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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]

 Chapter 2

 KIKUOKA [Kikuchi] - April 28, 1988   -   SULPHUR IN THE AIR 


There's a hot springs resort town named Kikuoka on the rising edge of the wooded low mountains of central Kyushu, the southernmost island of the big four that comprise Japan.  Kikuoka is a modest place with no national treasures or famous sites that would bring in the droves.  It nonetheless has a dependable flow of Japanese tourists and businessmen taking a break.  The hot tubs are amply peopled and keep this town's water trade (night life) going year round into the wee hours.

I'd only been in Japan for fifteen days when I arrived in Kikuoka, en route to a temple in the nearby mountains, and my curiosity for every little thing Japanese was still in full force.  I arrived on the bus from Beppu at about two in the afternoon and decided to hang around for a day before heading off to the temple. I left my bag at a small hotel and went out to see the place.

Walking around that town of twenty thousand or so with a notebook and wide eyes, my thoughts were like energetic spring sparrows flying from one place to another looking for seeds.  I had absolutely no sense of what to write and what not to write and so I wrote everything.  I noted the size and composition of bricks in building walls and the arrangement and character of stones on creek sides and how carefully they were set and how mysterious their pores and I noted every tiny irregularity and I tried but couldn't describe the moss growing on the stones.  I scribbled rapidly about a piece of tissue paper clinging to a beam in a temple bell tower and the small yellow butterfly on it.

I copied kanji from the signs in the hilltop shrine above the low lying town.  I looked down over the buildings, stretching out into the valleys beyond, and drew a hurried and artless sketch of the streets and roofs with steam rising here and there into the slanting rays of the late day sun.  Descending from the shrine, I counted the seventy-two worn stone steps leading back to the town and smelled a few pines to see if the aroma was the same as their cousins' in Big Sur.  In the Western-style toilet of the largest hotel, a five story light green cement affair, I pulled the toilet paper and it activated a music box in the roll which played a squeaky version of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."  I wrote that down.  I wrote everything down.

Back out on the streets as the sun was setting, I walked around and looked around, eyeballing the store fronts and peeking inside.  The streets were fairly uncrowded.  I passed an old lady pushing what looked like an empty baby carriage and a mother walking with a real baby bundled on her back.  A few schoolgirls in black uniforms giggled when they saw me.  I studied the goods that were for sale.  Many shops were wide open in front with plain wooden display tables covered with enamel tea cups or bins full of shirts or racks of shoes.  At night everything is moved inside and a sliding metal door is brought down.

I'm not a shopper.  I didn't want to buy anything much and was as likely to look at the floor as the goods.  The floors might be cement, as they were in a hardware store, or wood, as in a kimono shop.  One place had packed earth that led to elevated tatami mats.  I took it all in and chewed it up like a goat, tin cans with the grass.

Structures amuse me:  how high the doors, how wide the windows.  I peered at the dark ceilings and noticed the grain of the wide overlapping boards - planed thin on the overlapping edge so that they look as if they butt together.  I stacked it all in my eyes as high as it would go.  Sometimes I like to see what sort of hinges are on the doors before I meet the people inside.  Up and down the street were friendly old wood beam and mud wall shops with tile roofs, and newer flimsy flat roofed buildings with a thin coat of cement for outer walls.  The former made me sigh and the latter made me sad.

Why, I wondered, comparing the new with the old, would anyone build a plain and hopeless building like this when they probably already had a sturdy noble place like that.  I looked from one to the other.  Does not compute.  I shook my head and lamented the aesthetics of the present.  And then I wondered what it had been like at that spot ten years before, and right after the war, and hundreds of years before that.  I looked down the street and imagined it lined with thick-straw-roofed, blackened wood buildings faced with shoji -  latticed wood sliding doors covered on the inside with translucent sheets of handmade rice paper.  I saw dirt streets full of people wearing straw hats and sandals and here and there a sword swinging from a waist sash.  I saw that old world now preserved in samurai movies and wondered what it was really like.  I had an idea of what it would be like for me.  They'd take one look at me and cut my head off.


