Departures: Japan 1991-92: Jimmy Shows Me the Tourist Ropes

Excerpts from a letter mailed in April of '92, months after the fact.

When our story left off, I was in the port city of Sakai, watching Tampopo. I'd been in Japan about twenty four hours. I was staying at the Rinkai (Ocean View) hotel. I slept very well that night, and the next day I was up and about.

Walking around with Jimmy, I learned many lessons invaluable to a traveller in Japan. I learned how to use vending machines to dispense hot drinks (a good way to avoid frostbite!) I learned that even if you know your katakana long enough to know that /snakku baa/ is a 'snack bar', you're still in for a shock, because 'snack bars' are really karaoke bars. I learned the name of the grey stuff in the oden (konyaku).

One very useful word Jimmy taught me was 'boke'. Boketeru means to space out. Jisaboke is jet lag. Generally, boke was useful for explaining away my mistakes. By saying "chotto boke," I'd say I was a little confused.

I learned that a hogen is a local dialect. To say the dialect of a particular region, you say the name of the region, followed by -ben. Thus, Osakaben. I learned a bit of Osakaben (Osaka dialect). Instead of saying -nai for the plain negative ending on verbs, Osakajin say -hen. From this, I was able to come up with a two-line poem to send to my sensei (teacher): Osakaben Wakarahen (I don't understand Osaka dialect).

Makaseiru is the action of a restaraunteur choosing what the customer should eat. Say this word to a waiter or whatever and they might just give you some food instead of making you figure out what you want. The archaic way to say this is Mitsukuroide. You say Gochisosama (or gochisosama deshita) to say that you have feasted. This is a good thing to say when you're done with your restaurant meal and want the bill. It's also a good thing to say when someone has fixed dinner for you.

Choro ii means just right. Chanto means "as is appropriate". Clerks say chanto to you when you've given them exact change. Sometimes. Ojosan officially just means a nice young woman, but it has connotations of prudery and naivitee. A loaded word. Shinakicha is short for Shinakute ikemasen, whatever that means (I've since forgotten). Morning Service, (spelled with many variations) is a western- style breakfast, tending to consist of a boiled egg, coffee, and toast. It's tough to get Japanese-style breakfasts in restaurants. I'm not really sure just what constitutes a Japanese-style breakfast. Leftover rice, I guess (No stereotypes here:-).

Jimmy and I went on a walk, and this is really the first sight we saw. A restaurant which had morning service.

Speaking of toast, I don't know if it's possible to get whole wheat bread in Japan. I mean, there was balloon bread aplenty. I'm not proud to say that I bought quite a few packages of wonder-substitute while I was there. Bread tends to come in packages containing maybe four to eight rather thick slices. There was this ad on TV for bread. There were these kids who ran around a lot, then sat down and joyously masticated these thick slices of toast, while the theme music played: Toast Kids are Hungry. Toast Kids are Haaaaangry. And so on. Perhaps the Japanese get more into toast than I do, at least judging from the expressions on those kids' faces. But I digress.

We had breakfast. I had a chance to see my first 'Japanese' dog. I sort of regret not taking any pictures of these dogs, because they were cute and friendly, and I don't really have the words to describe a breed of dogs. They looked like small German Shepherds with shorter hair, but that could describe a lot of dogs. Oh well, deal with it.

We continued our walk. Jimmy was looking for a soroban (abacus). We went into some shops that seemed to deal in woodcrafts. One of them turned out to be a funerary shop. This place sold cabinets with lots of drawers and compartments. Apparently, you burn your ancestors and put their ashes in one of the drawers. These things were rather ornate, but looked, I don't know, kind of cheaply made or something. I guess these cabinets don't have to bear up gobs of weight or anything. I suppose structural soundness was probably not an overriding concern. But still, these things cost big bucks (no, I don't remember how much), and it seems a pity to have all that nice detail work fall to the ground because the stuff supporting it is doomed to an early collapse. I can sort of see the appeal of buying a plastic ash-holding box "because it would be eternal" - but only because of the low quality of those wooden boxes.

