When I first moved to Japan as a young and naive new graduate, I had just undergone a horrific break up. It involved boyfriends, best friends and backstabbing. You know, the usual college drama.
At the same time, I was also ready to hit the dating scene. I hadn’t been single in five years. I was ready to paint the town red, party, go wild… and most of all: date.
Problem was: I lived in a very remote village. There were no bars. No restaurants. No place to mingle and meet people. Aside from 7-11.
So, I took to the internet.
Back then, there wasn’t tinder or OKcupid or any kind of dating app. In fact, online dating still had a nasty social stigma attached to it. Still, out of options, I turned to a (now old) Japanese social media site to not only find a date, but potential friends nearby.
And oh man, I turned away so many weirdos.
But one day, I received a message from a young, single man who was not only genuine and kind in his message, but was a former alumni from one of the middle schools I taught at (he was a long time graduate–I wasn’t robbing the cradle!). After chatting about life at the school, teachers, and the area, he did the unthinkable:
“You know, I was thinking I would really like to brush up on my English. And it would be fun to, uh, you know, go out. To talk. Do you want to go on a date next week?”
I was waiting at the local train station. Instead of have him pick him up at my house (and consequently let him know my address, where he could then potentially cut me up into little pieces while I slept), I picked a meeting point. To say I was nervous was an extreme exaggeration. I had never seen the guy, much less spoken to him on the phone.
I must be really desperate to be going on such a blind date, I thought, as axe murderer scenes played out in my head over and over again.
A blue truck came by and stopped near me. A young man with a short haircut, white shirt and blue jeans hopped out and walked up to me hesitantly.
“I’m Y-y-oshio..” he stuttered. “Are you Mary?”
“Uh yes,” I shifted awkwardly. “Nice to meet you.”
Then I bowed.
“What a cute truck you have!” I pointed, trying desperately to cancel out the awkward silence following our all-too-Japanese greeting. “Let’s hop right in!”
“S-s-s-so…” he stuttered. “I thought we c-c-could do one of these act-t-t-ivities…. a-a-and… uhhh….. here!”
He handed me a stack of five Niigata guide books covered in bookmarks, post it notes, and footnotes. I flipped through them and found hand-written notes that included potential date plans written for every single location. He must have read through each guide book over a dozen times. I was speechless.
What did I get myself into, I thought, as he started up the truck and sped off.
Please let me get through this day alive.
To the Aquarium!
After much polite banter, I told Yoshio that I would essentially “makaseru,” or leave it up to him in terms of our date day. The man looked like he was going to faint. I told him to have confidence, that I trust him, and he perked up a bit.
It was obvious that Yoshio had never met a foreigner, much less went on a date with one. He was trembling, he stuttered, and he, for a lack of better description, looked scared shitless. I felt like I was torturing the poor guy just by sitting next to him.
I smiled and laughed and tried my best to execute small talk, Japanese style. “The weather is a bit cloudy today, it might rain! Good thinking, choosing an aquarium for our daily activity!”
He smiled hesitantly, but with a bit of smugness. “ha… yea, you’re right, huh! It was good thinking!”
I smiled back, hoping that (finally) the ice was starting to break.
“I’m sorry I c-c-c-can’t speak English,” he quickly apologized. “I practiced all week to talk to you, b-b-b-but I’m a bit nervous.”
“It’s ok, “I smiled warmly. “We can practice later. I don’t mind speaking Japanese.”
Although he was a nervous wreck, I could tell Yoshio was a good man. The guide books proved it. His utter dedication to give me an amazing date was flawless. The man had prepared mints. A new air freshener for his car. He even told me his outfit was brand new, just for this day.
In traditional Japanese dating fashion*, Yoshio took me to an aquarium–and like a true gentleman, he paid for our entrance passes. We looked at the jelly fish in awe, screamed ‘kawaii’ (cute!) at the waddling penguins, and looked in majesty at the sharks that whizzed by in the surrounding tanks.
Yet Yoshio was still wiping sweat from his brow and hands. He continued to be a stuttering mess.
“Oishisou!” the children nearby screamed at the fish that swam past us. “Those fish look delicious!”
