsy-turvy since we arrived in Conakry, Guinea a little more than four weeks ago. Though I am fairly used to uprooting myself frequently (it is something I have done my entire adult life and with the U.S. government for 13 years), it never seems to get easier. I am beginning to sense it is getting harder the older I get. I had forgotten how it is to be the new employee, the person who knows nothing about the office procedures, where things are located, exactly who to ask, or the local issues. I know the mechanics of the job of course, this is not the same as the steeper learning curve I faced when I first arrived in Malawi, yet it is daunting nonetheless. My Malawi arrival was five years ago!
Naturally, it is not just work that is new, it is everything. It is a lot to take in all at once. It’s a new job in a new city, in a new country, in a new region, living in new housing, driving a new (to me) car, sending C to a new school, and so on. But it is more than those things. I have to rely on other Embassy folks to help me with me with some fairly basic things. It makes me crazy not to know how to do these things, like how to set up the Internet or to get gas for the car or where to buy groceries. On our first night in our new apartment, I had to call another person from the Embassy to ask how to operate my stove! I am still a bit unsure with the oven; there is a thick instruction pamphlet on its usage, most of it is in German. Good thing I am not much of a cook!? I sure do miss knowing what is going on.
As a first impression, Conakry is a cacophony of sights and sounds and smells that assault the senses. It is lush, crowded, busy. I cannot help but compare Conakry to Lilongwe. I had hoped that nearly a year in America would curb that tendency, but while it isn’t fair, it is natural. Lilongwe is just my most recent reference point.
Conakry is bigger than Lilongwe, about double the size in population with Conakry over 2 million to Lilongwe’s 1 million. Though both cities had mostly single story or two storied buildings, there are many more taller buildings in Conakry. It’s no New York, Shanghai, or Dubai, but I have found this to be an aspect that stands out to me. Many of these buildings though leave a lot to be desired. Some are unfinished with bare cement sidings and gaping holes where balconies or windows ought to be, others still have the scaffolding, and yet they are clearly inhabited.
There are two main roads in Conakry – the Autoroute Fidel Castro and the Rue Le Prince – running more or less parallel to one another on either side of the narrow peninsula where the capital is situated. Both are two to three lanes in each direction, and the Autoroute, which was built in the 1960s, has an overpass or two. Lilongwe opened its first four lane road with overpass in early 2021, just a few months before my departure. There seems to be few rules to driving. Most roads do not have lane designations and there are almost no traffic lights. Some traffic organization is attempted with roundabouts, but the rules of them seem somewhat optional. We share the road with pedestrians, who walk on the road and cross freely as there are no sidewalks or crosswalks, and motorcycles, which are in far more abundance than in Malawi. Bicycles still were frequent in Malawi, even in Lilongwe, but I cannot say I have seen bicyclists here, and I would be rather worried for them if I did.
My commute from home to the office is only three minutes! Short commutes seem so far to be my specialty. In Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, I was only a 10-15 minute walk from home to office, and in Malawi and Conakry I have had drives of ten minutes or less. I am glad for the short distance as I had (still have) some serious doubts about being able to drive on these roads. The only way to get to used to it though is to get out there and do it. On my first few drives I white-knuckled my way, praying the GPS was working and I would not get lost. And still I ended up on some side streets I had not intended.
Last weekend, C and I headed out on our Saturday supermarket run. Wanting a bit of a lie in, I put off leaving until the afternoon. I think that was a mistake. The roads were more congested than the week before, and within minutes we were inching along in bumper to bumper traffic. Without lane markings, people just make whatever lanes they want, and thus what is intended to be a two or three lane road can become a three or four lane road, leaving much less room to maneuver. Taxis stop when and where they want. Sometimes they get over toward the far side, sometimes not so much. A large truck also disgorged several passengers in the middle of the road – some jumping out from the cab while others came out of the back. Ahead, part of the main road was closed with a manned, makeshift blockade. Motorcycles were getting through, but no cars. There seemed no discernable reason for it. Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I started to come alive sitting there in traffic. After days in the office feeling like a fifth wheel, here were C and I OUT and ABOUT in Conakry! I have no doubt that a traffic jam like that will frustrate me to no end, but that day it let me take in life happening roadside.
My successful tool-about-town (which lasted three and a half hours for a shopping trip — I have learned that shopping here is very time consuming), I found the next day I really wanted to take a walk, and to get a little bit outside my comfort zone outside of the walls of my residential compound. Not knowing what to expect, I left C at home, and ventured up the street to the busy roundabout to check out the roadside market. I brought my camera too, in case I might see something worth capturing on film.
Right off the bat I felt self conscious. I saw no other obvious foreigners taking a stroll and it did feel as if all eyes were on me. Curious, not menacing, but definitely watching. I had made sure to wear long pants and long sleeves and covered my hair, but there was no way to hide that I was not from here. There was no sidewalk so I walked along the edge of the road, careful not to get too close to the massive six foot deep drainage ditches while also keeping an ear out for traffic alongside. It being a Sunday the traffic was not too intense though the market vendors, whose stands spill on to the road, were out and had large stocks of their goods. I was not interested in the large piles of flip flops or mechanical parts, but I was glad to see the small fruit stands with good selections of pineapples, mangoes, apples, oranges, and avocado.
