One time, when I was in Japan…

… I committed the dumbest travel-related mistake. Dumber, in fact, than not sleeping for 40 hours and trying to navigate a bus system in a language I couldn’t read. (There are other runners-up in this contest, including an overnight trip alone on the wrong train through Austria and Italy, and a 15-hour car ride across Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland that should have taken seven. But those are other stories for another time.)

My dumbest travel mistake in fact (surprisingly, given the above) did not involve transportation. It involved the sun. And my own stupidity.

I was studying in Hokkaido and as part of the program I was taking acultural anthropology course. One of the assignments was to go away for the weekend, alone. The professor gave us each the equivalent of about $200 (I’m sure this came out of our tuition; it wasn’t a freebie) and warned us that we were not to travel together, on penalty of bad
grades. We would have to write about our weekends in detail, and they’d figure it out if we were lying. By this point, several months into our stay, we, the six students on the program, were pretty sick of each other. After all, we spent four hours a day in language classes together, and attended numerous events and ceremonies together. We’d traveled on weekend trips as a group. All personalities had come out, and not all personalities were friendly. A weekend alone was a welcome prospect.

I chose to go to two places on my weekend; the second was the city of Hakodate, which is on the southern tip of Hokkaido. It’s a big port, known for some foreign influence and architecture, and, if I remember
correctly, for a bad earthquake. I did not yet know how to pace myself when traveling alone — I was 20 — and I
rushed through all the sights in a couple of hours. The sun was warm, the skies were clear. It was summer, and I missed going to the beach at home. I decided to spend some time at the beach in Hakodate. Why not?

There are moments when you are traveling and you know something isn’t right, but you’re stubborn and you won’t admit it; either you’re trying to do something exactly as you would do it at home, or you’re just unwilling to admit you’re plain wrong. When I stepped out on the beach in Hakodate, it was both. I wanted desperately to lay out in the
sun as I might do at home, and though there was not a soul in sight, I would not admit that perhaps this wasn’t the right place to do that.

Hakodate was a port. There were fishing boats pulled up on the beach. Trash littered the sand. Fishermen eyed me suspiciously. But I refused to give in: I wanted to lay in the sun for a few hours, and I did. I was nervous the whole time, suspicious of the fishermen. I never really relaxed into the idea of being at the beach. Finally, I got too hot,
and I left to do more sightseeing.

Later in the afternoon I began to feel strange. My skin felt raw. I was thirsty and tired. I was staying in a family hotel that was very cheap — no bath. To bathe, guests had to visit the public bath house, not too far away. I decided that a nice, hot bath would make me feel better.

Bath houses in Japan usually have some kind of bathing area, with stools, mirrors and buckets. The idea is that you sit on the stool, wash yourself and then fill your bucket and use the water to rinse. Once clean, you can soak in communal pools, some very hot, often heated by springs, some very cold. From a physical perspective, soaking in the hot baths I always find very relaxing.

But the rest of it, for me, wasn’t always comfortable. Being white, with a different body type than most Japanese women, I stood out enough on street corners. Naked, in a bath house, well, I got a lot more stares.

In any case, I was alone and naked in the Hakodate bath house, and everyone was staring at me. More than usual, and longer than usual. I didn’t quite realize why until I went to bathe and saw that I had completely burned myself, out on the beach. But only on one side.

I had never flipped over during my time on the beach. My back side was white — as in polar ice cap white. My
front, an angry dark red. There was a surprisingly clear line between the two. No wonder people were staring.

For some reason, perhaps to escape all the scrutiny of my naked and two-toned body, I decided it would be a good idea to get into the hot bath. When I tried to ease a foot in, some sensory input part of my brain finally woke up (hello, where were you, out at the beach?!) and reminded me that sunburn and hot water, not such a good combo. I jerked back my fire-topped foot.

An old woman soaking in the tub laughed softly, then said, “maybe getting in is not possible,” suggesting without really saying anything confrontational — in the way that Japanese allows, since she could avoid using a subject or conveying
the reason for this impossibility — that I was doing something either inappropriate or just plain bad.

“Yes, that’s probably true,” I said, the Japanese language again allowing us to avoid the real topic of the conversation. Then again, a naked, half chili-pepper-red, half white person, grimacing as one burnt toe touched the steaming water probably didn’t need much pointing out. She nodded at me. For some reason, I said thank you.

Then, I got the heck out of there.

I had to take an overnight bus back to Sapporo for class the next morning, and the driver blasted the air-conditioning the whole way. I shivered hot-cold under the bus-issue blanket all night, my sunburn washing over me in waves.

The next day my host sister, a high school student who’d been my closest friend in Japan, painted Calamine lotion on my ankles. It was as if my burn was paint, under the surface of my translucent skin, and it had run. The red pooled at my swollen ankles. My host sister teased me, relentlessly, until all traces of the burn had peeled away.
She did not sidestep her topic at all. “Elizabeth did a stupid thing,” she said.


3 thoughts on “One time, when I was in Japan…

  1. Elizabeth, this is such a wonderful story and essay! I hope one day it comes to life again in print because I was really charmed by this post. Very charmed by it! The voice, particularly, is just wonderful.

  2. Great post!!! I also love the way the language/cultural issues play a role here..funny and informative at the same time. (Reminds me of your workshop submissions, how I miss them! :)

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