Monday, March 18, 2013

Snowstorms and Surprises


This isn't a direct quote, but I'm pretty sure this dramatic cry of frustration was uttered at least once between driving through the whiteout to Geto ski resort, struggling through the whiteout from the car to the main building, and staring into the white wall of snow beyond the door where the ski lifts, usually visible, were meant to be. It was probably expressed best when Gavin fell to his knees and shook his fists in defeated anger at the universe. A perfectly reasonable response.

Brave souls.

Two weekends in a row, and two thwarted attempts to go snowboarding at Geto in Iwate, one of the best powdery slopes around. The hill was open, but only one small lift near the bottom was operating, and we could barely see anything five feet in front of us, let alone that single functioning lift, through the pelting snow. We knew it wasn't worth going out, but we weren't ready to let go of our hopes right away.

After confirming that the weather would probably be better the next day, we eventually made our way home - slowly, as the expressway was now closed due to the inclement weather. This was one of those days when we should have just stayed home, though of course the sky was beautiful and perfectly calm back in Yokote. We went out for ramen so that we could feel justified in having left our apartments.

Fortunately for us, the weekend was not to be a complete disappointment - it was Nikki's birthday on Saturday night, which ended up being the perfect combination of relaxed chatting and interesting encounters. We chilled at a local wine and tapas bar, a nice change from the usual Japanese fare we find ourselves surrounded by. We ate cake, although those who were driving home decided to take their slices to go so as to avoid pushing Japan's zero blood alcohol limit, as the frosting contained trace amounts of Bailey's. You can never be too careful.

But the most interested part of the night was when we decided to go to Nihonkai afterwards, a local bar whose owner is friendly with all of the Yokote ALTs (and even friends with many of us on Facebook). Mako-chan is notorious for his love of sake, for cooking up strange and wonderful dishes for us to try, and for falling asleep at some point in the night, but not before telling us to help ourselves to more drinks and just leave our money at the bar when we go. It's a tiny, cozy place, all furnished in wood and decorated with various plastic fish and lots of goofy photos of regular customers and Mako-chan himself. One wall has a list of all the regulars' birthdays. As you can see, it's the kind of place that draws the same crowd night after night, giving it a very familiar feel. It's also nice to walk into a place and have the owner remember your name and call out "hisashiburi!" (it's been awhile).

By the time I arrive at Nihonkai on any given night I've gone, the bar is already strewn with empty glasses, sake cups, several half-finished bottles of drink, and dishes - usually with plenty of leftovers of whatever Mako-chan has decided to serve up. If he's run out of whatever he cooked earlier, you can expect sashimi, slimy seaweed known as konbu, or a variety of other interesting underwater fare to appear in front of you. At Nihonkai, I've tasted more kinds of fish than I know the name for, along with okonomiyaki, whale soup (the most controversial thing I've eaten in Japan by far), and a curious white mush which I later found out was oh-so-delicious fish sperm.


There is also an acoustic guitar in the corner, and spontaneous jam sessions have been known to happen; usually with Mako-chan singing AKB48 to the ladies, spoken-word style ("I love you, I need you, I want you..."), or with him belting out something by Celine Dion.

On this particular night, there were two other customers when we arrived. They immediately made space for us around them and we chatted in a mix of English and Japanese about where we were from and exchanged various English phrases, like "best friend" and "BFF". One dude, who was wearing a hat made out of wood (!), asked us each several times about our country of origin. It went something like this:

" from?"
"Oh, CANADA!!!"

*ten minutes later*

"You're from America?"
"No, Canada."
"Oh, CANADA!!!"

*five minutes later*

"In England..."
"I'm from Canada."
"Oh, CANADA!!!

*ten minutes later*

"New Zealand is also very New Zealand beautiful?"
"Yeah, it looks very nice...I mean, I've never been there, I'm from Canada, but I'm sure it's beautiful..."
"Yeaaaahhh, New Zealand...iiiiiii naaaaaaaaa..." (it seems nice; I want to go...)

His next mode of entertainment was by imitating us every time we spoke. Mumbles of gibberish came from his end of the bar anytime one of us English speakers said something. At one point he was trying to communicate in this manner with Kathie, who was on Skype on Nikki's phone, as if his gibberish must certainly amount to meaningful words in our language!

He danced, he gibberish, he Englished, he made faces, he told us not to light his wooden hat on fire. Did this really happen?

At the end of the night, he pulled out his smartphone to add Gavin to Facebook. After several failed searches, probably due to mistyping his name, Gavin took the phone and tried to do it himself. A huge list of Gavins popped up onscreen and, not having the patience to scroll through them to find himself, he quickly chose one near the top - a Gavin with a profile picture of a tiger. "That's me."

"Oh, TIGER-san! Tiger Gabiiiin!!!"

Yes, yes. Tiger Gavin.

I got one last surprise as we were about to pull away in the car, when I looked out the window to see Wooden Hat Man staring straight in back at me.

There must also be a very surprised Gavin out there in the world right now, wondering who this Japanese, wooden hat-wearing man is who wants to be his friend.

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