Jimmy taught me how you can find a house in Japan if you know its address. There are these signs that may be called "cho markers." I say may be called because that's what I call them, and I don't know if I heard the name from someone else or if I made the name up myself. Japanese addresses come in parts. There's the prefecture, which is about on the scale of a county. There's a city. If you're trying to find a house based on the address, it's really a good idea to be able to get to the right city. But then you have to find the right cho, a region analogous to a district. So you have to buy a map of the city that shows cho divisions. And the map will also show you the numbered subdivisions of a cho. But then you find yourself wandering around all of these twisty streets, and you get totally lost. That's when you find one of these signs, which tell you which cho you're in. Also which number subdivision within the cho. So,even though you're having a really hard time reading the map, at least the signs let you know when you're getting close.

Once you are in the right numbered subdivision, it's just a matter of finding the house, and that shouldn't take you more than, say, 10 or fifteen minutes. Well, okay, so it isn't exactly easy. But the signs help a lot.

My hands got very cold. Have I mentioned the trick of buying hot drinks from vending machines to warm your hands up? This was a time when that came in very handy. If it hadn't been for those beverages, I think I might have had serious problems. Anyhow, it was so cold that we decided to end our walk and return to the hotel to warm up. We got a little lost, but finally found our way back, already planning on making some stuff using the hot pot.

Of course, as we stumbled towards the front door, the sun started to break through the clouds, and by the time our feet entered the lobby, it was already noticably warmer outside. I gave Jimmy my spare scarf, put on my gloves, and we set out again. We walked to the Sakai marina.

There were some small boats,and some warehouses and dry dock stuff out on some concrete piers, but we didn't stick around too long. There was a cold wind blowing. I think it was at the pier area that I saw my first Japanese grafitti. It was in English. I don't remember what it said. We started to walk towards a giant burial mound, sort of Sakai's big attraction. I had read about these things in my history class. They're more massive than the pyramids. I had wanted to see them for quite a while (there are a few of them.) Jimmy hadn't studied them, but he had sure noticed this feature on the map - from a plane's eye view, each of these mounds is a giant keyhole shape. Well, circle and trapezoid shape. You know, a "keyhole" shape, but not what keyholes are shaped like nowadays. You know what I mean.

Anyhow, he wanted to see this mound. I hadn't known that the mounds were in this area, and I'm glad Jimmy knew. I think I would have had a tough time finding my way around Sakai on my own. Anyhow, so we both wanted to see these mounds. So we set off.We stopped at a Chugoku (China/Chinese) restaurant. I had some really good Chinese food in Japan. In some cases, I think it was some of the best Chinese food I'd ever had. But now I'm not sure if it was that the Chinese food was so good, or if I was just getting tired of Japanese food. Anyhow, this place wasn't so great. We had yakiniku, which turned out to be overcooked meatballs with hot mustard garnish. The big attraction at this place was the TV. Have I mentioned that yet? When my parents and I go to some Japanese places, sometimes there'll be some kind of TV going on in the background. And my mom gets annoyed. But once I went to real restaurants in Japan, I find out that TV with dinner really is a traditional Japanese experience.

We continued our walk. I had a chance to see a Japanese car wash. Which was kind of strange.I guess car washes take up a lot of room. Not so much for the car wash building itself. But you have to leave room for the car to drive in one end and to drive out the other. In Japan, the building housing the carwash itself is shorter than the car. And the car drives in on one end, but it doesn't come out the other. It turns out that the building itself is on rails, and can roll back and forth. So it rolls back and forth over the car, thus washing the car. Which then backs out. So you only need half the driveway space. Plus you really get to impress the foreigners. I took a picture.

The car only needs half the space because it doesn't have to drive out the other side, you see.

Anyhow, it started to snow so we wandered back again. Along the way, we walked alongside a river that was running through town. This was another Japanese city river. It was a funny color. It had trash in it. It smelled really bad. There were all these signs up to let kids know how dangerous the water was. Don't play on the river bank, you'll die! Really scary signs that showed this evil looking wave coming up and snagging some kid on the shore-this concept would have given me nightmares at some age.

It was then that I learned a new Japanese word: abunai, and it means peligro. And abunai is what that water was.

Upon returning to the hotel, Jimmy and I settled in and watched some TV. The show appeared to be the Japanese equivalent of The Twilight Zone, complete with cheesy narrator speaking through clenched teeth. The plot of the first story was that there was this hole in the ground which echoed secrets. The plot of this story caused me to think that the average Japanese person generates about 5 billion white lies each week, and that's for someone who doesn't get out very often.