I stopped to ask directions from a man who was sweeping the sidewalk with a bamboo twig broom in front of his drug store, which was in one of the old-style buildings.  I wanted to find a coffee shop to sit, read and write in.  There are coffee shops everywhere - finding one on my own wouldn't have been a problem.  I just happened to like the way he looked and wanted to chat in my primitive Japanese.  The old pharmacist told me I was on the right track.

"There's a good place right around the corner," he said.  We got to talking and I said he had a charming building and he said apologetically that it was old and small.  He told me that just eight years before, almost all the buildings in that area had been old fashioned like his and had been replaced one by one by the new models.

"Isn't it a shame," I said, and he agreed with me, but I couldn't tell if he cared or not.  I thought that maybe he yearned for one of those new bland buildings himself.  He said his roof leaked and the earth on his walls was crumbling.  I looked inside.  It did look a little drab.  It depressed me to think of the choices.  I dropped architectural considerations and directed my attention to the person.  He was speaking to me clearly and had a kind smile on his face. 

He asked me if I liked Japan and I said I did.  He said that my Japanese was very good and I replied, "Not yet."  We went on with the formulas for a while.  I thanked him and he apologized for helping me so little.  We bowed, tilting our bodies, said goodbye, and I walked on to the coffee shop he had suggested.  It did look inviting, with shuttered windows and flowers in front - I went in.

It was a small cluttered joint with just two booths - the tables had inlaid electronic poker games.  There was a swarthy fortyish man in a business suit playing at one of these tables.  In the corner in front of him, a TV set was on.  I sat at the counter and bid good day to the proprietress who seemed pleased to see me.  She was friendly and inquisitive, in her forties I guessed, short and energetic.  She looked right at me, smiled and said "Welcome," in the customary way, "Irasshaimase!"  Her hand guided a towel over the counter in front of me making sure everything was clean.  I ordered black tea.  "Miruku ti onegaishimasu," I said, meaning "Milk tea please."  It's either miruku ti or rimon ti and I don't like lemon in my tea.  At least they don't say chi.  Like us, they say ti which is a sound not included in their language.  When I say miruku ti I always think of miracle tea, which it sounds like, and expect marvelous things to happen when I drink it.

The lady was easy to speak with and drew me immediately into a conversation, asking the old standbys like where am I from and what am I there for.  She was fascinated that I had come to this area to live in a temple.  She was also excited that I came from the Bay Area.  She had always wanted to go to San Francisco.  While the TV continued broadcasting a quiz show wherein contestants tried to guess the cost of unusual products and services, she played a CD with Tony Bennett singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." I had only been in Japan one day over a fortnight and already I had heard this song about ten times.  It's a sad song with an unhappy ending.  The man who wrote it took his own life.  As I listened and sang along with the parts I remembered, I thought of him hanging limply from a rope in a nondescript San Francisco hotel room.

I snapped out of it as a small pot was set on the counter before me with a sense of style and a kind word from the lady in charge.  I noted the care that went into everything she made or wiped or put away.  I picked up the cup I was to pour my tea into.  It wasn't very typical - usually they give you very proper little tea cups and fill them halfway for a couple of bucks or more.  The cup I got was more like a coffee mug.  It had a cute white bear in a log cabin and a tiny, happy, bouncing boy with a pointy red cap dancing outside by a snow-laden evergreen tree.  The picture was framed on the white cup with a painted ribbon and wreath.  There was an inscription in English written amidst happy young faces.  It read:


Silent and pure night

Night flying


His gift

It's your    Snow Kids


I drank my tea, which was fresh brewed from loose leaves; strong and tasty, maybe English Breakfast.  The lady was on the phone now.  I got out the Japanese book I was studying and started contemplating various forms of request.  Time passed.

Two young women came in after a while and sat at the other end of the counter which was only a few stools away.  They ordered rice omelets.  I peeked over at them.  They had short hair and overalls and looked tough, bordering on butch.  I continued studying what might be called negative potential forms of respectful requests to those of a higher station.  I could see out of the corner of my eye one of the women sizing me up.  She called over to me in a husky voice and I put down my book.

I started talking to them and we exchanged the basics.  They were electrical workers at a nearby power plant and were maybe thirty.  One was stocky and the one behind her was wiry.  They had a mischievous air about them, not that demure modesty that so many women have here.  I wondered if they were lesbians.  They were different from what I'd encountered up to that point.

