Kanpai! (Week LX)
Thursday, December 15
I’m living a very healthy lifestyle these days. I exercise. I eat a balanced diet centered around vegetables. I eat reasonable portions. I’m doing everything I can do. And since I’m doing so well on a day-to-day basis it’s okay to occasionally color outside the lines. Today was to be one of those days.
A few days prior Moto told me about a new Burger King restaurant opening in 町田. My mouth salivated at the thought of a whopper. The King was one of my favorite fast food options back in Lincoln. In Japan I’ve only eaten it twice, the last time being five months ago. So I was chomping at the bit, pun, to chow down.
Moto and I had to decided to visit Burger King after work on Thursday night. We closed the office quickly and left the building. On the way down the elevator one of us mentioned the idea of getting a beer. I won’t say who. After a long day a beer then burger sounded great. We bought a pint from the nearest コンビニ and took a seat on the outside bench. Sari さん had even joined us for an evening beer. We sat around shooting the breeze for a while. However it was cold and we could soon feel jack frost nipping us on our noses. We recycled the cans and caught a train.
Sari went home, Moto and I went to 町田. We sat on the train feeling warm inside from our beer. We’d enjoyed the beer so much we began to talk about a second round. I won’t say who suggested it. No sooner had we arrived at the station than we bought another curb beer. We stood outside the コンビニ no longer feeling cold. We finished our beers and set out for the Kingdom of Burgers.
We walked a few short minutes joking and anticipating our delicious dinner. The beers had been an unexpected detour but a pleasant one at that. We rounded the corner and I saw the famous logo. Success! I literally ran to the door with excitement only to be stopped dead in my tracks. A closed sign and locked door barred me from walking to the counter and ordering everything on the menu. The eatery had closed five minutes earlier. If only we hadn’t of stopped for the drinks! Oh the injustice!
I looked inside at the clerks cleaning. I gave them my best pathetic/starving face. They didn’t buy it and instead laughed at me. It was hard to keep a straight face and I was soon laughing along. I looked over at Moto, “now what?”
We walked a few minutes and found a ギュザ place. We sat down and ordered our food. The food was served and we started munching. It wasn’t what I had been dreaming about it, but it was good. We polished off our plates and paid the bill. Outside we split ways vowing to get a proper burger soon.
Friday, December 16
With the year winding down I’m finding myself losing another teaching friend from work. Masato 先生, whom I met in August, is leaving at the end of December. Masato and I quickly hit it off and we’ve been getting along great. He only teaches at our schools on Friday evening and Saturdays. So getting to know him has really taken some time. Masato is a かんさい人, or a person from Kansai. Kansai is a region in Japan including many prefectures. As opposed to Kanto, the Tokyo region, people in Kansai are stereotyped as being loud, friendly & laid back. Masato is… check, check and check. When I first met Masato I found him very abrasive. I couldn’t quiet figure out why. Then it clicked. He was the most outspoken Japanese person I’d ever met. In fact he was almost American. Yep, I liked the guy.
The week before Masato’s final day I sent him an email, “let’s get a drink after work.” He was down. I emailed Trevor, who also worked with Masato. He was down too. Friday night after work Masato and I left and met up with Trevor. We returned to my favorite bar, Angie Bar. What I had intended to be a quick beer turned into a longer affair. We ordered liter beers for the first round. And 750 ml beers for the next. There was talk of a third, 500 ml, beer. I axed that idea with a reminder that we all had to work the next morning. This idea sobered everyone up and we left through the door.
It’s going to be a shame to lose Masato 先生, but I do plan to keep in touch with him. He’s definitely been a noteworthy character during my time in Japan.
Sunday, December 18
Today was our annual Kid’s X-Mas Party. X-Mas, not Christmas. I want to explore this very quickly. When I was younger my mother told me that her father, my grandfather, didn’t like using “X-Mas,” the abbreviated version of Christmas. Replacing Christ with an “X” was like removing Jesus from the holiday. Which is what the holiday is supposed to be about. I always thought that was an interesting comment and it stuck with me.
