August 16th, 1992
Iki Island, Japan
I’m in Fukuoka train station and a typhoon is blowing fiercely outside.
Trains are cancelled.
It has been going on for, um, ten hours, and the last time I poked my head outside I saw the umbrellas of two ladies invert, practically carrying them away.
The ferry back to the mainland got me here just in time, and it was a narrow scrape; an extra day in Japan and I would be financially fucked, as I mentioned about the Yen and Won situation. So I’m on track to get back to Tani House tonight.
But first, Iki Island.
I’ve been in Asia less than three months, but I have now learned that the less the Lonely Planet book says on a place, the better they are.
Iki Island hasn’t even got half a paragraph about it.
I could choose only one more place to go before leaving Japan, and I wanted to get off the beaten track, really off, and a recommendation by that student on a random train was all I needed.
After counting my Yen to see if they would stretch that far, and found that they did, I boarded a small train for Hakata, the jumping off point for Iki Island.
Iki is just a speck of land between Japan and Korea, two hours by ferry from a small port east of Fukuoka. The trip over was to be my last collision with the Teenage Boys Club, and the closely related Teenage Girls Club: the tiny ship was packed with giggling Japanese high school students who crowded around me to translate from a tiny dictionary.
Pressed in on all sides by questions I had been asked over and over again during my stay in Japan, I patiently endured my latest group of admirers as the sea breeze blasted us and the boat heaved through the blue waves.
The sober conformity of their school uniforms reflected the almost textbook questions I could now answer in my sleep:
‘How do you find Japan?’
‘Can you eat Japanese food?’
‘Can you speak Japanese?’
It’s funny in this country, once you give answers to these questions, the smiles continue but the interest fades; being a gaijin must be how a shiny toy feels like the day after Christmas.
After arriving in the tiny harbor the students still managed a cheery goodbye and piled into their buses. As I walked up the hill, I looked back to see them peering at me through the large windows with looks of genuine concern. My guidebook didn’t even have a real chapter on Iki, I was on my own, without a reservation, and virtually no Japanese.
What business did I, a foreigner, have out here in the middle of nowhere, all alone?
It was a question I had been asking myself since I had arrived in Japan, and had yet no answer to.
I was relieved when buses roared off in a cloud of exhaust, the students frantically waving from the windows, their faces like yin and yang symbols, half smile, half scowl.
A half an hour later I had exhausted all my connections in the small harbor: filled mostly fishmongers wives, their wet arms were buried deep into tubs of smelly squid. They spoke no English, and no one had any idea where a tall, sweating foreigner could spend the night.
Then, a short grandma came wobbling down the road, clacking by on wooden shoes, gesticulating wildly. My face brightened: I was an honorary member of her club, and was sure to be welcomed with open arms.
I wasn’t wrong.
It turned out her family had a traditional ryokan run by her son’s wife. After I was introduced to them, the daughter in law took over, and through Japanese and furious head nods, broad grins and bows, we negotiated a price and I was given a large room on top of the house with sliding paper screens and a view of the blue sea.
Then they rented me a sturdy Chinese bicycle to get around the island. There were no public buses or taxis. It was still early in the morning, and the mother gave me a lengthy explanation in Japanese, punctuated with furiously explicit hand motions to explain the layout of the roads on Iki island. From her spiel I gathered the hills would be difficult, but clean, empty beaches would be my reward.
I walked the bike through the small town and leaned it up against the wall of a shop to buy some lunch. Inside were two local students who quickly introduced them selves. As soon as they called their friends on a payphone to inform them that a rare, live gaijin was in town, in five minutes flat I was signing autographs and posing for pictures.
Pressed with the same questions as on the ferry, I was finally released, free to explore Iki. I took my boxed bento lunch and took off for the hills.
Huffing and puffing up steep twisting roads and coasting down steep valleys, the going was harder than the Japanese mother had demonstrated with her hand motions; there were very few people out here, and all I found were long, deserted beaches fringed with rice fields that sighed in the breeze.
I did come across some tiny villages dotting the hilltops, with lines of snow-white laundry flapping in the wind.
But there were more cats than people.
I never saw another bicyclist, and only a few cars passed me with polite toots of their horn and respectful bows, as deep as their steering wheels would allow, of course.
At one beach, a group of friends were having a picnic and invited me to eat. One guy handed me an Asahi beer, and we clinked cans. I spent the next two hours getting drunk with these new friends:
No English, just basic Japanese and grunts.
No personal questions, just beer and food.
No bows, just belches and farts.
Things were going great and underwear was untwisted all round.
That is, until dessert.
Then a large yellow banana became a convenient prop, and soon one of the more drunk men was trying to imitate a particularly private part of a foreigner’s anatomy, wagging the fruit in front of my face. Then he garbled on and on, pointing to his ass, which he seemed happy to show off. To prove it, he turned his back to us and dropped his pants, mooning me and his friends who stood there horrified and apologized under their breath to me like Kumiko had done at Osaka port after my run in with FECG.
Clearly this man belonged neither to the Middle Aged Salaryman's Club, nor the Nobody Club: he was simply the treasurer for the Drunken Jerks Club.
Later, after escaping from the party, I cycled up more tiring hills and found stunning views across the straits of Japan to Korea, my next destination.
I stopped for a rest and a chance to catch up on my letters, so I chose a wooden bench perched over a gurgling stream irrigating a rice field. I also knew I had to gather my strength for the three large hills I had coasted down earlier in the day; I would have to pedal like mad to reach the town again before dark.
