First post and explanation
Someone's looking out for me / someone's got it in for me
On Friday evening, my host father was in a particularly bad mood due to a stressful week. He took it out on the kids. With my host mother away shopping during dinner, he proceeded to start them both crying within ten minutes of each other.
In particular he launched into a long monologue at the daughter about how she was a terrible child. He asked "What if an atomic bomb dropped right now, and this was the last you saw of me? How would that feel?" when she wouldn't come to the dinner table because she was too embarrassed by her crying. Then he told her she wasn't a member of the household. This has a strong negative meaning in Japanese, so it's difficult to translate. I can at least tell you that I was rather aghast to hear it from him.
I realize that Japanese parents rear their children very differently from American parents and the Japanese still turn out more or less sane. Nonetheless, there seem to be polar extremes of exercising no discipline against the child whatsoever, which my host parents opt for most of the time, and traumatizing the child with extremely harsh and critical language, which happens whenever the children cross a magic line of misbehavior I honestly can't identify.
My strong inclination toward empathy is a blessing most of the time, but that dinner was the worst experience I've had in Japan. It was nearly unbearable to sit there hearing the two children crying uncontrollably, driving themselves to hiccups with the failing effort to keep their sobbing in check, while the father took his frustration out on them. As soon as I could politely escape, I left the house. It took two hours of walking around and around the neighborhood before I didn't feel like throwing myself off a bridge anymore.
I realize that will probably sound exaggerated to those reading this who aren't as easily affected by the emotions of others, but experiences such as those border on physical pain for me. I can't handle them. Given a choice between having to cut off a toe and reliving that evening, the toe would go.
No, I'm not joking.
The next day I didn't feel much better, so I left the house as quickly as I could and took to exploring the town by bike. I stopped near the railway station first to visit an internet cafe. I wrote some people I hadn't kept contact with long messages and felt a little less isolated.
A phone call to my friend Gabriel did even more to stabilize me. A grandmother with a perpetually repulsed grimace waited outside the phonebooth the whole time, occasionally poking her head in and saying things like, "Nagaku narimasu ne," but, frankly, I could see other open payphones within short walking distance and she was rather rude in trying to hurry me (I took my sweet time regardless), so she could go very honorably fuck herself.
I'm accomidating, but I'm not going to bow and scrape for a stranger's every whim. When I exited the payphone, I gave her a shit-eating grin and a terribly insincere, "omataseshite sumimasen."
I had lunch at an excellent Italian restaurant, where, perhaps as penance for my bout of American borishness earlier, I did my utmost to be polite. After lunch, I biked until I reached the cape along the shore of the Hakodate peninsula that I don't see often.
Following this path brought me to a shrine entrance up a steep slope where I decided to park my bike. The shrine was a typical Shinto monument, the sort that are scattered throughout the neighborhoods of this city, but a little muddy path that led from the shrine grounds into an alley made this shrine the gateway to something rather incredible. I stumbled on a labyrinthine Buddhist cemetary at the end of the alleyway, built into terraces up the mountainside.
The cemetary was shrouded with very old trees and packed tight with stone monuments carved in complex calligraphery. Weathered statues of buddhas, unlit candles, and flowers decorated many of the graves, as well as empty cups of sake left for the dead's appreciation.
It was isolated from the rest of the city by the natural landscape and its location on the mountain. Light leaked unevenly through the canopy of leaves. Crows hopped between monoliths and occasionally broke the silence with their caws. I climbed halfway up the mountain following the footpaths to the places of the dead.
The further I pressed along the moutainside toward the ocean, the closer the trees grew and the thicker the air became with solemnity. I'm not a spiritual person, but I don't think the spirits needed my say-so to make this little bit of Hakodate their own. I was intruding, but I didn't feel particularly unwelcome. Simply foreign. Not as an American, rather as a member of the living. I kept my thoughts quiet, so as not to disturb them. I took pictures apologetically.
Eventually, the graveyard gave way to a tiny paved rode that lead down to Cape Tachimachi. This was originally a home of the Ainu native people named "Yoko-ushi," which a sign translated as, "The place where we stand and wait to catch fish." 'Yoko' is the Ainu word for standing on the look out for prey and 'ushi' is the word for waiting, so the Japanese translated this literally into 'Tachimachi.' The cape was severe, chill, and regal. I sat and watched the ocean for a while, to give my mind time to settle itself back into reality.
