Dancing Bears in Sakura-Nomiya: A Band Journal

Osaka | Fall 2004 | 20 years old

Osaka is a metropolis with a justifiably cosmopolitan reputation among Japanese cities. A commercial hub throughout Japan’s history, Osaka has exercised a considerable attraction for foreigners interested in Japanese culture and economy, and there is an impressive amount of gaikokujin currently living and working in Osaka. The majority of these foreign residents are Korean, as is the case with the rest of Japan; nevertheless, strolling outside Umeda station on a sunny weekend afternoon, it’s not uncommon to hear a group of kids chattering in German or a brigade of Caucasian businessman discussing venture capital. As my homestay mother put it, quite succinctly: “Foreigners in Kyoto come to see the temples. Foreigners in Osaka work.” In other words, the foreign population in Osaka is a part of daily life, more than just tourist dollars or window dressing.

Despite the prevalence of foreign faces on the streets of Osaka, the segregation of these foreign residents, especially non-Asian foreigners, from the rest of Osaka culture in many regards is evident even to the most casual observer. A quick trip into one of Osaka’s many Irish and British themed pubs on a Saturday night gives an interesting picture of how Osaka’s gaijin spend their leisure time. Although there are always a few Japanese faces, the discussions are often based on British football and English is the lingua franca.

Overall, the atmosphere is a well-cultivated “home away from home” for the predominately expatriate clientele. The need for such an atmosphere is better understood after one experiences the difficult to understand menus and complicated rituals of some Japanese bars, and contemplates the near-insurmountable nature of these obstacles for foreigners with still-developing language skills. The end result of such divisions is the almost total lack of white faces in most Osaka night spots.

It was within this context that I came to understand my stint as the drummer for Hei Hei Bon Bon (Japanese for “extremely normal”), a band of American international students that ended up playing in a few of Osaka’s smaller rock clubs during our year-long stay in the Kansai area. After joining a rock club at Doshisha University, a private Christian school near the old Imperial Palace in Kyoto, we met Yasubon, the sound manager of GaraGara, a small Osaka live house. In the wake of one of the club’s showcases he invited us to open a bill one Saturday night, and we agreed, with some nervousness. Our meager language skills and lack of practice were obvious liabilities, but we held a band meeting and decided the opportunity was too good to pass up.

We made our way to Osaka on the JR rail line, and out to Sakura-Nomiya, a part of Osaka famous for its cherry blossoms and love hotels, carrying our heavy gear. We were met by Natsue, another of the club’s staff, and she guided us through the winding streets. The club itself was flanked by a large warehouse, and on the bottom of the front chalkboard were the words, “Hei Hei Bon Bon, USA.”

The importance of the appended USA is best explained through the characteristics of Osaka’s club scene. While concerts by American rock bands are certainly not uncommon, the world of thirty dollar professional gigs is far removed from the reality of small clubs like GaraGara, which translates to “totally empty.” The performers at GaraGara are often unpaid amateurs, and the money the club draws is pulled from the friends these performers can bring to the show. Without the potential of payment, the chances of a foreign band being interested in these small clubs are minimal. So, for GaraGara to put “USA” under our name was in itself a substantial draw for the curiosity seeker.

Thus, as we sheepishly entered the club and made awkward attempts to introduce ourselves, we were unwittingly becoming the first American band ever to set foot in GaraGara. The staff seemed eager to help us but unsure of how well we could communicate; thus, we began a long dance of a sound check wherein the staff would ask us basic questions that grew more and more complicated as we proved our competence in Japanese. “Do you want three mics?” mutated into “Do you want a mic for harmony vocals?” before finally ending up as “Does the lead vocal mic sound too thin?” Throughout this process we could notice the confused stares of the other bands as they shuffled in through the front door. Just like us, none of these bands had any clue who they would be playing with before arriving, and were understandably shocked to confront three American youths playing very fast, spasmodic rock and roll.

