The Best Seat in the House!

I lived in Japan for many years… Well, for 6 years anyway. Now that I look back on my life, that doesn’t seem so long relatively, but at the time it often seemed like an eternity. Like most foreigners, I taught English to impressionable young Japanese students, drilling them on their use of the letters R and L and having long discussions on the differences between our respective cultures. After 6 years, I perhaps know more about their society than I should. For example, I know why Japanese businessmen grow their baby fingernails out long and what they call a comb over, which at least when I was there, seemed almost de rigueur for every male with a receding hairline.

Taking pictures in Japan

I also wrote various articles for the English editions of several Japanese papers, which were probably not all that good, but for which I was paid an inordinately high price. My father, when he found out how much I was paid at these publications became somewhat irate, stating that he had been writing articles for the San Francisco Examiner for years and had never been paid that well. Such was the benefit of being an English speaker in a country hungry for all things American.

As well as the English based work I did, I dabbled in the arts and had numerous art shows where I displayed my mask making to a bemused, but attentive audience. I think that the Japanese were more interested in my artwork due to my nationality than in any true artistic merit it might or might not have had. Like watching a trained monkey… It’s much more interesting that it is a trained monkey than in any trick it might have been trained to do.

I studied hanko carving (the making of Japanese name seals), bamboo bending (don’t ask), Origami, and the cultural phenomenon of the Burakumin, who are referred to as a Japanese social minority. I traveled extensively, interviewed hundreds of people, and took thousands of photographs. Every time I thought I had a handle on the differences between our cultures something new would pop up and I’d have to start all over again.

Mask Making in Japan

That took 6 years and I learned a lot, I think. Along with the lessons of humanity, art, writing, politics, history, and culture, I learned where to sit on a plane during the interminably long international flights. In those days there was no internet, no Orbitz, no Expedia, and the selection of flights for a poor prospective English teacher was an adventure unto itself.

I had tracked down a discount flight reseller in a small office over a souvenir trinket shop in the China Town section of San Francisco. Next door there was a Chinese apothecary that had the most bizarre selection of dried medicines you have ever seen from odd bulbous seed pods to dried seahorses and weird little things that looked like mummified miniature aliens. Between the shops, there was a narrow and steep staircase that looked like something out of a horror movie.

I would find my way up the dark shadowed staircase marked only by a small dingy 2” by 4” card taped to the window. There, for $600 (in cash) I would buy a round trip, year open flight to Thailand, with two stopovers in Japan, one each way. The way it worked was, I would fly to Japan on the first leg of the trip, teach English for 6 months or so, then, I would take a vacation and fly on to Thailand, or sometimes Hong Kong depending on the year. After several weeks or so of shopping and trekking, I would fly back to Japan, teach for the remainder of the year, and then fly back to America, go back up to that shady travel agency, and start the whole process again.

I seemed to spend a lot of time traveling… Made worse by the fact that these flights, as cheap as they were, often took fairly circuitous routes. The first flight out of America taught me my first lesson. I asked for a window seat. Do not, I repeat, do not ever ask for a window seat on an over seas flight… There is nothing to see and you are at the mercy of your neighbors to get up and move around the plane. That first time, my seatmates were a very sweet Pilipino couple who were eager to talk so much about their successful and wonderful son that I wanted to kill him.

Honestly, that would have fine, but an hour into a 12 hour flight, the wife got airsick, which they dealt with by having her lean her forehead against the seat in front of her and then having her husband through a blanket over her head. Other than soft moaning, she did not move a muscle for 12 hours. If I wanted to go to the rest room, I had to stand on my seat and climb over her as if she were a large log, which turned any excursion into a trial, and display that was simply not worth it.

I also learned not to sit near the engines, which can make conversation, rest, concentration, or even reading next to impossible. If you are lucky enough to dose off, the chattering of your teeth due to vibration wakes you up again.

After a couple of years of trial and error, I embarked on an experiment. When checking in at Narita Airport and talking to the very sweet young lady at the counter, she asked me, where I would like to sit and I said, mostly as a joke, “Put me next to a beautiful woman.” The young checker blushed and laughed as I had planned and then went ahead and checked me in.

As I sat in my assigned seat during loading, I looked up and saw this stunning Thai woman coming down the aisle towards me and my internal movie began to run. The mood music swelled as she got closer and there was a crescendo as she stopped and indicated that she was to sit next to me. The Japanese are nothing if not accommodating.

Well the first hint there might be a problem was when it became apparent that she spoke almost no English. The second was when, as the plane taxied out to the runway I discovered that she was deathly afraid of flying. As the plane built up speed for take off, she grabbed my arm like a limpet latching on to a rudder and absolutely refused to let go. She clung to me for the entire trip shaking and crying until I considered the age-old trick of chewing off my arm. Not only could I not disengage her, but because I could not communicate with her, I could not even offer words of comfort or pleas for release.

Okay, so it was another long and difficult flight, but I hadn’t yet learned my lesson. The next year when I went back to the Narita Airport, this time headed for Thailand, I found myself standing at the same counter with the same young ticket clerk. When she asked me where I wanted to sit, I said… “Put me next to a beautiful woman… Who speaks English!” Again she laughed and blushed as she checked me in.

So I’m sitting there in the plane and sure enough, down the aisle comes this hip looking young thing with dyed red hair and a big smile… The music starts to swell, I can hardly believe my own luck, I bless the ticket girl, surely this can’t be a coincidence, and yes, she sits next to me, and yes, she turns out to be an American!

The first hint there might be a problem is that she doesn’t shut up for the entire flight. The second problem comes when she tells me what she does for a living in Japan. She is a bar girl at a Japanese bar.

The Foreign bar girl is an interesting niche in Japanese society. They are women who are paid to hang out in expensive bars and pay attention to Japanese businessmen. As long as the businessman keeps buying drinks and tipping the women, they maintain an interest in them and the money can be considerable. The Japanese businessmen were obsessed with American women, particularly those with large breasts and there was a large contingent of hot American chicks that came to Japan specifically to squeeze every drop of money out of them that they could.

I’m sure there were a lot of wonderful Bar Girls in Japan, but by the very nature of their profession, they tended to be somewhat manipulative. This particular woman, with her winning smile and her exotically colored hair, moved right in on me. She wanted me to carry her bags; she wanted me to pay for her meals, do her bargaining on the streets and expected me to give her gifts, like tithes.

She followed me around for several days once we reached Thailand, expecting me to pick up the tab and act as her personal tourist guide. Every night before we retired to our separate rooms, she would drop by and borrow something, “just for a little while.” An object that, if I were to get it back at all, I would have to wait until the next morning when she would arrive fresh and ready to go wherever I had planned.

The third or fourth night of this, she asked to borrow my calculator, an essential tool for the rite and ritual of street bargaining. I thought about it for a while, judging the pros and cons and then I figured, what, the calculator only cost a few bucks, so I loaned it her, then I packed my bags and moved out in the dead of night, taking a hotel in a different part of the city. I never saw her again.

Next year at Narita when I stood before the ticket girl, who I suspect might actually have been some kind of witch bent on punishing me for impure thoughts, I stated… “Put me in the center aisle next to an empty seat.” Which is exactly what she did.

Oh, and lastly… What the Japanese call the Comb over… It is sometimes referred to as a, Ba Codo, which is Japanese English for Bar Code. When you stand over 6 feet tall and you are looking down at a sea of balding Japanese businessmen, you will know exactly what it means.

Fall in Japan

Mask Making in Japan

My street in Japan

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