The Pearl Festival of Kashikojima

South From Tokyo

I’d been working on my chopstick dexterity, and could do well with easy-to-pick-up things like sushi. But a foreigner’s resolve is always tested by breakfast in Japan.   The waitress in the Tokyo coffee shop brought me a compartmentalized wooden box containing a bowl of rice, miso soup, dried seaweed in a cellophane wrapper, pickled cucumber in an artistic arrangement, and finally—the piece de resistance—a slab of broiled fish. A typical Japanese breakfast, in other words.

“Hote kohi, kudasai,” I asked of the waitress. “Hai!” she said, and hurried off to bring me my hot coffee.

That part of the business out of the way, I slipped the wooden chopsticks out of their paper container, broke them apart, placed them as they needed to go in my right hand, and then considered what part of the breakfast to attack first. The miso soup would be the easiest, I decided, so I set the chopsticks back down, and drank it in the way the Japanese consider polite: picking up the bowl with both hands, and chugging the whole thing.

The broiled fish was next. Native Japanese can tear their breakfast fish apart into bite-size chunks by manipulating their chopsticks with their right hand. I have to use both hands—one chopstick in each—the way a caveman might hack apart a loin of mastodon.

I’d saved the hardest for last: the rice. Now I’ve learned to eat rice with chopsticks, that’s manageable. But breakfast rice is eaten with seaweed. That is, you open up the little cellophane wrapper of dried seaweed, divide it into individual pieces much as you would open a pocket-size package of Kleenex and lay out the individual sheets, ready for use. And then—and this is where it gets hard—you pick up the exquisitely thin leaf of seaweed, fold it in half, and wrap the halves around a bite-size hunk of rice, which you then deliver to your mouth. All of this is done with chopsticks. I’d been practicing it for some time. I could pick up the seaweed, fold it in half, and even wrap the halves around the hunk of rice. But as soon as one applies enough pressure to pick up the rice, the chopstick goes right through the seaweed, tears it to shreds, and leaves a dreadful mess. I’d been working away at this project for several minutes, becoming increasingly frustrated, when I remembered I’d forgotten the soy sauce.

I picked up the soy sauce container and tipped it so as to pour soy sauce into the rice, but nothing came out. I tried again. Nothing. I tapped the soy sauce, jiggled it, tried everything I could think of, but no soy sauce would come out.

It was the kind of situation not covered in a Japanese phrase book. I mentally scanned my vocabulary of about one hundred Japanese words, and was astonished to realize that I had one suitable for the occasion: “dame” (“dah-meh”), which means “broken.”

“Sumi masen,” I called to the waitress, who hurried over.

“Hai?”

“Kono shoyu wa, dame desu.” (This soy sauce is broken.)

“Hai!” And off she went to bring me a replacement bottle.

To a Japanese waitress, the word “hai” is as versatile as a Swiss army knife. There is no situation it cannot handle.

Hai!          (Welcome to the restaurant. Please follow me and I will seat you.”

Hai!          (Here is your menu)

Hai!          (Thank you for your order, I will take care of it.)

Hai!          (Here is your food)

Hai!          (Here is the replacement for your broken soy sauce)

Hai!          (Your check, sir. I will take it when you are ready.)

Hai!          (Here is your change, sir, have a nice day.)

Of course the literal translation of “Hai” is “yes.” So what’s really being conveyed is an infinitely-high level of agreeable-ness. The point is, perhaps, that there’s nothing a waitress could say that would be worth hearing, so instead she reflects an attitude of service. One contrasts this with the endless pandering of male waitresses at finer restaurants in the states:

“Good evening, my name is Swanson, and I’ll be your waiter tonight. Allow me to acquaint you with the intricacies of our salad bar which I believe you will find quite extraordinary considering the pasta selection which is…”

The replacement soy sauce arrived and I eventually set it in front of my wooden tray to act as a stand for my “Japan Times,” Tokyo’s English-language daily newspaper. In this way I was able to fold my seaweed over my rice while reading about reports of Russia dumping low-level radioactive waste in the sea of Japan. As I was preparing to leave I discovered that my Japan Times had knocked over my soy sauce bottle and soy sauce had spilled all over the table. So much for trying to make a good impression on the waitress. I called her over.

Hai?

“Gomen nasai,” I said, pointing to the spill. “Watashi-wa, gaijin desu neh.” (I’m sorry. I’m only a barbarian, you know.)

She thought that was funny, and laughed while cleaning up the soy sauce. At least I’d elicited something more than another “hai”.

I was glad to have enjoyed a good breakfast because it was uncertain when I would have another chance to eat. If things went right, by evening I would be on the island of Kashikojima in southern Japan. I had a reservation there in a hotel, the same hotel that Rich and Allison Stavrakis were supposedly staying in that night, according to their faxed itinerary. This was going to be kind of a delicate situation. Rich and Allison were traveling in Japan as part of the Pearl Princess tour. That is, Rich had nominated the woman who had won the U.S. Pearl Princess title in a national competition. His reward included accompanying the pearl princess on her two week trip to Japan. This was somewhat unusual in that last year Rich had also nominated the winner: Amber Rue, formerly Miss Minnesota USA. Following in his own footsteps, this year he’d nominated another “pageant girl” Laura DeWild, a friend of Amber’s, and last year’s Miss Colorado USA.

The Pearl Princess competition itself is somewhat bizarre. It’s an annual contest, sponsored by Telepress Associates, a public relations firm which manages the United States Pearl Association under contract from the Japan Pearl Exporters Association (JPEA).   Once chosen the Pearl Princess gets a two week trip to Japan in which a red carpet is laid out for her. She (and her sponsor and her sponsor’s spouse) are given VIP treatment as they tour shrines, temples, museums, and in particular, places relevant to the pearl industry: such as the Mikimoto Pearl Island Museum in Toba. During the trip the Princess is taught everything about the process of creating cultured pearls, and even learns how to surgically implant the nucleus into the pearl. There is a pragmatic reason for this education. On her return the princess is made available to retail jewelers for their own promotions. For a fee, the princess appears in her gown and sash and tiara, and can serve as a spokesman for the pearl industry if desired, or do a show-and-tell exhibit about pearls, or whatever. Polygon had recently installed Telepress as a Polygon subscriber, and earlier this year Amber Rue had appeared at one of our conclaves, compliments of Telepress. Rich Stavrakis was of course a long-term Polygoner and had invited me to the Pearl Princess dinner banquet at Rockefeller Center in New York last July: the final extravaganza in which Amber had passed on her crown to Laura. I’d never met Laura herself but that evening I’d sat next to her parents at dinner and found they were well acquainted with Summit County, having owned a condo at Keystone for sometime.

So taking all this together I felt I wasn’t exactly an outsider to the world of the Pearl Princess, and since I was in Japan at the same time as the tour, I judged it might be useful, or at least fun, to intercept the group for a day and try to make some contacts myself with a few Japanese pearl executives.

There was only one problem: I hadn’t been invited. Or at least not officially. Rich, back in the states, had urged me to try to rendezvous with them for at least an evening. We could have a beer, drink some sake, whatever.   Probably that’s all it would be, since I could see from the itinerary that the tour was a busy one, moving almost every night to a new hotel, and a new round of museums, shrines, and so forth. In fact, there was probably a good chance I’d miss the group altogether. Their itinerary might have changed, they might be in a different hotel, anything. Or, even if I did manage to find them, Rich might be too busy to do more than say hello.   At the very least he would be surprised. We’d left it only vague that I’d try to meet up with him at all, and I hadn’t indicated when or where it might be, not having known my own schedule in advance. Certainly the chance of having a meaningful encounter with an honest-to-god pearl executive seemed remote., the more I considered it. I was probably on a fool’s errand.

But nothing ventured nothing gained. I had a few days of free time on my hands, and Kashikojima was supposed to be a fairly nice place in its own right, being at the southern tip of the Ise Peninsula, one of Japan’s National Parks. My Japan Rail Pass would make short work of the distance, and Kahori had helped me make the reservation at the hotel. All I had to do was get there.

As I reviewed my map and my Frommer Guide to Japan, I decided it would require five different trains to make the trip, at least if you counted the subway: Ginza Line from Taramawachi to Ueno. Yamanote Commuter Line from Ueno to Tokyo station. Bullet Train from Tokyo to Nagoya. JR Line from Nagoya to Toba. And Kintetsu Line from Toba to Kashikojima (a railroad bridge connected the island to the mainland). A year ago I had been apprehensive (rightly) of taking the bullet train to Kyoto and being on my own for two days. Now , even though I was planning to do something much more complicated, I was not worried at all. I’d been taking lessons in Japanese! If I got lost, there was at least the possibility I’d be able to ask directions.

But I’d forgotten one thing. This time I would be traveling through Tokyo not on a Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m., but on a Thursday morning at 8:00 a.m., which is an altogether different thing.   Taramawachi subway stop—the closest one to my hotel—is the second to the last on the Ginza Line, and is usually deserted. It’s not deserted at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday morning. At 8:00 a.m. on Thursday morning they have “pushers,” that infamous Tokyo institution in which subway officials are stationed at every opening of the train and their job is to literally “push” people into the subway. I’d first heard about pushers on a 60 Minutes TV show some years ago, and had been horrified at the concept. This was my first experience with it. But I was going to present something of a problem for the pushers. I was at least two feet taller than anyone else on the platform, and was carrying my backpack luggage. How does one compress the incompressible?

To their credit they tried. But I held my own. Once on the train I planted my feet, gripped the overhanging rail, and refused to budge. Swarms of Japanese commuters pressed against me, around me, under me even. The pressure increased. But I was largely above the fray. My kneecaps were getting squeezed, nothing more. And of course at the Ueno station—a major hub— everyone got out.

I worked my way through Ueno to the best of my ability, but finally reached the point where I needed to ask directions. No problem.

“Sumi-masen, Tokyo densha-wa, doko desu ka?” I asked one of the attendants. (Excuse me, where is the train to Tokyo?”)

“Track 4” he said.

I was not offended or even disheartened that he spoke to me in English. The problem in Japan is not that no one speaks English. The problem is that no one understands English. They study it from 4th grade onwards, and jump at any chance to practice it. But they get so few chances that when an honest-to-god American speaks English to them, it sounds completely different from what they’re used to, and they haven’t a clue what you’re saying. So it made perfect sense, and was greatly appreciated, when I would phrase my question in Japanese. It made equal sense, and was even more appreciated, when they replied in English.

I made the connection on the Yamanote Line to Tokyo and—with my new found ability to ask directions— changed to the southbound Bullet Train just as easily. Soon we were speeding along at 140 miles per hour on tracks I had passed over a year ago. This time I caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji as we crossed the Izu Peninsula, towering above us, looking almost unreal in its perfect symmetry. I had no idea that in a few days I would be climbing it.

Two hours after leaving Yokohama the train slowed and I turned to the man seated next to me.

“Sumi-masen, kore-wa, Nagoya desu ka?” (Excuse me, is this Nagoya?)

“Hai, Nagoya desu.”

So I got off, and with the help of an English-speaking information desk, found the train to Toba.

While waiting for the train I took advantage of the kiosk where they sold various food items, cigarettes, and so forth right at the platform. Pointing to the bread roll, I said:

“Sore-wa, kudasai,” She handed it to me.

“Ice-kohi wa, arimasu-ka?” (Do you have any iced coffee?)

“Kohi wa, iye. Gomen nasai.” (We don’t have coffee, I’m sorry.)

“Mizu arimaska?” (Do you have water?)

“Hai!” (She hands over a bottle of water)

“Ikura desuka?” (How much is that?)

“Nana hyaku en desu.” (700 yen)

“Hai,” (I hand over the correct change.)

“Arigato gozaimase.”

The bread and water were sufficient to keep me alive. I was more excited about having handled the transaction in Japanese.   A year ago, in a similar situation, I’d been forced to point at the nearest object and grunt. This was definitely progress.

The train to Toba rolled across the fertile Ise peninsula, and I looked out the window, seeing the fields, and forests, and Japanese farmhouses. But I was still more interested in the language than the scenery. At one station where the train had stopped for sometime, I noticed a freight train on the opposite track. On its cars were katagana characters and I tried to figure out what they said. Trying to decipher katagana is generally more rewarding than hirigana. Hirigana, after all, is Japanese writing of Japanese words. So after you struggle with a long string of Hirigana you’re likely to come up with something like “Oo ka si wa su matzu ko ii,” which of course is mere gibberish when you only know 100 words.

But Katagana is different. Katagana is what the Japanese use when they’re spelling words they have borrowed from foreign languages, and 90% of the time that means from English. So I set about trying to unravel the katagana on the freight cars, and came up with “Ya me n to.”

Yamento. Hmmm. Maybe they’d borrowed that one from Spanish. But then I realized I’d made a mistake with the first character. It was a “se” not a “ya”.

Se me n to.

Semento.

Cement! Those were cement cars. In fact that was obvious now that I looked more closely. There was a gray powder spilling out of them.

I changed trains at Toba, home of the Mikimoto Pearl Island Museum.   Since I was heading deeper into pearl country, I figured I should bone up on the subject and turned to my guidebook.

Toba’s best-known attraction is the Mikimoto Pearl Island, just a few minutes walk from Toba Station and connected to the mainland via a short bridge. It’s geared entirely toward tourists but is still quite enjoyable, especially if you have a weakness for pearls or have ever wondered how they’re cultivated. In addition to a pearl museum and a shop, there’s a demonstration hall where the processes of culturing pearls and sorting and stringing them are explained in live demonstrations. Most fascinating is the Mikimoto Memorial Hall, chronicling the attempts, failures, and final success of Kokichi Mikimoto to cultivate pearls. The son of a noodle-shop owner, Mikimoto went to Yokohama as a young man and was surprised to see stalls selling pearls with great success. Mikimoto reasoned that if oysters produced pearls as the result of an irritant inside the shell, why couldn’t man introduce the irritant himself and thereby induce oysters to make pearls?

It turned out to be harder than it sounded. Oysters used in Mikimoto’s experiments kept rejecting the foreign material and dying. It wasn’t until 1893, five years after he started his research, that Mikimoto finally succeeded in cultivating his first pearl. In 1905, Mikimoto was able to cultivate his first perfectly round pearl, at Toba on the Ise peninsula. Shortly thereafter he moved his base of operations to Kashikojima, further south where the waters were warmer and more suitable, and from there built what is probably the most successful pearl empire in the world. He once said to Emperor Meiji: “I want to adorn the neck of every woman in the world with a pearl necklace.”

Also at Mikimoto Pearl Island, women divers, wearing traditional white outfits, demonstrate how women of Shima Peninsula have dived through the ages in search of abalone, seaweed, and other edibles. At one time there used to be thousands of women divers, known for their skill in going to great depths for extended periods of time. Today’s tourist brochures say that there are still 2,500 of these women divers left, but I’ve seen them only at demonstrations given for tourists.

The further I’d come from Tokyo the more petite had become the trains. I was now on a tiny, electric, two-car train, where I could stand up at the front, and see through to the engineer’s cabin and look out ahead of us as we clickety-clacked past little Japanese towns, and little Japanese gardens, and little Japanese fields, and little Japanese backyards.   Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of the ocean off to the left, which helped remind me that I was not, in fact, in Switzerland. It was seeming more and more like the Lake Geneva region all the time, minus the vineyards.

The only other occupants of the two-car train were a dozen schoolboys, perhaps 14 or 15 years old, and all in their regulation bright yellow caps. One of them finally got up the necessary courage and approached me.

“Scuze me. I want picture me take you.”

By which he meant he wanted to have his picture taken with me. This accomplished, I insisted that he pose again and one of his classmates did the honors with my own camera, and you would have thought this was the greatest joke ever to occur on the Ise peninsula, the way they laughed.

The terrain was becoming increasingly hilly—one might even say mountainous—and the fields were becoming fewer while the forests were growing larger. Finally the train crossed over a body of water: a river, inlet, or bay perhaps, and slowed to a stop at the end of the line. We had arrived in Kashikojima, the home of the cultured pearl.

But there was more here than pearls, according to the guidebook.

“At the southern end of Shima Peninsula, the last stop on the Kintetsu Line is Kashikojima. Here you can visit Shima Marineland. It describes the fish and plant life of the region and beyond, and also has demonstrations given by women divers.

The main attraction of Kashikojima, however, is its boat cruises of Ago Bay. Vessels leave from the boat dock, about a two minute walk from the train station. You’ll pass oyster rafts, their cultivators, and many small islands along the way, while enjoying the sweeping mountainous terrain of the region.. Kashikojima is the place to go if you want to escape the crowds and relax in a rural setting.

The Shimakanko Hotel

It was only three in the afternoon. Rich and company wouldn’t be arriving until after six, I judged. So I walked the two minutes the guidebook said were required, and boarded the last boat of the day just as it was about to leave the dock. This was another example–if any were needed–of the convenience of backpack luggage. Saddled with a suitcase, I would most certainly have had to check into the hotel first, not to mention find it.

It was a warm fall day, the sky was clear, and there were oyster rafts about: low, lattice-works of logs tied together in twenty foot squares. The boat was large, with paddle wheels as the apparent form of propulsion, although one never knows for sure because these days so many paddle wheel vessels have propellers hidden conveniently below the waterline. I stood on the open deck and enjoyed the last rays of the sun, as it worked its way down to the horizon, where the forested hills awaited it’s coming. There were only a dozen of us on the boat, and one of the others was a Japanese girl, apparently traveling by herself, about Kahori’s age I guessed.   Single people meet each other in parks by relying on their respective dogs to break the ice. Travelers use cameras. She asked me to take a picture of her against the railing, with the mountains behind, and of course I asked her to do the same thing for me, with my camera.   Having thus been formally introduced, we chatted for much of the remainder of the cruise, younger Japanese always wanting to take advantage of any opportunity to practice their English. She was visiting the Ise peninsula on vacation, and was hoping to find a hotel that night in Toba, Kashikojima being too expensive. (My guidebook had said much the same thing.) I was not inclined to volunteer to let her share my room, but was not above enlisting her help in finding the hotel. She asked a few questions of the crew, and reported back to me that the Shima-Kanko Hotel operated shuttle buses from the train station, which left every few minutes. This proved to be the case, and I was thus able to not only find the hotel, but arrive at it in something of a luxurious manner, being the only passenger in a lavish 30-person tour bus.

The Shima-Kanko was reasonably modern, and the bellman (and women) all sung out “Irrashaimase! Irrashaimase!, as I walked through the doors. Irrashaimase means “welcome.”   The hotel was set on top of one of the many hills surrounding Ago bay, but was only about 500 yards from the train station which explained how they were able to maintain a fleet of buses that left the station every few minutes. It was just one bus. The hotel was quite large, and sprawled over quite a few acres of impeccably landscaped grass and trees and Japanese gardens. There were no Americans inside, nor any non-Japanese for that matter. The staff all wore uniforms and the guests—elderly Japanese for the most part—all wore business suits and dresses. As I checked in I began to feel somewhat out of place, in my jeans and backpack, and generally non-Japanese appearance. But everyone was polite about it and didn’t make me feel awkward or let on how much shame they must have felt at having a barbarian in their midst.

After handing me a key one of the bellmen hastened over to carry my luggage up to my room and show me the way. The bellman, in this case, was a very pretty Japanese girl who could not have been a day over seventeen, and who could not have weighed an ounce over 65 pounds. A strong wind—any wind at all for that matter—would have knocked her against the wall in no time. So I was understandably shocked when she tried to lift my backpack off the floor and carry it for me. To begin with, she didn’t quite understand what it was, and kept looking for a handle. Not finding one, she latched onto the tie-down straps at the top, and tried to pick it up that way. Of course the leverage was all wrong. Oriented vertically, the backpack was nearly as tall as she was. I tried to wave her away and carry it myself but she could not bear the shame and refused to let me take it from her. Eventually she succeeded in hoisting it just far enough off the floor that she could move it down the hall, in a half dragging, half carrying mode. After about sixty seconds of this she was exhausted, as of course she would be. Sensing that her shame might now be overcome, I took the backpack and slung the whole thing over my shoulder—far, far out of her reach—and this time she did not protest.

Freed of her physical burden, she proceeded to engage me in polite conversation as she guided me through the labyrinthine halls, walkways, and staircases of the sprawling Shima-kanko.   Her attentiveness continued as we reached the room, and—perhaps to make up for not carrying the suitcase—she gave me a thorough tour of the 10 foot square cubicle, pointing out the bed, the telephone, the closet, the bathroom, etc., just to make sure I knew where they were, although I felt there was a good chance I could have found these things on my own. Or perhaps she’d had such little experience with barbarians that she felt compelled to call my attention to these objects, as a human might try to make an untrained puppy aware of the newspaper in the corner.

Eventually, with a final look around (to see if anything was breakable, perhaps), she left me alone and I was able to relax . It was a corner room, and from both windows I had a beautiful view out over the water, with forested hills on all sides and oyster rafts floating almost directly below me.

I had left a message at the front desk for Rich Stavrakis, with my room number. It was a very good sign that the front desk was aware of a guest by that name. The odds had increased substantially that I would actually find him. I took a moment to flip through my faxed copy of his itinerary.

There was no mention of where this Pearl Festival might be, although apparently the group was staying at the Shimakanko the next night as well, so it might be assumed that the pearl festival was not too far off. I could not imagine what a pearl festival was, but it sounded somewhat formal, and probably quite structured. An outsider–a party crasher so to speak–might find it harder to tag along at a formal event than at a museum tour for example. I questioned again the wisdom of coming to Kashikojima.

The phone rang.

“Hello?”

“JV-san?”

“Rich!”

They had to leave for a private dinner at someone’s home that night, and Rich apologized for not being able to include me. Well, that was just the kind of thing I was expecting would happen. We agreed to meet for a drink later in the evening at the hotel’s bar and I had dinner on my own.

It was nearing ten o’clock when Rich and Allison finally called the room again and let me know they were downstairs.   We rendezvoused in a remote lounge, ordered a round of sake, and begin catching each other up on news since we’d last seen each other at the Chicago conclave two months previously.

Now one might suppose that it would be a bit intimidating for Rich’s wife to have a beauty pageant winner accompany her husband all over Japan. But Allison is a beauty queen in her own right, having won the Mrs. Minnesota pageant in 1988, and having been involved in pageants ever since, as an organizer and promoter. With her daughter Jolene now on the pageant tour as well (three weeks later Jolene was to win the title of Miss Minnesota USA), it’s very difficult to talk to Allison without the subject swerving inevitably to pageants. By contrast Allison’s day job, so to speak, is with Northwest Airlines. When I’d first heard this I’d assumed she was a stewardess. I was quite shocked to discover that she was a mechanic. Specifically, a brake mechanic.

So when talking to Allison one starts off with the subject of beauty pageants— a world a bit too divorced from reality for my taste, and then, inevitably, the discussion turns to the subject of brakes, specifically the problems involved in de-icing brake assemblies on DC-10’s., a subject I find a bit too down to earth. One tries to steer the conversation between these extremes, but it cannot be done smoothly.

“So you heard about the scandal with Amber over her Miss Minnesota crown, right?” asked Allison, as she sipped her warm cup of sake.

“No, I don’t recall that I did.”

“It was terrible. Her old boyfriend started sending her this hate mail, and he made up all this stuff about her sexual practices that he threatened to turn over to Penthouse magazine, and sure enough, Penthouse heard about it and actually published what he sent them, and…”

“You know, I was wondering, are the new series DC-10’s pretty much the same, as far as brake maintenance?

“No way! They’re completely different. And McDonnell Douglas sent around these update manuals which describe the new de-icer formula we’re supposed to use but at certain temperatures it just doesn’t work, so what we’re doing is…”

“Well, what did her old boyfriend say exactly? Not that I’m curious but…”

“It wasn’t true! Well, some of it was. But he was trying to blackmail her into resuming the relationship by revealing that…”

“Come to think of it, it was a DC-10 I took from Honolulu to Tokyo. I wonder if they have the same problems.”

“Well, that would be part of Continental Micronesia’s route system, and their maintenance base is in Guam. I worked there for three years and you’ve got a problem with salt getting into the brake linings and…”

“Penthouse actually published that stuff?”

“Oh, it was an incredible scandal in Minnesota, and Amber accepted an invitation to go on one of the talk shows and tell her side, which was just the wrong thing to do, because once she got on the talk show she..”

Well, it was just the kind of conversation that gets in the way of keeping track of how many bottles of sake one’s gone through, and the next morning this truth became apparent.

Preparing For The Festival

I was not at my best when I entered the dining room and spotted Allison and Rich just finishing breakfast with Carolyn Catlett and the woman I assumed was Laura DeWild, the new pearl princess.

Laura was leaving the table as I arrived, but Rich took the opportunity to introduce us briefly. Then Laura hurried off, appearing a bit apprehensive I thought.

“Laura’s really nervous,” explained Allison.

“Nervous about the pearl festival?”

“Yeah. At one of the events she has to get up in front of a whole room and read her speech in Japanese, which was written out for her.   But she doesn’t know how to pronounce any of the words, and she’s afraid she’s going to sound like an idiot.”

Well, that was a reasonable fear. But it was someone else’s problem. I had my own, with my head pounding from last night’s sake, and my stomach being in absolutely no mood for breakfast. But I did my best to be sociable, and turned to Carolyn, who is a strikingly beautiful black woman.

“Good morning,” I said. “How’d you do on the gemology test?”

“Gemology test? How’d you know about that?” She smiled in frustration. “I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”

“You saw me just three weeks ago, at the pier in New York,” I volunteered.   Carolyn worked for the American Cultured Pearl Association. She was Devin’s assistant.

“That’s right, you were an exhibitor!”

“You guys know each other?” asked Rich

“We’ve met. We run into each other at trade shows,” I explained.

“And you were in Tucson, too, weren’t you!” said Carolyn, remembering the AGTA Gemfair last February.

Well, it was nice, being among friends. But I knew that the day’s activities would probably separate us. Rich tried to explain the agenda, remembered from the year before.

“We start out on top of this hill, overlooking Ago Bay, and we have the ceremony honoring the spirits of the oysters who gave their lives for the pearl industry, and praying to the pearl goddess for their speedy re-birth. It’s really cool. They have Buddhist monks and everything.   Then we go into the town and everyone makes speeches and they break open a large wooden drum of sake and serve it out to all the townspeople. Then the pearl princesses and the rest of us in the party go on this large paddle wheel boat out into the middle of the Bay and we throw pearls into the water as a sacrifice to the oyster spirits.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Did you say ‘pearl princesses’, plural?”

“Yeah. There’s Laura, plus the four Japanese pearl princesses.”

“Four? There are four Japanese pearl princesses? How come the U.S. only gets one, if Japan gets four?”

“Yeah, it’s unfair, isn’t it,” agreed Rich. “They’ve divided up Japan into three areas: Osaka and the southern islands, the Tokyo area, and Hokkaido in the north. There’s one princess for each of those areas, who is from that area. Then there is one overall princess, who goes everywhere. She’s Laura’s counterpart. So altogether you have five pearl princesses.

“OK, so after you all go out in the boat, then what happens?”

“Well, the boat ride is several hours, but when we finally get back we go somewhere else in town, kind of a big field, and get up on a stand and throw softballs and candy out to everybody. The kids love that.”

“And how does that fit in with the pearl festival?”

“I have no idea. It’s just part of the way we honor the oysters, I guess. Then after that, the JPEA puts on this huge banquet with an unbelievable amount of food. That’s a very formal event, and all the JPEA bigwigs are there, with their wives. That’s the dinner where Laura has to get up and give her speech in Japanese.”

“And then?”

“That’s it. That’s the whole day. Now there’s no way I can get you onto the boat trip, or the dinner, but you could certainly be there when they break open the sake keg, and when we throw the softballs and candy.”

Hmmm. The day was looking more and more doubtful. I’d fiddled with my breakfast sufficiently to pretend I’d eaten it, and we all left the dining room: Rich, Allison, and Carolyn to change into their good clothes for the festival, me to go back to my room and lie down and try to feel better.

“No sake. Ever again,” I said to myself as I lay on my bed and tried to decide if I could make it to any of the festival, or if I should just stay in my room and die, which sounded more attractive. But I’d had hangovers before, and I knew that the best cure was to get up and start functioning as quickly as possible, and try to eat as much as my stomach would allow–which wouldn’t be much.

