When in Japan, I often I wonder what in the world could possibly happen that would be worth writing about. I’ve written about the funny features of every day life, chance encounters, accidental dives into rivers and nighttime sword fighting lessons, and I often fear I’ll never experience anything worth writing about again. My great fear is to become boring, the chief sin of most travel blogs.
The fact is, that after 5 trips to Japan, I repeatedly fail to accept the inevitability of impending peril.
And so it was that A lost her eyeglasses in a taxicab in central Kanazawa.
We had visited Myoruiji, a small shrine known colloquially as the “ninja temple,” in view of its many hidden trap doors, secret stairwells, and mysterious passageways. The Maeda clan had built Myoruji as an outpost to hide spies and maintain a lookout for Kanazawa castle. It is said there is a tunnel that leads from Myoruji under the city and all the way to the Castle. I say “it is said” because when listening to the tour guide explain the possibility that the claim is true, it was completely obvious to me that it is false. Perhaps it is my training as a lawyer and prosecutor, but there is a way to tell a lie and pretend it might be true that is transparent even in a foreign language.
The tour was entirely in Japanese and the staff were notoriously unwelcoming and rigid. True to form, they instructed me not to translate for Annie, as it would distract the tour guide. Instead we were given an English guidebook, A was just as well, because I needed it almost as much as A, not because I didn’t understand, but because I spent most of the time trying to stay warm in the un-heated, centuries-old structure. There is something about temples and shrines that renders them colder than the outside.
It was on the ride back that A apparently decided to leave her glasses in the one place we would never be able to find them again, a Taxicab..
It is crucial to understand how uniquely poor a choice of location this was to lose an item in Japan. If she had left them nearly anywhere else in the island nation of Japan, we stood a chance of getting them back. The street? A passerby would turn them in to the Police Station (I swear, it happens ALL THE TIME - ask a former resident). A museum or train car? They have lost-and-founds. A hotel? They would mail them to us, along with a note apologizing for not trying hard enough to make sure we did not leave anything behind.
No, she had to pick a continuously mobile form of transportation whose driver would never figure out who left them behind. And, of course, we had no idea what cab company we rode from the Ninja Temple to Mr. Donut. So forget calling the company. (Believe me, I tried, with entirely unhelpful results). Her eyeglasses were gone the second we stepped out of the cab. We were, in a word, screwed.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m making such a big deal about this seemingly minor problem. I should begin by explaining that my wife suffers from rare but medically documented disphasia of the hippocampus called Topographical Agnosia. People who have this disorder lack the ability to visualize spatial relationships in a grid, the way most of us do when we navigate the world.
Imagine the route from your home to the grocery store. Got it? When you imagined it, you probably imagined a series of images laid out in a pattern, one after the other, related to each other by right or left turns, maybe in a grid or in a series of picture images. If I asked you to imagine that you were coming from a different direction, you could switch up the map.
She cannot. She actually gets lost in her office at work if she goes out the wrong door. I’m not making this up for purposes of humor, this is a real thing. My brother’s friend has it too, and apparently there are all sorts of jokes about him. (Did you hear about the march they organized for Topographical Agnosia? It was 2 weeks ago. Some of them still haven’t made it home).
So our big plan to split up in Tokyo for the last 3 days and wander the city was in jeopardy. We each have a Japanese and an American cellphone and a wifi hotspot but there is no way I can get her out of being lost if she cannot see. And forget finding someone to help. Most Japanese people learned English in school but would rather commit seppuku than risk embarrassment by trying to speak English.
Sitting in a tiny booth of the 3rd floor of Mr. Donut in Katamachi, I chewed on my frustration, vainly hoping to see the cabdriver come running in and hand us our lost property and bowing profusely. “Well, hell, this is why I carry a wi-fi hotspot,” I thought, and googled “buying new eyeglasses Japan.” Having determined it was possible, we set out to accomplish what the internet warned was difficult, but not impossible. And the first attempts we made, where we were told the wait would be 2 weeks, were not promising.
The final exam in my Japanese class did not include obtaining a new eye prescription for another person in a foreign city. But then again, I'm sure that the exam our eyeglass shop proprietor took to obtain his license included a section how to deal with people who could barely communicate beyond "yes" and "no." Remember when you last took an eye exam? And how you needed to know how to read letters? You need to be able to do that in Japan too, only the letters are called Hiragana and they look a little different. And if you don’t know how to read them it’s a little hard to tell the examiner what you see. I’m sure that when he was in eye-examiner school and his teacher taught him how to administer an eye exam to an illiterate person, he probably thought to himself:
"Japan has a 99% literacy rate [true]. Why in the world would I have to administer this test to someone who cannot read?”
Well, we all were going to have a tough evening.
Not having glasses myself, I never paid much attention to the machinery behind the eye exam. But as a translator, I watched the proprieter’s opearations carefully and realized that the machine actually has a setting for “illiterate.” It’s a series of simple shapes that my wife could draw and convey basic information. Pretty ingenious, I must say. Finally he issued a prescription and Annie selected a pair of frames (finding, of course, the section of expensive frames that did not carry a discount with a new prescription). They would be ready in just over an hour.
I breathed a sigh of relief and sat down to complete the transaction. The proprieter led us to a set of chairs where we would settle the bill and arrange pick-up. It was then, perfectly on cue, that his assistant entered the room with a tiny tray carrying two cups of hot green tea. Two cups, to celebrate and mark the conclusion of our transaction. We quietly sipped tea and settled the bill. Tea is for Closers.
It being Japan, of course, the glasses fit her better than any glasses she has ever had. Part of it was the proprieter’s fastidious attention to detail. Part of it was the elaborate computerized machine he had that he used to analyze her head shape. And, of course, part of it was that the glasses were made for Asian people, and not big Americans. In short, size matters.
In a land the size of California with half the population of the United States, and still with large portions of the nation only lightly populated, space and size are at a unique premium. She is perfectly sized for this nation. I, only the other hand, am not an efficient use of space or size.
I noted that fact first while taking a shower at a business hotel in Shibuya in a shower stall smaller than the shower on the tiny houseboat we rented in Newport. The bathroom in our apartment in Harajuku is smaller than the bathroom on the airplane. Certainly the tiny feet markers on the airport moving walkway are an immediate sign alterting you to your relative size. The Shibuya hotel room mirror cut me off at about shoulder height, but was perfect for Annie.
Normally, she feels small and I feel normal. Here, I feel enormous. Perhaps this is what it felt like to be Andre the Giant. I saw an American woman at a Narita Starbucks that had the stunned look of someone who was having that feeling for the first time. I've felt it a million times before but it always feels new and uncomfortable. Like being an elephant at a mouse convention.
Annie says people watch me with one eye at all times, the way a flock of birds would watch a crocodile. I don't notice the watching but I feel self conscious nonetheless, like I should be constantly apologizing for being a hulking meatbag. On the other hand, she blends in so much I sometimes lose her in crowds. I honestly wonder if I had to find her if I could even sufficiently describe her to anyone. “umm…she’s Asian…short….black hair…wears glasses…well,that is, unless she’s lost them again…”
Still, obtaining a new eye prescription and buying new glasses for my wife in Kanazawa, Japan using virtually no English at all should earn me some kind of Japanese Merit Badge.
Plus A left happy and said the eye exam was the most complete and precise she had ever had. She exclaimed that the new glasses made everything look like it was in High Definition. It had been a lucky day after all. Good thing she didn't understand the slagging-off the proprietor and I gave her while she was selecting new frames….