But the woman at the first fruit stand, selling bananas, oranges, and surprisingly small plastic bags of popped popcorn, refused to have her photo taken. I could take one of her wares, but she would only hid behind it. And the next stand, two Muslim men, an older and a younger, dressed in traditional clothing, had an attractive display of kola nut for sale. Again, I could take a photo of the goods, but not the people. A guy wearing his wares of bright stainless steel spatulas and stirring spoons and tongs on his head also refused to be photographed. I was disappointed, but respected their wishes. A few, however, did allow. A young man working at a butcher’s was proud to stand in front of the hanging carcasses surrounded by buzzing flies while his older boss refused. And when I did a double take at a beautiful woman with her baby I fully expected a no to my ask for a photo, but she smiled shyly and said yes. Her husband also delighted that I took an interest as he proudly told me, “That’s my wife! That’s my baby!”
It was gritty. There was garbage on the streets, overflowing from bins, and clogging the drainage ditches. The detritus ranged from plastic bags and food wrappers to old clothing or tires. Just about anything turned into a waste mush by rain and time in the elements. Chickens and dogs rooted among the piles. The traffic was loud, disorderly, and often too close. And again, though some of it was shocking and sad, there was also life and activity, and I felt myself transported back to past times I walked through markets in foreign countries, mostly in my pre-State Department days. As the call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, I particularly felt the tug of a memory from a walk through the streets of Jakarta near the Sunda Kelapa harbor. I smiled.
This is but a snapshot of my first few weeks in Conakry. It has been hard to capture it all because there is just so much that it is new, and I can only take in so much. I will not lie; it has not been easy. It may never be easy. But I think it will get easier.
In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the fifth and final in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.
When I was in Japan on the JET Program – and it could very much be the same now, I do not know – the vacation days were set by the prefecture. The vast majority of prefectures gave the JET teachers 15 days of vacation, though some lucky JETs got 20 days, and the sad folks in Tottori Prefecture got only 10. Yamaguchi Prefecture, where Kogushi was located and where I taught, gave 15. The thing was, there were far more than 15 days with the school closed. The school year was divided into trimesters with the first beginning the second week of April and ending around July 20, the second starting around September 1 and ending around December 20, and the third beginning around the second week of January and ending the third week of March.
Basically school was closed for 12 weeks of the year. The students were at home; the teachers, who often had been transferred from far away, headed to their home prefectures. I came to love the small fishing village of Kogushi in many ways, but I just could not sit there alone in that apartment, that town, for all but 15 days a year. Part of loving it was being able to leave and then return. The prefecture had another policy — if you traveled within Japan, you did not need to use your 15 days. You didn’t need to tell me twice.
I did travel outside of Japan – a trip to New Zealand, also to Australia, one to Bangladesh, another to Thailand, a two week trip to Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and a week in Taiwan. But I also made the most of living in such a fascinating country. I traveled all across the country – to three of the four main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku), and to at least 22 of the 47 prefectures. I went by slow local train and fast (the shinkansen or bullet train). I took overnight ferries (from Kitakyushu to Takushima, Ehime to Osaka, Kitakyushu direct to Osaka, and from Kobe to Kitakyushu). I also twice took long distance buses — but after a bus breakdown followed by being left behind at a rest stop at midnight on the way back from Tokyo (I ran after the bus through the parking lot and luckily one person remembered the foreigner on the bus and the driver stopped – this was memorable!) and having the bus on which I was traveling on a return trip from Tottori getting hit by a truck…I did not find Japanese bus travel as reliable. Sadly, my memories are so faded, but there are some that still stand out.
Okinawa. I wish I remembered more about my trip here. I do not remember how many days I visited or where all I went; I do not even remember visiting Shuri Castle though I have photographic proof that I at least stood in front of it. What I do remember are two incidents. In the first, I took a bus north of the capital of Naha to visit the 18th century historical Nakamura residence. The bus I ended up on was the wrong one or it was not going all the way to the house that day because of the day or the time. By car the trip would take 25 minutes, but by bus over an hour. And when after an hour I realized the bus was not going to the right spot, I was pretty bummed. But I was the only one on the bus and the kindly bus driver decided to take me straight to the site, completely off his route. A backpacker’s hero! In the second instance, I just went to the mall to buy clothes. I figured that with the U.S. military base, there might be more sizes that fit me. Though I was a size small in the US, I felt like Gigantor in Japan. But sadly, I tried on a pair of jeans in size “large” and could not get them over my thighs and found myself stuck in a “one size fits all” shirt. I thought I would have to ask a Japanese sales clerk to come to the dressing room to help me out though I knew that would probably be worse as the women often ran away giggling when I tried to ask questions (a perennial problem in Korea and Japan, at least at that time).
Tokyo and its environs. Between my first and second years in Japan, I signed up to take part in a two week Japanese course through the Tokyo YMCA. The YMCA set up a homestay for me with a family in Yokohama. I remember almost nothing from the Japanese course itself — I don’t think it did much for my Japanese — it was more the being in Tokyo, about as far away in Japan from Kogushi as I could get: the opposite side of the country and a megapolis compared to a village. What sticks out the most from that trip was my homestay family — a two parent family, with dedicated working dad, a stay at home mom, two elementary aged kids. What made them so memorable was their keen dedication to Disney. The had annual passes to Tokyo Disneyland, had Disney decor around their home, and they named their two girls after Disney characters. I also remember meeting up with Miyako, a young mother who had befriended me in Kogushi when I entered a local government building seeking information on town recycling. No one could help me, but her husband called her — with her excellent English — to assist. We started to hang out and I even briefly joined her husband’s band. I sang the Beatles songs at a wedding. Miyako was back in Tokyo with her son and we went for a cruise on the Sumida river. Then I visited Senso Temple, Tokyo’s oldest. It is a magnificent temple of bright, colorful red buildings, including a pagoda, and is one of the city’s most significant — though anyone can tell this from reading online. I do not actually remember. What I do recall is demonstrating a high level of patience waiting by the massive red paper lantern at the “Thunder Gate” until there were few people so I could jump in and get a silly photo of me below it.
