Rise Above

A fist full of rose petals.

A fist full of rose petals.

 

Saturday, April 20

We came together to celebrate Elisha’s 25th birthday. It was the first time Lauren, Elisha and I were back together since February. Gotta love whenever all three of us can get together!

Rocking out for Elisha's birthday.

Rocking out for Elisha’s birthday.

 

Sunday, April 28

My good friend Moto got married on this day. I was honored to be invited and gladly accepted. This is my recounting of the day.

To begin with I arrived to the hotel stag. Japanese weddings are extremely expensive and dates are never taken along. I was dressed in a black suit with a white tie. Japanese weddings are very formal and there is a strict dress code that must be followed. The wedding ceremony would roll right into the reception, without a break, and you must look your best for everything.

The wedding started at four. I joined many familiar faces including some of my old coworkers. We were shown to the elevator and stepped out onto the fourth floor deck. The ceremony was to take place outside next to a swimming pool complete with water fountains and a towering hotel. We were seated next to the pool on the grooms side with the sun to our backs.

Before long the couple came down the aisle. Moto’s bride, Junka, was dressed in a stunning white wedding dress. Moto too looked dapper in an all white tuxedo. Together they stood on a platform above the pool. The ceremony was done in a Christian fashion, complete with a foreign priest, speaking in Japanese. A few words were exchanged, a hymn was sung and rings were put on. That was it. In less than 20 minutes they had been joined together.

Congratulations!

Congratulations!

The guests stood up to make a path for the newly weds to walk through and we showered them with rose petals. There was a bouquet toss and then we were back inside. We were ushered backed downstairs and I signed the guest registry. I handed over my gift. An envelope full of cash.

In an American wedding it is customary to give the newly weds a gift. Perhaps something from their gift registry or a cliché item good for a new home together. In Japan the only gift is cash money. I believe the money helps the couple offset the cost of the wedding. As I said before, weddings are expensive, and so is the gift. I put a few crisp bills in a special wedding envelope and handed them to Moto’s friends at the reception. I signed my name in the guest book in katakana, ウィーラー アレクサンダー (Wuiiraa Arekusandaa).

I followed the crowd in front of me into a reception room and we were served wine while the banquet hall was prepared. I sat with senior coworkers and chatted idly. We were again escorted to the banquet hall and found our assigned seats.

Now this is where it gets interesting. In Japanese weddings the seating arrangement is the opposite of a western wedding. There were four tiers of tables separated down the middle for the bride and groom. I think it was organized like this:

Head Table

Groom’s business associates / Bride’s business associates

Groom’s friends / Bride’s friends

Groom’s family / Bride’s family

Only the newlyweds were at the head table. Wedding parties here are nonexistent compared to the western notion. No maid of honor, no best man, nothing. The couple was squarely in the light.

At the business tables the bosses sat nearest the head table. I believe this is the most honored seat. The friends occupied the second tier. And finally the family, including the parents, were seated in the back.

I was a bit taken aback by this. I thought Japanese culture was steeped in Confucianism, with a great emphasis placed on the family. But this was not the case. The parents were relegated to the back of the room, far from their children.

Then the reception began. It was carefully planned and timed out. There was a hotel MC at the front of the room making announcements and directing traffic the whole time. It was clear from the beginning that we were on a tight time schedule.

Naturally the reception kicked off with the newly weds entering the room to great applause. They found their seats at the head table. The first person to speak was the groom’s boss. Both groom and bride’s bosses gave speeches. I didn’t catch a lot of what was said but I got the gist of it. Their bosses talked about their subordinates. About their character and work achievements. I heard little mention of the couple or their future at this time.

Then came dinner. We enjoyed an eight-course meal and bottomless bottles of booze. The servers made frequent rounds to the tables.

“ビール (beer)?” They asked.

“はい (yes)。” I replied.

“赤ワイン (red wine)?”

“はい。”

“白ワイン (white win)?”

“はい。”

I rotated my drinks and drank whatever had most recently been filled up. All four parents came to our table to top off our drinks. I made polite small talk with them in my broken Japanese and graciously bowed.

