Attack of the Killer Sumo Bee and Other Japan Adventures

Hanging in Kyoto with the Geishas

My first visit to Japan was in November, 2007. As a psychology professor with a research interest in how at-risk populations deal with the threat posed by natural disasters, I was attending the international Cities on Volcanoes conference in Shimabara on the island of Kyushu. I’d decided to mix business with pleasure, planning to see a bit of the country before and after the conference and my first stop was Kyoto.

The flight from San Francisco took 12 hours, and upon landing I easily found the train from the airport to the city of Nagoya and from there switched trains for Kyoto. I would be such a good contestant on TV’s The Amazing Race!  After some walking and a short taxi ride, I found my way to my hotel, cursing the fact that my luggage was too heavy and that I also had to carry a four-foot-long, laminated poster for the conference in a canister over my shoulder, desperately trying not to hit innocent people with it as I made my way through crowded train stations and streets.

Other than a few important words like sushi, sashimi, tempura and tsunami, I do not speak Japanese, and despite being a very well-seasoned world traveler, I found that language was going to be an issue, even in such a heavily touristed city as Kyoto. Finding my first dinner was rough; none of the restaurants I found had an English menu, and even the ones in Japanese didn’t list prices, which made me nervous. I was also turned away from several places because it was too late – 8:30 PM – and they were closing. Finally, I found a place called Omen, which evidently has a sister restaurant in New York City. There was an English menu and I ordered a very reasonably priced, fixed menu which included sea bream sushi, vegetable tempura, deep fried lotus root balls, turnip in miso sauce, deep fried sweet potatoes in a crab sauce, udon noodles, and a broth with all kinds of fresh, but unidentifiable vegetables. It was all delicious, but I had NO idea how I was supposed to eat various things. At one point I motioned to a nearby patron, asking her in mime-like fashion if I was supposed to be putting my noodles into the broth with all the veggies. She gave me the “OK” sign, so either she was telling me I was correct, or she was saying “Do whatever you like, crazy man!”  I’ll never know which. As I was finishing dinner, a tsunami of jet lag and fatigue overwhelmed me, so I headed back for the hotel, eagerly anticipating further exploration in the morning.

On a sunny, but brisk Fall morning I set out from my hotel to the Gion district on a bus that took forever to get there. I could easily have out-walked it in many places because of the dense traffic. As the guidebooks predicted, the Gion is an area frequented by many white-faced Geisha, traditional female entertainers and hostesses who perform in clubs and theaters; Kyoto is where this tradition originated. Almost immediately I came upon a group of professional photographers who were taking pictures of three geishas dressed in amazingly colorful kimonos. I tried to unobtrusively sneak a couple of photos, but wasn’t able to get any good shots. As they started to pack up, a bystander who’d evidently been watching me trying to take a photo came over to me. In heavily accented English he asked if I wanted to have my photo taken with the geisha. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to bother the group, but this sweet little man went over and started talking with them and in a flash my new friend was choreographing poses of me standing with the three geishas and snapping a number of shots with my camera. Once the group left the man and I chatted awhile, and he told me that his son is studying economics at the University of Michigan. He then shook my hand vigorously and said, “Japan and America – we are good friends! God speed!” As he walked away, he turned and waved vigorously several times and as I continued walking along a small river under trees bursting with fall color and feeling chilled from the autumn air, I was nevertheless warmed by thoughts of such generous hospitality and friendliness.

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

I then climbed to a famous hilltop temple called Kiyomizu, which is painted a wonderful, deep shade of orange and looked almost camouflaged amidst the fall foliage. From the temple there were panoramic views over the city and the streets leading to the temple were lined with shops, most of which were making and selling food products and giving away free samples. There were delicious candies called nama yatsuhashi, which looked like uncooked ravioli and were stuffed with chocolate, cinnamon, and flavored bean paste. Another place gave out green tea samples, while others had several kinds of pickled vegetables to try. I stopped at one shop and ordered a giant fritter on a stick, filled with pumpkin, sweet potato and carrot, three of my favorite vegetables and all in my favorite color. I also stuffed myself with a bun filled with sweet pumpkin paste and herbs that was delicious as well. I pretty much just ate my way down the street, not unlike Godzilla plundering a small Japanese village in a bad 1950s movie.