So eventually I forced myself to dress in my business suit and tie. It seemed pointless, but if I was going to maintain any hope of meeting important pearl people and passing out a business card or two, I’d better dress the part.

At the door of the hotel the pretty 76-pound bellgirl was there, and she greeted me with an “Ohaiyo gozaimasse” and a big smile. I knew the smile was one of relief that I was carrying no suitcases.

I walked down the hill into Kashikojima, deciding the exercise wouldn’t hurt. The town is very small: no more than about 100 square yards. There’s a convenience store, a couple of small noodle restaurants, and several jewelry stores, these latter being aimed at the tourist trade, and of course specializing in pearls. It was late in the morning now, and becoming quite hot. Large, bright red banners had been hung across the several streets and alleyways, in kanji, although one could lay money they said something about pearls.   There were many women scurrying about, most of them wearing light blue, silk “happy coats” , that also bore large, prominent kanji markings indicating no doubt they were somehow involved with the pearl festival.

An air of anticipation seemed to hang in the air. I walked along the waterfront and was surprised to see that all the fishing boats had been dressed up for the festival, each sporting numerous bright flags and ribbons and banners from their shroud lines. Closer in, where the paddle wheel boats docked, was a large raft, decorated much like a float in a parade, and in the middle was a a huge, papier-mache pearl, perhaps ten feet in diameter. No doubt this raft would be involved in the festival in some prominent way.

As I continued my stroll through the town, not sure when any of the events would begin but finding my stomach improving with the exercise, I happened to pass one of the jewelry stores and stopped to look at the merchandise. Set in one of the display cases were little brooches in the shape of lady-bugs, each having opened its wings to reveal a pearl. They were quite cute, and only a few dollars each, and I thought my seven-year old daughter Kristen should have one. Also, I wanted to practice my “shopping” Japanese. One whole chapter of my Japanese textbook was devoted to the words and expressions used in shopping.

I started off the conversation:

“Sumi masen! Onegai simasu…” (Excuse me, can you show me something…)

(Salesperson runs over. Literally runs.)

“Hai!”

“Sore wa, misete kudasai.” (I’d like to see that, please [pointing].)

(She starts to pick up the wrong one.)

“Iye, akaku no.” (No, the red one.)

(She picks up the red one and hands it to me)

“Dozo” (Here you are.)

“Ikura desu ka?” (How much is it?)

“Nana hyaku en desu” (Four hundred yen.)

“Hai!” (I hand over the money)

“Domo arigato gozaimase!” (Many thanks)

I stuck the object in my pocket and hurried out. I couldn’t believe it! The salesperson and I had just recited—word for word—the exact dialogue practiced in my Japanese class.   Even starting to hand over the wrong object, and being corrected, were part of it.   Darn! If only my Japanese teacher could have seen me! She would have been so proud…

I noticed a man in the middle of the main street setting up a large wooden keg on a table, with some ornate brass ladles nearby. Feeling flushed with fluency, I approached him.

“Sumi-masen. Sore wa, sake desu ka?” (Excuse me, is that sake?)

“Hai! Sake desu..” (Yes! It’s sake.)

Of course I was in no mood to be anywhere near a 50 gallon keg of sake, but it was a delicious feeling to be able to walk around town and communicate.

There were many quite lovely women walking around too, but—as I’d noticed a year ago—Japanese women simply don’t make eye contact with men. Or at least with Western men. Or at least with me. But then I remembred how to break the ice, and looked around for a suitable object. In a nearby shop doorway was a little Japanese boy, perhaps three years old, all dressed up and wearing one of those official blue happy-coats. Clearly he was adorable, and even more clearly his mother was sure to think so. I guessed she was one of the several women talking animatedly to each other a few yards away, all of whom had so far managed to utterly ignore me.

Crouching down, I pulled out my camera, turned on the flash to compensate for the backlighting, and took a picture of the little boy. Well, did that ever knock the women off their pedestal. They rushed over and gathered around me, all smiles and giggles.

“Kiree desu,” I said, nodding towards the boy. (“He’s cute.”)

“Arigato, arigato” several of them said, so excited they almost couldn’t stand it. One of them used hand signals to indicate I should wait there. She ran off and returned in a few moments with another boy. Then she positioned them together and urged me to take more pictures, which I did. This was obviously the mother, and she obviously was wanting to have Number 1 son honored, as well as Number 2.

Well, they all flittered about and smiled and tried to talk to me but my vocabulary wasn’t up to it. I thanked them again and walked off, but I—I swear—the rest of the day whenever any of those women saw me again they would smile and bow slightly and beam once more with the pleasure of the memory.

I knew that none of this had anything to do with me, but it was fun to pretend that it did.

So far I had seen no other Westerners in Kashikojima.   I guessed that Rich and his group were up at that shrine somewhere, praying to the oyster spirits, and that soon they would arrive in town, along with the pearl princesses and no doubt the important JPEA officials.   I wanted to be on hand and not miss anything when they arrived, but I was also getting hungry. Being hungry was a good sign. If I could get some food in me I was sure to cast off the last remnants of the hangover. One of the noodle shops was right off the main street. In less than ten minutes I could go in there, finish off a plate of noodles, and be back ready for action. But the activity level had seemed to increase and I wasn’t sure I even had ten minutes.

I wanted to ask someone “When do the festivities begin?” But I had no idea how to say “festivities.” Finally I pointed to the raft with the papier-mache oyster and asked a passerby: “Sore wa, itsu desu ka?” which was horrible grammar, translating roughly as “That thing—when is it?”   But it was the best I could do and he understood. Using his watch dial, he explained that it was going to be at twelve o’clock. That was 45 minutes away. Plenty of time for noodles.

The Pearl Princesses

I had just taken my seat and the noodles had just arrived and I was just picking up my chopsticks when all at once a band started playing, and from a little alleyway directly beside the noodle shop I could see through the window a procession of people beginning to issue forth. Uh oh. Maybe the passerby hadn’t understood me as well as I’d thought. I looked at the plate of soba, estimated how long it would take to eat, and made a decision. Leaving my suitcoat on the back of the chair as evidence that I would return, I grabbed my camera and rushed out of the restaurant. I was just in time. The first of what were obviously the Japanese pearl princesses came walking into view. She was wearing a huge satin gown that was bunched up at her shoulders, was tight against her waist, and billowed out to an impressive diameter by the time it reached her ankles. It looked much like a lavish wedding gown might look in America in the 1940’s, or maybe the 1840’s. The 2nd pearl princess was now coming into view, and then the third and the fourth. I studied them closely as they walked solemnly by, looking straight ahead, caught up in the seriousness of the ceremony, and for the life of me I could not tell them apart. They were perfect China Dolls—all from the same mold, with porcelain skin, black, black hair, and bright red lipstick. They were each wearing exquisite diamond tiaras, sashes identifying them as 1994 pearl princesses, and everywhere possible: pearls and pearl jewelry. They were like something from a bygone era, a sight it seemed the world might never see again, and it was somehow not quite real. A page from a fairy tale suddenly come to life would look this way.

On each side of the procession the Japanese spectators—dozens, perhaps by now even hundreds—were looking on in wonder and admiration, and the air was buzzing with the whir and click of 35mm lenses, motor-drives, and video cameras. Darting in and out, poking their heads through where they could, and trying for the best angles were actual TV cameramen, and right behind them, urging them on, were several professionally-dressed, attractive but serious Japanese women: the TV reporters.

I had no more time to observe them for suddenly the excitement stepped up a notch, everyone tried to stand on tiptoe, and many people exclaimed at what they saw, although it was not yet in my field of view.

Around the corner came Laura.   Surrounded on all sides by elderly Japanese dignitaries in somber blue suits, she looked—with her stunning blonde hair combed in a wave above her head, her elegant gown, and her jewelry—like some goddess from another planet. No wonder the crowd hesitated between pushing forward eagerly, and backing away in awe.

From what I had so far seen of Kashikojima and the Ise peninsula, it’s not impossible that many in the crowd were seeing blond hair for the first time. If so they were about to receive a double dose, for shortly behind Laura came Allison, with hair almost platinum, and then—just behind Rich —came perhaps the most startling sight of all: Carolyn Catlett.

Here was a parade of ethnic diversity the likes of which had probably never been seen in this tiny Japanese fishing village, and the crowed stared in fascination and amazement. The procession itself, having reached the center of town, came to a halt and everyone now mingled about somewhat uncertainly, while the cameras clicked and the video taped whirred. Laura, glad to see a familiar face, came over and stood beside me.

“You must feel like a stranger in a strange land,” I said.

“Geez, isn’t that the truth!” she agreed, smiling at everyone about her and waving, with the continuous smile and outward poise a pageant queen can apparently maintain even in the midst of a conversation.

Allison came over next and wanted to get a picture of Laura and me together, and then Laura wanted one with her camera, and I was beginning to feel very much in the middle of things and beginning to enjoy it, especially when the TV cameras focused in on us.   But then a Japanese official appeared and hurried Laura over to where the Japanese princesses were lined up.

The most elderly and most dignified Japanese official climbed up onto a stand that had been erected in the middle of the street, the crowd quieted down and he begin to speak.

“That’s Kitutso-san, the president of Mikimoto,” explained Rich. “He’s kind of the big cheese of the whole festival.”

“Will he speak for long?” I asked.

“About ten minutes or so,” said Rich.

I slipped away from the other Americans—not hard to do in the crowd—and snuck back into the noodle shop.

“Gomen nasai,” I said, apologetically to the waitress.

“Dozo,” she replied, inviting me back to my noodles with an understanding smile.

I ate my plate of soba as fast as soba has ever been eaten, which isn’t all that fast since you have to use chopsticks, and then hurried back to where Rich, Allison, and Carolyn were listening to Kitutso-san finish his remarks. The five pearl princesses were lined up just below the speaker stand, and Kitutso-san now proceeded to introduce each of them, beginning with the #1 Japanese princess. Each princess gave a few remarks in Japanese, and waved to the crowd, and smiled for the cameras, and then the next one was introduced.

When it was Laura’s turn she spoke in English, saying all the right things about being pleased to be here and how exciting it was for her, and finally ending with:
“Arigato,” pronouncing the “r” as an “r”, rather than as a soft “d”, but the crowd loved it and everyone clapped loudly and cheered and smiled back. Japanese-American relations had reached a new high, at least on the main street of Kashikojima.

Seeing all the pearl princesses now back in a row I was puzzled that Laura’s gown was so different from that worn by her Japanese counterparts, and I commented on this to Allison.

“Well, there’s a story there,” she said. “It used to be that the American pearl princess had to wear one of those old fashioned gowns as well, but last year when Amber won the title she and I led a rebellion and forced Telepress to provide a modern gown. Those pageant gowns, like Laura’s wearing, are just so much more sensible and they look better don’t you think?

Certainly Laura looked ready to walk down a runway at Atlantic City, while the Japanese princesses were dressed for a ball at Tara. But they all looked pretty good.

It was noon, and the sun had become blisteringly hot to those of us standing among the crowd. I began to regret wearing my formal business suit and tie, although most of the men in town were similarly dressed. Carolyn and I dropped back a little, finding shade under the awning of the convenience store, as we watched to see what would happen next. Another official spoke, and then a third ascended the stand, but this one instead of speaking began waving his hands in a slow, rhythmic motion, approximating the motions used by signal officers to guide fighter planes onto the decks of carriers.   This was some kind of group chant, or perhaps cheer, for the crowd began to participate and there was much ritual shouting and exclamations, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Carolyn and I looked at each other and shrugged. Who could understand these natives and their rituals?

Then Laura and the #1 Japanese princess were guided over to the large wooden keg of sake, and handed big wooden mallets. Another round of cheering began and just as it reached its peak the two princesses smashed their mallets into the top of the keg and the wood cover split apart and sake splashed onto the crowd–not onto me thank God–and the cheering erupted all over again.

The crowd surged about, seeking positions in line for the sake, and soon Rich and I found ourselves on the outside.

“Well, now we have to go out on the boat,” explained Rich apologetically.

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll hang out around town here. Maybe I’ll see you when you get back.”

Too bad I’d already been to the noodle shop. This would be a perfect time to have a nice leisurely lunch while I waited for the boat to return.

But the boat wasn’t leaving yet. Alongside the paddlewheeler was a large raft, set more or less facing the people on shore, and the pearl princesses had been maneuvered onto it where they waited for the next act to begin. Soon they were joined by eight Buddhist monks, in brown robes, and funny hats, and white sandals, who formed themselves into a semi-circle facing a large wooden tub filled with–it looked like from shore–live oysters. They chanted for awhile and performed some religious incantations, and then they motioned to the princesses who reached into the tub and begin flinging the oysters back into the water.

To one who has only seen oysters served elegantly on the half shell at $12 a half dozen, this was almost painful to watch. But then I remembered there might be pearls inside–probably were pearls inside as this was supposed to be a ceremony of sacrifice–and I couldn’t help wondering if I could rent scuba gear and go back at night and make my fortune. That was a horribly irreverent thought, of course, and I did my best to push it from my mind, though it went slowly and unwillingly. Laura noticed me on the embankment snapping pictures and she did her best to pose, smiling just as she flung an oyster into the water. It was better she didn’t know my thoughts were more on the oyster than on her.

Sacrifice To The Oyster Gods

The oyster sacrifice out of the way, the entourage went aboard the paddle-wheel steamer–similar to the same one I’d ridden on the day before, and the crowd now surged around the dock area to wave farewell to the vessel. I was still on the concrete embankment, looking for photographic opportunities, when I saw Rich about to walk up the gangway.

“JV!” he yelled across the water, loudly enough to be heard above the din. “C’mon!” and he waved his arm towards the boat.

This was going to be tricky. The paddlewheeler was about to cast off its line, but to get to the gangplank I would have to push my way out onto the dock, past what looked like over a thousand tightly packed Japanese, determined to see the ship off in style.

I made it in twelve seconds.

“You got me on?” I asked Rich as I escaped the crowds and leapt onto the gangplank.

“You’re on!” he said. “I told Asuba-san you’re an important person in the jewelry industry back in the U.S.” He was grinning.

“Rich, I owe you big time.”

“No you don’t. You are an important person!”

“Yeah, right! At least as long as they think so!”

The steamer was crowded with nearly 200 Japanese dignitaries and one of the officials gestured for us to go onto the upper deck. The women who had been scurrying around town in their blue happy-coats were now scurrying around the boat, making sure everyone was in the right place, and serving cans of cold Kirin beer to all the guests.

Rich, Allison, Carolyn, and I were seated at a table that looked almost to be the place of honor, right in the middle of the upper lounge, and just back from the panoramic view afforded by the front windows, which curved down either side of the vessel.   The many Japanese dignitaries in their dark blue business suits–thank God I’d worn my suit–were being guided into lesser places of seating back away from the windows and along the side. But the five side-by-side seats just in front of our own table and facing directly out the windows were left vacant. This seemed a shame as the view would be best from there, and seeing no one else was taking them the four of us slipped into those seats and looked out over the front of the vessel.

The paddlwheeler had come to life and was backing slowly out of its dock. On the front deck were the Pearl Princesses, engaged–apparently–in another ceremony. Sure enough, as we watched they were handed large burlap bags, from which they took large handfuls of tiny white objects–pearls, obviously, and flung them into the water while the crowds watched from shore and cheered.

I glanced surreptitiously around, checking the bearings of our present position, to make sure I knew where to dive when the opportunity came. Why waste time with the oysters? But these thoughts were interrupted by two of the happy-coat women who found we had moved out of our assigned seats. With much apology and bowing they moved us back to our original table, and the need was obvious for just then the five pearl princesses came into the room, and they were ushered into those five seats against the window.

Well, this was going to be quite a view for Rich and me. Here we were seated with Allison and Carolyn, surrounded by a full crescent of pearl princesses, so close their gowns were brushing against us, and beyond the princesses was the beautiful view of Kashikojima harbor, Ago Bay, and the mountains of the Ise Peninsula. As we were contemplating our good fortune several more of the happy-coats arrived and began bowing and serving trays of sushi. I demurred the first time that beer had been offered, but now accepted a cold beer gratefully, finding myself swept up in the moment.   One of the happy-coats was the woman who’s sons I’d photographed, and she smiled at me yet again, remembering the honor I’d bestowed on her children, and glad to see that her earlier smiles had been spent on someone who’d turned out to be a celebrity.

It was certainly becoming hard not to feel like one, riding out to sea on a paddle wheel steamer, surrounded by beauty queens, filmed by TV cameras, and catered to with trays of sushi by elegant women bowing and serving us drinks. Yet I was able to maintain my bearings and remember that I was in fact not a celebrity, and that I’d only stumbled into all this by accident–being at the right place at the right time as it were, and that being seated within a ring of pearl princesses was not something I should in any way become accustomed to for it was likely not to be permanent. Yes, I was able to say all these things to myself and even believe them, until I looked out the window and saw evidence to the contrary.

Five hundred, possibly a thousand, fishing boats were spread out on all sides of the paddlwheeler, behind, ahead, close in, some nearly a mile away, all with bright red and yellow banners and flags draped from their halyards and backstays, and all there for one reason only: to escort us out to the sea!   And leading the pack, serving as a beacon for all the ships to follow, was the giant papier-mache pearl! Well, one can’t deny one’s own eyes. Clearly I and everyone else aboard the steamer was a celebrity. I wasn’t sure how I’d arrived at that position. My rise to stardom was somewhat dim in my own mind. But clearly and obviously it had occurred.

“Biiru irimasu ka?” (Would you like more beer?) asked one of the happycoats, bending over to pour me another ice-cold Kirin.

“Kashikomarimashita!” (Certainly!) I replied, finding my first opportunity for using that long word, and glad I’d remembered it at such a suitable moment.

“This is just so cool,” said Carolyn, looking out over the fleet of fishing boats surging through the water besides us, flags waving and banners fluttering. And that did burst my bubble for it wasn’t the kind of thing a celebrity would say, and I had to admit that I, too, thought it was cool, which wasn’t the kind of thing a celebrity would think.   Bowing to reality, we all started taking out our cameras and snapping pictures. There was no doubt the pearl princesses were photogenic, and a boat is always a good place for taking pictures, even when there’s not a colorful fishing fleet behind it. Soon all of us, including the pearl princesses, were clicking shutters in every direction. I was photographed with Allison, with Carolyn, with various combinations of pearl princesses, with Rich, with chopsticks, etc., and so was everyone else, until finally our photo-lust was satiated.