There were occasional breaks in the meal to watch DVD tributes. Moto’s best friends even dressed up as a popular girls musical group and did a choreographed dance. The bride stepped out once to change her dress. She changed from a white wedding dress to a colorful dress. I don’t know much about dresses but it reminded me of what a girl might wear to her prom.

The meal finished with speeches given by both husband and wife. They presented their parents each with bouquets of flowers. We polished off our drinks and left the hall to say thank you and goodbye to both the couple and their parents. I gave a bow, an どもありがとうございました (thank you), and a handshake to top it off. They didn’t see the handshake coming.

There was an hour break in the action as we left the hotel to cross the street and join the second party (二次会). The second party is a little less formal than the reception. It is akin to the latter half of a western wedding. A chance to mingle and introduce yourself. However there was neither music nor dancing. The second party is a chance to invite casual friends to join you. It’s a two-hour party complete with an open bar, buffet and bingo. It was very similar to the second party I attended last month. I arrived at the party and checked in. I handed over a generous amount of yen and had my name checked off the sheet. Same as last time.

The difference this time was that I was asked to speak. I had the honor of leading the opening toast. I had fretted and worried for weeks before about the speech. What should I say, should I speak English or Japanese? Should it be formal or casual? How long should it be? After all the sweat and tears I decided this: the best speech doesn’t come from paper, it comes for the heart. I thought about a few basic points I wanted to make and I planned to improvise the rest.

And so I did. I sprinkled the speech with some Japanese and did my best classroom English. I kept it short and sweet and finished by raising my glass. “かんぱい (cheers)!”

I spent the rest of the time mingling with coworkers and admiring the happy newlyweds. Before I knew it the party was wrapping up. I joined the organizers in asking the guests to head toward the door. Before that though I handed my empty wine glass to Luke.

“Luke, could you please top me off?”

“WHAT did you ask me to do,” Luke demanded. Apparently anything with the word “top” in it is a dirty request in the Queen’s English.

“He’s asking you to refill his drink,” Tiffany had jumped in.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “And it’s the last drink, so don’t get cheap on me.”

I left the foreign circle and helped chase the guests out the door. When I returned to Luke he handed me an overflowing glass of wine.

“Here you are, sir!” Luke smiled.

“You English don’t do anything halfway, I can see.” I took the glass and took a sip. “Thank you kindly.”

After the second party was naturally the third-party. The party thinned out to 25 people. We walked, others of us stumbled, back towards the station and found our izakaya. Our party split into two rooms, those taking last train and those staying in the hotel. I elected to take the train. I had two more drinks with a mixed group of people and we hit the trains.

Emma and Daniel nagged me to keep the party going and pull an all-nighter. I politely reminded them both what had happened the last time we pull an all-nighter. The train came to a stop and I said goodbye to my friends.

Back at home I drank as much water as I could stomach. It had been such a long and lovely day. I learned weddings are the same wherever you go. They’re a treat to be involved with. I thought kindly of the new Mr. & Mrs. Maruyama and my head touched the pillow.

Look at these two studs.

Look at these two studs.

 

Friday, May 3

Mari and I rented a car and drove south in the morning. We spent the usual 2 hours in traffic moving at a snail’s pace. Still, I can’t complain. It felt good to be in a car rolling down the highway with the music blasting and the windows down.

At noon we arrived at our destination, Forest Adventure, in a forest at the base of Mt. Fuji (富士山). We parked the car and looked up. High above us were tree stands and zip lines. A teenager screamed with delight as she flew by us.

“いいね (sweet),” I said.

We checked in and received our harnesses. We had a brief safety introduction. Though it was entirely in Japanese I understood about 95% of what was said. I tried not to snicker as they said the katakana words. Carabiner became カラビナ (karabina) and pulley became プーリー (puurii). The instructions were common sense and came down to this: always clip in wherever you are.

Mari and I left the instructor and scurried to the first obstacle. We shimmied up a ladder and clipped into a rope. We had to make a leap of faith and fall down before flying into a pirate-esque rope ladder. I stood on the ledge and look at Mari fell off.

“Geronimo!” I cried. Pretty sure no one got it.

We advanced across the a bridge and zipped back down to the ground.

