Saturday, May 27, 2000. The city-installed intercom in the main room (the only room other than bathroom) in her apartment awakes Hitome-san with morning bells. It is 6:00, time for everyone in Mimata Cho to get up and start his or her day. Hitome-san has a big day planned this particular Saturday and is happy to rise from her tatame-matted floor and get ready. 6:00 in Mimata Cho and the whole town is getting up. A strong sense of community must be prevalent. The stores will not open until 9:00 or 10:00 and no gas station, car wash or Quickie Mart will turn on its lights for you either. There are no lawns to mow, or cows to milk, or laundry mats to dry clothes in, but everyone must get up. Hitome-san is happy. Today she is going to the Hard Rock Café.
It’s her birthday and three of her friends have gotten permission from their husbands and/or boyfriends to go on a road trip with her to Fukuoka on the north side of the island. They have been saving for two months for the trip.
Hitome-san is 28 and other than a high school trip to the mountain-park in Kagoshima (48 km SW) she has not been out of town before. Mikeko-san is 34, has 2 high school boys and other than the five-minute trip to Miyakonojo or the forty-five one to Miyazaki, has never left town either. She lives with her in-laws who are going to “watch” the boys today, whatever that means. Mikeko-san must be home by 8pm, when her husband says he will home from Pachinko (gambling), so they will leave as soon as possible to make the most of their day together. Tomoko-san, 31, is one of the world travelers of the bunch, she once went to Korea with her husband on a business trip. Tomoko-san’s husband sells hay to the Koreans and once had a business trip where his gaijin counterpart’s wife invited Tomoko-san along. She was afraid to leave the hotel after hearing folklore and tails about the “nasty” Koreans, but said she saw most of Seoul through the windows and on TV there, “It was beautiful,” she says knowingly. Kieko-san, 41, has been to China and Korea several times and once worked as an international business secretary for an important man in Miyazaki. After her marriage, as is tradition, she quit her job and now lives at home taking care of her in-laws. She’ll drive her husband’s van on the journey.
Fukuoka is 345 kilometers north of the Mimata/Miyakonojo exit on the Kyushu Expressway. The Expressway is an engineering marvel the woman cannot wait to see. Driving, they agreed earlier, will be a large part of the adventure. The Kyushu Expressway is in reality a remarkable piece of engineering by Japanese standards. It is 500 km’s of creamy and wreathing one or two-lane asphalt ribbon dropped on the mountains of Kyushu from the sky like butterscotch on a sundae. Often it bores through this RockyRoad-like Island and channels through three to five and even one seven kilometer stretch of mountain range in long wide tunnels. Overhead in these wormholes are huge exhaust fans that rumble and squeal like you are driving by jet engines. It’s amazing work honestly. The speed limit for KE is a breakneck 80km at its dizzying fastest (that’s ~50mph for the uninitiated). Kieko-san will, as instructed by her husband, keep it at 60km (still a breakneck speed) and stay in the passing lane the whole time so she can keep an eye on upcoming danger.
Their journey of 345 clicks (214m) will take them 5 hours (if she fibs a bit about keeping it under 60km) and allows for the necessary every-two hour rest stop. They must leave at 7:00am.
The ladies gather at Hitome-san’s apartment, coming by cab so as not to disturb their husband’s sleep, and hit the road. Kieko-san is praised and paid for the rest’s share of the 4500 (45 bucks) she put in her husband’s 13 gallon tank last night to save time. Mikeko-san is scolded by the group for being late and offers only apologies although she has a legitimate reason. Her mother-in-law decided at the last minute that it would be too much trouble to “watch” the boys. She told Mikeko-san she would have to stay home. It took tears and promises of many gifts from “The Big Smoke” to convince her it was not too toilsome a task. Each of the four women silently worry if this is an omen and if anything else could possibly go wrong. Tomoko-san now thinks she is not the only ones who laments inviting Mikeko-san. They leave at 7:02, two minutes behind schedule!
Mikeko-san apologizes again and takes the worst seat in the van as retribution.
And off they go. The first stop is the Miyakonojo Toll Plaza where a marvelous electronic ticket machine offers her a traffic coupon then wishes her a safe and pleasant journey.
Merging into traffic, Kieko-san finds that everyone else is keeping it safely under 60km too and she has no problem keeping up. The trip is for the most part uneventful except for all the wonderful forestry, farming shots, tunnels, lack of wildlife to avoid on the roads or crap on her husband’s windshield, convenient sparkling clean rest areas sans litter or bad smells, and very safe driving conditions. The women are elated. The only excitement arrives about halfway through the trip in the longest tunnel. A little white Toyota, with bumper stickers (a very rare sight) and an extra-ordinarily handsome gaijin driver and an equally fabulous front-seat passenger, flashed by at, what must have been to Kieko-san, the speed of sound.
Nothing else exciting happens; Hitome-san only uses two rolls of 40-exposure film on the way up.
Momochi Cho (Cho is like “Borough”) houses the Fukuoka Dome and the newly built Hard Rock Café and shopping complex which opened April 17, 2000. The Korean, Chinese and American Embassy’s are within easy busing distance and the town by all standards (‘cept Vegas) is hopping. The Dome and Hard Rock Café Shopping Complex’s civil engineers (if they had any) designed the dome to hold 40,000 people and the shopping center with its Multi-plex Cinema, arcade, bowling alley (under blue-lights), Starbucks, Gap, Gap Kids, Nike, and various other such places and restaurants accommodates another 10,000 as long as they ALL come by bus. There is NO non-staff parking. Today there is a baseball game; more hopping, less parking. The Daiei Hawks are playing some other team, whose only distinction was that they aren’t Daiei, and the place is packed. Daiei is the Japanese ‘Sears’ and has its one baseball team. When the Hawks win, everyone wins. That’s no raillery. When the Hawks win, Daiei has huge sale and people flock to Daiei stores across the land minutes after the broadcast of a winning game. A huge baseball pilgrimage converging or collapsing (depending on perspective) on each Daiei store whose cast must prepare diligently for the post-game stampede and probably all secretly pray for a loss.
The four crusader’s travel time is 5 hours. When they get to Fukuoka’s entrance there is a “welcome plaza.” Inside this tollbooth are two men. One takes the travel coupon that says from where and when they left. He enters it in a computer and a screen lights up with the toll. As far as anyone can tell, the other guy just checks over the first’s shoulder; no words or movement unless he’s smoking, which he probably is. The toll is 6500 yen (65 bucks) for the one way trip. The ladies pay up gladly. “The price of progress,” they agree. They get to Fukuoka Dome by way of another 1100-yen toll plaza and arrive finally at 12:23. They spend another two hours looking for a place to park where they will pay another 1000 for the day. That’s how it is in Japan, they are not disquieted.
When the ladies do finally find a spot Tomoko-san reports something interesting. “Isn’t that the same Toyota with the car tattoos that we saw earlier?”
“I think you are right,” agrees Mikeko-san, “they were going awful fast, but I recognize the colors of the stickers.” She’s trying to redeem herself from the two-minute and potentially disastrous blunder this morning. And sure enough it is the very same car. The extra-ordinarily handsome Gaijin and his beautiful lady companion are nowhere around. The foursome looks very carefully for any sign of them before peering in the windows of the foreigners’ car.
It is trashed and, in the wide-eyes of the staring Japanese travelers, the interior looks ready for the destruction pile. Maybe a blowtorch could clean it, one thinks to herself, but doesn’t say it in case it’s rude. Juice cans, Pringles’ sleeves, gum wrappers, tissue, a cooler, a bra the size of a pair of backpacks, jackets, umbrella’s, funny shaped socks, hundreds of travel coupon receipts and untold number of cassette tapes, maps with Gaijin lettering and film canister carcasses litter the inside of the Gaijin car. Real road warriors. “Don’t they have a home Mikeko-chan?” Questions Hitome-san.
“I guess we all can’t be so lucky as even renting a one-room flat for 70000en per month (700$US), let alone your huge two-bedroom place Kieko-chan.” Nods Mikeko-san. They all stand in silent amazement. Hitome-san takes eight pictures.
Eventually they have to tear themselves away. What other wonderment is in store for us, they each query themselves.
After a 20-mintue walk they reach the Hard Rock Café complex and are pleasantly surprised. It is huge, beautiful, loud, colorful, brassy, showy, obnoxious and everything they have dreamed of in an American establishment. Tomoko-san says it is smaller than Beijing’s but bigger than Shanghai’s (she’s right).
