Chapter 6: Wet Hot Summer Festival

David Taylor

David Taylor is the creator of the Forever Foreign Podcast. He's been a full-time liver and Part-time lover of Japan for... possibly too long at this point.
You are currently viewing Chapter 6: Wet Hot Summer Festival

Hotaru’s summer festival is just around the corner, and since they’re the hottest items in town the new English teachers are all invited! They also work for the city and are expected to be there, but still…

What are they expected to do at a traditional Japanese festival? For starters, there’s a formal banquet. Then there’s dancing. And finally there’s enjoying the festival itself. Best of all, the spotlight will be on them the whole time.

Devon’s ready to make plenty of mistakes and take all of the heat in Chapter 6 of Forever Foreign.

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Production Credits

Writing, producing – David Taylor
Sound design, original music – Brock Chrystian
Story Edits – Juan Olivares
Voice of Devon – David Taylor
Voice of Callum – Josh Leach
Voice of Alyssa – Byanka Philippe

Sound Credits

Coming in a minute!

Chapter 6: Wet Hot Summer Festival (Transcript)

DEVON: Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Hey Henrik, I hope you’re doing well.

It rained today! Only a little, but it’s the first time I’ve seen any at all since arriving more than a week ago. I was beginning to think that Okayama would be nothing but a blistering dome of heat forever. Speaking of blisters, the ones on my shoulders and neck from my sunburn have mostly calmed down. Slowly I’m regaining my human form.

I can’t really talk today Henrik. Well, actually, I could talk, but I’d rather not if that’s alright. I’m so excited about tomorrow that it’s hard to think straight. Tomorrow is, of course, the festival. I don’t really know what to expect, but I know that I can’t wait.

Anyway, sorry! I’ll talk longer tomorrow. Promise.

(tape recorder clicking off, room tone)


(Callum, and Alyssa are sitting in Devon’s room. Devon is finishing up in the bathroom and turns on recording device just before flushing. Alyssa just finished telling her story about a streaker at a football game)

CALLUM AND DEVON: (laughter)

ALYSSA: Took three minutes and twenty-seven seconds. He had his friend time the whole thing.

DEVON: (another little chuckle)

CALLUM: Alyssa. Come on. There’s no way it took that long to tackle a streaker.

ALYSSA: Not much security at high school football games. Not at my school anyway. To be honest, he probably wanted to be taken down a little faster. Wasn’t exactly a warm night.

CALLUM AND DEVON: (light laughter)

CALLUM: Poor guy’s gherkin must’ve been down to a stub!

DEVON: Wait… Isn’t a gherkin a stub by definition?

CALLUM: What..? Gherkins come in all sizes. What’re you talking about?

ALYSSA: Iiii think you mean pickles.

CALLUM: No… I mean a gherkin. Pickles are sliced. Don’t you know anything–

ALYSSA: See… this is what I’m talkin about. I can’t have a conversation with you Aussies sometimes. It feels like you’re not speaking the same language as me at all.

CALLUM: Sounds like a YOU problem.

ALYSSA: I just feel sorry for all the Japanese kids you end up teaching English to. If they go anywhere other than Australia it’s gonna be nothin but blank stares when they start talking about fair floss and… what was it? Chasey..? Why chasey!?

And when they ask for a gherkin they’re gonna get a whole lot less than they bargained for because they should be asking for pickles.

CALLUM: Why would I compare a flat slice of pickled cucumber to someone’s shlong? Use your brain Alyssa. Use your–

ALYSSA: Just go with it, Callum. Call a pickle a pickle–

CALLUM: But that ruins the analogy, ALYSSA. They’re called gherkins because in civilized countries we try to be precise with our language rather than give specific things stupid names with broad applications!

ALYSSA: Oh that’s rich. This the same civilized country that calls popsicles ‘icy poles’ and slides ‘slippery dips’?

CALLUM: I don’t think you’re making the argument you think you’re making. Those are both great examples of giving specific names to specific things. How am I supposed to know what a popsicle is? Sounds like a horror movie character that wields soviet farming tools. Slide? Well… Okay, maybe that’s better than slippery dip. I don’t know why we call them slippery dips…

DEVON: I can answer that. It’s because it’s a lot more fun to say.

CALLUM: True! Anyway, we’re getting off track. Pickles and gherkins are both referring to different specific things. If you say you’re eating a pickle how am I supposed to know if it’s sliced or not?

ALYSSA: Because you say what you’re–

DEVON: Hold up! I completely lost track of the conversation… Why are we talking about pickles?

CALLUM: We’re not! We’re talking about gherkins! And we’re talking about them because you just asked about them!

