Monday, April 13, 2015

Same Old Faces

This morning Raquel and I donated and dashed. We’re preparing to backpack through Europe and needed to do something more productive with our clothes than burn them. We knew we couldn’t just sell them to the Santa shop that passes for a thrift store in Takayama. We’d tried that last week only to have them give us back half of our sweat stained shirts and threadbare sweaters. They wouldn’t even take them for free! So we hatched us a plan.

“Sumimasen!” I roared as I dropped two bags bulging with clothes on their countertop. The clerk twittered away in Japanese while Raquel dumped another couple bags on the table.

“Ichiban,” he said, gave me a laminated number 1, and pointed to the ceiling.

Of course I’ll wait for you to refuse most of our moderately worn out clothes my good sir. Why yes you can keep the beat up suitcase too!

Raquel did a quick lap through the lady’s clothes as to not arouse suspicion then made for the exit, pausing only to mumble loudly and point at the roof.

Why yes dear I do believe I will meet you upstairs for some light souvenir shopping!

But I did no such thing. Instead I nodded to the man appraising the resale value of the sweater my wife had bought at the very store, turned left as if to go upstairs, but instead tossed their damn laminated number on top of a used washing machine and sprinted for the already idling car.

Drive! DRIVE! They probably think I robbed them!

“Why are you running?” Raquel asked.

Because it’s more fun now drive damnit!

So marks the beginning of the end of living in Takayama, a place I’ll miss little, filled with people I’ll miss a lot.

People like Cody, whose brewery I neglected to visit despite having brewed the best sake I’ve ever tasted. If there’s one thing I’ll lament about leaving Takayama, it’s not going to Cody’s brewery. But we’ve had our fun. Cody had us over for dinner (we cooked it for him), and after he’d already gotten me pleasantly inebriated, he dragged me to the house of my boss, his father-in-law. I shuffled in with a bowl of hot chili and presented it to who I believe is the most fearsome man in Japan. This man is so frightening, that he almost reduced me to tears when I tried to enquire about his son.
How’s Cody?
“Kore?” he said pointing to a clump of carrots.


“Kore!” he shook the carrots more violently.

Cody! Your son-in-law, Cody! Please, I’m sorry, he brews sake!
“Ah… he’s fine. “
This man from my nightmares accepted my bowl of chili from underneath his coffee table, and divvied it up so his family could try it. They all agreed (or at least pretended to) that it was delicious, but Cody’s nephew was so smitten with my generous dollop of spicy meat-soup that he insisted I take home a 12 pack of ramen noodles. I tried to decline but before I could some other relative shoved a piece of fruit in my hand. I got out of there before they filled my pockets with the contents of their refrigerator.

People like Kuniko, my guardian angel. Kuniko is so sweet that she has asked about my hangover and denied its existence in the same sentence. I’ve sung “A Whole New World” with Kuniko, stolen Jasmin’s part and been too drunk to notice, but did Kuniko mind? Not a bit, she just sang louder. Kuniko was the only person besides my wife to make it through hospital security to visit me. She has made dinner reservations for us, talked to the man whose car I smashed on her day off, and taken us to town for not being able to dance the ABC song up to her impeccable standards. We tried to give her a present when we last met, a nice card we’d gotten from a museum she liked in Kanazawa, but she trumped us with a bag full of snacks, fancy folders and handkerchiefs. She is an angel. Fear her.

Then there’s the regulars, what Master Kensei likes to call the same old faces. Kensei, a man so cool he has his own post.

The closest thing Steve has to a frown
Steve with his yappy grin, unshakable optimism, and never ending stories. I couldn’t have survived snowboarding or my surgery without Steve there for me. He continually reminds me I should be lucky I have all these foreigners around, because when he got here, he had to learn it all himself. Steve was the first person I ever heard say Takayama is the greatest town on earth, but he and all these people seem to feel the same way.  

Chaba, who I hope I will get to see again, otherwise my last memory will be of him arriving at a restaurant the moment I finished eating, ordering a beer and showering me in candy. Not a bad memory except that he had to wear gloves and a jumpsuit while he ate because his hands and who knows how much else was stained with blood red paint. I asked him why he was such a mess to which he replied simply, “I was painting.”

Eric, the other artist in town and a shit-talking poet, who after a few months of proclaiming that he was God and art was his universe finally confessed that it’s really just therapy. Well, that’s not quite true. He only told me it was therapy because I had confessed that I think about a target audience when I write because I want to sell my novels, something Eric found hilarious and unartistic. Eric invites me to McDonalds because, “the coffee’s OK,” then insults me for meeting him at McDonalds for the next thirty minutes. He’s spent the last two weeks predicting when the cherry blossoms will bloom, “Yeah they’re very close, I think maybe, hmm… when are you leaving? Five days? Yes, they look like they’ll be ready in about six or seven.” I still don’t know how his lovely wife puts up with him. 

Nolico, who showed us, after being here for nearly a year, a side of Takayama I’d never seen. She insisted on a shortcut, our heads swimming, who were we to disagree, and we found ourselves in the old quarter of Takayama—a place I’ve been to dozens of times—but never like this. It was deserted save for us. Paper lanterns cast a warm glow on the towering torii gates and ancient wooden homes. Except for a single car poking out from a side alley, I was transported centuries into the past.

“Except for the fucking hotel under the Torii gate!” Ah, Alex the Ukrainian Israeli, who can be so hard to impress that his smile’s worth a thousand shekels. We planned on having a going away party last Saturday, but Alex threw a quiet birthday party on Friday that boiled into a wild night we were all too drunk to stop. Alex always makes the party happen. I had set him up by playing his favorites, the Beatles and Elvis, to which he proclaimed to Kensei that he only needed one more album for it to be the perfect night. Kensei dug up some blistering fast bluegrass and Alex and I showed off her patented hillbilly boogie. I can’t wait for him to come visit us in Austin and tear it up Texas style.

On Saturday we chatted and sipped our Heartland, happy to all be together, but exhausted from the night before “Looks like last night was your going away party,” Alex said between sips of Jim Buck. And dammit he was right.

