Getting started living in Japan, to expand your horizons, to grow, however minutely, means picking your teachers.
Pick your teachers. Japan is full of them. They are anything and everything. Sometimes you have to look really, really hard to come out with your hard earned lesson, but there’s one in there for you. I’m convinced.
It’s ten o’clock at night and I’m walking to my new Japanese apartment. Anyone who has their own place can tell you the pride of that first trip home to your apartment.
It was my first. I’d negotiated and signed the papers in Japanese. You bet I’d accomplished something. But right then, concentrating on pre IOS6 Google maps through narrow, unfamiliar Japanese streets, I didn’t notice a potential thermonuclear explosion beside me in complete darkness. Suddenly there’s a dog I can’t see trying to rip my face off. He sounds like he’s big enough to do it too.
When something like that happens you don’t jump. This isn’t a cockroach crawling on your arm that a few frantic gestures will brush off. You might be in serious danger here. So you calmly back away, shining your cell phone’s screen at it so if he does go for you you’ll get a millisecond warning at least. You still can’t see it, but gather that since you don’t have bristling canine fury hooked to my arm yet, you probably won’t and he’s on a very short leash.
I find my apartment okay and there’s nothing really to talk about there. I spent the first night on the floor because my bed hasn’t arrived yet. The next morning I walk down the same street while keeping an eye out for the dog that gave much such a friendly welcome to the neighborhood. I don’t see him until a high schooler in a burgundy jump suit whizzes by on one of those bulky Japanese bicycles. A copper bullet launches from the tiny space between two houses and strangles itself on the end of an expertly measured leash. The poor kid nearly falls off his cycle.
The black-muzzled Shiba must have remembered me, because it gave me the same welcome as the night before as I slipped by on the far side of the narrow Japanese road.
A few weeks after living there I find a rhythm. I’ve been growing curious about a big red temple I see on my commutes. The students tell me it’s of some fame due to its Buddha statues having been appropriated by Takeda Shingen, Yamanashi’s founder, from another temple he conquered in his rival’s territory. Shingen, a devout Buddhist, thought its treasures would be safer in his Yamanashi temple and was kind enough to move them there without troubling the resident monks by asking. It’s within walking distance of my new apartment, so, armed with my camera and the basic idea of where to go, I head out.
It towers over the surrounding neighborhoods and isn’t hard to find. It’s gorgeous, the red paint popping out against the calming temple gardens. There’s a woman there walking a pretty white dog. On a stone bench, a college student is scribbling charcoal into a drawing pad. When I stroll walk up the main gate for a picture, there’s an old man and his copper Shiba resting on the steps.
It’s the dog.
If it hadn’t been I wouldn’t have paid them any mind, but I’m curious about the fiercely territorial Shiba and its owner. There’s a connection there that I need to explore. Somewhere that dog had become a small facet of my existence in Japan, an arm of topography I needed to map.
“Konnichiwa,” the old man greets, uniquely unperturbed by my foreignness.
“Konnichiwa,” I eye the dog.
When it comes over I offer my hand. It sniffs, licks, then asks for its belly rubbed. I comply.
“Are you American? My daughter lives in America. She is married to an American.”
They have a beautiful little girl, his granddaughter. It’s a shame he doesn’t have a photo with him.
“What’s her name?”
He tells me his granddaughter’s name.
“What’s her name?”
He smiles at the dog, belly-up in front of me, getting a rub. “She has a strange name, Cookie. My wife chose it.”
My first friend in a new place. All we needed was an avenue to meet. That’s the lesson I was taught by an overly territorial Shiba and a kind older gentlemen whose daughter lives overseas. Friendships have strange roots.
Cookie still barks at me.