DEVON: Did I? Hmm, seems like a weird thing for me to ask…

CALLUM: (sigh)

ALYSSA: Whatcha got behind your back there, Devon?

(quick shuffling sound as Devon tries to hide his recording device)

DEVON: Hmm? Nothing. I’m not holding anything.

CALLUM: When did you pull that out?

ALYSSA: Have we come full circle to Devon’s pickle?

CALLUM: By how secretive he’s being I’m guessing its his recorder.

ALYSSA: Oooooo are you gonna play us a song??

CALLUM: His recorder. As in recording device? Please tell me you have that word…

ALYSSA: Uhhh why are you recording us, dude?

DEVON: Damn it Callum, now it’s not natural.

CALLUM: Not natural?? Don’t you mean to say ‘now I can’t spy on people’?

DEVON: Is that what it looks like?

ALYSSA: I’m prrrretty sure that’s just what it is. If you wanna record me, just say so. I’ll give you all the chit chat you can handle.

DEVON: Really? I might take you up on that, actually.

ALYSSA: Why are you recording stuff?

DEVON: It’s my diary that I’m keeping of my time in Hotaru. No big deal.

CALLUM: He named it.

ALYSSA: He what?

(sounds of Alyssa standing up)

CALLUM: He gave his diary a name. Harry, was it?

DEVON: Close. It’s Henrik.

ALYSSA: You feelin alright, Devon? I know you’ve only been away from Canada for a couple of weeks, but… what was it they said at training? Culture shock hits some people right away? Anyway, you can always talk to me. No need to give inanimate objects names.

DEVON: Thanks, Alyssa. I’ll keep that in mind.

ALYSSA: Well, I know I just met you, Henrik, but it’s time to say good-night!

DEVON: Whadya mean? I just started reco— Uhh I mean… you just got here!

ALYSSA: Erika left a long time ago and we’ve been drinking for more than two hours… Plus, I have a skype call in the morning.

CALLUM: Guess that’s my cue as well.

(footsteps to the door, door opening)

CALLUM: Good night MJ!

DEVON: Stop calling me that! I’m putting my foot down now.

ALYSSA: Nighty-night MJ.

DEVON: It will not be a thing! Wait, are you sure you don’t wanna—

ALYSSA: Noooope. Good night!

(door closes. Devon is now alone)

(a few footsteps to the bed before Devon slumps heavily onto it)

DEVON: (sigh) What is it… Friday, August… 16th, 2013

Hi Henrik.

Sorry for the cold opening. I thought I might’ve been able to get it to stretch on a little longer.

Also, sorry for the background noise. Might as well clean up while I talk.

I’m a liiiiiiittle tipsy right now, so we’ll see how far I get with this recording. It’s… 12:46 AM and everyone just left after a little post-festival tomfoolery. Not that kind of tomfoolery, Henrik. Just the normal kind. But let’s not put the carriage in front of the horse. Is that the saying? Carriage? It might be cart, not carriage. Cart in front of the horse. Carriage in front of the horse… Cart, carriage… What I’m trying to say is let’s start at the beginning.

I woke up like a child on Christmas morning, far too early and far too energized to go back to sleep. I’m not really sure why either, because I knew damn well that the festival wouldn’t start until late in the afternoon.

Regardless, I was up at 6 AM, rolling under my sheets with thoughts flying through my head of what the day might hold in store. I already knew there would be a banquet beforehand as well as food stalls and a parade, but what else might there be? Fireworks? Games? A farting contest? I read about that last one in the novel Shogun by James Clavell and couldn’t help but wonder.

And I would keep wondering all day until Erika showed up at about 5 o’clock to escort Callum and me. She was wearing a light 3/4 sleeve jacket with stylized Japanese writing. Side note, Henrik, there are 3 alphabets in Japanese, not including the Latin one, which they also use… The oldest one is called kanji, and it ran along the black lining of Erika’s jacket openings. The rest of the jacket was blue and had several icons that looked like three swirling clouds, or maybe rain drops. Across the white checkered pattern at the bottom was a sash that tied it closed.

“This is a happi,” she said as we started downstairs. “You’ll get your own to borrow after dinner.”

Bree and Alyssa were standing in silence outside the entrance to the apartment, and together the five of us walked about a block away to where the festival would take place. Even at that point there were dozens of people busy preparing all along the short stretch from Hotaru station to the main road about 200 meters away. Crossing that distance takes you from the modest station’s front entrance, across a bridge, and finally to an incredibly short section of 4-lane road. The whole area was blocked off to traffic, and in the center of that wider space was a stage with a banner surrounding it in alternating red and white vertical stripes. There was a canopy within the stage, and fixed to its top was a sign that read, “Hotaru Furusato Matsuri.” It means something like ‘Hotaru home town festival’.

