In early January of 2003, I set out on a road trip to Shikoku with two friends who, like me, were living and working in rural Japan. We needed to get away from our respective small towns and see another part of the country. Before setting out, I envisioned several days of aimless wandering, taking in a few sights, trying lots of udon and occasionally warming up in an onsen. I should have brought dice, cards, sleeping pills, because one of my traveling companions proved to be such a destroyer of happy fun times, that there was often little left to do but contemplate suicide. By day three I was a shadow of my former self.
She simply wanted to see as much as possible in as little time as possible. We had spent the entire day in the car, rushing from one sightseeing spot to another. The main purpose of the day had been to get to as many places along the road as possible, stopping for a maximum of five minutes, only long enough to take a few pictures to prove we had been there. Because of the complete lack of planning and the desperation to get in as much as possible, we ended up in a non descript town when we were finally too exhausted to go any further. If we had stopped the madness two hours earlier, we could have stayed in a historic and picturesque place, in a cheap but comfortable hostel and been awarded with a myriad of things to do in the evening.
Instead we were in suburban hell. The entire town reminded me of the new warehouse shopping districts that only exist in the distant suburbs of major Canadian and American cities. The bubble world of Costco, discount outlets and mega sized entertainment complexes. This was a place where you had to have a car to get around all the parking lots from one establishment to another and to come upon a tree was a rarity. It was certainly not the authentic or memorable Shikoku experience I had hoped for. There were no onsens to be found, only the bright glow of pachinko parlors. There were no small, family run udon shops to be discovered, only chain restaurants reminiscent of The Keg. And there was no place to buy dice.
I felt it was our only hope for entertainment: a dice game I learned while traveling through Thailand years ealier. I have no idea what it is called, but some have told me it is similar to Yahtze. We spent an hour looking for dice, first at the 100 Yen Shop and then at several convenience stores, but with no luck. I was sullen. We sat in the car, defeated.
And then we saw them. Two skater boys. Or rather, two early 20's Japanese youth emulating what is know as the skater boy in the West. They had the look down to perfection. The fat pants, the runners, the oversized hoodies. They were so cool, too cool for the nowhere town we were in, that they almost took our breath away. They rolled into our lives from the murky darkness behind the train station and at the moment that they appeared it started to snow.
We continued to stare at them for some time, when it dawned on me that we could actually get out of the car and speak to them. There was nothing to loose and since part of our job description actually states "to further the internationalization of Japan," we were duty bound to initiate a conversation. What I needed was the perfect opening line. Knowing that the pair would be startled by the sudden appearance of three foreign women, that I needed to make a good impression. I figured it was best to kill two birds with one stone, and decided to ask for dice.
After some practice in the car (saikoro ga arimasu ka?) I was ready to implement my plan of attack. I knew with complete certainty that the guys were not going to have any dice but thought that asking for something as random as dice, might just be the perfect icebreaker.
By the time I was ready to move in for the kill, the snow was cascading out of the sky with heavy, rich flakes, that danced and swirled before landing on the ground. As I approached the closer of the two, he eyed me with curiosity, but not the nervousness I had become accoustomed to with Japanese people in the countryside. He gave me a friendly smile and an equally friendly greeting. Whatever reservations I had about asking a complete stranger in the middle of the night for dice, evaporated at that moment. And I did.
How are you?
Yeah. I'm good. Hey, ah, you got any dice?
That's right. Dice.
By this point in the conversation I was a little shocked that my new friend had picked up on the saracasm of my question and was playing along. The Japanese in general, don't get sarcasm so good, or at least not initially. Yet, here was skater dude, joking around with me as if we were old friends, sharing an old joke. He called over to his friend.
Hey, these girls need some dice.
We want to play a dice game.
Ah. How many do you need.
His friend jogged over to his car. I ignored him and tried to engage my new friend in further conversation. I was running out of Japanese, however, and just as we were starting to discuss the pros and cons of Pachinko, his friend returned.
With six dice.
These he put in my hand. I stared at them, opened mouth, for several moments. And then looked at him. Then back at the dice. Then at my friends. At some point I remembered to close my mouth, but couldn't quite manage to say anything intelligable for many more moments. I mean really! What are the odds? You might as well ask a stranger in New York City for an armadillo. Asking for a pen, a light or change is one thing. Asking for six dice and getting them is quite another.