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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 3: A Cross-Country Drive

Socialization posed an interesting problem while I lived in Japan. I was the only fluent speaker of English in quite a large radius. I interacted socially with some of my adult students, but there was no way to be completely unreserved with them: they were my students; they paid for my livelihood. Almost as important as that was the fact that, while able to carry a conversation in English, they couldn’t use or appreciate its undocumented features. Much of my enjoyment in conversation comes from punning, from clever turns of phrase, from the use of esoteric vocabulary which more precisely expresses intent than more common phrases. Consequently, people sometimes have trouble following me even if they’ve grown up speaking English; expecting my students to keep up would have been futile.

I got lucky, though. In my Japanese class in college, there was a woman named Sarah. By lucky coincidence, she grew up maybe half an hour from my hometown, she attended the same Japanese class that I did, and most importantly, she was part of a student exchange program that put her in Tokyo the same year that I was in the next prefecture over. She was pretty. She was friendly. She was engaged. Actually seeing her took some effort, as we were about 100 minutes from each other by train, but the prospect of conversation unencumbered by inhibition made the journey worth my while.

Every few months, then, I would arrange to go do something with her. We went to an amusement park; we went to explore Yokohama; we celebrated an American-style Thanksgiving with her homestay parents; we did many things. Most of those events remain only as snapshot memories from which I derive the rest of the occasion, but one really stands out in my mind: the road trip.

It was early spring, and we both wanted to try something beyond typical tourist attractions, something that would get both of us to a part of Japan that neither had seen before. We decided to rent a car in Tokyo and drive north to a natural hot spring resort in the mountains of Nagano. The area gets few non-Japanese tourists, and it seemed a good way to get a bit more immersion than usual. Renting a car in Tokyo was easy to accomplish, and reserving a room in a ryokan, a Japanese-style small inn, was only slightly more difficult. Everything seemed like it was going to be easy.

Driving in Tokyo is crazy, but not really all that much more crazy than driving in Boston or New York. It turns out to be really easy to adapt to driving on the left side of the road; the only hard part to adapt to was the fact that the windshield wiper and blinker switches were on opposite sides from what I expect. The road signs were rare and usually incomprehensible, but it was for that reason that we had reserved a car with a built-in GPS unit. We hit a small snag when we realized that neither of us could understand the GPS interface well enough to actually program in our destination, but we did what anyone would: we pulled into a gas station, showed the address of our destination and the GPS unit, said “onegai” (please) and “wakarimasen” (we don’t understand) a lot, and gave our best puppy-dog eyes. The station attendant was friendly, as every service-industry employee in Japan is, and pushed a lot of buttons on the screen and then it was showing arrows and a colored line projecting from our current location. We thanked him, and drove.

I am skeptical of the notion that any two people together in a confined space will of necessity become friends. That trip, though, tested my skepticism. Sarah and I didn’t have a whole lot in common beyond a shared interest in Japan and Japanese, but we found that in that car, we could just talk. Somehow, hours of what would have been tedious cross-country driving alone became vibrant and enjoyable. We noted the scenery when it was remarkable–surprisingly often, it was–but other than that, time just seemed to vanish.

In retrospect, there were plenty of hints that the GPS wasn’t taking us where we expected to go. The gas-station man had said quite a bit, actually; we just couldn’t understand much of it. As we ascended the mountains of central Japan, there was quite a bit of snow, but we passed a point in the early afternoon when the snow started going away. There was the fact that, hours after we had expected to have arrived, we were still on the highway with quite a long strip of hilighted road showing on the GPS. Despite all that, both of us were surprised when we saw a rare English-translated road sign: “Welcome to Niigata City.” Shortly after that, we discovered a beach. We had driven clear across Japan en route to its center.

There really wasn’t a whole lot we could do about that except laugh. We played on the beach of the Sea of Japan; we ate dinner, and then we went off to find a more competent gas-station man. Accomplishing that, we set out and drove again.

By the time we arrived and checked into the ryokan, it was well after dark and there was no hope of catching any of the attractions we had planned originally to see that day. There was no time to waste on a weekend trip though, so we asked the owner if there was anything interesting still open. He shrugged, and pointed us to an izakaya, which is more or less a Traditional Japanese Pub.

Imagine a Pub in the romantic sense: it is the relaxation area of the common man, where the locals of a town will gather each night to unwind. It is a place of joviality and games, and the friendly atmosphere of the working folk of a small town who have all known each other forever. Now, make it Japanese: beer is beer the world around, but instead of darts, there is karaoke. Instead of wood paneling and hunting trophies on the wall, there are tatami mats on the floor and calligraphy on the walls. Best of all, instead of hostile locals suspicious of any outsider, the people there were delighted to talk to foreigners, to buy us drinks, to compete with us in karaoke. It was a fascinating night.

The next day, we visited a natural hot spring in the area, known for having been discovered and first used by monkeys. The thing about monkeys is that no matter how often they bathe in a hot spring, they still make the whole area smell like monkey residue. We visited and touristed around for a while, and then we headed back for the long drive back to Tokyo.

The overwhelming majority of the time that weekend was spent in the car. We spent more driving time to vacation time on that trip than on perhaps any other trip of my life. Despite all that, despite the unanticipated addition of hours of driving, I can’t say that that time was wasted. Quite the contrary: it is rare to spend so much time in one go in a state of perfect companionship. Those hours of driving are a treasure in my memory.

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