The place Erika took us to was right across from that stage. It was essentially a 1-story version of the Gulag; not exactly what I was expecting when I heard words like ‘banquet’ and ‘pre-festival dinner’. But I guess rather than fancy, they were going for functional, because we could basically step right out onto the parade ground from its front entrance.

(sounds of people chatting)

Inside that building was a spacious hall with seven or eight long columns of tables that came well short of knee-height. Thin floor cushions were scattered throughout the room, and boxed dinners were already on the tables next to empty glasses. Most of the tables were crowded with people, and the hall was buzzing with their conversation.

“Everyone here works for the city,” Erika explained. “We’ll be sitting with the board of education members over there.”

Erika pointed to a table near the center of the room that was almost full, and, weaving through a maze of bodies and bags, we sat down at the end closest to the wall. Okada sensei, our supervisor, was sitting only a little ways down. He stood up, coming over to talk with us.

“Debon,” he said, pointing to my face. “You look good.”

“Thank you so much!” I said, flattered.

Callum leaned in, “He’s talking about your sunburn.”

“Oh,” I said. “Your special cream was very helpful. Can I ask where you bought it? You did buy it, right? There was no label…”

He ignored my question, saying something to Bree in Japanese which earned a laugh and what seemed like a fluent response. Next, he turned to Callum and Alyssa with more small talk, translated by Erika, before telling us to enjoy ourselves. He then moved back to his spot farther up the table where beer was being handed out.

Soon we had bottles on our end of the table, too. Bottles of Asahi that were being opened all around the room and upended into cups. Erika did the same, pouring for Alyssa and myself first. The two of us were quick to pick ours up, clinking them together.

“Cheers!” I said, and took a hearty glug.

There’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot summer day, Henrik. The only thing that could’ve made it taste any better would’ve been a lawn chair and maybe a spot on the shores of the Okanagan. That’s what we call a life-affirming beer. But in spite of that distinct lack of glacial blue water at my feet, this one still managed to be more than satisfying.

I guess I must’ve had my eyes closed in order to better appreciate that sip of beer, because I remember opening them to about a dozen people openly staring. Erika, had a horrified expression of her own stapled to her face. Her mouth was open and her eyes were wide as she sat frozen with the beer bottle hovering over Callum’s glass.

I was starting to get the feeling that I’d done something wrong, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The strangers who’d been staring quietly were now doing their best to look away, but Erika’s disapproving look never wavered. Next to her, Bree shook her head, maybe a little over-dramatically.

Turning to Alyssa, I saw that she was just as dumbstruck as me. “What did I do?” I asked.

“You drank your beer,” Erika said.

“Of course I did. It was delicious.”

“You have to wait for the kanpai,” Bree chimed in.

“Kanpai,” I muttered to myself, trying to remember what that meant. “The cheers?”

“Devon and I did that,” Alyssa said. “What’s the difference anyway?”

“In Japan, we wait for everyone to be served, then we start drinking together,” Erika said. She turned to explain things to Okada sensei. I have no idea when he appeared – or how – but there he was at her elbow, listening to Erika give a list of what I was starting to think were criminal charges.

Finally Okada sensei turned to me. “Okay, okay,” he said. He started to chuckle, which I guess gave Erika permission to do the same. Before long everyone on our end of the table was laughing, and thank god for that. I don’t think I’m ready to be banished from the land of the rising sun for one ill-timed sip of beer.

“Sorry, Devon,” Erika said. “It wouldn’t be fair to expect every English teacher who comes here to know as much about Japanese culture as Bree does.”

The resident expert on Japan was beaming at the compliment. I guess she deserves the praise, because I sure as hell didn’t know anything about any kanpai rules even if I did happen to know the meaning of the word. But while I had a gap in my knowledge of drinking etiquette I had enough sense not to touch my food. It stared up at me from underneath a clear plastic cover; a bed of rice with a single red ball and scattered black sesame seeds in one compartment, a piece of grilled fish in another, and three or four smaller areas dedicated to pickled veggies.

“What’s this?” I asked Bree, pointing to the red thing.

“It’s umeboshi,” she said. “Pickled plum.”

“Is it good?” I asked.

“I’ve never had it,” she said. “I hear they’re really sour, though.”

“How do you know so much about Japan?” I asked.

“Reading books. Watching TV.”

Reading books. Watching TV. I’m starting to think that Bree is one of those people with photographic memories. How else could she be pulling these facts out with such ease?