As we talked, the lady behind the counter was stirring their coffee which was brewing in an open topped glass container above a glass beaker over a thin flame that had heated the water to boiling and sent it up to brew and filter through.  It would be strong and rich, unlike what you get at most places in the States.  After they'd finished their omelets she served it to them apologizing in the customary way for making them wait, and they received their coffee with words of polite thanks.

The proprietress chatted with the two women, and as they talked she took a soda can from under the counter, held it under the light and peered into it.  She turned it upside down over the counter and shook the can until, much to my surprise, a large, shiny, chocolate-brown beetle fell out.  She said good evening to it.  The other two ladies seemed pleased to meet it.  I watched as its captor held it and they fussed over it.  It was shiny, a few inches long, and had two menacing-looking pincers that protruded from the sides of its jaws.  It was similar to a rhinoceros beetle.

While her guests watched in interest, the proprietress brought it over and held it up to me so I could see it better.  I cringed slightly.  She said it was called a kabuto-mushi.  Mushi means bug.  A kabuto is a helmet, as I confirmed by looking up the word in my pocket dictionary.  She got out a magazine and showed me an advertisement for a samurai movie.  In the foreground was one of those warriors all decked out in his fighting armor.  Sure enough, he looked just like the beetle.

One of the tomboyish women took the beetle and started playing with it, saying stuff to me about it that I couldn't understand in what seemed like an aggressive tone.  Her friend leered over grinning.  The stocky one showed me how the beetle could clamp down on her index finger.  I watched as this pit bull of the insect realm pinched in on her finger and marveled that she had the nerve to do it.  I wondered if it hurt.

I've always been hesitant to get physical with insects.  I remember how my childhood friend Jim would grab bees and wasps out of the air and let them go as if he were impervious to their stingers.  I was certain at the time that if I were he they surely would have injected me with painful venom.  I regarded this adventurous woman with admiration.  She seemed to me to be braving the perils of amputation.

She looked at me, eyebrows arched and lips sliding up to her gums revealing more holes than teeth.  I swallowed and smiled, trying to hide my nervousness.  Then she pointed to the zipper of my pants and suggested something that I didn't quite understand but which she made fairly clear through gestures.  She was suggesting that I take something out from behind my zipper and let her sic this minimonster on it.  She put the beetle on the counter and acted it out.  Her left hand played the part of the beetle, with thumb and forefinger for pincers.  The index finger of her right hand played the other role.

She tilted her head and looked my way.  "Want to try it?"

I quickly reviewed the data to make sure I'd gotten it right.  No mistake.  This was really happening.  I thanked her very much but declined the offer.  It was not at all the sort of conversation that I had expected to get into so early in the evening.


There was a buzzing night life in Kikuoka and my hotel was in the center of it.  This night life seemed to consist mainly of Japanese businessmen in the streets and young Asian women in the clubs.  By Asian, I mean not only Japanese but also Philippine, Thai and maybe young women from other countries.  I saw them going in and out of the clubs, restaurants and lodging establishments.  They didn't look like wives - I didn't see many wives.  Some couples and a few kids could be seen here and there, but not many.  My hotel was only for men, salesmen, businessmen and also some earthy guys who I supposed were truck drivers.  I said hello to them and they laughed at me not even trying to respond.

I had the cheapest room in town - it cost 3000 yen for the night, about twenty-four dollars.  It was a "capsule," the lower bunk to the end of a room with about forty of them, each behind a curtain.  Open the curtain and crawl into a rectangular beige plastic container.  It looked like a traveling case for Marmaduke.  I put my shoes and bag in a compartment outside, locked it as I'd been instructed, crawled into my tube and closed the curtain.  It was warm and snug inside, about seven feet long, three and a half feet wide - barely big enough to sit up in.  It had rounded, plastic walls that shone and reflected my feet.  There was a shelf for personal possessions and I put my notebook, Japanese language book, pen, wallet and change on it.  I would have put my watch there like most men but I didn't wear one or even own one at the time.  A radio and a mirror and a clock were built into the capsule.  At the end was a TV which could be watched for free except for a special channel which I supposed had movies.  Beneath me were sheets, at my feet a blanket and I stuck a bean bag pillow about the size of a loaf of bread under my head.

