Monday, October 11, 2004

My Weekend in Oita

When I left Oita at the end of August, I assured everyone I'd be back again before to long. After all I'm still in Japan. It would be a pity not to make the odd trip down on a long weekend. The first long weekend I held off because I didn't have the money, and what's more I had Sports Day to contend with. This weekend though I took advantage of the Monday off to head down and see the old gang. (Ideally I would have taken along some gifts to repay all the gifts that I had recieved during my farewell, but you know me. It was all I could do to get organized enough to pack my suitcase and catch my flight.)

First lesson: I'm not going to be able to afford to do this every long weekend. It costs about $400 dollars just for me to get to Oita and back, far more than I had planned on paying at first. But travelling in Japan is not cheap, and it is well known that it is cheaper to travel from Japan to another country than it is to travel within Japan itself. (In fact I think things may be to the point where a lot of Japanese people accept this as the way things should be. Last week I had a Japanese woman ask me why it costs her so much to get a plane ticket to San Francisco, but it was so cheap to travel from San Francisco to Minnesota. She reacted with great surprise when I said in America it is cheaper to travel within the country than it is to travel abroad.)

I took a plane from Nagoya airport down to Kyushu. As always, all the instructions were broadcast both in English and Japanese, but somewhere during the course of the flight I realized I was the only foriegner on board, and all the English broadcasts were for my benefit only. I do of course realize that they do the bilingual broadcasts as a matter of habit, and would probably do them even with no foreigners, but still it made me feel a bit special. The only thing was when they got on the speaker and said things like, "Ladies and gentlemen, the captain asks that you please prepare for take-off..." I thought it would be more appropriate if they would just say, "Joel, the captain asks that you would please prepare for take-off," etc.

After 3 years in Oita I have, as you can imagine, many friends and contacts down there. Even though the ex-patriot community is in a constant state of flux, I still know a lot of people, and then there are all the Japanese friends. There were a lot of people I really wanted to see this weekend, and also a lot of people that I wanted to see if it worked out, but I wasn't too fussed about it. Since a 3 day weekend is too short of a time to see everybody, I decided to keep a relatively low profile lest I cause hurt feelings by having people hear I was in town but didn't contact them. As such I didn't make most of my phone calls until after I had already arrived.

I came in Friday night and spent Friday night and Saturday with my girlfriend. It was a great relaxing time, and I feel we really have a good connectiong. She showed me some pictures from her trip to China. Sensing an opportunity to use one of the Japanese phrases I had learned recently from my textbook, I commented, "No matter what they may say, the Great Wall of China is very famous."

She paused, then started laughing as she said, "You learned that from one of your Japanese language textbooks, didn't you? YOu're just like a parrot sometimes."

We did a relaxing Saturday night in by just watching a video. I got her to agree to watch "Malcolm X". I had already seen it, but having just read his autobiography I wanted to see the movie again. She was a good sport about it, although I found out later she complained to other people that I always watch such serious movies. I tend to take pride in those sort of complaints though.

Quick sidenote: I believe "Malcolm X" is the finest biographic movie ever made. But watched in a vacuum (say by a Japanese person with limited knowledge about American history) one can get the impression that Malcolm X "was" the civil rights movement. In reality of course one of the reasons he got so much press was because he was in opposition to many of the other leaders, and I tried to explain this point after the movie, but it got me thinking..."Why aren't there any other movies about the civil rights movement?" Discounting the appallingly historically inaccurate "Missippi Burning" and the comic book like "Panthers", "Malcolm X" stands on its own as the only movie about the movement. Or am I missing something? But why aren't there more movies made about this?

Okay, back to my weekend: The girlfriend was working on Sunday in the Ajimu Winery in my old town of Ajimu. The Ajimu Winery was putting on a wine festival that weekend.

