by Frank Lev, Jan 1, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Kyoto

Isn't it funny how the qualities that first attract you to a person are often the same ones that irritate you once you've entered into a relationship with that person? When I first met Mitsuko, I was fascinated with her face. It was not a beautiful face. She had big pancake cheeks and a mouth that fell into a perpetual frown. But she looked so Japanese. I looked at her and I was transported to some ancient rice paddy. A voyage into a world of ambiguities. Shades of truth. So exotic. I wanted to touch that strangeness and to know it.

Not only was her face Japanese but she was so very Japanese in every way.

She seemed to possess the very essence of the Japanese spirit. There are many gestures and behaviors that are peculiarly Japanese; a certain tilt of the head when there is doubt, an unwillingness to take down the mask of social correctness, these were possessed by all Japanese to some degree.

However some Japanese seemed more Western in their presentation of self to the world while others were soaked through with a sense of being Japanese.

Mitsuko was one of these. In fact she was almost a parody of what happens when Japanese qualities are exaggerated. Japanese people are taught to be very humble. They are constantly saying things like excuse me, I am rude, I am not important. They learn to present a self-effacing persona to the world but some of them really take it to heart. Mitsuko's sense of humility had become so acute that now she seemed to be embarrassed about everything. She seemed to be embarrassed about being alive. Other classic Japanese qualities are a sense of cleanliness and dependence on the parents, which later transfers to dependence on the group. These are qualities that are pleasant to live with when they are possessed in some small degree.

But not when taken to extremes.

She had one of those ageless faces. I thought she was in her 20's when I when met her. However she was 42. At 42 Mitsuko was certainly a spinster by any cultural yardstick, certainly in Japan where women over 28 are considered over the hill. She was at heart a very independent person. Yet she had grown up in a culture that didn't encourage that kind of thinking.

She had had offers of marriage in her younger days, but by men who were searching for a traditional wife. Mitsuko had a strong need to create and she excelled in many art forms including music and art. A most interesting woman yet it was all wrapped up in the Japanese acculturation that produced a person who seemed at odds with herself.

Yoshida Mountain is a very special place for Japanese people because it faces one of the most famous places in all of Japan, Daimonji Mountain.

It is here that fires are lit every August on top of the mountain in the shape of the Japanese character DAI. This means great and it is thought that the smoke from the fires guides the spirits of the dead home after a three-day visit to family. I was lucky enough to be living near the top of Yoshida Mountain.

Every Saturday morning around 10 a.m., I heard drumming coming from the top of the mountain. One Saturday I set out to investigate. I found a Taiko group and they said that I could join their team if I wanted to. So I joined a taiko-drumming group. She was one of the main drummers and also the flute player for the group. We practiced on top of Yoshida Mountain at a beautiful little cabin that served as a coffee house and performance space. One day I invited the team members over to my house for tea after practice. At one point I found myself alone with Mitsuko for the first time. I sensed an openness and being quite lonely at the time I took a risk and asked her for her phone number. I was surprised when she agreed. We made a date to meet to go see the plum blossoms at one of the local temples

Once we started walking around I knew that she wanted me the same way I wanted her. She pressed close as we walked and soon we were holding hands.

It wasn't long after that that we were alone together in my room. She was very uneasy about it though.

What's wrong, I questioned her.

Your roommate is downstairs. I'm embarrassed. I tried to negotiate with her.

He has a Japanese girlfriend too, and sometimes they are alone together.

I don't think anything bad about her and he won't think bad things about you either.

Finally and reluctantly she agreed to kiss me. Then I was surprised again because she wouldn't open her mouth. I had to ask her.

In America when we kiss, we open our mouths and let our tongues play together. It's dirty, she responded awkwardly.

I could see that this wasn't going to be easy. So we kissed like junior high students and eventually things heated up. I started to take off her shirt.

The light, please turn it off. Why? I'm embarrassed. She had nothing to be embarrassed about. She had a fine body, but I turned off the lights. Even so she got under the covers. We made love that way, she was careful never to expose any sensitive part of her body to my eyes. At one point I got a little crazy and tried to kiss her toes. She pulled her foot away.

It's dirty. Around 10 o'clock she got up and started to get dressed.

Where are you going, I asked her.

I have to go home now. My mother will worry. My God Mitsuko, you are 42 years old, can't you call your mother and tell her you're staying over at my house tonight. She wouldn't understand, she says, pulling on her bra under the covers. I roll over and shake my head.

So we become lovers. She seemed to enjoy our lovemaking to a point. The point being where she started to feel uncomfortable because of her Japanese culture. Then it seemed as if there was another person in there with her and a struggle ensued. For me it was not a little maddening. Sometimes I wanted to wring that Japanese part out of her.

Shortly after that the cherry trees started to blossom. If there is anything that will stir a Japanese heart it is the cherry blossoms. It just so happened there was a beautiful cherry tree in my back yard. Every day I watched as its branches filled until it looked like it was full of pink popcorn balls. My roommate imitated what some of the big Kyoto temples did at that time of year and put a spotlight on the tree from underneath. The effect was stunning. I invited Mitsuko over that night. We drank some sake; I put on some music from the traditional Japanese instrument the shamisan. The stage was set. We started kissing and soon I had her clothes off under the covers. Then I sprung the trap. I got up and opened the frosted glass windows to reveal the outstanding view. There out of my window was a dazzling sight. In the distance, Daimonji loomed large.

Close by the brilliantly lit cherry blossoms flooded the room with light. Just over the peak of Daimonji a crystal clear moon hung full. She really couldn't help herself. She got up and walked over in front of the window.

She forgot completely about her nakedness and while she was standing in awe of the wonderful sight before her I too was admiring a beautiful breathtaking sight for the first time. Then all of a sudden she was aware of my presence and let out a groan of embarrassment and made a move to go back to the bed. But I caught her slim light body and held her close from behind. I pressed myself against her, my hand roaming over her breasts and stomach. She groaned half from pleasure and half in protest. Eastern Kyoto lay beneath us, the roaring of the streets, the glare of its lights wafted up to us. I held her in that glaring light until she stopped struggling and kissed her neck and rubbed her hips tightly in my hands until she seemed to melt.

Again she moaned a protest but I wasn't to be denied. High up on the mountain like we were it was unlikely that anyone could look up and see us, yet still the possibility existed. She whimpered and accepted it because she had no other choice. She hung her head down crying.

Look up, I ordered her. She raised her head up.

Open your eyes, I commanded. As she looked out on the lit up blossoms, DaiMonji, and the full moon, whether it was from being caught in the situation or it was a kind of Japanese sensory overload, I felt her shudder and I heard her gasp.

She turned her head towards mine, her eyes full and her face glistening with tears, and she looked through me. Slowly she mouthed a word.

She said it twice, S..... S....... I couldn't understand. I let go of her a few moments later and she darted for the safety of the covers. I walked over to join her. She hid under the covers and held them tightly over her head. Her body was shaking. I hugged her from behind.

Are you OK? I'm sorry I shouldn't have done that. Perhaps I pushed her too far this time. I hugged her tightly.

What did you say before to me? She looked at me blankly and I thought she hadn't understood. Then finally she answered.

I said sugoi. What does it mean? She looked at me and sobbed and held me tight, her head buried in my chest. Later when she had left, I looked it up in my Japanese/English dictionary.

Sugoi .... 1. wonderful,marvelous, terrific.... 2. dreadful, ghastly, weird. What a strange word. I still wonder what she meant.