The rest of the day was spent climbing up and zipping down. I made friends with a dad taking his two daughters out for an adventure. They followed behind us all day. We spoke in pidgin and got along well. We both took great delight in scaring the women with us at every opportunity. The girls didn’t like it, we thought it was hysterical.

After our forest adventure, ha, we returned to the car and took a cruise around Mt. Fuji. Compared to the world’s great mountains, Fuji is not that big. However it stands alone and dominates the landscape like nothing else in Japan. Standing behind a lake, Fuij looked impressive. Mari and I decided we would return in August to climb to the top.

Geronimo!

Geronimo!

 

Saturday, May 4

We woke up early the next morning and ate a traditional Japanese breakfast. Grilled fish, rice, miso sound, an assortment of vegetables. Light but healthy. We hopped back in the car and took a cruise around Mt Fuji. There are five lakes around the mountain called the Fuji Five Lakes (富士五湖). We visited three of the lakes before getting stuck in gridlock. By noon we had driven more than 180 degrees around the mountain and stopped for lunch.

During the afternoon we visited an outlet mall in Gotemba. It was INSANE. Traffic backed up for an hour. Stores packed side to side. Most of the stores were targeted towards women. However I did find a few places I was interested in, though I didn’t buy anything. The outlet discounts were usually 15-30% off. Keeping in mind that many items in Japan begin pricing at ¥ 10,000 ($100), I decided the discounts didn’t warrant a purchase. Mari bought a cute skirt and I walked away empty-handed. But as they say, a penny saved is a penny earned. Or should I say yen?

We finished our day driving deep into the Tanzawa mountains (丹沢). The western half of the mountains are more difficult to access and so it was the first time for both of us. We found the lodge grounds and checked into our spartan room. One overhead light, a window and that was it. No matter. We were tired, so were out like the light.

Mount Fuji as seen from Lake Kawaguchi.

Mount Fuji as seen from Lake Kawaguchi.

 

Sunday, May 5

My wristwatch began chiming at 5 AM. Up and at ‘em! We tossed our bags in the trunk and drove deeper into the mountain. We ate rice balls in the car and started the trailhead at 6. We eyed a peak at 1,673 meters. There we would stop for breakfast and plan our next summit.

The path started out lovely. We walked next to a river and were warmed by the sun breaking the mountain tops. An hour in we had to cross the river by hopping across stones. I didn’t even notice the five liters of water on my back. I was too enchanted with everything around me. Fantastic weather, excellent scenery and a beautiful girl. Across the river we resumed the trail. The path went up. Straight up. There was a warning sign in Japanese.

“This path is not for beginners. It is only for experienced and healthy hikers. Many people have been seriously injured on this path. Please be brave enough to admit it may be too much and turn back now.”

“The fools,” I said. “This sign is taunting me.”

And so we started up. Our conversation slowed as we focused on breathing and making it up. Along the trail we met an assortment of people. And old man who wanted to chat in English. A young man taking a nap, whose snoring Mari thought was an animal. A 70 year old man busting it up the mountain like he was 18. And my personal favorite, a man with a pet hawk. He was taking his bird on a 12 hour stroll through the mountains. That was a first for me.

We made summit at 9 and after a second breakfast and decided we would go for the gold. The highest peak in the Tanzawa chain. Just before we started down one peak for the next there was another warning sign.

“This path is extremely rugged. It’s up and down the whole way with many narrow paths along mountain spines. Only experienced hikers should attempt this. Be brave.”

I drooled with anticipation. Down the mountain we went.

And right back up we went. The next three hours were brutal. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. The final ascent had steel chains bolted into the mountain to help you keep your balance. There was lots of scrambling using our hands. But at 11 we were on the top. There was were a surprising amount of people there. But it was silent. Everyone was sucking wind from making it up.

Mari and I dropped off our packs and stretched. We walked around and enjoyed the view. This was our tenth time in the mountain and we had conquered the highest peak. We returned to our bags and set up the stove. Hot ramen, rice balls, a few sweets and a cup of coffee. By noon we were ready for the descent. I strapped by pack back on. It was a liter lighter.

We practically ran down the mountain. We finished back at the car at 4. We bought a soda and relaxed in the parking lot. We ended up with some impressive statistics.

