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September 9, 2002: The Best 500 Yen I Ever Spent

In the midst of marching practice for Sports Day last Friday, I was reminded that we had a long weekend. I was hot, sweaty and dusty—caught without my gym clothes ("Oh—so that's what that memo said!") and decided it was time to get off the island for a day. So I took the 7 a.m. ferry to Fukue. Fukue is the largest and westernmost island in the Gotos.

Arriving there was like being transported to another universe—so many people, a multitude of shops, grocery stores with granola—and a diversity of produce (not just the 400 Yen a head iceburg we have in Naru). It was heaven. Sort of. Not to give the impression that Fukue is a major metropolis—it is about half the size of Burlington—but when you live in Naru, Fukue is pretty amazing. One of my goals for the day was to find an onsen (or hot spring). I knew they existed, but was unsure of their whereabouts.

While shopping in a department store, a woman approached me (as often happens) and begins speaking to me in Japanese. I understand perhaps 30% of what is being said. She tells me her son is going to New York next month and asks me what I will do with my day in Fukue. I mention the hot springs and she says, "Conkana?" I shrug and say, "Sure". She says it is far and I will need to take a taxi and escorts me to the service desk, where 5 other woman are standing and wrapping boxes. They all look at my wide-eyed and begin bowing. As she gets on the phone, I motion that I don't want to leave now, I was just buying a hat and had more shopping to do first. They all insist I return to let them call me a cab. I leave and do some more shopping, returning to the store an hour later. Even though I pass the taxi stand on my way, I decide it would be better to allow them to "treat me kindly" and call on my behalf. I don't really know where I'm going anyway. When I return, they are very excited, and escort me down this red carpet. I make sure to remove my shoes (already I have committed many footwear faux pas) and walk a gauntlet of the most beautiful kimonos. At the end of the corridor, another woman implores me to sit and drink coffee with her. It is not as much an invitation as an order. As we are drinking our coffee, she tells me her company van will take me, "seh-bee-suh" (service—or free).

I meet the van driver, who apologizes for the smallness of his van. I hop in and we wind our way up a mountain and out of town. At this point, I get a little nervous. I am in a van, moving further away from Fukue (a town I don't really know yet, but I know how to get back to my ferry) in a van with a stranger- recommened by a stranger. Suddenly I see a sign for "Conkana"—in fact, it read "Conkana Kingdom"—and was held by a huge wooden tiki god. I was definitely confused and skeptical at this point. He dropped me at the info desk and I was pointed towards the onsen. I wove my way through cabins, huts, and restaurants. I had not bargained for a resort. I paid my 500 Yen and entered the onsen.

Excited and nervous, I stripped out of my clothes and entered the hot spring. I was in the company of two splashing, scrubbing, laughing young Japanese women. I grabbed my stool and began to shower (everyone must shower before entering the hot spring). It was marvelous. It's sort of like a super-hot, large, unchlorinated jacuzzi. There was also a sauna and an outdoor hot spring. The outdoor onsen was heavenly—thick, brown mineral water—the bath sat low in a foundation of rocks. Bamboo trees swayed in the breeze which felt nice on bare shoulders when the rest of your body is submerged in steaming water. As we were relaxing, the Japanese girls began a conversation with me—after about a half an hour of distanced staring of the pool. They knew no English, but we got along okay with a mixture of my poor Japanese and an elaborate game of charades. They went to the sauna and I discovered another pool, a smaller bath with frigid water. The sensation of immersing yourself in cold water after the hot spring is exquisitve. As my Japanese companions exited the sauna they asked me where I was headed and how. I mentioned going back to Fukue by taxi. They had other plans.

Half an hour later, I was heading down the hills in the smallest mini-van you have even seen, rocking out to J-pop and Eminem. It was a bit surreal, as are most of my experiences here. They took me to lunch (I never thought I'd be eating pasta with chopsticks), they drove me to Saty (a large grocery and department store), they found me vaccuum bags, we went to the Hyaku-en shops (upscale dollar stores!) and they dropped me back at the ferry port. It was lovely. It was such an interesting experience to share the afternoon with two strangers—I don't remember their names and will never see them again—but we enjoyed the company and conversation. I was the first American they had ever met. They had never seen anyone with so many earrings, let alone a nose ring and a tattoo. I was definately "Kakooin" ("cool"—a word I'm called frequently by my students). The afternoon was wonderful and it affirmed my decision to spend the day out on my own. I had thought about ringing up some of the JETs on that island, but decided against it. Had I spent the day with them, I'm sure I would have had a nice time. but it would have made for a very different day. I figure that I'm not here to hang out with other westerners; my goal is to meet and befriend people here, and learn some Japanese while I'm at it. Plus—they have the inside track on what's going on.

My living room/bedroom; the table gets put away..

I returned home on the ferry, excited to be back in Naru. While Fukue was nice, it didn't have the same sense of community. No one said "konnitiwa" as I passed and few people smiled. While I was walking from the ferry, I met several of my students, curious about how I spent my day and excited to chat even when they couldn't find the words. While I've felt comfortable and content here previously, as I walked to my apartment it was the first time it felt like I had created a home here. I returned to a dinner invitation on my answering machine, so I rushed around putting groceries away and hanging my new curtain before running to Yosii and Chiaki's (the couple who own the liquor store with the 3-year old who is "CRAZY!") for a wonderful meal. It was a similar cast of characters to previous gatherings and it was a nice feeling to know that I'm developing friendships here.

Sunday I spent cleaning and yesterday I enjoyed being outside on the island. I gave my bike another tune-up (adjusting the brakes for all of those big hills) and headed out on the road. It was sunny and not too humid. I got a little lost out in the mountains of another penninsula and enjoyed some fabulous views of the ocean, the large hills overlapping each other forming a hazy backdrop for the activities of the fishing boats and the ferries below. I wound my way up and down huge hills and discovered several temples and shrines and even another small fishing village. What a fantastic place!

So it's back to another week of school. Last week I didn't have a single "normal" day of classes—between cultural festivals and practicing marching for Sports Day (an all-day festival where the students march around, dance—traditional and hip hop—and run races—all day). My job at Sports Day (other than dancing) is to sit in a tent all day. I have not been told what I will do in the tent, but it has been made clear that that is where I will be all day. I am also judging an event, but I remain clueless as to what the event is or how I might go about judging it, despite the fact I have attended 3 meetings on the subject. That has definately been an interesting transition for me. In the past I have been the information provider—or I at least I have an idea of what is going on. Here I am oblivious most of the time. It's pleasantly refreshing. They tell me what I need to know and where I need to be (most of the time), and I put on a big smile and laugh at myself. Such was the case last week in a meeting where everyone was flipping through a memo book filled with drawings and charts. I was dutifully following along, flipping pages, and underlining things when other people underlined them, figuring I would hound my supervisor later. As I was doing that, I looked up and another teacher caught my eye from across the table. He shook his head and laughed. I could tell he was thinking, "I'm onto you Benvenuto—don't try to fool me, you're so full of shit!" I smiled and laughed.

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