ぷりくら / Purikura!


The previous weekend I was contacted by my senior-most supervisor at the regional office. He was calling to offer me an opportunity. The coming Sunday was the annual bus tour. A seat had opened up at the last-minute. He thought I would be a good candidate and called my personal number. Of course I said yes. I’ve never been known to decline an opportunity. I hung up the phone and slowly counted the days until the tour.

The Bus Tour is a great opportunity for students. For a nominal fee they are taken on a bus to a tourist attraction somewhere around Tokyo. There they are fed lunch and follow an itinerary around the area. While on the tour they should practice translating and speaking English in a setting out of the classroom. 31 students attended this year’s tour.

The Tour is also a sweet for teachers. We can dress in casual clothes. We get to visit the same attractions and eat the same food as the students. Our job is to play tourist and ask the students all sorts of questions. “What does this sign read? What did the tour guide just say? Why is this important to Japanese culture?” Naturally this is perfect for someone like me, who really doesn’t any of those answers. Oh, and we also get paid.

A pleasant week of work came and went. Suddenly it was 7 AM Sunday morning. I switched off my alarm clock, rolled out of my futon and into the shower. Before long I was sitting on the train in to Shinjuku. I closed my and began to drift to sleep when suddenly, I was overwhelmed with dread. I had forgotten my map with the detailed meeting point. I was supposed to arrive early with the other teachers and prepare. I remembered only that we were to meet on the west exit of the station, and that was all.

I should briefly put Shinjuku Station in context. Shinjuku is the busiest train station in the world. It services 740,000 people; a day. It is also very big. I’ve used the station for more than six months, and still continuously get lost there. Obviously such a station has an equally absurd bus situation. As such, my prospects for finding one bus was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

I realized I was map-less with 20 minutes to the station. I began a frantic cry for help. I sent emails to every person that could possibly help me. I called both training centers in Tokyo. I called the personal desks of my many supervisors. Of course the one phone number that would have helped, the event organizer’s, was listed on the map, back at home. My train pulled to the platform and the doors opened. I was now dependent on luck.

I briskly left the west exit and was greeted by no less than 50 buses. Instinct told me my bus wasn’t in the primary area. I crossed the street and started to search. My only hope was to spot a group of foreigners standing about. Those would be fellow teachers. I combed the sidewalks walking faster and faster. A block away I saw a white man away from the station. It was my only hope, I ran after him. Just before I could see his face he boarded a bus that wasn’t mine. I looked at my watch, four minutes until I was late.

I took a breath and listened to my gut. I decided to walk north. Despair came over me as I waited at a cross walk. I was helpless and was about to blow a golden opportunity. The light turned green. I walked across the street. My eyes were searching more slowly now. I looked to my left and by chance saw four foreigners, one holding a company sign. I ran to meet them and looked at my watch. I had arrive with one minute to spare, but 14 minutes by Japanese standards. I immediately found the organizer. I faced her and gave a deep bow, “ごめんなさい, せんせい.”

Thereafter the day was great. Our tour took us to Kawagoe, which is an ancient village very near Tokyo. Here we ate the local food. Our lunch was very traditional and had five parts. All of those parts had sweet potato in them. After lunch we visited a soy sauce factory where the students translated from the tour guide. Next we made cell phone straps from locally blown glass. Our day concluded with a walking tour of the old village. Back at the rally point we enjoyed sweet potato soft served ice cream. We hopped back onto our highway bus and went home.

Throughout the day the five groups of students rotated that so that every group spent time with every teacher. I greatly enjoyed the different dynamics and skill levels of the students. One of the other teachers put it best, the tour was similar to eight hours of “lobby talk.” The teachers also proved to be very entertaining. One reasons we were all chosen for the adventure was our personalities. We are, as the Japanese say, “genki.” Translated, this roughly means “happy energy.” In American English, perhaps exuberant. All day long you could hear the genki-teachers speaking a very slow, albeit energetic voice. It was enlightening to see other people like this. I suppose it is how others may see me. As they say, birds of a feather flock together.

Finally we arrived back in Shinjuku. The teachers formed a line and we shook hands with all of the students. I thanked them for their efforts and congratulated them. After our students left we all let out a long sigh. It can be draining to give your a-game for eight hours. Soon after the students left we did the same and split up.