But that’s life, aint it? We can plan our vacations and our parties, but we can’t tell when that moment you’ll never forget will come. So many of us wait for that perfect moment at that perfect time: for a festival that gets rained out (100% chance of rain tomorrow) or a flower to bloom in a town that’s just too cold. So many of us wait for these moments—for the dance party or the scenic view—that we forget to appreciate all the little things: The spur of the moment vacations that turn out better than grand plans, the idle bits of conversation we’ll never forget.

If there’s one thing I learned from living in Japan a year, it’s to appreciate the little things you got around you, don’t take any of them for granted, because you never know when you’re gonna lose a nut, and you don’t wanna waste your night worrying, when you can be bullshittin’ with people that you love. 

So seize the day, move abroad, take that trip! Just remember that Takayama’s got more soul than Tokyo, you just got be willing to dance for it.

J. Darris Mitchell lived in Takayama Japan for ten months, and wrote about what he did ever single week on this blog! Go ahead and explore, or start with Day 1...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Sakuras in Bloom Don't Smell like Perfume

Perhaps if my wife and I had come to Japan earlier we would have stayed longer.

The magnificence
Sakura, stone wall, cold stream
Kanazawa's boss
We arrived in June and weren’t greeted by the majesty of the sakura, the cherry blossoms. In Japan, the sakura represent the start of spring and of the New Year. For me the sakura were always the end game. I knew that life in Hida-Takayama would be different, and winter would be cold, but that in the spring, the sakura would bloom, and I would say farewell. And for a time even that seemed doubtful, for when I asked about the festival for which I’ve been waiting for nearly a year, most of the locals would only frown and said “snow.” And that was why, not 30 minutes after finding out that I was cancer-free, we bought tickets to the shinkansen, the bullet train, to Kanazawa.
Three days off celebration later, and we were running like like hell to make our connection in Toyama. I was stoked. Even discovering that it we’d boarded a reserved train and that we’d have to pay extra didn’t bother me as I watched mountains zip buy, admired cars crawling along their archaic highways, and generally tried to combat motion sickness. This thing was fast, faster than (most) birds, faster than (old) planes, faster than a (rather slow at only 200 miles per hour) speeding bullet! We rolled into the station, I pried myself away from the window and looked at my smiling wife.
I love you,” I told her.
“Why?” she asked, grinning like girls do.
“You gave me the window seat.”
Her grin weakened a bit.  
 We emerged from the station and laughed at the queue of Japanese and gaijin waiting for the bus. Ha! Who would want to take a bus on a beautiful day like this? The park’s not far, Takayama is colder, and you’re going to miss the sakura! Thirty minutes of hat-snatchingly cold gusts of winds and just one measly sakura later, we found a temple that was only minutes from out hotel. Our walk had done little but waste time, for even the seafood market we passed had been slowing down, lunchtime being something as fleeting as the cherry blossoms in Japan. Annoyed but not beaten, we snapped the first of over 500 pictures of the soft pink blossoms and walked the next 50 meters to drop our bags at the hotel.
We were off to the magnificence that is Kenroku-en Garden during sakura season! Yes it was cold. Yes it was cloudy. No, it didn’t matter. Our march to the garden began with a row of twenty? fifty? a hundred? sakura bursting forth down the main avenue. Raquel darted through traffic to take pictures as I carefully avoided a gaggle of bleached blonde Japanese boys.

The Bearded Kaiju
fights mightily to support
huge croquet mallet
I don’t think that the Kenroku-en has an official beginning or end, but we somehow meandered down pathways that each outdid the one before. We strolled through the plum gardens, Raquel fuming “How can they already be done? There’s no bugs to pollinate them!” and mozied under ancient pines held up with massive inverted croquet mallets. Finally we found our way into…let’s call it the central promenade.
A lazy stream circled a grove of every sized sakura while Japanese tour guides barked what I hope were elegant haikus into loudspeakers over the twittering conversation of the tourists. Amateurs dueled for space with selfie poles. Professionals adjusted their F-stops and tripods, and Raquel and I tried to fit somewhere in the middle. (We had only selfies and F-stops, no poles of any kind)  
From there we set out giggling for the nearby castle.
This was my favorite part of the Gardens, for through a pink malaise of blossoms photographers of every caliber tried to frame the castle in all its glory. I took a dozen of these photos myself, and mused briefly on what having a castle surrounded by soft pink flowers might do to a man’s libido. My guess is good things. 
Mighty castle thrusts
Through pink feminine blossoms
Things happen in bed
We hopped on and off a bus and arrived at a near-deserted riverside walk flush with pink blossoms. We shared the sakura with only four other people: two old ladies snapping unsmiling portraits of each other and a professional photographer taking glamour shots of a young woman dressed in an unusually flattering Kimono. Raquel tried not to get caught peaking at the old ladies and I tried not to get caught peaking at the model’s photoshoot but the voyeurism ran thin and we marched on. 
We spoke of beauty, of the transience of the seasons, of love and life, but alas, we came upon on our hotel before we came upon enlightenment. There we took a good friend’s advice and rather than showering sought out the public hot baths. Public baths are always a better decision than the tiny boxes with a trickle of water that are Japanese hotel bathrooms (just be sure you scrub before getting in the tubs you greasy foreigner). At this particular hotel the bath was on the roof, so not only did we get a shower and a soak, we got to do so while admiring sakura 14 stories above Kanazawa. Totally worth the male nudity. If you don’t think so, do yourself a favor, and don’t ever travel abroad. I was careful to cover my tattoos and not my lonely testicle with a hand towel because I’m polite, not prudish.
Refreshed, relaxed, and reclothed, we set out for the evening’s entertainment, which proved to be a thoroughly disappointing experience. Raquel (I will blame her forever for this) was too quick and ordered the sushi set, so instead of ordering piece by piece an avoiding the gross stuff, so we had to choke down squid and octopus. I love Japanese food, even the gross stuff. I’ve eaten fried fish skeletons, shirako (that’s fish sperm to those keeping score at home), loach, even Bar-B-Q’d horse, but try as I might I just don’t like squid or octopus on my sushi. On a stick? Maybe. With some noodles? Sure! But on rice, with nothing to hide the texture? Yech. Still, I chewed through and was ready to order more, but Raquel pushed her squid in front of me and begged me to ask for the check. We went to an unmentionable bar not worth mentioning after that, and rose the next morning to hunt out more sakura.
After a brief stop at the contemporary art museum—I liked they swimming pool exhibit, but was flabbergasted and a little offended that they would host an architecture for dogs exhibit at the same time as an exhibit for the ‘architecture post-Fukushima—we sought out more of the intoxicating sakura.
A day of hiking through hills and hidden gardens and we found ourselves at another riverside park, leaning against a wall that both supported sakura trees and sprouted fresh mint from the mortar. Old men smiled at us and Pilipino tourists sexually assaulted a low hanging sakura branch. I nursed a beer and we both composed Haikus. Until next week, my final post from this amazing country, I leave you with advice for visiting Japan.
 Drink beer in the park
The love of my life
with me
Sakura season
J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan for seven more days. If you liked this post, tell your friends and see what else he’s done in Takayama.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Four days after discovering I was going to lose my left nut, the new teachers moved in. The Let’s English teacher life is a strange one, for each teacher must introduce their replacement to the way of life they’re about to say goodbye to. 

