By Popo Ott
The Times 



A long time ago, the frigate I was aboard slid over the glassy water of Japan’s Inland Sea with only a soft hiss. In the dawn, patchy fog drifted over the water, turning rose-colored as the sun began to climb in the sky. Small wooden motorized skiffs scurried about tending their oyster beds, constantly crisscrossing in front of the frigate. The idyllic scene contrasted the tension on the frigate’s bridge as the watch struggled to navigate the unfamiliar waters in low visibility. This marked my arrival for my only visit to Kure, Japan.

Once the frigate was moored pier side in at the Kure Naval Docks, a friend and I went by train to see the nearby Itsukushima Shinto Shrine. This shrine is famous for its tori gate that seems to float on the water at high tide. Once debarked from the ferry to the island where the shrine is located, I was greeted by beaches of coarse sand that had been meticulously raked into tiny furrows by the gardeners. Scattered about the sandy area were small vending machines, like the old-fashioned gumball machines, that sold visitors pellet treats to feed the deer. Oh, and the deer. They were clustered around the food machines waiting for any passing tourist to buy them some treats, like errant teens hanging around a liquor store. If you were to stand still, the deer, suspecting you might be concealing some of their rightful food, would begin a search of your clothing, worming their muzzles into every pocket and any other potential hiding place.

The day was hot, and I slipped into a small wooden cafe near the beach to order some shaved ice. A doe followed me to the door and peered in, watching me at the table as I ordered. A rotund waitress took my order. Once the treat was delivered, the doe trotted up to my table, her hooves making a deep racket as she crossed the wood floor to share my snack. The waitress impatiently watched my attempts to push the doe’s head away. She walked up to my table and, without saying a word, slowly drew her right arm back and let fly with a forceful roundhouse punch to the doe’s right cheek. The doe jumped back with startled, wide doe-eyes, looked at me and then the waitress, and trotted hurriedly out of the cafe.

My friend and I stayed in a traditional Japanese inn, with tatami mat floors and walls made of washi. We choose to stay the night and climb Mount Misen the next morning, on the same island.

The next day was hot, and by mid-morning, we were well along the path to the top of the mountain, encountering very few hikers along the way. Our feet crunched on the gravel trail with the mountain rising to our left and to our right, descended into a forest of deciduous trees.

Suddenly, THWACK! THWACK! A few leaves and twigs filtered down on us from the trees nearby. WHACK! Something hit the earth behind us. Then SMACK! SMACK! The projectiles found their targets. They were small, green apples, and we were under heavy, painful fire. We naturally assumed we had been ambushed by our shipmates and began collecting apples that had fallen around us to return fire.

Stepping to the edge of the trail to get a clearer shot, we saw that the attackers were not human but rather excited, little monkeys hurling the projectiles. Their excitement and noise only rose when they saw we had accepted their challenge to fight. Soon, there was more movement in the underbrush. Reinforcements, we thought, but instead, much larger and angry monkeys appeared. The battle abruptly ended as the troop’s adults began to chastise the juveniles with whom we had been battling. The adult monkeys bared their sharp, yellow teeth. They chattered and gesticulated wildly with disapproval. The youths of the troop dropped their shoulders and hung their heads. The adult monkeys then turned to us on the trail. A venom-filled castigation that seemed endless showed their extreme disapproval of our bad behavior. I imagine the substance of their wild-eyed lecture was, “How dare you throw apples at our kids! You are grownups! You should know better!”

We could only shrug and mouth quietly, “But, but they started it!”

The adults shooed their youth away from us, and the whole troop soon disappeared as the rustling of the forest fell again into silence.

Astonishingly, this would not be the last time in my life I would be reprimanded by monkeys for bad behavior.

Authors note: I call this series “Just Vignettes” because that’s what they are, just short snapshots of things that have happened to me or have been told to me. I can vouch that the stories you read here are mostly true.


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