Tuesday started out nice. One of my private lesson students came for class per usual. She brought with her a lunch, for me. Once a month my student goes to a cooking class at a local army base. She, and a bunch of other obachans (like grandmothers) get together to cook. One month they cook Japanese food the next foreign food. My obachan has taken a liking to me and always brings me her leftovers. And I love her for it! Today’s lunch was a slice of quiche, a big Chinese salad and a slice of lemon meringue pie. What a treat!
Besides bringing me a delicious lunch once a month she and I have some fantastic conversation. Her English level is very low, but she’s an incredibly intelligent person and she’s led an amazing life for over 70 years. Today we discussed the Japanese belief that a person’s blood type influences their personality. I’ll come back to this idea in a few weeks.
Otherwise the work week was without incident. I worked hard and was sure to earn my keep. Before I knew it, it was Saturday night and the week was over.
The weekend started early. Very early. 4:30 AM to be exact. I woke up early to watch the Husker football game. The game was broadcast from Lincoln at 2:30 PM, the opponent: the Washington Huskies. It was the third time in less than a year the two teams played and we were looking for vengeance from a bowl loss last season. It was a game I didn’t want to miss. I set my alarm clock the night before and woke up with the birds.
The game went back and forth for the first half before our boys blew it open in the second. I’m sure my neighbors have a new opinion of me. I expressed the normal range of emotions, and vocabulary, during a Husker game. In the end my team won and the world seemed right. I looked up from computer, it was only 9 AM. I slipped on my sneakers and was out the door for a run.
I had a great long run at a brisk pace. 10 KM / 6 MI in 50 minutes. I returned home before 10 sweating like a pig and feel like a Husker that just ran over Washington. Back at home I did the dishes, laundry and swept. When the sweating had stopped I took a shower and ate an early lunch. At noon I sat down with a cup of coffee and proceeded to study some Japanese. I might have to start all of my weekends so early. It felt great!
Early in the afternoon I received a phone call from my buddy Joe Norseen. Norseen was a guy I had met back in college. We were only introduced a year before I left but we got a long very well. I wouldn’t say we were close, but we were birds of a feather, so to speak. Norseen had recently began a spiritual journey and was visiting Japan for a month. For one week he had been staying in Nagoya, several hours south of me. However for this weekend he had skipped some trains and made it up to Tokyo. After a half-dozen emails we made arrangement to meet. And now he was calling me from the station.
We met up and had a late lunch. We took a stroll to stretch our legs and catch up. We returned home and both took a long nap in the late afternoon sun. With the sun setting we woke up. Showers were in order before we walked to the grocery store to pick up some dinner. We brought it back home and followed the grub with a few beers. Finally at 8 we laced up our kicks and set out for the night. We visited the HUB in Machida so he could see a western bar. Next up we visited the Ono. By chance we crossed paths with one of my friends who was on a mission. His mission would soon become ours.
My friend, Masaru, had been at a drinking party earlier. He and his friend had split off to visit a girls’ bar. He drunkenly invited us along and we accepted. You may recall my earlier visit to a girls’ bar with Hamish many months ago. This joint was much nicer than that. To recap, a girls’ bar is very harmless. You pay a cover charge and buy expensive drinks while being waited on, and talking to cute girls. So the four of us walked in, two Japanese and two Americans. The six girls behind the bar greeted us and gave us each an oshibori. We ordered drinks and made ourselves comfortable. The girl who spoke the best English came down to our end of the bar and introduced ourselves. We were off.
I later asked a different Japanese friend why men visit girls’ bars. He contrasted Japanese bars with Western bars. In Japan, you are not afforded an opportunity to mix and mingle with people you don’t know. So many men have to settle by visiting a girls’ bar to meet women. Seemed silly to me. Why not just visit a western style bar in Japan if that’s what you want?
Back to the story. Having recently acquired a girlfriend, I was not very interested in flirting with the girls and had no delusions about what kind of establishment I was visitng. My friend, Masaru, is married and also not interested in anything. However our friends were both single and very interested. So Masaru and I both played wing man for our buddies. The evening consisted of darts, karaoke and lots of oshiboris. The hot towels were handed to you every time you returned from the bathroom. Twice I found myself making trips to the head only to check my hair, and get a steaming hot towel when I took my seat.
Finally the time grew late and I forced Norseen up and out of the bar. We paid an absurd amount for our two beers and left. But not before Joe could get one of the girl’s numbers. Good for him. A train ride and ramen later we were home and in bed. What a day.