Just as I was trying to figure out a question about Japan that might stump her, a hush fell around the room. An older man at the head of the table next to ours stood with a glass of beer in his hands. He looked to be in his 60s, clearly someone important judging by the fact that he was addressing all of the city workers in attendance.

Erika never translated what was said for us, but his speech was short. The parts I did catch were “Hello everyone” and “Let’s do our best”. At the very end, he raised his glass, as did everyone else in the room. My own was conspicuously low on beer, so I cupped my hands tightly around it as the man shouted, “Kanpai!”

I waited for everyone else this time, Henrik. Rest assured. There was no way I would allow beer to prematurely touch my tongue twice in one day.

Soon people could be heard saying “itadakimasu” throughout the room at their own pace. It means I will receive this, but really it’s a way to give thanks.

I can say with… pride? Or is it even possible to have pride at this point… At any rate, I can say that I knew in advance about the need to say itadakimasu before eating thanks to my Japanese 101 instructor at university. I guess they don’t cover beer drinking protocol until 102.

After giving thanks I broke my chopsticks and dug in. The entire hall was jolly throughout the meal, with everyone happily talking as they nibbled at the food in front of them. There wasn’t an empty glass anywhere, either. Before I could even think about the fact that my own was getting to that point, Erika would fill mine up to the rim with beer.

“You like drinking, huh?” she said after the third one.

It felt like a loaded question to me. She might as well have been asking, “Are you going to cause problems tonight?” or “Am I gonna have to keep an eye on you?” But after searching her eyes, I could find nothing other than simple curiosity in them.

“I do enjoy the odd beer,” I admitted.

“Me too!” she said.

At that, I jabbed my chopsticks into the mound of rice in front of me, picked up the fresh beer, and offered up a kanpai to Erika. She calmly bypassed my raised glass, taking the chopsticks out of the rice and setting them on the edge of the box of food.

“What now?” I asked.

“Didn’t you watch The Wolverine?” Callum said. “It came out just last month.”

“The Wolverine?” I said. “You mean Wolverine from the X-Men? No, I never saw it.”

Callum did a face palm. I think me not watching that movie might’ve been an even bigger infraction than whatever we were discussing.

“It’s fine,” Erika said. “When you’re not using your chopsticks just put them down on the side of your plate. Some restaurants even have a little thing to rest them on called hashioki. Ano… whatever you do, just make sure you don’t stick them into your food like that.”

Her eyes darted further down the table to where Okada sensei was sitting. Somehow we’d made enough of a commotion to alert the big man who was… Not glaring… But he was definitely looking at me.

“Say no more,” I said.

We talked about other things after that, and four small glasses of beer later people were beginning to stand up and make their way out of the room. When the four of us foreigners got up to follow, Erika stopped us to hand over some happi’s of our own.

I was grateful to see that they were made of thin fabric. After a couple weeks here I’m getting used to sweat being my new constant companion, but knowing that they wouldn’t have us running around in wool cloth was a big relief.

With the sash tied at the bottom, it was actually like a breezy summer housecoat that didn’t go much past the waist. And speaking of Japanese history, boy did it feel cool wearing that happi. I was like a samurai loafing around his village, ready to lop someone’s head off for not bringing me enough fish from their catch. I didn’t have a sword, of course. And obviously I’m no samurai. But it’s fun to pretend…

Looking as fancy as we were, the only thing left was a parting word from Okada sensei before we left for the parade. He looked each of us up and down, nodding his approval.

I was relieved, to say the least. Part of me was expecting to hear that my happi was inside out or that chucks weren’t allowed in the parade. There was only so much failure I could handle in one day.

Before we exited the building Okada sensei clapped Callum on the shoulder and said something in Japanese. There was a broad grin on his face as he turned to Erika.

“He said he’s excited to dance with you all,” she said. A short silence followed and in that time Callum’s face had gone beet red. Bree’s was pretty flushed, too.

“Did I forget to mention the dance?” Erika said.

“Yes,” Callum said as though swallowing back bile.

A slightly concerned look crossed Erika’s face as she turned to Okada sensei. Some more Japanese followed before our supervisor said, “Okay, okay.”

Apparently ‘okay, okay’ was supposed to be self-explanatory, because Okada sensei was gone before we could even think of a question to ask. Erika didn’t bother to elaborate either. She didn’t have time, because the crowd behind us was pushing us out the door. And the one in front was pulling.

(festival sounds come in)

With all the noise inside the hall, I hadn’t noticed the commotion on the outside. The sidewalks were crowded by the time we’d finished our dinner, and performers were starting to step onto the center stage which had sprouted microphones and drums.