The first night was complete with awkward conversation, carefully sipped beers, and commiserating about our boss (not Iwayama-san,never Iwayama-san). But as the days went on, we started to grow a bit closer.

They say food is a way to man’ stomach, and if it’s true then Brian and I are friends indeed. My obsession with peanut butter had been unrivaled on any of the islands of Japan. Yet Brian has forced me to pass that crown. When they moved in we had a half of a jar of peanut butter (Brain continues to insist it was less) as well as another giant unopened container, like big enough I could lift weights with it. It’s hardly been two weeks, and somehow the second jar is almost empty. Brian eats it with everything he can think of: bread, ice cream, pancakes. Raquel has been mercilessly insulting his love of peanut butter and insistence on having ketchup with his eggs, to which Brian simply smiles, shakes his head and says, “Ra-ke-ru!”

I thought Sarah was better suited to the quiet mountain life. When I met her I thought she seemed quiet and polite, but as time has passed she’s relaxed enough to revealed her true nature. Sarah makes noises, and they’re impossible to describe in words. Suffice to say that before we went to bed last night Sarah gave an impassioned speech about the benefits of waking up and growling like a dinosaur, and called on us to try this morning ritual because “it makes getting up more fun.”

The four of us spent yesterday cruising Takayama, and I think our relationship took a turn for the serious. We started the day at my favorite hangover spot, Arai Udon. That Brian tried to argue for another restaurant and I flatly refused his request speaks to how comfortable we’re getting with eachother (at least Raquel and I are comfortable busting Brian’s chops). We went to a thrift shop after that, where Brian and I wandered aimlessly, Raquel got her shop on and Sarah danced ceaselessly. After that we explored the Big Valor.
Japanglish at best this is.
The Big Valor is the closest thing Takayama has to a shopping mall, in that it’s a couple of clothes shops nestled atop a grocery store. On the weekends families dress up in obsolete Tokyo fashion and strut while grandparents eat red bean paste and watch nature documentaries in the food court. Raquel and I bought juices boxes and found a bench to enjoy the show. While waiting for our roomies to find us we caught Sarah whipping her head back and forth, looking for Raquel and asking, “Mom?"
Yeah, it’s getting weird.
Juiceboxes drained and the whole day ahead of us we set out to peruse this pinnacle of culture. Brian and Sarah laughed at Japanglish T-shirts, Raquel bought coloring books, and I got mauled by a 5-year-old whose mother didn’t realize that the towering bearded white person whose crotch her son was nuzzling was actually his former English teacher.
Onwards we went, in pursuit of ever greater thrills. The next stop in what hopefully will mark the true beginning of a long-lasting and bizarre relationship was the Sega World. Sega World is like an arcade, except instead of games it has a fleet of claw machines and on the first floor, and coin games and chain-smokers above them. We dove in with reckless abandon. Raquel and I tried our hand at winning a stuffed animal while Sarah tried to make change and ended up with 300 useless metal slugs instead. We took our devastated roommates upstairs, plopped them down next to one of the many chain-smokers, and introduced them to the enigma that is Japanese coin machines. 

Raquel said the make-up choices were limited,
but I don’t know, what do you think?

A man can never win at a Japanese coin machine. They’ve made it illegal to cash in the coins for prizes, so literally all you can hope to win is more time before you lose. This means no matter how long you play, all you’re left with us a nagging sense of wasted time, and a feeling that if you just would have had a few more coins, you could have beaten the system. Brian and Sarah fared no better. Their coins gone, they looked to us for salvation.

We played Japanese air hockey (better than American air hockey because of the rainbow round) and finally went into a photo booth. A Japanese photo booth should be on everyone’s bucket list for a visit to Japan. They’re simply amazing. They enlarge your eyes and lips, whiten your skin, and generally contort your visage into something from anime. It’s incredible.

Finally exhausted, we made for Indian food. We had a vague idea of where it was and by some stroke of luck I spotted it and Raquel pulled over. We feasted on curries hotter than anything I’ve had in a year and each had a piece of naan larger than a pizza. Heaven, that is until the indian food set in halfway home, and Brian demanded first for the bathroom. Raquel and I took offense at this, but ultimately agreed to wait in line for our own toilet. At least he lit some incense. 

So there it is, the dawn of a friendship, complete with food, fun, and sequential shits. I hope our replacements visit us in Texas one day, so we can share the eccentricities and quirks that can only develop when people live together with everyone else we know, who will be forced to look in from the outside and shrug, thinking simply, “I don’t get it.”

J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan but will (hopefully) be going home on April 15th. If you liked this story, share it with your roommate! 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Getting my Testicle Removed in Japan

It’s 2:00pm on Wednesday, March 18th. I’m in Takayama, Japan. I’m in a Red Cross hospital. In 18 hours they’re going to remove my left testicle and the tumor growing from it. A man with a milky eye is staring at me.
“Jo-?” He says it too short, little more than a grunt, and I repeat it for him. This time he holds out the vowel, “JO-o-o-o.” Sounds have specific durations in Japanese, and I suppose they do in English too, because no one ever gets my name quite right. But the nurse gets close so I nod and he introduces me to the woman who will be caring for me the next few days, Izumi. Raquel grabs on to her name and thanks the woman for doing the job my wife is so good. The rest of the nurses giggle. Raquel looks relieved that it’s not so serious that no one can laugh but I think it’s too early in the day for this shit.
Izumi comes out from behind the station to measure my height. She needs a foot stool to reach above my head. We go to my room. The bed is too small, so Izumi rolls it away while I stand dumbly and look at my roommates. One is snoring. One is in a wheelchair. I will learn the last of them is blind. Because I’m willing to share a room with them, I won’t have to pay a penny to stay in the hospital overnight. It’s 2:15. Maybe I should have asked for a private room.  
It’s 2:45. Izumi has already taken my blood pressure and prodded my swollen testicle. She tapped it once, like I would test on eggplant for ripeness, and scribbles a paragraph in Japanese. I pull my pants back up.
At 7:00, they stick a needle in my arm that they’ll use to deliver drugs and fluids during my stay here. I’ve spoken to the doctor. I finally got the courage to ask how many times he’s done this operation before, an inguinal orchiectomy. He ticked on his fingers “about twenty?” he said, and I was able to breathe easier. Izumi giggled. “First time?” she asked.
It’s 9:00 and the hospital is quiet except for my snoring roommates. I’m not tired. I miss my wife. I want a beer. I dream I’m in a nursing home and all of the fish in the aquarium there can’t remember how to eat. A bright orange fish jumps out of the tank and bites me in the crotch.
I wake up. It’s 6:30 AM. I’m ready to get rid of this fucking testicle. It’s funny how fast we forget our loyalties.
It’s 7:21. A nurse gives me a pain killer through the needle in my arm. It’s very difficult to read or write. I’m staring at the T-shirt I’m wearing. I’m supposed to be wearing a robe. I don’t know how to change because I’m connected to a bag of drugs by a long tube. A nurse comes and helps me, trying not to giggle. I smile at her.
I lose track of time. They take me to the Operating Room. It’s big and empty except for me in the center of it. I sit up and they stick a needle in my spine and inject an anesthetic. The doctor touches a cold wet piece of gauze to the right side of my abdomen and asks if I can feel it.
Yes, I say, angry that I have to say yes.
“OK” he says, “can you feel this?”

Feel what?

They’ve completely numbed the left side of my abdomen. They nod to eachother and I lay down, my arms are extended on either side, as if to be tortured. They cover me in a blanket and remove all of my clothes. They hang a curtain below my neck so I won’t have to watch them remove my testicle, but I can see my reflection in the glass light fixtures above me. They’re shaving me. They’re swabbing my penis with iodine. The nurse apologizes for the music and puts on Taylor Swift instead. I don’t know how to ask for anything else. I try to focus on the words to “Shake it Off.”

I try to look away as they slice into my abdomen with a scalpel. I try to look away when the doctor reaches into me with one his frightening devices. They remove the testicle. I’m relieved.
How much longer?
“Ten minutes,” the doctor says.
My heart rate drops to 39 beats per minute. They ask in broken English if they can give me an injection to raise my pulse. I say yes and try to stay awake. The injection doesn’t work, so they give me another one. My pulse raises to 47 bpm. The operation is finished. My temperature is 35.2 degrees Celsius, about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m very cold and they move me to a heated bed and roll me out of the operating room. The nurses bow as we pass. 
It’s 2:30. I can feel my legs. The painkiller they gave me intravenously has finally set in. It was thick and white. Reminded me of either milk of the poppy or semen. I waited too long to ask for it and Raquel had to watch as I wreathed in pain after the local anesthetic wore off but before the drug set in. She left when I was still sweating and groaning. I’ve only been in that much pain once before. I shouldn't have waited.
It’s 4:30. I wake to find a nurse draining my catheter. I didn’t even know I had a catheter. I try to sit up and feel myself urinate. I have no control over it. I’m very embarrassed but he pretends like he doesn’t notice. 
A little later the doctor asks if I want to see my testicle. I nod for some reason, and he brings it in a Tupperware dish. My testicle is a yellowish ball dwarfed by a large pink tumor growing from it. I’m relieved it’s not inside me anymore.
If you ever feel anything wrong, go to the doctor. Time is your best weapon.
Looking at the tumor, I can’t help but think about why I got testicular cancer. I blame myself, what I’ve eaten, that I’ve not exercised enough, my great uncle, my luck finally running out. Raquel blames Japan, the diet, the radiation, the mercury in the fish, the universe. We’re both wrong I think, but it hurts too much not to blame anything.
Raquel visits me before bed. She’s happy I’m not in as much pain, so am I.

It’s 9:00am on Friday and the doctor is about to remove me catheter. “Painful,” he says and yanks the tube and I groan and try not to squirm as he pulls and pulls and pulls. At least this explains why I couldn’t control my urine. Asshole had that thing so far in it must have been in my bladder. An hour later and it burns like I’m pissing out barbed wire. But this is nothing compared to how I felt yesterday. At least I can walk.
Raquel visits and asks when I can go home. I’m so happy to have her that I want to laugh and cry, but it hurts my abdomen to do either so I just tell her soon. She leaves and I go to sleep.
It’s 8:00am on Saturday and the doctor says I can go home, I just need to watch for swelling. “If you get headache, drink water, then call us.” OK. I think I  understand. I hobble to the elevator and find the payphone and call Raquel. She’s out at kindergarten graduation. I hope she has the car. I don’t want to be here anymore but by the time I make it back to fifth floor it hurts to sit up.  
It’s 11:00 am and Raquel and Kuniko are here to take me home. The nurses ask if I want to stay for lunch. We laugh. It still hurts.
Outside, I thank Kuniko and hug her for her help but she’s too short and it hurts to bend over. I get in the car and look at Raquel. She’s so beautiful, and I’m so happy to have her. She drives me home. 

J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama with his darling wife. He is hoping to go home in April, but is awaiting the pathology report. Most of his posts aren't this depressing, but shit happens. Click here to read about when he was diagnosed by a man who didn't speak English, here for a car accident, or here for a much more entertaining penis festival.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

There's a Lump on my Testicle.

“Tuma” and an emphatic nod, was how I was told that my testicle is going to be removed in less than a week.
Wait, what?
The Japanese nurse sitting next to the doctor translated his diagnosis.
“The growth appears to be a tumor, he thinks you will need to get it removed as soon as possible, either this week or next, OK?”
Wait, what?
“He wants you to get tested. Please follow me.”
I went from laying on a paper sheet with my “shirt up and pants down,” to a roller coaster ride through the Japanese medical system. Fortunately my coworker Kuniko had phoned ahead, and the hospital had arranged for an English translator, a Japanese nurse named Nolico, otherwise I’d still probably be navigating the disinfected labyrinth that is every hospital in every country.
The first stop was a pee test. Somehow, I got the only squeamish nurse in the whole place—perhaps her English ability affected her sensitivities—so I had to nod and smile while she tried to explain how to urinate into a cup. Finally I had to snatch the plastic cup out of her hand and make my way into the bathroom.
“It is like teller window!” she called after me.
I stepped into the stall, dropped trow, and peed in a cup, careful not to go neither above nor below the ascribed line. Jesus this was going to be quite a day I thought as I pinched off the flow.
Next up was blood work, where Nolico bumped into her grandfather or great uncle or some shit and made excited conversation with him until she remembered that oh yeah this fucking gaijin has a lump on his testicle and she had to hold his hand through the whole damn operation. Lucky for their conversation, I was up next, and sat down at what looked like a fast-food counter for blood work. Two stools sat across from two dedicated nurses, who could find veins so quick Dracula’s head would spin. They punctured me and minutes later had filled 10 or so tiny vials of blood to be tested. I tried to peak at the old guy next to me, did he have more vials or less? But alas, I was whisked away for another test before I could count them.
This time I was able to leave my pants on, just the shirt had to go. The nurse was polite about my tattoos and copious body hair, and popped on her suction cups professionally. She pressed a button on a machine that spit out a foot or so of paper, an EKG or something? And we were off.
This time I needed an X-ray and only had to take off my button up shirt (the high this week was 4 degrees Celsius, so I had a few layers.). I stood next to a machine and made a variety of poses while the technicians hid behind safety glass, giggling and taking pictures. I swear I was doing tiger style and lotus hands out there while they sprayed me with X-rays. Needless to say I was sweating.
“It's warm isn't it?” Nolico asked.
No, I'm not fucking warm,

And that’s when I got scared.

The next test was a CT scan. My grandfather died from a CT scan. He had to swallow a fluid that the machine would be able to detect, but he had a bad reaction and never recovered. I told this to my English speaking nurse, who translated to the technician who told me not worry. If anything went wrong I could press a button.
Thanks for the reassurance, Doc.
But a CT scan was the best way to find out if the lump had metastasized and spread to other parts of my body, so what choice did I have? My grandfather was in his sixties and suffering from a cancerous liver, I’m 26 and healthy with a lump on my nut. Raquel appeared at this very moment, and I had time to tell her that I was about to attempt what my grandfather hadn’t lived through. She seemed about as relieved as I was that I’d have—thank goodness—a button to press! But we talked to the nurse again and she assured me I’d be fine, and to tell them if I felt anything strange. So in I went, and two minutes later out I came. I had no bad side effects, not even the warmth they warned me I might feel after the intravenous solution mixed in with my blood. The technician told me to drink plenty of water that day to help remove the solution and I was off to meet the doctor again.
Japan is nothing if not efficient, for though only two hours has passed, my results had all come in already.  Everything looks good. Blood work doesn’t show high levels of tumor markers, the X-rays and CT scan don’t show anything unusual in any of the common places testicular cancer spreads to, not my lymph nodes, lungs, or kidneys.
Yet, despite this tiny glimmer of good news, I will have to return to the hospital a week later to have my testicle removed, as this is the only way to find out if the growth is cancerous, and to prevent it from spreading if it is. Once it’s removed they will dissect my poor lost testicle to find out what afflicts it and has made it so swollen and firm.
I hear that the surgery can be painful, but in Japan I can stay in the hospital for free, and they want me to stay there for a week to pump me full of painkillers. So now I have nothing to do but wait, and try not to worry, and to tell everyone I know CHECK YOUR BALLS and your BOOBIES!  If anything is different, anything, please go to the doctor! I promise it won't be as awkward as learning you have a "tuma."

J.Darris Mitchell went through an inguinal orchiectomy (that's when they remove the cancerous testicle) in Japan. Click here to read about it.  It was scary, but you can handle it. And please, if you so much as THINK something is wrong, see your doctor immediately.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Dude, I Wrecked Your Car!

This is officially the worst week of my life. First, one hell of an awful visit to the doctor, and then today, I got in my first car accident.
What made it worse was that I was supposedly showing people how to drive. It’s hard to argue that that’s what I was actually doing considering the utter failure that ensued.
I was attempting to turn right on green, a task not without challenges but in no way difficult, and failed. One second I was following the car in front of me, the next a car horn was blaring and baring down on us. I hit the gas, praying to get out of the way in time and I almost did- but didn’t. It just hasn’t been that kind of week. The other driver swerved enough to only clip the back end of the car and smash his headlight, but seeing as how he didn’t want to risk oncoming traffic, collide we did.
Shit. Shit. Shit, are you guys OK? Shit.
The new English teachers were both sitting on side of the car that had been struck, and both looked more than a little freaked out. No one was hurt so now began the agonizing process of swapping insurance information with an angry Japanese man. I pulled the car over, turned on the flashers, and approached him, bowing and muttering gomenasai. I think that translates roughly to ‘I’m really fucking sorry.’
He wasn’t yelling, but he wasn’t too pleased either. It seemed to him I was in the wrong, and I didn’t have the heart to argue otherwise. After a minute, I finally made it clear that no, I didn’t understand a word he was saying, and that if he had a cell phone he better bust it out so I could call someone who did.
He dialed my Japanese guardian angel and coworker Kuniko a few times, but she didn’t pick up. Today was her only day off this week, and I’m sure she was trying to enjoy it.
When she didn’t pick up I just about barfed, but instead held it down and had him call another friend to translate, but alas only her Dutch husband answered and his Japanese skills aren’t quite up to snuff when it comes to settling insurance claims. So the driver and I stood and gestured, until finally my darling wife came over and had us trade information. I promised we’d call him soon, and with a suspicious glance at the roman letters on the piece of paper I’d given him, he let us go on our way.
“Do you guys need to go back home?” the new teachers asked.
I hung my head and nodded. Yeah, I’d need to tell the boss-man about this.
The new teachers wisely went on a walk while I called Kuniko, who finally answered and called Iwayama-san, who called the insurance company. Kuniko asked if we didn’t mind staying at the house for a few minutes so Iwayama-san could come check out the carnage.