I then burned off a few calories and headed across town to see Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Temple, a three story Zen Buddhist shrine that is covered in gold leaf from top to bottom. There were hundreds of people there, but the walk through the red and gold trees along the shore of a pond and the view of this magnificent temple reflected in the water was completely calming and serene. What a breath-taking place!

The Golden Temple

As a social psychologist and someone who likes to try and have at least a basic understanding of the culture in places I visit, I’d read a lot about Japanese etiquette and customs before I left home. I learned that perhaps the worst thing one can do is to blow his or her nose in public. My guidebook stated: “Among the faux pas that are considered nearly unpardonable, the worst is perhaps blowing your nose“.  In another place it said, “Never blow your nose in public. Seriously.”  After only a couple of days in the country, I decided that this is one cultural norm I’d like to change! People beside me on planes and trains sniffled and snorted and made sounds that, at least in this humble American’s opinion, were far more disturbing to me than a good, solid nose blow! Another somewhat related practice is that large numbers of people wear surgical masks over their faces; you can’t walk a block here without seeing at least a couple people who look as if they just finished performing surgery! I had mistakenly attributed this to some sort of germ phobia amongst the Japanese, but eventually discovered that on the contrary, people who are sick are being considerate to those around them by trying to protect them from their own germs! What a refreshingly altruistic idea!

Also, unlike my beloved Italy where there is no such concept as waiting in line for anything, here in Japan there is absolutely no pushing, no jockeying for position. Everyone boards the bus or train in the order in which they’d lined up. It just amazes me. This politeness is also reflected in the custom of bowing. The train official who checks your tickets walks through your car and as he leaves, he turns and makes a full bow to the passengers before proceeding to the next car. People on the street do quick little bows as you pass them, and I have endeavored to return the gesture. Sometimes it is fun to initiate the bow, because the person you are passing reflexively has to bow back. Ah, the power of social influence!

My next destination was the famous city of Hiroshima, and on the train ride from Kyoto an elderly gentleman shyly approached me and wanted to know where I was from. That began an extremely long conversation in which we chatted about Social Psychology, Faulkner novels, the American Civil War, and World War II. Of course, the last topic was more than a little awkward given that we were bound for Hiroshima, site of the first atomic bomb blast in 1945.  However, my new friend surprised me when, with a constant, easy-going smile, he insisted that although he thought Japan “deserved” to be hit with the A-Bomb to stop the war, he felt that the American Air Force had really “gone too far” when they firebombed Tokyo! This reminded me of a story by my friend Gilles in France who’d told me about an experience he’d had while working in Germany. He was on a tour of Frankfurt and the tour guide was lamenting the fact that all the wonderful old buildings of the city had been blown up by the Allies during the war. Gilles listened patiently for a bit, and then casually interjected, “Well, if you guys weren’t trying to take over the whole world and weren’t pissing everyone off, we wouldn’t have had to bomb Frankfurt, now would we?”

I reached Hiroshima just as it was getting dark, and was taken by surprise by how much colder it was here than in Kyoto. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to go to the Atomic Bomb Museum, but I took the street car and rode to the “A-Bomb Dome”, which sounds like a sports stadium with a very twisted name, but is actually the wreckage of the only building still standing after the atomic bomb leveled the city. It was dark, but the ruins are floodlit and surrounded by a lush and beautiful park along the river. I sat on a bench there for awhile, getting teary-eyed thinking about what had happened here and all the hell of World War II that led up to this event. As often happens to me when I’m in Europe, I struggle to imagine the horrors that went on just 60 years ago and marvel at how people and nations are often able to heal those wounds and reach out to one another again in friendship.

