Monday, July 28, 2008

See youuuuuu

The weekend before I left was Shi-town’s natsu matsuri, or summer festival. It was a good send-off, since matsuri remind me of what’s really unique about Japan. It’s characteristic of pretty much every matsuri to have stalls upon stalls of fried food on sticks, music, chanting, and locals wandering the streets to watch or participate in the festivities, many in traditional kimono or yukata. There are decorations and rituals from hundreds of years ago that are based on animism or ancestor worship, but often adapted into a Buddhist framework. There’s nothing like it in America.

Anyway, I was particularly excited about this year’s matsuri because Hiromi offered to dress me in a yukata, which is a summer kimono. I used to be kind of disdainful of the foreign girls I saw wearing kimono, but as soon as my chance arose, I was ecstatic. Hiromi owns a salon, so she’s experienced in dressing women in kimono for weddings or coming of age ceremonies. It was a lot more complicated than I expected, with clips and straps and cinching and pads. She even provided me with the highest hair I’ve ever had. “Hajimete, konna takasa,” I marveled. As soon as she brought me in front of the other women in the salon, they all gave my bust disapproving looks and told Hiromi that she needed to do something about my large oppai. Hiromi explained that she’d already stuffed the obi extra, and she proceeded to loosen it and add more padding to detract from my rack. “[I have the same problem,]” one of the customers said, “[As soon as I wear a kimono, my boobs come out.]” She didn’t actually provide words, but sound effects to describe breasts bulging through a kimono.

Colin joined us wearing jimbei, which look like Japanese old man pajamas, and we all headed toward the float on the main street. It was two stories high and had two long, thick ropes stretched in front of it for when we would pull it through the streets. On the second story were two life-sized dolls of a man and a woman, and I never figured out what their deal was, besides that Hiromi’s dad painted their faces. It was nearly dusk, and a crowd had clustered by the float waiting for the events to begin. Soon, we heard chanting in the distance. We looked down the main street, as the chanting and footsteps in unison became louder. Then the rows of men appeared trotting down the street, and climbed on the float. They began pounding on the big taiko drum and a few men played flutes, while the rest lead the crowd in chants. One man offered ladles of sake to onlookers. I actually thought it was water before I put it in my mouth, but alcohol is always a pleasant surprise. Then everyone began to take up some rope.

One man gave the signal, and we started to pull, all the while chanting “Yoisa! Yoisa! Yoisa!” We jogged down the street to the tempo set by the drum with the rope in our hands, stopping at pre-designated areas where people would come out of their houses to revel with us, then take up their own bit of rope when pulling time came. People would send their sons up the ladder to the second story of the float where one of the float guys would take care of them. Honestly, the float looked really, really fun, but only men are allowed on it because women would probably have their period all over it or something. It’s funny, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different religions now, but the common denominator in most of them seems to be the belief that women are inherently tainted.

Eventually we got tired of pulling the float around and let others take our place on the rope. We had dinner and drinks at one of our main Shi-town haunts. I got a delightful cell phone call that was only delightful because I felt it vibrating against my abdomen from where I’d tucked it into my obi. (Sidenote: When you wear kimono, you can either keep things in your sleeves or tucked into your obi. The word for cell phone in Japanese is keitai denwa, which literally means “portable obi phone”.) We walked around a bit, Colin saw many of his students, and I saw only a few of mine. I ran into the Kita girls all looking older and wearing yukata. We took a picture together and I told them about how I was leaving in two days. Later that night I saw the Kita parents, and I didn’t make myself known. I looked at them and wondered if I should say something, then they dissipated into the crowd and out of my life forever.

At 10:30, they carried the dolls down to the street and acted out killing them in order to release their spirits.

Yeah, I don’t know.

By the end of the night, I’d said a few teary goodbyes, and the following forty-eight hours disappeared largely in reflective seclusion as I tried to fit my life into two suitcases. Then I was at the Saga bus terminal waiting for my ride to the airport, and Colin was walking away. The thing about those goodbyes you say before air travel is, at least for me, there’s always the secret fear that one of us will die before we meet again. That’s why that goodbye is always more than “See you in two weeks” or “See you next Christmas”. I try to push the thoughts out of my head that that could be the last goodbye.

I know it’s cliché to say so, but for the past few years life has been full of goodbyes, and they don’t get any easier. Maybe it’s better to regard everything as being more transient—people, homes, families. They all go away. I don’t know if I can take these kinds of goodbyes every couple years. They’re always filled with regrets and missed opportunities. I didn’t even finish everything I was going to write as an expat in Japan. I’m no longer an island of gaijin among rice paddies, and I no longer have the authority to advise the new-comers not to use the term “gaijin” around Japanese people. I guess I’ll just conclude this chapter with some randomness.

Some things I’ll miss:
Karaoke, impeccable service, secret shrines, matsuri, beautiful nature in bite-sized portions, ramen, daiko, being considered devastatingly interesting, vending machines every ten feet, 7-11 onigiri.

And a confession to every Japanese home and small office I set foot in (including my work place):

I never wore the toilet slippers. If your bathrooms hadn’t been so immaculately clean in the first place, I would have considered it. So for the past two years, I’ve been tracking my pee feet all over your floors. Sorry.


Blogger Amanda said...

YAY! What a wonderful way to end your gaijin blog! I love it, it makes me happy and sad too, but I love that I get to see you more now! And I love the pictures, but more than anything, I love that you confessed to your pee tracking!!!

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an extraordinary piece of work (your entire "Gaijin" series)! Too long for a short story, too short for a novel--maybe a memoirette? (my neologism)
It deserves publication. As Mandi says, "Yay...wonderful...happy and sad,too..." I laughed, I cried, I tracked pee.
Looking forward to dinner with you all soon!

11:14 PM  
Blogger Defendership said...

That's okay - I actually physically peed all over your tatami, so I think we're even.

1:55 PM  

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