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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 6




The ritual sounds of Daianji, the calls of the birds and noises of the neighbors, rise before the sun and set after twilight.  In the sweltering summer the accompanying locust volume is like the undulating roar of jets from an airport.  Often at night we can hear the screaming engines of the bosozoku, the motorcycle gang members, usually far off and unchecked by the police.  Periodically trucks come by with loudspeakers announcing their business: selling drying poles for clothes and bedding,  delivering groceries from the Co-op or trading toilet paper for old newspapers, magazines, books, cardboard and rags.  Right now, late afternoon, it is quiet except for a dog occasionally barking in the distance.  All dogs are locked up - a lot of them in cages or held by ropes or chains.  There's one mutt on the other side of the temple grounds that yaps at everyone who goes in the temple's back door.  At times that yap is sharp and unrelenting and I think uncharitable thoughts about the canine and its owners.

The bellows of the bullfrogs begin in the spring.  Shimizu-san, a student of mine who owns a liquor store, says the ushigaeru were sent over from America after the war - to be eaten.  There was a shortage of food.  Some got loose and their descendants are now spread around Japan, or at least in this area.  Until he told me that, I translated their name as "cowfrogs," and thought they were indigenous.  During the late spring and summer, they produce deep foghorn-like sounds that can be heard all over the countryside.  It's surely a mating call.  Elin and I are attracted to it.  Just yesterday morning the birds were singing the treble, the bullfrogs were the bass and Elin was tapping rhythm.  I was in the ofuro, the tub, seeking the midrange.  It seemed as if the trees were full of joyous bells and whistles and the pond and mizo were scattered with cellos.  I walked out of the ofuro dripping, opened our standup organ and checked the register of these musical amphibians.  The lowest was the C below C below middle C.  There were two going F and three F# in that range, one mooed G and one slid from A to G.  Sometimes the ushigaeru do sound just like cows.  One day Elin was taking a walk with her mother, who was visiting, and convinced her that they were on their way to a dairy.

This morning there was an advertising plane buzzing our neighborhood.  I got out the video camera to capture it for posterity.  I was expecting to hear the usual ad for a clothing store that's down the kendo (the prefectural road) toward town - forgetting that they only advertise by plane on Sunday.  Sound trucks blow foreigner's minds, but these squawking invasive ad planes elicit the most intense response from our Western house guests who frequently, when they get over the initial shock, express a strong desire to be in possession of a surface-to-air missile.  I can never quite believe it's real and am always delighted when they circle our neighborhood.

As I videoed the plane approaching, Seki-san came out of her house across the street and called to me.  She's in her forties and is a sweet lady, though a bit scatterbrained at times.  I tried to shush her and get her to wait but she stood in front of me in her white apron and insisted I come over and video something at her place.  I gave up and did what she asked.

There was a swallow's nest, with baby birds in it, over her doorway - a propitious sign, and it was charming with the parents flying in right over our heads and feeding the kids.  I got a minute of it and ran back out on the street in time to get the last swoop of the airplane booming out its message over our area.  It wasn't till then that I noticed what it was saying.

"Forgive me! forgive me! I am so very sorry!" the aerial loudspeaker blared over and over.  As it flew off I asked Seki what that was about and she explained it was a local politician apologizing for accepting a bribe in the Recruit scandal.  He was subsequently reelected.

The wind in the trees and through the bamboo grove is a mellow background for the garbage truck's "beep, beep, beep, beep, beep" while backing up.  Yesterday I heard housewives trotting out to deposit their trash on the proper spot beside the tree-lined street in front of the temple's small outer gatehouse.  After dropping a box and a bag, I looked at the pile and wished people wouldn't put so much plastic out on burnable day.

Trotting seems to be the official step of the housewife.  It shows us she's busy and doing her duty.  It does look like she's desperately trying to keep up with something.  At first it threw me off - I would think there was an emergency and wanted to offer assistance.  But now I am accustomed to it and when I see a woman trotting, or acting anxious or saying how busy she is, I know she is merely following good form. 

Elderly Okamura-san next door (who does not trot) says that she isn't busy.  "I just putter around in the garden sometimes."  She says Tokyo has such a fast pace that it puts Maruyama's trotters to shame.  "There you'll see men racing about as well."  This is a phenomenon, she claims, caused by the effect of ancestors rushing for over two thousand years to escape the wrath of volcanos, earthquakes and tidal waves.