The eerie skeleton of Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome

As I walked back toward my hotel, just a couple of blocks of the A Bomb Dome, I entered a pedestrian-only area that was lit up as if it were still daylight by neon signs and Christmas lights! Yes, Christmas appears to be a big deal here: “Merry Christmas!” banners were everywhere, with beautifully lit and decorated trees. It’s so strange. as you wouldn’t think it would be such a big event in a country where almost 80% of the people are either Buddhist or Shinto. Some streets were lit up like the Vegas Strip or New York’s Times Square. There was a street fair going on, with dozens of food booths and a very good rock band performing. Then I stumbled onto a troupe of drum players who put on a wonderfully energetic show. It was all such a jolting contrast. After having just sat in contemplative silence at the A Bomb Dome thinking about the thousands of people who’d died there, now I was caught up in a festive environment that demonstrated just how alive and vital this city is.

From Hiroshima my next stop was Shimabara, which spreads precariously at the foot of the volcano Mt. Unzen, and was the host city for my conference. An eruption here in 1993 killed about 40 people, and laid waste to large areas close to the summit. In fact, the arena in which the conference was being held is built atop the volcanic debris flow. Certainly a dramatic, and rather ironic backdrop to a volcano conference!

My hotel was very pleasant, located on top of a hill at the waterfront and my room was on the 10th floor, with a nice view of the coast and some islands. This was a Japanese style hotel or Ryokan. My room was enormous but Spartan; the floor was covered in straw mats, and the only furniture was a futon, a long, low table with a tea set on it, and one seat cushion on the floor. The futon was placed directly on the floor and the housekeepers made up the bed for me each evening while I was at dinner. It was a little hard on me getting up and down off the floor, but otherwise it was quite comfortable. Unfortunately, the toilet seemed to have a leaky bowl, so the sound of running water was constant and couldn’t be fixed. At first it bothered me, but eventually I just pretended it was a small, trickling fountain and found it almost soothing!

After settling in, I then walked around what I thought was central Shimabara for over an hour, looking for a place to eat or for any of my conference colleagues. There was really not much to be found, and again, the couple of restaurants I passed had no English menu and no one who could speak English. Eventually, I was so tired and so hungry I decided to just go into a very small place not far from my hotel and take my chances. The husband and wife team running the place were very friendly, but spoke no English whatsoever. I was seated at a bar-like area surrounding the chef’s main station, so I could watch all the action as he cooked. I spent many uncomfortable moments trying to communicate about the menu, when finally, my host asked, “Sashimi?” At last, a menu item I knew, so I said “hai!” (yes!); he smiled with relief. He left his post and went over to a large pool with a fountain that I thought was just decorative, but suddenly he reached in and grabbed a live fish, about 10 inches long, and brought it back to the bar as it struggled and thrashed violently.  I had guessed what was coming, but before I had time to even react, he had chopped the head off the fish and within only 2 or 3 minutes placed a platter of uncomfortably fresh sashimi in front of me. I really enjoy eating sushi and sashimi, but the shock of seeing my appetizer killed in front of me made me a bit uneasy. However, my guilt over the slain fish, coupled with my desire not to offend, made me dig in and it really was quite tasty. I was just very thankful that I hadn’t ordered beef!

A koi pond or “pick your own dinner”?

My host then brought out a large instrument that looked like a calculator, typed something into it and showed it to me. It was an instant language translator, and the word “blowfish” was displayed as he pointed to my plate. I ended up following my sashimi with some “safe” and delicious shrimp and vegetable tempura, but after that they brought me a small dish of strange, brown, meaty looking things that he said was eel (at least that’s what I think he said). I ate them and smiled, though I honestly wasn’t a big fan. What helped immensely throughout all this was that I’d ordered a small pitcher of hot sake, Japanese rice wine, and after 3 small but potent glasses of that, I was almost ready to go catch and kill my own dinner! Before long a group of three Japanese men wearing badges from my conference appeared and sat next to me at the bar. They spoke no English at all, but they soon ordered sake and offered me some. I’d read in my guidebook that it’s a big offense to turn down an offer of a drink in Japan, so when in Shimabara, I did as the Shimabarans do. I gratefully accepted the drinks and left feeling quite jovial. It was a crazy evening, but one of those unforgettable experiences that make travel so rewarding.

