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Saturday, Oct. 22, 2005

JAPAN LITE

Naive 'gaijin' meets Paparazzi Parakeet


Japanese people have a reputation for loving to take photos. In Japan, it's not uncommon for complete strangers to ask you to join in their photo just so they can be in a picture with a "gaijin."

News photo
Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, one of seven bridges connecting islands on the road from Honshu to Shikoku.

But we must be careful about stereotypes since, as everyone knows, they're not always true. Not all Japanese people love to take photos. As a matter of fact, some Japanese people more than love to take photos. As many gaijin in Japan know, the combination of a mad-about-taking-photos Japanese and an innocent gaijin can be a recipe for unwelcome celebrity-hood.

My most recent celebrity-hood started when I joined a local bicycle club on an organized ride. One of my Japanese friends is in the club and he invited me to go with them to ride across the Shimanami Kaido. This seaside highway links the Inland Sea islands of Mukaijima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, Hakatajima and Oshima, and connects Hiroshima Prefecture on Honshu to Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku. The Shimanami Kaido is 60 km long and includes seven bridges that connect the islands.

At first, there was the usual banter among the club members meeting me for the first time. "Where is she from?" "Can she speak Japanese?" The club members were all men in their 50s, ranging from the casual rider to those seriously decked out with all the right gear. One very serious rider was a quiet guy dressed in bright yellow biker shorts and a matching racer-style Spandex top.

The ride started in typical Japanese style, with a group photo at the point of departure. After everyone got a group photo shot, they put their cameras away and we were off cycling.

The Shimanami Kaido has a special "saikuringu rodo" (cycling road) specifically for bicycles (and motorbikes up to 125cc). These are not the narrow bicycle paths you find alongside roads in the U.S., but wide paths that meander through trees and bamboo groves alongside the highway. Soaring along these beautifully maintained bicycle paths, it is possible to experience moments of complete solitude when. . . . wait a minute . . . what's that up ahead on the side of the path? Something yellow. Hey, it has a camera! It's that serious yellow biker guy. I didn't know he was a paparazzi. Click! I smile as I whiz by.

The highlight of cycling along the Shimanami Kaido is going across the many bridges that connect the islands, the longest bridge being 6.2 km. At each bridge is a bicycle toll, ranging from 10 yen to 200 yen depending on the length of the bridge. It's based on the honor system, and everyone seems happy to pay for the experience. Over the bridges, the scenery is breathtaking. Panoramic views of the Inland Sea sweep from side to side and . . . wait a minute . . . a cyclist is stopped on the bridge. I wonder if he's OK. He's kneeling down as if he is hurt. Ah! It's the Paparazzi Parakeet aiming his lens at me . . . Click! I tuck my head down and zoom past.

The group took a break for lunch at Oshima. The Paparazzi Parakeet sat down and put his camera away. Then he brought out his cell phone. Click, click! went the cell phone camera. Within moments he had sent the photo to all his friends. As an average-looking girl cum race queen, I wondered how I was doing on my first photo shoot. Should I purse my lips? Cross my arms and squeeze to show a little more cleavage?

As we crossed over the last bridge, the Kurushima Kaikyo Ohashi to Shikoku, I coasted past families cycling together and tourists walking across taking pictures of the sea. I was looking out at the big ships passing under us when suddenly, the Paparazzi Parakeet zoomed past me. He pulled a camera out of his eardrum and, while keeping his eyes on the road ahead of him, held the camera backward over his shoulder. Click!

I'm beginning to understand why Japanese always give the peace sign in photos. It's the only way to ensure your photo will not appear in any newspaper or magazine.

For more, see Amy's Web site: www.amychavez.addr.com


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