Makoto Morita dozed off as the tour bus crawled along the traffic-clogged 101 Freeway. It was 4 p.m. on a Friday. Only four hours earlier he and his bride, Makiko Niimi, had landed at LAX after a 12-hour flight from Nagayo, Japan.
She pulled a digital cell phone from her green backpack and checked the time. Back home in Taketoyo, it was now 8 a.m. Saturday. Like many Japanese couples, they were on a whirlwind honeymoon trip--Los Angeles, Las Vegas and home again, all in one week.
We'd met only an hour earlier, when I'd accosted Niimi as she browsed among the high-end goods in a Little Tokyo emporium. She'd eyed with understandable suspicion this woman who was either trying to tell her something or sell her something. She could have fled, but didn't.
But it was just a reporter trying desperately to circumvent the language barrier. Niimi, 29, studied my business card. Just then her husband appeared. He, too, studied it. It was painfully apparent that we were not connecting.
Still, they were either too polite or too flummoxed to invent a sudden and urgent appointment. Rather, Niimi slipped away and returned with a bilingual tour guide who, while equally puzzled, was able to explain what this was all about.
Tentatively, Niimi took a little Japanese-English phrase book from her backpack and pointed to "I'm glad to meet you." Just then, the tour guide reminded them that in 15 minutes their city tour would be departing. They agreed to let a visitor come along, and we slid into seats on a Sunflower USA tour bus.
The commentary was, of course, in their tongue, laced with English highlights: Shaquille O'Neal (who did not register on the Japanese tourists' radar), Staples Center, California, Los Angeles, Santa Monica Pier, barracuda, McDonald's, Burger King, California wine, Century City, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Whisky-a-go-go, House of Blues, Hollywood.
Leaning across the aisle, I learned that Niimi and Morita's hometown, Taketoyo, is a coastal city of about 40,000 in the south of Japan, about three hours by express train from Tokyo; that Morita, 38, is a missile engineer and Niimi an office worker for a company that makes dolls.
First stop: Santa Monica Place, where Niimi considered, but ultimately passed on, a souvenir Santa Monica sweatshirt emblazoned with a palm tree. Only the children's size fit her, and that one didn't come in a V-neck.
While the others from the bus fanned out around the mall, Niimi and Makoto were content to find a spot to sit and enjoy some freshly squeezed California orange juice. They hadn't slept much on that airplane.
Back on the bus, she and I made a breakthrough discovery: pencil and paper. Asked how she'd met her husband of two weeks, she drew two little stick figures on a flight of stairs. As we waited for the others to re-board, our bilingual guide, Yoshitaka Mukai, helped Niimi explain that the meeting had taken place in a coffee bar where she had worked as a waitress, that "she was going down the stairs and he was going up."
That was four years ago. Two years ago they had started dating.
She'd visited Los Angeles and Las Vegas with a girlfriend four years ago and knew this was where she wanted to honeymoon someday. "I want to go in America to live," she said, with an assist from Ryoko Mano, a young Japanese woman in the next seat who volunteered to help interpret. Niimi's dream is to be reborn as an American, but she knows the reality is "I am Japanese."
The bus was heading east on the 10 freeway, exiting for a spin through Century City. Morita, in the window seat, slept. We borrowed Ryoko's Casio electronic translator so Niimi could describe her hometown which, apparently, is not the most exciting of places for young people. What do they do there for fun? She giggled and replied, "Nothing." She loves Los Angeles.
The shutterbugs on the bus jumped to their feet to snap the Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive signs. It was past 5 p.m., and now Niimi was starting to wilt, stealing a few winks.
Next stop: Graumann's Chinese Theater. The couple posed dutifully in the square where Marion Davies' handprints and footprints are cemented, even though they'd never heard of Davies or most of the other fabled stars of yesteryear immortalized there. Others from the bus zeroed in on a more familiar name--Sylvester Stallone--and posed there.
As we headed back downtown on the Hollywood Freeway, the sighting of the Hollywood sign off to the left created a ripple of excitement. Morita, now somewhat revived, was among those who leapt up to shoot a photo from the speeding bus.
Final stop: A duty-free shop back in Little Tokyo. Niimi and Morita alone decided to pass. He grinned and said, "No shopping."
Both had studied English in school--but only written English, with a Japanese teacher--and we had taken to exchanging questions and answers in writing. They liked the movie "Air Force One." Yes, Taketoyo has both a McDonald's and a Burger King. And Little Tokyo is a nice place to visit, but they'd rather live in Beverly Hills.
Morita expressed surprise that Los Angeles, being desert, is so green. The width of the freeways amazed them, as did the fact that, unlike at home, they are not toll roads. Niimi finds Americans "very gentle and kind. If you drop something, they pick it up. Japanese people don't care."
On a page of my notebook I wrote, "I hope you have a wonderful honeymoon." They smiled and thanked me. At about 9 p.m., the bus dropped them at the Marriott downtown. Exhausted, they planned to turn in early. Tomorrow, Universal Studios. The next day, Disneyland. Then Las Vegas.
We shook hands warmly and Niimi took out her phrase book, pointing to "Thank you for your kindness."
She said she'd send their wedding photos.