Japan 1997-2000 Part Three: Activities in Little Stick

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.

Front and center at our grand choral finale

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.

With my ikebana sensei

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 ikebana sensei 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.

Some of my Ikebana creations

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.

With my jazz dance teacher before a show

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.

Japan 1997-2000 Part Two: Teaching in Little Stick

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.

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?