Aug. 19th, 2009

This afternoon I tried to go to the Fukugawa Edo Museum, but when I got there, it was closed for renovation. This is about the third time this has happened to me - apparently Japan’s economy really is based on construction work. Since I’d gone all the way out there, I looked at some maps nearby, saw that the Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Garden was just down the street, and went there instead.

I’d just taken a bunch of pictures of koi (in accordance with Japan’s Park Visitation Act, which requires that all park-goers take a minimum of 4 pictures of pine trees sculpted to trail their branches artistically over the surface of the pond, 7 pictures of moss-covered man-made structures representing the impermanance of human artifice in the face of the persistence of nature, 3 pictures of stones softly rounded by wind and water throughout the ages, and a bunch of pictures of koi), and was sitting down at a table resting, when someone behind me said loudly in English, “Living in Tokyo?”

It was an old woman in a really big hat, long sleeves, a scarf, and a poncho. It was eighty and clear today - this is the official uniform of tan-phobic old Japanese ladies. (She was also carrying an umbrella.) She said the phrase in a way that I associate with rote learning, so I answered “Yes” in Japanese.

She said excitedly in Japanese, “We should get together and talk sometime!”

I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m actually going home next week…”

“Oh! Where are you from?” She became even more excited by the news that I was American. “Where in America? Kentucky-shuu… is Kentucky near California?”

And she dug her wallet out and took out an electoral map from last year’s election, which she had clipped from a newspaper. There were a bunch of other clippings in there, and they all looked America-related. We successfully located Kentucky on her map. “I like Obama, but most Kentuckians don’t,” I said, feeling vaguely compelled to apologize for my state’s red color. I’ve found that Japanese people are often disappointed in Kentucky over this failing.

We talked for a while longer before she decided to go walk around some more. She asked me about Kentucky and how I liked Tokyo and so forth, and I asked her if she’d ever been to the US - she’d been to Hawaii and Alaska, which she felt was a funny juxtaposition. I would be more surprised by the whole encounter, except that the common advice for Japanese people who want to study English is to find an English-speaker to go have coffee with once a week. Some people accomplish this by personals ads for “language exchange,” and some just do it by ambush. I’ve only been ambushed once before that I can think of, but I know it happens. She seemed nice enough.

When my legs were no longer trying to fall off, I got up to walk around some more. I passed an old guy in a baseball cap with a big DSLR camera around his neck. He looked like a typical old vacationer guy, of the type that you always see hauling DSLrs around landscape gardens. They usually occur in twos or threes, with their wives or with other old vacationer guys, and tend to be pretty quiet unless commenting on the size of a koi or the probable age of a tree.

As I walked past him, I felt him giving me a look, which I assumed to be the What’s That Foreigner Doing Here look. Then, he burst into song.

It sounded vaguely like a Buddhist monk saying a sutra, which is just to say that it was kind of tuneless and I couldn’t make out any words in there - it could have been a Shinto thing. For all I know it could have been in Cambodian. But it definitely sounded like religious music, anyway.

What was it about me that made the old tourist man suddenly begin singing a hymn? I do not know. He kept doing it for at least five minutes after I was gone, so I’m assuming this wasn’t something he did purely to mess with the foreigner. I saw him walk by the woman from earlier, still singing - she jumped and nearly dropped her umbrella.

(Crossposted to SarahPin.com, Dreamwidth, and LiveJournal. You can leave comments at whichever.)

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