Osaka to Yamaguchi. One year for Golden Week, a period at the end of April and early May when multiple Japanese holidays (Showa Day to honor the WWII Japanese Emperor on April 29, Constitution Day on May 3, Green Day on May 4, and Children’s/Boy’s Day on May 5) coincide, I decided to take an overnight ferry to Osaka and then work my way back to Yamaguchi. While in Japan I took several overnight ferries — and even twice to/from Korea — and they were rather fun — much less expensive than the bullet train and it saved a night of accommodation. These boats were huge with large sleeping rooms for maybe 50 people complete with roll out tatami mats with blankets (at least in the 2nd class dormitory) and a massive dining room. There was a gentle rocking throughout the journey, though I fared better on these big boats than I have on smaller vessels. I docked in Osaka and spent a night or two there (I had a few trips to Osaka — once for a JET Program second year conference, another time to meet up with my friend CZ who came to visit me in Japan, and then this trip — so they blur together a bit). I recall visiting Nara and feeding the wild deer and running into a Japanese celebrity. Well, its a bit embarrassing, but the “celebrity” was a young, blonde American girl of about 12 who starred in a Japanese kids show. I watched the show regularly because they mixed in English and so I could follow the plot… From Osaka, I took the train west to the town of Himeji in Hyogo province to visit the incomparable Himeji Castle, considered Japan’s best. I wish I remember the castle itself; I don’t even have any photos of the interior, but what I remember is walking the grounds, crossing the moat, and catching a beautiful view of the castle and the streamers of carp flags strewn in celebration of Children’s Day. I headed next to Okayama city, Okayama Prefecture. I had almost forgotten about this stop completely til as I was writing this I had a sudden recollection of biking through some fields and of a very strict hostel. My roommate from my Korea days had been a JET in Okayama and had recommended the Kibi Plain cycling route, which wound past historic sites and rice paddies. My next stop was Hiroshima and then the iconic Itsukushima “floating” shrine before heading home.
The Kyushu Hot Springs Tour. While in Japan, I came to really love the hot springs or onsen. I had been introduced to the concept while teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, where I lived on the top floor of a four story walk-up. The building, painted a deep purple, and over a shoe store, had terrible plumbing, and the large, cheerless, bathroom, I shared with two roommates was not really up to task. But down the street, just a few blocks away, was a traditional public bathhouse. It was here where I 3-4 times a week (in conjunction with the shower at my gym) came to suds up alongside other neighborhood women. I was quite thrilled when I moved to Kogushi and learned that just one town over was the famous Kawata Onsen. But I was not satisfied to just head over there to fulfill my onsen interests, I started to motorbike around the district and prefecture to other hot springs and to seek them out in other locations. There were indoor onsens and outdoor onsens. Modern onsens and traditional onsens. Obscure onsens and famous onsens. And onsens that offered unique experiences such as varying temperatures, an electric bath (this was quite literally shocking and made me really uncomfortable), and more. I never did get up to Hokkaido or northern Honshu (known as “snow country”) for an au naturel soak surrounded by snow and mischievous monkeys, but I did visit the famous Tamatsukuri Onsen in Shimane prefecture and the Dogo Onsen Honkan in Ehime Prefecture, reportedly Japan’s oldest hot springs resort. Thus, in my third year in Japan, I made it my mission to visit some of Kyushu’s most famous.
I traveled first with my friend Hiroko to Saga Prefecture, where we bathed to our hearts content at the 1000+ year old Takeo Onsen. We then traveled together to Nagasaki to visit the Peace Park commemorating the atomic bombing of the city that ended WWII. Hiroko headed back home while I continued on to Kurokawa Onsen in Kumamoto Prefecture, among the country’s top ten. Further south I visited Kagoshima and Sakurajima for their onsen and I finished up at the famous springs of Beppu in Oita Prefecture. Of this whole trip, my biggest memories are of Kagoshima. Here, I partook of the famous “sand bath,” where women bury you in hot sand warmed by the very active Sakurajima volcano. It seemed innocent enough — undressing and then wrapping oneself in a specially provided robe, following two women with buckets and pails out to the beach, and then have them dig a hole in the sand to get into. And this though is when it got weird. I realized I never liked being buried in sand at the seaside. Heavy enough when it is perfectly dry, when its damp and steaming hot, it was suffocating. Ten minutes in that inferno is supposed to be enough to sweat out all one’s impurities, and I was counting down the seconds. My other big memory was of staying on Sakurajima – literally Cherry Blossom island – which was turned into a peninsula after a 1914 volcanic eruption. I stayed two uncomfortable nights. The hostel was comfy enough, it was the proximity to the smoking mountain that made me leery. But it was after enjoying a soak at the Sakurajima Maguma (I am pretty sure this is Japanese for “magma”) Onsen, with its beautiful view of the ocean from its outdoor bath, that I hitchhiked for the very first time.