Christmas is a big holiday in Japan. It’s advertised everywhere. Christmas songs play in stores. Everyone is shopping. Yuletide is in the air. However there’s nothing Christian about the holiday. The Japanese love the commercial aspect of the season. So they go shopping and wear Santa hats. Christmas day is often a day for couples. But a lot of families with children celebrate too.
Very often we can see “X-Mas” being written everywhere, mostly in advertisements. I can’t help but chuckle when I see X-Mas. The Japanese version of Christmas is exactly like the X-Mas my grandfather would lament. It’s a bit of poetry that only I know.
Back to the party. It was a standard kids party for us. Show up at 11. Move furniture, assign activities. Open the doors, welcome the kids and round them up. Play our activities with the children, rotate them through each station. Give them a gift and a goodbye “ho-ho-ho.” Move the furniture back, take off the Santa outfit and say goodbye. Four hours in and out, with a little overtime pay to boot. Not too bad.
So the party ended at 3pm and my next party started at 6pm. I killed sometime with Mari, took a shower at home and caught a train to 町田. Party time. Moto had organized a ぼうねんかい for our futsal club. Bringing a date was encouraged. Mari and I arrived at the station and met up with my team, and their girlfriends. 16 people in total, a huge dinner party by Japanese standards. We made the walk to the restaurant and settled once inside. We had agreed to pay ¥5,000 for a course dinner and two hours のみほだい.
ぼうねんかい, as mentioned last year, are an important part of Japanese culture. Translated the word literally means “forget the year.” It’s a time for social groups to get together one last time before the new year. Almost always food and drink are involved.
The clock started and I ordered my first drink, あつかん, or hot 日本酒. It was a cold night and it had been a while since I had some good sake. The conditions were right. I slowly sipped at my hot rice wine. I ate from every plate that was placed in front of me. I talked with my neighbors. Before long the alcohol was really flowing. All around me were Japanese people with red faces. I looked at the two other westerns present, Wes & Emma. The three of us looked sober. So the party was great and it kept going for a while.
In fact I was perhaps one of the most sober, or best behaved, at the party. I attribute this partly to being a “smart” drinker. By this I mean that I don’t mix drinks. True I started with one glass of sake and then moved to beer. But then I stuck with beer. By contrast everyone around me was mixing beer with wine, and wine with liquor. This resulted in full-blown drunkenness. Still though it was a good time and no one was a bad drunk.
Finally the party ended. We packed up and bundled up; back into the cold. Our party returned to the station where we then split up. I took a train with Mari back to her station. We wanted to get a late night coffee before the trains stopped running. But the 15 minute train ride, in a hot car, and a tummy full of food and drink, met we arrived at her station dead asleep. I woke Mari and we disembarked from the train.
I could tell in Mari’s eyes that she wanted to have a coffee, but that she needed to go home and sleep. I decided to catch the next train, in the opposite direction, and go home. Mari kept me company until my train arrived. During this time we both saw an unusual thing for a Japanese person. An aggressive and persistent person.
A drunk man, in his mid 50’s, stumbled up to the two of us. He spoke to Mari in Japanese and asked “am I cuter than your boyfriend?” I could only understand the word “cute,” so I thought he was complimenting. Then he leaned in to hug her. I stuck out my arm and pushed him back.
Pushed away once he came back in, trying to grab her again. Adrenaline and testosterone flowing now, I released Mari and pushed the man away with two hands. Lowering my voice to sound more intimidating, I spoke in slow and simple English. “Go away. Now.” He stood there staring at me. I grabbed Mari by the hand and led her down the stairs to the train. “Follow me,” I said. The old man slowly followed us down the stairs muttering in Japanese.
I led Mari down one staircase and up another, making a circle. I walked her to the ticket gates and asked her to go home. She complied and I watched her leave the station. All the while I kept my eyes open for the drunkard. I needed to make sure he wasn’t going to follow her. Satisfied that she was gone and safe I returned to the platform. There waiting for the train, was the drunk man. I stood next to him and sized him up with my peripheral vision. I was twice his size, half his age and half as drunk. If it came down to a fight, I could handle my own.