When I tried to tell my host father how beautiful it had been, later, he shook his head and looked frightened. He said he'd never go to that cape. People commit suicide there, apparently, and ghost hands reach from the place where they die in pictures taken of it. There were no ghost hands in my picture, but I didn't laugh about his beliefs this time. He wasn't pretending to be scared.
On the way back, I passed through the graveyard and came upon the shrine again. I stopped before the gates of the altar, pressed my hands together as you do in Christian prayer, bowed my head, and then clapped twice as I've seen done in Shinto prayer. Why this particular impulse seized me I don't know for sure, but it felt appropriate to pay respect for the vivid memories the place had etched. My materialist faith is holding up rather poorly under the weight of Japan's mythic tradition, I confess. I never have made a very good skeptic.
I felt drained as I biked back home, physically by the climb and mentally by the mysticism, but my mood had much improved. Instead of looking angry, sullen, and suspicious as they had in the morning, strangers on the street looked relaxed and sanguine. I passed a teacher and a guest lecturer from HIF walking along the waterfront and waved hello cheerfully.
Only a few minutes later, I passed the extremely unusual sight of a group of Latinos biking the city street. The last of them in the row threw an enormous grin my way and yelled, "Hello, friend!" in heavily accented English. I yelled, "hey" back and coasted along at an easy pace, wrapped in contentment, until a few blocks away from home.
Then I was hit by a car.
The strange thing is, I knew the car was going to hit me. It was a black minivan stopped waiting to make a left turn. I saw the driver glance in my direction and we made eye contact. I guess he just didn't actually see me. There was a white car coming in the opposite direction I was traveling, giving me about two feet of space between where it was going to be and the bumper of the black minivan.
Despite the eye contact, I knew very specifically that the minivan was going to shoot forward and that I would have to throw my body weight to the right so that I didn't fly leftward and fall in the path of the white car's tires. All these thoughts occurred with slow and methodical clarity. The mental monologue might have gone something like this: "I'm having such a nice time here. Gee, that's a pretty garden. And here comes an intersection. Oh dear, that's unfortunate, it seems I'm going to be hit by a car."
So I wasn't actually surprised, then, until several seconds after the grate of the minivan got inappropriately intimate with my right side. I threw the bike between me and the white car, smashed into the pavement shoulder-first, curled up, and came tumbling to a stop six or seven feet away. After staring at the overcast sky for a few seconds, wondering if I'd be able to move, I stood up, battered but not injured in any permanent manner. The fear and panic kicked in only after the driver had already jumped out of the car and was asking me in a strained voice if I was alright.
The driver was a guy about my age. He was using plain form and throwing apologies in between every phrase he finished. "Are you okay? I'm so sorry. Do you need to go to the hospital? I'm really, really sorry. Is anything... I'm sorry... is anything broken?" I repeated "daijoubu desu" like a sort of mantra as he picked my bike up and held it. I stared at him, then grabbed the handlebars from him. There was some resistance, but not enough that I couldn't jerk the bike away.
I said "daijoubu desu," one more time before I rode off, the bicycle rather rickety and squeeking with complaint beneath me, while the pedestrians and the driver stared after. I didn't get his name or his license number. I was too shocked to even think of it.
I was about two blocks away before I realized that, if I hadn't known the car was going to hit me and if I hadn't thrown my weight as I had, I would've been tossed in the path of the white car's tires. It had probably been going thirty miles per hour.
Incidentally, it was about that time various parts of my body decided it was okay to tell me their troubles.
Right now, my left wrist is killing me, there's a road rash up my right arm, a bruise down my right side, another bruise on my left shoulder, my back is very unhappy, and I'm walking with a limp. But otherwise I'm in working order.
Here are three feasible conclusions:
1) I did the prayer wrong, so I got hit by a car.
2) I did the prayer right, so I avoided severe injury.
3) I shouldn't trust Hakodate drivers, so from now on I bike behind the stopped cars.
Select the conclusion you feel to be appropriate. More than one conclusion is acceptable.
As for me, instead of drawing conclusions, I think I'm going to read some Honey and Clover, then take a nap.
Author's note: this was written about two months ago. Izu's now back in the United States and fully healed.