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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stranger In A Strange Land

Despite the title, let me start by saying that Japan isn’t strange. It’s just strange to me.
After Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san left me alone, I walked over to the telephone and called home – giving them the spiel you have read in the past blog entries.
I then called Ashley – not in yet.
Hanging up, I opened up all of the doors and windows and strolled out onto my north balcony. As a stranger in a strange land with none of my family or long-time friends here, the newness of it all began to excite me. And then the doorbell rang.
Just to be safe, I glanced through the eyehole and saw the fisheyed visage of Kanemaru-san trying to peer in at me.
“Ah so desu,” he said. “Do-nu-stahs, pulizu.” (Uh, downstairs, please… but then you probably figured that out, too.)
Kanemaru-san, Hanazaki-san and the other guy (man, I really am going to have to start paying more attention) walked me down the stairs to a restaurant located on the main floor of the apartment complex. I am unsure of its name (really, really gotta start paying attention) – it might have been the Happy Sumo.
As we walked through the entranceway – the entrance had a thick cloth fabric hanging down over the doorway that we had to part and duck our heads to enter – everyone inside yelled at us: “Irasshaimase" meaning ‘please come in’ or ‘welcome’. Immediately we were led to a table by a plump, smiling, elderly woman who said something about “gaijin” (outsider/foreigner) to Hanazaki-san. He shook his head no, and we were taken to our table.
The word gaijin is one all foreigners/visitors learn very quickly. While not meant as an insult, it does show the need of the Japanese to separate themselves from others. Wherever you are located, gentle reader, can you imagine talking to a friend and seeing someone different from you and then pointing and talking out loud about the foreigner/outsider. “Hey, Jimmy! Is that a foreigner?” That’s kind of what most visitors to Japan go through on a daily basis.
My experience wasn’t bad, however. More often than not, I was called gaijin-san. They called me Mr. Foreigner. Now that’s respect.
The very low table sat on a tatami (grass) mat and had pillows strewn upon the floor for us to sit. First, however, we had to remove our shoes.
For Kanemaru-san and myself, going shoeless was the biggest mistake that restaurant ever made. If you will recall, I had been sitting in a bus and van and sweating for hours.
I sat cross-legged on the cushions and was handed a menu that contained pictures of the food (most restaurants here tend to offer a menu like that – very helpful).
Asked if I wanted beer or sake, I recalled my father’s warning and chose a beer. Stick with what you know, I always say. The irony of it all hit me 19 years later.
From out of the blue, a voice spoke out: “Hey, Andrew, you gaijin! How are you?”
I turned around and looked into the grinning visage of Matthew Hall – who in the decades I have known him has never lost that smile. The giant redhead (6’-4”, 180-lbs) Howdy-Doody/Richie Cunningham look-a-like (Oh! He’s gonna kill me for that one!) smiled and said he also lived here in Ohtawara but that he would teach junior high in all of the small hamlets outside of Ohtawara. Cool. An English-speaking friend and neighbour.
At least I was now able to figure out that the restaurant lady was asking if we wanted to sit with the other gaijin party.
And because you are interested, Ashley was to teach mainly at the Ohtawara Boy’s High School with occasional visits to the Girl’s High School. She lived in Nishinasuno a small town immediately to the north and west of Ohtawara. Cool. An English-speaking girlfriend.
After a lot of drinking and some eating, my supervisors bade me goodnight with the promise that they would be by at 7:30AM to take me to the office.
I walked into my apartment, closed the door and took the whiz to end all whizzes. Finally! No, I didn’t wear the bathroom slippers.
So there I was. Alone in my quiet, clean apartment standing with my eyes wide open in twinkling awe.
Now, if I could only figure out how to cook, clean, do laundry, iron, shop for food, teach English and speak the language, this culture shock might be easy to handle. Either that, or it’s my one-way ticket to a sanitarium.

Somewhere trying on a white suit with the arms tied around the back,
Today's title is by Iron Maiden.


  1. A Howdy-Doody/Richie Cunningham lookalike teaching in the surrounding hamlets???? Grrr!!! Time to hurt someone with my ol' shotgun! :-P

  2. And THAT'S why Matthew is one of my favourite people on the planet! He was always there for me in Japan - and he's still here for me now. Thank goodness he won't go away. I'll post a real photo of Matthew soon. He really is a handsome guy - for a gaijin!

  3. Nice picture (from Zuiko Heitsu?). The view has not changed too much...just more signage. But Nasu-san is still impressively standing! See here: