A Suggestion

When I was at immigration the other day, I felt the call and went to the ladies’ room. I don’t know what happens in the gents’, but in the ladies’, we generally nod or half smile as one of us exits a stall and another enters. It’s a kind of ‘the coast is clear’ message and it seems to be universal. Proceed with caution of if a woman avoids eye contact and resolutely studies her shoes as she exits.

When I got to the front of the line, a lady came out of a stall and I had my half-smile at the ready. But as the corners of my lips lifted, she reached out and clasped my arm.

“What sort of ladies’ room oddness is this?” I wondered. We may acknowledge each other’s existence; we do not touch.

“I’m so sorry!” she said.

Slightly alarmed, I thought, “Whatever mess you made in there, lady, I don’t really want to know, but thanks for the heads-up.”

She persisted. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet.”

She was around my own age. Judging from her coloring and accent I would guess she was from India. The genuinely distressed expression on her face told me her story in a flash: “I do not want anyone, not even a total stranger, to think I am some sort of third world yokel hayseed who doesn’t know that you’re supposed to flush the toilet.”

Kudos to her for her courage. She could have studied her shoes and walked away.

I peered into the stall and saw the flushing mechanism. It had seen that kind before, possibly on my last visit to immigration. It was a button on the wall with a lever covering it. You press the lever which in turn presses the button, which I did. Whoosh! The woman smiled and heaved a sigh of relief as she walked away, head held high.

I think the whole thing made an impression because Japan is so very fond of rules. Just yesterday, I used the ladies’ at a public library. The walls of the stall were carpeted with reams of instructions on how and when to use the toilet, including DO NOT FLUSH DIAPERS, MAGAZINES OR CELL PHONES.

I kid you not.

Japan takes toilet technology very seriously. I have found myself standing in the stall, scratching my chin and wondering how to flush. And more than once other distressed ladies have asked for my help finding the elusive flush button.

Therefore, in consideration of my current visa conundrum, I propose the creation of a new visa category: Toilet Flush Advisory Specialist. I am clearly qualified as well as willing and able to share my expertise. I have extensive experience with all manner of stalls, from spiffy hotels with glistening fixtures to nasty holes in the floor covered with footprints and other unpleasantness. [These are nostalgically referred to as KKK–Kusai (smelly), Kitanai (dirty), Kurai (dark). See? I know my stuff.] On pain of deportation, I promise I will always clean up my own messes and never steal the toilet paper.

Now could someone help me find the Suggestions box?



The mouse finds herself still on the bigger island. Apologies that this post has nothing to do with the Big Island except that the mouse really misses it and hopes to get back soon.


When Jane and Michael Banks asked Mary Poppins about her plans, she said, “I shall stay until the wind changes.”

That line has been running through my head over the seven weeks we’ve been back in Japan, punctuated by the purchase of a tube of toothpaste. I’d packed a travel size, thinking we wouldn’t be here long, but it was gone quicker than you can say Good Oral Hygiene. So I went to a drug store, and when I reached for a tube of toothpaste, I swear I saw a chorus of Merry-go-round horses and animated penguins flit past singing, “I shall stay until the toothpaste is gone,” with just a bit of and English accent.

I lost my permanent residence status because we were gone for more than a year, so I had to enter Japan on a tourist visa, which will expire on December 30. So yesterday, we girded our loins and faced the horror that is Tokyo Immigration. It’s an awful building, woefully understaffed and strategically placed a 20 minute bus ride away from Southeast Nowhere, nestled among ghostly warehouses on a piece of barren landfill. It is a charming reminder of how much Japan loves foreigners.

The delightful Omotenashi you may experience in a hotel or a Hato bus tour is a thousand hemispheres away from the bland face of bureaucracy that greets the growing sub-population of foreigners who shuffle through the doors of the immigration building. Don’t let the hordes of adorable toddlers you see in Tokyo fool you; Japan is dying and desperately needs an infusion of fresh blood, while it stubbornly ignores both that need and the population itself.

But I digress.

Information told us to go to counter D. Counter D sent us to Counter C. Counter C sent us to Counter B. The staff were sympathetic but all said the same thing. “We understand that you lived here for three decades, dutifully paying taxes and now you’re here with a sick husband who has no other family. That’s sad, but we have no visa category for it. So bug off. Rules is rules.”

Before I turn back into a pumpkin, I have to get out of Dodge. (A classic example of the mixed metaphor, Jane and Michael, in case you were wondering.) So I made a tentative airline reservation for mid-December and, this morning, I forced the very last bit of paste out of our new tube of toothpaste. I wonder if, along with her floor lamp and goldfish bowl, Mary Poppins’ magic carpet bag also contains a new tube of Aquafresh…and tuppence to feed the pigeons outside the immigration building.

The thing that bugs me more than anything is the number of desperate faces I saw at immigration, people who want to stay, need to stay, in a country that needs them but doesn’t want them, while I desperately want to leave, am forced to leave, but really shouldn’t. If there’s a lesson in there, I’d really like to know what it is.


The other day, we had lunch at Kitchen Alex, one of our favorite eateries in Sangenjaya. Alex is a long narrow establishment, maybe three yards across and ten long. There’s a curved counter flanked by a dozen stools serving as stalls where we can strap on the feedbag. It’s nothing fancy. Each day there are specials, A Lunch and B lunch, or you can order off the menu. Basically you get either the hot plate (three thick-cut French fries, a handful of wilted green beans and a small pile of ketchup spaghetti) or the cold plate (chopped cabbage, spaghetti salad and a thin slice of mikan) adorning your meat choice. Each meal comes with a plate of plain steamed rice and the best miso soup I’ve ever tasted.

Behind the counter, Mrs. Alex serves the rice and washes the dishes. The smaller of the two jumbo sized Alex Juniors (let’s call him A Junior) serves as sous chef, prepping the plates and adding dollops of ketchup or squirts of mayo as needed. At the end of the counter, Mr. Alex is lord of the six ring stove, surrounded by an array of grease-encrusted pots and pans he deftly maneuvers around the stove or piles on the rack above it. The even larger B Junior skirts behind us serving water and handing out plates and running the register. Over the years he has grown rounder and rounder; often he jostles us like a pinball against bumpers. He may have finally outsized the narrow space; this time there was a girl with a ponytail doing his job.

We had eaten there many times, maybe once a week or so for several years. Mrs. and Juniors both A and B had never spoken, but occasionally Mr. Alex would venture a comment:

“Off today?”
“Yep. It’s Sunday.”
“Yep, it is.”

But this time, when we sat down, he raised his eyebrows and said, “I thought the two of you had been murdered.”

Murdered? We laughed, pleased to have survived whatever hideous violence the poor man had imagined, more pleased that he had noticed our absence.

Nothing had changed, not one whit, except us. Somehow we were different, but there was great comfort in the familiarity of the food, the same nicks and cracks in the counter, the scowl on Mrs. Alex’s face, the TV chattering in the background. We didn’t even try to explain that it was a momentous occasion for us. Rochi had been wanting to go there since we got off the plane five weeks ago but, until a few days ago, there was no way he could have swallowed even one wilted green bean. I won’t go into the details of the medical merry-go-round we’ve been riding for so long; that’s a story for another day. Let’s just say Rochi’s finally getting better and, fingers crossed, on the road to recovery. The food, in all its greasy simplicity, was delicious and a grand reward for what we’ve been through.

Lesson learned: You rarely notice how much something means to you until you don’t have it anymore; if you are wise you will value it twice as much when you get it back.

Also, I love the Big Island, but the Bigger Island is pretty great, too.