The awkward introductions we had made with the staff were doubly awkward with the other bands. Our collective nervousness and low-level competitive instinct made it difficult to navigate odd language mishaps, and there was a disbelief all around – familiar to most foreign residents who try to speak Japanese – as to our ability to speak any Japanese whatsoever. After sharing cigarettes, we lay back for a barrage of small talk. “You look like Frodo,” the lead singer of Lenny J Groove, the funk-rock band that followed us in the lineup, told our guitar player. “And you look like Matt Damon,” he said to me. We guessed each others’ ages, with the members of Hei Hei Bon Bon consistently underestimating and the members of Lenny J Groove operating under the misconception that we were straddling thirty. (At the time of this gig, none of us could legally drink in the U.S.)

After Lenny J Groove’s sound check Jacky Three, the headlining band, strode confidently into the room, played an extremely loud and blistering three songs of Led-Zeppelin style rock, and then split to eat dinner. Their guitarist stayed behind to make some arrangements with the owner, and we were able to talk to her for a few minutes. We stammered some, and she seemed to find us personable. She invited us out for drinks after the show, and we agreed, unwary of our last trains. Then we left the club to get some air and water.

By the time we returned the audience had started to arrive. Our American friends sat at small tables, eyeing and being eyed by the rest of the paying customers. Occasionally a spark of conversation would fly between these two camps, but it usually died for lack of fluency or interest. We tuned and took the stage, totally unsure of what might happen.

Our Japanese stage introduction was greeted by a smattering of laughter, and after our first song, a two minute, four-section number with a quick ending, there was a ten second patch of silence that seemed to go on for ever. Doug looked at me with an expression of terror. Then laughter erupted, and applause, and another round of laughter as Doug thanked the club owners for allowing us to play. We played a short set, so as to not overstay our welcome, and to glide as best we could on the “dancing bear effect.” In short: it’s not that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all.

Taking our seats, we could tell that alcohol had softened the atmosphere somewhat, and our more talkative friends were chatting up the usual patrons in remarkable fashion. Perhaps we had given them something to talk about. The other bands congratulated us, and we acknowledged lots of bemused faces. Lenny J Groove, who had seemed strangely nervous during their sound check, acted like wonderful fools onstage, throwing off charm as if it was as inexhaustible as air. The lead singer of Jacky Three threw her microphone cord wide like Roger Daltrey, and the band behind her was so tight it was no surprise when we later discovered they were professionals who were slumming that night as a favor to the club’s owner. Watching our friends interacting naturally with complete strangers, it was heartening to realize that the obstacles that often segregate Japanese night life and make it difficult for Japanese and foreigners to have friendly, casual interactions are not insurmountable. The members of Hei Hei Bon Bon quickly forgot about our performance and soaked in the joyful atmosphere.

Luckily, the club’s owner, Ushi, shared our appreciation. “You should come back here and play in December,” he said, paying us our money back for the drinks we’d bought. We nodded, fully aware that he wanted us back for the people we brought, not for our music. Pleading curfew to the members of Jacky Three, we settled on a later date to go out drinking and, knowing how to quit when we were ahead, slipped back out into the Osaka evening to catch the Kyoto-bound train.

Public Bath House

Osaka | Fall, 2001 | 20 years old

I spent four months in Japan studying abroad and living with a homestay family in Osaka. During my stay, I visited temples in Kyoto, partied in Shinsaibashi, hiked Miyajima Island, and climbed Mount Fuji. I soaked in Tokyo from the top of its imitation Eiffel Tower to the Back-to-the-future-throwback Delorian I found parked at its base. Amazing as these adventures were, by the end of my stay, they had left me broke and contemplating what was next, or to put it more accurately, what I could still afford.

December was approaching, and I quickly began adding layers at night as my breath materialized more every morning in the scarce surroundings of my tatami bedroom. My favorite remedy became hot sake and an even hotter o-furo. The larger train stations along the Keihan line between Osaka and Kyoto installed giant Christmas trees and female pop artists in revealing Mrs. Klaus outfits and bleach blonde hair. The religious element of the season, almost entirely stripped away in Japan, left more room for the commercial blitzing of the holidays. A combination of bad pop music, cold weather, and decreasing daylight left my mind seeking refuge. As the walls of the shopping malls started to cave in around me I began thinking more and more of tales I heard from other travelers of natural hot springs in Japan. In daydreams, I imagined monkeys that would bring you Chu-hi’s in hollowed pineapple containers with little umbrellas in them, as I relaxed and soaked in the heat of the water in the company of my animal friends and attending geisha. Fantasy embellishments aside, it soon became clear that such a trip wasn’t going to fit into my budget. Needing relief, my friend Thomas and I, a big and excitable guy from Tennessee, decided to go for the next best thing. If we couldn’t afford the splendors of nature, we’d gladly pay a couple of bucks for the simulated experience.