The train came and I boarded a separate car from the old man. I wanted to be civil about the matter and kept my space from him. So I took a seat and pulled out my phone to check the news. At the end of the car I could see the old man staring at me through the doors. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation. Then I saw the door sliding he open. He was coming into my car. I put away my phone and sat up straight. “What is this guy thinking?”
The car was near empty. Plenty of open seats. But the old man walked the full length of the car, 20 meters, and sat down in the seat across from mine. Was he trying to threaten me? I sat up taller and leaned forward a bit. I opened my eyes wide and stared directly into his. It didn’t take long before he began twisting in his seat uncomfortably. I knew I was getting to him. I kept staring. At the next stop the doors opened and the man excused himself from the train. I stayed on guard until the doors closed and I was safely separated from him.
I couldn’t hold it anymore. I let out a loud laugh that frightened the other passengers.
“What a freak!” I said to myself.
I got home safe and called it a night. It had been a long day capped by a strange interaction. I had never been scared by the old man, but definitely put on guard. I think I had the right mindset the whole time, thanks to what my parents told me when I was a young boy.
“Alex, you can never start a fight. But you can always finish it.”
They meant that I could use physical violence for self-defense. An important lesson for a young boy. And if the old man had tried anything with me, or especially my girlfriend, I would have finished it.
Thursday, December 22
After work was our yearly staff ぼうねんかい. After work seven of us; Emma, Moto, Sari, Rie, Midori, Yasuko and myself quickly scurried out of the office. We made a short walk to a やきにく restaurant. The same restaurant where I have been taking my students for our monthly parties. We walked in and the manager gave me a knowing odd. He must have recognized me, and he must have incorrectly assumed that the Japanese people I was with were my students. Regardless we took a seat and barbecued a feast. Meat, organs, vegetables and drinks made their way around the table. At last our two hours were expired and we called it quits. Back at the station we bid goodbye to everyone and went home. My ぼうねんかい season was over!
Friday, December 23
Friday morning began early. 6 AM. It was the てのう’s birthday, a national holiday. I had made plans with Mari to celebrate Christmas two days early. We wanted to visit はこね for some time in nature. So it was early to rise! We ate breakfast and grabbed our backpacks; out the door and on a train by 7. We found a seat on the train and nodded off for a quick nap.
We arrived in town just before 9 am. はこね, if you remember, is a mountain resort. There is a central lake あしのこ around which everything is centered. Golf courses, おんせん, hotels and hiking trails. If it’s a weekend activity, it’s in はこね. We left the station and found the bus stop. We stood a while waiting for our bus. It was cold. We both hopped up and down trying to keep our hearts working and blood flowing. Amazing how a two-hour train ride from my home puts us in the mountains and subsequently much colder air. So the bus came and we jumped in for another hour of commuting, or rather, another nap.
Off the bus. On a rope way. Onto a mountain top. Into fog and snow. Snow! It was the first snow of the year for the two of us. And it totally demotivated our plans to spend two hours hiking down the mountain. Visibility was limited to 10 meters. We opted out of the hike. Instead we wandered around the top of the mountain in a shroud of clouds. It was actually kind of cool. And very desolate since most sensible folk decided not to venture up into it. Freezing cold we set back down on the rope way.
Back at the terminal we hopped a train and then found some lunch, traditional Japanese food: うどん and てんぷら. Very tasty. After lunch we visited the world-famous, okay nationally famous, ; ゆねっすん. ゆねっすん is an amusement park-like hot spring resort. There are dozens of hot pools to relax in. But it’s really famous for it’s novelty pools, such as: red wine, coffee, green tea & sake. It’s really gimmicky but also a lot of fun. The resort is advertised as being family friendly. As such the pools are coed where everyone wears swimsuits. Nice!
So Mari and I arrived at the spa with a deep chill in our body. We paid the (steep) admission fee and went to our respective changing rooms. A few minutes later and we met again on the other side. We spent the next two hours migrating between one pool and the next. The latter half was outside in the cold weather. We would enjoy one soaking before literally running to the next.
Satisfied after seeing all of the pools we moved to the second part of the resort, the traditional baths. Here we split up and got naked. I joined dozens of naked Japanese men and sat in hot mineral water. It was my first time sitting in an おんせん by myself and it was rather enjoyable. I was able to migrate from one bath to the next at my own pace. I was even fortunate enough to sit by myself in a small たる, think wooden cask. After ample public nudity I showered off and joined Mari in the waiting in the room. Let’s go home!
Bus, train, train, train, taxi, restaurant. For our Christmas dinner we ate an organic restaurant I had run by many times. It was a late dinner and so the place was very quiet. Nice for just the two of us. After dinner we took a taxi home and watched the movie “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” I’m in the process of showing Mari all of Wes Anderson’s films. Tired from the day we fell asleep. Tomorrow was Saturday and a regular day at work. I would need my strength.
Sunday, December 25
For the eighth straight day I woke up early and with a mission. It was Sunday and Christmas, and I was off to work. I put on a suit with a red shirt and green neck tie, Christmas colors. I was going to the company Christmas party.
I had been lucky enough to have been invited to attend the company Christmas party. A handful of teachers had been carefully selected to attend a special party at the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Just like the bus tour, I was assigned a group of (10) students. It was my job to facilitate a conversation for them. I did my best.
Sixty students from the greater Tokyo area had paid ¥20,000 ($250) each to attend the luncheon. It was the most expensive lunch I’ve ever eaten. Luckily it did not disappoint! The luncheon began with the hotel staff delivering a presentation about western table manners. After the speech we were treated to a six course meal. Six courses! I’d never eaten so many before!
All through the lunch the wait staff, who were all English speakers, changed our plates and refilled our wine. The party was of course another のみほだい . Which meant those wine refills were nonstop. I enjoyed a few glasses of wine when I noticed the students around me starting to act a tad tiddly. Since I was on the job, and it was only two in the afternoon, I called it quits with the drinking.
The rest of the party went smoothly. We bid goodbye to the students at the door and the party was over. After the students had left the staff, including the president of the company, stood around chatting. I had a chance to speak with many senior employees including the president himself. It was a nice chance to meet the man and try to make a good impression. I bid goodbye to the president & followed his suggestion to the elevator & the 38th floor. I walked around the top floor admiring the view over Tokyo. I never tire of looking out over the city.
Standing over Tokyo I looked down at my watch. Egads, it was already 3:30! The party was supposed to have ended at 2:00 but had run very late. I had Christmas plans with Mari and she was waiting! I took the elevator back down and called Mari from the street. The cold December wind bit at my fingers and ensured a fast call. We quickly agreed on a place to meet, 横浜. I took the subway, made a transfer and arrived in 横浜 with time to buy Mari a Christmas flower. I picked her up and we set out.
The city sidewalks were teeming with couples. People everywhere were holding hands and had silly grins on their faces. So we joined hands and joined the crowd. We wandered around the port city and looked at all of the pretty illuminations around the harbor. “Illuminations” is Japanese English for Christmas lights. Even Japanese people who can’t speak a lick of English can say “illuminations.” Before long the sun was setting and it was turning cold. We decided to have an early dinner. Mari knew just the place.
あからんが are a pair of famous shopping buildings. They are red brick warehouses that look too western to be Japanese. Inside the buildings are dozens of hip stores and a few restaurants. There we visited a very trendy cafe. The host agreed to seat us but only for an hour since we were sans-reservation. We followed the young man to our table. In fact our table was not a table at all, it was a bed. We took off our shoes and crawled into bed. Our server brought us menus and we ordered.
Waiting for our food to come I looked around. 12 beds were placed in a row and ran the length of the wall. 12 couples sat in the beds and ate dinner. Soothing techno music played over the speakers. I looked over at Mari and we both struggled to find an English adjective for the restaurant. “Unique,” was all we could think of. But good unique.
