Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
The town to which I was traveling, Tokuyama, was a couple hundred miles south of Tokyo. But because of my late arrival, I wouldn’t be able to leave Tokyo until the following morning. I boarded a local train for a hotel that one of the stewardesses aboard the jet had recommended. The train was exceptionally clean, and the Japanese people aboard the car I was on were quiet and polite. Strange symbols, wiggly lines and dots on cards above the windows, advertised an assortment of items that for me were only discernible when a photograph accompanied them. Though of course I had seen Japanese characters before, it was at this moment that I realized I was illiterate in Japan. I could neither read nor write the language.
I looked out of the window into the wet darkness. There was nothing but an endless stream of lights. Suddenly I was startled to see a familiar symbol. Blaring out from under its bright yellow sign was a Denny’s restaurant.
At the hotel, relaxing on the spacious queen sized bed, I switched on the adjustable lamp and turned on the television. I couldn’t understand a word, but the images were so novel that I flipped around to all the available stations watching a little bit of each. The language was so succinct, so exact, that it felt brittle, as if each phrase might snap in two. The commercials were innocent and pure. The actors in them appeared to be like children who were genuinely enthusiastic about advertising various products, which ranged from stereos to clothing to food products.
On my bed was a neatly folded kimono. I slipped into it and walked down the hall to the bathroom. There I discovered a tiled floor with four holes in it. In front of these toilet bowl shaped holes were inverted footprints. The idea came quickly to me that I was supposed to put my feet where the footprints were and squat. So I did.
In a separate room was the bath. When I entered there was a deep tub full of steaming water. I thought some other guest had forgotten to drain the tub. I drained, and refilled the tub, washed in it, and drained the water after I finished. But, I had the feeling I had done something amiss.
On the way back to my room I noticed a door leading to the roof. As I was four floors up, I thought I might get a decent view of the city, but once outside I was taken with the humid warmth and scent of Japan. It had been raining, and the air felt soft and silky. Occasionally a cool eddy of air would remind me that I was outside, yet the warmth dominated. Wisps of oriental cooking drifted up to the rooftop, and it was these smells that reminded me so empathically of how far away from home I was.
The next morning I went to the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel and with gestures and sign language ordered breakfast. The waiter shuffled toward me and set down my meal: a raw egg in a white cup and a bowl of noodles. I let the egg go down in one swallow, poured some broth over the noodles, and dug in.
The train ride to Tokuyama took seven hours aboard the Bullet train. Outside, rows of factories spewed waste. It wasn’t until several hours later that I started to see forests on small hills.
My train rolled into Tokuyama at six o’clock that evening. At the train station to greet me was Itzuko, the director of the school. A woman of about thirty, her friends kidded her about not being married. Her reply was that she was married to the school. She took me to her home, which she referred to as a rabbit hutch because of its small rooms. There she introduced me to a young girl who was her cousin, and who had been sent to live with her because she had gotten into trouble in her village.
After shopping for some food in a local market, Itzuko took me to my apartment. Inside was a spacious fully equipped kitchen, a tiny dining room with a foot high table with pillows spread around it, and a larger living room carpeted with a tightly woven straw mat. There were two thin futons for a bed and a heavy quilted blanket. In an adjoining room there were two tables, also low to the ground, which Itzuko told me were used for teaching. My apartment was to be used as a classroom once a week.
My transportation was provided in the form of a motor scooter, and Itzuko wanted me to start teaching the following day. She said she would come and get me at nine o’clock and show me where the school was.
After she departed, I lifted my suitcase onto one of the short tables, opened it, and slowly started to unpack and hang my clothes in the closet. I heated some water on the stove and prepared myself a cup of coffee. There was a small balcony overlooking a four lane highway which was about a block away from the front of my apartment. Beyond it stretched a valley, and then farther out, a bay, and behind this a steep green mountain. This would be my home for the next year.
Before Itzuko left she showed me how the Japanese bath worked. She took great pains to explain how to light the gas underneath the tub and heat the water, as the water was cold when it came out of the tap. The following morning it was with great delight that I took my first correct Japanese style bath. It was very comforting soaking in the deep narrow tub, and this time I had done all of my washing outside of it while sitting on the small stool, as Itzuko instructed, and then soaked in the tub of water. This is the way I should have done it at the hotel the previous night.
The only problem was that it took a long time to heat the water. The T-oar used for circulating the water helped, but all the same it was like heating a thirty gallon tea pot with a one burner Coleman stove.
Itzuko pulled up promptly, and I followed her on my scooter to the school. Driving on the left hand side of the road was not difficult, but shortly after we started out I heard a wailing siren behind me. I couldn’t make out exactly what it was in the vibrating mirror, and I was afraid to turn around and look for fear I would throw myself off balance and fall off the scooter. I thought it must be a fire engine. The siren got unbearably loud, and its shrill sound was increasingly insistent. A voice boomed out of a car loud speaker. I didn’t understand a word of it, but the tone was insistent. I decided they wanted me to get out of their way, although it was a four lane road, and they could have easily passed me. I pulled off and watched Itzuko speeding away, furtively glancing in her mirror. As my mirror slowed its vibrating, I could see four uniformed men in one little car with blue flashing lights on its roof.
I turned off the motor scooter. A policeman dressed in a black uniform marched up to me, his hands held dutifully onto his thick black belt. Another of the policemen stood on my other side, while two others remained with the car.
He barked something at me in Japanese. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I guessed he wanted to see my license. I produced my international driving license. He studied it very carefully. He beckoned to the other officer standing ten feet behind him who rushed forward, snapped to attention, and after having it offered to him, examined my license. He said something to the first officer, who looked at me suspiciously. The second officer, a more compassionate soul, asked me a question in Japanese. I motioned that I didn’t understand. Then the second officer beckoned to a third officer. The third officer rushed up, snapped to attention, and the second officer spoke with him.