The next-best-thing was a public bath house in Hirakata that a fellow Study Abroad student, who spoke more fluently than we, had recommended. We each paid 300 yen at the door, stripped down, grabbed a towel and ventured in. The room was filled with hot tubs of all shapes and sizes, steam rooms, and rows of showers with plastic seats so you could relax and soak some of the hot water into your scalp. I don’t think the place had any healing powers, but it was refreshing. Plus, what better place to soak in real Japanese culture than in a no-frills city public bath house? All over Japan, there were bars, clubs, and the like that were for Japanese only. Meaning westerners, despite our big noses, hairy chests, and other quaint qualities that amused the Japanese I met, were not allowed to enter and disturb the culture and atmosphere preserved in these restricted zones. Apparently, they overlooked the Hirakata bath house.

Though we remained as respectful as possible, I realized that the image of two naked pasty-white giggling hairy westerners intruding into a Japanese bath house may one day serve other non-western nations as a rallying symbol for increased immigration laws and state-enforced cultural seclusion. However, in my experience, nudity has long been the great equalizer. After all, everyone, no matter where you’re from, is essentially the same under their clothes. Perfect place to have a language barrier, since few feel comfortable or compelled to practice a second language without pants.

We were diplomats to the best of our abilities. Our offenses were limited, the greatest one perpetrated by Thomas at the showers. Below the shower heads were buckets, and next to the buckets were spickets that poured freezing cold water. The idea was to fill your bucket with cold water while under the hot shower, than pour it on yourself to excite the senses. Not throw the bucket behind your head and hit the guy behind you. The victim answered to the cold water with an annoyed grunt, turned to see it was a large uncouth gaijin that had interrupted him from his respite, and walked off muttering to a hot tub as far away from the two of us as possible.

Moving to safer terrain, Thomas and I ventured to the tubs, soaking in the steam and letting the hot water sink in. People were talking all around us, but I soon noticed conversations choking on their words and eyes diverted to a corner of the room where one of the shower stalls sat. I followed the collective gazes of the room, letting my eyesight pierce through the steam. Through the shroud of rising water, visions of demons with bulging eyes and dragons with sharp teeth rippled out in the heat. The skins of the beasts were tanned to beat reds, deep forest greens, and sun-burnt yellows, pronouncing even more the subtle undulations of the creatures from the slow beating heart of their master. Perhaps as protection, or as a sign of a darker nature beneath their painted underbelly, they displayed their claws and fangs in a sign of warning to the room. As the steam cleared the heads of the demons became shoulder blades, and their claws entwined around a man’s spine. The realization set in that the real menace in the bath house was not a creature of myths but an outlaw of the present. A Yakuza wearing only the suit his mama gave him. The symbolism of the tattoos stretched across his back did not escape the room, and though naked and sitting on a plastic stool in a 300 yen bath house, the specter of the ink-skinned gangster gave pause to all in the room, including the two hairy gaijin.

Without our clothes, we’re all a little similar, but sometimes nudity can show you just how different we can be. Today I equate this bare-skinned adventure to the Soprano’s on HBO, and the scenes of Tony chilling out in his Northern New Jersey backyard pool, gut hanging out with his fading hairline, and realizing that despite the Yakuza’s nakedness, he was still pretty bad ass. Hope for Saddam that despite pictures of the disposed dictator in his underwear, he may not have lost all his clout along with his pants. Or if you prefer, compare it to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” just in reverse. Musings aside, after my 4 months in Japan, I had finally spotted a legendary Yakuza; not in the dark trenchcoats and sunglasses of the movies but in his birthday suit. We made it a point not to splash cold water on the guy when we returned to the showers. Partly because of his mob affiliation, but also because after all, when it came down to it, we (students, foreigners, salarymen, children, hitmen) were all there for the same reason, to cap off the year and warm our chilling bones with a hot bath and sauna. Even Yakuza need to pamper themselves sometimes, and splashing cold water on anyone, especially when you’re a gaijin, just isn’t very diplomatic.


