I arrive to my new home at around 8pm after a 1 hr drive from the airport. I am sleepy, hungry, bewildered and ecstatic at the same time, but after my recent bon voyage proceedings and months of build-up to this moment, this has actually been the norm for me. It is dark outside and I can’t really see anything particular about the house. With bags in hand I enter my new home and realize that the 13 hour plane ride complete with constant turbulence and a vomiting 4 year-old was merely a brief prelude – once inside I admit to myself that NOW I am truly in Hell.
Imagine my surprise when I step into what was described by an almost 50 year old Japanese homosexual male as “an almost 100 year old traditional Japanese house with almost all the comforts of home” to find, basically, an ashtray with almost green carpet and some furniture that even in 1963 was only “almost chic”. There are no freshly-cleaned tatami mats, no wafts of scented smoke from burning sandalwood incense, no neatly pruned bonsai trees perched in round windows. As I am shown around the house I can’t help but feel that I am somehow being punished. Perhaps I really did kill myself and I really am in Hell…the thought requires some careful consideration, but that will have to be later because now I am being instructed that if I intend to sit down during my “bathroom time” I’ll need to turn on the hose at the sink outside the toilet area and then spray down the plastic seat sitting over the privy hole where all of one’s movements need to be washed away to. Though I think it is meant as a joke I take note of Junya’s serious expression when he explains that sometimes I might need to actually help yesterday’s hamburger from the side of the plastic commode and that the toilet is not really clean until everything disappears down the hole. Uh-huh…I see.
Perhaps the other feature of this Japanese home to really bother me after 5 minutes upon arrival is the lighting. Every light in the house is fluorescent and I don’t think light bulbs of the round GE soft yellow kind are actually sold in this country. I think I might have found a market to corner. I feel as though my bedroom could double for an interrogation cell and to make matters worse, Junya switches the kerosene heater on for me causing me to immediately open my suitcase to reach for a bottle of Tuscan Fig and Verbena room spray to try and kill the stench of warm kerosene which forces me to wonder if there are people in Tuscany reaching for bottles of exotic Japanese heating oil to mask that awful fig smell emanating form the hillside orchards…
Junya sits me down at the dinner table and switches on the tv. He tells me he is going to cook me fish and offers me a beer. The combination of the cooking fish, the sound of the Japanese game show, the wafts of scented cigarette smoke and the stench of yet another kerosene heater make my head hurt and I explain that I need to start unpacking while dinner is being prepared in order to escape this new sensory potpourri. I marvel at the high ceilings, the century old wooden walls and beams. I notice the gardens outside the back of the house and imagine that this place was once beautiful. Well, if not beautiful then serene. Well if not serene then much more traditional. I’m not sure the plastic penis dangling from the hanging fluorescent lamp in the kitchen is all that wabi-sabi.
“The combination of the cooking fish, the sound of the Japanese game show, the wafts of scented cigarette smoke and the stench of yet another kerosene heater make my head hurt and I explain that I need to start unpacking while dinner is being prepared in order to escape this new sensory potpourri.”
I reach for the Tuscan Fig and Verbena again and wonder if it is safe to spray an alcohol-based air freshener over a kerosene heater in an old wooden house. I set-up my computer and speakers to play the only cd I can as of now find, Karen Carpeneter. As I listen to a 1977 song about aliens, not one of Karen’s highpoints, I wonder why this house, owned by a gay man, could be so, well, awful. I conclude that they must have different requirements in Japan to get a license to be gay and ability to furnish and coordinate home décor is not one of them.
I open the closet to find a group of hangers covered in dust. I open the dresser drawer and pull the handle off by accident. I sit down on the bed and am raped by a metal spring as I spy a spider scurrying into the corner. I imagine myself relating all of this great “atmosphere”, I will call it, and people saying to me with a chuckle and nod of disbelief “Oh it can’t all be as bad as that…at least you’re in Japan!” Fear and exhaustion prevent me from positivity just now and all I can think is “What have I gotten myself into?”
I have to pee so I wander to the end of the hall and decide to use the urinal. This is the first time, and surprisingly to me not the last, that I see a wall-mounted urinal in someone’s home. It’s an old home I remind myself. I put on the appropriate plastic toilet slippers, relieve myself, turn the knob to release the water to rinse the urinal, turn off the water, remove the slippers and head for the kitchen. It’s dinner time. Although, considering the plumbing, should I need to actually sit down the next time I visit this part of the house I might want to reconsider a liquid diet and a stomach by-pass.
