An American in Japan Part I | Cover Me

A foreigner visits a hotel pool in Japan and learns a lesson in modesty and skin care.


The sun beats down on my head as I scan the pool area of the Nagahama Royal Hotel seeking shade. It costs 1,000 yen to enter the premises even though I am a hotel guest. Perhaps this is an even trade for the customary no-tipping practice in Japan.

I choose a white plastic chair under a tree and sit down before surreptitiously ducking under my towel. I remove the package that I purchased at the Can Do store by the train station from my beach bag and open it, pulling out an article of clothing that looks like a pair of nylon stockings. I slide these nylons that are actually UV-protective arm bands all the way up past my bicep, one arm, then the other.

Remaining under the towel like a writhing terry cloth ghost, I shimmy out of my jeans, revealing my black-striped bikini and slide identical bands over my legs, up to my knees.

Now that I am decent, I remove the towel and glance around, sure that everyone is staring at my weirdness. They are not. In fact, many of my fellow swimmers have also donned hoodies, shorts, or arm bands rather than Western-style bathing suits to enjoy the pool, free of the damaging rays of the sun.

I am the only one with them on my legs, however. The resulting look is that of a dolphin trainer getting ready to do a Jazzercise workout.

Why am I wrapped in black nylon? Because I have tattoos on my arms and legs and apparently tattoos are so hideous in Japan that you cannot be seen with them. From what I understand, tattoos are viewed as a sign of a person’s anti-social intent. Tattooed folks are not seen as contributing members of society. They are possible gang members. They are definite pariahs.


I currently feel the full extent of my pariahhood. Not only because I speak exactly five words of Japanese, but because I am the only one here with arm bands on my legs. I could definitely have skipped the pool entirely, but it is almost 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity and I need to cool off.

Also on the hotel’s premises is an onsen. This is a type of public bath fed by geothermal hot springs that I would really like to check out. But I can’t because…tattoos. And because everyone goes in there naked, there is no way to hide my shame.

I paddle around the pool in my black UV-resistant sleevery. It feels kind of nice. The water is cool. The people politely ignore me. My temperature needs are met.

And if I still require cooling off, just inside the hotel from the pool area are two vending machines. One sells beer, the other sells ice cream. I love Japan.

Devil Music

I have a terrible song stuck in my head.

Something about a devil inside. This guy moans really breathy and he’s talking about this “devil inside, devil inside,” over and over again and it’s freaking me out because I really believe in the devil. And if there is a devil and it has to be inside someone, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to choose me.

I’m the perfect devil host even though I have been trying my whole entire life to not be the devil. I even used to read the Bible every night before I went to bed and said this really long prayer where I blessed every single person I had ever known because if I didn’t, they would probably meet some horrible carnival-ride decapitation death.

I wonder when I stopped doing that.

When do little kids stop saying their prayers? I can’t picture an adult saying ‘Now I lay me down to sleep,’ but there isn’t any kind of alternative adultish prayer that is widely publicized. Maybe more people would pray if they didn’t feel silly saying a nursery rhyme about it.

Devil inside.

It’s back. Like hiccups. I try holding my breath.

My mom had this article one time about rock music being the work of Satan. Or maybe it was at church, I forget. It seemed true, though, when they were talking about all these different lyrics and old vinyl record albums that could be spun backwards on a turntable to play hidden messages to teens that would make them want to worship evil or do other bad things. Skin cats. I don’t know.

Devil inside.

I assess my music collection. There’s probably some devil stuff in there. I can’t have that kind of bad juju in my life.

I decide to take the obvious next step and destroy every CD, every album, and every cassette tape that I own beginning with the genre of Metal, since it is the most egregious offender.


I slip on my high-heeled boots and place a handful of media into a paper grocery bag.

My mom washes the supper dishes. My sister plays quietly with her My Little Ponies. I disappear out the side door with a bag of classic satanic loot; Guns ‘N Roses, Mötley Crüe, Cradle of Filth.

I lug the sack over to the side of the house, out of the glare of prying eyes, and set it down. A gust of wind blows through the tree branches above my head sending a flurry of wet maple leaves toward me. Some of them stick to my face.

I lift my foot and step onto the bag. It lets out a little crunch underneath my heel, which infuses me with a new burst of confidence.

I do it again, harder.

The snapping of plastic jewel cases echoes through the naked trees. I am doing God’s work. I can feel it. So I stomp those suckers into a mosaic of plastic bits.

I jump up and down, panting, and wheezing with great physical effort and little restraint.

When there is nothing but dust and shards, I gather up the torn bag and its contents and hurl it off the side of the hill where the septic system drains.

I climb the porch steps, back to the house where a bowl of corn flakes and a Saved by the Bell re-run waits for me. These are good things. Wholesome things.

Tiffany Amber Thiessen has noticeably larger breasts in season three than she had in season two.

Devil inside.

