Hanko and a proposition

Day before yesterday (Thursday) I taught just a couple of classes, then went out with my American coworker, Ryann. She took me to an Indian food place called Nirvana for dinner and a beer while we waited to hear from a friend of hers. The waiter and the man at the front where we paid our bill spoke halting Japanese through thick Indian accents. The food was good, if a bit on the bland side, but I’d go back in a pinch.

We walked through the red light district, a couple blocks off Odori St. just a few blocks long. Bars advertising what were apparently supposed to be beautiful women popped away from every wall, except for one with an illustrated man in a white ballet costume (tutu perched around his forehead) while a swan’s neck and head protruded from his crotch. Gay bar maybe? I need to start learning kanji.

We walked through the Moss building (a multi-leveled department store just a few blocks from work) so Ryann could show me something called friction pens: normal ink pens that erase without using up the hard rubber “eraser” at the back end of the pen. They’re fucking magical. I bought two, plus an erasable highlighter for people back home. I forgot to get one for myself.

It’s been raining on and off for a few days, and the weather has cooled considerably from tropical to balmy to pleasant to slightly chilled. I prefer cities a bit damp. They’re always more beautiful that way. I catch myself thinking, “I can’t wait to see that covered in snow,” recently, and I know I’ll be kicking myself for even thinking it later. Still, I have to make a promise to myself to take photos of the beauty of Morioka in the winter, no matter how cold it is. I signed up for this. I have to be brave.

Yesterday, Friday, was my first day off since coming here. Per usual, I got up, ate breakfast (eggs on bread now that the gas has been turned on), and headed out to the tourist center to make use of their wifi. Mine will take over a week to establish at my apartment.

Afterward I headed to the hanko shop to meet Nabuko-san so we could walk a block to the bank and set up an account for me. I stopped into a convini (convenience store) across from the hanko shop just to poke around. Some guy was standing around outside the store, seemingly waiting for someone and seemed harmless, so I paid him no mind. Inside, I was slightly alarmed to hear country music twanging through the speakers. Why. Jesus.

I bought some powdered coffee just for kicks and went back to wait outside the hanko shop (this particular hanko shop has a small monkey on its sign. When I mentioned this to Nobuko, she said, “Yes! That is because they used to have a monkey! Their advertisement was, ‘Hanko shop, with the monkey!'”). About a minute later, while I was editing photos on my phone, the dude outside the convini approached me, eyes comfortably meeting mine as he crossed the street.

Now, in Los Angeles, when a strange man approaches a strange woman on the street, he has to go out of his way to demonstrate he is not a threat, and usually does so by, as a friend recently so aptly put, “basically approaching like a hostage: hands up, totally helpless.” This man did not do anything of the sort. So I put my phone away, put my bags down and got ready for a fight without looking like I was doing just that.

When he reached me, he said, with a soft voice, in polite Japanese, “Excuse me, do you speak Japanese?” I replied with my best Tokyo accent, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t know Japanese. But, do you speak English?” He replied that he did not, and I apologized again. He then handed me a folded up piece of paper, and waited for me to open it. It has his phone number and email address on it. I smiled and said thank you. He said something else, and I said “Hai, arigato,” with a polite smile. He bowed, I bowed, and he left.

As Nobuko-san and I were waiting for the paperwork to go through at the bank, I told her about him to gague her reaction, and her first words were, “Be careful.” Then she asked his age. “Young man?” I said yes. Her shoulders relaxed and she laughed. I reassured her I had no intention of contacting him. I had to fill out the paperwork at the bank three times because I needed to write my name exactly as it is on my resident card (last, first, middle, all in caps). They gave me a few small gifts in a bag before we left to apologize for the mixup: a small towel, a small package of wet wipes, and a bottle of handsoap that smells like oranges, all of which is plastered with their logo.

I had a nice chat with Nobuko-san at the bank and on our way back to the school. She has lived in the Morioka area her whole life, and has a very old cat named Ku because that’s the sound it makes instead of meowing. We chatted about languages and dialects, and she said she speaks Japanese, English, and some Japanese dialects from around the area. When I asked for an example, she said that when giving food for others to eat, instead of saying, “Tabete kurasai,” people here might just say, “Ke.” Likewise, when receiving food, at a restaurant for example, one would usually say, “Itadakimas,” but could instead say, “Ku.” After telling me all this, she strongly discouraged me from saying it, and emphasized that it would sound rude. “I don’t care, I’m saying it anyway!” I threatened, and she laughed.

On our way back to work, while, talking about her cat, I asked what’s its name again? Ke?” “Ku!” she said, and I smiled widely, delighted that I had gotten her to do the ‘ke/ku’ call and response with me that she told me never to do. She immediately realized what had happened, and stopped walking to let out a howling laugh by the roadside in the rain. I giggled as we started walking again, “Ke, ku, ke, ku…”

Today I taught one class in the morning, savored my first real ramen at Santouka with Ryann (the chasu was amazing, the best I’ve ever had), then headed to the tourist center and drained my battery facetiming with people back home, then taught several classes in the afternoon to some very shy young Japanese students, all of whom are polite to the point of being disorienting for me.

I gave a friendly “Jamata” to one of the women leaving work today, and Ryann said she had learned a different phrase: Matane. We asked Nobuko-san, who laughed and immediately came over to correct me. “No no, never say! That is very rude!” I threw my hands up and made a mental note to try to get in touch with my Japanese teacher back in LA who had specifically taught me jamata. “You’re bothering me,” I’ve apparently been bleating to my students as I left every class I’ve taught so far, goddammit. The correct phrase is, as Ryann said, matane, which I will desperately try to remember for the next 12 months.

I came home, dropped off my computer, threw on my trenchcoat and headed out to visit the nearest grocery store for the first time. I made it on my first attempt without getting lost, and grabbed all the essentials: eggs, milk (which tastes like cheese, goddammit), potatoes (pretty sure they’re potatoes…), salmon sushi (which was awful, god, Japan, what the fuck), squid sushi in an orange-pink sauce (too salty and tough, but otherwise not bad), ramen (soft and dry types), more powdered coffee (I hope it doesn’t suck, I’ve never even tried it), ice cream (chocolate and green tea), mint chocolate pocky, and a pack of lemon gum.

I arrived at home with a mind to make rice and eat the sushi when I suddenly realized I didn’t know how to use the rice maker, 60% of whose buttons are smothered in kanji. The other four buttons are up/down arrows, and katakana that I had to get out my flashcards to decipher (menu and timer respectively). Eventually, I hit a button that went red and assumed it was the “keep my rice hot” button. Ten minutes later I checked and it was warm, but not hot. I tried some other buttons, but went back to little red because it seemed to have the best work ethic. Turns out I was right, and now I have rice and no sushi to eat with it. It’s 10:17pm.

The cicaidas here make beautiful sounds. I’ll never get tired of it. I can’t wait to show this place to the people back home.


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