At the end of February, I headed out of The Village to meet up with Thistle, Dixie and the rest of the Numazu crowd for the first time in months for one of two consecutive birthday parties. But immediately prior to getting on the bus for the long journey to Shuzenji, I made the mistake of drinking about a litre of Coke.
Twenty minutes out of The Village, in the midst of a vast swath of Nowhere, surrounded by nothing but hills on one side and the descent to the ocean on the other, I realized I was going to have to get off the bus and make a beeline for the nearest bathroom. I rang the bell as a café came into sight, then rushed off the bus and pulled on the door to find that the place was closed.
Seeing no other option, I headed down around the building toward the bay in the hopes of finding a convenient tree behind which to conceal myself. Just as I came upon a shed that looked like it would provide sufficient cover, a voice from up the hill stopped me in my surreptitious tracks.
A man leaned over the balcony above the café and asked me what I was doing.
I told him I was looking for a washroom and prayed that he would not draw the immediate conclusion that I was about to pee in his back yard.
“There’s no washroom down there.”
“Ah, yes… I’d noticed that. Um… where would the nearest one be, then?” I hoped he might have the good grace to unlock the café.
“Over there at the Daruma.”
No such luck.
“Ah. Thank you.”
I trudged back up the hill trying not to look completely mortified and hobbled about a hundred yards along the road to the speck of a tourist stop that marks Japan’s Biggest Daruma.
A Daruma is a sculpture based on some legendary monk—presumably named Daruma—who, if I understand correctly, reputedly sat in cross-legged meditation for so long that his legs fell off. Over time, this has somehow led to a tradition whereby people buy little quasi-pyramidal Daruma effigies and make a wish as they paint in one of his eyes. If the wish comes true, they paint in the other eye. The result is that you’ll find a one-eyed Daruma collecting dust on a shelf in just about every house and restaurant in Japan.
The building housing the Daruma itself was closed, but the automatic lights leading to the washroom were fully operational even in mid-afternoon, and they very clearly illuminated the way to a door that was very sadly locked.
To this day, I have never actually seen Japan’s Biggest Daruma. But I have peed in the woods behind it.
I now found myself with the problem that the next bus didn’t come for an hour. It was about five kilometres to the next town, and while it had initially seemed a reasonable idea to walk toward it and let the bus catch up with me on the way, as the sun set and I became increasingly aware of the fact that it was just me, the hillside, the bay, and the lights of the mainland some 20 kilometres away, I started to get a little worried. I checked a bus stop and found that, via some unforeseen warping of time and space, the next bus didn’t come for another hour and a half. I’d been casually experimenting with sticking my thumb out as cars drove past, but as darkness settled in and I realized there wasn’t a single street light on my side of the bay, I started to stick my thumb out in earnest.
This is how I ended up hitchhiking for the first time in my life.
To my surprise, it wasn’t long before a van pulled over and a lady stuck out her head to ask where I was going, and I soon found myself indebted to a young family who’d just come from a cherry blossom festival on the other side of the peninsula. Their three-year-old son immediately came to the back and started to climb me, and although I tried to allay any fears they might have by explaining that I was an elementary school teacher, it seemed to be entirely unnecessary. People in rural Japan just take the safety of their children for granted. I regularly encounter five-year-olds riding their bikes around town on their own.
I spent the next hour having my cheeks, nose, ears and beard pulled in every possible direction while the family’s five-year-old daughter displayed the surprising amount of English she’d learned.
So, despite having called ahead to say I’d be an hour late, I arrived at the station dead on time, dropped off right where everyone else was waiting. It was just too bad I’d already paid the full fare at the terminal before I got on the bus.
Socks was the main topic of conversation that night, though he never deigned to make a personal appearance. He’d given me a call on the bus to tell me that he wouldn’t be coming as planned, but was instead on his way to adjacent Yamanashi Prefecture with a girl he’d just met at the JET Leaver’s Conference. They’d gotten together over coffee one day, and when he made the mistake of explaining the outcome to Thistle before karaoke, she decided to modify the Offspring lyrics “Give it to me baby” to something more apropos:
“Snoggin’ after coffee—uh-huh, uh-huh.