“Wow!” another couple nearby pointed to the lazy octopus resting on the giant aquarium rock. “That octopus looks mighty tasty!”
This is where I learned that, in Japan, the most common phrase you hear at an aquarium is “oishisou!” or “that looks de-lish!”
“That’s different from America,” I commented to Yoshio with a laugh. “We don’t eat as much seafood in the states, so we would never say ‘oh man, I wanna eat that!’ at an aquarium! I mean, don’t you feel bad for the fish? Could you imagine eating seafood after this?”
Yoshio’s face turned ghost white.
“A-a-actually I b-b-b-ooked a s-s-ushi restaurant for us after this….”
“It’s ok!” I smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “We’re in Japan, so it’s totally ok! Mmmm mmm!! Look at that shark!” I pointed, ” I could eat him right up! Ahahaha… ha…”
Yoshio was already on his cell phone cancelling the reservation.
Anything for you
Yoshio and I had ramen for dinner. He was obviously very depressed about his fatal error on his perfect date itinerary.
I, on the other hand, was hellbent on not letting this date go to ruin.
“I just wanted to say,” I slurped down some beer to give me confidence. “The town you’re from. The school I teach at. It’s really magical. The children there are so moral, wholesome, and caring. You should be really proud.”
He looked up at me, his eyes wide.
“Every time I exit the train station near your school, the station masters always greet me and know me by name. I love hearing the ocean on my walk to your school. The sea smells so fresh. I like running up and down the stairs at your school, each creak and moan telling me about all of the graduates its hosted throughout the decades. Sometimes, I stand in the music room and look out to the ocean for minutes, if not hours at a time. I could listen to the ocean at your school, your hometown, all day. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”
For once, he smiled without a nervous twitch. A genuine, warm smile.
“I used to stand in the music room, too. I used to watch the ocean there,” he paused. “It’s beautiful.”
After dinner (and to honor Japanese dating tradition*) he took me to an arcade. After playing a few games and our way out, he ran to the UFO catcher machine.
“See that teddy bear,” he pointed through the glass box to a green care bear in the corner. “I’m getting that for you.”
“No, it’s ok!” I laughed. “I’ve already had so much fun today!”
He ignored my words and put money in the machine. Five tries and twenty minutes later, the man was almost out of coins and still desperate for a teddy bear.
“One more time,” I nudged him. “After that, let’s go. I’m already honored with your efforts.”
“I’ll do it,” he looked me dead in the eye without hesitation. “For you.”
And like an act of god, he got it on the last try. The metal claw scooped up the green bear and dropped it into the prize box.
Before the night came to a close, we went to a small goods shop for our last stop on the date.
For some reason, I found a ‘domo-kun’ doll and bought it on impulse. When Yoshio met me outside of the shop, I handed it to him.
“This is for you. So you’ll always remember today.”
“No, wait, let me get you something…!” he attempted to run back into the shop.
“Domo kun for a care bear,” I laughed and grabbed his shirt, stopping him in his tracks. “We’re even now.”
He dropped me back off at our meeting point. Just like when we met, he bowed his head ever so slightly and softly said “Oyasumi,” or good night.
We never had a second date. Frankly, he was just too nervous for me to handle. For him, maybe he was eternally embarrassed about the aquarium/sushi mix up. Or perhaps, he realized, foreigners just weren’t for him.
Still, I had respect for the guy. To go on a date with a foreigner–when you had never met one before, and in the countryside to boot–is quite the challenge. It’s something that many Japanese people currently studying in the states, or even working here, would never even consider.
Although it was the most awkward date of my life, I still have that teddy bear. It’s a reminder of my one and only blind date, the kindness of the Japanese people in Niigata, and of Yoshio, a genuinely good person.
I hope wherever he is, he’s healthy, happy, and content.
And maybe, just maybe, domo-kun is resting somewhere in the depths of his closet.
Have you ever been on a blind date? Or a severely awkward date? What was your experience?
*The typical Japanese (high school) date usually means 1. going to an aquarium 2. getting dinner 3. going to an arcade and doing “purikura” or photo booth.