Callum pulled on my sleeve and said in a voice just loud enough to be heard over the noise, “Devon, I don’t dance.”

“Whaddya mean ‘you don’t dance’?”

“Just that. I don’t dance. Never had any rhythm whatsoever. When the music starts playing and people jump on the floor, I head to the bar.”

“Okay, okay,” I said.

“Devon, I’m not kidding.”

“Would you just relax? I don’t think they’re expecting K-Pop backup dancers here. Just do your best.”

I have to admit, I could only sympathize so much with Callum. Most of my brainpower was dedicated to concocting a plan. A plan to redeem myself after the dining room gaffs by giving the greatest dancing performance the town of Hotaru had ever seen.

The rest of my attention was firmly directed at all of the people walking about in festival attire of their own. Different colored happi’s were common, as were full length yukatas, which look a lot like a bath robe made of the same thin cotton as happi’s. There were even some kimonos with elaborate patterns sprinkled about.

Erika had us follow the rest of our group to a packed spot on the sidewalk near the center stage. Everyone was laughing and having a good time as they got drunk on the atmosphere… annnd maybe also just plain old drunk on booze.

Side note: the thought of that much beer flowing at an outdoor festival in Edmonton without security makes me shudder. Minors would be wetting their beaks, fights would abound… But of course, this isn’t Edmonton.

We must’ve been waiting in our section for ten or fifteen minutes before the drumming started. I could hardly see a thing because of all the people around us, but I did happen to see a man with a microphone on the stage speaking. As he made a brief announcement, the crowd closest to the stage thinned.

From where we stood, I could just barely see a group wearing pink happi’s vanish out of sight as they entered the street. Moments later some of their hands became visible above the mob as they raised them above their heads. It was clear by the movement that they were dancing, but I couldn’t make out what type it was as they moved around the stage.

Soon a group wearing black followed. Then another in red. Erika explained that the groups jumping in and out represented different affiliations around Hotaru, from private companies to public employees, as in our case.

We’d been standing back watching the others join the procession for about 15 minutes when our group was finally announced. Even then, we were hardly any closer to center stage. In order for us to make our way through, the spectators that were forming a wall at the front needed to part.

Okada sensei was one of those at the front of our group, and with a broad smile on our face he waved everybody in. The crowd opened up, and in one great big rush we flooded into the street. With a lot more free space it felt like someone hit the pause button on the whole event as the sound and movements all around me froze. I found myself frozen, too, as I stared up at the massive stage in the middle where music was blasting from. It wasn’t until Erika gave me a push in the back that I remembered what we were supposed to be doing.

“Dance!” she laughed.

And dance I did. Using the momentum of her shove I turned on the ball of my foot so that I was facing her. That’s when the moonwalking started. I slid ten feet or so before changing it up, popping into the robot just as the crowd was starting to follow me. I was in a trance at that point, so maybe I’m not the best judge, but it felt like the gasps lined up exactly with what I was doing. And when I snapped out of that trance… Thhere were a lot of people with hands covering their mouths. And anyone who wasn’t covering their mouth was outright busting a gut.

“I said dance,” Erika said between a hearty laugh. “Not… What is that, Thriller?”

The rest of the people in our group were laughing, too. And thank god that’s all they were doing. I was worried it was going to be a three strikes situation for a moment.

“Just follow what everyone else is doing and you’ll be fine,” she said.

The vanguard of each group did a movement that I guess you’d have to call a dance. But upon seeing it, it was clear why Okada sensei was so confident in our abilities to take part. All they were doing was an elegant hand movement while walking. There was really nothing elaborate about it. And the ones in the back of each group weren’t even doing the dance at all. They were just walking.

As I joined the parade with slightly wounded pride, Callum clapped me on the shoulder. “Okay, okay.”

Our group popped in and out a handful of times, and on the third circuit the four of us foreigners got a shout out. There I was, minding my own business, hands slithering in the air in imitation of the ladies next to me, when Erika tapped Alyssa and me on the shoulder.

“He says welcome to Hotaru,” Erika shouted, pointing to the man with the microphone who was waving at us. “Give everyone a wave!”

I froze with both hands above my head, mid-dance. That was when I noticed the hundred surrounding eyes cheering and looking directly at Callum, Bree, Alyssa, and myself. For a second I had to wonder if I’d started moonwalking again, but it became clear that these stares were for no other reason than the fact that we were living, breathing, visitors to this town.

I transitioned from dance to wave, and the others followed. The cheering grew louder before dying off as the announcer moved his attention somewhere else. But many of the eyes remained, even after we exited the area around the stage for the last time.