I wondered where Itzuko was.
The third officer approached me.
“Work Tokuyama?” he asked.
“Yes, I replied. “At the English School.”
He smiled and bowed to me and then translated this information to the others. They all bowed, their expressions relaxing, except for the first officer who didn’t appear convinced. He spoke sharply to the third officer who was doing the translating, who in turn spoke again to me.
I quickly produced my work permit. The first officer scrutinized it. He walked to the back of my scooter and pointed to a broken tail light.
The translator spoke.
“School must fix.”
“Yes, of course,” I replied.
The officer handed back my work permit and license. They all bowed respectfully and walked back to their car. I got back on my scooter and rode in the direction I had been going. I had gone two blocks when I heard a horn honking behind me. This time it was Itzuko.
“I lost you, Jim-san. I look everywhere. What did they want, Jim-san?”
The tail light is broken.”
“Okay, I fix, I fix. They will call me. You watch, they will call me. We must go now, Jim-san. Many students to teach,” she said looking over her shoulder.
The school in which I was to work was on the third floor of an office building. It was housed in one large room which had several tables set up, two desks, one of which was Itzuko’s, and the other mine. There was a television and video, and in a corner a small table for children. Stacked around all of these tables were miscellaneous books, maps, and games. On Itzuko’s desk sat a pink portable pay phone which she unlocked when we entered the school.
Above my desk was a chalk board that had my name written on it, and below my name a list of other names and times. These were my students and the times that I was scheduled to see them. But I would not be teaching all of them here at the school. Itzuko explained that I would ride to many of my students’ houses and give them lessons at home or at an agreed upon meeting place. Only about half would actually come to the school. She would show me where they lived, and then I would be on my own.
After a few weeks I was motoring around Tokuyama and the Yamaguchi Prefecture with a growing sense of confidence.
On one particular day, my duties as a teacher took me to the Club Naka. Above this bar I would teach the hostesses English. In the evening they dressed up as Geishas. The reason they wanted to learn English was so that they could converse with the traveling business men who came through town. They were a willing and attentive group of young ladies, and the owner of the club attended classes as well.
They invited me to come to their club. I told them that I couldn’t afford the high prices that I had heard they charged. In this club there was a charge for your drink and a charge for sitting and talking with one of the girls. The more time you took with the girl, the more money you paid, and of course you were expected to pay for her drinks as well. All of this was kept track of by the owner. You were presented a bill at the end of the evening. The girls told me not to worry about the cost, as it would be on the house. At first I thought they were just being polite, but they reasserted their invitation each time I taught the class.
On the evening that I first went to the Club Naka, I didn’t recognize any of my students. They were completely made over in their Geisha outfits: white painted faces, dark black hair stacked high on their heads, long fingernails, and elegant floor length kimonos with pads strapped to their backs. I was used to them wearing shorts, loose shirts, and sandals during the classes. They always had a scrubbed pure look to them, for they never wore make-up during the day. But here they were taller, as if they were on stilts, and they looked overpowering.
One of the Geishas approached me and even after studying her closely I could see no resemblance to any of my students. But then she told me her name, Setsko. She told me that she was having a conversation with a group of men, but that when the club closed she would be with me. I was beside myself with anticipation.
I had to wait about two hours before the club closed, but there was a pleasant way to entertain myself. Being somewhat of an oddity in Tokuyama, the bartender handed me a microphone and encouraged me to sing ‘My Way’ from an album of songs. He switched on the back up music and continued to ask me to sing it. I fortified myself with a couple drinks and began. I didn’t know all the lyrics, but they were written in English in the album. I was alone, and a long way from home, so I poured my heart into it. When the tune ended the patrons of that beautiful club gave me a standing ovation. Wide toothy smiles and thunderous applause greeted me wherever I looked. I handed the microphone back to the bartender, but he handed it back to me and pointed at the album. He started the same song again. I took another long drink from my scotch, but the moment had passed, the feeling was gone. It was one of those wonderful flukes.
“Domo Arigato,” I said into the microphone. “Domo Arigato,” and handed the microphone back to the bartender.
After the doors to the club were locked and all the girls said their goodnights, Setsko and I walked arm and arm down a slick wet alley to her apartment.
Setsko loved pornographic movies. She had twenty videos neatly stacked beneath her television. Almost the moment we arrived at her well furnished apartment, she put on one of these movies.
Like Itzuko, the owner of the school, she referred to her apartment as a rabbit hutch. The apartment was modern, and compared to American apartments it was small, but the space was well utilized. She had a double bed raised a foot off the ground, the television and video recorder to the right of it, and in a corner, a white leather couch. All around the house were stuffed animals and family pictures. Her bathroom was western style, that is it had a toilet, sink, and shower, and not the deep bathtub that you have to heat the water in, or hole in the floor with accompanying footprints that is the traditional Japanese toilet. She told me that the modern apartments had bathrooms in the western style. I was beginning to get the idea that Japan was two nations, one very modern, the other ancient. Setsko, my student in jeans and sandals in the classroom was the modern, leaving behind of the old customs and traditions, and the old was the Geisha who plied her trade in the traditional manner.
In the streets older women dressed in long narrow black skirts (that allowed them to take only short steps), black slipper like shoes, and wide sashes tied around their waists that held small pillows on their lower backs. They stared mainly at the ground as they walked. When I saw these older women, I felt I was in the Japan that I had learned about in elementary school.
At six o’clock the next morning I stumbled out of bed and made my way back to my own apartment. I had a student, a Buddhist Priest, to meet that morning at nine o’clock at the school.
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