20 kilometers and 10 summits in nine hours, three hours under time.

Leaving the mountains we made a pit stop to enjoy a bath at a hot spring. Point of interest: this hot spring was on two floors and had an elevator connecting the two. So I rode the men’s elevator completely in the buff. Another naked man stood next to me and we listened to calm elevator music. We both stepped off and I couldn’t hold it.

“Pfffttt, hahahahahaha.”

A naked elevator. That was also a first for me.

Back on the freeway we sat in a traffic jam for 2 hours. We dropped off Mari’s bags at her home and I briefly met her father. I dug his aura. Returned the car and back to my apartment.

Mari fell asleep before I could finish my beer. Actually I did too. It had been a long day.

The highest peak in Tanzawa!

The highest peak in Tanzawa!

 

-The Foreign Factor-

Newsflash. I’m not from here. And I’m reminded of that little truth every day. The color of my skin is different from the natives. The color and shape of my eyes are different. The shape of my nose, the color of my hair, the language I speak, the hair on my body, my history. It’s all different from those around me. Every day people comment on these difference, or they treat me differently. Sometimes it’s for the benefit, sometimes it’s discriminatory. In the end it’s all about attitude.

Let’s start with the positive. I am often afforded carte blanche in Japan. Naturally  most foreigners are not indoctrinated with Japanese culture, so they are not held to the same standards. Of course after two years I know most of the nuances here, but I’m still allowed a free pass if I forget. The locals here are often patient with me when I try to speak their language. They’ll wait for me to spit out what I’m saying. And out of sheer kindness I’m often approached at the station and offered assistance. I don’t look lost or confused, I just look foreign.

I’ve also been thought of as cool, just because I’m different. Men, women, boys and girls have all made comments to that effect. I try not to let it go to my head.

On the other hand the Japanese can be incredibly rude and xenophobic. Occasionally I am given a wide girth at stores as no one wants to help the foreign guy. They assume I must not speak Japanese and want to avoid the hassle. But what really gets my goat are the “can’t’s and don’t’s” I hear.

“He can’t speak Japanese.” or “You don’t understand.”

Yes, there are times when these statements are true. However, to judge a person solely on their physical appearance is atrocious. I am in effect being stereotyped and at times I am a victim of racism.

However I chose to came here and I continue to choose to stay here. I wanted this experience. And as difficult at times it can be, it’s all been extremely beneficial. I’ve had the experience of being both a member of the majority and minority. I’m not angry with the Japanese for their attitudes, it’s an inherent part of the system. I have learned so much about the world and myself for being refused entry because I have blue eyes. I believe I’ve become a more accepting person through all this.

And that brings us full circle. I’m not upset about this. I’ve learned from this. I’ve learned to let the casual racism roll off my shoulder. I try not to abuse leeway I’m afforded. I just try to be a decent person. As long as I control myself, the world around me will be a better place.

Going back for more.

Going back for more.

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About japanesealex

Alexander lived in Japan from 2010 to 2013. He is now pursuing a career in public service in Honolulu, Hawaii.

8 responses to “Rise Above”

  1. Aaron Ball says :

    Great post, Alex!

  2. claudia says :

    Love the photos and your realizations. Congrats to Moto and Junka!!!!

  3. Tiffany says :

    Nice long post! I completely agree with you…however I’m rarely approached when I’m on my own…even when I’m obviously lost…. I smell a research paper!!!

  4. Japanesemiscellany says :

    U are correct most of the money is used to help offset the cost of the wedding. Ideally any extra goes toward a house. Vietnamese and Chinese weddings also do the cash gift only…. However at those weddings parents do sit at the head table with the bride and groom… There’s also less emphasis on bosses and more on extended family. More people = more envelopes. We’ll be expecting half and half at our wedding. Cash from his and the typical wedding registry gifts from mine. I personally think cash is more beneficial to newly weds but we all have our traditions to follow. It’d be more then a tad rude to tell my great aunts CASH ONLY lol. Funny how cash is seen as cold and impersonal here rather then practical.

    • japanesealex says :

      Congrats on the engagement!
      I agree cash is more practical. But I think my Western roots left me feeling like it was cold. Chalk another one up to cultural differences!

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