Crazy 80’s perm hair at Heian Shrine, Kyoto Japan (January 1987)
All I wanted to do was collapse into Blue Eyes’ arms the moment I arrived at the Osaka airport in late December 1986. I had purchased a cheap round trip student airline ticket with an open ended return (I don’t even know if you can do that anymore) and had been on three separate planes taking a full 24 hours by the time I reached Kansai. Even at 23 years old, I couldn’t sleep on an airplane to save my life. On the plane from Anchorage to Seoul, basically in the middle of the night, a really sweet petite middle aged Asian lady was seated next to me. About five minutes into the flight, she tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “you want play scrabble?” Ugh, playing scrabble for eight hours with a woman whose first language was clearly not English was not my idea of a good time. I thanked her and told her no. Since my seat was so bad, next to the restroom and out of view of the movie screen, I pretended to sleep for much of the flight. Every time I tried to read my book, there would be a little tap on my shoulder and a request to play the game with her. Eventually she fell asleep and I was off the hook for scrabble. I had a four hour layover in Seoul, Korea in the wee hours of the morning. I wandered around in the terminal a bit, but nothing was open. I walked over to the windows as the sun started to rise and that is when I noticed the entire airport terminal was surrounded by military, all toting rifles. I gasped and looked around, but everything seemed fine, no military emergency, for sure. I had never been in the presence of so many soldiers at once. Soldiers as far as my eye could see. The airport was cold and unfriendly. I was lonely and I wrapped my arms around myself for some warmth. I realized I had left everything I knew, everything that was comfortable to me, almost everything I loved, behind to follow this boy to a strange new land. I had never taught anything before and now I was potentially going to be teaching English to Japanese students. I had no idea what to expect. Even though I had aced my one intensive Japanese class, I felt really ill prepared to speak out loud to real people in a foreign language. Although I had mastered Katakana and Hiragana (ha, this is what kindergartners learn) I knew very few Kanji and I hoped and prayed that where I was going there would be at least some Romaji (English characters). I suddenly felt overwhelmed. On the short flight from Seoul to Osaka, I started getting less anxious, however, and more excited to be reunited with Blue Eyes.
What I didn’t want to be thinking about at the Kansai airport while embracing Blue Eyes for the first time in four months, was his mother, who was, hopefully, thousands and thousands of miles away (she was). I told him we could talk about it later, that I just wanted to hold him and feel him. I didn’t really think about how we would be getting from the airport in Osaka to wherever we were going in Kyoto (or even how far it was), but it became obvious to me that the Japanese guy standing near us, and holding a big sign that said “Welcome to Japan, Kat” was our ride. He was a coworker of Blue Eyes’ and incredibly sweet. I was so caught up in being with Blue Eyes that I forgot we still needed to get to somewhere private so we could have an honest to goodness reunion. I had been so busy the weeks before leaving for Japan, that Blue Eyes and I really hadn’t spoken much about the logistics of where we would be staying or anything else about my potential job. The coworker drove us into Kyoto and dropped us at a small and very modest hotel. We ended up staying in that hotel for a week as I had arrived during the holiday period between Christmas and New Years. This is a time when most Japanese companies close down for a mandatory vacation week. Blue Eyes thought he had booked us a double bed, however, upon entering the room, we could see, in fact, that there was only a twin bed in the tiny little room. The room was on the backside of the small hotel, tucked in amongst numerous other buildings and the small window looked out to other buildings, and it was winter, and it was very dark and dreary. Thank goodness we were much in love, happy to be together, and relatively thin young people back then. The twin bed proved to not be a problem at all. What was a problem was that on my second day in Kyoto, I got really sick. I was congested with a headache and chest cold and cough. Blue Eyes and a friend of his spent a great deal of time seeking out relief for me. It wasn’t easy. Without the internet and all it’s translation gadgets, etc… it was difficult to find proper medication to ease my symptoms and allow me to enjoy my limited time with Blue Eyes. Most of their translation books did not include the correct words for simple illness and meds, or if they did, the drugs sucked because none of it helped with any of it. I was solidly sick and in bed for at least three days of that precious week we spent together. We ventured to the hotel restaurant to find something I felt like eating, and I thought soup would surely feel and taste good. To my surprise, the only soup available was corn soup. I happen to love corn soup, but I thought what an odd soup to serve in a restaurant every day. I guess corn soup was quite popular in Japan… not so much in the U.S. I was also introduced to Okonomiyaki. Blue Eyes’ friend said it was called Japanese Pizza, but there was nothing (other than the round shape) of the dish that even remotely reminded me of pizza. Okonomiyaki is like a cabbage pancake. I guess that doesn’t sound all that appetizing, but I loved it! Occasionally I make it at home for the family. It is quite unique and to me, delicious. It is a flour based batter with either water or dashi, lots of cabbage, maybe green onions, my recipe calls for tempura flakes and then we cook it like a pancake on one side and put thinly sliced rib-eye steak on the other and grill that and top the whole thing with Japanese mayonnaise and Okonomi sauce, which is like a thicker, sweeter worcestershire sauce. This strange dish is quite popular in the Kansai area of Japan. At 23 years old, for every Japanese dish I was afraid to eat (like uni or whole shrimp with their heads & tentacles, lots of really slimy things), there was another dish right around the corner that I fell in love with!