Quickly they are seated and are surrounded by famous Rock and Roll stars and their paraphernalia. The standard “Elvis the King” stained-glass window sheds color on part of the room. Bon Jovi has graced the place with a poster. Surely months of negotiations between London, New York and Japan went on about who would be able to display the Ratt, Poison, Cindy Lauper, Tiffany and Debbie Gibson concert posters. Fukuoka’s Hard Rock won, if you can call it a win. The menu is Hard Rock; the prices and size are Japan. Hitome-san, Mikeko-san, Tomoko-san and Kieko-san are thrilled to death. And they should be, Bruce’s BBQ Chicken Sandwich looks as good as the Hickory Smoked BBQ Burger; they are in American heaven with choice after choice of menu items (choice being a rare thing in the Mimata Cho). There is Coke, real Diet Coke (which Japan doesn’t have), Root Beer, Dr. Pepper and masses of great US beers. Don’t have, don’t have, don’t have. And tea and coffee.
Finally they independently decide on four hamburgers; plain. French fries; plain. No appetizers. On drinks you can go your own way so they settle for four American (sweat and iced) teas. Big change form the usual NOT sweat, no-ice teas they usually get. Man are they living on the edge. Hitome-san is happy.
Minutes later the extra-ordinarily admirable gaijin and remarkably charming lady hooked to his left arm are promenaded in and seated, if you can believe it, RIGHT NEXT to our protagonists’ table! He is burdened with 6,708 shopping bags in more colors that they think exists from every store the girls can think of; he looks exhausted—but still dashing. She, the blond movie star, is bubbling with joy and carries only a purse. Gaiety to spare.
The girls can’t take their eyes off the gaijin; they along with the rest of the entire Island have a propensity to stare at foreigners. The two are speaking louder than regular people, using their hands while they talk and bobbing their heads about laughing and carrying on in a most embarrassing way. Hitome-san sneaks 36 pictures. The extra-ordinarily striking male of the pair has, get this, his arm around the female in PUBLIC and even kissed her on the hand after putting down the 6,708 parcels from around the complex. More pictures. They order in English, at least that’s what Tomoko-san said they were speaking, and the waitress understood! Tomoko-san said the gaijin got different things, but she was not sure what. How rude!
Shhhh! He’s looking! Heads down! OK, coast is clear. More pictures. The remarkably magnetic female of the two toe-headed foreigners nods to Hitome-san and smiles quickly, then looks away, a kind of hello she thinks, but Hitome-san is not sure and must go to the bathroom to see if she has something on her face and catch her breath. This is riveting! More pictures of the bathroom.
Alas the food comes and it is wonderful. The gaijin are not eating bog food yet, they got appetizer. Tomoko-san says it is Spinach and Cheese Dip. There are three empty beer bottles in front of the dashing one and the remarkably attractive female is working on her second huge green-ice-slushy thing with salt around the rim. Both white people are grinning and watching their crazy kinsmen jump around and scream indistinguishable music, of sorts, on video screens around the room. “MTV, they can’t get enough of it,” Tomoko-san says. The foursome shares a laugh.
All good things must sadly come to an end. The girl’s meal comes, is devoured and is gone before they know it. A few hours of shopping and they head for the parking lot, burdened with 1677 packages each.
20 minutes pass and they are at the parking lot. The same gorgeous man and woman are there. “NEXT TO OUR CAR!” Squeals Tomoko-san. They line up for a picture with the outsiders in the background. The lady gaijin is bent over, her heart-shaped backside wagging around as she throws trash from the front to back so she can get in. The male gaijin is standing akimbo against the front bumper, one leg up, occasionally scratching himself.
“Man, their cool,” says Hitome-san (seriously).
“I wanna look like that,” motions Kieko-san. “Don’t you Mikeko-chan?”
“Oh, I know, they have so much class! I need to get home before 8:00 or my husband will kill me.”
“It’s 4:00, we’ll never make it.” Says Kieko. “It’s too bad those gaijin are already home.” She laughs.
They all share a chuckle and head for home.
** ** ** **
“Brandie, let’s get a move on, it’s 4:00, I want to make it back to Miyakonojo by 7:00 so we can get to Daiei before it closes,” says the Prince, still scratching, “Aren’t those the people who were sitting next to us at the Hard Rock?”
“We got plenty of time, relax,” Says Brandie, sniffing a shirt found under the seat. And “ Ya, that’s them, I remember because they all had the same thing. They all were cutting up and eating their burgers and fries with a knife and fork. A real East meets West going on over there.”
“Take a picture.” Jim says.
“I can’t find the camera,” Brandie says.