Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 3

Series links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5Part 6
This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 3: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese

Within days of my arrival my Wife was about ready to send me back. I was absolutely petrified, afraid to speak even the rudimentary Japanese I needed to order at food stands and restaurants. Having grown up in the suburbs of St. Louis Missouri I hadn’t even left the country until I went to college and crossed the border to see bands in Tijuana Mexico. 25 years later it’s hard for me to describe the vertigo I felt as I explored Japan. Everything was different except for the presence of my Wife, and I was so desperate for familiarity that I smothered her. I was 25 years old but incredibly naive and “green” about the world. I had thought traveling in the United States and living and attending school away from home in California had prepared me for life abroad, but it hadn’t.

Although I had been sober for three years I took to drinking and found “courage in a bottle.” The Japanese are heavy consumers of alcohol and the “beer machines” outside liquor stores stocked with Asahi Super Dry, sake and even whisky became my first “Japanese friends.” After the Wife returned from a trip out of town, her friends told her about the numerous empty Kirin beer bottles I had kept by the door, disposing of them a few hours before her return. Alcohol would be a factor in my life for the next 8 years.

Morning Voices – Kyoto Fall 1993

I lay in the futon in a half awake state. I open my eyes and look at the curtained sliding glass doors and see only darkness behind them. I hear the clickety-clack of the Keifuku trolley nearby as it cuts through the cold dawn air. It begins its run at 5:30am and the darkness alerts me that I have only a few brief hours of sleep left. Beside me my wife’s rhythmic breathing and her warmth entice me to snuggle close to her and I quickly fall back asleep.

Soon she is awake and making coffee for us in the kitchen of our 3 room apartment: a living area, a bedroom and a dining/kitchen known as a 2DK. I begin to stir when I hear men singing outside. A chorus of middle C followed by C sharp sung by a different group. The song is faint, but it grows slowly in intensity. I notice that the different groups of voices act in opposition, but occasionally mix together. I brave the cold bedroom air and throw on sweatpants and a sweatshirt, open the sliding doors and step onto the balcony three floors above the narrow street.

Video I shot of the monks from my balcony.

I look down the street as the sun rises over the eastern mountains of Kyoto. Uzumasa, our neighborhood, is bustling already at this early hour. Two old women, backs bent at angles perilously approaching 90 degrees attend to the street outside their homes, sweeping it with straw brooms. The whisk-whisk sound they make on the asphalt adds percussion accompaniment to the men’s chorus.

One by one the Buddhist monks appear, dressed in black cotton cloaks and white linen trousers bunched up into their white knee-high boots, topped by wide-brimmed straw hats which hide their faces and serve as a primitive amplifier for their voices. They walk briskly in two groups of ten spaced a few feet apart on both sides of the road, their arms held before them, palms together in prayer with fingers straight except for their index fingers which are folded together.

The brooms stop as the old ladies bow deeply to the monks, somehow managing to avoid falling over. After they bow a monk stops and stands before the ladies and they deposit coins into a cloth sack around his neck. He bows deeply in gratitude before rejoining the group.

They continue down the street at a brusque pace. Each monk stops before a doorway of a house, sings briefly and, if a housewife fails to appear with a donation, he bows deeply and moves to the next house. I stand for a few minutes in the cold, leaning over the balcony and watching the monks as they work their way down the street, the chorus fading until it blends with the everyday sounds of the neighborhood.

After I return inside and rejoin the wife for coffee we hear another man’s voice, this time distorted by a loudspeaker mounted on a recycling truck. As the small truck putters slowly down the street people bring out their old newspaper and comic books – some as thick as telephone books – for recycling. Although the tape recorded voice is incomprehensible to me I have grown accustomed to it. It differs from the recycling truck of our old neighborhood across the city. Every morning that truck would awaken us with a recording of a woman’s voice warbling “konnichiwa” followed by a request for paper overlayed on a background of organ music. In Osaka I have heard a paper recycling truck using a man’s voice on a background of incoming artillery shells. I found that particular truck interesting considering that the neighborhood it collected from had been flattened by American bombs during World War 2.

This is video of the second recycling truck described in the paragraph above. The Internet never ceases to amaze…

A few minutes pass and I grudgingly leave the warm bath area and step out into the cold air of the bathroom. Central heating and cooling is rare in this part of Japan, even though we are at the same latitude as North Carolina. As I towel off I can clearly see my breath before me and the steam rising from my body. I pad down the hallway, my skin numb from the shock of the cold, and step onto the tatami matted floor of the bedroom.

As I dress I hear a faint sound outside which gradually intensifies into a woman’s voice shouting two clipped syllables answered by a chorus of children’s voices. It reminds of a chant one might hear in a military-style bootcamp although devoid of all masculinity. I throw open the sliding door and take advantage of my stunned skin to weather the cold.

I see two lines of six year old children jogging somewhat in unison, all wearing yellow caps, red shorts, shoes of various colors and nothing else, following their athletic-suited teachers. Although it around freezing temperature the children seem oblivious to the cold. I am told that such exercises are common in elementary and junior high school to build group identity and individual fortitude. The chant rises and falls as the lines of 60 or so children pass beneath our balcony. At the end of the lines I notice the children seem to be playing with other more than running and chanting in unison. Another teacher dressed in shorts and a thin white blouse chides them and corrals them onward.

It is time for us to join the morning’s activities, my wife to the lab at the university and me to the office in downtown Kyoto.

On my way in I walk passed a pachinko parlor. Imagine taping all the sounds of all the video games ever made. Add to it all the sounds of a pinball arcade and the flat tones of a touch tone telephone. Speed up the tape to 3x normal. Add the amplified chanting of a carnival barker and garnish with the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip, then cram it all into a building the size of a 7-11 and you have a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a game of upright pinball in which people purchase steel marble-sized balls, load them into the machine and shoot them to the top where they cascade down, hitting pins and targets along the way. Some targets release more balls into the loading tray and the fortunate end up with more balls than they purchased. These can then be exchanged for prizes such as food or cheap electronics or for a receipt which the winner can redeem for cash at a small kiosk located near the parlor, thereby getting around the laws prohibiting gambling in Japan. The lucky few can win several hundred dollars in a few hours. The not so lucky can lose those sums in minutes. The din of the machines, electronic music and announcements bursts out of the parlor whenever the sliding doors open.

At the office I slide open a window to let in some air. Behind the office building there is a small cemetery. Stone monuments composed of 3 stacked marble slabs stacked pyramid-like are engraved with the funerary names of those whose ashes are interred beneath the base. Behind the grave stones are metal racks which hold long thin wooden stakes painted with the “death names” of the deceased, dates and short prayers. Each year on the anniversary of the death a small ceremony is held and the family places another stake into the rack. Most of the graves contain several of the stakes with the newer stakes light tan with dark black Japanese kanji and the older various shades of gray. Today a cold drizzle-laden wind blows and the prayer stakes rattle, a chattering which sounds like the murmuring of a large crowd of people outside of the office, building to a the sounds of applause with the rising of the wind. At other times on windless days the prayer stakes sound like soft tapping at the office window, a gentle reminder that the dead are still there.