Author's Japanese exploits an eye-opener

Wellington man Matt Comeskey can tell you exactly what not to say if you walk in on a one-armed man suspected to be a member of the Japanese mafia as he tries to pull up his pants after going to the toilet.

''As if slightly detached from my own excruciatingly embarrassed self for a moment, I heard myself exclaim loudly in Japanese 'Arigato!' (Thank you!).''

Mortified he had just thanked a gangster for catching him with his pants down, Comeskey attempted to clear the air with profuse apologies, but couldn't shake the feeling he was about wake up with a horse's head on his pillow.

Along with avoiding a potential organised crime hit, he can also tell you that battling a giant flying cockroach while naked in the middle of the night is no picnic either.

''The size of it was a shock - it would have fit in the palm of my hand.''

He met the gangster and the roach while living in Japan, on a three-year teaching stint through the Jet programme, which sends people to teach English in high schools there.

He wrote about his close encounters with the unusual Japanese residents to his friends and family, as well as other aspects of his life in the Orient.

His emails proved so popular that when he came home, Kapiti Coast publishing company Fineline Press offered to collate his stories and turn them into a book.

Ribbons of Fate and Other Tales of Japan is filled with 28 experiences about Japan that the usual tourist would never experience.

''At first it was just a bunch of unrelated stories but as I started to get into them I started to see all the connections, so it ended up being pretty much a linear tale of small stories, which all link up in the end,'' he said.

Comeskey landed in Japan, nearly 10,000km from his Eastbourne home, in July 2001 to embark on a three-year teaching position at Toki Commercial High School, in Toki City on Honshu Island.

He couldn't speak Japanese, was not trained as a teacher and after a few months the culture shock overwhelmed him so much, he was physically ill and bedridden for a week.

''I lost all my confidence because I wasn't a teacher and I was teaching 40 kids at a time all day with no resources. It was actually quite a difficult job.''

After a trip home for Christmas, Comeskey returned and the magic of Japan began to seduce him.

''It was quite strange. It just changed overnight basically. I don't even know what it was, I just woke up one morning and had a completely fresh new outlook on everything and I went from there, so it was lucky that that happened,'' he said.

In the book he said he became ''enamoured with the beauty of the place, the all-night karaoke clubs, the fresh fish, the trains that were always on time, the clockwork predictability of the routines and the heated toilet seats''.

During his three years in Japan he became immersed in the culture and discovered the people were ''hilarious, outgoing, generous and caring''.

''Writing the book reminded me of a lot of connections I did have with Japan that were subconscious, which surfaced while I was over there and that's maybe why I enjoyed it so much, because it connected things up for me.''

The book was released shortly before the devastating magnitude 9 earthquake hit on March 11. The quake triggered a massive tsunami and the disaster left up to 23,000 people dead or missing.

Watching the television footage of the tsunami wrecking havoc was harrowing, Comeskey said.

While he had not visited the area the tsunami struck, the shock of seeing the damage had not lessened.

''Villages all seem to look the same, so it was quite easy to imagine those places being places I'd visited.

''It was very sad because, having lived in Japan and gotten to know people so well, going about their daily lives, I have a really good idea what they do there - family life, school life, the bars people went to, and to see it all destroyed is pretty devastating.''

Adding to his concern, was worry for his wife's Japanese family.

Comeskey met and fell in love with fellow teacher Junko Taguchi while they were working together in Toki. They married in Japan, then came to New Zealand to live and started a family.

Fortunately, his wife's family were based much further south than where the earthquake and tsunami were centred.

''That was quite a relief.''

Japan remains dear to Comeskey, who discovered aspects of the country most foreigners don't get to see.

''It was such a beautiful place. It was a city, so there was concrete and rubbish around, but also rice paddies, and nice hills.

''There weren't that many people there, it wasn't like Tokyo with millions of people. You could bike around in twilight by yourself and not see anyone. Go down to the river and just sit there.

''It's not like what people imagine Japan to be where you are just surrounded by people the whole time. It's quite peaceful and that's what I remember,'' he said.

''The frogs in the rice paddies and the sounds, it's just very calm and peaceful, which is what was one of the upsetting things about the tsunami and the see such devastation and horrible stuff happen to such a peaceful place, it's pretty sad.''

Ribbons of Fate and Other Tales of Japan available at