Fast Feet

School clothes shopping is a yearly tradition for many American children. Every August, exhausted parents hit the mall with about a quarter of their paychecks while kids choose apparel that won’t get them kicked, punched, spit at, or given wedgies. Optimal gear elicits pangs of envy from the kids who frequently do get kicked, punched, spit at, or given wedgies. The third grade is particularly rough, as I recall.

It was the year Grandma bought my gym shoes.

“I have a picture of the shoes I want,” I announced, flipping through the catalog to locate the same black Converse All-Stars worn by my cousin Debbie.


Debbie was three years older than me. She had a cassette tape collection. The summer before, she and my other cousin Jenny told me the meanings of all the bad words they knew. I told my sister one of them and got my mouth washed out with soap.

“Mmmhmm,” Grandma nodded, barely glancing in my direction. She crushed out her Winston and picked up a bright pink tube of lipstick.

Grandma lived in a house with powder-blue asbestos siding that featured its own special smoking room. It was in that room that I cornered her, insistent upon getting the shoes that would assist in my leap to third grade stardom and mega-popularity. I held up the catalog once again, pointing to the black Converse footwear with the Chuck Taylor signature that I had circled three times with a pen.

She scanned the page.

“Okay. Go play,” she said.

I grinned and ran off, encouraged by the fact that my request was approved quickly.

Two weeks later my shoes arrived.

I was just getting off the bus when I saw the enormous blue Ford parked in the driveway. It was all I could do not to turn around and sneer at Jason Carlson who had been poking me in the head with a permanent marker. I had black dots on my scalp. They would wash off but my cool teenager shoes would last forever.

“I hope they’re the right size,” said Grandma as she handed them over. “You kids’ feet grow so fast.”

The box looked funny.

I flipped open the top and peered inside.

The brightness of hot pink and teal canvas stung my eyes. “Fast Feet,” it said on the outside of each shoe. There was no white circle and no blue star.

Grandma poured herself a glass of brandy.

“They had them at Kmart,” she said. “Now you’re all set.”

I was all set – to die of embarrassment.

I was all set to run across the gym floor and not be able to stop because the soles of my shoes were hard white plastic. They also made terrible skidding, shrieking sounds. I don’t know how many times I ran into the wall doing relays. I was picked last for every game, and I can’t even talk about dodge ball.

I still have the scar. On my soul.

“Thank you,” I whispered, clutching the box to my chest, as if there was an animal inside trying to escape.

I slipped silently back to my bedroom and closed the door.

Bad Candy

When I was two years old I ate a little pink cake. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen, like a cross between a piece of bubblegum, and a peppermint – but bigger. The cake was at the bottom of a sink in the men’s bathroom. It was not in the regular sink where you wash your hands. It was in the small sink.

My chubby fingers reached down and closed around the wafer as it began to fall apart in my hands. I quickly shoved it into my mouth before any grownups could see and try to take it away.

The taste was really unusual.

u cake

I took a few steps backward. My eyes watered. Drool ran down my chin as I worked to break up the chunks of pink grit with powerful toddler jaws. I stood my ground against the sourness of the thing, determined to get to the sweet, or syrupy, or peanut-buttery center.

It wasn’t gum, I knew that much. It didn’t stay together when I chewed it. It wasn’t candy, either. What the hell was this terrible, amazing thing I had gotten hold of? And what was it going to do to me?

I wondered these things while my eyes filled with, what? Tears? Impossible. You cry when you don’t get things, not when you find delicious treats in the men’s lavatory and keep them all to yourself without sharing with the other snot-nosed little jerks at daycare.

I reached for the door, but my eyes were useless. Stumbling, arms outstretched, I made my way down the hallway and back into the barroom of the VFW. This candy did not taste good. But, I knew I had a fresh Coca-cola in a can waiting for me, and probably a bag of Funyuns.

A lady yelped. Stools skidded across the floor. I still couldn’t see anything, but all this commotion gave me the sinking feeling that the game was up.

My legs started pumping and for a split second, I thought I’d gotten all the way out to the parking lot. But a squeezing sensation occurred. Like I was in the Amazon jungle being coiled round-and-round by an anaconda until my eyes bugged out and my tongue swelled and there was not a dang thing left of me but a soiled diaper and a longing for sugar.

Any kind of sugar.

I was upside down. I could have been anywhere.

But I wasn’t anywhere, I was back in the bathroom, underneath the faucet of the normal sink being drowned with pool water. The grownup splashed my face as the chlorinated, orange tap water of the VFW ran down my shirt onto my bare skin. Cold and awful.

Soaked, and enraged, I pushed against my captor with tiny balled-up fists, trying to get away.

“Nooooooo,” I gurgled, spitting salmon-colored foam.

Wriggling free, I lodged my body between the elbow joint of the sink and the tile wall. Wheezing and sputtering, I breathed through burning chunks. I wiped my face on the sleeve of my jacket, as strong hands closed around my ankles and dragged me out of my cubby-hole.

The grownup pulled me toward it and held me tight. It coughed and made gurgling sounds of its own as its eyes leaked onto my hair.

My bad candy was gone.