September has passed and with it the hot months. As such we’ve stopped dressing for cool biz. Cool biz, if you remember, is professional summer wear. For men, jackets and ties become optional. This year’s cool biz ran a little longer than normal due to national energy savings after March 11. Finally though it ended. Come Tuesday I returned to a necktie and jacket. I felt strange leaving the house. But by the end of the day I felt totally comfortable in my old skin. It’s good to be back.
I’m calling this normal fashion, “hot biz.” If you work in Japan please help me spread this hip phrase!
On Friday I got a haircut. I returned to the barbershop I visited in August. From my apartment it’s a 50 second door-to-door walk. I walked in and heard the door chime “Camp-town races.” I smiled and felt right at home. The three barber chairs were filled as the owner and his wife and daughter all cut hair. I picked up a magazine and thumbed through the pages patiently waiting my turn. 10 minutes passed and I was asked to take a seat.
The daughter was going to cut my hair, same as last time. I told her, in Japanese, that I wanted to “take off a little but keep the same style.”
“はい。わかりました。Like last time?” She said.
“はい。” I returned.
So she grabbed the electric shears, flipped it on and took a huge swath out of my hair. My jaw hit the floor. I wanted two centimeters taken off. She had just buzzed me down to the scalp. I sighed and resigned. There was nothing I could do after the first cut. I leaned back in my chair and let her do her work.
The rest of the time was very pleasant. She washed my hair. Twice. Used hot shaving cream to take off my sideburns and clean up my neck. I even got a massage from an industrial floor-buffer-turned-back-massager. After an hour and some hair tonic I paid the lady ¥2,000 and left. I was extremely dissatisfied with my hair cut. Autumn is coming and I wanted long hair for insulation. I now have a buzz cut fit for the military. Except I do not want to be labeled as such. There is a social stigma attached to the troops here that can make life difficult. Still though, I couldn’t be angry with anyone but myself. Could I speak Japanese I could have been more specific about what I wanted. I returned home determined to avoid the problem next time. And so I started studying some Japanese right away.
The next day at work I had a strange cultural moment. I was cruising around the office before classes enjoying the usual Saturday morning hysteria. One of our new part-time teachers was in the teachers’ room. He was complaining about the return to hot biz and lamenting his tie.
I walked into the room whistling and reached for my coffee. He looked at me and said with a serious voice, “this is your fault Alex.”
“Haha, excuse me? What’s my fault?”
“This western fashion and stupid necktie. If your country hadn’t dropped the bombs and won the war, we wouldn’t need to wear this.”
I stood stunned. It was the first time anyone had tied me to the war in any serious way. I searched for a reply to my friend but couldn’t say anything. Not a word. Moto looked up from his book and saw me standing. I think he sensed the tension and let out a forced chuckle. I started to regain my senses and tried to talk.
“Yeah, well… I mean, I’m really sorry… But then…”
Masato realized the situation he had put me in.
“Don’t worry, Alex. I like neckties. I’m only joking.”
I let out a sigh and brought the coffee in my hand to my mouth. That had been the first time someone had pointed a finger at me for the war or bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. I was completely unprepared for it. I spent the rest of the morning with a sense of guilt hanging over me. I suppose it was good to feel guilty. Having been in Japan so long I sometimes forget the history the countries share. While it was an unpleasant experience, it was positive in the long run.
Sunday morning I watched the Nebraska-Ohio St. game. Not long ago I bought an HDMI cable to connect my laptop to my TV so I was able to enjoy the game on a bigger screen. The game didn’t disappoint and ended in a very exciting fashion. As soon at the game finished I packed up and left my apartment for the day, it was going to be busy!
My first stop was in Shibuya. Earlier in the week I had scheduled an appointment to visit the Apple store. And then Steve Jobs died. I was dreading how busy the place might be. I met Lauren at the station and we walked to the store. Outside the big glass windows were bouquets of flowers and apples with messages written on them. It was actually quiet a sight to see. I paused to appreciate the sobriety of a life lost and humanity’s ability to be respectful. However this thought quickly passed and we pressed into the store.
We walked up the impressive staircase to the technical support part of the business. I checked in with the American receptionist and was seen by an America-speaking Japanese woman within five minutes. I showed her my malfunctioning iPhone. She checked the warranty and brought a refurbished replacement. In less than five minutes we had swapped the phones and I walked away with a free replacement.
Lauren and I left Apple, left Shibuya and caught a train to Roppongi. Next on the agenda, the official football watch party of the Tokyo Huskers alumni chapter. I may have glossed over the Tokyo Huskers before. Let me fill you in briefly. This spring I helped create an officially sanctioned University of Nebraska alumni chapter. We are only the third international chapter for the University. Because of my work and recent ties to the school I have become not only the founder but the current president of the group. It’s been a lot of work but also very satisfying.
Over the summer we made arrangements to watch the Ohio State game at a bar in Tokyo. I arrived early to check in. We said hello to the owner, got a feel for the bar and left for a coffee. Over a Starbucks coffee I restored my new phone to the old settings and chatted with Lauren. It had been a while since she and I had a good sit-down together. It was nice catching up.
The party began at 5pm and we arrived back at the bar a little early. Lauren helped me communicate with the Japanese speaking staff and we prepared the room for the guests. And so the guests came. At the peak of the evening we had 26 in attendance. There were six alumni, a 150% increase from our previous meeting in April. The other 20 in attendance were friends, coworkers and others interested in American football. The University had been kind enough to send me a welcome package. So I was able to give our guests Husker stickers, Husker pom-poms, balloons & bead necklaces. For the five alumni that had come out, I gave them University t-shirts. The University even gave me a generous amount of money for our initial gathering. So dinner was provided by the school. And with the name tags I provided for guests it felt like a real party.
All through the party I moved through the crowd speaking with everyone. I asked where they were from and how they were associated with the party. I made sure each person was having a good time and would move on to the next group. All the while I kept returning to the alumni who were generally sitting together. I told them about the chapter’s developments and plans for the future. The second half of the game really got exciting and by then the alcohol had been generously flowing. So the party was lively. The Huskers secured a victory and set a school record for the largest comeback. What a night!
Too distracted from playing host, I didn’t eat or drink very much. But I still managed to have a good time. There’s something in my personality that makes me want to command a room with my voice. I love to connect with people and see what makes them tick. I really enjoyed playing the host all night.
At the end of the game I made an announcement to thank the guests and get a final “Go Big Red” chant. Over the next hour the numbers dwindled and everyone went home. Finally the time came where I said goodbye to my fellow alumni and went home. Overall it was a very successful evening.
Monday was a national holiday; たいいくの日, literally “sports & health day.” It was a normal day off for me, so nothing special. However my girlfriend, Mari, had the day off. So it was special! We had breakfast at a cafe and bought two おべんと, Japanese lunch boxes, for lunch. We put the food in my backpack and caught a train away from Tokyo. Our destination: 大山. Óyama is a popular mountain 80 minutes from central Tokyo, which means it’s only 40 minutes from my place. So we took a train and a bus and arrived in the mountains. The air was crisp and we were ready to hike.
We stepped off the public bus and were surrounded my tall green trees. Nearby a mountain river rushed by leaving the air moist and fresh. We followed the crowd up the street and through a long, paved pedestrian path. Small business lined the sidewalk selling all sorts of souvenirs. All along the way Mari translated and read me the signs.
“How tall is Mount Óyama?” She asked me.
“1,251 meters. I think.”
We stuck to the path and eventually found the cable car. We bought a round trip ticket and waited for the next departure. Soon the staff let us pass through the gates and we squeezed into the car. It felt like Tokyo. The doors closed and we moved slowly up the rickety track. The ride only took 8 minutes but saved us two hours of walking. Soon the car docked at the station and we were let out. We followed the winding path and finally came to a large Shinto shrine. Mari and I both tossed a coin into the prayer box and made a silent prayer. Mari was even kind enough to show how to properly pray at a Shinto shrine.
“Toss your coin. Clap twice and make a bow. Then pray. Finally clap one time and you’re finished!”
This was not my first time praying at a shrine. I have imitated other Japanese people when praying before. But finally I knew the proper order. Great!
After our prayer we tightened our packs and started up the centuries old stairs at the beginning of the path. After 100 or so steps we reached the next level, a dirt path. We both breathed harder. The air was slightly thinner up here. I grabbed Mari’s hand and we set forth to climb. As we climbed higher we came into fog. It wasn’t enough to obscure the path but it prevented us from seeing down the mountain. Bogus.
After almost two hours we reached the summit. We saw a sign in Japanese that even I could read.
“Ah-ha! Óyama is 1,252 meters tall. Dang, I was close!”
We walked around the top and finally found a place to sit and eat lunch. I pulled the food from my pack, it was still warm! We ate and watched a group of kids running around below. I felt the wind speed increase. The fog was beginning to clear. All around us people were happy to have made it the top. What a great day.
Before we could begin our descent I noticed a small group of people huddled near the treeline. I looked closely and saw the two deers they were looking at. I led Mari down the path and we went to see the deers up close. It was a doe and her fawn.
“かわいい！” Everyone kept saying.
Mari was enchanted. She took dozens of photos of the wild animals no more than 10 feet away. When she was satisfied we began the hike down. The fog continued to lighten and sunshine broke the trees. The sun warmed our skin and lifted our spirits. We were having a great time. We made the hike back to the station in one hour and took the cable car back down. A bus and a train later and we were back home.
The next day would have been exactly one month since Mari and I started dating. I had made reservations at a restaurant in Tokyo to celebrate the occasion. Unfortunately we were running short on time. Our clothes were muddy and were tired from the hike. So we scrapped the restaurant plans and made dinner at home. We visited the grocery store and bought food to make miso soup. Miso is a very popular dish in Japanese society. The ingredients can vary widely but we were going to make vegetarian miso, on account of Mari being a vegetarian.
Back at my apartment we chopped, boiled and cooked our dinner. Broccoli, carrots, onion, sprouts, other Japanese veggies, rice and sardines for flavoring. For dessert we split a grapefruit and a small bowl of ice cream. Satisfying. Unfortunately the night grew late and our time together was over. I walked Mari back to the station and said goodbye.
Although it felt fast, it had actually been a very long weekend. I returned home to brush my teeth and crawl into the sack. Tomorrow would be back to business.
You would never guess it but Japan has a declining population. The post-war baby boom has created a top-heavy society. These folks are now retiring in record numbers and drawing pension checks every month. The long popular trend of couples having one child has created too small of a workforce to support the aging population. This a common problem in developed countries. And a common solution to this problem: government incentives to have more children. And from my daily observations, this seems to be working.
Where can you see children? On a boat. With a goat. In the rain. On a train. In a car and in a tree. In a box. In a house. Here and there. Everywhere! (Did you see what I did there?)
Everywhere I look I see children. Toddlers, infants & pregnant women. It’s staggering to think about all of the new life that I see on a daily basis. And it’s great. I love kids. I love watching them and making silly faces with babies. And I absolutely adore the never-ending struggle between toddlers and gravity. It never gets old! As long as they’re not hurt that is.
While it seems there are more and more babies in Japan, this could also be a subjective observation. For example; I’m often out and about during the day time. When most people are at work and young mothers are out running errands. There are also more than 30 million people living in the Tokyo metro. So while I’m seeing a lot of babies they actually represent a very small percentage of all the people. Or maybe I’m just starting to get a fathering age and I’m excited to have my own kids. It’s probably a combination of all of those things.
What I can verify with my own two eyes is the increase in families with more than one child. The country had identified a problem and everyone is trying to fix it. I even think mother nature is even trying to help. It’s been seven months since the March 11th disaster. And I’m seeing a lot of women in their third trimester now. Hmm, I wonder why that is…