It had become quite warm on the upper deck of the ship, with the mid-day sun pouring through the panoramic windows, so I walked out to the back which was open to the air. There was very little standing room here, so filled was the ship with elderly Japanese dignitaries in their suits and ties, standing around chatting about—well—about pearls in all likelihood.   But it was very pleasant in the fresh air, and I looked around for an excuse to stay. Several yards back of the railing was a row of benches, and most of these were filled except for one which had only a single occupant. He was different from the rest. An old man without a suit and tie, he had not shaved well that morning and was somewhat shabby in appearance. I thought he looked melancholy as he sat there and stared out at the sea and the fishing boats. I was puzzled how he had come to be on the boat at all, with its cargo of celebrities and people pretending to be celebrities. It seemed likely that the old man was perhaps a token fisherman, or pearl farmer, who had been brought along symbolically in a place of honor or because of his age.   On the other hand, Japanese culture being what it is, maybe the old fisherman had been brought along symbolically to be sacrificed to the oyster spirits. Perhaps Laura and a couple of the other princesses would shortly be brought out here and told to toss him overboard while the monks chanted and lit incense and prayed for a good pearl harvest.

As I was worrying about this the old man noticed me and motioned me to come over and join him on the bench, which I did.   We chatted for awhile, but I’m not sure what we chatted about because he spoke not a word of English, and my Japanese was just sufficient to hide from him the fact that I had no idea what he was saying. As he rambled on, pointing out things now and then around the bay, I would nod, and smile, or look serious if I sensed that would be appropriate.

“Ah so desu neh,” I said every few moments, with a slightly different intonation, and he would nod in agreement and then start talking again. “Ah so desu neh” is a wonderful phrase which translates, depending on context, into “Oh really,” or “Hmmm,” or “That’s interesting,” or “Ain’t it the truth,” or “I hate it when that happens,” etc., and in this case it was sufficient to keep the conversation going for nearly forty-five minutes. But with the warm sun on the water, the pleasant breeze, the motion of the waves, and the gentle thump-thump-thump of the paddle wheel, the old man at last fell asleep. I stayed where I was for awhile, having no desire to do more than watch the scenery. A few hundred yards away two fishing boats were maneuvering a large oyster raft down to the southern end of the bay, where the waters were warmer. All the rafts are moved seasonally in Ago bay, just as in Colorado we move our herds of cattle down from the higher pastures each fall. Or would if we had more than one pasture. And if we had cattle. And if we remembered.

Inside the deckhouse they were serving tea and this, at last, stimulated me to get up and go back indoors. I wasn’t quite ready to join Rich and his seven beautiful women again, having tapped–perhaps–a desire for more mature companionship. It was an elderly woman, this time, whom I noticed, looking a bit neglected and with no one to talk to. It was a mingling kind of situation by this point so I sat down next to her and smiled and said “Konichiwa.”

“How are you?” she replied smiling, and signaling her ability to speak English. The woman’s name was Mikuro, and she explained that for years it had been her job to chaperone the Japanese pearl princesses wherever they went. “They are like my daughters,” she said.

“Before there was an American Pearl Princess, the Japanese princesses would all receive a trip to America, and I would go with them,” she explained. Mikuro-san had traveled quite extensively in the U.S., as it turned out, and liked that country very much, and had even been to Vail so I was able to identify for her precisely where I lived.

“And how did you come to be connected with the pearl princesses?” I asked.

“Well, I own a pearl exporting company,” she explained, although that didn’t exactly tell me anything. Everyone on board owned a pearl exporting company.

But in any case I found her quite fascinating, and we talked for over an hour, mostly about the pearl business, and the danger to the market posed by the mainland Chinese (who have discovered how to culture pearls), and the internal politics of the JPEA. Occasionally she would point out one of the dignitaries and tell a story about them, or explain something about their particular business. It was Mikuro-san who introduced me to Kitutso, president of Mikimoto, and he bowed and shook my hand and—if he actually knew I was a person of no importance—was polite enough not to show it.

During this time the ship finally reached the end of the bay and turned in a large circle back towards Kashikojima, leaving the open sea behind us. It was three in the afternoon before we returned to the dock, but the sky was still clear and the pearl festival was far from over.

I stayed close to Rich as we disembarked, hoping his celebrity status would keep rubbing off. And it did, for we were all ushered together into a small tour bus with only ten seats and a tiny aisle down the middle.   Placing five pearl princesses, with overflowing, voluptuous gowns, into a tiny bus is akin to spraying whipped cream into a straw. The world dissolved into a cloud of white satin as the princesses tried to take their seats.   Fortunately I was next to Laura who’s slim pageant gown was not quite so threatening.

As we drove to the next event she began explaining it to me.

“You see how the dress is supported, entirely without straps?” she asked.

I had, actually, noticed that. It would have been difficult not to. In fact it was difficult not to stare at the phenomenon continuously.

“Well,” she explained, “it’s held up that way because of the bra you have to wear. This is one of those bras that comes almost down to your waist and it has these stays in it, which kind of dig into you, if you know what I mean. Have you ever seen a bra like this?”

I wasn’t sure whether to say yes or no. Either seemed likely to incriminate me.

“Yes,” I said at last, afraid she might otherwise decide to show it to me. Seeking a less sensitive article of clothing, I asked her about her shoes, which looked like glass slippers straight out of Cinderella.

“They’re more comfortable than you’d think,” she said, taking one off and handing it to me. “They’re made of plastic and they have a lot of give in them. But they’re really hot after walking around very much. See how they steam up?

I held one up to the light. Sure enough, the shoes were steamed near the toes.

“They ought to put in some ventilation holes,” I suggested.

“They did, right here, look!”

I examined the shoe more closely and discovered half a dozen ventilation holes on each side.

“So you can imagine how hot they are if they get steamed in spite of the holes!”

We had arrived at the next event, which was the ritual throwing of baseballs and candy into a crowd of 5,000 screaming Japanese children.

“You want to make sure you don’t get hit by one of these balls,” said Rich, who’d done all this a year ago. The bus had brought us to a large, paved parking lot that was adjacent to an immense, modern building of some sort.

“That’s the Shima MarineWorld Aquarium” explained Rich when I asked him about it. “I’ve never been in there but it’s supposed to be very impressive.”

I remembered the Frommer guidebook had indicated it was one of the primary attractions of the Ise Peninsula.   But I had no time to think about it now. A long stand had been erected at one end of the parking lot, and the group was escorted up onto it. I probably could have accompanied them, but didn’t want to press my luck. Also, I thought it would be more fun to be on the receiving end, taking pictures.

As the children gathered in the parking lot, the pearl princesses and JPEA officials opened up large cardboard boxes and—without preamble— began throwing merchandise into the crowd.

The children went crazy, and I suddenly found myself in a somewhat dangerous situation, with yelling, screaming children all waving their arms in feeding frenzy, while baseballs and various types of hard candy came flying at me from the stand.   This wasn’t really fair to the children behind me, I realized, since they were sure to receive nothing, standing as they were in my shadow. So I began grabbing baseballs and candy myself, as fast as it came, handing the loot to the kids behind me. This was quite successful, for I was a giant amidst the diminutive Japanese children, and I could cover a full third of the playing field with my outstretched arms. Soon the children in my lee were growing fat off my efforts, and seeing this, other children tried to move in on a good thing.   Soon the areas behind me was packed tight and a sea of hungry hands reached out whenever I caught something. Feeling I was somehow distorting the whole ceremony, I worked my way to the edge of the crowd and simply enjoyed the view.

The children were understandably in ecstasy but I wasn’t sure what god was being worshipped, or how that worship was being effected, by the throwing of baseballs and candy into the crowd. But perhaps in its own way it pleased the oyster spirits. I: could imagine one oyster spirit talking to another from that great pearl farm in the sky:

“Well, Ollie, giving up our lives so that earth women could wear pearls was a drag in one sense. But, gee, throwing baseballs to kids in our honor kind of makes up for it, don’t you think?”

“You bet it does, Oscar. Personally, I can’t think of a better way those humans could show their appreciation of us oysters. Now I’m not saying there isn’t a better way, just that I can’t think of one.”

“Me neither, Ollie. Of course, thinking was never our strong suit was it? I mean, us bivalve mollusks aren’t exactly well represented in the ranks of rocket scientists, if you know what I mean!”

“Ha ha! You got that right! Hey, Oscar. Ya heard the one about where were the oysters when they were passing out brains?”

“Geez, Ollie. Gimme a break. I’ve heard that one. Everyone’s heard that one!”

And so forth…

Eventually there were no more baseballs left to throw or candy to toss and the pearl princesses came down from the stand. Everyone milled about, taking pictures of the pearl princesses and looking for other good photo opportunities. Laura and I posed for another picture, and doing so seemed to spark a photo-frenzy as dozens of Japanese surged in and began clicking shutters and zooming-in with their video cameras.

“You know,” said Laura. “With your blond hair they probably think you’re my husband or something.”

She was right about the blond hair getting attention. Really blonde hair like Laura’s and Allison’s seemed to hold an endless fascination to the Japanese.

“A few days ago,” said Allison, “these little kids came up to me and just tried to touch it. They wanted to see what it felt like!”

“Yesterday,” said Laura, “I came around a corner suddenly and a little girl saw me and screamed. I guess the sight of my hair scared her half to death. She wouldn’t stop crying. It was really embarrassing.”

“If you go back there a year from now,” I said, “you’ll probably find the kids wearing Laura DeWild costumes for Halloween.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, “Laura DeWild, Pearl Princess from Hell!”

A man in a business suit came up to me and introduced himself, in very halting English. He asked where I was from and we exchanged business cards.

“I am the director of the MarineWorld Aquarium,” he said. “If you have time, I would like to give you a tour.”

“I am very honored,” I said, and I was actually. “I do not think I have time today, but I will be here tomorrow morning and I would like to see the Aquarium.   Will it be open tomorrow?”

