I met him in the water—that morning, back in Hokkaido.
After a week in Japan, I feel more comfortable bathing with strangers in the onsen—perhaps because it happens so often. It was early morning and I took my shower sitting down, on a stool. Once I was completely clean, I climbed into the mud.
My eyes were closed and his voice was so small that I barely recognized his kind hello. We spoke softly to one another, and soon shook hands, our grey-plastered wrists held briefly above the water. The grey sulfuric mud of this town is “healing” they say.
For ten minutes we traded our stories. I was meant to leave Hokkaido that day—I had traveled from Shiretoko in the north, but the typhoon had hit with fury and closed all the railways, stranding me here in Noboribetsu briefly.
His name was Akihiko and he was a blueberry farmer from the Tokyo suburbs. Blueberry season had just finished and now he and his wife were relaxing in this spa town. We talked about the many health benefits of blueberries, as well as mud. He insisted his English was not so good although it was quite fine, then we fell into the easiest conversation topic of all—travel. With a few syllables he described his 2-week summer vacation to Austria—Salzburg, Innsbruck, Vienna—each of them “Lovely”.
And then we said goodbye—he had to meet up with his wife, and I had to meet up with a train.
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I met her underwater—400 feet underwater to be more precise.
The typhoon had passed, and the railway lines had cleared up in just a few hours. I had arrived in Hakodate expecting a ferry to carry me from Hokkaido to Honshu, but then I am naïve and old-fashioned. Asking about the ferry was the first time a Japanese person has openly laughed at me.
There was no more ferry, only a tunnel. Gee, I didn’t know that. A tunnel between Hokkaido and Honshu? Is that new? No, no—it opened back in 1988. Oh.
Japanese engineering continues to be the overachieving brainiac at the worldwide Science Fair. The Seikan Tunnel is the longest (and deepest) railway tunnel in the world—33.46 miles long—and I was riding through it.
The lady sitting next to me waited until we entered the tunnel before saying hello.
“You speak English?” I asked. Only a little, she said—but I was quickly learning that to be the polite response. There is no boasting in Japan—to minimize is the great aim, it seems.
We traded stories—I was traveling from Noboribetsu and on my way to Aomori, in the north of Honshu. Her name was Noriko, and she was a nurse in Tokyo, returning from Hokkaido.
I guessed her to be in her mid-50’s—though when it comes to guessing ages in Japan, I fail. The physical language of age is quite different here—all I knew is that Noriko had already lived a very full life. She spoke to me about travel—the journeys she had made and those she still dreamed of making.
Once Noriko had taken the train north from Yokohama, a ship to Khabarovsk, then rode the Trans-Siberian all the way across Russia, after which she continued on trains until she reached London.
“That was 35 years ago. I only made it halfway around the world. Next time . . . ” She shook her fist with resolve, but I was nevertheless impressed.
“My best dream . . . for travel . . . Amtrak! Cross America.” She made the motion of a train with her hand, working its way across the expanse of my own country.
“Niagara Falls?” she inquired, and now her hands made the eternal flow of water falling down from a cliff.
I was just there—Niagara Falls. I revealed this to her and revealed to myself the great distance I have traveled this summer—from Niagara Falls to Japan via Panama and Montreal.
Noriko broke my silent thought with her own revelation—we had reached the middle of the tunnel, the very deepest part. The window was cold and dark, showing only a reflection of myself, appearing like a giant next to a small and contained Noriko with her short black hair and delicate clothes.
Then I remembered that I had a question. Something I had been wondering but had failed to find an answer for. Maybe Noriko could help. I pulled the white plastic charm from my wallet—the same one that I received back at the Meijn Jingu shrine in Tokyo.
“What does it mean?” I asked, handing her the charm.
Noriko pointed to each of the kanji as she spoke the words evenly, “Bad goes, good comes.”
Then she smiled up at me. Noriko’s spoken translation of my pocket-sized Shinto charm sparked a reverence between us.
