Monday, April 21, 2008

A Stroll Down Natsukashi Lane

 The Japanese have a great word: natsukashi.

Basically, it means "nostalgic" but there's a bit more to it than that. It's actually closer to a one-word summary of "Wow, this really takes me back".

Say, for example, you hear a song on the radio that, not only have you not heard for years, but you really associate with a certain memorable time in your life.  You could say "Oh my god, Lionel Richie's 'Dancing on the Ceiling'!  Natsukashi!" (Erm... hypothetical, of course.)

Anyway, I had myself a big ol' fat dose of natsukashi this weekend.

On Sunday, I went to the last day of the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival & Japanese Cultural Festival.

It was at the Seattle Center, just under the Space Needle.  I parked nearby and, as I walked towards the festival, I passed the wall of the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum.  In the window was a picture of Doc and Marty.  Having lived in Japan for nearly 4 years and having played Doc Brown at a theme park while I was there, I was forced to stop and take a picture.

As I was putting my camera away, I spotted a group of teenage Japanese girls who had just spotted me. Now, I don't know what it is - I must have a certain wakarimasen about me; an air of "yes, I speak Japanese and I'd love to take a picture of you" - but the girls started to approach me. (Perhaps all of my time overseas has just made me more receptive to the photographic needs of Asians.)

I smiled pleasantly as they advanced. One asked in English "Picture, OK?" while miming snapping a few shots with an invisible camera.  I replied in Japanese, "You'd like some pictures taken?  Of course, I'd be glad to."

The Japanese people make a sound when they're surprised.  It's an escalating "eeehhhhHHHH!!" that kind of sounds like a cross between Scooby-Doo and Tim Allen's impression of a guy in a SEARS.  After I spoke in (damn-near flawless) Japanese, the girls made this sound in unison. (And I felt the first real stabs of natsukashi in my gut.)

"You speak Japanese! Wonderful!"
"Yes, I do speak Japanese. But I'm really not that good at it. Thank you very much for noticing."

While that last line might sound sarcastic, it was actually meant to make me sound humble as well as belittle any efforts I had ever put into studying Japanese.  It was one of the first full phrases I learned in Japan.

I was handed several cameras and then the girls rushed back to pose for the pictures.  Each pose, each peace sign, took me back to all the countless Japanese people who'd ever done the same thing in the pictures taken by and taken with me.

I counted down each photo I took of the girls with a "Hai Chi-zu!", the Japanese version of "Say Cheese!"  The girls marvelled at this.

Once the pictures were done, one of the girls asked why I spoke Japanese so well.  This began a conversation I'd had so many times in the past that I could have acted out both parts.
"I used to live in Osaka."
"Wow! What were you doing in Osaka?"
"I worked there."
"Where did you work?"
"Universal Studios Japan."
"eeeeehhhhhhHHHHH! Wonderful!"

The girls finally asked if they could take pictures with me.  This wasn't a surprise at all.

Quick cultural note: In Japan, the locals just love getting pictures with random foreigners. My parents can attest to this. During their visit to Osaka, I took them to Kaiyukan, the aquarium in Tempozan.  It was inside there that schoolchildren would, instead of taking pictures of the gliding rays or the massive angelfish, actually get queued up to take pictures with the three of us.

In Japan, this...
Is more interesting than this...

I never could figure out their obsession with taking pictures of people they didn't know. I always tried to imagine them sharing their photo albums with friends and family:
"Here's Hiroko on the Ferris wheel. Here's Hiroko next to the crab tank. Here's Hiroko standing next to another completely random American tourist."
Maybe they trade the pictures like baseball cards?

"I'll give you a tall Aussie and a brown-haired American for a red-headed Scot."

Anyway, I posed with each girl for a photo.  Everything we did reminded me of my job back in Japan:  The questions they asked.  The giggling at the responses.  The bowing and the broken English.  The feeling of being special enough to get my picture taken.

After the past several months of being anonymous, I can't tell you how nice it was to be noticed again.  They thanked me as they walked to whatever bus they needed to catch, but it was really me who was the most thankful.

The rest of the day went great as well.  I drank bottled green tea as I strolled the aisles between the different booths.  Each time I turned a corner, I'd catch another wave of natsukashi.  While the highlight of my day will forever be getting my picture taken with those girls, a close second was a choir of Japanese ladies' delightful half-Japanese, half-English version of Paul Anka's "Diana".

"Ohh... preeeease... staaaay by me... Diana"

Gotta love Japan.

UPDATE: More pictures here!

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