Shinjuku from afar


This was a very innocent week. There were no conversation classes or kids’ lessons. Thus 75% of my regular classes were cancelled. I made the mistake of being too proactive early in the week. So as the latter half came around I found myself doing the most mundane chores to stay busy. I’ll be very ready for the next week of classes.


Sunday I visited the optometrist. After seven month I finally exhausted my contact supply and needed to order a new set. Positively sure that I couldn’t manage a doctors visit alone, I asked for my assistant manager, Sari san, to help me. What followed was a series of new experiences that kept me chuckling through the whole process. Let me explain.

Sari and I met Sunday morning at the station. There is a doctor’s office on the top floor of our building, how convenient. We met just before 10 AM and took the lift to the top. Unfortunately they wouldn’t begin seeing patients until 11. We put my name on the list and left for a cup of coffee. Downstairs at the starbucks Sari and I enjoyed our caffeinated beverages. I also enjoyed having the opportunity to chat with my associate alone for the first time. We talked and drank and finally returned upstairs.

10 minutes after 11 my name was called over the speaker, “Aretsuanda.” We hopped up and walked over to the assistant. She looked me in the eye and asked if I spoke Japanese. I politely said no and nodded to Sari next to me, “but she is here to help me.” I was seated on a swivel chair and the examination began. Two puffs of air were blown into my eyes. A bright light was focused on my pupils.

I passed both tests and crossed the aisle to another seat. Here my eyesight was tested. I covered one eye and was asked to read the increasingly small font. However this proved difficult because she asked me to read Japanese. I at first did as she asked and read the Hiragana out loud. “あ。。。き。。。す。。。て。。。ろ。。。” I started strong and quickly tapered off. While I have been recently studying this Japanese phonetic alphabet, I only know half of the characters. Everyone laughed as my stupidity showed. Apparently I wasn’t the first clueless foreigner through their doors. The young lady switched the slides and instead of Japanese I saw circles. Each circle had a break somewhere in it, it was my job to point to the breaks. “Noon… 3… 7… 9…”

Eventually the lady was satisfied with eyesight. She then wanted to test my near vision. She held up a book of tiny numbers and asked me to read them. With young eyes, I passed the test well. She then pushed the book close to my face and asked me to tell her when I saw doubles. The book touched my nose and I finally saw doubles, “hai,” I said. “What a strange, inexact test,” I thought.

The next strange test checked my… depth perception. I put on special glasses and was asked to look at 3D images. I laughed out loud at the butterflies whose wings were flapping. Again, this was a new test.

Finally the young optometrist began to test me for the best lenses. In the states this is done with a massive device that looks best like binoculars and is attached to a crane. You know the device, the one where they flip lenses. “Which is better, 1 or 2? 1… or 2?” Instead of this device I was asked to wear a bulky pair of glasses of my face. The technician then opened a drawer with 100 different lenses. She set about changing lenses right on my glasses, still on my face. After eight minutes of this we finally found the correct pair. She gave me a pair of contacts to try on and I was off to the doctor to see how they fit.

The doctor, a sweet lady in her 60’s, asked me to have a seat. Again, I was asked if I spoke Japanese. I said no and before I could motion to Sari san, she replied in English, “okay, that’s fine.” She dimmed the lights and I rest my chin on a strap. She pointed a bright light in my eyes and magnified it with a piece of glass. This was familiar to me so I was very relaxed. I was however jolted out of my seat when she reached to my eye and spread my eyelids open. I jerked back from her, “whoa, warn me next time!”

I left her room and waited in the lobby for my prescription. A new, young doctor brought me the prescription. He explained to me, in Japanese through Sari, that the new contacts weren’t as powerful as my American lenses. They could prescribe stronger lenses if I wanted, but they assured me these would probably melt my eyes. “Yeah, whatever, I’ll take your suggestion.” This was of course a thought and not said out loud. I said to him, “はい、わかりました。” I figured doctor’s knew better than me.

Sari and I then proceeded across the hall to the business side of the office. I gave the prescription to the man behind the counter. The same man who had just handed me the slip of paper, the doctor. I laughed out loud. He explained to me how to wear contacts and sold me three months worth. I paid the man and left.

I walked away moderately satisfied with the whole experience. To recap, I entered an optometrists office on a Sunday with only my nationalized health care card and no appointment. I was seen one hour later, the whole process taking about 90 minutes. I paid ¥1,500 to see the doctor and ¥8,500 for three months of contacts. After conversion, this is about $110 dollars. All told it wasn’t a bad experience and it proved socialized health care can work effectively. Although I’m still not thrilled about the $300 dollars the feds take from me every month!

After the doctors, I treated Sari to a Korean lunch. Her assistance had proven invaluable and I wanted to show my appreciation. We ate food and split up. I went to the grocery store and bought five or six different vegetables. I went home and sautéed my groceries. I packed the food up in tupperware and left again, this time for Shinjuku.

Sunday night Lauren hosted a few of us for a potluck dinner. Slowly we all trickled in to her new apartment in Shijuku. For a short time it was only Lauren, Elisha & myself at the apartment. We took to Lauren’s roof with a cold drink and enjoyed the cool June evening. In the distant the skyscrapers of Shinjuku ward stood tall above the other buildings. “This, is the city. This, is Tokyo,” I thought to myself. The girls and I joked around and caught up with each other. We did take a somber moment to reflect on the departure of our friend, Lisa. It was the first time we’d all been together since she left. But before long more of our friends arrived and we took to Lauren’s living room for dinner. We finished the night with a quick hour of karaoke before going home.

Monday brought my usual routine. Chores. Errands. Gymnasium. Studying. During the evening I listened to the sounds of Pearl Jam and packed suitcases for my move the coming week. At midnight I turned off the light and crawled into bed.

-Listening to Context-

Much of my survival in Japan has been dependent on context. I continuously manage to navigate situations where Japanese is being spoken at me. I do this by being aware of the context of the situation. I am able to register an occasional keyword but otherwise I make my decisions on awareness of my surroundings.

Take for example last week. I was having coffee with a Japanese person late at night. A barista interrupted our conversation to tell us something in brusque Japanese. The Japanese person and I both replied with a “hai.” “Did you understand what he said,” my friend asked. I sipped at my coffee. “Not at all. But I’m guessing he told us they’re closing soon and that we should wrap it up.” My friend returned a puzzled look, “how did you know that,” she asked. I looked at my watch, “well it’s a quarter until 11. The baristas have been cleaning coffee pots for 20 minutes and the cafe is thinning out. So logically they’re closing. And based on the man’s intonation, he wants to go home. So we should leave.” I finished my coffee and set it down. “Alex, I am impressed.”

This is a rare case where my contextual presumption was verified. Normally I operate alone and have no one to certify my presumptions. But based on the lack of negative feedback from assuming all the time, I’m going to guess that I’m fairly accurate. This is a skill that I’ve only become aware of. I think it’s a great ability to have, in or outside of my language zone. By itself, contextual listening is not enough to survive off of. But as a tool alongside many others, this has helped me make the best of my time in Japan.


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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.

3 responses to “Contextual”

  1. Randy says :

    Interesting observation about contextual listening. Sounds like you might want to develop a lesson plan on contextual listening for your students!

    All the best.


  2. Lene says :

    I hope implied conversational understanding always work for you. If not, you could end up with someone or going somewhere you don’t really want to go. Remember what your mom said about talking to strangers!

    next I want to hear about your trip to the doctor for your annual exam (bend over and cough)

    have a great week!

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