Part of a Series of Travel Stories: Five Truths and Two Lies
We checked into the Samurai Palace. They didn’t have a turnaround in front of the hotel. There was just a little awning and a man outside wearing a traditional Japanese doorman outfit. I thought, What’s with the sword? but I figured that was part of the getup. We weren’t in the touristy district — the American touristy district, that is. We were out of the way in a clean one-way street that smelled of lilacs. Small cars that were Fords and Mercedes crammed onto the right side of the street, almost bumper to bumper. Two people, a man and a woman, both brunettes wearing orange cotton pants and an orange button-down-the-front long cotton tunic were sweeping the street with brooms that had bright green nylon teeth. They swept leisurely but happily, looking at the group intently as they worked, but sometimes pausing to look up and chat for a few minutes with eye contact.
What could they have been talking about? They live in this town near the shady narrow street with the local hotel. They know where everything is — the good restaurants, the bad restaurants, the library, the stores where you can get good shoes for cheap, the place where you can take a good long walk and never get barked at by a dog. They sweep that street every day and see people come and go in the door of the Samurai Palace.
What was of interest to them, and what I didn’t know, was that there would be a local politician, Ukura Ramaki, coming down the street later that day as he campaigned for a seat on the local council. In keeping with Japanese custom, he would be pulled in a cart and well-wishers and supporters would walk behind him, chatting and calling up to people out the windows.
“Come down!,” the supporters would say in Japanese (of course!) “Come see our next leader!” Sometimes people demurred with polite reasons. “My child is in the bath!” That was good for a woman who looked 60, even, or “I am not wearing clothes that would honor your candidate!” — the humble face-saving excuse that would always have to be accepted, or the listener would risk offending the speaker. But many speakers looking out the window after they demurred with the bath excuse or the clothing excuse or the tofu on the stove excuse or whatever one flew in between their straight-hair-covered ears fast enough would say, “Mikito” — “one moment” — and the well-wishing throng would keep walking, but one person would stay behind, the one who had called up to begin with. And the man or woman in the window would ball up a 1,000 yen note into a tiny ball, or sometimes the supporter — if they were very fast — would pull a section out of an orange and stick the money in there and throw it, the money, either in the ball or in the orange, down to the person on the street who would catch it and call up “Rohuru!” “Thank you!” And they would both bow.
The person on the street would then hustle — to say “run” would be to overstate their motion because running would be too attention-getting — but would just try to walk as quickly as possible without looking winded or sweaty, ahead through the throngs of well-wishers to the campaign manager with the green leather shoulder bag with the zipper on top. All campaign managers always had a big bag like this and carried it everywhere. It was a sign that someone was campaigning and if you didn’t want to get pushed off the train of community life, if you wanted to get the attention — like getting your children into the best schools or even something as plain as being the first on the morning paper route so your newspaper wouldn’t arrive while you were at work — you’d give and coyly stuff 1,000 yen or so into the green bag with your business card so that the campaigner would know who you were and your favor would be granted if and when the person campaigning won and you needed a favor.
Of course, every once in a couple of years, someone tried to push that system by just putting their card in, without money. But usually somehow, some way, someone would see that sneaky green-bag-card-inserter. They had a name for that person, a derivative, oddly enough, from the Yiddish word for ganef, one who steals — a gidoneen, and it was a label that was very difficult to shake once the word was whispered in public groups, like after a public exhibition. “Gid” sometimes one would hear whispered near the green bag and heads would subtly turn toward the sound, which was said so quickly and softly that it was even questionable who said it and always a mystery to whom the label was applied.
Well, as it turned out, the street sweepers had seen me twice that morning — going into the Samurai Palace, briefly checking in as a group with David, our tall, white, lanky American guide with the fluid Japanese — and less than five minutes later, less time than it takes to sweep a street with the thoroughness of a Japanese street sweeper who may need a favor from a politician one day, I was out again with the group. We walked to the corner, then down the steps carved into the sidewalk, and took a rumbling subway just two stops to a temple that was both grander and quieter than anything I had yet seen in Japan, which was quite a feat because from what I could tell, Japan was very grand — buildings that were huge and so ornately decorated and designed that I could scarcely imagine having a stone painted in the manner of those buildings, let alone mansion after temple after government building that doubled as an architectural work of art.
But as luck would have it, I must have been in the temple for less than five minutes, then took a step forward to try and read a few English words on a sign beneath some Japanese that was carved into the stone, and as I tripped over a kneeling cushion and started to fly toward the ground with my arms outstretched, I glanced the letters on the sign clearly. “Do not touch,” it said as I landed just beneath the sign, inches away, my hair catching on the bottom of it as I sat up. I sat up fast, mostly because I was so mortified. I was also bleeding. I realized both knees and palms looked like they had just had a close encounter with a cheese grater. There was a group of Japanese tourists in the temple, too, and I looked over at them as they all looked at me, sitting cross legged on the floor as I raised my bloody palms to the ceiling in a look of exasperation with myself and I uttered the traditional Japanese apology — “Ikimee” — in as humble a way as possible. As humble as you can look when you’re sitting the way only men sit and just made enough noise for 100 tourists and was starting to stain the stone with O+ blood. Of course, I also learned later from David that the actual pronunciation is “ikimeye” for sorry — what I had said, ikimee, means basically “slut” in Japanese. I had said it so sincerely and tried to have eye contact, since I couldn’t elaborate verbally, so every woman in that group and every man with every woman, probably thought I was insulting her.