I still can’t get over how polite the Japanese are.

Iwayama-san showed up grinning, like he always does. The only difference was that for once he didn’t have a cabbage or a bag of apples to give us. He asked if we were ok and I told him yes, and he asked me if the car still worked and I told him yes. I told him I was sorry and he just grinned and patted me on the back. Iwayama-san adores Gaijin, and believes we are at our cutest when we are at our most inept. I’m surprised his dog has all four legs really. He seems like the kind of guy who’d try to nurse a bird with a one wing or a raccoon without a tail. For all I know he’s pleased the car has a nice ding in it now, it makes it that much more endearing. He told me not to worry and that he had a good deal on the insurance. I asked if we could still use the car and he laughed and said yes and then was on his way.
So we piled back in the car, apologized to the new teachers who apologized to us and we all laughed about how we’re all becoming Japanese. We sat down to a cup of tea and I realized that this time last year, I had just won a beard contest and finished a marathon and that life’s not always going to be peaches and gravy and that sometimes it’s really, really hard, but—and this is from a man whose had entirely too much peaches and gravy in his life—when the peaches and gravy finally run out (and it will) there will still be the people who apologize for being in the car you smashed and the people that bring you bags of apples, and though there may be no peaches, there’s people like my darling wife- people who are more than willing to take the wheel when you lose control, and drive you home for a cup of tea when you need it most.  

J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his darling wife, and two wonderful new teachers who will be using the car he almost destroyed. If you enjoyed this story please share it. Click here to read more about Iwayama-san.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Get Used to It!

My time as a teacher in Japan only stretches another fifteen days. I’ve broken protocol and started telling my students that I’ll be leaving. Neither my wife nor our coworker supports this. I guess they’re rip-the-bandage-off-at-once kind of people. Responses vary, and I’m beginning to think I should’ve just pulled a Houdini in two weeks.   

Most of the students only ask about the new teacher. “Boy or girl?” “Is she pretty?” “How old are they?” Most agreed a female teacher would greatly improve their current predicament. One group of seven year old boys, possibly resentful they were going to have to learn how to terrorize a new teacher effectively, spent the class period drawing piles of smiling poop on the board. Neither the promise of candy or threats in a foreign tongue could deter this behavior. Two of my adult classes stole my thunder by actually quitting the class moments before I was going to break the news. “Sorry, Joe. Last class.” I tried to explain that I was leaving too and that they didn’t need to apologize but they just bowed and made their exit while I tried not to feel abandoned.  

Not all responses were bad though. Two thirteen year old boys who refuse to speak English unless I let them play basketball cheered me up. Haruto asked me how many more classes we’d have together and when I told him it was only three.  He repeated “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!” on loop for the next three minutes. That’s the most English I’ve ever heard him say, and it hit me right in the feelz. Takumi, not as prone to bizarre and emotional outbreaks said nothing, only smiled. Haruto called him careless (We’d been studying adjectives but I didn’t have the heart to correct him) but Takumi only dug through a notebook. He found what he was looking for, looked me straight in the eyes and told me, “Good friends live on in the heart.”

I did my best not to blubber like a grandmother in front of two boys only interested in throwing a deflated rubber ball in a dented metal can.

But the reaction that touched me the most was from the first person I told. I let slip that I was leaving because Akira informed me he was going to be opening a Japanese style steak house. As in a place that only seats six people, and he will personally prepare every bite of food for his diners. He wants to open in November, he just needs a location. My mouth watering I confessed that I wouldn’t get to try his steak because I was leaving in a month for America. He frowned at me and reached for his dictionary. After thumbing around he said, “I got used to you.”

What a compliment. But there’s a lot in those words. Maybe it means I’ve adapted to life in Japan that such a simple statement could mean so much. But I guess that’s the truth of life. We only grow accustomed to the little things that make us comfortable. Coffee, how people say hello, all the little stuff you never notice unless you have to go without.
I had got used to life here, and damnit Japan, I mean it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Magical Ice Lord Yushi

An ice demon approached me scowling and carrying a banner. He was dressed straight from the legends and smiled with too many teeth. I called my friends over only to find that they too had been confronted by one of these ice demons, their King in fact, the Magical Ice Lord Yushi!

But let me back track, you’re probably lost.

When the water molecule falls below 0 degrees Celcius (a convenient temperature to be sure) it begins to exhibit curious properties. When a people evolve around this molecule in its solid state, they too begin to exhibit quirks and curiosities of their own.

A curiosity of my own caused me to pile into a car to see this man named Yushi. I’d been told he eats bears, owns a mountain, and creates an ice forest every year. When invited, I always say yes to meeting people like this. My wife on the other hand, had no qualms about ignoring a Magical Ice Lord. When I asked Raquel if she wanted to join me, she simply chortled and snuggled deeper under our heated coffee table. 

The lake never knew what hit it... Because it's a lake.
So I crammed into a car with too many foreigners and away we went to meet a man on his mountain, stopping only to throw snowballs into a frozen lake.

The ice forest began ordinarily enough. There were trees, and snow on them! It didn’t really seem like the kind of place that a Magical Ice Lord would want to live, but around a bend were confronted with a wall of ice.

It was 5 meters tall, and had swallowed up birch and pine in its hunger to expand. It looked like the prototype for the wall built to keep out the white walkers. Alex and I proceeded to insult it.

Lord Yushi's Ice Forest.
“That’s ice all right.”

“Looks cold.”


I edged through the entry way into the festival proper. Nothing in Japan is free, but I’ve spent 300 yen in far worse ways. I once hiked 4 kilometers to find that the entrance to the sacred pond I sought cost 300 yen to enter (as in go past the fence not swim). I remember laughing at the foolish Japanese who’d approach the gate, peak around a corner, and leave, too cheap to shell out 3 coins! I paid the entrance and realized that yeah, it was just a stupid pond and I’d been ripped off. They didn’t even have none o’ dem fancy colored fish or tiny lil’ trees or nothin!

The ice forest was more impressive. It rose up on either side of snowy promenade for maybe a kilometer. Fathers dragged children on sleds, vendors sold roast fish, and tourists snapped pictures with Japanese White Walkers.

