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E—mail to Anna

"They were incredulous upon hearing about Tofurkey and were quite impressed when I told them that my family often buys a 33-kilo turkey."

November 24, 2002: A Far Away Thanksgiving

I just got back from spending a weekend with my friend Ashley, another ALT who lives in the Gotos. I ferried there on Saturday afternoon after a lovely dinner at the house of the junior high principal. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day and as Narao has about as much to offer in the way of entertainment as Naru does, we decided to take advantage of the day and go for a hike.

Island of Narao
Our goal was to hike to the top of one of the peaks to a lookout platform; Ashley had been told it was about 5 kilometers from her house. We set out around 3:30 figuring we had plenty of time to make it there and back before sunset. Our first random encounter happened as we walked through her town. Ashley looked at me and said, "Who are all those people ahead and why are they carrying flags?" As they approached we realized they weren't town residents but some sort of hiking club—decked out in full regalia and waving numbered flags. They were very surprised to see us and we ended up waving and saying hello to all 300 people as we walked in opposite directions. Just as we thought we were done being on parade more people would come around the corner—waving and smiling. Finally we greeted the last of the hikers and started ascending the peak.

About an hour later we reached the top. It was a beautifully clear day and from the platform we had a great view of the islands dotting the calm ocean below and the fishing boats motoring back to shore. As the sun was setting, we didn't linger long at the top and set out for home. After about a half an hour, we came around a corner and had a great view of a village below. Unfortunately, it was not Narao and it was not a village we had passed on the way up. We quickly realized that we must have taken a wrong turn at the end of the access road. So, on tired legs, we climbed back up the hill about a kilometer and then started down the other side.

After about 20 minutes in the other direction, when we still weren't seeing anything familiar, we began to realize we must have taken a wrong turn at the top. As the sun had already set by this point and with no desire to retrace our steps, we decided to stay our course, figuring we would encounter a house or a car or a village at some point. We were wrong—no cars, no houses, and definitely no fellow walkers. Finally, the lights of Narao came into sight, far below and way in the distance. We rapidly approached Narao but it was still far below. Randomly, there was a set of stairs leading down off the road—there were no lights, no secure railing, and they seemed to be weaving through someone's garden. We chanced it, even though as we descended our fears grew that we might end up in someone's living room or on their back porch. At that point, we were tired and hungry and committed to our course. There was no way we were going to climb back up the steps. We found our way back to her village after stumbling down hundreds of steps and following several winding paths between houses.

On the opposite side of town from where we departed, we realized that we had inadvertently gone down the back side of the mountain. Oops. We climbed back up to Ashley's apartment, grabbed our wallets and set out for the local family restaurant. It was 7 p.m. and we were running on empty. There was little conversation until the food came. It was a really fun hike and we both affirmed our need for better orienteering skills. Although I do have to say island back roads really do look the same—no houses or markers or signs, just winding roads with forest on either side and occasional ocean views. At one point Ashley apologized for not knowing her way better, to which I replied,"We could be on my island for all we know."

Anyway—speaking of wandering through the island hills at night—last weekend I joined the junior high school thirrd years in their annual "Midnight March." It was explained to me as such—"The 3rd years walk all over the island all night long." When I asked the purpose (thinking maybe charity) I was told it was purely fun. I was skeptical but I ended up going with my friend (and co-English teacher) Tsuneko. We were not committed to walking all night, but we thought we'd go for awhile. So we set off into the hills armed with the dim beams of flashlights, the bright glow of keitais (cell phones), and small bags of salt (to ward off evil spirits).

We ended up with a very energetic group of boys—one asked me to hold hands, others just wanted to chat so we traded off simple questions for most of the walk. At one point a boy ran up from another group and told everyone to stop and be silent. We complied and he farted. That was when it hit me: some things are universal. Teenage boys everywhere think farting is hilarious. Anyway, after spending about two hours walking with the students, Tsuneko and I called for a ride back and left the group. As we left, I remarked to Tsuneko that I had realized the fun in this activity. The rest of the night, students were free to stay up all night and chat by themselves. There were parents and PTA members stationed along the route but mostly the students were free to just hang out together (and walk, of course). In a place where homes offer little privacy, the students don't have much free time, and there are no "hangouts" or dances, you have to be creative and make your own fun. This was one way—and it was a hit. We left them around 11 p.m. If they kept their pace, they would be walking until around 4 a.m.

Above: Arakawa Sunset
Below: kotatsu

The rest of last weekend was spent in Fukue at Tsuneko's parent's house. The live on the western side of Fukue island in a little town called Arakawa. It is a small fishing village, built around a bay and is known for their hot springs. Tsuneko's house is across from the marina and is a beautiful, newly redone Japanese-style house. I must say I was particularly excited by the toilet which had a heated seat. I know those of you who have ceramic toilet seats and cold houses would share my appreciation of that amenity. We spent a lot of time sitting under the kotatsu (a low table with a built-in heating unit—you put your legs under it and there's a special blanket that you drape over the table to keep the heat in) reading newspapers and watching movies.

So as not to laze around the entire weekend, Tsuneko took me on a tour of her area. We drove out to what is considered the most beautiful beach in the Gotos (Takahama) and she and her sister took me to a famous lighthouse (one of the 50 best in Japan). The lighthouse sits perched at the end of a point with sharp cliffs on either side with the ocean stretching out uninterrupted beyond. It was a striking view. We also went to the shrine where her father works (he is a Shinto priest). It was set at the base of a mountain with seven peaks and was surrounded by Japanese maples. While most of the leaves had previously turned and fallen, we were in time to catch some of the delicate crimson leaves. I had a wonderfully relaxing time and spent the weekend meeting her family, enjoying some home-cooking (including squid freshly caught by her father), and taking a bath in their tub that flows with the same mineral water used by the onsen (hot spring) next door. They were terribly kind and invited me to return at will. I plan on taking them up on their offer.

In other news, last week I taught my students about Thanksgiving. They were incredulous upon hearing about Tofurkey and were quite impressed when I told them that my family often buys a 33-kilo turkey. I changed that fact after realizing that I had done the pounds/kilos conversion incorrectly. 33 kilos—that's one big bird. You'll have to let me know how big your turkey is this week. Enjoy your meal and the time spent with the people you love—be thankful—this world is a good place.

Take Care,

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