Tokyo | Fall, 2001 | 19 years old

“I’ma Wario! I’ma gonna win!”

– Wario, Super Mario Kart 64 (N64)

When I was growing up, my mother warned me against playing too many video games. More than the fact that every hour behind a controller was an hour not spent studying or playing outside, my mom was afraid that if I spent too much time playing video games, I would stunt my social development and grow up having trouble connecting with other people. How wrong she was.

When I first learned that I would be living in a homestay during my time in Japan, I worried that I would have trouble connecting with the members of my host family. In addition to the language barrier, I feared that I would encounter cultural roadblocks that would prevent me from becoming accepted as a member of the family. What if I forgot to take my shoes off inside the house? What if I didn’t like what we ate for dinner? What if they just didn’t like me?

One day, I came home from school to find that my little host brother, Masa-kun, had already taken my customary afternoon seat on the couch. Masa, it turned out, had stayed home sick with a cold, and was watching Yu-Gi-Oh!, one of many cookie-cutter Japanese anime shows that existed primarily to sell product tie-in toys to young viewers. While I’d never seen Masa turn away from a TV show before, this episode was apparently a repeat, because it didn’t hold his attention for more than five minutes before he turned to me and proclaimed, “Eric, I’m bored.”

This, to me, was a little bit of a shock. Up to this point, young Masa-kun had hardly talked to me at all, except to say, “excuse me” whenever he walked in on me in the bathroom without knocking, which was all the time. I had no idea how to respond to Masa – I wondered if it would be OK for me to take him over to the park across the street – but as it turned out, I didn’t have to. Before I could even respond, Masa looked right up at me and asked, “Eric, do you know how to play video games?”

A better icebreaker couldn’t have been scripted. Masa fired up his Nintendo – it was a little more advanced a game system than the one I had grown up with, but I could manage – and plugged in Super Mario Kart 64, an update to a classic go-kart racing title. The two of us instantly connected over the game, and we spent the rest of the afternoon shooting koopa-turtle shells at each other, dropping banana peels in front of our opponent racers’ paths, and spouting each character’s catch phrases, in both English and Japanese.

Masa and I would become very close over the course of my homestay, and as silly as it seems, I really believe that playing video games together contributed greatly to sowing the seeds of our friendship. Of course, I still did encounter other cultural barriers during my time in Japan. For instance, I still don’t understand those cartoon television shows. But I find it ironic that in this instance I was able to overcome a barrier and make a strong and lasting friendship, in part due to the one toy that my mother feared would hinder my ability to foster social relationships: the Nintendo!

Location, Location, Location

Katano | Fall, 2000 | 24 years old

My university, Kansai Gaidai Daigaku, was about half-way between Osaka and Kyoto. I didn’t realize the benefit of that location until I was actually in Japan. I was truly lucky to have chosen such a perfect place (I hadn’t researched any schools; I’d just arbitrarily chosen one). I was smack dab in the middle of the two most perfect cities to narrate the character of Japan. Osaka reflects the new, fast, Westernized aspect of Japan and her culture. Kyoto reveals the depth of the history of the nation and imbues any visitor with awe at the simplicity and beauty of what Japan became as its many early cultures united into one nation.

Katano-shi, my homestay city, was considered a country town relative to where I went to school, in Hirakata-shi. At least, that is what I was told by the other gaijin and my Japanese friends. You could have fooled me. On my bike ride from my homestay to the train station I passed at least one 6 story apartment building, not to mention the shopping areas that were only moments from my homestay. Compared to where I’d lived and worked in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Virginia, I lived in a densely populated community while in Japan. However, relative to Japan, I did eventually realize that my homestay town was relatively rural. I was able to really recognize this fact when I brought a group of my friends from school to my homestay because my host parents wanted to meet them. My friends were in awe of the empty city blocks we passed as we neared my homestay. They were thrilled to see a whole block devoted to growing cosmos flowers. We even went into the field to take pictures just because it was such a novelty for my friends. They were amazed to see rice growing in what seemed, even to them, a city. I realized how lucky I was to live in this town that was so different from what most people think of as a Japanese city (even if I didn’t realize it until near the end of my time there).