Eric introduced Yushi to me and like any good tourist I threw my arm around him and took a selfie. This was his family’s land, and every year the whole clan through this party and dressed up as beasts and priests and…a giant corncob? I looked to Nolico for an explanation but she only shrugged and mumbled something about this area growing good corn.

I swear, in Japan, everything and nothing is sacred. Here we were in this crazy winter realm, a land of demons and bears and ancient priests, and this dude was dressed up to hock corn. They weren’t even selling any corn! I don’t get it, but I guess I’m alone in this sentiment, for Alex giggled and asked if I’d take his picture with the stupid corn guy.

God he loved that corn...
I tried a new fish (always a highlight for me) and we all wandered around and took pictures until the sun went down and the cold set in. Lord Yushi saw us shivering and offered to let us use his hotel’s Onsen. That’s right, this mountain king even had his own volcanic hot tub. I nodded dumbly, this sounded too good to be true! And indeed it was, for though Lord Yushi was indeed generous, he was also hosting a festival and wasn’t really in the position to be giving guided tours. Instead he led us to the winter games.

Somehow Eric, Alex and I all ended up not only competing but in the same heat, even though most of the competitors were children or their grandparents. But with a grand prize of 3,000 yen on the way (about 30 bucks) we were not going to let those little bastards make off with our loot. So when told we had 60 seconds to stack a tray with as many hazelnuts as we could, we jostled for position as we neared the bucket of hazelnuts, and stacked those trays to the sky. I lost to Eric, but he was promptly beaten by some dumb kid’s mom.

Our heads hung low, we watched the rest of the competition until it was Nolico’s turn. She’d been watching the competition closely, and had quite the strategy for stacking nuts. She wobbled back with more hazelnuts in her tray than I thought possible. She ended up coming in second place! We patted her on the back and congratulated her until we found out that not only did she win 2,000 yen, every competitor received 500! We had drinking money! Alex struggled with the economics of it (“But how can they make money if they give away more than the entrance fee!?”) but when Nolico bought us hot sake he stopped complaining.

Maybe One day I'll be an Ice Lord too...
Everyone lined up to make mochi after that. To make mochi you smash perfectly good rice with an enormous hammer while a man dressed like priest kneads the dough between strikes. All the while an ice demon humps the person trying not to smash the preist’s fingers. I was shocked everyone in Lord Yushi’s family still had all their fingers. Mochi hasn’t really made the jump to America. I’m not sure why, It translates roughly to fucking-disgusting-rice-goo-that’s-impossible-to-chew-and-even-harder-to-swallow. But most people seem to like it.

Humped and tired, we knew it was time to leave when the band (playing on a stage made of ice) started playing a jazzy rendition of “let it Go” on saxophone. I made awful puns about “the cold not bothering me anyway” until actually it did start to bother me and we got in the car and drove home, happy to have a designated driver, and happier to have heat.




Tuesday, February 17, 2015


A good friend of mine once said that the cold is awful, but at least there’s winter sports. In other words, to survive it, embrace it. With this in mind I eagerly accepted an invitation to go snowboarding for the first time. 
If this uncoordinated fool can snowboard, you can too!

And eager doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. I’ve always been one to get overly excited. The night before catching a plane, or even the first day of school, I can hardly sleep. I wake every a few hours only to find that alas, it’s not yet time to make coffee.
The anticipation of snowboarding definitely fell on my excited spectrum. I went to bed at ten; we were to meet at seven am, and I had to get my rest! I woke a few times and always fell back into restless dreams of snowboarding in Colorado with my brother (an event that’s never happened). I had gotten out of bed, eaten coffee and drunk my breakfast by 6:15, only to realize that 6:15 is too early for even me to eat anything. Undeterred, I fixed my wife a cup of coffee and lured her out of bed. I spent the next ten minutes dressing and undressing (though I’d already laid out my clothes the night before) polishing my goggles, and going over what little I knew about snowboarding from youtube. 

Raquel finally came downstairs and drove me to McDonald’s. I bid her farewell in the parking lot and proceeded to chatter inanely to Steve while he drove us up a mountain through his hangover.

We found the slopes nearly deserted. There were maybe 5 other people braving the early morning cold. Excellent I thought, no one to embarrass myself in front of.  We marched into the ski lodge and I demanded the largest boots they had. They fit- barely, and with a nod and a Daijobu to my instructor, I was ready.

Fukushima-san was always encouraging.
A note on my instructor. Steve introduced him as “Fukushima, like the nuclear meltdown.” Fukushima-san had patient eyes, and just a touch of gray hair that poked out from his ski cap. His snowboard though, was what held my attention. It was hardly wider than a ski, as tall as he was, and black as obsidian. It looked like a super villain’s snowboard, or perhaps something made to surf the rings of Saturn. I looked at my own fat red rental with relief. His board gave me motion sickness just looking at it.

We went to face the mountain.

“Skate?” Fukushima-san asked me and I tried to mumble an excuse that would both make my soon to be obvious lack of snowboarding skills understandable yet explain why I was willing to go snowboarding when most people were still asleep under electric blankets.

I went with, “not really for a while… er… ever.”

It seemed to have the desired effect because he showed me how to strap in my boots, and pushed off across the flats, using one leg to propel him every few meters, then balancing on his board until he slowed down. I looked at Steve and tried to explain myself but he just laughed, “Yeah I hate this shit.” He skated away on his board with a bit less grace than Fukushima-san.

I half-slid, half stumbled after them, and was relieved to find that unlike skateboarding, snowboards can’t shoot out from under you and roll off into a busy street, instead they bring you down with them. But the snow was soft, and after a few slips I was at the bottom of a shallow hill. Fukushima-san was already at the top, Steve was tromping up after him, using the edge of his board to dig into the slope. I followed, already breathing heavy, yet when I got to the top, my heart truly began to race.

They had brought me to the ski lift.
This can’t be right! Where’s the bunny slope?

“This is the bunny slope,” Steve said and shuffled after Fukushima-san who’d already boarded a lift and was rising up the mountain into the growing blizzard.
I stumbled after Steve and managed to get next to him before the ski lift hit me in the butt and I crashed down next to Steve.

“Careful to lift the nose of your board up. If it gets caught you’ll get sucked off the lift and bust your ass.”