(Drums start to fade out here)

As we were once again shepherded onto the crowded sidewalk by Erika, some of the onlookers spoke to each other in hushed voices. When you think about it, their curiosity was the most natural thing in the world. The four of us looked awfully conspicuous among the mass of locals, after all. And I’m kinda glad that we were under the microscope like that in such a high dose, because it allowed something to sink in.

We weren’t just earning looks that night; we’d been getting them all week. Not only in the high profile situations where you might expect them – like, ya know, when you’re moonwalking in the middle of a bunch of people doing a casual folk dance – but also in the low. In the trips to the supermarket or in the bike rides along the river. I’m starting to wonder if the citizens of Hotaru are ever going to get used to me or if I’m just gonna have to get used to putting on big aviators and a baseball cap any time I want anonymity. That probably won’t help, to be honest. No one wears aviators here. It’d be a dead giveaway.

Erika stopped herding us at the edge of the crowd where it started to thin out. Before drifting back into the collection of blue happi’s she said, “Go and enjoy the food and game stalls. I’ll catch you a little later.”

We were away from the thickest concentration of festival goers, but there were still a lot of people hanging around the food stalls and walking up and down the street. It was quickly apparent that the gawking wouldn’t stop even then – it would only become more secretive. Still, I was happy to be away from the scene of my overzealous dancing crime. Bree, too, was quick to start walking away, and the rest of us followed as she pressed on.

Apparently I was having too much fun dancing, because I hadn’t noticed that it was dark. The red and white paper lanterns that hung above the crowd had been lit, giving the street a warm tungsten glow.

I hadn’t noticed the smells, either. The further away from the main stage we got the more food stalls there were. Most had flat grills with sweaty cooks standing behind, frying up noodles or sausages and other foods that I don’t know the names of. At one of those grills they were making some kind of layered dish with batter on the bottom, a good deal of cabbage, noodles, eggs, and more batter. I should’ve asked Callum what it was called. Now that I think of it, I should’ve bought one. It would really hit the spot right about now…

Other stands had candied apples and doughy treats with sweet red bean in the center. Some were basically corner stores, selling chocolate and rock candy.

Bree jumped into one of the small lines and I popped into another, buying a round of beers for everyone and a cup full of fried chicken for myself.

As I handed Callum and Alyssa their beers I caught yet another group of people staring. There were three girls and one guy, all of them looking to be around 20 years old. Having caught enough eyes all night, I decided to do something with them, smiling and waving at the group which led to a fit of giggles but no less ogling. The staring continued, leaving me with what felt like no option other than to drag Callum and Alyssa over.

Holding up my cup of beer, I said, “Kanpai!”

They giggled once more before raising their own fizzy cocktails. In English, one of the girls said, “Where are you from?”

We gave them our countries of origin before exchanging names. Names that I immediately forgot.

About a minute of small talk later, Bree returned, happily chewing some kind of charred monstrosity on a stick. It had tentacles at the bottom and a brownish purple body cut up into sections.

“What on earth is that?” I asked.

“Have you never seen any Japanese TV or movies at all?” she said.

“Of course I have. Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon…”

“It’s barbequed squid.”

“Ooooooo can I try a piece?” I said.

She looked as though she might whip me with the tentacles. Then I offered the beer I’d been saving for her and the look softened.

“Thanks, but I don’t drink,” she said. “Here, take the piece at the top.”

The thing was cut up into rings, each about three inches wide. When I pulled it off I couldn’t resist the urge to wave it around a bit. It was stiff, and flopped around in my hand like a piece of rubber. The group that we were talking to laughed at my antics, but Bree wasn’t having any of it

“Just eat it,” she said, snatching back the stick.

“I’m sorry,” I said. But she turned away, apparently not wanting any of my apologies.

Bree was obviously annoyed with me. That much was a fact. What I couldn’t puzzle out was why. Waving around the squid was admittedly a little uncouth, but surely it didn’t deserve that level of ire. Besides, everyone other than her was laughing.

I looked to Callum and Alyssa for some hint, but they’d fallen into their own conversation with our new friends.

“Did I do something wrong?” I half-whispered to Bree.

She shook her head as if to say that our conversation was over.

  “Come on,” I said. “I’d really like to know.”

Bree took a moment to think, possibly about whether or not I was worth her time. Then, “We’re the only non-Japanese at this festival, you know. And it feels like half the town is out. If the only example they have is you, they’ll come away from this night thinking that all westerners are beer guzzling barbarians that play with their food.”

“You make a good point,” I said. “I guess I never thought about that.”

