Monday, October 02, 2006


The Port of Muroran, normally called on only by freighters and tankers, entertained a unique visitor last Tuesday. The Sapphire Princess, one of 17 ships in the Princess Cruise fleet, brought her 2,600 passengers and 1,300 staff into Muroran for a one-day visit. That’s nearly 4,000 people, or about twice the size of the town where I went to high school. The ship is so big that it could not fit under the Swan Bridge at the entrance of Muroran harbor, and had to dock instead at the Sakimori wharf. The city brought out a fleet of 30 buses to shuttle passengers from the industrial area of Sakimori over the Swan Bridge and into downtown.

The Muroran Tourism Office is housed in the old train station, in the heart of old downtown. The once-bustling waiting room is typically quiet when I drift in on an average weekday to once again browse the old black and white photos of Muroran’s busier days, but last Tuesday, it was transformed into an all-out festival of traditional Japanese culture. The people responsible for that transformation were the members of the Muroran Site-seeing Club, a dedicated group of volunteer tour guides who refuse to let this town go down without a fight. On Tuesday, they made a strong case that they are winning that fight.

Most of the passengers from the Sapphire Princess had boarded in either Whittier, Alaska or Vancouver, British Columbia, and had been sailing for nearly a month. They came from the U.S., Britain, Scotland, China, the Phillipines, and likely many others. They had come most recently from Russia, and were going next to Tokyo, then Nagoya, then across the Yellow Sea to Beijing. For those staying on from there, a tour of Southeast Asia would follow, eventually ending up back in Japan.

During my four hours at the Tourism Office and Sakimori wharf, I was often mistaken for a passenger. In fact, every tourist I met asked me where I had gotten on the boat, and a few of the volunteer guides were surprised to learn that, like them, I also live in Muroran. There were several of the volunteer guides who were not surprised by that at all, though. In fact, they already knew where I lived. Since the beginning of September, I have been teaching twice-a-month English classes to a small group of the volunteer guides.

I was handed this job by Ted, who lived in Muroran before me but left this summer, departed with his wife Barb for a short visit back to the States and then a round-the-world tour with the money they saved in Japan. Ted’s recommendation was nearly all I needed to get the job. Three of the ladies (nearly all the volunteer guides are female, including every member of the class I teach) took me out for lunch over the summer, and that “interview” was all it took to convince them of my credentials. (Whatever those may be.)

I entered this job thinking that I would be doing very well if they learned half as much from me as I expected to learn from them. A month into it, I have had to reduce those expectations. If they are learning even one-fourth as much from me as I am learning from them, then I am a far better teacher than I think I am.

When I arrived at the tourism office last Tuesday morning, they immediately swept me into the activities they were leading. In my first hour I had taken part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, written kanji with brush and ink, and made my first attempt at Ikebana (with lots of help), a traditional form of flower arranging that focuses as much on empty space as the flowers themselves. In return, I had only to talk with the tourists and help the volunteer guides with tricky English questions.

In between, I stepped back, and tried to find a quiet spot in the shadows where I could simply watch. The tourists were generally giddy to “experience” everything they could about traditional Japan, and the women of the volunteer guides were clearly in their element, despite operating in their second language. I was quite proud watching them, and I beamed when I overheard tourists comment on what a warm welcome they had received here.

That evening I had a Japanese lesson, so I could not stay to watch the Sapphire Princess sail out of Muroran, into the twilight sky and onward to more exotic ports of Asia. I’m sure several of the women in my class were wishing they could be on board as they watched it go. I’d overheard them say as much many times that morning. Nor can I blame them, when so many of their husbands work the typically long hours of Japanese white-collar life, and their children are grown and moved to Sapporo, Tokyo, or even farther.

For my part, though, I had no such longings. Oh, I was polite enough when talking with the tourists, feigning my envy over their travels, but I couldn’t have been happier with this old steel city that I have come to call my own in these past nine months. And I think that’s because it’s started to call me its own, too. I have those ladies from my class to thank for that. More than once, in the middle of talking with a couple from Britain, or Scotland, or the U.S., suddenly I’d hear, from halfway across the room, a beaming voice call out confidently, “There, that young man over there, that’s my English teacher!”