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Sunday, April 7, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Behold that golden glow


It's almost here . . . my favorite week.

Before coming to Japan, I had never had a favorite week.

I had a favorite day, a favorite aunt, a favorite song and even a favorite pair of pajamas. As a lad, in fact, nothing made me happier than making my aunt don those pajamas and sing "North to Alaska" on my birthday. Yet I wasn't so interested in weeks.

Oh, they were all right, I guess -- not as tedious as months, nor as hectic as days. All in all, however, I suppose I preferred minutes or even seconds; time units more suited to my attention span.

Then I arrived in Japan, where the only thing stronger than the obsessive measurement of time is the obsessive measurement of overtime. My job began in April and by the end of the first month, I sensed I had connected deeply with my Japanese colleagues -- meaning I felt overworked and underpaid.

But then we entered what has become my favorite week. The next several work days were obliterated by holiday after holiday, an experience I can only describe as "golden." Life in Japan began to look manageable.

"I love it here," I wrote home. "At least till next Monday."

Golden Week is one Japanese concept that needs to catch on elsewhere. The idea is much more marketable than other high-profile Japanese notions -- like, say, raw fish or hara-kiri. For who in the world couldn't use a week off in the mild month of May?

In Japan, of course, it is more special yet. With work and school calendars all starting in spring, the almost instant breather fills the spirit with hope.

As in: "I hope the next break comes even faster."

It is sort of a seventh-inning stretch in the first inning -- an idea that maybe Japanese baseball should try, considering its skidding popularity.

The effect is even refreshing in years when the holidays break oddly, leaving a work day or two sandwiched between long weekends. For such times poke a hot spur in worker creativity, fostering brilliant thinking such as: "I know! I'll call in sick!"

For those not using their days off, the workload is light, with understaffed office workers twiddling their thumbs until the glitter of Golden Week fades away.

In my case, I can never remember what holiday is being celebrated. Is is Green Day? Constitution Day? Kids' Day?

Who cares? All that matters is it's "Free Day."

Long years in Japan have also dulled my grip on holidays back home. The summer drips along and suddenly I realize, "Oops. The Fourth of July has passed by with nary a bang." The leaves turn red in autumn and so does my face as I find I have forgotten another season of Thanksgiving and cranberries.

But I never forget Golden Week. It sits too prominently upon the calendar, like a ripe, juicy apple, ready to be plucked.

Unfortunately, no one else forgets it either. Parks, amusement centers, theaters, roads, railways and airspace -- all of Japan teems with people on the golden go. It is the kind of week that most people need a week to recover from.

I, for one, always avoid getting pressed into the noodle salad of holiday Japan. I experience too much similar joy each morning on the way to work.

And why spend precious free time fighting crowds? It's like trying to wrestle with an ocean wave, an effort sure to bring exhaustion and defeat.

Instead I stay at home and wrestle with my pillow, a battle I enjoy.

Why spend precious free time sleeping? Well, yes . . . I sometimes feel guilty about that. Yet I invariably find it's nothing I can't sleep off.

But a person cannot sleep for an entire week, and in my family it has become somewhat of a custom that we invite friends over for a Golden Week BBQ. The secrets to a successful BBQ are: 1.) a roaring fire; and 2.) a fire extinguisher -- the bigger, the better.

Faithful to our international background, we fill our grill with a wide assortment of East-West goodies: sausages, teriyaki chicken, fish, shrimp, ginger pork, beef and every vegetable you can buy.

The strange mix of flavors bothers no one -- as it all ends up pitch-black anyway. At which time I invoke a cooking maxim proved true the world over: If you apply enough mustard, no one will notice. After 20-plus years in Japan, crunching charred food during Golden Week has become a Dillon family tradition.

What I dislike most about Golden Week is that it ends. I would prefer Golden Weeks or even a Golden Month.

Yet I take heart from the fact that Japan adds a new holiday with the birth of each succeeding future Emperor. In this regard, I hope the Imperial family will do their best to target all births at that second week in May.

Gold is very pliable, you see, and with enough generations of well-timed Emperors (or perhaps Empresses), we can slowly make Japan's best innovation even better yet.

I may not live to see this new Golden Age, but -- as I snooze my way through this upcoming week of holidays -- it will at least give me something to dream about.



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