We ate, paid and left. We spent some more time walking around the harbor and decided to go home. Back at my apartment we exchanged gifts. I had found for Mari an excellent book. It was a vegetable encyclopedia. Dozens of vegetables were detailed and each veggie had three sections. nutrition and shopping information, cooking & preparation info, and gardening advice. I found the book a few weeks back and thought it was perfect for her. In turn I received a 感じ practice book and a scarf she had knitted just for me. Two wonderful and personal gifts.
After the presents we ate ice cream and watched “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I mention the movie by name because it is absolutely worth watching. After the movie we packed up Mari’s things and I took her to the station. We had completed a long weekend and Christmas, all together.
Monday, December 26
The 26th here was the 25th in the States. I was able to skype with my parents and siblings for a few hours. It was nice to catch up with them. And for a moment I was sad that I had missed two Christmases with them. No time to feel sad. I closed my laptop and took a train to Tokyo station. I met Mari outside her office. We braved the cold and went about to look at more illuminations. We caught a train halfway home and had dinner at a quaint restaurant in 下北沢. We took the Odakyu line home and split where the train does. It had been a great weekend and I was only one day away from a long holiday. がんばります!
It’s ぼねなき season here in Japan, which means: excessive drinking! I’ve now been able to witness two years of holiday drinking in Japan and it’s interesting enough to comment on. There’s three parts to it that I find interesting, the consumption, the level of intoxication and the after effects.
For reasons beyond me, people here love to mix their alcohols. I’ve witnessed fully intelligent individuals make amateur mistakes by mixing beer, wine and hard liquor. This is the surest way to make your night, and the next day, awful. As if it wasn’t enough that different drinks are being mixed, they’re being mixed in massive quantities. Because so often drinking happens during a のみほだい people force themselves to drink much more than they should. I’ve seen adults ingesting alcohol far past what their body can handle.
As you can imagine, all of this drinking results in the obvious: drunkenness. Drunk. I mean fall down, pass out drunk. Vomit on a train, urinate on a post box drunk. It’s impressive. Because Tokyo is so big and there are so many people you can’t help but see one of these things every night of the week in December. But my all time favorite is when you catch an early train and you find a drunk business man sleeping, face down, on the pavement outside the station. You’ll know he was waiting for the first train when you see his train pass in his hand. Now he’s sleeping on the sidewalk in a suit. Impressive.
All of this drinking has a relatively low impact the next day. Outrageous behavior exhibited while drunk is almost always forgiven and forgotten. There’s little stigma attached to those that make a fool out of themselves by drinking too much. Everyone is given a blank check at these parties. It’s a time to cut loose. I suppose selective memory can be a good thing.
That having all been said, alcohol is an important part of the culture in Japan. In almost all social scenes alcohol is used as a lubricant. And a cherished lubricant at that. No, I don’t see this country giving up the bottle anytime soon.
町田 (Machida)- The next station over, in Tokyo
コンビニ (Konbini)- Japanese for “convenience store”
ギュザ (Gyoza)- Chinese dumpling/pot sticker
先生 (Sensei)- Teacher
ぼうねんかい (Bounenkai)- Literally, “forget the year”
のみほだい (Nomihodai)- All you can drink
あつかん (Atsukan)- Hot Japanese sake
日本酒 (Nihonshu)- Japanese sake
やきにく (Yakiniku)- Japanese barbecue
てのう (Tenou)- The Japanese Emperor
はこね (Hakone)- A popular tourist destination
あしのこ (Ashinoko)- The name of a lake
おんせん (Onsen)- Japanse hot springs
うどん (Udon)- Japanese Noodles
てんぷら (Tenpura)- Deep fried fish/veggies
ゆねっすん (Yunessun)- A hot spring resort
たる (Taru)- Private bathtub
横浜 (Yokohama)- A city
あかれんが (Akarenga)- The Red Brick Warehouses
感じ (Kanji)- Chinese characters used in written Japanese
下北沢 (Shimokitazawa)- A city
がなります (Gan bari mas)- “I’ll try my best”