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"... it is what malls would look like if Disney had its say"

November 7, 2002: Exploring the mainland

Life is good. I'm feeling settled even though the weather here is all over the place. It feels a bit like New England; one moment it is sunny and bright and the next there's an incredible downpour. One afternoon is blustery and freezing cold; the next is too warm to wear a coat or scarf. It's certainly an adventure in appropriate dress—much like the beginning of the school year when it felt as if I were changing clothes every 10 minutes to keep up with the updated agenda.

It is also similar to my daily shoe routine. There is a thing about shoes here. Not only do you not wear the same shoes inside as outside (this makes sense to me)—you have separate indoor shoes for the toilet and another set of indoor shoes for the gym. Added to these tenets one is not allowed to wear shoes on tatami (the woven floor mats). The first night I was here I caused four full-fledged panic attacks (my three hosts and myself) when I mistakenly placed the toe of my (inside) slipper on the tatami mat. In my house I have brazenly turned a blind eye at the toilet slipper custom, but I do have a pair of indoor slippers. As has already been established, one cannot wear indoor slippers on tatami, so the effective home range of these (quite lovely) slippers is 80 square feet. I'm not going to lie; sometimes I forgo the whole indoor slipper thing entirely. I have also been know to—while in a rush—wear my outside shoes inside. I am quite ashamed of this and would appreciate your refraining from sharing this bit of information with my friends here.

Last week, between trips, I taught my students about Halloween. I carved the smallest green pumpkins you can imagine and donned a pair of inflatable angel wings. I was the belle of the ball. Add to that the fact that I gave away "Puri Cura" (Print Club) pictures of myself as participation prizes and it was a genki few days. Print Club (for those of you not familiar with the phenomenon) is like a hopped-up self-portrait booth/video game. You (and often several of your friends) pose for the camera and then add in stamps and writing and cutsy borders—Voila—an instant pop-culture hit. These are traded around on the puri cura black market at school, adorning pencil cases and English dictionaries and filling notebooks. Never have I seen my students so enthusiastic—you'd think I was giving away SMAP tickets. (SMAP=Japanese Backstreet Boys)

Speaking of my trips—I finally ventured out of the safety of my inaka (countryside) and explored the mainland. I spent a few days in Nagasaki city, returned to Naru, and then made the trek to Fukuoka. Nagasaki is a beautiful city and is truly the San Francisco of Japan. Wedged between the sea and the mountains, the city was forced to grow up into the steep hills. Famous for its shipyards and for being atom-bombed during World War II, Nagasaki has also served as the port of entry for foreigners over the course of many centuries. Nagasaki prefecture has an especially colorful past with regards to Christians—they were driven out of Nagasaki into the Goto Islands (where I live) and were boiled in the hot spring "Hells" of the Shimabara peninsula. Now it is an incredibly modern city (complete with Starbucks and the Gap—you can all breathe a sigh of relief—with a great Chinatown. It was fun to be in a place where I could do such things as buy socks that fit.

If Nagasaki is modern, Fukuoka is hyper-modern (too many Starbucks and three or maybe four Gaps). It blazes with neon lights and is famous for their ramen. Not make-your-own dried noodles with foil flavor pouch—but noodle "shacks" that line the street, inviting you in out of the wind for some noodle slurping and (perhaps) a beer. It is also home to Canal City—described by Lonely Planet of Japan as "a place designed to rid you of your disposable income and make you feel good about it." With its bright lights, colorful storefronts, lively outdoor performers, and an enormous fake fountain with choreographed eruptions—it is what malls would look like if Disney had its say. While not a scenic or particularly historic place, it serves as a crossroads, with its airport serving many destinations in Asia and the train station receiving passengers from all over Japan via shinkansen (high speed train). I spent my weekend with friends; we sang karaoke and took advantage of a nomihodai special (all you can drink) in a private room, ate Thai food, chatted for an hour on the street with Japanese strangers, and partook Mos Burger (the Japanese equivalent of McDonald's). And yes—greasy food still tastes good after a night of drinking.

As it was a long weekend, I spent Monday in the city before boarding the overnight ferry to Naru. While incredibly convenient, the ferry was less than comfortable. We also were powering through a storm. Not usually prone to seasickness, I awoke to the boat moving in three directions and a loud, incessant banging. Having recently read Ahab's Wife, in which a whaling boat is sunk after striking a giant beast, my imagination was running wild and my stomach was running even wilder. Without going into too much detail, I'll just say that even had I not been groggy from the lack of sleep and dizzy from crossing the body-strewn open cabin, hitting the moving target that was the toilet would not have been easily accomplished. (No worries, it was.) Returning to my section of carpet and square plether "pillow", all I could think was "Damn, I just bought Christmas gifts and they are going to end up on the floor of the Pacific." On a wing (perhaps an inflatable one) and a prayer I arrived back in Naru at 8 am. I dropped my luggage at home, changed my clothes, and headed directly to school to teach three junior high classes.

The rest of the week has been relaxed and I'm looking forward to a chill weekend at home. It's started to thunder now and I should duck out while I can still use my umbrella without fear of becoming a lightening rod.

Be well!

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2002 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617—1475