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

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

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

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

Not the most auspicious of beginnings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setsubun – Hoping Fortune Comes Our Way

Fortune and Demon – the Representatives of Setsubun

Today, February 3, is Setsubun, the Japanese festival to celebrate the end of winter and welcome Spring. I remembered this because I have a Japanese car here in Malawi and every day when I start her up, she chirps a welcome to me in Japanese akin to “Today is such and such day of the week and date. And here is an interesting/random fact about today.”

I am still writing up my blog posts for our R&R to Kenya and generally dislike posting a random post while still not done with a series, but we are in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Malawi and I am just feeling down. I am tired of the teleworking and the distance learning (I know, who isn’t?) and am suffering some pretty severe bouts of insomnia that is leading to headaches, exhaustion, and exacerbating the pandemic fatigue. Even though I knew that a flip of the calendar would not magically waive the pandemic away, here I am a month into the new year, deep into the Malawi rainy season, and I could really use a pick me up. So, when I got into my vehicle today and it chirped it its forever optimistic female Japanese voice, “今日は2月3日水曜日です.その節分,” or “Today is Wednesday, February 3. It’s Setsubun,” a waive of nostalgia swept over me. I was immediately transported back to when I lived in Japan and celebrated this holiday with my friends. Back to when I was younger and not a parent and not living in a pandemic.

My friend Bill has embarked on a pandemic lockdown inspired daily writing exercise — to stretch his writing chops, entertain friends and family, and perhaps pave the way into some sort of post Foreign Service career. While he is closer to retirement than I am, I too have found myself, especially when in the pandemic isolation doldrums, to flirt with my one day, perhaps sooner than expected, retirement dreams. I have long wanted to write about the years I lived in Japan. I figured I would take C to Japan and write about that trip and then as companion pieces, revisit aspects of my three years there. But a good look at the very long, minimum three flight trip, with either very short or very long connections, that would take us from Malawi to Tokyo, flattened my resolve; COVID-19 killed it. I still plan to one day write those posts. So with a combination of inspiration from my friend Bill and my Japanese RAV-4, here I am writing about Setsubun.

In July 1997, I arrived in Kogushi, a small fishing village on the San-In coast of Toyoura-town, Yamaguchi prefecture in the western part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. That makes it sound really romantic. In fact, if you literally translate most of it, Yamaguchi means “mountain’s mouth” and Toyoura means “rich bay,” and that sounds even more beautiful. Only Kogushi 小串 is not as lovely. It means “little skewers” as you can see the character “gushi” resembles a stick with two pieces of meat on it, like a kebab. I thought “little stick” more fitting, as in “I live in the sticks” or way outside the city.

The view from Akiko and Isao’s house during an evening party

I was an English teacher at the local high school through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program through the Japanese Ministry of Education and Sports. To cut a long story short, I was plopped down in the middle of this rural area to teach English to less than enthusiastic high school students. As the only gaijin (obvious foreigner) in town, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Parents would force their children to sing me the alphabet in the supermarket and people wanted to invite me over to their houses for the sheer quirky fun of having a real live blonde American in their home, but honest to goodness friendship was hard. The other teachers in the school stayed clear of me, largely because they did not speak English well themselves and the English teacher was a bit of a creep so I didn’t want to hang with him anyway. It was not easy to make friends and after the initial excitement of the honeymoon period passed, I found myself pretty lonely.

In stepped Akiko and Isao. A couple in their 60s who lived a few towns over somehow got word to me that they would like to meet me and discuss the possibility of starting up an English course for adults that would be run out of their home. Akiko and Isao would be my saviors, they did so much more than open their home to me. They gave me adult conversation, even if in broken English (and my even more dismal Japanese), they gave me friendship, with them and with the other adults who joined the class. They introduced me to Japanese customs and celebrations. They visited me in the hospital when I had my appendix out (an odd but amazing experience to have in small town Japan). And they even had my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend stay with them a few days when they visited Japan, to give them an authentic Japanese experience (and me a break from four adults staying in my small two tatami mat room flat).

I started my three times a month lessons for adults in Akiko and Isao’s living room in January of 1998. They had a beautiful traditional Japanese home perched on a hill overlooking the Sea of Japan. It looked like a miniature of a Japanese castle — all white with a grey tiled roof, with eaves that turned up at the ends, with animal figurines dancing on the roof spines to the edges. Inside they had tatami mat rooms, fitted with traditional recessed alcoves with Japanese shrines with photos of ancestors, dolls, and old pottery, befitting the home of the granddaughter of a Samurai, which Akiko was. It wasn’t all traditional though. The heated toilet seat with about 20 controls for all kinds of toilet experiences, was a modern treat. And the jazz musician paintings that took center stage in their living room still fit perfectly. I was overwhelmed to be invited to teach here and almost cried when I came home from the first class.

Just a few weeks after I started, February arrived and Akiko and Isao offered to host a Setsubun party for the class. I had no idea what that was but was grateful for an invitation that would have me doing something other than sitting alone, cold (my apartment, like many Japanese homes, had crap insulation), watching Japanese television I could not understand, for an evening.

From left to right: Akiko and Isao with my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend in Shimonoseki; Me with Akiko, Isao, and some of our other adult evening English class students; Me with Akiko and two other English class students at Toyoura-cho’s marina

Setsubun is sort of like Japan’s answer to America’s Groundhog Day. Though its origins are also old (8th century for the former and 4th century for Candlemas, the precursor to Groundhog Day) and around the heralding of spring, but do not involve anyone waiting around for the appearance of a fat rodent. Instead, it involves two people dressed up like an ogre of misfortune (oni) and the personified appearance of fortune (fuku) and the tossing of troasted soybeans. That sounds way more fun, right?

Arriving at their home after dark on a cold February night, I was a little surprised by the festivities. Neighbors dressed up like Fuku and Oni, looking a bit like a scary versions of Cookie Monster and Elmo, burst into the house as we threw the roasted soybeans (fukumame or “fortune beans”) at them with silly abandon while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out! Fortune in!). I am pretty sure I shrieked a lot. I had no idea that a Japanese celebration would be so fun; I had expected sedate.

Following this we headed in to Akiko and Isao’s house, where they had transformed the living room into a sort of dining room. Around the room where multiple kotatsu, low wooden tables with electric heat sources built into them for cold winters, each with an electric hot plate and a ceramic bowl perfect for cooking nabe, the Japanese version of the hot pot, the perfect dish for a cold winter’s night. Set out on the tables were various hot pot ingredients: cabbage, carrots, thin white Japanese mushrooms called enoki (the only mushrooms I have ever eaten), and various proteins such as tofu, shrimp, chicken, and beef. The dashi (broth) of kombo (seaweed), sake, mirin, and soy sauce already simmered and small bowls of ponzu (a light watery citrus-based sauce with a dash of soy sauce) and ground daikon (white radish) sat ready for dipping our cooked food in for added flavor. It was all very delicious, but it was the laughter and camaraderie that really warmed my heart.

Left: There is some fuku in the house! Right: Me enjoying my first nabe party

I will forever remember that night as one of the best of my three year’s in Japan. We recreated it each of the three years, but it was that first setsubun that was the best. Never before (and I struggle to think of a time since) had I felt so welcome overseas. That class became more than just a class. They were my friends.

Tonight, what I would really like to do is throw the shit out of some roasted soybeans while surrounded by friends shouting Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Because we could all use some major fuku fortune right about now. Am I right?