Friday, July 26, 2019

Adventures in Leaving the House: Undiscovered Country

I work from home. I’ll never complain because there are more advantages to that arrangement than I can even count, but there is one down-side: I don’t get out much. So on those occasions where I do leave the house to visit people or get away for the weekend or pick up a loaf of bread, it opens the door for

AUTHOR’S NOTE: You may recall that this is the 20th anniversary of my year in Japan. The following (lightly edited) dispatch is from almost exactly 20 years ago today.

I’ve been down-right ornery the last few weeks. A lot of it had to do with my wondrous time in Hokkaido and the poverty that ensued but I was shocked to discover that even after pay day, my pissiness didn’t fully subside.

I finally put my finger on it last week: Things started going sour when I traveled to a nearby school to help out for the day and encountered the most hideous woman.  It was 45 minutes of just me and the rudest, most passive-aggressive student I’ve ever had by a long shot. She had extensive knowledge of English and the school’s system – enough to make her very difficult to handle. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone push my buttons the way she did, and I snapped. No, I didn’t lose my composure, though I did break my pen in my hand from squeezing it too hard. Instead, I sped up my speaking and used increasingly obscure vernacular to help remind her who was the native speaker in the room.

When I was asked an hour before my start time the next day if I would return to that school, I politely refused. Hell, anyone from my school could’ve gone, and I was being asked. The head teacher didn’t quite see it that way and gave me a bunch of grief. I was livid. The one time I’ve said no to management… Time for a breather.

So I ran away from home the next morning. It was my weekend and I didn’t have to be anywhere in particular. I wasn’t even sure exactly where I was going, I just packed up a bag, kidnapped my roommate’s copy of Lonely Planet, and took off.

My first thought was to go to Chichibu National Park, a giant wilderness wonderland, but en-route, changed my mind. There was an area south of Chichibu that featured stalactite caves, which sounded really cool. So instead I got off the train at Mitake station, which is exactly nowhere.

The loveliest nowhere I’ve ever seen.  I felt ten times better just being there, looking out to the misty mountains and listening to the water rushing through the gorge below. I grabbed some maps at the tourist office and started walking in the direction of the nearby youth hostel.  Funny thing about maps in this part of the woods... none of them are to scale. After walking about an hour, I began to suspect that maybe – just maybe – I was... er... “disoriented.”

So I strolled over to an auto shop to ask for directions. Really, all I wanted them to do was point the way. They wouldn’t. Instead, the receptionist took me into the back office, where two men were talking. The older one, probably in his 60s, took one look at me and said in nearly-perfect English, “How can we help you?” They offered me a seat and gave me some iced tea. I told them that I was looking for the ropeway to Mt. Mitake (the youth hostel was next to the ropeway at the top). They asked me about where I was staying, and when I told them I’d probably stay at a youth hostel, the younger man (the owner of the auto shop) had the receptionist make reservations for me at an inn. We chatted for a while, mostly the older man and myself. Turns out he’s a retired Delta pilot who’s been pretty much everywhere in the world.

“Where are ya from?”

“The States.”

“Yeah, of course the ‘States.” That response was a first for me. “Where in the States.”

“Connecticut.” I was about to add that it was near New York City, slipping into teaching mode. I didn’t have the chance.

“Oh, near Hartford?”

I was shocked. “Yeah...”

"Yeah, Bradley Airport. Whaza matter, you looked surprised?"

“Well, it’s just that not many of my students have heard of Connecticut, let alone Hartford. It’s not -”


What the hell? It was like he was reading my mind.  “A common tourist destination,” I finished. He laughed. He ended up driving me to the ropeway, saving me another hour of walking. A great guy.

And the inn... simply amazing. It was a traditional Japanese inn with the most amazing view of the mountains and Tokyo in the distance. A quiet place, the kind with a certain old coziness to it that I immediately loved.


The inn was run by a couple in their 30s, and as far as I could tell, I was the only tenant for the evening. The wife could speak some English, so I arranged to have a Japanese bath and then dinner. The bath was very soothing, and the dinner! Tempura, sushimi, baked fish, bamboo rice, mushroom stew, miso soup… the food kept coming and coming.

After dinner, I was invited to join the couple and their three young kids (ages two through six) for hanabi: summer fireworks. We spent a good hour lighting off the biggest sparklers you’ve ever seen. These would never be allowed in the U.S. – some dumbass kid would burn his eyebrows off and there’d be a huge national scandal, probably even pass a Constitutional amendment. When the fireworks were finished, I was left alone with the kids.

The girl, only about four years old, started in first. “Scotusan!”

I squatted down to her level. “Nani? (What?)”

She pointed to my eyebrow, and then gave it a yank. This gave the two-year-old the courage to approach me. He marched right up to me, grabbed my cheeks in both of his tiny hands, and pulled. I spent the next hour or so being accosted by these two kids. They tugged every bit of my face, we played catch, I did dinosaur impersonations... it was absolutely wonderful.

Over breakfast the next morning, it occurred to me that I could go back to Kita Urawa immediately after breakfast, and the trip would have been worth it. I didn’t, of course. I went to the stalactite caves instead, which were very cool and nowhere near as memorable, but that’s not important. What was important is that I remembered why I came to Japan: Not for the money, not for the job, but for the adventures.



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