My host family took me on a road trip, about half-way into my almost 4 month experience of Japan. They wanted to take me to a famous pottery museum, which was on the way to the home of my host mother’s sister. I was certainly excited about the trip because I had absolutely no idea where we were going or what we would do. We even took Fu-chan, the family golden retriever. I was amazed by the home of my “aunt.” It seemed twice as big as my homestay, which I thought was quite large relative to my friend’s homestays. The biggest shock for me upon arriving at my “aunt’s” house, though, was that they actually had a lawn. It was relatively small, but it was the largest one I’d seen since arriving in Japan. We enjoyed a picnic lunch and spent a few hours visiting. The majority of our time, though, was spent on the road. During the trip, we stopped at the ceramics museum and viewed wonderful pieces. My host father and host sisters also walked around the school near the museum and sneaked peeks into empty classrooms. The “sneaking” was a special insight for me into my host father’s playful nature. After that trip I always felt very easy and happy around him!

My friends and I spent one day traveling on the train between Osaka and Kyoto. Without realizing it we were able to observe some tremendous differences between old and new because of the proximity of those cities to one another. We spent time in each city, wandering, drinking in the sights, and confirming the feeling of time and change. Without such a perfectly located homestay, I cannot imagine having the same cultural opportunities I was able to feast upon while in Japan. Altogether, my experiences in Japan were some of the richest of my life.

Really See the Sights

Katano | Fall, 2000 | 24 years old

I think travel abroad tends to create feelings that overwhelm most people when they make their first trip away from home. Certainly, I fit within that category in this instance. If I had any expectations at all, they were few, limited, and unclear. All in all, I believe the lack of expectation benefited me more than anything else. However, because I’d really made few plans and didn’t have a clue what to expect, I wasn’t able to completely take advantage of my time in Japan.

One particular outing taught me some wonderful lessons about travel in a foreign land, and about myself. I’d never really used public transportation at home. In fact, I didn’t have experience getting from one place to another in any way other than under my own power – either walking, biking, or driving. So, that certainly played a part in how ludicrous my outing turned out.

I wanted to get from my homestay in Katano-shi to a shopping area in Hirakata-shi, but I’d not really traveled anywhere other than home to school and back again. The first time I had to go from my homestay to my school I was a bundle of fear and nerves. I was certain I would get lost and never make it to school. My host sister was supposed to take me all the way to school, or so I thought, but she only took me as far as one of the main train stations because her destination was in a different direction than mine. She did point the way to the correct platform. However, the verbal directions she gave were entirely undecipherable to me and my confusion over the language caused me to distrust the body language of the situation. When I finally arrived at the platform to which my host sister directed me, and on which I thought I was supposed to be, I looked around and literally jumped for joy when I saw a familiar face. I ran up to the owner of the familiar face and tackle-hugged him. He was another student, an acquaintance, I’d met during my week-long stay on Gaidai’s campus. I know, for a fact, that he thought I was absolutely nuts because he told me so. But after I was able to calm down and tell him why I’d greeted him that way, he laughed and we made our way to school together.

Back to the main story: So, I made my way from Katano-shi to a train station in Hirakata-shi. I was determined to explore. So, I took my itty-bitty planner (which I’d purchased at my school book store because it was just completely adorable) and used the pen that came with it to begin mapping out my journey. Remember, please, I’d never used buses, trains, or subways prior to this “adventure.” I made a mark on a blank page in my planner and wrote a little note that described the spot as the one I would need to return to in order to go back home. I walked maybe 50 feet and noticed a store that could act as a good landmark, so I added a mark to the picture. I was determined to create an accurate map so I could safely return home. I made my way, about 50 feet at a time, in this manner.