I sip my Kirin Lager and continue to unpack, reaching for the Tuscan Fig and Verbena about every 15 minutes. Junya and Kenji are in the kitchen watching tv and smoking and somehow the smoke insists on helping me unpack. I am fearful of sitting down on the toilet due to the plastic commode and hose introduction and the perhaps serious possibility that I might have to lend a helping hand to encourage “yesterday’s hamburger” to its final destination. I grab my GQ, and Tuscan Fig and Verbena, and head for the toilet, hoping for the best.
I wake on my second day after a 2 hour slumber and go exploring. Work does not begin until Monday and today is only Thursday. I will see a friend whom I met on the internet this afternoon so I dress to impress and set out for the day. I walk to the nearest shopping plaza and am amazed by the variety of faces that I see. Feeling more American than ever, I pause to consider how unique each person looks.
I am nervous. I cannot communicate in Japanese except to say please and thank you and Skoshi dake nihongo ga wakarimasu “I only speak a little Japanese” which is actually complete bullshit, but I’ve memorized it so I plan to say it. In the supermarket I find an array of seafood and fish products, radishes that look like toys from a gay bondage film and hundreds of other completely unfamiliar foods. I’d like to buy something but I’m not sure what anything is. I would like to ask but as it is my first day in the country I am slammed with my first wave of culture shock and am simply too petrified to speak to anyone.
At 2pm I meet Yuji. We smile when we see each other and begin chatting despite the fact that we have never met nor talked on the phone. We go for pizza and I am surprised to find pizzas with everything from squid and mayonnaise to egg and corn. Yuji orders for me and we begin to get to know each other. He has brought photos of his trips to America and Thailand, places that he visited with his boyfriend, a man who strangely enough, like me, is also from Florida. And he has brought me a gift. He tells me that he remembers from my email that I love cologne and so he has brought me a bottle of fragrance as a gift. Valentines’s Day has just passed and so I have a small box of chocolates for him and as if we had been doing this for years we exchange gifts, smiles, and thank you’s. Five minutes have passed and Yuji is my new best friend. In America, people told me how kind, gracious and polite the Japanese people are but how difficult it will be for me to penetrate the deeper levels of intimacy because of my status as a foreigner. If Yuji is any example of typical Japanese people I will meet then I find this theory completely ridiculous.
“In America, people told me how kind, gracious and polite the Japanese people are but how difficult it will be for me to penetrate the deeper levels of intimacy because of my status as a foreigner. If Yuji is any example of typical Japanese people I will meet then I find this theory completely ridiculous.”
I tell Yuji about the house where I am staying and the interrogation room I am occupying and we decide to do what any sensible person would do on his first day in a foreign country – shop for linens, lamps, and rugs. I am taken to Muji which immediately reminds me of Ikea and so I begin to feel homesick. This is a sensation much like nausea. It comes and goes in sharp waves and at various times throughout the day with Yuji I feel as if I am going to emotionally vomit, that is, start crying at any moment. I choose a floor rug, bed linens, standing lamp, pillows and other various room accessories that will help create a homey atmosphere and charge it all to my credit card. At each purchase I smile and bow my head ever so slightly and announce “gozaimasu”. I do this throughout the day and after one lunch, 5 credit card purchases and one Starbucks visit later, Yuji informs me that saying “gozaimasu” in Japanese is equivalent to saying “very much” in English. It is meaningless unless I actually say “thank you”. I ask why he didn’t correct me before…like 6 hours before and he simply responds “Because it was cute.” This becomes the theme of the day as I become keenly aware of the Japanese obsession with all things soft, fuzzy, colorful and cute…so I figure I should fit right in.
We bring the items back to my house, only 5 minutes away, and as we enter the front gate of the house a look comes over Yuji’s face as if to say “Turn back, save yourself!” But instead he says “You don’t actually live here do you?” in as sarcastic a voice as possible and I smile and think to myself how nice it is that sometimes sarcasm transcends all cultures. Yuji is silent as we carry my purchases to my room and after about 10 minutes of unpacking, bed-making, lightbulb-screwing, and incense burning he suggests that we spend the rest of the afternoon in Namba. “You need a place cheerful and lively. You need to get away from this ghost house.” So Yuji has nicknamed my new home the “ghost house” which only reinforces my initial feelings. He uses the toilet before we leave and when he returns he looks at me and without speaking just shakes his head from side to side. I get the feeling that this is not a typical home but rather a hand of karma waving to me and handing me a message stating “Someday* this will be funny and you can write about it in your book.” At the bottom of the note: *someday=only after you have learned to appreciate what this experience has to offer.”