Madoka-chan looks in my eyes and tenderly we speak about ourselves. There isn't much time so we go to the essential... She is thrilled to discover that I speak four languages and come from as grand a country as Canada. In turn, I learn that she is studying at the Gifu University on a master thesis in agroeconomics. The evening is cool and we are enjoying our refreshing cocktails... And my friends too. And the position change is soon.
I think that the concept of gokon is unique to Asia if not to Japan (I should check on that however). To date, I have been invited to four "gokons" but unfortunately not much has come out of it. Incidentally, I did not know about it during my first stay in Japan. Was it that sex appeal has increased since then? But what is a "gokon" and where does the name comes from exactly? It is basically a way for boys and girls to officially meet each other while still being with its own friends (which in most cases are of the same sex). In order words, it is a blind date in-group. Now I am underlining officially because the number of boys and girls MUST be the same. More interestingly, there must be at least one boy who knows one girl and they two are forcibly the organizers of the gokon. Finally, it usually takes place in a living bar where the waiters are extravagant and the price of the cocktails is costly. The name is abbreviated from "Godocompa". Welcome to Japanese language 101! "Godo" means group and "compa" is itself the abbreviation of companion. They removed the "do" and "pa" to make "Gokon". Many Japanese people even don't know how the word was formed in itself.
But why is it unique to Japan? The fact is that in Western countries we do date girls with friends but it would be only a coincidence if the number of boys and girls turns out to be the same... We usually don't do it systematically like in Japan. Of course, it could be only a once fashionably popular trend that endured time much like karaoke with nothing much to do with societal characteristics. And by the way it does come from a long time ago. Hiratsuka-san, a colleague who invited me to three of my gokon informed me that his grandparents did the same and called it a "gohai" where "hai" would stands for hiking (thus instead of going to a living bar, they were going camping!).
But I just felt that this concept was too peculiar and thought that it should be easy to interpret. In general, the Japanese society tends to promote groups where individuality is as a rule not a helpful value. Friendship is gold that lasts forever. As an example, Hiratsuka-san still go out regularly with companions that he met while being at elementary school! And each company's department is simply a big whole family. With this in mind, it is just normal to date girls in-group. And this brings many advantages. For one, the unwillingness of "breaking the ice" is rendered comfortable because everyone should be able to speak to everyone at least once during the evening (hence the optimum number for a gokon is three boys and three girls). And this is called comically the position change where after about one hour, everyone changes seat and will be matched with a new partner. The discussion can just change as easily.
Now this is a cool alternative. I was invited by Enya-san to a one weekend one-night gokon in a ryokan (a typical Japanese inn) located at seven hours by car. Curiously, Hiratsuka-san and Enya-san are the actual two drivers of Ecoran (see also Ecoran stories). Would racing drivers by more playboys? Thus having seven hours sitting in a minivan twice, that is plenty of time to know each other even better! The three demoiselles were coming from Nishio; a city to the South of Kariya where my Canadian friend Eric Marcil lives. Therefore, I asked if they knew Kumie Nakane, Eric's wife. The girls all gladly knew her and were chatting about how much the world was small... That was a good start... If the world is small then Canada is tiny. The trip went smoothly and good humor spread rapidly. Enya-san bought too many peanuts to eat during the trip and everyone calls him Mr. Peanut. One girl was puzzling everyone with tricky questions about what color that passing car or that building was that it seemed only the girls could answer correctly.
Finally, we arrived to destination. There stood a splendid and modern ryokan with a big hall with view of the slopes of the mountainous region. As for myself, how the evening was going to be, I could not guess at all... Well, one things was sure is that the onsen (water bath warmed by volcanic activity) was waiting for us. Colorfully brownish water fretfully bubbling, the smell of burned eggs was dizzying. A nearby fountain drizzling hot splashing water on our back could only match by the mechanical massaging chair just in the outside of the vestibule?
Smell of burned eggs humbly infiltrates the room and becomes a reminder that the onsen has not furnished his flavors. Suddenly, the girls spring up. They must bathe to that very source where liveliness will bare them and revive their vigor. Gentlemen and already rejuvenated, we agree to what will turn out to be the end of our evening. The strain of waiting kept us for a few more drinks but tiredness has fallen upon. My fellows go back to the lady of dreams while I managed to last a bit more on the massaging chair. I can hear from the outside the girls talking in the onsen.
The good night sleep has benefited and everyone rejoins at the table for the breakfast. Grilled in salt fish with rice is on the menu and eaten avidly. Today, we need to go back home but not without some sightseeing in around the ryokan and in Takayama. The glowing forest that surrounds the peak of the mountain is three hundred years old. Phosphorescent gold lichens nesting in dark holes are part of the ancestry. The stumbling trees were also glowing, faintly at first, but clearly as every leaf was edged with light. Enchanting forest for a small hiking along the falls of the nearby stream, the natural source of hot water.
Takayama meaning high mountains in Japanese is an old and traditional city. Tucked between the mountains of the Japan Alps, its sake breweries and woodworking furniture shops are famous all around Japan. Dark painted houses and markets are everywhere for tourists to be enjoyed. We eat noodles in a small restaurant and head on for the rest of our trip. The road is long but not too crowded. We eat one more dinner together late in the evening. Exchanging e-mail addresses and phone numbers is the subtle part of the gokon and could be seen almost like a scholastic rating. Personally, I got the e-mail address of the-one-I-liked-the-most suggesting a possible victory or in other words, a B+? Eh! That is a passing score!