Not that I have made it a habit — I’ve done it I think five times in my life? But when I came out of the onsen and realized it would be awhile before a bus came — if at all — and the walk back to the hostel would take an hour at least, the Japanese teenager that stopped to give me a lift was like a godsend. I remember a tape deck, some music we both liked, and the both of us trying to muddle our way through a conversation in broken English and broken Japanese.
Shimonoseki. Travel did not even have to be particularly far afield. There were onsens and the Mara Kannon fertility temple (with its hundreds of large and small stone phalluses) and the five story pagoda in Yamaguchi City to be found in my own prefecture. My favorite place though was the Akama Shrine in Shimonoseki. Dedicated to the child emperor Antoku who was drowned by his grandmother during a major sea battle in the Shimonoseki Strait between warring clans in the year 1185. When in Shimonoseki, I would often stop by here, it commands a beautiful view over the strait and towards the Kanmon bridge linking the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. I took my mom and aunt here when they visited, I went with friends, I glimpsed a wedding there once. But the best time was when I attended the Shimonoseki Kaikyo Festival. I had missed this festival my first two years as it fell during Golden Week, a time I was normally away, but I was low on vacation time and money, so I stayed in Kogushi. I was pretty intent on being miserable stuck in my little town, but friends invited me to attend the festival with them. It recreates the naval battle and the capitulation of the Heike clan to the Minamoto. But the most anticipated part is the walk of the Heike women to the shrine. A bridge is erected for the women, dressed as geisha, and representing different ranks. The higher the rank, the higher the geta or traditional Japanese wooden shoe and the more exaggerated their walk. The finale is when the highest of the women representing the fallen Heike women, dressed in the most gorgeous and elaborate kimono, with her multi inch high geta, slowly, and deliberately walks toward the shrine, the sides of the geta dragging along the path as she makes wide arcs with her feet, puffing out her heavy robes. It is sober and beautiful.
It is interesting to delve deep into my memories to see what survived the decades. I am a huge fan of travel and have been all over the world and yet despite my love of visiting new countries and cultures, there is only so much that I have retained. My three years in the town of Kogushi, Little Stick, have no doubt shaped my life in myriad ways. Just as I am sure my four years in Malawi will forever be a large part of who myself and my daughter are going forward.
In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the fourth in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.
Food is an art form in Japan. Like many traditional arts and practices in Japan, such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, food presentation and consumption can be highly formalized, governed by centuries-old techniques and ritual. Traditional Japanese meals focus on awakening all five senses; it is not just how the food tastes or smells – though the combinations of tastes like savory and sour, sweet and bitter, seem heightened – but also its texture, sound, and appearance is also important. Is the food warm or cold? Is it smooth or chewy? Is it served in a smooth ceramic bowl and eaten with freshly broken wooden chopsticks? As you chew, does the crunch reverberate? Do you smack your lips in appreciation? What are the plays of color of the different foods and the plateware in different sizes and shapes on which it is served?
I grew up eating a combination of home cooked American comfort foods and packaged convenience foods. Macaroni and cheese. Pork chop casserole. Baked chicken and mashed potatoes. Beef Pasta a lá Hamburger Helper and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Our plateware was nothing special and the drinkware a mismatch of plastic and glass, some from yard sales, some from various fast food restaurant promotions. I found the Japanese way of food difficult to grasp.
A few months after arriving in Japan I wrote this little story for myself, called “The Uslurper.”
One day I was working away at my desk. Because it was lunch time, I expected to have a bit of peace and quiet while I worked. Even though most teachers eat their lunch at school, it was a testing period so there were few teachers around. I set about coloring. Then, I heard it. SLURP! The teacher who sat cater-cornered from me, a small, wiry man with whispy white hair, bushy eyebrows, age spots on his face, took a sip from his tea cup I eyed him wearily and went back to work. SLURP. SLURP. Again! I tried to shake off the feeling that was coming over me. Then, he got out his bento box. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. SMACK. SLURP. SMACK. The hair on the back of my head stood up. SMACK. SLURP. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. CRUNCH. I could feel my nerves tensing for the next onslaught. SMACK. SMACK. Argh! When would it end? My hands clenched. My lips pursued. My shoulders bunched up around my head. I did not know if I could control myself. I wanted to march over and snatch his chopsticks away and snap them in half.
SMACK. SMACK. SMACK. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. SLURP. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. CRUNCH. SLURP. I could not work anymore. I looked over and saw him get up and throw away his trash and then move to the sink to rinse out his lunch box. He put away his chopsticks carefully in their case. Thank goodness, it was over! I let out a sigh of relief. I relaxed. He sat down, and in signify a very satisfying meal he let out a loud BELCH and then two more sips, SLURP, SLURP. Then, at last, he was done.
This seemed emblematic to me of the cultural differences associated with food and eating between the U.S. and Japan. In one we are taught to be quiet when chewing our food, to apologize for noise; in the other, the noises of chewing and crunching and belching showed an appreciation for both the food and the audible parts of the eating experience.
I am also, I will admit it, not a particularly adventurous eater. As mentioned before, I grew up on a particular set of American staples, and I rarely strayed from it as a child and only branched out some as a young adult. And here I was in Japan where fish, that I never ate, is a staple and pickled octopus is served on sticks and packed in plastic containers like sweets next to the cash register. Therefore, in my introductory letter to my new school, sent a few weeks before arrival, I told them I was a vegetarian. I didn’t want loads of questions about the limited meat I consumed, so I just took meat out of the equation.