“Yes. But I won’t be working here then.   That is OK. I will tell my General Manager to expect you. I will write down his name and when you arrive, you can ask for him.”

I took out a notepad and he wrote “Akubo-san” on the page. I looked at the name with what I hoped was a confused expression, and then took out my pen and re-wrote the name in Hirigana.

“Is this what you mean?” I asked.

“You know how to write in Hirigana?” he asked, very impressed. “Do you speak Japanese?”

“No, I’m just studying it. And I’m trying to practice my Hirigana!”

“Ah so!” he said. “That is good!” And then we bowed to each other and he drifted away.

Asuba-san, the JPEA director, came up to Rich, gestured towards me, and murmured something.

“You’re in luck!” said Rich, coming over. “Asuba-san says you can come to the celebration banquet with us!”

Makiko

So we all climbed back into the bus: Asuba-san, Carolyn, Rich, Allison, me, and five pearl princesses. I was definitely in with the in-crowd now. We drove only a few minutes before stopping at a low, somewhat modern building near the top of a hill. It was surrounded by beautifully landscaped grass and trees and looked a bit like a country club. The whole staff was lined up outside and bowed to us as we exited the bus, but we had come to expect this. Everywhere we went people were bowing left and right. If this kept up the whole town was going to have lower back pain for a week.

The pearl princess entourage was led into a large room, with kind of a raised “stage” area up front.   Rectangular tables with chairs had been set up along the side walls, and just in front of the stage were two round tables, each with eight chairs: the VIP seating, perhaps. But it was the middle of the room which caught our attention. Spread out over at least 400 square feet was a whole field of hors d’oeuvres: sushi, sashimi, miso soup, crab casseroles, pickled octopus, assorted pate’s, smoked salmon, seaweed salads, various kinds of rice, plus hundreds of other dishes I simply could not recognize.   The banquet staff—ten or twenty people— were lined up at the back, and they bowed to us as we entered the room. The other guests were just beginning to arrive. Asubo-san, apparently in charge of this as well as the other events, carefully chose where each of us would sit, as it was presumably a matter of great importance.

Considering the matter, he placed Rich, Allison, Carolyn, two Japanese Pearl Princesses, one American Pearl Princess, and the president of Mikimoto at the circular table on the right. Then he placed four senior JPEA officials, the two remaining Japanese pearl princesses, and myself at the table on the left. Then he sat down next to me.   The room had nearly filled up by now, with what looked like the same group that had been on the boat. Mikuro-san was there and she smiled to me, but the old man who’d fallen asleep had apparently not been invited, or perhaps he’d already been sacrificed.

It was somewhat disconcerting to realize that except for us dignitaries seated at the round tables, everyone else was going to remain standing, at least until it was time to serve the food.

The lights dimmed, and behind the stage the curtain covering the back wall opened up, revealing not a wall, but floor to ceiling glass, and beyond this glass was a stunning panorama of Ago Bay and the islands and mountains of the Ise Peninsula.

Kitutso-san, the Mikimoto President, went up to the podium on stage, a beam of light appeared so that we would focus on him, more than the distracting scenery. Kitutso-san droned on for ten minutes or so, in solid Japanese. Occasionally I would recognize a particle word or a verb ending but it didn’t really matter.   I’d been to enough of these kinds of affairs to know that he was giving a formula speech: thanking the various pearl association functionaries for all their work in the last year, thanking in particular all the volunteers who had worked on the year’s festival, no doubt commenting a bit on the state of the world pearl market, resolving to confront the challenges of the coming year with renewed and dedicated effort, etc., etc. Heck, I could have given the speech myself if they’d wanted it in English. Near the end, the faces at my table began to show signs of something funny having been said. The two pearl princesses’ mouths began to turn upwards slightly. Asuba-san’s head began nodding, showing he appreciated the coming joke, and then the dam burst, the punch line was delivered, everyone laughed and applauded, and the Mikimoto president sat down. Of course he would end the speech on a light note, a joke perhaps. Something funny having to do with pearls I imagined. Two more officials stood up and delivered speeches, then the Pearl Princesses were paraded upon stage. Each was introduced and stepped forward in turn. But this time it was Laura who had to deliver the keynote speech and she was going to do it in Japanese, from a typewritten page.

She stepped up to the microphone with all the poise one would expect of a Miss Colorado, but I knew how nervous she was. Gingerly she began reciting the Japanese phrases and I was astonished to realize I understood what she was saying, or at least some of it. The fact that she was speaking so slowly and carefully was the reason, of course, and the American accent didn’t hurt either. But no one had apparently given her even the minimum of coaching on pronunciation of Japanese words. She pronounced “desu” as “deh-sue”, not “dess,” for example, but that was entirely reasonable for a person who hadn’t been told not to pronounce the letter “u” in Japanese. Regardless, the audience was mesmerized by Laura and everyone applauded her enthusiastically when she was through.

After the speeches came the feast. Oversize bottles of Asahi beer had been placed generously around the tables and a forest of hands now reached for the bottles so as to show respect by pouring one’s neighbor’s beer before they could get to it themselves. I’d learned early this cardinal rule of Japanese table etiquette: you never, ever, pour your own beer. Doing so is a slap in the face to your neighbor, for it’s like saying “You jerk! You’ve been so neglectful of your duty I’ve had to pour my own beer! Your ancestors are probably rolling over in their urn!”

I’m sorry to say that I lost the beer-grabbing contest. Asuba-san had my beer poured before you could say “boo,” the princess on his left came in an easy second, having filled Asuba-san’s glass while he’d been occupied with mine. And official #1’s glass, on my right, had been topped off in third placed by official #2, on his right, and before you knew it there were no more glasses to fill. Someone had stolen my honor by having filled two glasses, the mathematics proved it. I glowered around the table, seeking the guilty party, but they hid their deed well. Perhaps it had been a conspiracy, to prove that a barbarian simply couldn’t grab a beer as quickly as a Japanese.

By this time Asuba san had noticed I’d been using a modest vocabulary of Japanese words and polite expressions with people around the table and he finally asked me: “Do you speak Japanese?”

“No,” I responded quickly, and explained that I’d merely taken a beginning class in the subject, earlier in the year.

“You have a vedy good accent!” he said, which is probably the polite thing to say when an American tries to speak Japanese.   I made the appropriate denial, and then the conversation turned to business. Asuba-san was interested in my company, and I explained our computer service as best I could. I told him that I would like to help him and the JPEA sell more pearls, and that it was for that reason that I’d given Telepress in New York a complimentary subscription. He was grateful for this, and we discussed the overall value of the pearl princess promotion campaign, and various other ideas for helping jewelers in the states become more interested in pearls.

“These are very hard times for us,” said Asuba san. “Exports to the United States have fallen severely.”

“And why is that?”

“Two things: a change in fashion, and the high value of the yen. The yen is killing us exporters,” he explained.

“Have you considered providing a video tape for jewelers, that they could show their customers. I’m thinking something like what the Diamond Promotion Service does for diamonds.”

“We have that!” he said, clearly frustrated. “No one is interested in seeing it. We make it available for free to any jeweler who wants it!”

I tried to think of other ideas they might try, but in truth they’d already thought of everything.

“Do you know Mr. Michael Roman,” asked Asuba-san, suddenly, “chairman of Jewelers of America.”

I acknowledged that I did, having met the man briefly at the JA offices in New York last summer.

“Very funny thing,” said Asuba-san. “He came to Japan several years ago to visit. My wife and I met him at the airport, drove him all around, invited him to dinner at our house even. We had a good time. Then, last year when I was in New York, I was at a party where I ran into him again. You know what? He didn’t even remember me! He didn’t remember ever having even met me!”

Whooah. Sounded like a sensitive subject. I framed my response carefully.

“Well,” I explained sympathetically, “Mr. Roman is not a young man. He’s getting quite old actually. Sometimes old men don’t remember things as well.”

“Yes, that’s true,” he agreed. “You think that was the reason? It hurt my feelings a little bit, he didn’t even remember me.”

“I’m sure that was it, “ I lied. Of course in all likelihood Mike Roman hadn’t recognized him because to Mike Roman, all Japs probably looked alike. Mike Roman wasn’t the most sensitive guy on the planet.

As it turned out the field of Hors D’oeuvres was actually the main course, which was as it should be, and we all now took our plates over to the tables and sampled the various offerings. I spotted my favorite kind of sashimi—the kind they sell for $4.00 a piece in Manhattan—laid out in heaps on the trays and I shoveled a pound or two onto my plate. As I returned to my seat the Official on my right noticed my choice and grinned.

“Kono sashimi wa, maguro desu neh?” I said to him, acknowledging his interest. (This sashimi is called “maguro” isn’t it?)

“Hai, maguro desu…” and then he went off into whole paragraphs of follow up conversation, none of which I understood. It was my fault. I’d tricked him into thinking I spoke Japanese with my off-handed comment about the sashimi. In truth, I’d been simply trying to practice the few words I could hook together and which roughly fit the situation. He misinterpreted it as fluency.

“Iye, iye!” I said, stopping him. “Gomen nasai. Watashi wa, nihongo hanashite dewa arimasen!”  (No, no.   I’m sorry. I don’t speak Japanese.)

He looked at me strangely. Clearly I was speaking Japanese.   And he’d had enough Asahi to be less than quick on the uptake. He launched into another Japanese monologue, determined to get his point across.

“Gomen nasai,” I said again. “Wakarimasen.”  (I’m sorry, I don’t understand.)

