Since childhood, everything about Japan has enthralled me: food, traditional clothing, bonsai trees, ikebana floral arrangements and, of course, the people themselves. The poster in the window showed verdant, bucolic rice paddies being tended by women in traditional bonnets and straw hats. For dramatic relief, a snowcapped mountain hung in the background and the caption promised that I would “See the real Japan. Become immersed in the mysterious Orient by cycling the back roads of rural Shikoku – an island that outsiders rarely visit.”
It took about a nanosecond for me to walk into the travel agency and pay a deposit.
A few months later, in the baggage claim area of the Tokyo airport, a man met the luggage as it tumbled onto the carousel. Carefully setting suitcases upright, he snapped the tired handles to attention, briskly swished each piece with a white cloth, and then released it to rumble properly along, seeking its owner. He wore white gloves.
As my soft turquoise pack thumped limply to the bottom of the ramp, it exuded a cloud of Indonesian dust. The luggage man yanked it upright, but the bag sagged forward, weighted by its overstuffed outside pockets. He set it up again quickly and as he turned his attention to the oncoming pieces, mine slid onto its back with a slightly inebriated air. Threading my way through the crowds to claim it, I could see him do a double take; the horizontal piece must have offended his sense of alignment. He sprang into double time, sprinting along the carousel edge to catch up to the limpid piece. Jerking it up sharply and with a stern little shake, he wedged it upright between two stoic suitcases standing on their own. As I pushed my way through the throng, I saw him look down at his white gloves and, with compressed lips, clap them together to get rid of the dust. When he saw me, however, (and for some reason he immediately identified me as the owner) his face smoothed over and he gave a low, dignified bow, which I’m sure, in his mind, I ill-deserved for having such badly behaved luggage.
Had I known at the time, I would have recognized that this one incident told me much about the Japanese psyche.
I had just spent much time on the island of Bali, where it is almost impossible to avoid conversation. The Balinese are extremely outgoing, and dozens of times a day, you are approached with the same four questions, in the same order.
“Where are you going? Where are you from? What is your name? How long you stay?” Everyone wants to be your new best friend. This chumminess is so common that guide books advise you to immediately answer the first question with “Jalan, jalan,” which means “Just out for a stroll, don’t worry about me” and effectively put a halt to the balance of the questions.
I mention this because never, in a hundred years, will you ever have to say the equivalent of “Jalan, jalan” in Japan.
Outside the Tokyo International Airport, I stood at the end of a bus queue to await transfer to the Narita Airport in Osaka. The signage, naturally, was in Japanese, so I double-checked with the lady in front of me.
“Sumi masen,” I excused myself with a bow, and then indicating the queue with my hand, asked “Narita, hai?”
The lady turned, bowed, and nodded briefly. “Hai.” She turned back to face front.
“Domo arrogato!” I said, thanking her back.
A couple came up to stand in line behind me. Smiling, I practiced a Japanese good day. “Konishiwa!”
They bowed, nodded briefly and stared past me with blank faces. I rewound my thoughts to that morning to confirm I really had put on deodorant. I checked my breath. I tried not to feel rebuffed.
The Japanese are a private people. I suppose with so many folks crammed into such a tiny space, they can only maintain their sense of privacy by looking straight ahead and ignoring all around them. Of course, that theory doesn’t equate for other crowded cultures, who adore staring at strangers. But whatever the reason throughout the entire trip I would either feel invisible or somehow reprimanded in a polite, nonverbal manner.
I wasn’t alone. During the tour, this topic came up several times.
“I don’t think anyone in Japan speaks English,” sighed one fellow biker.
“Well, if they do, they’re keeping it a secret.” I replied. “But what saddens me is that other than a clerk, no one smiles or responds to me. How can I be ‘immersed in the mysterious Orient’ if no one talks?”
“Oh, you’re just disappointed because they are not making a fuss over you. It’s a typical North American attitude, we expect the rest of the world to be thrilled to see us,” claimed another of our group.
Was she right? Was I so self-centered that I expected everyone else to be delighted with my enthusiasm at being in their country? I had just spent five weeks blowing off several hundred friendly Balinese and now I was in a country where I was being treated with reserve and respect. And I wasn’t happy with that, either.
Once the tour was over, the group split up and I spent an extra week on my own staying in small bed and breakfasts. On my last day, I rose in a gloomy pre-dawn and hauled my bag through the cramped streets that were thick with fog. At a taxi stand on a deserted intersection I watched as the suburb slowly woke up. An occasional light winked on in an apartment window; a bus roared somewhere far off. Down the street a tiny woman appeared limping towards me. She wore a clear plastic rain bonnet.
As she approached, I smiled and offered a “Konishiwa.” Startled, her eyes opened wide, then dropped as she carried on. I watched her slow progress away from me.
The cab sidled up. The driver wore white gloves and on the back of each headrest rested a sparkling crocheted antimacassar. Settling back pensively for the long ride to the airport, I watched the country of my dreams slip away from me. As we pushed through the hanging mist, we passed the tiny woman, huddled at the entrance to a restaurant, unlocking the door. She turned as she heard the car, and catching sight of my face pressed against the steamy window, she raised her arm and with a dazzling smile, waved.
Maureen Elizabeth Magee is a Canadian writer who still finds mystery in Japan and would love to return to see more of the country. She is working on a book of short stories.