The second story taught me a grammar point. It was called Kaerenai "Can't return home." As opposed to kaeranai, which would mean "Doesn't return home." The story itself was rather silly. This sarariman, trying to impress some other guys with how little control his wife held over him, called home to say that he wasn't coming home that night. But out of the company of these louts, he relents and decides to go home. But he can't quite manage it. It becomes clear that he and his family are somehow never going to encounter each other again. They can be at the same place, same time, but he would be invisible and intangible to them, and vice versa. All he could do was call them on the phone. Meanwhile, he was living in a coffin hotel. Valuable lesson there about maintaining ties with your family, I guess.

That night, we went to a Western Place under the Sakai train station. I had Nihon pizza, and it was better than Round Table.

We were walking back along this big road. They had this massive LED sign to let drivers know about unusual driving conditions. And apparently there was a rather unusual driving condition coming up on January 7th. The road would be closed because President Bush was coming to Osaka. He was?!? This was the first I'd heard of it. I'd hear more later.

Hotel futons have special kinds of sheets to keep them clean. The sheet is like a cover sheet, with elastic. So the sheet clings to the quilt. That night, I saw Chibi Maruko-chan for the first time. It was okay. I was expecting something as saccharine sweet as Care Bears, but it wasn't like that. It was okay. And then there was this other domestic story manga on right afterwards, called Sazai-san or something. It had better music, but the stories were kind of boring. Not that Maruko-chan's stories were really anything I'd pass along. And I thought the plots of the Twilight Zone show were worth mentioning, so you know how low my standards are.

You know, the ending theme of Chibi Maruko-chan has no "pihara"s in it. I think maybe they're using a new theme now. Too bad. Now I'll never know the tune, unless Hans sends me that sheet music.

Also on that night were some shows of monomane, or imitation. These were shows with people who specialized in imitating celebrities. Dar har. Don Rickles would have done well to have worked on imitating such celebs as Jimmi-kun with that good-as-trademarked "bap bap bap," just one of those phrases that any sane person would be at a loss to explain in any language. Though these letters might give you the impression that I did nothing but watch TV in my first days as a gaijin tourist, I still couldn't recognize any Japanese stars. so most of the imitators didn't do much for me. Especially those who were parodying enka singers. Enka is the old style of Japanese singing. Its distinguishing feature is notes which are not so much sung as wailed mournfully. And it takes a goodish while to wail each note. I wish it didn't.

Maybe I'm not the greatest person to introduce you to enka. I mean, some people really like it. And if you listen to me, maybe you'll never even give it a chance. And that would be a real pity, because you might like it too. And that's really okay, as long as you don't listen to it around me, or at least not without headphones.

Fortunately, they imitated some people who even I recognized. People like Emperor Meiji, complete with spectacles. President Bush, Gorby, and Yeltsin were all there. Remember, this is when Gorby and Yeltsin had just headed off a coup. So I'm sure these imitators were trading lots of political jokes. Which I couldn't understand. But at least they weren't singing. One guy imitated everyone from "We are the World" from Michael Jackson to Cyndi Lauper. One black guy, who didn't know much Japanese, imitated Mike Tyson. Not very convincingly. Except that he was big & black. Which was maybe really enough.

I wrote this note to myself about imitator shows:

What a plethora of cynicism can be held in three sentence fragments! Among the interests of the Japanese people, classical music ranks reasonably high. Or so believe the people who do program scheduling for Osaka TV. And it was okay, but there was this one strange thing. Occasionally, the camera would do a close-up shot. This was okay with me. I mean, if all you get are balcony shots of the whole orchestra, the whole thing wears thin rather quickly. But the strange part is that they'd do close-ups on the instrument. If you were lucky, they'd show the performer's hands. So you'd get this close up shot of some subsection of a French horn, and you could see that an unseen hand was causing valves to do something. Or you'd see sticks hitting the kettle drum. At one point Jimmy asked me if violins had frets. Uhm. Probably they did. I wasn't sure. I said not to worry, the show would no doubt let us know... As if on cue, a few seconds later the TV was showing us the neck of a violin. Spooky.

Violins don't have frets, by the way.

Wandering in Sakai[>>]

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