My map became quite detailed and I felt more and more confident as time progressed. Keep in mind that I’m spending the majority of the time during this “adventure” with my nose pointed toward my planner as I furiously make marks and write notes beside them. I was that completely and utterly afraid of getting lost! About an hour later I looked up, ready to add some more detail to my map. Well, actually, it was probably closer to two hours, but I really want to make myself sound less ridiculous. I looked at the scene in front of me, looked at my map, looked at the landscape and the way the street curved in front of me, looked at my map, and then laughed out loud. I immediately glanced all around to see if anyone was taking note of this crazy gaijin. I sighed in relief because it didn’t seem that anyone was paying me any mind. I contained my giggles, but couldn’t help laughing internally and smiling hugely because on my map it was extremely apparent that I had made a very detailed drawing of an “adventurous” circle! I could have most certainly completed the same circle in less than 15 minutes if I hadn’t been such a scared-y pants!

I learned a lot from that silly walk. I learned that I travel much more easily with companions in a country whose language I do not understand. I also learned that so often we really just need to enjoy what is all around rather than worry about keeping track of it. The saying, “It’s the journey that counts, not the destination,” expresses well what I learned from my too safe “adventure.” I should have just wandered rather than making sure to keep track of each step and each aspect of the place I was trying to wander. I was just too afraid of being lost. I learned that being lost isn’t such a horrible thing when you’re exploring. This story, admittedly, is also an insight into the anality of my personality. I do believe that fear keeps us safe, but when you’re exploring a new place fear can really hinder more than help! I did manage to get over my fears to some extent during the rest of that trip. I actually walked around and looked as I went instead of writing every detail down. However, if you prefer not to take such risks, make sure you use another trick I learned for safe wandering: turn around periodically so that the return trip looks familiar – otherwise you’ll always feel lost!

The Joys of Natto

Omiya City | Summer, 1995 | 15 years old

They were sitting there when we got home from school. Six eggs, sitting round and incongruous on the kitchen table. Eggs are supposed to be in cartons, in the refrigerator, or hardboiled and wrapped in a lunch box, or perhaps sitting in a chicken coop. But not laying out on the table. Were these eggs forgotten when the groceries were taken in? Salmonella poisoning was always taken quite seriously in my American home growing up. Should I point out the abandoned eggs? My little Japanese sister called out to me before I could find the words, and eggs were forgotten in the frenzy of Sailor Moon worship.

Several hours later my homestay family had dinner in the June evening. The eggs were still sitting out on the table in a dish. Mother had made sukiyaki, a big bubbling pot of beef and sauced vegetables that looked like something the witches in Macbeth might’ve cooked up. Everyone got a bowl of steaming rice. And then Mother picked up an egg and neatly cracked it over her rice. I couldn’t believe it. Those eggs must’ve been out in the summer heat all afternoon! A recipe for salmonella agony. A picture of poor Mother worshipping the porcelain god ran across my mind’s eye. Oh no.

Mother then passed an egg to me. I don’t know how good my Japanese family was at interpreting my facial expressions, but I tried to make it non-verbally crystal clear that no way was I going to eat this little time bomb of death. No way.

One by one, my entire homestay family cracked raw eggs over their rice. They motioned for me to do the same. I tried to protest. My father picked up my egg and cupped it in his hands. Warm and delicious, he said. Well… not wanting to disappoint, I silently apologized to my beloved mother for ignoring her carefully inculcated food hygiene habits, and cracked the egg. Warm and delicious, I thought to myself. Warm and delicious. I took a hunk of beef simmering in the pot and mushed it into the rice. I raised it to my lips. I took a bite. The warm slimy scent of half-cooked egg clung to the spicy beef, repulsive and juicy and foreign. Warm. And absolutely delicious.

Raw egg on hot rice became a staple food, appearing regularly for breakfast. I adjusted, realizing my host family ate this all the time. They noticed. Later on that week, a new food materialized on the kitchen table. It was brown. It smelled evil. It looked for all the world like little brown clods swimming in mucus.

“Delicious! And good for you!” said Mother. She had mixed some mustard into it and then poured the baby-poo colored mixture onto my bowl of rice and raw egg. My homestay sisters looked on with expressions of false encouragement. I knew there was no way in hell they’d be eating this fresh form of foulness. The thought gave me courage. I’d be a martyr for the cause of disproving the stereotypes of foreigners afraid to taste anything. I’d eat this and damn the consequences. I’d relish it.