I'd been traveling and walking around all day so I took a nap.  It was about seven thirty.  I woke up at nine in the evening and put on the black-and-white-patterned thin cotton bath robe which was provided, slipped my toes into the green slippers waiting on the astroturf-like carpet outside my capsule, grabbed a towel that said in cursive letters, "Elite Style - Happy Days Glowing," and went downstairs to the baths.

It seemed that every place in Kikuoka had hot spring water piped in.  The cheapest hotel in town was no exception.  I got a key and a washrag-sized towel at the desk and went to the locker area where I left my stuff.  A couple of old men were coming out of the bath area holding their small towels over their genitals as they walked, the way Suzuki and Katagiri used to do at the Tassajara baths.

Inside, the bath was about ten feet square with a big phoney clam shell behind it, a chubby cupid with bow and arrow standing inside it.  The hot water flowed out of the clam into the bath.  I washed off properly beforehand at one of the low faucets that lined the wall, using soap and rinsing by pouring hot water over my head from a wooden bucket.  I entered and soaked in the white-tiled plunge.  It was as hot as I could take it.  About a hundred and twelve, I thought, judging from my years of bathing in the Tassajara hot springs.  There was an adjoining smaller cold plunge next to the hot one so I went back and forth a few times enjoying the wet extremes and gasping with the changes.

As I lolled about in the hot water, an old bent and wrinkled woman came in, cleaned a bit here and there, and straightened the soap, shampoo, loofa, buckets and stools.  There was a middle-aged man generously soaping himself down and scrubbing excessively.  She paid him no mind but gave me a few quick glances.  I got the definite feeling that she was checking me out for size.  I guess not many of us jumbo outsiders had stayed in this hotel.  I wondered if all women in Japan would be as interested in my private parts as they seemed to be on this last day before I entered an all-male monastic practice.


 I went out to walk about, eat dinner and take in the slightly sulphurous Kikuoka evening air.  I ate at a crowded yakitori, a Japanese shish kebab restaurant.  Next to me was a strong elderly man with rough hands who turned out to be the owner of a local sawmill.  He was draped with two rather large and loose looking women he'd come with from the bar across the street.  They looked straight out of a Fellini movie.  The bar was called "Heban," written in katakana, the syllabary that's used for foreign words.  Outside I had mouthed it, my eyes going into the top of my head till I knew what it meant.  Ah, it's how they pronounce the Good Place!  For heaven's sake.  This friendly, loud old geezer had swept me up as he made his way across the street from Heban.  He plied me with a strong glass of shochu, clear distilled rice booze (as opposed to sake which is fermented like wine).  At about twenty-five percent it was strong but not too strong, and it had a smooth woody taste that delighted me as it slid down.  Just my type of drink.  I knew some about carpentry and wood so the sawyer and I had a good time talking.  He said he'd been to Hogoji a few times and heard that there were foreigners there now.  He was impressed that I was going there and said that a monk's life would be too hard for him.  He invited me to come stay with him when I came out of Hogoji.  I said that it would be an imposition on him and his wife but he said no not at all and made me promise that I'd come so I finally agreed.  We talked some more but soon he wished to return to the attentions of the two damsels at his side and since I'd had enough to eat and drink, I was ready for a walk.

I strolled around in the night, finding a narrow winding path with a ryokan at the end nestled in a bamboo grove.  There was a garden lit by a swinging yellow paper lantern in a cherry tree.  The lantern reflected in a pond with large stones set at the perimeter.  Through the bamboo I could see light coming through the shoji windows of the ryokan.  I knew it was a ryokan because the kanji were on a sign in front.  In English it would be called "Crane Inn," an old standby.  The Japanese translate "ryokan" as "traditional Japanese inn," and that's just what it was.  I liked my capsule but I wanted to be here.  It was a little battered but all the better.  I thought of "Wind in the Willows" and went in to inquire about prices.  The lady there didn't seem to want foreigners.  Maybe she thought her establishment, with tatami mats, no chairs and Japanese breakfast, would be incompatible with my tastes.