Yamanashi after coffee—uh-huh, uh-huh.”
I spent much of the party freaking out about what I’d do if I lost my only friend to some girl in another prefecture, and most everyone else spent their time emptying the open bar.
Lacking anywhere else to stay, I ended up following Thistle to a friend’s place in Fuji City that night, catching the sleeper train from Mishima around 1:00 a.m. while Thistle continued to sing “Snoggin’ after coffee—uh-huh, uh-huh” with unabated enthusiasm. When a sleepy Japanese guy got up from his seat and asked us all to be quiet, Thistle took this to mean that she should continue singing at a slightly lower volume.
As I sat up from my borrowed futon around 10:00 the next morning, the first thing I heard was a rather gurgly version of Thistle’s Scottish brogue somewhere to my left:
“No clothes. No glasses. No toothbrush… This wasn’t a good idea.”
It was fantastic to step out of the apartment and immediately find Mt. Fuji dominating the entire horizon. It’s just too bad the town smells so bloody awful that you don’t want to go outside.
The day was thereafter spent in preparation for another birthday party, into which I was blithely pulled by friendly momentum as I tried to ignore the state of the single set of clothing I’d brought to wear. Socks made it back from Yamanashi in time for dinner and much grilling from everyone, and we then went out in torrential rain for the birthday girl’s movie of choice: The Two Towers!
Sitting in the theatre for three hours, I quietly hoped that the unpleasant odour I detected did not emanate from me. Socks expressed the same concern. It was quite a stinky pair indeed who made their groggy way back to The Village early the next afternoon.
On Monday, the family that gave me a lift to Numazu called my BOE to find out where to mail the sunglasses I’d dropped in their car.
Between one thing and another, I hadn’t seen my neighbours, the K.s, since around the end of September. Figuring it would be a fair way to ease the awkwardness of my long absence, I bought a Sapporo Hello Kitty for Miki while I was on my ski trip up north. But when I started looking out for them in the latter half of the Christmas break, I noticed that their lights were never on. This continued for more than a month.
My guilt over not having visited was gradually replaced by a growing concern that they’d simply disappeared. I finally asked their nephew, one of my grade 2 students, if he knew where they’d gone. He didn’t seem to know anything about it, and a few days later he came back to me and said that he hadn’t been able to find them either.
On my way home night in the middle of February, I spotted their lights on. I extracted out the Hello Kitty from the closet and headed over.
I’m not entirely clear on the details, but as I understand it, it seems that Miki had an unsettling fight with her father sometime in November, and she and Nuki promptly took off to Mishima for three months. They later realized that her father had, in fact, had a stroke that had affected his personality, but then he caught a cold and died, and they’d just returned for the funeral.
When I visited a few weeks later to show them all the things I’d done in their absence, they asked about my plans for the spring break. They recommended that I go to an onsen (spa), and further recommended that I get a digital camera to take along wherever I went. Miki was deeply regretful that she’d missed my “very important” 24th birthday on the first of December—flooring me by remembering both my age and birth date better than I did—and to this end, they gave me a little envelope that they told me to open when I got home.
For my birthday, they decided to give me ¥50,000. That’s over $600. I woke up my friend Alicia in Shimoda at 11:45 p.m. because I simply had to tell somebody what had happened.
Then two weeks later, they gave me ¥5000 of snacks in thanks for the copies of the Halloween and Christmas books I’d made them. As you might guess, they don’t have kids.
Sadly, despite the K.s’ generous donations, I didn’t actually go anywhere or do anything over spring break. Instead, I spent nearly the entire two weeks teaching myself Dreamweaver so I could take all my drawings, games and lesson plans from the last year and throw them into a browsable format I could burn onto a CD-ROM. It was productive, but when school resumed and people started asking me what I did over the break, I was ashamed that my truthful answer was so fundamentally boring.
Never try to drive thirty minutes through the woods in the dark on a rainy night when your windshield wipers are broken. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad idea.