Some of you readers may have read my collage essay called “Being a Foreigner in Japan” in the [insert year here] Vortex. If so, you may remember the cultist who tried to recruit me in Niigata. I gave her personal name in that essay, but here I’ll assign her an animal like everyone else: Mouse.
Soon after I came back to Japan, Mouse-san contacted me on Line. I’m not sure if she searched my name or whether I gave my Line to her a long time ago. She regularly messaged me to say she wanted to see me, and asked when I could go to Niigata. I really had no intention of going unless I determined she was actually interested in being friends.
So, I told her exactly that. Because I can’t speak or write Japanese well, it ended up being at length. Mouse-san was reluctant to respond, but eventually she said that it was okay that I’d never become a Buddhist and that she still wanted to be friends. I took her word for it, and decided I wanted to go to Niigata just to see it again, if not to meet her.
Mouse-san asked me to come around Obon, the Buddhist holiday in August in which families honor their ancestors together. I imagine it was because she wanted her family to meet me, or because she might be off of work, though I don’t think she works. I agreed. That’s when the first problems occurred. Because everyone goes to visit their families around this time, the shinkansen tickets cost twice as much as they usually would. I don’t want to name the amount, but it certainly irritated my deep, existential fear of parting with money. But I booked the hotel and I put the dates in my agenda, so I was going to buy those damn tickets. So I’ve gotten anxious about money for the rest of the month so far.
The day I left was pretty good. I actually managed to get ready relatively early and jog before boarding, and the hostel I was staying at was excellent, as well. I talked with the staff almost entirely in Japanese, and I was invited by some others there to go out for drinks.
Mouse-san is pregnant. When I told her I was in the city and whatnot, she said she couldn’t meet because she had to go to the hospital for a check-up. I asked her when we could meet, and she said she’d contact me later. I don’t get angry often, but I managed to feel indignant then—I’d told her when I would be there about a month before and that I’d only have a full day, but she’s forgotten. Well, the next morning, I managed to get a rough schedule out of her: she’d be ready to hang out at around lunch, and she’d call me when she was ready. So, I decided to go to the aquarium.
All the buildings I could see were exactly the same as I remembered them from years ago. It felt like I could pick up where I left off from three years ago, when I had anxiety and depression, but no medication for it. I’d thought I would have forgotten everything, but when the shapes of the buildings presented themselves to me as I passed on the bus, as real and unignorable as your mother, the physicality and location of it all seemed like obvious facts I’d forgotten. I had a good time at the aquarium, which I had never gone to, especially since there were several varieties of seal there.
Mouse-san called me as I was riding the bus back, and I met her and her sister at a Gasuto. She looked about the same as when I last met her: painfully thin, with a small, round face. She is tall, almost as tall as me, but often hunches her shoulders. I didn’t expect her to look pregnant, since I got the impression from my Line chats that she’d just found out. Apparently, though, she’s four months, and I had no idea until she told me.
Well, getting over my feelings at actually meeting her in person after three years, we had a good lunch. We laughed, talked about interesting things, and didn’t talk about Kenshokai. It came to where I asked what she wanted to do afterwards. I was enjoying myself, so I wanted to continue to talk to her. She said she wanted to see a taiko and singing performance with me. I immediately said yes. I adore taiko. She acted hopeful, but in disbelief.
“But it’s with Kenshokai,” she said. I immediately backed off, so she tried to convince me to say “yes” again.
“It’s just a three-minute video. You don’t have to pray. They’re really skilled. I think you’ll be surprised.” As I said, I wanted to hang out with her more, because we were having fun, and because I don’t like vacationing on my own, I assented. So, Mouse-san and her sister drove me to their mother’s house to talk and wait for the event, which I stupidly assumed was soon. It was at 7 pm, so I waited about two and a half hours for it. Desperate for something to salvage the time, I suggested we watch a movie on DVD or go look at something, but Mouse-san just said “Well, we were going to stay here and practice English.” She was right, I did say I would do that. I just didn’t know how long. Like I said, I paid a lot of money to be there, and I had one day. “Still, a house visit and bonding time isn’t so bad,” I told myself, rubbing itch cream on my legs because of the adorable cat they kept.
We drove to the cult building with Mouse-san’s mom, who is quite charming. When we got there, I was a bit confused as to what we were doing at the moment, because Mouse-san also mentioned something about going to her apartment to get a movie. I saw the cult building before Mouse-san told me, in a suddenly very demanding and fearful manner, to take off my baptismal cross (the cross necklace I wear every day). Right. I’d forgotten she did the same last time.
I was very uncomfortable about that, and I’ll tell you why. This is a necklace that was given to me by my grandmother when I was baptised into the Methodist Church as a teenager. When I joined the Orthodox Church of my own accord, I made it my baptismal cross, and so my godparents put it around my neck after I was anointed with the sacred oils (chrism) of Chrismation. Orthodox Christians wear the cross they’re given after their Baptism and Chrismation. Chrismation is like Western Confirmation in that it fully makes someone a member of the particular church, but it also unites the subject to the Holy Spirit, and includes prayers for insight and the courage to act on it. Before the rite, the cross is blessed on the altar on which the Eucharist is consecrated, the Bible is kept, and in which there is the relic of a martyr (in my church’s altar, we had one of Hieromartyr Blaise’s bone fragments). WE are encouraged to wear the cross every day, if not all the time, to a.) remind us that Christ has already won, ultimately, and b.) to face our pain and responsibilities.
