Monday, January 23, 2006

Memories of Japan, the First Time Around - Part 1

Curiosity and the Cat

I came across something the other day; something I wish I hadn’t seen. I was looking in places I should have left well enough alone, but, alas, that is not my nature. I am curious to a fault, and it is this certain character flaw that has been my undoing on many occasions in the past. I scratch at surfaces, and if the surface proves unyielding, I simply scratch harder, getting dirt under my nails as I attempt to get at the nitty gritty of whatever anomaly it is that has caught my attention. I never seem to know the appropriate time to keep my nose and hands out of business that is not mine. My inquisitive nature has unearthed many a nugget of information I would have rather not known. I get knocked off balance on these occasions, and as I regain my composure and dust myself off after such an episode, I vow to show restraint in the future. I am aware that, unlike my feline counterparts in the curiosity department, I do not have nine lives.

I remember one day in particular when the curiosity of cats gave me pause for thought. I was living in Kitakyushu, Japan in a lovely condominium. It was a deluxe 3-bedroom marvel with a kitchen the size of most people's one-room apartments. My pussycat, Passé Passé, had full run of the place, and took up residence in the smallest tatami room that ordinarily, Japanese tenants would have used to pray for their dearly departed loved ones under Buddha's watchful gaze. Little Passé Passé was illegally brought into this palace, snuck in one evening right under the very nose of Nosy Watanabe-San, the gaijin-wary caretaker. I suppose he had reason to be both nosy and gaijin-wary seeing as I was sneaking live contraband into his building. That doesn't take away from the fact that he was, in my estimation anyway, too meddling and interfering for his own good.

The day in question, the one that brings to mind curiosity and all its pitfalls, was rainy, dreary, and a bit lonely. I wanted something to do, but no amount of reading, web surfing or DVD watching could take away from the monotony of a day spent totally indoors, safe from the rain but not from my own strange thoughts. They were convoluted musings, which involved fleeing the country and becoming a nun in Vatican City. I'm not kidding. Thoughts of joining the Sisters of Service were often crossing my mind when the strangeness of Japan, and the farcical nature of my intercultural relationship with one of its native sons, overwhelmed me. I needed a break from my crazy thoughts and from myself. Where the hell was the cat?

I peeked into her Holy Buddha tatami room. Nothing in there (save for the slain cat-nip mouse and the tattered Hello Kitty blanket that she snuggled up in nightly). Next, the shower room, where she liked to watch the drip-drip-drip of the leaky faucet that Nosy Watanabe-san, had yet to fix. Little Passé Passé was fascinated by water, and could watch that faulty faucet for hours. Not there either. Damn it! I was bored and needed entertainment. Where was she?

I looked into the WC. Passé Passé, on the surface, was very much the delicate lady, tail usually held high and taut, twitching as she carried out her royal inspections. She did, however, have a bit of the old alley cat in her, and that element was never so apparent as when she peered into the toilet bowl, had a good sniff, and then drank to her heart's content. That day, apparently, she wasn't thirsty. In fact, (much to her chagrin, I'm sure) the lid was down on the seat. I lifted it, an enticement just in case she did need a wee nip in the near future.

Off to the kitchen, and there she was, totally unaware of my presence. That kitchen could have been a part of the African savannah for all she knew, such was her utter concentration and twitching nose. Passé Passé was perched on the edge of the kitchen garbage bin, three paws gripping the outer rim, claws poking holes in the plastic liner, while her other paw hung poised and rigid above the open mouth of the garbage can. There was most certainly something in there, and she wanted it.

Still holding her balance, she swiped into the depths of the bag, grabbing, apparently, at air, for when her clenched paw emerged, there was nothing in it. That didn’t stop her, and she continued her quest. Each time she took a swipe, her balance would momentarily be lost, and she'd sway back and forth, back and forth, never completely losing her equilibrium, but coming awfully close. She was concentrating so hard on whatever was in there that she never acknowledged my presence as I stood in the doorway. While I observed the balancing act in front of me, I was marveling at what an amazing creature she truly was. That tail, those whiskers, the finely honed claws, all working in harmony to allow her the poise and balance necessary to get whatever prize was just out of her reach.

The ringing doorbell and the subsequent “Sumimasen!” holler that immediately followed caught us both off guard. Passé Passé was stuck in precarious garbage bin limbo. For a moment, there was absolutely no movement made by either of us. I watched, stock-still and silent, waiting to see which way the pendulum would fall. Was this feline’s destiny going to be in the bin or onto the cold floor? The final outcome of Passé’ curiosity? The bin. She fell into the trash with an almighty crash as the doorbell sounded again.

“Sumimasen!” There came the shout again from the front door. I was contemplating not answering it to tend to the needs of the poor cat who was now floundering in the bin, when all of a sudden I wasn’t given the choice. The voice yelling out the Japanese version of “Excuse me!” was now much closer. I had forgotten something most expatriates are quite shocked to realize when first arriving in this country. The front foyer to houses and apartments is pretty much public property, a space where delivery people, cable TV bill collectors, and, apparently on this day, nosy building managers could freely enter. Watanabe’s voice was loud and clear and definitely inside the apartment.

“Sarah-san! Haitte yoroshi desu ka?”

If I knew enough Japanese at the time I would have yelled back that asking to enter was a bit redundant seeing as he was already inside the apartment. According to my Canadian sensibilities and perspective, anything on my side of the front door was indeed inside.

But, that really wasn’t what was going through my mind as he shouted out his presence. I was more focused on my contraband cat who was still caught in the depths of the bin. I could tell she was not happy with this arrangement. Her momentary prison was shaking from side to side as she attempted to claw her way out. She hadn’t vocalized her displeasure yet, but that would be coming soon if she didn’t get out of there within the next few moments. If I did somehow manage to dig her out of the bin, Watanabe-san would be sure to see her. There was no door on the kitchen and it was certain that she would run to the comfort of Buddha and Hello Kitty in the holy tatami room. Doing so would bring her in the direct line of view of Mr. Nosy.

I had no choice. I turned up the volume of the little transistor radio sitting on the counter, allowing the tinny sound of J-pop to fill the room. I grabbed the lid to the bin and whispered a quick “I’m sorry!” to Passé, whose startled and indignant face was peering up at me from her stinky new home. I took a deep breath and squashed the lid firmly on top of the bin. If she were to meow, her squawks would blend in just fine with the crap emanating from the radio.

I brushed my fingers through my hair, took a quick peek at my reflection on the surface of the toaster, and made my way out to the front room to face my nemesis.

To Be Continued...