How I Came To Stop Worrying About ‘Face’, And Love South-East Asia
Having enjoyed the recent writings of Mega’s travels, and not done too much similar travelling myself in recent years, I’ve been pondering how I came to be here at all.
I was fortunate in the past to work for a company which frequently needed staff to travel overseas and, being single, I tended to get the long-hauls, which eventually saw me turn up in Hong Kong for a few days. I was truly over-awed, having time to wander alone through markets, where I first encountered women shopping for live chickens and checking their ‘freshness’ (or something) by holding the creature aloft and blowing up its arse. I’ve often wondered if, afterwards, the subsequently relaxing bird would emit a similar sound to an evacuating balloon.
That trip was all too short but I was also taken on the ferry across the bay, and to the legendary Run Run Shaw studios where I watched a kung-fu movie having sound effects added to a fight scene as the guys jumped up and down clapping chunks of wood (and numerous other materials) together in time with the characters on the screen.
Somewhat later I had an even more amazing (though for different reasons) visit to Japan. I flew out on a Sunday for a three-day exhibition, expecting to return on Wednesday night for a Head Office meeting on Thursday morning. On Monday morning my three Japanese hosts (shades of Lost in Translation) took my plane ticket, to confirm my return but, unbeknown to me, they extended it until the following Saturday night, because they wanted to escort me to the more industrial North to visit their factories. To save me the bother they also contacted my boss to assure him this was a necessary trip.
We travelled by Shinkansen (popularly known as Bullet Train) to the nearest city and then into the hinterland by a local train that, at a distance, looked much like any other rural, antiquated service but which turned out to be so well maintained it was in what second-hand car salesmen call ‘pristine’ condition. Like all Japanese trains it also ran entirely on time and, just in case you are ever able to catch a Japanese train, bare in mind the time in the timetable is not only reliable but also refers to the departure time, and not when it arrives at your station. Be late at your own discretion.
At the local station we were picked up by a large limo for the four of us, and a luxury minibus – for the luggage – and escorted to a ryokan, a wonderful experience that few foreign/gai-jin (farang) travelers ever get to witness, often because the owners are more inclined to claim to be full rather than take in people who are unlikely to be able to deal with this highly regimented exercise. For this reason, one of the local chaps was deputed to stay with me, to ensure I didn’t create any faux pas.
Don’t think ‘hotel’. Rather envision a cross between a VIP guesthouse and a very, very high-class ‘bed & breakfast’. The rooms are larger than normal hotel rooms (and the prices likewise) and almost everything is conducted therein. There usually isn’t a dining room, the only communal area being the bathhouse and, as these places often have less than a dozen rooms, even bathing can be private – if you ignore the occasional visits from the staff to ensure all is well. Incidentally, these are often ladies (of varying ages) but do not create an international incident by assuming, or even enquiring if, they are ‘available’.
My host first ensured tea was supplied in the room and then showed me how to get undressed, and re-dressed in a yukata, in order to go to the bath-house – or indeed anywhere else. These very comfortable garments (think: kimono-style, light-weight dressing gowns) are worn by both sexes and all ages and Japanese people often take a stroll through the town in them on a warm evening, or along a riverbank, and even to open-air restaurants. Especially popular are evening meals taken on floating barges that slowly perambulate a gently-flowing river.
The main thing to remember in the bathhouse (and this is totally essential!) is that you – do – not – wash in the bath. There is water and soap to one side and, only when you are really clean, and have rinsed off all traces of soap, can you enter the bath, which thus has crystal-clear, and very hot, water. You also get a tiny ‘towel’, about the size of a face-cloth, which you can hold in front of your privates (perhaps advisable for gai-jin, so as not to make the locals jealous ;). There are usually two bathhouses – the sexes are usually separated.
The purpose of the bath-house is therefore primarily to relax, and unwind, and relieve oneself of the stresses of the day – washing is primarily done to keep the bath-water clean.
After this we returned to my room – mine because I had been given the better room, looking out on the gardens which were immaculate, and quiet, and empty of life – it must have been low-season. The wooden shutters that slid across silently and effortlessly in smooth, polished wooden grooves (without wheels), were fully opened and I saw what had been intriguing me since I had managed to get to grips with the bath water – did I mention, it is HOT…!? I had tried going in very slowly, one toe at a time, followed by my legs, an inch at a time, until my host declared this method was not only going to take all night but dinner would soon be awaiting us. He suggested I should think of something soothingly beautiful, and get gently in, so as not to make waves (which will quickly upset Japanese guests), and then remain as still as possible – the theory is that the water in contact with your skin will be cooled slightly (by about two degrees, tops, is my estimate!), making life more bearable. My beautiful soothing thoughts were quickly replaced by wondering if we would have lobster for dinner – Red Lobster Inns, anyone?
In the garden I am now looking at the instrument that had been banging away throughout my sojourn in the watery wilderness – a bamboo pipe about four inches in diameter and about a yard long, pivoted nearer to one end. Water slowly trickled into the open, upturned end until that ‘half’ of the pipe was heavier, when it tipped downwards to allow the water to run out, whereupon the pipe returned to it’s original position causing the empty end to strike hollowly against a flat stone and emitting a loud but brief ‘bok’ – which relatively relaxing sound I later came to associate with the wild gay abandon of the average som-tum vendor.