I hopped the Yamanote line and was soon in Shibuya; please see Shibuya Crossing. The time on my watch read 5:30. I had dinner plans at 7pm. I milled over to a starbucks and ordered a red-eye. I emptied my wallet of coins and walked away with a piping hot coffee. I slowly sipped at the drink. Within no time the caffeine was coursing through my veins and the spring in my step had returned. I had an hour to kill in central Tokyo. I decided to get lost.

It seems often that I am stranded in Tokyo trying to kill time between two meetings. I often solve this problem by getting lost. I like to wander around and take odd streets until I am thoroughly turned around. Then I use intuition to get back to my starting point. So I wandered around town, headphones in my ears and coffee in hand. I ignored the street hustlers trying to get customers into their restaurants. I looked at the young people in very trendy clothes. And I couldn’t help but notice how many white people were back in town. It seems the exodus after the earthquake was over. They were coming back. Drat.

Soon it was 7 and I was back at the station to meet my date. She and I visited a sushi restaurant I had discovered while wandering aimlessly. We ordered our favorite fish and had a pleasant conversation. In fact we had such a nice time that dinner was followed by coffee at a local mom & pop joint. However it soon grew late and we said goodnight. I did very much enjoy conversing with the young lady. Together we had perhaps my most stimulating date in some time. I hope to see her again.

I took the train home. Back in the Ono I had a few beers with a few friend and went to bed. Sunday was a success.


Monday was my usual errand day. Dry cleaners, grocery store, cleaning & exercising. In the early afternoon I was off to Harajuku. This is a town in Tokyo that is awesome. Very trendy and lots of shopping. Apparently local people in cosplay regularly loiter in the area at a famous bridge. I showed up too late in the day to see them, so I’ll have to return.

The real point in venturing to Harajuku was to see my training girls. Unfortunately Lisa will be leaving the country sooner than expected to calm her mother, who is still worried about the Fukushima plants. Since she leaves in less than two weeks, we’re trying to squeeze in all the time we can. We met at the station and walked to a most excellent okonomiyaki restaurant. The food and atmosphere were great. I’ll be going back. After dinner we did some light shopping and took our picture at a purkikura photo booth. Just like we had done during our first weekend in the country.

It’s hard to believe both how long we’ve been here and fast the time has gone. Like how much we’ve done and how much more is left.


-Just Go With It-

This has perhaps become my motto in Japan. On a daily basis I’m greeted with the unexpected. Constantly I am served the wrong food, the wrong drink, given the wrong directions and anything else possibly wrong. It’s easy to become upset when so many things fail to go your way. But really, what good is getting upset?

Being illiterate and often a mute in the Japanese language, I forgo the right to protest some things. Even if I could get my point across, it would often take too much effort. Yet other times I directly create the hassles myself. I have a problem with saying “yes” in Japanese. Usually I return most Japanese questions with a strong “hai.” Although I have no idea what was asked of me, I will always give a strong yes in return. This satisfies the curious and I am often served with a puzzled look on my face.

So instead of getting in a twitter I take a deep breath. “Well, this is what I was given. I might as well make the best of it.” This attitude has made me very adaptable and upbeat. As they say, when life gives you lemons… I like to think that being able to roll with the punches is helping to make a better person. I find myself getting upset less often. It keeps my life and the world around me in perspective. And the world could definitely use some more perspective.


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About japanesealex

Alexander lived in Japan from 2010 to 2013. He is now pursuing a career in public service in Honolulu, Hawaii.

6 responses to “Proverbial”

  1. Claudia says :

    Hate to hear Lisa is leaving. Please give her our best! Now the four are down to three musketeers:)

  2. Elizabeth says :

    Purkikura are my favorite!! I had so many from when I visited Yuki, we had too much fun with those photobooths 🙂

  3. Kristin says :

    I heard a great WWII-era popular British saying last week, and it nicely compliments your “Just go with it” attitude: “keep calm, carry on”. I hope you’re doing well

  4. Lene says :

    You have one heck of an attitude! I wish more people could “roll with the punches”. The world would be a much better place. Stay safe and God Bless!

  5. Jessie says :

    So… You had fish/coffee breath on your date. Ew!
    But I’m glad to hear the Japanese can appreciate your exuberance too. 🙂
    Miss you everyday big brother.
    Love you.

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