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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 48


October 7, 1989   -   SAVING THE SALAMANDER


Yesterday as we rode our bicycles out to the Inland Sea, Elin asked me if I noticed something different.

"Yes," I told her.

"What is it?"

"I don't know."

"It's the humidity - it's gone.  We can breathe again.  I feel light."

How right she was.  It's not sticky anymore.  Fall in Maruyama is especially soothing after the oppressive wet heat that continued almost till mid September.  The other day my calligraphy teacher, called the weather mushiatsui (hot and humid).  It didn't seem so to me so I asked if we couldn't just say "a bit warm and humid," and she said, "No, we can't say that.  Just mushiatsui."  She said mushiatsui when it was a hundred degrees (which they call thirty-seven around here).  It's seventy-five right now on the right side of our celsius/fahrenheit thermometer.  Here people always say something about the weather when they meet and, mark my words, it's going to go from "Hot and humid isn't it?" to "Cold isn't it?"  I'm never going to get to say it's warm or cool or just right.  I must deepen my understanding of it all.


I was enjoying the reduced heat and humidity as I stood in our garden looking at the red leaves on the maple tree.  Elin appeared around the corner on our shopping bicycle - the cheap one with big baskets in front and back.  It was like the family pickup truck.  She wore shorts, a t-shirt and sandals and had a small potted tree in the front basket that she'd gotten from Ishitaki.

She whizzed by me saying, "Look at this great new ficus,  Yiperoo!" and I followed her up the driveway and held the bike as she got the pot out.  The deep temple bamboo grove was behind her and they looked so nice together, her curves against the straight bamboo, dense with leaves topside and swinging in the breeze.

"I'm going to work in the garden," she said and then before I could say anything, she sucked in a little gasp.

I followed her eyes and there was charming, elderly Okamura-san, our sweet and dignified neighbor, squatting on the edge of her gently sloping metal garage roof.

"Ohayo gozaimasu," she called down pleasantly bidding us a good morning and we responded in kind looking up at her on the sunny perch.  All the weight of her body was on the bottoms of her feet, her knees up and her posterior reaching her heels.  She was pulling the yellow leaves off of a tree that grew up next to the garage and putting these leaves into a black plastic garbage bag.  This lady is in her seventies and usually when we see her she's puttering in the garden or taking a walk with her shopping bag -  not sitting on her roof.

"What are you doing up there?" Elin asked.

"I'm picking the leaves before they fall and become troublesome," she answered while pulling another few more off the tree and putting them in the bag.

Just then the mailman came puttering in on his scooter.  Elin and I stepped aside as he stuffed a few letters in Okamura's mailbox and handed us ours.  One of them was for Mr. Okamura - it was from Rotary International headquarters in America.  We get all the romanized mail in the neighborhood and then I often have to translate it all when I give it to the proper party.  I pointed it out to the mailman and he put it in the Okamura's box.  As he started to swivel his motor bike around, he caught a glimpse of our neighbor on the roof and did a double take, stopped and looked up at Okamura.

"Ii otenki desu ne? (nice weather isn't it)" he said, recovering.

"So desu ne," she agreed and he zoomed down the driveway and off to the temple.


I helped Elin carry the ficus into the garden and walked out to the street to look around.  The air was full of smoke from neighbors burning leaves.  I loved the smell - it reminded me of my boyhood in Texas before burning outdoors was taboo.  A squadron of scarlet dragonflies was swooping around as I was fishing a soft drink can out of the mizo.  I noticed Numoto Sensei, who lives on the other side of the Daianji parking lot, about to get into his Volkswagen Bug over at the temple parking lot.  He stuck his hand up in the air.  I waved goodbye.  He hesitated, then drove over to say hello on his way out.  I realized that I had unintentionally beckoned him - our wave "goodbye" is their wave "come here."  Fine.  I was always happy to talk to the professor.  Numoto Sensei is a friendly retired botanist who has made our stay in this neighborhood much richer.  He usually gives me something more to chew on after the formalities.

"Ohayo gozaimasu, ogenki desu ka?" (Good morning, how are you?), I said and he answered back in English, "Well, and you?"  And I said that I was fine and that it's getting cold and he said yes it is.  And then I said in Japanese, "You're going out?" and he answered in English because he likes to use his English as much as I like to use my Japanese.

He got out of his old white Bug looking casual and like the professor he is, with a pipe in his mouth and horn rim glasses.  "Yes, I am going far North in the prefecture."

"What takes you there," I asked, deciding to speak English with him and not get involved in one of our language wars, each  insisting on speaking the other's tongue.

"Takes?" he asked.

"Why are you going there?" I reworded.

"I am seeking an ancient amphibian."

"How do you say 'amphibian' in Japanese?"


"Both life?" I asked the way we often do, giving the basic English for the two Chinese characters that make up the word.