Or so I thought.
Turned out that many people I met just did not know what to do with this information. It seems rather unbelievable, but for a country that embraces Buddhism and has at least a stereotype of embracing nature (because at the same time they are one of the few countries in the world to still hunt whales and eat them) many Japanese could not wrap their head around vegetarianism.
Just a week or so after classes started at the high school in Kogushi, teachers from my school were out and about and we stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop. Like many small shops like this, the menu was all on wooden blocks in Japanese and I knew only a few basic phrases I had learned in six weeks of night classes at a community college in Miami before accepting the job, certainly not enough to figure out the menu or say much of anything. The same older teacher who had been to pick me up at the airport when I arrived at the Yamaguchi-Ube Airport about a month before, the guy who had stood languidly against the wall and showed zero excitement at my arrival, he said he would order for me. I reminded him that I did not eat meat. He said he remembered.
Imagine my surprise as I am eating and I distinctly taste fish. I ask him, “X sensei, is there fish in this dish?” He says no. I taste it again. I most certainly tastes of fish. I ask him again and he gives me an annoyed look, like one might give a child that has asked for something umpteen times, and again says no. I tell him I am sure there is fish in the soup. He looks at me again and says, “you can’t taste it.” Meaning, there IS fish in the soup. And yes, I absolutely could taste it! How presumptuous that he ordered for me and ordered something he knew I had specifically asked not to eat.
While I expect that teacher in part did it to be cheeky, this was just the first of many odd encounters I had regarding meat in Japan.
On another occasion, a few months after arrival, a family in Kogushi invited me, the exotic blonde American English teacher, to dinner. When they heard I did not eat meat they asked me to make a list of all the things that I did eat… This seemed to be quite a long list compared to the one I didn’t (i.e. meat), but I obliged: spaghetti (without meat), pizza (without meat), curry (without meat), ramen (without meat), tempura (vegetables only), etc, etc.
There was one day when I was at the hospital school where I taught a few classes every other Tuesday. The teachers asked if I might stay for lunch. I asked what they were having and if it had any meat. They went to check. Upon their return they told me that it would be Japanese curry…and that although it had meat in it, it was chopped into small pieces. I failed to see the difference, but it made them happy to report it. And the karate group I joined that seemed to want to influence more than one’s martial art skills, they tried to sneak some little fish into my food. When I pointed out that I saw the small black eyes of the shirasu (しらす), small white parboiled baby sardines, in my rice (i.e. I was wise to their attempts), they shrugged it off, noting, again, their small size. Little meat is apparently just like no meat at all.
Overtime I let good friends in on my secret, that I actually did eat meat on occasion, I just was rather particular about it. In my own time I tried foods on my own and came to have my favorites. One was a wonderful meal of meat and vegetables heated in a stock enjoyed during the winter months called nabe. Introduced to me by my Yutama adult English class, I associated the steamy pots of food then dipped in a sauce of ponzu (a concoction of soy sauce, rice vinegar, rice wine, and citrus juice) and grated daikon (pickled Japanese radish) with gatherings of good friends. I also came to enjoy the Japanese traditional breakfast of rice, miso soup, pickled cucumbers and radish, and a block of chilled silken tofu with green onions and soy sauce (though I left off the fish flakes). Tempura also became a favorite. My favorite tempura being shrimp (shhhh…shrimp is the only seafood I eat) and pumpkin, which seemed a specialty of the restaurants in Kawatana, the town one over from Kogushi. In fact, Kawatana was also famous for being the birthplace of a special dish called kawara soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles a bit thicker than spaghetti. In Kawatana they used cha soba which are the soba also made with tea, giving them a bright green color, and cooked them, along with ingredients like shredded fried egg and meat, atop a kawara, or roof tile. The ubiquitous curved tiles found in Japanese villages are made of clay and hold heat well and the dish is served still sizzling at one’s table. I was not a major fan of kawara soba, but I did enjoy it on the occasional special meal with friends, in the restaurant where it was invented. My favorite Japanese dessert was mochi, a sweet made of glutinous rice with added flavorings or stuffings like red bean paste and then shaped into little decorative balls. Mochi was like ultimate celebration food, traditionally served at holidays like Children’s Day or New Year’s and also often served during the tea ceremony. The sweet mochi perfectly cut the bitterness of the matcha tea.
I am still not an adventurous eater (many persons express great surprise I survived three years in Japan and do not eat fish), but my time in Japan introduced me to a whole new world of tastes and the pleasure derived from consuming good food. I still cannot stand the sound of slurping though.
In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the third in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.
When I first arrived in Kogushi, I was a little overwhelmed. After graduating college, where I had kept busy with intramural sports and volunteer work, and living in the metropolitan city of Seoul, Korea where I had lived with and hung out with several American roommates and colleagues, here I was in a small fishing and farming village on the Japanese coast. What was I going to do in my free time?
I had heard of other JET teachers who had taken part in really cool activities. A friend of mine, my roommate when I taught English in Korea, had been a JET for three years. She had studied the Japanese tea ceremony. It sounded really intense; Japanese arts are not something one can generally learn and master in only a short time thus she had to seek some sort of special permission. Another JET I met had joined a Japanese drum group. I was hoping for some activity along these lines to keep me busy and learn more about Japanese culture.