After dinner I retreated to the onsen, an outdoor spa at the hotel. This became my nightly ritual, and it really is a ritual. In my room, I put on the very long and just barely wide enough kimono supplied by the hotel, and some way-too-small slippers that left one-third of my foot hanging off the back, and then I carefully shuffled down to the onsen. There you must strip naked, grab a plastic bucket and bowl and seat yourself in front of one several mini-showers, where shampoo and liquid soap are supplied. You are to be squeaky clean and other folks seem to glare at you if they think you’ve finished washing too quickly. Then you must take your “towel” – which is literally the size of a face cloth – place it over yourself in a modest, fig leaf-bearing pose, and walk to the pool. Baths are separate for the men and women, and everyone is nude. While bathing, the men wear their little facecloth on top of their head to keep it dry, but if they get out of the water to sit on a rock and cool down or are leaving, the facecloth is again used to cover the private parts. I was happy to follow any and all of these norms, because to me, being outside on a briskly cold night and soaking my bones in hot water is a little piece of Heaven.

The next day I went on a field trip sponsored by the conference to explore Mt. Unzen and the damage it caused in 1993. We saw both the lovely natural scenery that any volcanic area provides (think Hawaii or the Pacific Northwest), but also toured Pompeii-like ruins of buildings covered in ash or blown apart by powerful volcanic explosions. At one site, as we were donning our hard hats to walk through this area, the most amazing bug started to hover around our group. It was a bee, with classic black and yellow stripes and a huge stinger, but what got our attention was the sheer size of it: perhaps 4 to 5 inches long! This thing was huge! Its face seemed to be flat and it had markings that almost made it look like one of those bright yellow “Have a Nice Day” smiley face buttons! It was bizarre, and all I could think of was Mothra, the giant flying caterpillar from one of those low-budget 1950s Japanese monster movies. It tried to land in one man’s hair, diving with the sound of a small helicopter, and our tour guide looked alarmed. Everyone was screaming and ducking; I actually found it hilarious as long as it was far enough away from me! Finally, the monster backed off and flew away, but everyone was disheveled and agitated by now. I brought the house down when I exclaimed, “What was that? A Sumo Bee?” in reference to the gigantic sumo wrestlers that seem to always be on TV here. Later I wondered if “Bee-Zilla” would have been funnier. Anyway, it was fun to discover what really seemed to be an entirely new life form.

The highlight of the day for me was a visit to an elementary school. We got off the bus and as we walked to the auditorium where students were putting on a show for the conference attendees, we faced a reception line of at least 100 kids on either side of us. Each child greeted us and seemed to want to practice his or her English. With beaming grins, they shouted a hello instead of the Japanese “Konichiwa”, but invariably it sounded more like “Herro!”  They were absolutely adorable. With dozens of enthusiastic herros still ringing in my ears, I was lucky enough to score a front row seat for the show. The 3rd and 4th graders put on a play about the eruption of Unzen in 1993. First they acted out the eruption, aided by a slide presentation in the background showing footage of the event. Then one little girl played the “journalist”, and armed with a microphone as a prop, she interviewed kids dressed as townspeople about the aftermath of the eruption. She had it down, handling that mic like a pro. Katie Couric and Oprah have up and coming Japanese competition. Finally, the class joined together in a music concert, playing xylophones, flutes, giant drums – all quite well – and then they sang a song about the eruption and passed out the English lyrics so we could follow along. My favorite verse had to be this one: “I heard that the hot air came down to Kamiori Bridge and caused bad burns on the cows,          their breasts melted and their eyes popped out… I felt very sorry for the cows…”  It certainly painted a vivid picture! They should do a song about the attack of the Killer Sumo Bee!

After the show, the kids swarmed around us and wanted to shake and hold our hands. They seemed particularly fascinated with me, I guess because of my freckles and red hair. Several of them were just “petting” my hands and arms like I was an Irish setter. At one point I asked a colleague to take a picture of me with a few of the kids, and by the time I’d knelt beside them, a veritable tsunami of other children almost knocked me over, wanting to be in the picture too. It’s one of my most treasured photos.


