Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Why Every Foreigner in Japan Should Keep an RPG Handy at all Times

The other day a helicopter flew overhead while I was working in the garden. This alone qualifies as cause for excitement in sleepy Utashinai, and sure enough several faces appeared in apartment windows as some of my neighbors tried to get a glimpse of the intruder. More curious faces soon emerged as the helicopter made a slow turn and buzzed over my apartment complex again, and then again once more, so low that I started to worry about getting strafed. People were coming out of their houses, heads tilted back at an angle, mouths hanging agape as the rotor blades whipped the trees and bamboo of my backyard into a frenzy. I could see two men in orange suits leaning out of the helicopter door and scanning the forest below.

"What's going on?" I yelled over the noise to my elderly upstairs neighbor, who was watching the commotion from his balcony. "It's a helicopter!" he yelled back helpfully. Most Japanese assume that someone with the vocabulary of a three year old must have the common sense of a three year old as well. In my case this is often true, but even a toddler would recognize a helicopter if it suddenly began hovering 20 meters above his house.

"Why is it here?" I yelled back up to the old man, as the helicopter began sweeping up and down the ridge behind our apartment. "They're looking for something," said the old man. "Probably an old lady went up there looking for mountain vegetables and got eaten by a bear. What an overreaction!" He went back inside, closed the door and turned up the volume on his TV.

Whether or not the old man was right, I wanted to see what was commanding so much attention in the woods for myself, so I grabbed my camera and jogged up the trail into the forest. The bracken and bamboo lay flat on the ground where they were blown by the rotor blades, and farther up the ridge trees were shaking like the tops of palm trees in a hurricane. The noise alone was overwhelming, and only got louder as the helicopter swung around for another pass, the landing gear only a meter or so above the tops of the tallest pine trees.

Bits of bark and needles whipped past me as the helicopter approached. Maybe these are wildlife biologists responding to a bear sighting, I thought. If I was a bear all this noise and wind would be making me very angry. I would probably be looking for someone to maul...

The helicopter was almost directly overhead. I ducked into my sweatshirt hood and waited for the bits of shrapnel to stop swirling, but the storm didn't let up. It was as if the helicopter was parked

I looked up. The men in orange suits were staring at me and gesturing excitedly. Shit, I thought. Do I look that much like a Japanese grandmother with a broken leg? Despite the flying bits of bark I gave the men in the helicopter a wave, a friendly, Hey There! kind of wave, not a Help Me There's a Bear Chewing on my Neck! kind of wave, but under the circumstances, and with the language barrier, I'm not sure that the men in orange suits understood. They just kept waving their arms and shouting into little radio headsets.

This is going to be the talk of the town for a month if I don't get myself out of this, I thought frantically, doing jumping jacks in the howling wind underneath the men in orange suits, trying desperately to show that yes, I could walk out of this forest if I wanted to and no, I'm not the old lady you may or may not be looking for, and yes, if you are looking for a bear, I would be more than happy to go home right now and leave you to your search.

Which is what I did. And the helicopter followed me. Through the forest I ran, over the windblown bamboo, arms in front of my face to ward off shrapnel, the sound of the rotor blades thumping through my head and chest cavity. At the edge of the forest I could see my neighbors standing in their gardens and driveways, looking up wide-eyed as the helicopter approached.
Bracing myself for the embarrassment, I walked as casually as I could across the driveway, into my backyard and into my apartment, locking the door behind me and waiting for the thump thump thump of the helicopter to go away.


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