I lifted the nose of my board up.
After a frightening five minute ride, we disembarked and I tried not to get smashed by the ski lift. The whole day nothing was more difficult than getting on and off that cursed ski lift. It’s the adult version of those rotating gates at swimming pools that kids can exit through but not enter. I kept imaging myself twisted and mangled, hanging from the wires, my blood forming red icicles, and going up and down the bunny slope for a frozen eternity. 

By the time I shuffled over to the top of the hill, I was actually ready to snowboard. Anything seemed better than that damn ski lift. 

I kept my board perpendicular to the slope and slowly eased forward off the edge, and, just like that I was snowboarding! I coasted maybe 20 meters before plopping on my ass. This was fun! And just by slightly adjusting the angle I could go faster! Why didn’t anyone tell me how easy this was? Steve boarded up next to me and offered a pat on the back, and Fukushima came over and gave me an encouraging thumbs up. I noticed he still hadn’t strapped his one of his feet into his board, though.
I pointed the nose of my board down the hill and WHOOSH! Away I went. Faster and faster I plummeted, only to realize that I didn’t really know how to stop. In an effort to not create a sonic boom and cause an avalanche I turned my board perpendicular to the mountain and….
YEEEAAAARRRRHH!! I tumbled head over heels down the mountainside. Eventually coming to a rest within earshot of Steve laughing maniacally. Fukushima-san boarded over, still with only one foot strapped in, and said only, “slower, like a falling leaf!” and thus I was a snowboarder.

We went down the bunny slope again and again. I learned to dig my heels in to brake, to cruise back and forth across the width of the slope to keep my speed down and to always, ALWAYS fall on my butt and not on my face. We even tried the course on the other side of the ski lift, and though terrifying, I managed to bridge the thick powder, avoid the ski lift poles, and get back to main course without hurting myself too bad. I was a natural! I was born to do this! Not since Tonyhawk’s Proskater had I found a sport that suited me so well! Sure, the ski lift still terrified me, children were skiing circles around me, and I could only ride on the backside of the snowboard and never the dreaded frontside, but that would all come in another fifteen minutes!

I was so sure of my natural aptitude that when Steve suggested we go to the higher (aka highest) slope I didn’t protest, not even when Fukushima-san looked at Steve then back to me and said, “crazy,” did I protest. I knew how to stop, how bad could it be?
The much taller and more terrifying slope,
complete with slalom course.
Ten minutes on a nearly abandoned ski lift and I was quaking in my ski boots. I had just seen a snowboarder plunge off the top of the hill and vanish. Like, literally. One second, he was there, real as the cold, then he pushed off and was gone. He reappeared seconds later, a tiny blur at the bottom of a long steep hill.

Fukushima-san gave me a thumbs up and I asked to see him go first. Mistake. He vanished just like the last guy, to appear as an even faster blur even farther down the mountain.
That obsidian board of his was really something. I was beginning to wonder if I could put sandpaper on mine.
But with a nod from Steve I plunged onto the course. Well, maybe not plunged. More like kept the back of my board dug into the thick snow, and slowly slid down the mountain. We’re talking glacial speeds. Not my finest moment. People skied past, a lot of people. Hey at least I was giving the pros an obstacle. But the hill started to flatten out, my confidence returned, and away I went, not really trying to keep up with the blur that was Fukushima-san, but at least staying close enough to be seen if I crashed.

We came to an even smaller and more precarious ski lift than the last, and rode it back to the top of the insane slope. This time I accepted that I would go down the mountain slower than thawing snow and actually enjoyed myself.  Steve and I traded places as we boarded in and out of each other’s paths, Fukushima-san raced through a thick layer of fresh powder and I followed, then pulled ahead, eager to impress my teacher, only to discover that snowboarding through thick fresh powder looks way cooler than it actually is.
I crashed, and found the snow had molded itself perfectly to my body. Try as I might, I couldn’t get up. I looked up to find I’d crashed directly under the ski lift, and people were either awkwardly avoiding looking at me (in japan, sometimes I can taste the awkward) or just laughing their ass off at the giant westerner who’d stuck himself in the snow. I struggled and thrashed but could not move. I’d push myself into a sitting position, only to have the snow collapse and engulf me yet again. Fukushima-san couldn’t stop laughing and Steve was demanding I give him my phone to take a picture. I should’ve, but I didn’t see how I could possibly reach it without sinking deeper. Finally Steve offered me a corner of his board, I unlatched a boot from my own board, and pushed off Steve to half-crawl, half-drag myself free of the snow. I was steaming with sweat, my glasses were fogged, my breathing labored. Fukushima-san and Steve queued up for the lift, and I shook my head.

I couldn’t do it.

Steve nodded and told Fukushima-san they’d do a few more runs than meet me back at the lodge. I nodded, pretending I understood the Japanese and not just Steve’s look of pity when I asked the way back.

Fukushima-san pointed to a narrow path before me that zigzagged through the woods.

It would have been beautiful if I wasn’t so exhausted and terrified I’d find myself in another snow drift. The path was almost empty, and had gentle slopes that connected flat stretches of fresh snow. I boarded back and forth, my thighs burning, stopping at the beginning of each slope so I wouldn’t have to skate through the flats. Old men skied past with their grandchildren. Snowboarding babes tried not to giggle while they asked if I was alright. I’d nod and give ‘em all a daijobu and push on.

Thus, I was a snowboarder.
I finally found my way back to the lodge, unstrapped my board and drank some Sports Sweat, as the athletes do here in Japan. Steve and Fukushima-san showed up a while later and we feasted on ramen and hot coffee from a vending machine before trying to bunny slope a final time. 

I managed to make it down with only falling twice, a personal best, but the second time I fell forward so hard my head spun, and when Steve told me he didn’t usually like to go back out after lunch I nodded weakly, blamed the early afternoon crowds for compacting the snow and making it more difficult, and bowed my thanks to Fukushima-san. 

He told me to call him if I ever want to go snowboarding again. Kind words, I thought, until I remembered how hard he’d laughed when I was stuck in the snow. Anything to break up the monotony of winter I suppose, and nothing warms the heart like laughter. 

 J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his darling wife, and is waiting for the snow to melt. If you enjoyed this post check out the rest of what he did in January!