When I was twenty-four I met Naoyoshi-San, my new boss, and we drove up a corkscrew road through the mountains to a village called Kosuge. We reached the town hall where I had introductions, a flurry of bows from the staff and tea with the mayor. We exchanged business cards and bows, and Naoyoshi-San, mad-scientist-white hair and beer belly, drove me to the apartment, which when Brian, the former English teacher, left in a few days would be mine.
Brian was squat, curly haired, and had the expression on his face of a man constantly chewing aspirin. While I changed out of my suit, showered, put on a pair of shorts, Brian sat in the living room drinking. He offered me a beer, but I turned him down. He asked me how I was doing, and I said jet-lagged but okay. I told him about buying hundreds of pencils and key chains for our students in Houston before I’d left town. In turn, I asked Brian about life in Kosuge.
“When I first got here,” he said, “my predecessor was off hunting wild boar with the locals, and I didn’t speak Japanese. So, when they drove me up here, I was like, ‘where the hell am I?’ It was beautiful, the mountains and everything, but I had nothing to do, no internet, no TV, no phone and no night life. So I drank in a lot, and the habit’s kind of stayed with me. It’s a nice place though, I’m sure you’ll do fine here.”
We heard a honk from my new boss’s car and got up to leave through the sliding glass doors. I noticed Brian had stacked five trash bags outside, the kind used for lawn leaves, filled with empty beer cans.
“Yeah, I could never figure out the right garbage days,” Brian said. “They recycle everything here.”
Naoyoshi-San’s wife dropped us off at a restaurant; the size of a Denny’s, most of its tables were on tatami mats where you would sit on cushions. We sat on the side with Western chairs and tables, our feet on the dusty floor boards, the only customers.
Naoyoshi-San undid his tie and untucked his shirt. He picked his teeth with one hand, and held the other over his mouth to conceal the toothpick. I noticed a thick gold ring on his right hand.
“This?” he said. “I got in Oregon.” We were talking in a mix of Japanese and English, the distillation of which I don’t remember.
“Yes, it’s a beautiful place,” he said. “We have our sister city in Oregon. I have been four times, and each time I have fallen in love.”
An old woman wearing an apron and slippers came out. She slid us a menu and gave us three Asahi drafts without asking.
“You drink a lot?” Brian asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “You’ll do fine here.”
We touched glasses. “Kan-pai!” Brian drank his mug without stopping.
“He’s famous for being drunk,” Naoyoshi-San said. “He’s the town drunk!”
“Yeah, I’m the town drunk,” Brian agreed. He asked for another beer.
Naoyoshi-San said something to the woman.
“He just ordered raw horse meat,” Brian said. “You ever tried it? You’ll love it. Trust me.”
Then it was on a plate at our table—elongated slices of cranberry jelly with blue veins. Naoyoshi-San handed me a pair of chopsticks. I didn’t, couldn’t think about it. I dipped a hunk into soy sauce and then into my mouth. It was salty, chewy, and sweet the way bacon fat is.
“It’s delicious,” I said, truthfully.
I ate a few more slices while we finished our drinks, cautioning myself about eating too much raw meat and drinking, which I’d never done in combination before. But my hands and mouth countered my plan. We all got drunk, me first, then Brian and finally Naoyoshi-San.
“You’re strong!” Naoyoshi-San yelled to me. “Town drunkard!” he said to Brian.
“Number two,” Brian said aiming a finger at his nose. “Number one.” He pointed at Naoyoshi-San. We all laughed. The woman who brought us another plate of raw horse laughed.
A man named Masahide came in, an employee of Naoyoshi-San’s at the Department of Education. He was a linebacker-looking sort of guy with a square head and glasses, and he and Brian began talking seriously about something. Naoyoshi-San grabbed me by the neck like a coach and bent me over on his side of the table.
“Clinton,” he said, “I like America. I like America very much. I go to America many times. Oregon, I love Oregon. I want to go to Oregon many more times. It’s a very beautiful place. You’re not from Oregon?”
“No, I’m from Texas.”
“Texas? What’s in Texas? Are you a cowboy? Do you have a gun?”
“I had a gun,” I said.
“Scary,” he said. “Americans are so scary. I’m so scared of guns every time I go there.”
I pushed out of my seat to go to the bathroom, took seven steps and realized how old the building was: cracking hardwood walls, mildew stains where rain leaked in, torn posters of enka singers dressed in kimonos crooning their lofty syllables. But something about a simple yellow cotton banner advertising Asahi Super Dry made it hit me: I had gotten the job I hadn’t expected and was about to live in a Japanese village of 900. When I had signed the contract in Texas, I assumed some agent of inertia was going to keep me in Lubbock. I thought my life destined like my father’s, raised and buried between two rivers. I’d never been overseas, yet, there I was, the year gaping before me. And after twelve months I could recontract. The thought was sobering. Brian would be gone in six days, and I would be the only Westerner in town. For how long? How long would I stay? It was a question of adaptation as well as allowance. Would I become an alcoholic? Would I be a good teacher? How long was I supposed to stay?