Finally I made him believe me, but it was sad. Older Japanese generally have not studied English, and he was no exception. With an apology he realized he couldn’t talk to me, and had to turn reluctantly to the official on his right to continue the conversation. Asuba-san was off talking to someone at one of the other tables and so the only person left to talk to me was the pearl princess who’d been seated on Asuba’s left. I’d been watching her with interest throughout the meal. Close up, she seemed even more perfect and delicate then from a distance. There was something not quite human, something almost breakable about her, and I could not imagine she would be able to actually talk, to carry on a conversation.

But I was wrong. She turned to me now, a life-size doll coming to life, and in cautious, awkward sentences, began speaking to me in English. She politely asked about my company, and I was pleased to be able to show her a business card, with the words on the back in Japanese.   She studied it intently, and then looked up, surprised.

“Oh! You president?” she asked, correctly reading the kanji character after my name.

“President of the company,” I explained. “Not president of the United States. “

“Ha ha! You’re not Bill Clinton!”

“No, thank God.”

“But president of company is very, very good, no?”

“Well, it’s a very, very small company.”

She continued asking me questions about where I lived, and what I thought of Japan, and how I’d learned to speak so much Japanese, and managed to appear genuinely interested. So interested that after the formal dinner, as everyone was standing around the large room conversing in small groups, and I was feeling a bit unsure of myself again, as if any moment some official would run in, point me out with a flurry of angry Japanese, denounce me as an unimportant American who was crashing the party, and I would be hauled away and dumped outside on the curb—well, to give myself more of the look of someone who was a legitimate guest, I went up to the friendly pearl princess again and talked to her for over an hour. Her name was Makiko and while we talked in English, I tried to interject as many Japanese words and sentences into the conversation as possible.   When I couldn’t remember a word, she would coach me on with hints, and when I finally remembered, she would clap her hands and say “Bingo!”.

Makiko, I discovered, was the pearl princess who represented Tokyo and the island of Honshu. She was 25 years old, the oldest of the pearl princesses, the rest of whom were 21. She was working in Tokyo as an “announcer” at the Tokyo Motor Show. “They hired me because of my voice”, she explained. “ But I’m trying to be a singer.”

Rich had mentioned that one of the Japanese pearl princesses was already something of a kareoke star in Japan, because of her great voice. This was probably her.

She really did seem delighted to talk to me: eager and attentive and quick to laugh. There were nearly 200 men in the room and only half a dozen young women, and I began to feel guilty that I was monopolizing one of them so completely, especially as this was supposed to be a mingling situation. But Makiko showed no inclination to wander off. In fact, there was something almost flirtatious about her, as if I were the celebrity, not her.

Then I realized what must be going on. This was Japan, not America. This was a tiny glimpse of the culture which had given rise to the geisha, or its more modern counterpart: the hostess bar scene. The role of the geisha, or the hostess in a hostess bar, is to make every man feel like a king, like he’s the most important person in the world. I’d read that in my guidebook. And here I was at a very formal Japanese reception party. Makiko didn’t know whether I was an important person or not, but there was no denying I was one of only five Americans invited to the event. The safe bet would be that I probably was important. Assessing the situation thusly, it seemed likely that Makiko was merely turning on her geisha-like charm, never far below the surface for refined Japanese women, presumably. So it didn’t mean anything, and I should probably be doing my own duty by walking away and giving someone else a chance to enjoy the royal treatment.

Sensing I was about to, Makiko pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down for me where she was working in Tokyo: the Ford “Modeale” exhibit at the Tokyo Motor Show She included the name of the subway stop.

“Come see me when you return to Tokyo, if you want to,” she said, keeping the act going right to the end. “It would give me much pleasure!”

Well, that had been fun. But in any case the festivities were winding down. Rich came up to me and said quietly:

“Check out the doggie bags…”

I looked where he was pointing and sure enough, these distinguished Japanese officials, these owners of large pearl exporting companies, these icons of the Japanese jewelry industry, were walking around the tables scooping the remaining hors d‘ouvres into plastic baggies. And their wives were helping them.

“Hey, I don’t blame ‘em a bit,” I said. “That’s $20,000 of leftover sashimi you’re looking at.”

“Yeah,” agreed Rich. “And I read somewhere that conservation is part of their culture. I guess there’s no dishonor in doggie bags.”

The Loss Of Celebrity Status

We would be leaving in a few minutes, and I hurried around until I found Asuba-san. I knew it had been his decision to invite me to the party, and I thanked him now, with the most formal and deferential Japanese expression of thanks I knew: “Mata dozo, maido arigato gozaimase.”

He acknowledged my thanks, and told me he was honored I had attended.

“When you come to Colorado, come visit me,” I invited, handing him my business card as he handed me his. “I promise I will not forget you!”

He laughed at that and we said good-bye.

On the way out of the room I was startled to see Kitutso-san, the Mikimoto guy, handing out to each guest, beautifully ornate Mikimoto shopping bags filled with wrapped gifts. I took mine and thanked him and he bowed.

The micro tour-bus took us back to the Shima-Kanko, and I was pleased to see that the 65 lb bellgirl was watching me with a mixture of surprise and admiration as I climbed down and walked through the lobby in company with five pearl princesses in satin gowns. “Yes,” I wanted to say to her. “Yesterday I might have been a backpack laden barbarian tourist in jeans, but today, you see, I’m wearing a business suit and pearl princesses accompany me wherever I go. That’s how it is with Americans…”

The next morning I said good-bye to the Americans and the two remaining Japanese pearl princesses. The others had had to leave the night before so as to be at work this morning. Rich, Allison, Laura and Carolyn boarded a large tour bus which was to take them to Osaka, and another round of sightseeing. They were only one week into their two week trip.

“See you in Hawaii,” I said to Rich and Allison.

“See you on the slopes!” said Laura.

“See you at a trade show!” said Carolyn.

And the bus drove away.   Well, I was on my own again. I packed up and checked out of the hotel, glad to be back in jeans once more. Leaving my backpack at the hotel, I walked the short distance to the Aquarium. I wasn’t sure I should really try to find the General Manager guy. Okuba-san may have forgotten to even mention to him that I would show up. It seemed an imposition in any case. And the truth was that I wasn’t the celebrity the director probably assumed me to be. Why did I deserve a personal tour, anyway?   In any case I approached the admission window a bit ambivalently.   I should probably just fork over the $5.00 admission price and walk in. But as I laid down the yen-equivalent of $5.00, I also asked if Akubo-san was here.

“Akubo-san wa, arimaska?” and handed her my business card.

“Ah, you wait just a minute, please,” she said, and ran out the back door of the ticket booth. In a few moments she was back. I’d been waiting right there, with the yen still on the counter, but now she pushed the yen back and waved it away, dismissively.

“No, you keep,” she said, nervous perhaps, at how close she’d come to insulting an important guest by charging admission.

Akubo arrived in just a few moments, all smiles and bows and I was glad to see he spoke just enough English so that communication would be possible.   I played the part of the appreciative guest diligently, thanking him profusely for taking the time to show me around. And he of course waved away any thought that I was an imposition. The aquarium was actually quite interesting, with many exhibits and lots of fish, including very strange ones: like the pair of thousand pound sun-fish that looked psychedelic, like something out of the Beatles movie “Yellow Submarine.”

The tour took no more than forty-five minutes and soon we were back outside. We bowed in farewell, and suddenly I remembered a perfect expression to use:

“Go ku roosama,” I said (Thank you for your trouble.)

“Doo itashimashte,” (Your welcome) he replied, along with some other words I didn’t catch, but which probably were to the effect that it was no trouble at all and I had done the museum a great honor by condescending to visit it.

As I rode the train away from Kashikojima I read in my guidebook that one drawback of the Shima Marineland Aquarium is that all the explanations are in Japanese. Well, I was one up on Frommer. The private tour does provide translations in English.

I had told Kahori I would probably not be back in Tokyo until tonight, so she would not be expecting me to call until then. It was only shortly after noon, and there was one place I felt I should visit on the way back: the Mikimoto Pearl Island Museum in Toba.

Toba was only half an hour by train from Kashikojima. As I walked the short distance from the Toba station to where the pedestrian bridge provides access to the Pearl Island I realized something was awry. I stopped for a moment, trying to figure out what. Then it struck me. I had become accustomed to making entrances with a retinue of pearl princesses.

I’m not saying I needed all five. Three would have been sufficient. Even two might serve in a pinch. But none? A man feels naked. And there was something else wrong. I was about to enter a museum, yet there was no General Manager on hand to greet me and give me a private tour. As I tried to shrug off these concerns and approached the entrance I found I was even required to pay admission! Asubo-san would have been scandalized! Kitutso-san, president of Mikimoto, would have fired the lot of them and given me more gifts, just to apologize for the insult.

But those days were over. They’d lasted a mere twelve hours. It’s disconcerting to find how one becomes accustomed to elite status so quickly. The truth was I had reverted to a backpack-laden, vagabond barbarian tourist and even Makiko would probably have ignored me, were she to suddenly appear. Perhaps it was best that she didn’t.

So I paid the admission and walked around the pearl island. It was quite impressive. Inside the building was a very professionally done exhibit hall in which all stages of pearl cultivation are explained by live workers who demonstrate the process to visitors one on one. This, I knew, was where Laura had come to receive her instruction in the subject.

Two hours later I was back on the train, and by 7pm was back in my hotel room in Tokyo. I called Kahori and we agreed to meet for dinner.

“Good news!” said Kahori, as we sat down to eat. “I’ve arranged a car with Hiro and Minoru.” (Her two employees) “Tomorrow we’re going to climb Mt. Fuji!”

Well, at least I wouldn’t have to wear a suit…

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