As we returned to Shimabara we noticed many “Welcome Cities on Volcanoes!” posters and there was a veritable army of local people in lime green jackets stationed at the conference center, on shuttle buses, and on some city streets to help conference attendees if we had trouble. Most really didn’t speak English very well, but they made up for it with their boundless enthusiasm and desire to do whatever they could to help. My favorite was a girl I called “Raggedy Ann”, even though her name was Miyashi. She was probably 20 years old, her hair was dyed an odd shade of red, and she wore it in two thick pigtails on either side of her head. She urged me to attend the party that the locals were throwing on our behalf the following evening, and as the conference was winding down the next day I was eagerly anticipating this event.

There was great confusion regarding transportation from the conference center to the party, and the 6:00 PM shuttles were starting to depart before conference presenters could wind things up. The next round of shuttles would not depart until 8:00 PM, and for some reason, the staff refused to give us information about local buses. “Next shuttle at 8:00”, they repeated while we kept saying, “But that’s 2 hours from now!”  Suddenly, who appeared on the scene but Raggedy Ann, literally jumping up and down when she saw me. I enlisted her help and explained the bus situation to her and within two minutes she’d pulled some strings and gotten the shuttles to delay their departures until 6:30 so we could finish up our business. What a doll! A Raggedy Ann doll, of course! It’s great to have friends in high places.

The evening’s party was hosted by the mayor of Shimabara, and began at Shimabara Castle, a glimmering white fortress high on a hill and surrounded by a moat. Locals had cooked literally hundreds of platters of food for us, and it was all very good. There were crafts on display, and I had a very interesting time in the bonsai exhibit, talking to an 80-year-old man about his incredibly beautiful little trees that were almost as old as he was. My favorite was a tiny maple tree, maybe 9 inches tall, with brilliantly gold and orange leaves for the season. Other trees and shrubs had colorful fruits and berries in them. I would have loved to have been able to bring one home with me. I only saw a couple of my colleagues over the course of the evening, but the locals embraced me and fed me noodles and homemade soup while we watched drumming, Buddhist chanting, and dancing. And then, a tiny woman grabbed me by the hand and exclaimed, “You must help us make the mochi”!

“What is Mochi?” many of you may be asking, and I too was unsure. Let me quote that wonderful online resource that I forbid my students from using as a scholarly reference, Wikipedia for an explanation:  Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made of glutinous rice pounded into paste and molded into shape. While eaten year-round, mochi is a traditional food for the Japanese New Year and commonly sold and eaten at that time. Mochi is similar to the Chinese rice cake nian gao; however it is molded right after it is pounded, whereas nian gao is baked once again after to solidify the mixture as well as sanitize it.

I was almost dragged to the area in front of the stage where the Buddhist monks had just been chanting and was given a gigantic wooden sledge hammer. I was then instructed to pound a mushy, thick rice mixture as hard as I could in rhythm with a man beating on a drum. It was a little like making homemade ice cream in the old days when you had to crank the thing for hours to get the ice cream to harden. When my arms felt as if they’d fall off, they relieved me from that task, but my work was not done! I was led in the back to a kitchen-like area with long tables behind the stage. An older woman was kneading this huge, white, ugly mass of pounded rice and throwing flour over it. Without even having time or a place to wash my hands, I was told to flour my hands and start molding round balls of this stuff in an assembly-line like process that brought back the image of Lucy and Ethel in I Love Lucy, trying desperately to keep pace in the episode where they worked at a chocolate factory! Someone grabbed the camera off my shoulder and started taking my picture, as flour flew everywhere and I struggled to make my little balls even vaguely resemble those being made by the experts.              