I arrived at the very beginning of August and classes did not start until the 1st of September. I had a week of a forced summer English class at Hibiki High School, my base school, and a weekend English summer camp for middle schoolers and not much else. This left me with a lot of time just hanging out in my poorly air-conditioned (read: quite warm) apartment. Luckily, soon after school started I met Kiyoko, a Japanese teacher from another high school in the area. She spoke English really well and she invited me to join a chorus group that met at Hibiki once a week. I am not the best singer, but this seemed an opportunity to meet some people and learn Japanese.
That is how I found myself once a week at chorus – singing songs in a language I barely understood, with a chorus instructor who did not speak English, and frantically trying to read the hiragana and katakana symbols in songbooks so I would at least know the pronunciation of the words coming out of my mouth, even if I did not know the meaning. Music is a language that crosses cultures, but the last time I had sung in a chorus had been in middle school and I also struggled with remembering musical symbols and notes. It was quite a challenge. But I showed up week after week. First, it was something to do that was not sitting in my house and teaching English. Second, I will be honest, I really enjoyed it.
In February, we had a concert at a local community center. Though I was probably one of, if not the tallest in the choral group, our conductor wanted me, the gaijin (foreigner), front and center. And there I stood, clutching my song book, hoping that all the practice had paid off, and I could read and sing the songs reasonably well.
After chorus ended I was in search of another activity. I heard about a judo group, but after one introductory lesson in which I saw burly young children being slammed repeatedly into mats, I realized that this might not be the pastime for me. However, I had heard about a karate group with lessons held a town or two over. I do not remember how I was introduced, but soon enough I was given an introduction, bought my gi, the white uniform, and been assigned a young English-speaking woman named Tamami as my translator and mentor.
At first I really enjoyed going to karate. I had taken some Taekwondo in the U.S. in college and also spent nearly a year studying it in South Korea, where I, in a large stadium hall, executed several forms and sparred another aspirant in front of a panel to be awarded my black belt. This felt like a natural extension of that and to learn the Japanese version of this martial art. Though I could not communicate with most of my classmates, I liked the physical and technical aspect of being part of the group; I even went on a trip with them to Osaka and the Ise Grand Shrine. But things got weird after a few months.
There were a lot of rules in the martial arts practice room or dojo. I am a rather silly person who can most certainly laugh at myself. There were times in karate where things did not go quite right and I laughed. Tamami told me, “There is no laughing in the dojo.” I laughed again, incredulous, but was told it was quite true and she pointed to the rules posted on the wall. A pointless exercise as I could not read Japanese, so I had to take her word for it. One time I executed a really good kick and received some praise from the shihan (master) and I did a little victory dance. “No dancing in the dojo,” came Tamami’s quick admonishment. Our workouts started at 7 in the morning. One time, really exhausted, I yawned. “There is no yawning in the dojo.” I brought water to our practices because they were two, two and a half hours long. Once when I took a swig in class I was told, “There is no drinking water in the dojo.” In retort, I said, “Sounds like there is no fun in the dojo.” That did not go over well.
When I politely declined some pumpkin, I was used as an example in class of someone who does not appropriately follow the master. When I kicked my bicycle after getting my foot stuck on the spokes as I prepared to ride home, I was told I was not considerate of my bicycle’s feelings. When I said I did not like fish, they tried to hide small ones in rice they gave me. When I said I meant to travel some of the summer, I was told to submit my schedule for the shihan‘s approval. The shihan ridiculed my punches in class to the amusement of others. And finally, the shihan wrote me a letter, which was delivered by Tamami to me at my apartment, informing me that my picky eating and failure to follow all his rules would mean I would continue to have allergies and harm any future children I might have. Apparently, this was supposed to put me on the straight and narrow. Instead, I quit.
So much for becoming a student of karate.
I had somehow met a young English-speaking woman named Kaori who invited me to join her in studying the Japanese art of flower arranging or ikebana. Ikebana is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with kodo for incense appreciation and chado for the tea ceremony. This then was something really Japanese to learn that I hoped would be a little more straightforward, a little less ceremonial than the tea ceremony. So, once a week for a little more than a year, Kaori picked me up to head to the home of her ikebana teacher for an hour-long class. We sat seiza style, with our knees folded under us and buttocks on our feet (for as long as I could stand it anyway though I did try to power through) on a tatami mat in front of a low table called a chabudai on which lay an array of carefully curated flowers, blossoms, branches, and other greenery and the all important pruning shears. We also had a kenzen, a weighted metal circle or square with pins to hold the stems of each item into place, and a container or vase. I bought my own.
The main elements of ikebana are mass, color, and line, so quite different from western flower bouquets which may use color but are often just bundled together. Like chorus and karate, my ikebanasensei teacher spoke no English; Kaori would do some translation for me, but basically, I just took my sensei’s lead. Ikebana is quite stylized, yet I did not have to have an exact reproduction of the sensei’s arrangement; I had some wiggle room. Though if I started getting too creative, I would get a certain look, maybe pursed lips, or a tut-tut to bring me back into line. We would build our arrangement and when we had the sensei’s approval, sketch them in our books. Then we would disassemble, wrap in tissue paper, and then recreate it using our sketches at home. I got a lot of enjoyment from ikebana: a sense of accomplishment when the teacher recommended fewer fixes and beautiful fresh flower designs in my home every week. But over time the satisfaction waned. Kaori had been studying ikebana for about three years and was still considered low intermediate! It was clear I would never progress very far in the eyes of a sensei of the craft. I had enjoyed it while it lasted, but saw little point in continuing.
