A sigh of relief is not exactly a sigh in relief, but the difference is more than grammatical. One has to travel all the way to Otaru to appreciate the point.
Otaru is a smallish port located somewhere near the foot of Mount Tengu in the western coast of Hokkaido, one of the coldest regions of the Japanese archipelago. The enchanting little town creeps steadily upwards from the harbor to the top of a mountain, where the Otaru University of Commerce perches, overlooking the magnificent Sea of Japan. During summer, the weather in this part of the country is the closest thing to an earthly Paradise. The winters, however, are long and cruel. Snowfall is a daily ritual and it falls not in flakes, but in heaps, often accompanied by rain. The resulting sleet then conspires with the incline of the city to transform a casual walk along the road into a gymnastic feat. Paradoxically therefore, the picturesquely serene township of Otaru has been nicknamed jigoku-saka or “The Slide to Hell”!
I arrived there one lonely autumn with a visiting appointment in the University. Already the “air” bit “shrewdly”, though I hardly noticed this, being more concerned about my ignorance of the Japanese language. Except for a handful of colleagues, few persons I came across spoke any English. Nevertheless, I had no choice other than English as a medium of instruction for my classes, which the students in their turn accepted with stoic indifference. The telltale lack of enthusiasm on their faces left little doubt about the futility of my teaching efforts. Each morning therefore, I plodded wearily up the road leading to the University, wondering if my situation was any different from that of a prisoner in solitary confinement.
This at least was the way I lived in Otaru till the arrival of the snow. One day though in early winter, a knock on the office door woke me up from morbid preoccupations with myself. I walked over and peeped out apprehensively. A smiling Japanese lad with a vaguely familiar face greeted me at the door and my surprise knew no bounds as he introduced himself to me in perfect English as a student in one of my classes! He wished to invite me he said, to a music performance by an amateur group. I accepted the invitation gratefully and counted on an evening of interaction with students.
I struggled down a slippery street on the appointed day and arrived at the theatre. My expectations were belied however, for the young Japanese students who filled up the auditorium maintained a cautious distance from me. I resigned therefore to being the odd man out till the orchestra struck up the first few notes of the Four Seasons and all discomfort soon dissolved in the elixir of Vivaldi’s creation.
Unfortunately, my involvement with the music grew feebler as we moved into the second of the four seasons. I had earlier treated myself to a few delicious cans of Sapporo beer, and these now made claims on my attention. Soon it was evident that I had no choice left but to take care of the problem. I sneaked out of the auditorium therefore and prowled along the empty corridors in search of the facilities. It was easy enough to locate them, but I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. The familiar pictographic aids of faceless entities, one sporting a Yul Bryner head and the other an over-starched skirt, were nowhere to be seen. In their place, two obscure inscriptions frowned menacingly down at me from adjacent doors. As I learnt to recognize much later, they were ? and ?, the Chinese characters for man and woman!
The emergency of the circumstance dictated a random selection. Without further ado therefore, I swiftly walked in through one of the doors, only to discover that I had committed a blunder. But the coast being clear and further delays being unbearable, there was no point fleeing. I rushed into the nearest enclosure I found and locked myself in. And then set out to heave a luxurious sigh of relief.
The sigh alas (though fortunately not the relief) was cut mercilessly short by the sound of approaching footsteps, followed by the incomprehensible chatter of a million feminine voices. My entry into the prohibited zone had obviously coincided with the Intermission. Leaving out the dubious case of Mrs. Doubtfire, there are perhaps two classes of middle-aged males who are likely to show up in the Ladies’ Room of a public building. The pervert and the unwitting. But a man in the Ladies’ Room being a man in the Ladies’ Room, members of the fair sex are not expected to verify his motives before calling in the police. And the Japanese police being Japanese, I would in turn be forced to present my case in pantomime! A Herculean absurdity, to say the least.
The only solution seemed to lie in a deus ex machina, for which I prayed fervently. When suddenly, a bell rang out. My heart jumped twice, first in alarm, apprehending the arrival of the Law, but the second time in pleasure, recognizing the bell to be an answer to my prayer. The scuffle of feet, attended by a tone of urgency in the voices, signaled unmistakably that Recess was over. I heard the ladies leave in crowded confusion, their animated conversation gradually fading into the distance, till total silence reigned once again. I opened the door a chink and peered as well as I could to check if there were human traces in the vicinity. Once assured, I strode into the corridor and slipped quietly out of the fateful building. Thereafter, throwing all caution to the winds, I walked, trotted, cantered and finally galloped along the dreaded jigoku-saka, defying the icy surface of the steeply rising street. And I stopped only when I had put in several hundred meters between the theatre and me.
Then, leaning heavily against a roadside tree, I let out the sigh of a lifetime, in utter relief.