My host mother did not lie. The brownish gooey stuff is called natto, and it is delicious. Natto is made with young soybeans that have been allowed to rot, the source of the evil odor. You either love it or hate it. Even some Japanese people can’t bring themselves to eat it. But those who do adore it, as do I.

My first Japanese family broke me in well. The next time I came to Japan I had no qualms eating with my second homestay family. Seaweed. Raw eggs. Raw beef. Fermented tofu. Rotted soybeans. Live eels. Delicious on rice. I’d eat stuff even my homestay sister wouldn’t touch. When asked to describe me to her classmates at a school assembly, my second homestay sister proudly announced, “Kimmi eats everything.”

The Bad Man

Tokyo | Summer, 1995 | 15 years old

Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, circa 1995. Night. My homestay sister Mutsu and I were making our way home after a long day of school, sports, amusement parks, and a final stop at a ramen shop. Shinjuku station is quite famous, at the heart of a seething entertainment district filled with people meeting, eating, shopping, clubbing, cruising, playing pachinko, and indulging in other, less polite pastimes. Mutsu was intent on showing me the sights.

Although Tokyo has a gleaming reputation for being one of the world’s safest cities, parts of it have a seamy aura. Shinjuku is one of these. Perhaps it’s the red-light district on the east side of the station, or the crush and hustle of commerce that suggest the presence of an undetected criminal economy. It’s hard to tell. But my energetic, ever-vigilant host sister was showing me a good time while keeping me safe, if only from getting lost in the horde.

We were going up an escalator in the station when I spotted one of my American teachers, Mr. Frand, coming down the opposite side. He looked up and smiled and said “Hello Kimberly!” A look of supreme terror crossed Mutsu’s face. “No! Dangerous! Bad Man!” she yelped. She grabbed me and ran up the escalator, dragging me along behind her. I was sadly unable to return Mr. Frand’s greeting, and a bit worried he’d think I’d instigated the exodus. I hoped he understood, because I certainly didn’t. I can only imagine what was going through Mutsu’s mind. Is speaking to people on escalators a Japanese taboo? Are foreign men in Shinjuku Station threatening? Does Mr. Frand look like the Japanese idea of a serial killer?

On the way home I tried to explain to Mutsu that Mr. Frand was a teacher at my school. She looked at me like I was nuts. In all the hustle and vice of Shinjuku, with who knew what sort of scandalous and illegal dealings going on in the hidden corners of the world’s densest entertainment district, Mutsu was confident in her judgment: Mr. Frand was “Dangerous!”

Visiting Grandpa

Atsugi | Summer, 1996 | 16 years old

Back in Atsugi in 1996, my homestay sister would take me to visit her grandmother several times a week. Grandma was super cute. We always had lots of fun at her house. One Saturday evening, she suggested we go see Grandpa, and though I was confused about why they didn’t live together, I thought it would be nice to meet him, so we jumped in the car and drove to a hill just outside of town.

It was quiet, just around dusk. We walked up the hill to a stone sink with wooden and metal pails paired with dippers. We filled the pails with water, and walked further up the path. And then I saw the first statue. It looked like a field of statues covered the hill. And I wondered if Grandpa lived in some kind of art colony.

It wasn’t until I saw the tiniest monuments that I realized this was a Buddhist cemetery. The baby statues had dolls sitting next to them, or little jars of baby food.

We continued up the path. Grandpa’s grave was a rectangle of red earth perhaps six by four feet. A squat monument that looked as if it was a child’s block representation of a man was on the right half of the grave. It looked as if the left was kept open for someone. Grandma?

We poured water over the granite statue until it was a glossy cascade onto the swept dirt. We weeded the stray dandelions and grass sprouting up in the grave, and put daisies in vases built for the purpose. Grandma pulled a grapefruit out of her purse, cut it in half and set it in front of the statue. Then she poured sake into cups and set them next to the fruit. I remembered Grandma mentioning that grapefruit was Grandpa’s favorite food.

We lit incense in the sand pot in front of the flowers and clapped our hands to get his attention. My Japanese sister and Grandmother closed their eyes and seemed to be talking silently. I had nothing to say. I prayed I wasn’t dishonoring him in any way by being there, and I was thankful to be a witness to his memory. And just as I wondered what I should do, Grandma said “Don’t worry, Grandpa speaks English.”