We met that night by a fountain inside Osaka Station
, and we piled into a bus—one of those European-style buses where you boarded on the bottom and then went up a little staircase to the top.
It was March, and around Osaka, the air was lukewarm and the flowers were beginning to reappear. We were headed for Nagano, in the highland midsection of Japan, where winter lasts much longer and the snow stays on the mountains for people who want to go skiing or snowboarding. I had never done either: you really can't do either in Florida, where snow comes once a century and the highest "mountain" is a roller coaster at Walt Disney World.
I had on blissfully plush corduroy pants and a lightweight T-shirt. I carried a backpack that contained a one-liter bottle of iced coffee, a couple of packs of chocolate Pocky, a Japanese copy of Silent Spring, and my minidisc player.
So I was reading Silent Spring, and this short, round-faced Japanese girl sitting next to me looked surprised. "You can really read that?"
"Well, not all that well," I said. "I just pick out words and try to put them together in my head. There are so many kanji to learn."
She seemed satisfied. Her name was Mika. She spoke English to all of the other white people on the bus, but she spoke Japanese to me. I'm not entirely sure why.
Four years later, almost to the day, we would be lying on the beach together in Fort Lauderdale, listening to Utada Hikaru, and she would say, "You have to find someone."
The newest exchange student in our group was half-Maori and an incredible singer. She was stumbling over her conversation with a posse of Japanese girls.
This was only her third month in Japan. The students from the Southern Hemisphere would come for a calendar year, and the rest of us would stay from summer to summer. Her predecessor, a girl from Brazil, had shown us all the places to get drunk, high, laid, and crazy in the city, and that same duty would undoubtedly fall to this sweetheart.
"I love children," she said. "I kind of want to work in the airlines so I can travel around, but my real dream is to work with little kids."
So much talent, so much heart... but the next generation of exchange students would have no clue whatsoever. Never send a Christian to do a plastic Christian's job.
Later that night, everyone slept while I kept sipping the iced coffee and watching the mountains go by, on our slow ascent into Japan's Bumfuck, Egypt. Kimi, an exchange program alumnus who was years older than me, was sitting next to me. "You're going to stay up all night with that caffeine," she said.
"I know," I said.
She fell asleep soon enough, and let her head drift over into my neck. The bus was now silent, except for the low roar of the highway. Her breath came in gusts into my collar, and her chest gently massaged my arm in perfect time, as the air outside grew colder and the night grew deeper.
This is Zen, I thought. This is perfect peace.
Morning broke in a white world. We dropped off our bags, received our lift tickets, and went to get our equipment. I came out of the little shack with a reflective jacket, ski pants, a pair of skis, and a dodgy-looking pair of solid plastic ski boots.
Shit, I thought. I'm about to fall down a mountain strapped to a couple of strips of Teflon.
Fortunately, there were Europeans in our midst. I went off into the woods with a Czech girl who promised to teach me how to ski. Our first lesson went like this:
- Put on skis.
- Stand up.
- Steady self on ski poles.
- Push slightly.
- Feel legs buckle into each other.
- Fall into tree.
- Struggle against tangled skis.
- Remove skis.
- Go back to step 1.
After a couple of hours of this, I put the skis and poles in my lap and slid several hundred feet down the mountain on my butt
. The ski boots were broken, and they didn't have any other boots in my size. I retreated to the buffet, to hot coffee
and miso soup
The next day, we had breakfast, and I went to rent a snowboard. Luckily enough, they had a pair of snowboard boots in my size, so I put the package in my lap, got on the ski lift, and rode up to the first station.
I strapped on the board, put on my mirrored Ray-Bans, zipped up my jacket, took a deep breath, leapt into the air, landed squarely on the board, slid about five feet, and landed on my arse in a giant cloud of snow. "Wow!" I said.
Soon, I figured out how to stay upright, and I began surviving on the snowboard for up to a minute on end. I was still enjoying massive wipeouts, though. At one point, I cartwheeled head over feet for an eternal five seconds and came to rest on my face. At another point, I collided with a skiier at full speed, knocking both of us over into the packed snow. Our subsequent conversation went like this:
sekicho: I'm so sorry! Please forgive me!
skiier: Huh? (scratches head) Whoa, you speak Japanese.
I bet the poor sap still thinks he was having a concussion.
On the way back, my ass ached like the dickens, and my corduroy pants, which I had been wearing underneath my snow pants, were cold and wet. In front of me, an old, balding Rotarian was snoring away, and the five-foot Norwegian pixie next to me was getting impatient.
"I wish he would shut the fuck up!" she said.
I took my empty iced coffee bottle and whacked the old man over the head. He kept snoring. Whack! Whack! Whack! No response. The pixie giggled. Finally, I stuck the bottle into his mouth. He suddenly stopped snoring, and right as I dashed back into my seat, his eyes popped open.
"Huh! What time is it?"
"4 AM," I said, very innocently.
"Huh." He began snoring again, and I didn't even try to stop him.
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