The reason the week together in a hotel in Kyoto was so coveted, Blue Eyes informed me, was because after that week, he would be going back to his company dorm (males only), and I would be heading to a boarding house room he had procured for me for a very good price in an old area of north Kyoto. His dorm was many stops away in Yamashina-ku, an approximate 20 minute train ride. This is a development in our story that I didn’t want to think about until I had to. I also found out that Blue Eyes had not informed his mother of my plan to visit Japan. He did not know how she found out, but he suspected it was his mentor, Asa, a 60-something year old Japanese man (at the time) that is a good friend of Blue Eyes’ parents and who had sponsored Blue Eyes for his work visa. Asa had no idea the destruction my future mother-in-law leaves in her wake. Actually, Asa recently visited Blue Eyes here in my home town where we currently reside, no doubt on a mission from my MIL (she is on the war path again–post for a different day), but after Blue Eyes spoke openly and honestly about his relationship with his parents (not about his sex addiction), Asa did not bring up Blue Eyes’ mother once. At this point Asa is well into his 90’s and I am sure he realizes 50-something year old sons get to make up their own mind on the parameters and boundaries around relationships with their own mother. So, back to 1986, I am sure that after not getting ahold of me at my apartment or my work number, and then calling both my parents and no doubt getting less than open and forthcoming answers from them, she called Asa. It didn’t really matter to me how she found out as long as we didn’t let her ruin our time together. “We” being the key word.
During that vacation week in Kyoto, we did some sightseeing, but due to weather and my cold, we mostly stayed in and then went out for meals. At the end of our hotel stay together, Blue Eyes helped move me into my room at the boarding house. The house or more accurately, houses (two across the street from each other), were about 500 years old and owned by a round little Japanese lady, probably in her 60’s at the time, but at 23, it’s hard to tell age, especially Japanese age, who spent most of her day sitting in front of her television set in a recliner in the room outside the shower room. Interestingly enough, the area that actually housed a toilet, was across the street from my sleeping quarters. I know!!! Every time I had to go to the bathroom, I had to go outside and across the street, in the winter, in the snow, whenever that might be, for example… THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT! So, to this point I had never met a mean or grouchy Japanese person. Enter, the landlady. I let Blue Eyes do all the talking because her English was supposedly limited (even though she pretty much exclusively rented to foreigners, many of which had little Japanese language skill) and my Japanese, as it turned out, was nearly non-existent. He paid my bill for the week and the landlady rattled off a bunch of rules in her gruff Japanese (not sure Blue Eyes understood half of it) and we proceeded to find the actual room I would be living in. The January day we moved me in to my boarding house room was exceptionally cold, and snowing pretty heavily. I have never been in a house in Japan that has central heat. My room was located on the second floor, up a very tall and narrow staircase and next to one other room. The other room, as it turned out, was occupied by a German girl also in her 20’s. She had absolutely no interest in socializing with me. My space was separated from hers by a thin rice paper screen. I could hear everything she said, and see pretty much everything in shadow, and vice versa. This place, where I would live while in Japan, was approximately eight feet long by five feet wide and completely unfurnished except for a single futon mattress, which took up most of the floor space when it wasn’t rolled up. There was a little window with a lovely view of the snow-covered rooftops of the other old two story buildings in the area. The real problem was the outer walls of the house were incredibly thin and there was no heat and it was snowing. I know I could have literally kicked my foot through that wall if I had tried. I was shivering and sad and lonely even though Blue Eyes was standing right next to me. The thought of him leaving me there, in that room, brought tears to my eyes. I cried, but there was really nothing Blue Eyes could do. We went and got me a small space heater and then Blue Eyes caught the train back to his dorm as he had to get up early for work the next day. We scheduled to meet up later that week for dinner after work in Yamashina. Talking with each other by phone during the week would prove difficult as Blue Eyes was not technically allowed personal calls at work and his living quarters had one community phone for the entire dorm that was heavily used during after work hours. Also, in order for me to use the boarding house phone, I would have to figure out how to do that and most likely come face to face with the landlady, and I was not prepared for that encounter. I spent the rest of my first evening writing letters to people back home and listening to the German girl sing German music while listening to her Walkman. I was lonelier than I had ever been.
