After class, my students often took notes but not with pen and paper. Lining up before the whiteboards, arms extended, there was only the sound of clicking phones as they took photos of the board, some like a loud camera shutter click, others musical snippets. They were often amused by my impressions and questions about their culture, and curious about the work world and social life in other cultures. I cautioned several of them planning international travel this summer to watch their belongings and not carry a lot of cash; since there's no virtually crime in Japan, they have a naive innocence. They've been making progress, summoning up six years of rote English study before college, and massaging it in their brains to produce spontaneous conversation. By semester's end, I could give them an opening question or idea, set them up in pairs and they would chat away, changing the subject now and then, for the whole period if I didn't redirect them to another activity, using progressively more complex language constructions throughout the term. Their grammar certainly still needs some work, but they're getting better all the time.
On the home front, I broke a tooth that had a childhood filling, and found a dentist who could speak some English. Each time in his office, I took off my shoes and put on the slippers by the door. Settling in the chair, I stretched out and the assistant placed a pastel colored towel over my lap and legs, covering down to my toes. As if in ceremony, the towel floated down softly like dust or ash settling on the earth, as if she was slipping a blanket over a baby, ever so gently so as not to wake her.
The dentist came in, greeted me with 'Ohayo gozaimasu', good morning, and a small bow, just a bit more than a nod, then introduced his dental technician, a cool looking young man with spikey hair and a massive grin. He seemed honored to meet me and humbly presented his work, my yellowish cap, a strange little blob of porcelain, sitting on top of a reconstructed piece of my mouth. I thanked him for his fine work, and he gave a little bow and said he hopes I will be very happy with it. A smaller towel was placed over my eyes. I sat there blinded while the dentist worked his magic, murmuring 'sorry sorry' as he asked me open or close my mouth. Once he was done, he assured me his work is guaranteed for ten years. (It might be a bit expensive to come back though if I'm no longer living in Japan.) Thank you, bow. When I turned around, the young man was standing there, hopefully awaiting my approval, anticipating my smile. 'It feels great!' I told him. He bowed deeply and we thanked each other again. So many gracious rituals in this Japanese life.
I stopped for a coffee at the Cat Cafe in Shimokitazawa, a funky Tokyo neighborhood frequented by trendy youths. Perhaps a dozen well-groomed, sweet or sultry or exotic looking, mostly longhaired cats hang out at the cafe. Usually there are a few who are feeling sociable at any given time. For those who long for the comfort of a pet, a pricey entrance fee will buy you an hour with these creatures, stroking, playing, cuddling.
I sampled some new Japanese arts. A friend invited me to a card painting class. There was an array of bamboo brushes and watercolors, and a lovely collection of flowers and fruits on the table to paint. First, you hold a large brush vertically, with a finger at the top end, and paint a black brushed outline, thick and thin, on a postcard. Then fill with pigment, using just a few colors, and leaving some open space inside the outline. I chose two orange pod-like flowers with a seed like a cherry inside, one open and one closed lying next to it. Simple and expressive, not too many lines. In a top corner, paint Japanese characters. I had to have someone write something for me to copy. In the lower right corner, make your name mark in red, surrounded by a fluid looking box (I used the character Lu for Lusu, my Japanese name, since Ruth is impossible to pronounce here).
Several of my jazz club friends lead a Yosakoi group, a Japanese folk dance performed through the streets at a local festival in August. It's great aerobic exercise: a joyous dance, performed with great enthusiasm, big smiles and colorful costumes. Wooden clackers are held between thumb and index finger and flicked with the wrist, producing a dramatic effect when punctuating movements. I won't be here for the festival, but I joined the group several times for practice, once on July fourth, as good a fourth of July activity as I could find here.
Summer in Tokyo is a time of sweltering heat, blazing humidity, and constantly wet skin. People blot themselves with little towels, and create a breeze with decorative handheld fans. Looking forward to breathing the cool mountain air of Colorado in August.
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