My Japanese isn’t good enough to explain this, so I told Mouse-san and her mom that it’s better that I always wear it, that it’s like a wedding ring, and that it’s bad to take it off. I offered to wear it under my dress instead of over it so no one would see it, but Mouse-san said something about Nichiren (“Hotoke-sama”) seeing it, and that I didn’t really wear it all the time because I probably take it off when I take a shower and when I go through airport security. She was right, I do, but that’s to protect the metal of the chain and to help law enforcement protect people efficiently. THis would be because...well, to avoid offending Nichiren? The other cultists? To avoid offending Mouse-san, certainly. Mouse-san’s mom, more sympathetic said she has a wedding ring, which she takes off at work because it’s dangerous. This, she said, was the same.
Now, I’ve been to a Hindu service before for a school project, and they offered me some blessed food. I ate it to avoid offending them, and I felt no guilt about it, believing it fell under Saint Paul’s instruction to not let food upset others. My priest at the time agreed.
I thought this was a similar situation, because I didn’t want to offend her. But food is food, and my baptismal cross is my baptismal cross. They were similar situations, but were they really equivalent? I felt okay when I accepted the food from the Hindu priests, but here I felt hot and panicked. She wouldn’t even let me put it in my pocket, she wanted me to keep it in the car. I remember her letting my put it in my pocket the last time (though I may have actually done that while she wasn’t looking). The thought that I should tell her I’d stay in the car occurred to me.
I decided to do as she asked, against my feelings. I had already said I was going to watch it for her, and I didn’t want to change everything and rock the boat. So Mouse-san took my cross and put it into the box of the too-expensive iPhone charger I’d just bought. All motivation to continue talking to Mouse-san and her family, or even talk to anyone at all, completely left me.
The video performance was skilled, but mediocre. There was a standard taiko ensemble, and it played a standard taiko piece with no inspired flairs or additions. Some guy with a Western drum battery added a standard Western drum beat, though, and they combined with the taiko. You might assume this was original enough, but the performance and composition somehow managed to be as bland as a bowl of oatmeal to me. There was singing, which was very inspired by 20th century American showtunes. The singers actually had nice vocal range and control, though I wished I could understand the lyrics. Mouse-san’s mom hummed along, somewhat adorably. Then, it was over. There was something else in the video after the performance ended, but thankfully Mouse-san’s mom noticed my desire to leave and indicated that we could go.
On the way back to the city, I managed to switch back on my Talkative Persona. We arrived just as the Niigata Matsuri I’d been wanting to attend was letting out. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Luckily, I still had the izakaya I’d gone and talked to the owner at. I almost didn’t go because it’s not on Google Maps, and over thirty minutes of walking in the dark. I had the presence of mind to ask the hostel employees about it, though, and they found the address, nearest bus stop, and closing time for me.
Now, talking to this old cook at the izakaya was one of the highlights of my entire month in Niigata. The thought of going all the way there instead of discovering a new bar or restaurant more close by was very troublesome to me, but I wanted to see whether the guy (let’s call him Dog) was still there and how he was doing. The trip would be incomplete without making a pilgrimage there.
The hostel staff had called ahead, and the restaurant asked for me to make a reservation, so I made one. When I got there, there were only two people there, though. Everything looked exactly the same: the earthy orange and cream walls, the clay jars of Nihonshu, the table arrangement, the western jazz, and even the little wooden Santa Claus statue (the flat cutout kind you might find at Hobby Lobby) on the counter. I sat at the same place in front of the window to the kitchen as I did before, and I saw it was not Dog-san standing in the kitchen, but a young man in his mid-thirties, probably.
“Do you know Dog?” I asked the new cook, after starting to eat an appetizer and ordering the expensive Nihonshu he recommended to me. He got the sort of mildly amused look Japanese guys tend to get when you ask them a question that makes them uncomfortable (it’s really surprising what throws people off, sometimes). I looked back to my food, trying to look casual. I detected a note of some other negative emotion as he paused for an usually long time.
“He’s my dad,” said the cook. I immediately began to suspect that Dog was dead, so I didn’t ask my follow up question; that is, “How is he?” I didn’t feel sad, but I was sorry for troubling the cook.
“Oh. I was studying Japanese here three years ago, and I met him then,” I said by way of explanation.
He left the conversation at that, as I remember, so I gingerly attempted to make more small talk in between my eating and the other two customer’s orders.
“Were you busy today because of the festival?” I asked.
“No, we were free.”
“Oh, then I’m glad I came!” I said. Sh*t, I thought. I was trying to cheer him up.
He actually smiled and laughed at this, though. “Do what you want to do,” he said. Or something like that. One of the other customers asked his companion what some word I couldn’t hear was in English. The companion answered in a lowered voice, so I couldn’t hear and correct him, presumably. THen they left, and the cook visibly relaxed.
“Oh, excuse me, what’s your name?” I asked.
“Crane,” he said, smiling slightly. “My Dad’s name is Dog, but I got married and took my wife’s name. You said you live in Morioka, right? Why did you move back to Japan? Work? Got married?”
“I’m doing a job.”
“Hmmm, uh, are you an...English teacher?”
“Yep, I’m an English teacher.” And so on. The usual conversation, true, but it was nice. I finished my food, paid, told him to take care of himself, and left. I only had enough cash for tomorrow’s towel rental, breakfast, lunch, and either dinner or sasadango, but I was glad I went.
It turned out that I didn’t have enough for sasadango at the station the next morning, like I had wanted and planned, but I did have enough for chamame...dumpling thingies, which I wanted to try three years ago. They were sweet.
Kanji of the Day:
kun: noru, nori, noseru
on: jou, shou
Ride, power, multiplication, record, counter for vehicles, board, mount, join
Word of the Day:
山彦 やまびこ yamabiko. (lit: "mountain boy")
a.) echo (especially one reverberating in the mountains)
b.) mountain deity
Note: this is the name of shinkansen in a line running through Touhoku
Thought of the Day: