Japan, 1 Year
The highlight of the week was the second installment of my Student-Nomikai-Party series. This month I invited out all of my Wednesday students for dinner and drinks. Eight of my students took the opportunity. After I finished lessons on Wednesday night I met with students outside of work. Eight people, six from my upper-beginner-level class, one from my high level class and another private lesson student.
I led our ragtag group down the elevator and outside. We returned to the same やきにく (Japanese BBQ) restaurant as last month. We were seated and promptly ordered dinner and drinks. We raised our glasses for a かんぱい (toast) and a round of self introductions. After this exchange the we quickly broke into smaller conversations. Complete strangers were making friends with one another. A young man and woman seemed to hit it off really well and I noticed an exchanging of emails at the party’s end. The early budding of young love perhaps? I sat back and enjoyed having created such a pleasant atmosphere for these people. No time to think to myself though. Another beer was ordered for me and I returned to the conversation.
At the end of the party I called over a waiter and requested the check.
The check came and my private lesson student handed the waiter a credit card.
“No! No, no, no!” I said.
I took the bill from the waiter and returned the credit card to my student. I divided the check between the number of people present. Then I rounded down to an easy & even number. “1,500 yen,” I told them.
“No! No, no, no!” I heard the first student say.
After this everyone started handing me their money. The two senior members of the group both tried to hand me ¥ 10,000. I pushed their money away and took the requested ¥ 1,500 from the younger people. However the senior members were insistent. Very insistent. They ended up paying a little extra that kept the cost down for the others. Very nice of them.
We all said our goodbyes outside of the restaurant and made the trip home. It was a good night and an important step to the the final & grand party. A one night, one time, party for all of my students. I know I’m excited. I hope they are too.
The weekend started very early. Actually it began right after my final lesson Saturday night. I used a classroom to change and left work. I met Mari at the station and we took a train in to Tokyo. The occasion: Lauren’s birthday. We arrived midway through the dinner party and decided to meet the crew when they were finished. No need to pay ¥ 8,000 for two vegetarians to eat a BBQ for 45 minutes.
Hungry having just finished work, Mari and I set out to find our own dinner. We found a nice かいてんずし (conveyor belt sushi) joint and sat down for some good quick grub. Fortunately the business was very slow so they prepared all of our food immediately and in front of us. What a treat. After dinner, and with time to spare, I took Mari to a local pub I’d visited before. “What the Dickens” is an authentic English bar. The pub has amazing architecture, good brews and a fun atmosphere. We shared an (expensive) beer. Before long my phone chimed with a message from Elisha. They were on the move. Time to meet up.
We met Elisha at the station. The dinner party had been a success. Elisha, and her friends all had a healthy buzz. We had found Elisha but finding Lauren proved more difficult. After plenty of phone tag Lauren turned up. She was in a nearby basement. We made out way over and soon caught up with the birthday girl. Meeting up with the birthday crew it quickly became apparent to me and Mari: we were sober.
The party continued and the opportunity for last train soon passed by. The next thing I knew we were in taxis driving deeper into Tokyo. Our destination: Roppongi. Roppongi is the ward in Tokyo where many foreigners congregate. It’s a place most of us typically avoid. As we neared the center strip the cab came to a halt in traffic. We exited the car and paid the man. Time to hoof it.
A moment later and we were on the main street. It was midnight. It was pandemonium. People in costumes were everywhere. The smell of alcohol hung in the air. And I heard everything but Japanese being spoken. I shuddered. Foreigners.
Our crew entered into the nearest conbini. We pushed our way through the crowd outside and into the crowd inside. The shelves were empty except for alcohol that was desperately being restocked by the night crew. The line for the registers wrapped around the room. This was a bad idea.
Separated from my friends I shouted above the crowd.
“This is madness. Let’s find a conbini off the strip.”
My logical suggestion was met with stubborn belligerence.
“Okay. Mari and I will get a drink down the street and then meet you outside.”
So we exited the building. We pushed past hundreds of people in costumes. Two minutes down the street we found another convenience store almost empty. We bought our drinks and snacks and returned to meet our friends. However our friends never came out to meet us. They skipped us and went to party elsewhere. After an hour of waiting it became apparent: we were on our own in Roppongi.
It was now 2 AM and we were tired & sober in the center of an alcohol soaked party. We wanted to sleep. We visited a police station and asked where the nearest まんがきっさ (internet cafe) was. We were pointed into the heart of the party, destination 12th floor. We fought our way back through the crowd and found the joint. We patiently waited in line and were finally helped. By sheer luck we were given one of the last rooms.
Allow me to explain a まんがきっさ. These businesses are part internet cafe, part comic book library, part hotel. In the day time people use まんがきっさ to surf the internet and catch up on their readings. During the night-time people will rent a cubicle out to catch some sleep. Usually leaving when the first trains start running. Not wanting to read or use the internet at 3 in morning, we rented a cubicle only to sleep.
We answered the dozens of questions the clerk had and finally were assigned a room, K-206. Mari and I navigated down the hall and found the K section. We entered what looked like a large office space complete with dozens of cubicles. The lights were off and it was very quiet. A moment later we were found room 206 and entered. Inside the room was a long leather couch and two desktop computers. Mari sat down and I put my bag next to her.
“いてきます。” I said.
“いってらしゃい。” She returned.
I found and used the bathroom. I turned to wash my hands and was greeted by an ugly reflection. I had worked a nine-hour day and spent the last eight hours running around Tokyo. I looked haggard. On the way back to the cubicle I stopped by the drink bar. I poured a glass of hot green tea and got an ice cream cone. Back in K-206 Mari was already falling asleep. We ate our ice cream and drank the tea.
Bedtime. We both managed to squeeze onto the tiny couch and fell asleep to the snoring of other patrons. It wasn’t comfortable, but I didn’t care. I could have slept on a rock and been satisfied.
5 AM. My eyes shot open. I looked around the dark cubicle and felt Mari next to me. I heard whispers from far away and looked about. My vision was blurry. Dry contacts. I rubbed Mari’s back gently.
“Time to get up,” I whispered. “First train is a-coming.”
She stirred and sat up. Her body language reflected my own thoughts. We were waking up too early and too far from home. She slipped out of the room for the restroom and soon brought back two coffees. Mine was tall and black; great. We paid for the room at the counter and exited through the elevator.
“Bundle up, Mari. It’s going to be cold.”
However we were not greeted by crisp air. Instead the drunk mess we had left hours ago was still lingering. The early morning sun was beginning to shine light on the streets and the drunkards didn’t mind. Everywhere people in costumes stumbled around. Girls with smeared makeup and torn tights sat on the curb. Drunk servicemen and sketchy Japanese guys staggered down the sidewalk clutching ice-cold beers.
My sleepiness wore off. This was the kind of situation where trouble happens. My inner big brother/boyfriend came out. I pulled Mari close to me and took the lead. We needed to get out off the main street soon and onto a train out of Tokyo. We navigated the crowds all the while keeping an eye open to those around us. After a brisk walk we returned to the station. We descended the escalators to ride Tokyo’s deepest subway, 150 feet underground. The station was packed with young people doing the same as us; taking first train.
We navigated the trains and transfers without error. Finally we arrived back home just before six. We both washed our faces, took out our contacts and brushed our teeth. I spread out my futon and set the clock for 10. It was going to be a late morning in the Wheeler household.
BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP
The alarm jerked me from a dead sleep. My eyes opened halfway. Sunday morning. Time to get moving. Fortunately Mari and I are both early & fast risers. We sat up and started the day. We shared a big omelet and drank some coffee. Next up: the Tokyo Agricultural University’s 12 Annual Autumn Harvest fair.
We caught a train to Hon-Atsugi and stood in line for a bus. We stood next to and quickly made friends with a nice Japanese woman and her 10-year-old son. She had married an American serviceman some years before and were raising their son in Japan. She spoke broken Japanese-English. But because she had been with her husband for 20 years she could convey her ideas well enough. さきこ, Sakiko, was her name. So we rode the bus with さきこ & her son to the festival and enjoyed some fun conversation. 20 minutes later and we arrived at the university.
The university sat high in the foothills of the Tanzawa mountains. The University is a very well-known agricultural college 90 minutes from central Tokyo. Every year they host the harvest festival and invite the public to tour their campus. The festival didn’t disapoint. Dozens of food & drink stalls lined the main walk. Behind the stalls were tents set up selling small house plants. Further down the road was a free vegetable tent. In the student union there were scores of classrooms dedicated to research and presentations. It was an impressive set up.
Mari and I spent the whole afternoon at the festival. We ate, bought some plants, received free leeks and learned about Japanese agriculture. I was delighted by the low-cost of everything. Nothing was priced over ¥ 300. After eating all I could and buying four plants I had spent less than ¥ 2,000! I was surprised too at the organization of the event. The whole operation was run entirely by the students. I didn’t see a single staff or faculty member the entire day. Impressive!
Late in the afternoon the weather began to turn and we caught another bus back to the station. We visited the grocery store before returning to my apartment. There we made キムチ なべ, Korean soup. We diced vegetables, including the free leeks. Dinner was followed by chopped fruits and ice cream. As always it became late. I took Mari back to the station and returned home to sleep. I was already exhausted from the weekend and it was only halfway over.
Monday was spent sending emails & cleaning. I was able to see my good friend Trevor for lunch. For dinner I again saw Mari. We finished off the キンチ なべ and made plans for a possible vacation later this month. Still tired from Saturday night I took her back to the station earlier than normal. It wasn’t long before I was in bed too. It had been a good week. A great weekend. And an amazing year.
“How old are you?” This is the most common question I am asked in Japan.
“Please guess.” Is my standard reply
“あの (umm)。。。 35?”
“Why did you come to Japan?” Is usually the next question.
“For adventure.” And this answer usually satisfies the average person.
Japanese people are amazed at how westerners age. They think we all look a decade older than we are. Fair enough considering we tend to think Japanese are a decade younger than actuality. But there is something to be said about my “Japanese age.” Growing up was one reason I left the States. To have adventure was another reason. And I think I’ve done a little bit of both here in Japan.
So why did I really come to Japan? I’d like to take a moment and explore this question. Let’s make it simple and break it down.
1.) Leave Nebraska
When I was younger I moved around a lot. But from the age of 7 to 23 I lived in Lincoln. Long enough to call it my home and myself a Nebraskan. But from a young age I knew I wanted to leave home. To go somewhere new and see new things. Meet new people. So long before I knew where I was going I knew I was leaving.
Especially during my college years in Lincoln I became comfortable with my surroundings. I knew the people and the places of the city. I had a great support system. However I wasn’t seeing anything new. I wasn’t being forced to confront new realities or to question assumptions. Nor was I allowed an opportunity to grow and mature through new experiences. So it was during university that I decided I needed to move some place far from home. Some place very different.
With college wrapping up I found myself with very few responsibilities. I was single. No children. My family was grown up and didn’t need me. I was in a golden position; college educated, hungry and nothing to tie me down. I decided I wanted to visit a place where I could have adventure. Daring escapades that I could tell my family and friends about. And that I could one day exaggerate and tell my children.
4.) Challenge myself
I decided it wouldn’t be fun to relocate to easy street. I wanted to test and challenge myself. I wanted to go to a place where I didn’t know a soul. Where I couldn’t speak the language. Where the color of my skin made me different. I wanted to be independent and have to do things for myself. So for the first time I had an idea where I wanted to go out; outside of the States. Some place not run by westerners.
5.) Find myself
I have always had a healthy sense of self-confidence and assurance. At times I’ve had more than I should. But generally these qualities have been a positive force that made me take risks that resulted in great rewards. So I began to wonder what other qualities I possessed that I didn’t know about. A harrowing misadventure at Pioneers Park the spring before I left made some of these dormant qualities surface. I decided that unfamiliarity and stress could help me learn about myself. This desire to learn more about myself aided my decision to leave.
6.) Make money
As you can see I had many cliché reasons for leaving. But the real reason came down to one thing: money. I was graduating and I needed a job. I began to look around for opportunities overseas. The Peace Corps, a volunteer program and long a backup plan, didn’t pay at all. So that was out the window. I needed to pay off student loans, save something in the bank and still afford a young man’s lifestyle. So all of the above mentioned criteria came down to one deciding question: where could I work?
7.) Dumb luck
This is the real reason I am where I am today. Truthfully I had never considered living in Japan for a moment of my life. It was my professor and friend, Nick, who suggested I look into teaching English overseas. He had worked with my company before and had mostly positive reviews. I thought about his suggestion for a weekend and decided, “why not?” I got on the internet and filed a preliminary application for employment. I made the first cut and was offered an interview. I consulted with Nick before my interview in Chicago. He groomed me perfectly for the process and I came out of it with a job. So in the spring of 2010, a week before graduation, I had landed my first real job. At the time it didn’t matter where I was going. It was far from home and I was going to be making an honest dollar (or actually yen.)
Yes I have been riding high ever since I got the job offer 18 months ago. I’ve had my highs and lows. Confidence and doubt. But I wouldn’t change it for anything. Long ago I decided I wanted to be here, even if I didn’t know where “here” was. Through good fortune, and a bit of hard work, I’ve found myself in a wonderful position. It’s hard to believe I’ve already been here for a whole year. I’ve enjoyed myself so much that I might stay a little while longer.
Alex in Japan, Part II:
This is the 52nd entry in my weekly blog. A year’s worth of stories written down for you and posterity. And now I think it’s time to take the blog in a new direction. I will be changing the publication from weekly to bi-weekly. My reporting of events will look slightly different. But you can still expect long entries at a regular interval.
I would like to ask you all for something. As mentioned above this is again a lurker issue! I invite you all to make a comment and say hello. I can see how many people visit the blog but I don’t know individual visits. So say hello below. I’d love to hear from you!
Also I want your feedback! Do you have any suggestions for the new format? What’s something new that would you like to see? What kind of writings would you like to read? Any and all suggestions are welcome!
That does for it this week’s entry. I hope you have enjoyed staying up to date with my happenings. I really do appreciate your support. Your love and well wishes keeps me going even when motivation is lacking. Thanks so much and let’s catch up in two weeks!