At this point, I was 0 for 3 in my search for the right hobby for me. I heard about a teacher who taught Japanese dance in Kogushi, but the thought of yet another rigid, ceremonial pursuit did not have me all that excited. And then somehow, I do not remember now, I heard about a jazz dance class.
Like my other activities, the teacher and most of the students did not speak English. But in this case, I did not really need anyone to explain anything to me. I had taken ballet, tap, and hula as a child and though was not by any stretch of the imagination a dance prodigy, I had learned to follow steps pretty well. The teacher was very good, talented, and strict but also engaging, and we danced to popular American and British hits. One of our performances was to a popular song by Geri Halliwell in her post-Spice Girl phase.
I loved my dance class. We met twice a week at the Kogushi Community Center. It had a wonderful large high ceiled space with a well-worn wooden floor, excellent for dance, and a stage at one end. One of the best parts was that the work we put in amounted to something; we actually had performances! This was not one of the Japanese activities that one spends years and years and years on with little to show for it, such as Kaori spending three years studying Ikebana and Tamami doing karate for about five years yet was only second belt. With jazz dance, in a matter of six months, we had three shows, two in our Kogushi community center (one for a group of senior citizens on Respect for the Aged Day and another before Christmas) and one other on a bigger stage in another, inland, town. Our teacher somehow managed to book us as an opening act for some minor celebrity. I do not recall if she were a singer or a comedian or a little of both but she was fancy and had big hair and the crowd was pretty excited to see her. And they gave us a pretty nice welcome too. Pretty crazy that I was doing this dance thing in Japan in front of an audience of thousands.
Even after jazz dance finished – and unfortunately with the passage of over two decades I do not remember why it did not continue – I continued to take lessons with that teacher. She had a studio in Ayaragi, just five train stops from Kogushi or a 30-minute ride on my motor scooter. As my time grew shorter in Japan, I went less and less and about a month before departure I told my teacher farewell.
All the activities I took part in during my sojourn in Kogushi offered me glimpses into the complex Japanese culture and an “in” in the little corner I found myself. I made tenuous connections with people that ultimately did not last — due most likely to a combination of my poor language skills, limited attention span, and the relatively short time in the country. That anyone bothered to let me into their circles for even a little while is probably a minor miracle and even in the case of the strange karate cult, I am glad they did. In the end, it was the least Japanese of my activities that gave me the greatest satisfaction and connection.
In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the second in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.
As English teachers go in the JET Program, I think I probably had one of the best gigs out there. First, I had my base school, which I lived near and taught at three times a week. Then, I had a second school I visited once a week and two specialty schools that I alternated on the other day of the week. I know some teachers were always at just one school and felt a little bored while others rotated so frequently they never built any bonds with teachers or students, never felt they belonged. I got the best of both worlds.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and any other day when my other schools did not need me I could be found at my base school, the wonderfully named 響高校 or Hibiki Koko or Hibiki High School. (Hibiki means “sound” or “echo” in Japanese) Here I had a cubby for my shoes in the entrance hall and a desk in the teachers’ room. Each morning I arrived just before 8 AM and participated in the morning teachers meeting even though it was all in Japanese, a language I barely knew, and no one every told me what was said in the meetings (“participated” is perhaps too strong a word; I was present).
Hibiki seemed at first an odd place — well nearly all of the Japanese schools I worked in seemed different than what my perceptions of Japan had led me to believe. First, I really thought I was going to be teaching English, similar to what I had done in South Korea the year before. But instead I was more like a life sized humanoid tape player. Often I just said English things and the students repeated after me. In August, I had to attend a week-long English “summer camp” at Hibiki – probably one of the least summery and least camp-y experiences that could have been executed – but it was just a preview of how pretty much every English class at Hibiki would go my three years.
Second, I had these preconceived notions of a country on the cutting edge of technology and that this modern viewpoint would be reflected just about everywhere I turned. But in reality, while many Japanese had the newest gadgets in their cars (and even their toilets!), there were many areas of life where tradition reigned supreme. The education system seemed one of them. The schools had a bit of a worn, musty feel. They did not hire cleaning staff. Instead, once every week or two the students were gathered together and, under some teacher supervision, were given brooms, dust pans, dusting rags, and set upon the school cleaning. Have you ever tried to get a group of teenagers to do chores? Or been a teenager asked to do chores with your friends and classmates? You can imagine how great this experiment worked out.
The school also had no air conditioning or heat. In the winter, a large wood burning stove with a metal pipe up to and along the ceiling, was set up in the teacher’s room. I guess I was a bit lucky with the stove placed just five feet from my desk, but still even there I could barely feel the heat. There was no heat anywhere else in the school; the students just had winter uniforms. Thing is, the change between summer and winter uniforms and the appearance and disappearance of the ridiculous heater was dictated entirely by the calendar, and not by actual temperatures. On November 1, winter uniforms on and heater makes it debut; on March 1 they go away.
Another curious aspect about Hibiki was it had only one major sport team: baseball, the most popular sport in Japan. The baseball team met every single day of the week except Sunday for practice. And yet it had only one or two games against another school the entire year! I thought back to my own high school, where a student could play three sports in a school year. For example, soccer in the fall, volleyball in the winter, and track and field in the spring. And they would have multiple opportunities to play against the teams of other schools in the area.