A Manic Mochi-Making Moment

And then, the cruelest blow struck! A young man working across the table from me grinned and exclaimed, “Taste the mochi! Have one!” This was a dilemma, as I really didn’t want to have a taste. No one seemed to have washed their hands prior to joining the assembly line, the consistency of the little balls was disgusting, and the darned things were covered in raw flour! But also I didn’t want to offend my hosts in any way, as they were all so kind. At this point, let me again quote from WikipediaMochi is very sticky and somewhat tricky to eat. After each New Year, it is reported in the Japanese media how many people die from choking on mochi. The victims are usually elderly. Because it is so sticky, it is difficult to dislodge via the Heimlich maneuver. In the Japanese comedy film, “Tampopo”, a vacuum cleaner is used to suck it out (some lifesaving experts say that a vacuum cleaner is actually efficient for stuck mochi).                                                                         

I really wish I’d read that before I foolishly plopped this thing into my mouth. My mind raced back to another episode of I Love Lucy when Lucy took her first taste of the alcohol-based health tonic, “Vitameatavegemin.”  As soon as I put this thing in my mouth, I made a Lucy-esque face, but then valiantly tried to smile without gagging. With great difficulty, I managed to lodge the mochi ball into the pouch of my cheek, wondering where I could find a vacuum cleaner if I accidentally swallowed it. After a few excruciating minutes I excused myself, ran to the nearest dark alley, found a trashcan and spat it all out. If this is how they celebrate the New Year here, I will be sure that all of my December 31sts will be spent in Italy, France or the good old USA, sipping champagne and dining on some tasteful appetizers!

After the grueling process of mochi making and the trauma of mochi tasting, I tried to calm down at a tea house near the castle where the locals were introducing us to the traditional tea ceremony. There I saw good old Raggedy Ann again, and she insisted on getting a picture of us together, which started a trend as four or five elderly women then joined suit and wanted their pictures taken with me too. I don’t know if it was the novelty of my hair or what, but I was amazed that they would want their photo taken with a perfect stranger! Of course the Japanese are addicted to taking photos like no one else, and many of the Japanese folks at the conference even took photos of each and every presenters’ boring PowerPoint slides, so compared to that, I was model material I suppose!

It was a long, festive evening, but eventually I returned to the hotel and visited the onsen, from where I watched an almost-full moon and a blazing red Mars rising in the east. Back in my room, curled up on my futon and my seed-filled pillows, I realized that it was actually Thanksgiving morning back in the States. I had a momentary pang of loneliness, wishing I were back in New England with friends and family. What I wouldn’t have given at that moment for a big bite of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce to get the lingering taste of mochi out of my mouth!  But still, I fell asleep feeling completely thankful for the opportunity to visit this amazing place and meet so many of its charming people.

The next day I attended the conference’s closing ceremonies which were held in one of the great ballrooms at the hotel where I was staying. I can’t even tell you how big the room was, but it was hard to find your way from one end to the other, and everywhere there were tables heaped with nothing but sushi and sashimi of every size, shape and color, with lemons, ginger and wasabi garnishes. As 500 greedy conventioneers launched into the food with gusto, a children’s choir came in and after a multitude of “Herros!”, they sang with angelic voices. Beer and sake flowed like the water from a volcanic hot spring, and the party went on for two hours. I don’t know that I’ve eaten as much sushi cumulatively in my whole life as I did that night and every single bite was delicious. I met a Japanese man from Tokyo and as he was pouring me another sake, I motioned to the endless tables and asked, “Do you think there are any fish left in the sea?” and he roared with laughter.

My conference over, I was now on my own again and headed south by train to Kagoshima City. The terrain became more dramatic and hilly, and decidedly more tropical. The foliage ranged from pine trees, to red-leafed maple trees to bamboo. Kagoshima is another city in peril; with over 600,000 residents it sits across a beautiful bay within 10 miles of Sakurajima, the most active volcano in Japan. The city is often called the “Naples of Japan” because of its similarity to its Italian counterpart. Since its last devastating eruption in 1914, Sakurajima has continued to produce minor eruptions, resulting in ash blowing across the bay and falling like rain over Kagoshima City. Over on the volcanic island itself, there are numerous towns that are the targets of flying volcanic rocks and debris that are sometimes thrown from the crater. All along the main road on the island, small concrete shelters looking like large dog houses are placed so that people can run for cover if rocks start flying. Residents have them in their back yards, too, as sometimes the flying rocks damage roofs. I show a video all about this area in one of my classes, so it was particularly exciting for me to see the place in person.