So because of the blood and not because of my international faux pas, which as I’ve mentioned, I found out later, kindly enough through David’s self-control, I decided to go back to the hotel. Bob said he would go with me — since he had been paying attention, of course, on the subway, a bit more than me and he could doctor me up in the hotel. So we said good-bye to our group with the promise that we would eventually all meet back there at 6:00 for baths before dinner and Bob and I would just be one step ahead of them. The Japanese group — well, I heard them whispering and I was afraid to look back, but as I left the temple, I pulled a note out of my purse and put it in the donation box. At least, I thought it was 1,000 yen note, but as I looked down to what I had dropped in through the Plexiglas, I saw a folded up piece of paper with Japanese writing on it — the paper from yesterday where my guide had written for Bob and me and Karen and Steve in Japanese directions to give to the taxi driver to get us to the Missoni store we had wanted to visit in town. Again, I realized I was the pin in the balloon of Japanese manners so I reached in my purse, but then I clearly heard whispers from the Japanese tourist group with the word “Gid” and Bob grabbed me by the elbow and I limped out of there with him.
When we climbed out of the subway, the street was filled with people, so many that I almost didn’t believe we were at the right place. But it was the street. I could see the red awning of the hotel down the street and as people walked by, the man next to the door with his sword was visible for fractions of a second, like lit by a strobe or in an old movie and I saw him standing there, proud and upright, as the throngs passed his tiny part of Japan, his slice of tofu in the bean curd soup that is this crowded country.
Now, I thought, here’s some action! There was hustle, there was bustle, at least more than in the temple and more than there had been on this street an hour ago. I tried to figure out what was going on. Was it a parade? Religious holiday? We stood there, leaning against the railing that led down into the subway, and watched, though I could tell Bob felt we shouldn’t. Were we breaking another social rule by standing and staring? If the social police wouldn’t get us, I was sure the wardrobe police would, in our white sneakers and beige hiking pants and Journeys t-shirts — we must have screamed “American tourist.”
A gold lame cart with carved birds on the side came towards us, pulled by a boy who looked about 15. He was lanky and wearing a uniform of sorts — black cotton pants with a thin gold stripe down one side and a ruffled shirt that was gold with black trim on the sleeves and placket — a shirt that was totally soaked. The boy looked miserable and it was easy to see why — he was pulling a man who looked to be easily 250 pounds and on either side of him were cartons big enough to put a toaster oven in.
He was wearing a black suit, white shirt and had a blue and tan striped tie that made an s-curve over his pregnant belly. His black hair was combed straight back and he was wearing glasses with black heavy eyeglass frames that must have helped him get by with amazingly poor vision because his eyes were magnified like in a cartoon when I looked at him straight through the lenses. He was coming towards us.
The throng was behind him and every once in a while he stuck a hand in a carton next to him and he tossed out disk-like objects to the people on the sidewalk and in back of him with a quick twist of his pudgy fingers. They landed with a plink and I looked down. One had writing in Japanese and his face and I saw someone pick that up and put it on his lapel. The other looked very similar but was flat, no pin on the back. I saw a woman pick up one of those, hold it in one hand, and then put her palms together and bow. Can you mint your own money in Japan with your own face on it? I guessed not — it was probably a good luck charm.
I figured this guy to be a politician. He came closer with the sweating boy in the ruffled shirt and the admiring throngs and I looked at him, drawn to his face — a face that was probably very handsome 20 years and 100 pounds ago. He had blue eyes! They lit up his face, magnified behind those glasses, like two neon headlights. Whoever he was, I decided I liked him. Then I spied the guy in back of him with the green leather zip bag and saw how people kept walking over to it and putting money in. I didn’t want to be left out of this event. Besides, I figured my karma needed to donate something after the temple fiasco. I took a 1,000 yen note out of my wallet and as the cart and the politician walked by, I worked my way into the crowd, ignoring Bob’s call. “Deb! Deb!” — I know he hates crowds — and I held up the bill for a moment to be sure I was really putting money in this time, and to my delight, the people around me stared. I folded it in half and put it in.
“Todoro,” one lady next to me said and the man next to her said, “Todoro,” and they bowed deeply and I bowed and blushed and was delighted. The guy with the bag turned around and bowed deeply at me, then turned around and whispered to the politician in the cart. The politician said something to the boy in the ruffled shirt. The cart stopped. The supporters stopped. The street was silent. The politician stood up in the cart, turned and looked at me.
Did I offend somebody with my bloody palms? What did I do now? His blue eyes beamed at me and I was shocked to hear him say “English?” in a very heavy Japanese accent.
“Yes,” I said, my voice shaking.
“Thank you. You are very…very…hmm.” He looked up, thinking of the word. “Rich!” he said, and I looked over at Bob, still on the sidewalk. I bowed and shuffled away to stand with Bob. I was hoping he had snapped a picture of my moment. “Deb, I can’t believe you!” he said. “I know. I like to get into the thick of things,” I said. “I know you do, Deb, but did you have to give him that $200 in yen?” I searched his face, waiting for him to crack up, but the joke was on me.
“You’re kidding!” I said. “No,” he said, “didn’t you hear me calling you?” “I did but I had no idea why. It’s 1,000 yen to a dollar, right?” “No, it’s 125 yen to a dollar!”
“But hey — I got the picture,” he said, smiling, then whispered in my ear, “Ikimee” as we went up to the room.
This story is part of a series of travel stories: Five Truths and Two Lies