I never mentioned the fact that I wasn’t the only one drinking and having a good time. Or that if she’d turned around she would’ve seen an old Japanese man next to the lantern-lit river peeling back the folds of his yukata and taking a piss right there in view of everyone. For whatever reason, Bree had already made her mind up about me. Bringing up other revelers and shriveled penises wasn’t going to change that.

Henrik, I hope that by now you know me well enough to predict what won’t happen from here on. What won’t happen is me giving up on her. What will happen is her coming to enjoy my company damn it. At the very least, you can bet your ass I’m gonna try.

Locking eyes with Bree, I took a bite out of the ring of squid in my hand. It had the consistency of a rubber tire and a slightly smoky, slightly sweet, and surprisingly not overly fishy taste. The rubber tire texture was a turn-off, though. Anything requiring more than a minute to chew that isn’t gum gets a low grade in my books.

“This is delicious,” I lied.

Bree’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as she chewed on a mouthful of her own.

“Let’s go check out the rest of the festival,” I said.

I asked our new friends if they wanted to join us, but they declined, waving goodbye. Just then, Erika flagged us down.

“Barbeque squid. Nice, Bree!” she said.

Erika didn’t hesitate to accept the spare beer I was holding. She also joined us, saying that official duties were done for the night.

Our group turned down a crowded side street filled mostly with food or toy stalls on either side, but it also hosted the occasional game tent. The one that caught my eye had a wide, shallow container of water with a collection of brightly colored plastic balls floating in it. On a bench next to the tub was a child in an adorable mini-yukata with her hair in pig tails.

The little girl held something resembling a magnifying glass, only with thin tissue paper in the center. Dipping the hoop into the water, she did her best to pull out as many balls as possible; the hurdle, of course, being the paper that quickly became sodden, breaking under any amount of pressure applied. Once the paper was too frayed to be used the round was over and you got a prize depending on how many balls you managed to collect.

I paid a couple hundred yen and plopped down on the bench next to the kid. She looked up absently from the game to see who had sat next to her but apparently my face didn’t register until she had started lowering her gaze. When it did, she pulled up again for a second look. This time, her eyes were open wide and the hoop she was holding dangled perilously in her hand, forgotten.

“Hello,” I said with a grin.

She turned to a couple in their 30s, hovering a few feet away that I’m guessing were her parents. They gave her a warm look, and when she swiveled back in my direction she was suddenly smiling from ear to ear.

“Konbanwa,” she said. Good evening.

“Jouzu,” I said, pointing to her bowl and lightly clapping my hands as a sort of applause. You’re good at this.

Her smile brightened as she turned her attention back to the game. Meanwhile, I could hear people stirring behind.

When I checked to see what the commotion was about, I was astounded to see that there was a crowd forming to watch us play the game. Or more likely, to watch the new foreigner in town. I mean, it wasn’t that big of a crowd, but still. Moments later, the guy in charge of the tent handed me a hoop and a bowl.

My strategy at first was simple: get in and out as quick as possible. Speed was the key. So I dunked my hoop into the water, going straight for the blue sphere closest to me.

The first one was easy. I was able to use the center of the wet tissue to pull it out. But the very next ball I went for was too heavy, leaving a hole right in the middle of the paper. I tried to continue from there, but it was no use.

In the meantime, Erika tapped me on the shoulder to deliver a message from some old man who had joined the group of spectators. “Ano… he wants you to know that you’re the worst he’s ever seen at this game.”

“Arigatou,” I said to the man. Then to Erika, I added, “Tell him to stay for another round and I’ll blow his toupee off.”

The owner of the stall shook his head when I brought him my bowl, pointing to a sign with different categories for prizes, starting at five balls. So with Erika and the others howling behind me, I paid another 200 yen.

I slowed down on the next attempt, dipping the racquet into the water gingerly and pulling out a yellow ball. I was just as cautious on the next one – no, more cautious – yet it still broke the paper.

Behind me I heard raucous laughter, one voice in particular sounding like stale air being forced through a cavern thick with phlegm. Turning around I saw that it was the same old man. My friends had joined the chorus, as did several others.

I threw up my hands and laughed with them because… what else was I supposed to do? Get angry?

The little girl to my left was one of the few not laughing, and that was probably only because she was enjoying such wild success at the game. She was still using the same racquet as before, only a lot more torn up. Despite the state of the paper she was somehow able to pull out more and more balls, adding them to the mountain in the bowl that sat on the bench next to her.

I studied her technique carefully. She dipped as little of her racquet into the water as possible, supporting the weight of the ball on the plastic hoop rather than the paper. The kid made it appear easy, but I promise you it’s harder than it looks. Even after learning what I could, I still only managed to get seven balls which, after handing them over, ended up being good enough for one small pack of orange-flavored gum.