The bus ride along the shore of the bay was truly lovely, with adorable bobbing fishing boats, and nets thrown out across the water while the volcano steams in the background. I made a stop at the Sakurajima volcano observatory for a tour of the facility. Shoes must be removed at the door and replaced by slippers that are provided. Believe me, it was no fun having sized 10.5 wide feet mashed into a size 6 narrow sandal, but the museum was fascinating, filled with high-tech displays that people of all ages can enjoy. I viewed a 3-D movie in which I as the viewer became part of a lahar, a volcanic mud flow, as it rages down the volcano’s slopes. My favorite parts were when the lahar and I took out a couple of grazing deer, smashed a few houses into kindling and wiped out a bridge or two as we made our way from the summit to the sea!

My hotel over in Kagoshima City was magnificent. The Kagoshima Tokyo Hotel sits on the waterfront and was decked out with thousands of Christmas lights. I had a deluxe, western style room with a full view of Sakurajima across the bay and took numerous photos from the balcony. It was now almost 8:00 PM and I was very hungry, so I started searching for a place to have dinner. I looked for one place that was mentioned in my guide book, but the directions it provided led nowhere. A second place I found looked good, but was jammed and when I walked in, I was completely ignored. I kept searching; there were dozens of places to choose from, but the longer I searched, the more I knew I was in trouble. Not one place had an English menu or English speaking staff. Many places had photo menus, but it was difficult to discern whether the item in the photo was chicken, fish, pork, vegetables, or even a ball of mochi and usually no prices were listed. Several restaurants were already preparing to close as it was now 9:30PM.

I screwed up my courage and just went into a bustling restaurant and got a table. My waitress stopped and made a motion that indicated she wanted to know what I wanted to drink. I just wanted water, but I had no idea what the word for that was and she did not understand the word “water”. I vainly searched nearby tables to see if anyone had water so I could point to it, but no one did. I tried to mime getting water out of a faucet and she looked at me as if I were crazy. In desperation I indicated that I needed a minute to decide. I then frantically searched my guide book and discovered that water was not even listed in the food or drink vocabulary section. I stared blankly at the photo menu; I tried to look up certain foods in my guide book, but couldn’t pronounce them. At that point, and totally out of character for me, I had a near panic attack. I just grabbed my backpack and made a run for the door. In all of my travels, even the most exotic ones like staying in a Bedouin camp in Jordan or wandering around Thailand in a rental car, there has always been someone who could speak a little English, or I knew enough of the language to get by, or there were other tourists around that I could consult with. This was not the case here. I’d spent the whole day in Kagoshima and I never saw even one Caucasian face; I never heard one person speaking English. It was a surprisingly isolating experience. Of course the people I encountered were friendly and wanted to try and help me, but the language barrier made it impossible. This was a first for me.

I continued to walk the streets, stomach growling, wondering if I should just give up and head to a McDonald’s when I spotted an Italian flag in front of a small bar down the street. A photo menu was posted outside with Japanese characters over each photo, but underneath there were Italian captions! When I signed up for Italian language classes a couple of years prior I would never have guessed that my Italian would come to the rescue in Kagoshima City, Japan! Fettuccine, insalata Caprese, puttanesca: words I knew and music to my ears!  The staff all spoke Italian, and while the food didn’t rival that of my favorite haunts in Rome or Venice, I was just grateful to have familiar food and to be able to speak to someone. Viva Italia! Grazie ad Dio!

The next day I decided to explore the city and simply walked everywhere, marveling at streets lined by blocks-long koi ponds filled with colorful fish and bordered with beautiful flower gardens. I climbed up an unbelievably long and steep staircase to a park and observatory from which I could see all of Kagoshima, with the puffing Sakurajima over across the bay. As I admired the view and tried to catch my breath after the long climb, I was approached by an older, local man who had been sitting with friends. He noticed me and came over and asked me, in very halting English, where I was from and wanted to tell me a bit about his city. Again, such kindness, but I also wanted to shake him and ask where’d he’d been last night when I really needed him!

