Trudging to the video rental store each evening after work to reclaim my bike inspires a sigh of relief and satisfaction each time I arrive and my bike is still there, parked where I left it some 8 hours before. Sometimes, I find trash inside the basket – dumped inside by some thoughtless jerk.
“I cannot believe some creep put a cigarette carton/empty bottle/plastic bag in my bike basket!” I growl – right before dumping the trash in someone else’s.
One must remove their shoes each time they enter someone’s home or a carpeted room. Though I understand the cultural significance of this act – as well as the cleanliness it promotes in the home – I can’t help it; I think it’s a giant pain in the neck. Sometimes, I visit Sean in his apartment and since we are on our way out, I jump inside quickly, without taking off my shoes.
“Excuse me now!” Sean cries. “Shoes – in my apartment? How dare you! What cheek! Take them off.”
“Playa, please!” I say. “Why you gotta front? You’re from Cork, fool – not Japan.”
“Take them off!” he orders. “They track dirt inside!”
“Fine!” The shoes come off – only to be slipped on half a minute later when Sean is ready to go.
There are designated lanes in train stations, demarcated on the stairs leading to and from platforms: up, and down. Absolutely nobody follows these rules, unless by accident. Elderly men hold their flat palms sideways against the middle of their chests, fingertips reaching towards the sky, the palm itself protruding from their chest like a shark fin as the men attempt to cut their way through the sea of people. This is the universal signal for “move, if you please.” One cannot pleadingly beg “sumimasen!” every two feet; I do it now, too.
Eating food in public is supposed to be quite rude. I try my best to adhere to this social custom, even when it’s been 6 hours since I’ve eaten and all I can think about is the octopus onigiri in my purse. It is moments like these when my gaijinity screams to be released and my respect for my surroundings struggles to keep it at bay. Sometimes, when I feel faint and angry, the respect loses. I remember American Matt’s words to me shortly after we moved here: “People expect foreigners to be rude – you have a free pass.” So I silently unwrap my onigiri and take a much-needed pinch. Old men beside me glare.
For years, I reviewed cosmetics for a Canadian website and cosmetic manufacturer. We had several Asian panelists on board and through them I learned about whitening products. In Asian countries, a fair complexion is desirable and whitening skin care products are designed to help women achieve that goal. This penchant, combined with the Japanese custom of wearing a dental mask in flu weather, reminded me a little too much of Michael Jackson and I reacted to whitening products with slight distaste. I see whitening products everywhere in stores, manufactured by every cosmetic company, alongside eyelid glue, nose bridge pinchers, and gadgets designed to “train” your smile.
I stalk drugstores for fun, so I have come near whitening products many, many times. If you see something long enough, I suppose it starts to look interesting – and, in fact, it occurred to me a little while ago that since whitening products are designed to remove pigment, perhaps they could be good for helping to remove red marks on the skin. So I bought a 500 yen Whitening Pack in a little white jar … and you know what? It’s not half bad. The legions of blackhead removal products are another story.
Somebody please deliver me from Japanese ladies’ fashion, for it is dominated by billowy babydoll tops paired with skinny pants and leggings. This combination is charming on a tiny, slim and angular Japanese girl but hideous on someone who is miniature yet curvy like myself. I realize Japanese fashion is not geared towards little ol’ round me, but I would like to buy a new sweater once in a while. Alas, this is impossible when each and every knit sweater takes me from “thin” to “5 months and counting.” As for my bottom half, I weigh a mere 42 kilograms, yet I take a “large” in underwear and a “larger” size in pants which, unfortunately, are still far too long since my size 23 thighs do not match my size 19-length legs. This “large” business is somewhat upsetting, and matters are absolutely NOT helped when, say, a random man stops me in a shopping arcade and swooningly tells me that “it’s nice to see a full-figured woman in Japan for a change.”
I will take the exquisite shoes, though. When it comes to the dainty, small-sized Japanese shoes, I finally have my day in the rising sun. In America, my searches for size 5 shoes often proved futile, complete with a haughty look and sneer from the salesladies, who would tell me: “You know, size 5 is a difficult size to find.” (You telling me?) In Japan I am a size 22 and shoes in this size are wonderfully abundant. I might not get to play with the beautifully detailed Japanese frocks, but I have bought 6 pairs of shoes, more than I usually buy in 3 years.
I now also wear the cotton and lace decorative dress shoe liners that all the girls wear these days and thus can get two looks out of one pair of shoes.
Still haven’t been to a public bath, though there is one literally around the corner from my apartment building. I am a little obsessed with the idea of embracing this very Japanese tradition but so far have not been able to get up the nerve to be naked around strangers, even though I’ve been assured that no one ever even lowers their eyes. Each day off, I swear to myself that I will pack my furoshiki with shampoo, soap and flip flops and head on over. But I never do.
It is illegal for people to ride two at a time on bicycles, but everybody in Sakiio does it any way. Women stand on the axles of the back wheel with their hands resting on their boyfriend’s shoulders while he pedals through the winding, narrow streets, dodging at least five other bicycles at the same time. Children ride in baskets strapped to the handlebars or the metal rack over the back wheel, their hair flapping freely in the breeze because nobody wears helmets.
Sean recently got a flat so sometimes, if we meet after work and we don’t feel like walking home, he rides my bike, with me sitting on the back wheel’s metal rack, holding on to him around his waist, clutching to his suit jacket. He is so much larger than I am that I can’t see past his shoulders and the 7 minutes to our apartment building are terrifying. Yet, we always arrive at Maison Otako in one piece.
I still hate the cyclists, and myself, a little bit, too. But not as much as them. And I never did get an umbrella holder for my bike – yesterday’s ride home was rain-soaked.