When I returned to the table, they’d ordered pig intestine and a potato alcohol called sho-chu. Then I remember singing a song by the Ramones. I remember ordering more food and Naoyoshi-San and Masahide warbling an enka ballad. More than once I remember somebody clapping me on the back and saying I was all right.
Then it was time to go. Naoyoshi-San had paid the check. We rose, pushed in our chairs, blushed and thanked the old woman. Naoyoshi-San’s wife came, and we waved goodbye as Naoyoshi-San got inside his car. We were singing as they left, bellowing some song that somehow all of us knew.
The three of us slogged uphill along the quiet street, passing four dark hotels, the closed flower shop and fish farms. Masahide and Brian had their arms across each other’s shoulders and were blubbering about how they were tomodachi (friends) itsumademo (forever). Masahide turned down his street, a row of tiny two-story homes, and Brian and he hugged goodbye.
We didn’t say much as we went up the road, until on a bridge, just before the apartment, I looked out over the river that appeared silver beneath the towering shadows of mountain and said to Brian, “Man, it’s a beautiful joint.”
Brian took a deep breath and said, “You know what though, man, fuck Japan. I’m glad to be leaving this motherfucking place behind.”
Later, Brian would tell me how our job made us recontract in February when the snows piled over the hoods of cars and you had to wear long underwear every day. Brian was from Georgia. Warm, southern Georgia. “Yeah, it was a bad time,” he would say. He tried to apply again in the spring, but the decision had been made and I’d been hired.
We stumbled the rest of the way home wordlessly and went to bed on futons in separate rooms. In a few minutes I could hear Brian’s snores, which were like the troubled sleep of someone with a cold.
I closed my eyes, but woke soon, my stomach somersaulting. I took a breath and calmed, amazed I’d handled all this new meat and alcohol. But then of course as if remembering were the trigger, I rushed outside through the sliding glass door and vomited by the pile of beer cans.
I stayed out there for a few moments while a wind rolled in off the hills keeping my stomach cool. I tried going back to sleep, but after half an hour, I saw a light coming in through the window and wandered outside. I was sluggish and dizzy, but I was able to climb a knoll at the end of the road and saw that my new place was at a bend in the river. The main village opened up before me: the town hall next to the one traffic light, the police station with its sole officer, most of my students’ houses, the schools, the gym, the gas station, the volunteer fire department. The glow was coming over the mountains in the back of town — the theatre’s lights coming on.
On my first transoceanic flight I had played a game. I was nervous but adrenalin-pumped as if I was at the top of a rapid. Nothing brings you into the moment like a steep drop. I wanted to see what, if anything, would give away that I was in Japan. Kidnapped and taken to the land of the rising sun, how would I know? What would tell me what river I was coursing onto? There wasn’t much except that the cars were driving on the left and that everything seemed a little smaller than back home.
But Kosuge at first light was something I’d not known: houses hugging hills like mountain goats with staircases of rice paddies. Even the massifs were a spectacle. I’d assumed mountains would be the same everywhere, but these peaks jutted out of the ground like spears. Their sides, heavily forested, were as steep as the pitch of a rolling wave. Maybe Ginza street lights were flashy, but in Kosuge, cars rusted over in the backs of cabbage fields. Kitchen sinks stood outside houses draining into street gutters. Drying cloths hung out of windows everywhere as they would even in winter. Old men and women, I later saw, walked around with baskets filled with fresh vegetables on their backs because that was what seemingly still worked.
It’s a fallacy to make a generalization about a culture, even my own, even for something as small as a village, but if I could have made one about Kosuge, a projection, really, of what I wanted to be, it’s that its people had a way of making do with the messiness of their environment. Maybe that’s the best you can say about someone, that they took the turns around the rivulets of the cosmos and made definitive choices. That they steered through the traffic they were dropped into. Or maybe that’s not saying anything. Maybe I just wanted to feel caught in a world more special than it was because that’s the way it felt to me at the time.
And then my stomach, as if on cue, still swirling with liquor and horse, told me to lean over the guardrail and, again, give back those presents to the land I’d received them from.
The trouble was unexpected. I’d been enjoying the sunrise and had felt a warm calm as if I’d taken a bath. I suppose many abroad experiences are like this.
As I stood up, I remembered something about Japan, something that made me shiver. One of the luckiest things you can do, I’d been told before coming, is to catch the first sunrise of the new year. Sometimes the Japanese call it go-raikou, or the divine coming of the light. My contract ended exactly one year from the date I was standing there, in front of Kosuge, presenting myself over this guardrail. Inadvertently, I’d given Kosuge and the light a bow. This was my salutation, my way of introduction, and, as the Japanese would, humbling myself before my new home and the year that awaited. But I was happy with the thought, I hoped, that most of the town was sleeping, waiting yet to welcome me.