I visited a few sunakku - "snacks," which is what they call nightclubs.  Pretending to ask directions to an imaginary spot gave me the opportunity to check out the scene without having to spend any money.  Those places charge far more than they'd be worth to me.  The first snack I entered seemed to be decorated for Christmas.  Teenybopper Japanese rock was in the air with lots of young hostesses standing around waiting, or sitting next to businessmen and fawning over them.  There were several women for every man.  These ladies were acting as if they were having the time of their lives pouring and stirring the men's drinks and putting their hands on the men's knees.  Some of the men would go "Heh heh heh," and see how close they could get their hands to a woman's breast or near her panties.  The women would giggle and scold the men and maybe even slap them playfully.  What a way to spend a lot of money.

As I stood by the door a hostess took notice and suddenly a half dozen young ladies were enthusiastically welcoming me.  I very quickly made it clear that I was merely asking directions.  No one seemed to care.  If it had been on Broadway in San Francisco a bouncer would have booted me out in nothing flat.  The ensuing conversation took a while.  I greeted the mama-san, the owner or lady who ran it.  They didn't know the name of the place I was seeking, but they were friendly and accommodating and when we parted they thanked me profusely for coming and stood on the street bowing goodbye.

In the third snack I went in, one of the hostesses was sent out with me to make sure I found what I was looking for.  We walked around for an hour, looking for a little jinja (shrine) I'd made up the name of.  There were so many little jinja that no one doubted its existence.  So we'd ask and would continue to be sent this way or that in search of it.

She was a rather homely and plump eighteen year old with braces.  She came from the nearby countryside and stared at me with her mouth open and her hand covering it.  She didn't know how she was supposed to act with me but she was put more at ease when I asked her about her family.  She was out of high school and lived with her mother on their farm where they grew rice.  I didn't ask about her father.  She helped out at home and worked in town at nights.  I wondered if her mother thought she was a waitress.  She wanted to get married and have just one child.  After a while I said I was giving up, wished her good luck, thanked her for helping me, and watched a little sadly as she turned the corner on her way back to work.


In the middle of the night I sat studying Japanese on a couch in the lounge area outside the capsule hive.  I heard feminine laughter coming up the stairs and soon found myself surrounded by a number of attractive young women.  They were Filipino dancers at the club downstairs and they stood giggling as they asked me questions.  It was three in the morning and they had just gotten off work.  They had a row of capsules to themselves with a separate entrance off the small lounge where I was reading and writing by the light of the emergency exit sign.  They crowded around me and were excited to meet a Westerner and they said very sincerely that I was quite handsome - a real stretch of the imagination.  They asked if I was married.  Some seemed naive and others had a kind of professional vibe about them - one made flirtatious suggestions.  I talked to them without returning any mating signals and the feeling gradually moved from flirtatious to friendly. 

English is the official second language of the Philippines so they were easy and fun to talk with.  I learned they had almost no time off and were watched by the management.  One who was small, shy and very sweet said she hated the Japanese men who paid to watch them dance and who apparently didn't treat them with respect.  The others chimed in yes yes yes in agreement.   I told them that I'd met many fine Japanese men and that I was sorry that their circumstances selected for such unpleasant encounters.  The oldest one who was probably in her late twenties and who seemed to be their leader, said that I treated them with respect.  The others nodded. 

We talked more.  It seemed they were all dying to get back home, where they sent the good money they made - either as a gift to their families or as savings for their education.  They really wanted to get back home and get married.  Each had her story but they all boiled down to "make money and get out."

Some of them went off to bed but a few stayed to talk.  I felt like an honored guest at a Philippine slumber party.  Eventually only the small sweet one and the older more experienced one remained.  The little one ran off for a minute and came back with a photo of herself.  It was a darling picture of her in front of the Kikuoka bus station.  She seemed so innocent.  On the back she had written in meticulous script: "Embrace this keepsake from your cherished friend and treasure always in fond remembrance."  She gave it to me shyly and looked down when I smiled and thanked her.  The older one, big sis, went out and came back with her own picture in which she was all dolled up in lots of thick makeup, scantily clad and sexy on the stage.  She turned the photo over.  On the back she had written carefully, "Embrace this keepsake from your cherished friend and treasure always in fond remembrance."