Once a week, on Thursdays, I taught at Hohoku High School. To get there, I took the little train from Kogushi Station north four stations to Takibe, a 30-minute journey, and then walked 20 minutes to the school. I would teach three classes with an enthusiastic Japanese Teacher of English, eat lunch in the teacher’s room, and stay for after school English club. Maybe because I was there only once a week I felt a little more welcome at Hohoku than Hibiki by both students and teachers. The students at Hohoku were more likely to go to a two year trade school or four year university after graduation than the students of Hibiki, so perhaps this made them more keen to learn English? Despite the nearly two hours commuting each time, I overall enjoyed the trip to Takibe, the break in routine. Sometimes I stayed in town later and had a soak in the really nice Takibe Hot Springs resort before heading home.
On Tuesdays, I alternated between two specialty schools. One a hospital school in Kogushi, the other a school for the hearing impaired in a town about 40 minutes south by train. These were my favorite places to teach. First, I found it impressive that these schools incorporated English language training. But second, the students were wonderful, far more positive about overcoming challenges and learning English than the exhausted teens I encountered in the “normal” schools (where many of the kids listed “sleeping” as their hobby), and the teachers super dedicated. I looked forward to Tuesdays each week.
At the hospital school, the kids were either day students who commuted daily from their homes or, if the level of care they needed was higher, they roomed within the hospital. I never really knew what illnesses most of the kids had — some were physical afflictions, some mental — they were just students. At times one or two might be too sick for lessons or even had seizures or episodes in class, but most of the time they were just like other kids, though we usually had WAY more fun in class.
Although I traveled the furthest to the hearing impaired, it was my favorite place to teach. I taught two classes, one with only two middle school boys and one with five primary school children. To help with the pronunciation of English words, the teacher taught me a series of gestures – such as one finger placed on my throat to symbolize a “n” sound, two fingers on the throat to symbolize an “m” and so on. This was different than signing. It just struck me as so extraordinary — not only that the kids were learning English, but also that I was lucky enough to be part of it.
Five months after arriving in Kogushi I received a letter from a woman who had seen a write up of me in the town gazette. After I gave her a call, she offered to pick me up that very day to visit her and her husband at their home in Utama, the next town over. Akiko, a retired school teacher, and her husband Isao, an about to retire school principal, instantly made me feel at home. I stayed at their house for five hours that first meeting, through dinner and discussion. And that evening they asked if I would teach an adult English class with a group at their home. I did not really have all that much going on in my life in small town Kogushi and honestly with only two to three classes a day, I could do all my regular lesson planning at work — and still leave many unstructured hours. Especially given that much of my lesson planning was in vain as I mostly was just called upon to serve as the live native speaker reading text or be present as Exhibit A: English Speaking Foreigner at Hibiki’s English club. I was eager for something else with other people.
I ended up teaching the adults class at Akiko and Isao’s three times a month for two and a half years. I became pretty close with some of the students. Akiko and Isao hosted my mother, aunt, and aunt’s friend at their home for a few days when they visited and my tiny apartment was bursting at the seams. I went sailing with some of them (and I do not sail well). We went for drives, to a firefly festival, to a concert, to karaoke, and when I ended up in the hospital after an emergency appendectomy, they visited me. Teaching at Akiko and Isao’s is probably the best teaching gig I ever had. Though when I started I was just happy to have something else to do with my time and to earn a bit of extra money. (Just noting I arrived in Japan in summer 1997, at the very beginning of the Asian financial crisis. As I was paid in yen, I watched the value of my salary drop 25% from when I arrived to six months later. And my plans of saving loads of money tanked too.)
One day I was invited to do a special class at the local elementary school. I jumped at the chance for something out of my usual routine and to teach a more enthusiastic, less jaded age group. When I arrived at the school I found that a local media outlet arrived to cover this momentous occasion. I decided to do a basic body part lesson and the song “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” but jazzed it up with a little intro and a few more hip movements. It was a huge hit and soon I had invitations pouring in to visit other elementary schools. At the third place I visited, I taught my special version to one class until we got really good and then we were placed on stage in front of the entire school with that class as my back-up dancers. I became a big time celebrity amongst the 5-10 year old set in Kogushi.
One of the students at Akiko and Isao’s adult class, Tomomi, had a daughter in kindergarten. I checked in with my supervisor at Hibiki and received approval to spend a few mornings a week with her class. It made a difference in my life to be with kids who just wanted to play and saw communicating with me in English as something fun. For Christmas I took part in the school pageant as all the kids and I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” first in Japanese, and then in English, in front of all the parents.
I continued to be approached for special classes to do in my off time. I generally didn’t mind because there was not much to do in Kogushi for a single 20-something woman. There were only one or two small restaurants in town, a few more in the town over associated with the hot springs resort; there was no movie theater, no shopping mall, no local park, no museums, and so on. Teaching at least kept me focused and around other people. As the only “obvious” foreigner in town this was rather my forte. (There were other foreigners, such as Koreans and Filipinos who worked at the Kawatana Hot Springs resort — I referred to these as “stealth” foreigners as they could sort of blend in to the local population; I could not.) Several parents in town approached me about putting together a weekend English class and I did so focused on American activities such as Halloween, Christmas, and Easter. Then the Toyoura Community Center reached out to my supervisor to see if I would do an evening course for adults. I did that one too.
Overall, I enjoyed teaching English for three years in Kogushi. It afforded me a wonderful opportunity to interact with several segments of the local population from elementary to high school, from local teachers to adults from all walks of life.
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.
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.