Dinner was served in the room, to this backcloth, consisting of ten or so small courses, many of which I couldn’t identify, and some I didn’t even try to verify. Most were very tasty, a couple were politely avoided, and my host helped me out, so that the chef would not lose face.
As one maid removed the last dishes another rolled out the ‘futon’ and I rolled myself over to it, awash in recent memories of hot saké.
For some reason the rest of the week went by in a flash. My boss was later concerned whether the extra time had been worthwhile for his company. I pointed out the entire trip had been paid for by the Japanese company. He pointed out, that cost would probably be added to the cost of any business we did with them. Remembering the hot water, I could only smirk.
Fortunately for me, because I had been truly hooked by this entire experience, I was able to return to Japan a second time, and managed to travel all over the main islands, by also taking my annual leave at the end of the ‘proper’ trip, although I had considerable difficulty shaking off my hosts. Later still my company fell on hard times and needed redundancies. I immediately volunteered. In the interim I had been having Japanese language lessons from a lady who I met in a local Japanese minimart. I now told her I had communicated with my Japanese contacts but had had little response. Her husband, who was in the West for a Japanese company, arranged a small job in Tokyo and, one of the few impulsive acts of my life, I set off for the Orient – so fast I never even thought about work permits. It was the most bizarre ‘job’ I ever had. Although it would never have been a career I would love to take it up again now.
It was arranged that I would initially stay with friends of my tutor, in Yokohama, who owed her a favour, and helped find me a small ‘apartment’, in a slightly rural, old-fashioned suburb between Yokohama and Tokyo. Japanese properties tend to be either small or very small. Most are still designed on the tatami principle. Floors indoors are usually made with tatami mats which are mass-produced to a standard size, about two metres by one metre, and room sizes are given by the number of mats fitted into the room – indeed the rooms are designed and built to accurately take a specific number of mats – there is never a gap around the edges (except perhaps adjacent to opening, outside walls) and it would be sacrilege to have to cut the mats.
A ‘closet’ off a main room might have one mat, a children’s study room might have two mats, side by side, and a ‘normal’ room would probably have four mats (with one arranged across each end of the first pair), unless the owner is more affluent and eight mats might be encountered. These are invariably arranged symmetrically, and ‘neatly’, so odd-numbered rooms are not often seen – they might even be considered unlucky.
I found a very charming 6-mat room in a large old building that had been converted for single commuters, or couples. I decided a 4-mat room might soon drive me insane – windows are usually small and views are often non-existent. There was a tiny, tiny private bathroom. The bath was little more than a two-foot cube with an insulated lid, and there was a tiny, tiny ‘kitchen’ (alcove) that contained a water-boiler (actually ‘heater’ – the water never boiled), for tea, and also a toaster – if you were hungry. Most meals were taken in nearby establishments which were great. Incidentally… I never had a bad meal, not a single item, in all my time in Japan.
. . . which brings me neatly to ‘The Job’ . . .
Every day, at five minutes to eleven, I was waiting outside the house. At three minutes to eleven a very large company car arrived. Dead on eleven o’clock (which is the time I had been given) we set off for Tokyo, to my tutor’s husband’s company’s head office. At about ten to twelve I was shown into the boardroom. At noon the main doors at the far end of the table silently opened and half a dozen company directors entered. The number varied – too many was considered too much for me to deal with – too few was considered insulting to me.
After all the bowing, which I was slowly learning to improve (a bad bow can be more insulting than not bowing at all), I was invited to sit on one side of the table while my new ‘colleagues’ sat opposite me. The first time, apparently because everyone thought someone else had explained to me, I thought this was an interview and I was concerned I had come all this way without actually having a job.
All the guys seemed eager to put me at my ease, all speaking some form of English, while a couple of servant ladies came around and placed a beautiful lacquered box in front of each of us. At a signal from the chief honcho we all lifted the lid of our box (about twelve by eighteen inches, by about two inches deep) to reveal a bento meal – it was of course a bento-box. The interior is compartmentalised to take the various dishes, and every day the contents were a little different from the day before. Having been obliged to admire the lacquerware before being allowed to view the contents we also had to admire the food, its selection and presentation, before being allowed to actually eat. And, while we ate, the directors would chatter away about anything they liked, but only in English – and I, as diplomatically as possible, had to correct them.
. . . and that was the job . . .
After about forty minutes, sometimes less, the guys would quickly disappear and I was even more quickly bustled forth, back to the limo, and scurried off to the company’s ‘other’ office where, at one o’clock, the same thing happened. Sometimes I then elected to remain in Tokyo for the rest of the day otherwise, by three o’clock, I was back home – four hours; about seventy minutes ‘work’; and two lunches – and that was the job . . .
It was brilliant.
by Brobdingnag Minor
That would have been a fun job for a while. Japan has long fascinated me and I really must make the effort to get there and see it for myself.