Sakurajima lies across the bay from Kagoshima City

In the afternoon I took the ferry over to Sakurajima and traveled by bus to a place called Furasato Onsen, a sacred Shinto shrine at the foot of the volcano where there is an outdoor hot spring right on the sea, surrounded by lava rock. This onsen is not segregated by gender, so they issue a yakuta – a rough but comfortable white cotton robe – which you wear in the pools. It was a truly magical spot, and I got there in the late afternoon, so the light was already fading and soft. As I relaxed in the hot pools I could hear the surf.  A gnarled tree stands over the pool and shelters a Shinto altar and I watched as people entered the pools and made praying gestures or gave two hand claps in a row as they faced the statue, seemingly giving thanks for this place. I soaked as long as I could before needing to get out of the hot water to cool down a bit. I met a couple of young women from Virginia who are living here now and have been teaching English for a couple of years. They confirmed that in this part of Japan, it is very hard to get by without knowing any Japanese, so I felt reassured after my traumatic experience the night before.

A peaceful afternoon at Furasato Onsen

Of course, upon returning to the city it was time to search for dinner again. After the previous night’s ordeal, I was really apprehensive, but I was determined that I had to try and master this. I decided to return to one of the places I’d read about in a guide book. It said they had fixed price, multi-course menus and I figured I could at least point to one of those and be assured of several different dishes. Ironically, as I entered the place, the hostess approached me and asked in English if I spoke Japanese. When I said no, she began to explain everything in slow, but understandable English. Then a male waiter came over and his English was even better and he explained the finer points of the menu. I was so happy!

I opted for one of the multi-course menus, and what a show that was: a 10 course dinner that was as beautiful to look at as it was delicious to taste. My favorite course was sashimi made from a fish that had white, black and brilliant silver stripes. The sliced fish was wrapped around vegetables and placed on a robin-egg blue plate, and the fish itself looked like a foil Christmas bow on a package. It didn’t look real. Following that were the local specialties of breaded and fried fish cakes, pork ribs with a black sugar glaze, grilled chicken, various vegetables, rice, miso soup, and a sweet potato pudding for dessert. After all that, I learned that they also had sweet potato ice cream, which I’d been hoping to sample, as I know it’s a local specialty, so I had a second dessert! It was one of the best meals I had on the whole trip and very reasonably priced.

I enjoyed chatting with the waiter. When he learned that I was born in Massachusetts, he shared with me that he has been to Boston. He is a big history buff, and he excitedly talked about visiting Bunker Hill Monument and the Boston Tea Party site. As I was leaving, he saw me to the door and said, “I think in your country you say, ‘home is where the heart is’… well if this is true, then my home is in Boston!”  It was very sweet, and I am so glad that my final night in Japan was so filled with great food, warm hospitality, and the gift of communication.

Later, back in my room and after packing for my flight home in the morning, I retired to my balcony and relished the warm night, the sound of the ferry horns, the full moon rising over the bay, and the dark silhouette of Sakurajima, with steam rising from the summit and visible in the moonlight. What a lovely place this is.

I really loved what I have seen of Japan. The natural scenery was stunning and I admired the order and calm of Japanese society. I have never stayed in quieter hotels anywhere – no loud screaming, banging on walls or ceilings, doors slamming. I loved the cleanliness of everything and the lack of litter or trash. I enjoyed the cuisine, especially when I knew what I was eating and when what I was eating was not mochi. But most of all, I loved the people I encountered. The Japanese are some of the friendliest and most polite people I have met anywhere in the world, and despite the significant language barriers, their warmth and hospitality were constantly in evidence.

I have no doubt that I will return to Japan again someday, but I really feel that I either need to stick more closely to areas where English is more widely spoken or to learn a bit of the language next time. During the conference I felt “safe” because we were being watched over carefully, but on my own, I really found it surprisingly stressful to accomplish even the most basic of things – like ordering water in a restaurant! However, on my way home I did ask an English-speaking person at the airport how to say water and learned that the word is mizu, a word I won’t soon forget. And now at least I know I’ll never go thirsty on a future visit.

2 thoughts on “Attack of the Killer Sumo Bee and Other Japan Adventures

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