As I sat, absorbed in my writing, from over my shoulder, I heard muttering, a cackle, and then a laugh.
Was the drunk guy back?
No. It was a woman, bent nearly double with age literally appearing out of nowhere. When her mouth opened in a huge grin, it revealed her few remaining teeth pointing crazily in all directions. Without a formal greeting, she just sat down next to me and peered at my writing that to her looked as exotic as Arabic. She chatted with me in the lilting southern dialect of Japanese as if I understood her every word.
We sat there, the old woman and I, and I dug out postcards and mementos from my trip to show her. As the sun crashed into the sea, dark clouds on the horizon announced the arrival of the summer typhoon that would come ashore two days later, churning the sea so badly that the ferry service back to Kyushu would be cancelled for two days.
I realized that if I didn’t get a start back to town now, I would arrive back in the harbor after dark and I wasn’t keen on riding through the pitch-black night.
I stood up to go.
As I closed my journal, I said goodbye in Japanese and the old woman looked at me sadly as I zipped up my backpack and got to my feet.
Then I realized the second seat on the bike was large enough to give her a ride. In an elaborate explanation I tried to explain I could offer the woman a lift; the island was small, there was no public transport, and she couldn’t live that far away. The woman with the crooked teeth had been such good company that I just didn’t want to leave her behind.
At first she couldn’t understand what I was saying, and her face crinkled up in confusion.
But then the Yen coin dropped.
She stared up at me, her mouth open at what I was offering her, looking at the seat in horror. She started to bow again and again, shaking her head at me in a violent refusal, as though in the presence of a vampire.
Saddened, I hitched my backpack on, and prepared to cycle back alone.
But then she stopped and looked around: there would be no one here to witness the sight of her riding on the back of a tall foreigner’s bike, so why not give it a go?
This was one woman whose underwear wasn’t twisted into an uncomfortable knot, and recognizing a kindred spirit, I patted the spare seat.
The old woman grabbed my arm, hiked up her skirt, and I stabilized the bike as she got on. She gingerly reached out and grabbed my waist, unsure of what she was getting herself in for.
Before she could say no, I jumped into the seat and was off, coasting down the hill towards the bottom of the valley. The front wheel wobbled, the brakes were weak, and the bike lurched from side to side, and I almost dumped that poor woman into a muddy rice field.
She hung on desperately as I pedaled up the next hill, struggling to reach the top. I glanced back. The old woman was muttering silently to herself, as if she was praying. But a grin was stretched clear across her face, revealing that row of crazy, crooked teeth.
Over the next few hills, I struggled up, pedaling furiously, then coasted down, wobbling wildly, and all along the way we laughed our heads off. The woman never fell off, although it came close a few times. No car or any pedestrian saw us, and if they had, what could they have done to stop us from having so much fun?
I continued on, pedaling up the last hill before the harbor. And then came the tap on my shoulder that I had been dreading all along; we had reached the tiny road where her house was, and the old woman needed to get off.
Flooded with sadness, I braced the bike as she hopped down. As she reached the safety of the ground, the old woman collapsed into a series of deep, respectful bows. In the most honorific Japanese way, she was thanking me, and I returned the gesture as best I could with a shaky bow.
So we stood there in the golden yellow light of the setting sun, that old lady and I, bowing low to each other like two old friends, in the middle of that black asphalt road, on that tiny speck of land off the coast of Japan.
We were two people from completely different cultures, ages, lives and religions, not wanting to say goodbye. In an instant, all of my frustration was gone; it seemed the old woman, on behalf of Japan, had forgiven all of my awful cultural mistakes and stupid gaffes I had committed in her country, erasing them with a single, crooked-toothed grin. And with my shaky bow, I had forgiven FECG and the cast of characters that had made my trip in her country so difficult.
It was one of the most touching displays of thanks I had ever received.
As I hopped back on the bike and coasted down the last hill, I looked back to see the old woman still bowing low to the ground, that broad grin still spread across her face from ear to ear, those crooked teeth still pointing at me.
If you come across an old lady in Japan with crooked teeth, give her a lift.
Finally, just as I’m about to leave Japan, I’ve done it: I’ve broken the curse. I’m still in the Fukuoka train station, and I’ve just been told I can catch a bullet train heading back to Kyoto in an hour, and should be there by evening.
In time to beat Mrs. Tani and her nightly lockdown, of course.
For the mean time, I’m passing the hours sitting on the floor of the huge train station. It’s rush hour, and I’m surrounded by Salarymen of all stripes.
But none seem to be looking at me like they used to. In fact, not one is giving me any sort of look of disapproval. One of them even smiled. You see, they are trapped here by the same typhoon, and we are all in the same boat. For once, underwear, all round, is not in a twist.
After that encounter on Iki, I have decided to stop keeping score.
The score is 28:7, by the way.
A total washout in favor of Japan.
As I watch the students, the mothers, the salarymen, and all the other passengers walk by, I’m wondering: did FECG make my entry into his country difficult to catch my attention, to make me more aware, more appreciative of what his country was going to teach me? Did Mrs. Yuka have the same intentions with her inflexible, rigid ways?
Nope. I think she is just a madwoman, plain and simple.
This is my last letter to you from this country. Next up is Korea. That is, if my Yen doesn’t run out and I am forced to sell fake telephone cards from Iran on the street.
Who knows. I may have caught the Travel Gods napping on Unzen, but something tells me they are wide awake and very, very angry.