The next week would provide lots of activities to keep my mind off how bitterly alone I was. First, I needed to take a shower. Well, the way you do that in Japan (at least the way I had to in 1987 Japan) was 1) you fill the deep Japanese soaking tub with hot water 2) you turn a little bucket over and sit on it in the middle of a shower room, wash yourself off, and use a hand held sprayer to rinse. At this boarding house bathroom we had to bring everything in with us, soap, shampoo, wash cloth, and bucket. The hand held sprayer is not at standing height, that is why you have to sit on the little bucket 3) once you are completely clean, you relax in the deep soaking tub. Truth be told, sometimes I just skipped the bath tub part. The most stressful aspect of all this (which shouldn’t have been stressful at all), was all the yelling coming from the landlady both while I was entering the shower room and while leaving it. I had absolutely no idea what she was saying, so I just ignored her. I knew that was rude, but standing around seemed to elicit more yelling, so I left. As it turns out, Blue Eyes found out through the grapevine from other tenants (who for some reason wouldn’t just talk with me) that apparently taking showers and baths is extra. You had to pay every time you shower. He also found out that paying promptly for the bathing shut her up, but also giving the landlady little tips every now and again kept her quiet. Well, whatever. I paid her for the baths, but otherwise just ignored her. Blue Eyes had been referred to this boarding house by his friend who had also procured me an interview at the English School, so the friend (who did not live at that boarding house, but conversed with the tenants all the time because he worked with them) was hearing about my predicament at the school.
This same school would be the first stop on my adventures out into a foreign country by myself where I did not speak the language. Well, actually, my first stop was an awesome Japanese bakery in the main Kyoto train station on my way to the school. They have the most amazing little french style bakeries in Japan. While I was trying to find the proper direction for the train I needed to take, a Japanese businessman, probably in his 50’s stopped me and I thought maybe he spoke English and was going to offer to help me. As it turned out, however, he didn’t speak English. He just kept trying to touch my hand as if he was going to lead me somewhere and saying… “Ko-hee, Ko-hee?” I had no idea what he was trying to say, so I just shook my head no and tried to walk away. He was very persistent. I eventually escaped him and found the proper track and off I went to the English School for my interview. I later asked someone (who did speak English) what the man was trying to say to me and they said he was saying, “coffee.” He wanted to know if I wanted to go to coffee with him? They said not to be worried when this happens, that Japanese men are harmless and to just be kind but persistent when I decline them. If he couldn’t even say coffee in English, or properly ask me to go with him, what in the world did he think we would talk about while we were at coffee???
At this point in my life I was coming from college in a warm climate of the U.S. and I had very little appropriate winter or office attire. I had super casual clothes and no money to purchase a new wardrobe. Even at my job at college I did not have to dress up. I didn’t own panty hose or even socks, which turned out to be a big problem at traditional restaurants where you are asked to leave your shoes at the door. Walking around a cold restaurant in bare feet was not comfortable or appropriate and I would have to remedy that situation rather quickly. I had put on my dressiest outfit (which if I remember correctly was leggings and a long lightweight sweater with closed toe shoes) and when I arrived, I was led into the office of the American man who ran the English School. He was an incredibly large fellow, tall and well over 300 pounds by my estimation, and he was so rude. He told me he only hired college graduates but that I had come highly recommended, so he might make an exception (if I passed his rigorous testing), all the while leering at me and looking me up and down from behind his oversized American desk. It was like this guy had brought everything from America with him including his vulgar attitude. Most everything he said was racist or sexist or just plain uncouth. He also told me I was to wear skirts or dresses with panty hose and modest shoes to all my teaching jobs. Um, I knew that was not going to happen. I hoped that whatever job I was going to get was going to keep me far, far away from this man. He was wearing a wedding ring and I wondered who in the hell would marry that, but I guess there is someone for everyone and at least with him, unlike Blue Eyes, what you saw is definitely what you got. The truth is the truth, but I shouldn’t be so disrespectful of Blue Eyes. He really is a very sweet, kind, gentle and intelligent person who just happened to come with a bunch of hidden flaws and baggage and who tortured me, but I have always adored him. The man’s wife turned out to be the tiniest quietest sweetest Japanese woman, go figure.
The head of school escorted me into a room with a long table and a proctor sat with me while I took the test, which I was being given two hours to complete. If I passed with at least 70% correct answers, I had a job. I finished the test in less than 30 minutes and if I missed one single question, I would be shocked. It was probably the easiest test I would take in my life. I was scheduled for my first teaching job the following week in a town quite a few connections and train stops away from my boarding house. I was equal parts excited and anxious at the same time. At least I would be making money to support myself, which was critical to my staying in Japan, if I wanted to (and that was a big if at this point).
As it turns out, I would end up clearing nearly twice as much money each month working a part time job teaching English to mostly high school students and businessmen, than Blue Eyes made as a “salaryman” in a Japanese company working 10 hour days. I highly recommend it… the teaching English part, not the salaryman part. My entries become so long so quickly, so I will end here for today. Next time I will talk about being stood up by Blue Eyes, getting lost going to my first teaching assignment, and refusing to return to the boarding house.