Noriko repeated the four words, “Jo Sai Sho Fuku. Goes bad, comes good.” With fluid Asian hands she play-acted the charm, eschewing evil with fluttering fingers, then pulling in sunny positive life-giving goodness from the opposite direction.
I was touched by this notion—so simple—and I had been carrying it around in my pocket for a week. Noriko did not seem too superstitious, but she was sensible. When we reached the other side and bid farewell, she became both mother and nurse—shaking her finger at me and warning, “You stay safe! Stay healthy! Bad go. Good come!”
We shook hands, we bowed and smiled and I stepped off the train and into Honshu.
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I met her next to the water fountain.
My hair was still wet from the gym shower. After a day exploring the city of Aomori (a city famous for its apples), I had come for some exercise at the local mall with its mega-fitness center that looked like any gym in America—except that you took your street shoes off at the entrance.
Her name was Kaoru and she was a yoga instructor, young and wearing light pink. She also only spoke “a very little English” (she pinched the air her English was so small) that she had learned in high school, “like all Japanese people”.
We walked out into the parking lot together—it was night and the city of Aomori was only dark square shadows and lots of blinking red, white and blue lights.
“Are you a policeman?” she inquired.
“No, I’m not a policeman.” I answered, puzzled. Then I remembered that I had worked out at the gym wearing a T-shirt that said POLICE on the front of it—a random souvenir from Montreal.
“At gym, we thinking you policeman!” No wonder I had the free weights to myself. I reassured her that I was not a policeman.
Kaoru refused to let me wait for the bus—she offered to take me back to my hotel, and repeated the offer until I said yes.
She apologize that her car was “very, very small” (she pinched the air again) and we drove through the empty streets of Aomori, listening to The Carpenters.
I realize that my sample size is limited, but I am developing a serious suspicion that among Japan’s 127 million people, there is only one music CD played inside their cars: Best of The Carpenters, Selected Favorites.
As Karen Carpenter reminded me to sing, sing a song, Kaoru asked me how I liked Aomori.
I liked the art museum very much, I answered honestly. I had spent the afternoon at the Aomori Art Museum and found it to be remarkable and incomparable—among the greatest modern art museums I have ever visited.
“The Louvre is much more beautiful,” she counteracted.
Like everyone I meet in Japan who speaks a very little English, Kaoru had traveled. She had been to France and to England and San Francisco, but where she really wanted to go was India.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
As a yoga instructor, India would be a great place for her to visit, I concurred.
“So many students!” she exclaimed, and then there was a thought: Kaoru wanted to go to India and teach yoga.
“It is very beautiful, India?” Kaoru inquired.
“It is very beautiful. It is also very hot—the hottest place on earth,” I counteracted. I talked about the time right before the monsoon, when your lungs feel like they’ll burn up if you take one more breath. Then I realized I was painting a yoga instructor’s worse nightmare and I changed the subject.
Tell me, what does your name mean? Kaoru.”
“It means nice smell, like the scent from flowers.”
A wonderful name that sounds even better when spoken by a Japanese person—three separate vowels—ah-oh-u.
Kaoru pulled up to my hotel. I realized that I was saying goodbye to somebody forever—a stranger who had thought I was a policeman and had driven me home and welcomed me so hospitably to her city.
I could only shake her tiny yoga instructor hands once, nod a bow from the curb and say thank you, over and over again.
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That the Japanese are shy is a myth—they are merely polite. They are very polite and they are very brave. I wonder how many Americans could walk up to a visiting foreigner, in say, Denver or Kansas City, and address them in a foreign language they had studied only casually in high school? How many would offer that stranger a ride across town, or share a bath with them?
The general safety of Japan lies in its politeness—to eschew the unpleasant in search of the good. Bad goes, good comes.
Perhaps the thought is naïve—even a platitude of the worst kind—but it is the mantra of travelers, myself included. To avoid mishaps on the road and to always come into contact with good people is our constant hope.
So far in Japan, it has been my reality.
ありがとうございます明彦, のりこ, 薫/郁/芳.