Sunday came early. I can rarely sleep well after drinking. And so I had us up earlier than Norseen would have liked. We lounged about the apartment licking our wounds from the night before. We made a trip back to the store to buy some foods. We both wanted something fresh and healthy-ish, to restore our strengths. We decided on curry. Back at home we made a tremendous pot of curry and rice. We ate as much as we could and laid back down for a short nap.
As mid-afternoon approached we pulled ourselves together and took some trains to Yokohama. Before coming to Japan, Norseen had done some research and found a great climbing gym in Yokohama. Through multiple emails, Norseen had received an invitation from the owner of the gym. He invited Joe to visit the gym and also to put him up for a week. So Norseen would spend the next week staying at the owner’s house and doing some sweet outdoor things. This was the kind of club I wanted to hook up with.
We arrived at the gym, called Teko Cave. It was very small but awesome. The owner had built everything himself and turned the small room into a cave for bouldering. Awesome. We spent the next few hours climbing and chatting with the locals. The owner, Carlos, is a fascinating guy from Brazil. Two climbers were Japanese and the third German. Carlos told me how they regularly make outdoor trips. I was thrilled to meet him and find such a group. Expect some amazing adventure stories in the near future!
After climbing, Norseen and I visited a kaiten zushi restaurant. We got our fill and walked back to the station. We shook hands and said goodbye. He was heading back to the gym to stay with Carlos. I needed to return home for groceries and preparation for the coming week. Earlier at the gym we had made tentative plans to try to go surfing the next Monday. So we would hopefully see each other again. We said goodbye and I went home.
On the train home I did some reflecting on the time I had just spent with my friend. Norseen had inadvertently made me aware of some of the changes I’ve gone through since moving here. It’s a minor thing, but for example; sitting on the train my friend spread his legs both wide and long. The extra room he took to be comfortable made the people on either side of him, myself included, uncomfortable. When he stretched his legs into the aisle people gawked and avoided coming near us. At first I was mortified by such behavior. Then I thought about it. He didn’t know train etiquette. There was no way he could. I only knew it from living here. Then I thought that he was rude for making his comfort more important than mine. Then again I realized that I was thinking like a Japanese person. And 10 months ago I would have done the exact same as him. I was becoming more Japanese.
I made one more insightful observation while my friend was visiting. My politics and greater view of the world has been altered since I came here. The night before we had discussed international politics and humanity’s role in the world. Norseen was making some very liberal and idealistic comments and sometimes said a few things that were pretty far out there. I myself argued and challenged his points from my own opinions. It was very apparent that we were on different pages. A year before and I would have agreed with Norseen on many of these issues. “Alex, you’ve changed man,” he told me. Indeed I have.
In Japan, confrontation, at all costs should be avoided. In the United States, seeking confrontation can get you places. I feel like I’m not caught between two worlds. I was raised to enjoy it and now I’m told to shun it. I feel like there is Jekyll & Hyde battle inside of me!
Harmony is very important to the Japanese. Whether it be the flower arrangement, zen garden, or between people, harmony is a must. Confrontation damages the important harmony and is thus discarded in Japanese culture. It is better to lay down and accept something than to protest it.
In the US, you should scream and moan if something is unfair. Be loud and get in some one’s face if they’ve wronged you. Stand up for yourself!
So what am I supposed to? While I seldom sought a confrontation back home, I was not at all adverse to it. I would stand up for my friends or myself in a heartbeat. But now that I’ve been in Japan for a while I’m finding that this trait is being unconsciously suppressed. Take for example two weeks ago:
When walking through the streets of Harajuku with Elisha we could see many club owners trying to get people into their businesses. They mostly solicit young women and are very aggressive when they do so. They harass and touch and follow the girls. I find it disgusting. So does everyone else. However on this day I was approached for the first time. A big Nigerian locked eyes with me as I walked by. He wanted my business. He tried talking to me and I told him, “no thanks.” He wasn’t satisfied and so grabbed my wrist and I walked by. My eyes became huge and my heart went into overdrive. Still walking, I turned around to him.
“Please don’t touch me.”
These were the only words I could squeeze out. The Alex from 10 months ago would have sucker punched the man in his face out of instinct alone. Now I could only tell him, politely, not to touch me. I pulled my arm back and walked away. I felt violated that someone had invaded my personal space. But mostly I was shocked at myself for my mild reaction to such behavior.
So it’s my conclusion that Tokyo is making me soft. I’m so used to feeling safe everywhere that I go that I no longer need to have a guard up. I think there is really something to be said about that. That this city is so safe that I’m not ever worried. It’s all about the harmony. I love it. But at the same time, I don’t want to compromise my instincts that are important for the world outside of Japan. Maybe I’ll move to to New York next. You know, toughen myself up.