The leaves are changing. Today I venture out of the Ohtaki International Guest House to buy veggies from Hashimoto-san. As usual, he wants to give me things. First, it's a bag of carrots. Then, a melon. Yellow or red? he asks. I point to the smallest one but of course he chooses the largest. I know such melons go for at least ten bucks a piece, so I try to buy more veggies even though I don't need them. Two kilos of eggplants. A gigantic hakusai cabbage. But every time I spend more money, he adds another gift. It's time to leave.
I drive to Seicomart. It's here you can buy anything from pizza-flavoured breadsticks to apricot sake. There's always a trucker or two perusing the porn mags (located beside the whisky and laundry detergent). Now I have my very own Seicomart card and can rack up points. I've already won a white café au lait mug. Of course, I can't understand the rules for the point system or the gifts I'm eligible to win. I rely on the kindness of an elderly cashier to pass me mysterious slips of paper and gesture to tuck them away in my wallet. She's the same cashier who gave me a calendar last year. She's the same cashier I'm embarrassed around every time I buy a mini-bottle of red wine (which seems to be often these days).
I've always thought it takes a minimum of six months to feel at home anywhere, but that was before Japan. It's clear I'm a guest here—just as the sign above my front door proclaims. The Ohtaki International Guest House has become my refuge. It's here I can put on a pair of sweatpants and do what us foreigners like to do—be free.
If I've learned anything during this past year, it's that we in the west enjoy a freedom difficult to define. Sure, there are rules to follow but they're pretty simple once you've learned them. Most can be mastered by Grade One. The rules here seem to become more and more complex as one enters different phases of life, or even just the different rooms of a house. The rules are as ancient and multi-faceted as an origami crane. It's the perfect place for those who thrive on tradition and routine and knowing what to expect.
But for those of a more spontaneous nature, repression sets in. Repression makes you want to do crazy things. It makes you want to serve guacamole in the miso soup bowls. It makes you want to throw the toilet slippers in the garbage. It makes you want to ride your bike to work during a typhoon—heedless of your hair-do and freshly-pressed blouse. It makes you realize you didn't even know you were free once.
Repression makes my neck tense. It makes me bow and shuffle. It makes me apologize before I even begin to speak. It makes me want to jump in a cold Canadian lake and float on my back all day looking up at the sky.
It's an interesting state of being. And it's also a choice. For I am still free, technically. There's nothing stopping me from booking the flight that's on sale right now from Tokyo to Bangkok. Except for a fridge full of veggies and a melon. Every time I open the door, the kindness of Ohtaki stares back.
Surely they are trying to teach me something here. I am free to go, or I am free to find out what that may be.