Japanese people gaurd details of their personal life very closely to the extent that during the time we've been going out my girlfriend has gone to great pains to make sure her co-workers at her company know nothing about me. I'm not entirely sure if I like this policy, but I've been retailating by telling everyone in my new residence of Gifu that I don't have a girl friend. As it allows me great freedom to chat-up girls and not feel guilty, it is quite nice when it works in reverse.

Right, anyway: The girlfriend made it very clear to me that if I was to go to the wine festival I was to keep a low profile, and under no circumstances was I to acknowledge her at all. So I was on my own to entertain myself most of the day. The original plan was she would take me into Ajimu with her, and then drop me off and I would make plans to meet my friends from there.

But as I made a few phone calls on Saturday night I found out that a consequence of my keeping such a low profile on my return was that most of my usual contacts in the Ajimu area had other plans on Sunday.

I knew from 3 long years of experience that there is very little to do in Ajimu on a Sunday afternoon by oneself without a car. And there is no train station in Ajimu, so once I was there I was stuck there. Much better, I thought, to get the girlfriend to drop me off by the train station in Hita before she left for Ajimu. By train I could travel around the Usa-Nakatsu area and hit up all my contacts there.

The girlfriend just laughed when I mentioned my new plan. "The train doesn't go from Hita to Usa," she said. "You'd have to go all the way to Fukuoka first to change lines."

"Oh" I said. Still I was reluctant to give up on it completely. "I could go to Oita city," I said.

"Yeah you could do that, but I don't think that's much better," she replied. I decided to give it a go anyway. I slept in when she woke up at 5 in the morning to go to work (that was the only good part about my plan).

I spent a leisurely morning . I finally wrote some thank you notes to the students from the homestay, who had presented me with gifts at the end of July. Long overdue obviously, but again this is me.

I walked to the Hita station later in the afternoon. When I looked at the train schedule I saw what she meant. From Hita Fukuoka was actually cheaper and closer than Oita city. But at this point I was really low on options, so I hopped on the train in the direction of Fukuoka. "I'll just keep my eyes open" I thought, "I'll run into a place to change trains before too long."

Next thing I know I'm all the way in Fukuoka. And then I change trains and begin the long journey back to Usa. In the end it was one of my stupider decisions. When I only had a couple days to spend with old friends, I spent an entire day riding trains and then coming back.

There was a dinner organized Sunday night by the Usa gang as an excuse to see me. I ended up arriving an hour late for my own dinner after all the monkeying around with the trains. "Why are you so late?" someone asked.

"I ended up taking the train all the way to Fukuoka. I don't want to talk about it," I said.

"Why didn't you just take the bus from Hita?" someone else asked.

Bus? GRRR. Why didn't I take the bus?

It was good seeing a lot of the old gang again in the end. I just wish I would have had more time as I spent most of the evening just having token conversations and trying to make sure I had said hi to everyone. Next time I'll have to spend more time with friends and less time riding the trains.

Addendum: Whilst in Fukuoka, I tried to make the best of a frustrating afternoon by visiting the English book store there. I stumbled across a book called, "Take Back the Right" by Philip Gold, which I bought on a whim. It's the story of a life long conservative who talks about how he left the conservative movement after being so frustrated by the Bush administration. Since I don't consider myself a conservative, this isn't the kind of book I usually read, but I like to keep an open mind by exposing myself to anti-Bush books from all across the political spectrum.

It's an okay book, nothing I'd recommend too highly, but the author has a good sense of wit and humour, and the book had a couple gems I couldn't resist re-telling here on this blog.

One is he talks about he's years working in a political think tank, and says that pity be unto the think tank analyst who forgets the maximum: "Here's your money, here are your conclusions, now go do the research."

And then there was this story that made me laugh: Appearently after the cold war the CIA was trying to figure out why they never knew how weak the Soviet Economy had really been. It turns out the CIA economist had been using Soviet numbers for their analysis. The Soviets by contrast knew that their own numbers were junk and they didn't rely on them. Instead they were looking to the CIA's data, which kept telling them what good shape they were in.

Video Version

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