The crowd had gotten even bigger by then, and they recognized my modest achievement with a loud ovation. Henrik, I’m not ashamed to admit that it filled me with pride. I held up the tiny box of gum up in the air with one hand and gave several emphatic fist pumps to rouse the crowd with the other. I even took a bow.

As I brought my head back up, the little girl who’d been sitting next to me squeezed past, struggling with a stuffed Pikachu that was as big as her torso. She couldn’t contain the grin on her adorable little face as the crowd engulfed her.

They showered her with cheers and high fives, and as I watched I realized that they’d never been for me in the first place. I’d gotten a liiittle too used to everything being about me after being the center of attention throughout the evening.

It wasn’t all for the girl, though. There was one person just for me. The old man from before clapped me on the shoulder and, still wheezing with laughter, said something in Japanese that I couldn’t understand before walking away. I could’ve sworn he said the name ‘Michael Jackson’ though. Callum slid in to take his place, putting his arm around my shoulder and leaning his head in.

“Someday you’ll win a Pikachu plushy too, mate,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

“It doesn’t feel that way now,” I said.

“Everyone gets knocked down,” said Callum. “Some more than others… But, if it’s something you really want, I think an 8-year-old accomplishing it with ease is a promising sign.”

Our group left that game stall and continued up the street, chatting with locals and gobbling down food and drinks. I figured I’d been adventurous enough already that day, so I passed on some of the more exotic looking items in favor of a corndog, or American dog as they call it for some reason. The barbequed squid, boxed dinner and Japanese beers were great, but at the end of a long day sometimes it’s best just to go with a classic. One that I was positive wouldn’t earn stares for the way I ate it.

(festival sounds fade out)

Around 10 o’clock vendors started shutting down their tents. The streets had been getting gradually quieter by then as festival goers made their way home, first the families with young kids, then the grandparents, and finally couples and groups of friends like ours. Soon all that was left was the lanterns and their soft orange glow that played off the water along the river and the windows of the buildings.

After all of the walking and dancing we left the scene with a soul-nourishing weight to our feet. I offered to host Callum and the others at my apartment for a wind-down, and we all went to the conbini for more beers before heading that way. All except for Bree who said she was tired.

When she was out of earshot, Alyssa said to me, “Bree was really on your case tonight.”

“I guess she was,” I said.

“Any idea why?”

“No clue. Maybe she’s jealous of my festival game skills. Speaking of which… Erika, do you know what that old man said to me before he walked away earlier? I could’ve sworn I heard something about Michael Jackson.”

“Old man?” she said.

“The one that was laughing at me while I played that game with the paper hoops.”

“Oh, him!” she said. “I didn’t know which person you were talking about. Everyone was calling you Michael Jackson tonight.”

“Me? Why? I know I sunburn easily, but come on.”

“It coooould have been that bit of moonwalking during the festival.” To the look on my face she added, “Word has spread. You’re Hotaru famous now.”

I stared at Erika, waiting for her to crack. It had to have been a joke, after all… right? Wrong. No matter how long I stared, it wasn’t going to change the fact that my fancy feet had earned me a following deep in the Japanese countryside.

“So… What else did the guy say?” I asked.

“He told you not to cry about the game,” she said.

“Cry?” I said. “That’s crazy.”

(sentimental music fades in)

Henrik, I promise I wasn’t crying. And why would I have been? I had a pack of orange-flavored gum and was having an incredible time at my first summer festival in Japan. Between that and the badass happi I was wearing, I was on top of the world. As far from misery as could be. Would a stuffed animal have made the night a little better? Sure. But if I was always relying on every chip falling my way to be happy, well… I’d probably never get there.

Instead, ya gotta count the little victories. The whole evening was full of them from start to finish. Sure, there were plenty of defeats in there, too, but I’ll let you in on a little secret; once you’ve learned from a failure, you can go ahead and slide it on down into the win column.

(Callum does the Mario knock on the wall, cutting off the music with a record scratch)

CALLUM: How much longer am I gonna have to listen to your drongo-ass? I need sleep.

DEVON: Sorry! Just about finished, I swear. (whispered) Jeeze, call ME a drongo. Maybe you’re the digery drongo, Callum. Ever think about that?

CALLUM: I can hear you even when you’re whispering, drongo.

DEVON: Okay, okay… Henrik, what I was trying to get at is that you’ll never see me sticking chopsticks in rice or drinking before the kanpai again. And the next time I step up to a game at a festival you can bet your ass that I’ll be a little closer to winning the most obnoxious prize.