"Yes," he said.  "It lives both in water and on land.  This one lives in shade of streams on remote mountain.  It is very big.  One of biggest amphibians."

"Is it a salamander?" I asked.  Sensei checked in a large specialized dictionary he had in the back seat and said that it was indeed a type of salamander.  He pulled out some dried persimmons and handed me one.

"Just persimmon now, for I am driving.  Come over tomorrow evening and try the new wine I have made from the wild berries in the hills."

"I'll be there," I said.  I love going to his house.  We meet in his study in back.  It is packed full of books and papers - shelves and cabinets around the walls, and tables stacked high in the center.  There are two easy chairs on the side with a low table in between and we sit there for an hour or so every couple of weeks, drink his home brew and solve the problems of the world.  Last week he told me of his failed attempts to stop the government from cementing the sides of local rivers, creeks and the coastline.

I made the mistake of going into his house with him once.  Like many Japanese homes it was utterly cluttered - not dirty, but full of stacks and piles of household items, magazines, newspapers, mail, wooden and cardboard boxes, tins, and such.  As soon as I entered, his wife, hearing my voice, ran in from another room, put on a cloth mask over her nose and mouth and walked around with a feather duster whacking like crazy until we left.  People don't go in each other's homes much except maybe in a special guest room which is spiffy.  Temples are that way too.  The private living parts of them are frequently unkempt. 

It's just like the old Gahan Wilson cartoon with the Japanese priest sitting in front of the byobu, the folding screen, a flower in a vase and a scroll at his side (that's how I remember it anyway) - perfect minimal austerity for his guest.  Behind the byobu the place was a mess.  I don't know if Wilson knew it, but that's the way it often is.  Numoto's house didn't correspond to the cartoon in the usual way, though, because there was no tidy, proper guest room in his home.  The closest thing to it was his study which he did not organize for public approval.

Once I insisted that I help bus the dishes in a home where Elin and I were eating dinner.  I thought the only reason the housewife protested was that she didn't want her guest to work.  But when I entered the kitchen I understood - there was just a tiny aisle that wasn't stacked with magazines and junk.  I had to walk sideways to the sink which was piled high with dishes already.  I never tried that again.

Numoto's yard was also not the usual pruned showcase.  It was large and natural - his own agricultural lab with many varieties of fruit trees and plants for herb teas.  And there was grass we could sit on in good weather and chat about the disappearing fireflies that families continued to catch on summer nights and put in jars.  He thought the insecticides had done them in more than anything.

Back to the salamander.  Numoto does this sort of field trip a lot.  Twelve students from the University were meeting him up North.

"I bet this isn't pure science," I said, getting a hunch while chewing with relish on the dried persimmon.

"Why do you say so?" he curiously asked, tamping his pipe.

"Mmm this is good," I said looking at the dried persimmon.  "I see these hanging up all over when I take walks.  It's the best way to eat these hard Japanese persimmons."

"They are very tasty when dried," he agreed.

"I bet they came from your tree."

"Yes," he nodded.

"And I bet that you're trying to stop a golf course from being built," I resumed the topic.

He smiled proudly, "That is right.  If we find the salamander then we can slow them down because the golf playground, what do you say?" he stopped.

"Course, golf course," I instructed.

"The golf course will destroy the salamander and it is a very old and important animal.  Maybe in this way we can stop them."

"But don't limit it to the salamander," I advised.  "Don't just say 'salamander.'"

"No," he said, immediately understanding my point.  "It is an indicator of general environmental destruction.  It is like the canary in the mines - but to me it is also just for the salamander - and each animal and plant."

"Yeah, but you'd better talk more in terms of the other side - of managing resources so they will benefit people for a long, long time."

"And how else should I talk to people to stop the golf course?"

"Hit them in their national pride.  Talk about the ruin of the sacred island of kami and unique, superior people descended from the sun."

"Oh!" he said, taken aback at my patriotic appeal.

"I don't know - what should you say?  Talk about maintaining balance and sustaining this island ecosystem.  Responsibility to the future?  Wouldn't Japanese respond to that better than Americans?"

"You should give talk.  You could save the salamander better than me."

"But you are the expert," I said deferring.

"But you are an American and Japanese people will listen to you but will not listen to me.  That is the character of the people."

"Really?" I said, surprised.  "You mean like if I gave a serious talk on the environment, they wouldn't think I was Japan bashing?"

"Not if you're careful," he said with conviction.  "They wouldn't listen to me but you would make them ashamed and they would think, 'We should not do such a thing.'"

I shook my head,  "Naaah, I think I'll just watch the world be destroyed.  I can't stop it.  I'll just pull up a chair and watch.  So you'll have to save it."

"It can't be helped," he said with a smile.  "But I will try."

"Well, I admire you for trying," I said, "Good luck and I hope you find lots of salamanders."

"Not too many," he responded.  "Just a few would be best."