"Well thank you very much," I said, wondering where that line came from.  I put up a finger and said, "Wait a sec."  Then I ran to my capsule leaving them puzzled.  A half minute later I was back.  "This is someone very special to me," I said, and showed them a picture of a young brunette American lady near their age standing on a cliff by the ocean in the wind, wearing blue jeans and a green sweater, beautiful and smiling.  They were very interested and went "Oooooh."  We looked at the picture together.  "Is this your fiancee?" asked the younger one.

"Oh I don't know," I said.

"She looks like she loves you," said the older one, looking at me for confirmation.

"Maybe," I said and put the picture away.

Oh these sweet young ladies, I thought.  I could feel their yearning and it was not for me.  They didn't want any brief pleasure.  They wanted to take care of their families.  They wanted to get married - if possible to someone from the States or a European.  I could have saved one of them from this indentured service and paid for her grandmother's hernia operation.  But I was going off the next day to a temple in the mountains.  I told them so.

"Are you a priest?" said the older one, pulling her hand from my head which she had been stroking.

"Uh, sort of," I answered.

"Will you bless me," she said.

"Oh I'm not a Catholic priest," I said embarrassed.  "I'm just a Buddhist ... uh ... I mean I don't do any priestly things."

She held her hands together and looked at me entreatingly.  "Please bless me," she said.

Oh gosh, I thought, I'm watching the kind of urges that get priests in trouble and she wants me to bless her.  "How would you like me to bless you?"  I said looking at my feet.

"Put your hands on my head," she said, placing them up on her long silky hair.  I felt the hands of a woman who has pulled men down on her many times.  I held my hands on her head a minute and hoped for the best for her and said in my mind, "Oh please help her and her friends anyone out there who can.  May they all find what they want."

We said goodnight smiling and backing into our respective areas.  Earlier that day I had noticed one or another of these ladies going into or out of the regular-sized rooms with men or getting keys at the desk or returning them.  I thought there ought to be a better social security system in the Philippines.  I also couldn't help but envy the men on the other end of those room keys.


I went into the capsule room and walked down to mine.  The night life was over and everyone was in his comfy container.  As late as it was the TV's were still on in a number of the capsules so I turned mine on too.  I checked around for something interesting and didn't find anything so I put a hundred yen coin in the box attached to the TV.  The hotel clerk had shown me how earlier when he had oriented me on capsule use.  The sound came on first and immediately I noticed that it was synched with that of the other capsules.  There was certainly no ordinary movie on.  A young naked attractive Japanese couple was having sex before my very eyes.  I felt stupid for not having realized that was what the pay TV channel was.  It wasn't bad either.  I lay back and watched.  It didn't have the degrading disgusting quality that a lot of American porno has.  It was more polite, which didn't surprise me at all considering it was Japanese.  It was mechanical in a way but it was nice to watch.  The genitals were fuzzed out.  I'd heard about this.  No genitals are allowed in magazines or in movies.  You can see women bare breasted on prime time TV but at three in the morning grown people in private rooms are not allowed to witness pubic hair, much less genitalia. 

I looked at the fuzz closely to see what I could make out.  I saw that it was composed of tiny bouncing squares.  I gazed at the squares all surrounded by heaving thighs and undulating faces and was even getting aroused.  Pleasant experiences from my past came to mind.  Then my attention was drawn to the shiny plastic wall to my right where a reflection of the TV screen revealed the same exciting activity.  The young couple was now doing the two-backed beast.  My eyes looked hard at the reflected show and I was impressed at the quality of picture on the wall.

"My, these people sure do clean things well,"  I thought.  Not a smudge or ripple in that picture.  Wait!  Not a smudge?  No!  And hardly any fuzz!  I turned back to the original screen and it was the same old tantalizing blur in the places where there should be what the Monty Python folks call "naughty bits."  I turned back to the wall and sure enough, I saw the real stuff.  I savored a backroom thrill at the illicit transmissions and wondered how the appropriate government agency would deal with this.  The wall, by some strange random quirk of plastic fate, had decoded the scramble of the censors.  I watched it with forbidden glee.

Suddenly the set clicked off and left me in the dark as if the wrath of a cosmic antiporn crusader had fallen.  My time had run out.  I was tired and lay back, and in the utter darkness I could hear on other TV sets, the moans of the same program that I had been watching.  There was a slight vibration in the room.  I rolled over on my side and realized, as consciousness faded, that I was going to sleep in a room full of masturbating men.