Tuesday, December 27
Happy birthday Max! Happy birthday Jess! Today is my twin siblings birthday! I’m very sad I couldn’t be there to celebrate the occasion with you. But know that I will come home and we’ll catch up soon!
After work I did some catching up with Moto, Emma and her boyfriend, Daniel. It was the final day of work for the year and we wanted to celebrate. One beer quickly turned into several and we found ourselves in a karaoke room for an all-nighter. We sang till our vocal chords stretched and snapped. We left for a quick fast food burger and caught the first train home. I’m getting too for this.
Wednesday, December 28
I woke in the morning with two decisions already made. 1.) I was going to take some time off from drinking. 2.) I would grow a beard.
The month of December had brought with it cold weather and an excessive consumption of alcohol. Too many parties. As the month dragged on I could feel my body suffering. My waist grew while my pocketbook shrunk. Not to mention there is an upcoming marathon in two months. It would be good for my body to be in peak condition when I hit the pavement to run through Tokyo. So I decided, no drinking from December 28th until after the marathon. Two months of forgoing the sauce. No problem. In these parts, two months passes in the blink of an eye.
Secondly I would grow a beard. I had eights day off from work. Enough time to get a jump-start growing some facial hair. Without any idea how long I would keep my scruff I decided to start growing it. It’s winter and so cold. And so I should have a beard.
I lay in bed thinking about my decisions. It’s good to have goals. Time to start. I looked down my nose at my chin. I willed my hair to grow and already I could see some blond stubble.
Friday, December 30
Friday a student/friend of mine invited a few people over to his apartment for dinner and drinks. Mari and I attended together. Also in attendance were Emma & her boyfriend Daniel, Ban san & the hosts; Masaru & Masako. We sat on the floor around their table and ate a variety of food.
Masaru offered me a drink which I was sure to decline. The conversation stopped and Emma spoke up.
“Alex, I’ve never known you to pass up a free beer. What’s up?”
I hadn’t told anyone my new year’s resolution, but they already suspected something.
“No reason, Emma. We don’t have to drink to have a good time you know.”
This comment was met with blank stares. The music in the background changed songs and everyone resumed their conversations. I had passed my first encounter. Unfortunately Emma’s comment is what I will be hearing a lot of as time goes on. Drinking is ubiquitous in Japan. To not drink draws critical attention from others. Luckily I thrive on attention so I’m ready!
Saturday, December 31
New Years Eve 2011 would be my tamest New Years since I was 12 years old. Mari and I hung out in my apartment all night. We cooked dinner, watched a movie and enjoyed some television. In the middle of a conversation Mari checked her cell phone and it was 12:01. January 1st, 2012. We hadn’t even counted down! We shouted Happy New Year’s and then Mari disappeared into the kitchen.
The New Year traditions in Japan are too numerous to mention. If you’re especially interested in that sort of thing you can always check out Wikipedia. On New Year’s Eve Mari and I practiced two traditions. The first is watch the annual music competition broadcast on public television called, こはく. We watched a mix of artists singing J-Pop and えんか. I always appreciate minor moments like these when I can see into Japanese culture and try to understand how their minds work.
Back in the kitchen Mari was making a pot of hot としこしそば. It’s good luck to eat としこしそば right after the turn of the new year. It is said eating the long noodles will grant you a long life. So we slurped down a bowl and hoped for the best. And that was it. At 12:30 we decided to call it a night. Sober and tired we crawled into the futon. Good night 2011.
Sunday, January 1
The sun was shining on the first of the new year. Mari was up in the kitchen cooking ぞに, another traditional New Year’s dish. We enjoyed the vegetable soup and chewed away at the おもち in our bowls. おもち is a chewy rice cake served for the New Year. As you may know, the Japanese have a serious challenge before them during the new year; they have to eat until they can’t eat anymore. Most of the food is traditionally associated with good luck. In modern times people eat the food because that’s what they’ve always done. The superstition of “good luck” is still present, and certainly stronger than in the West, but in Japan tradition trumps superstition.
After our “lucky” breakfast we visited a local shrine. We prayed, bought fortunes and charms, for good luck of course. By this time the sun was rising above the buildings, the clock neared 9 AM. Mari’s mother called her and asked her to return home. New Years is to the Japanese what Christmas is to the West, a family holiday. I didn’t want to keep Mari any longer and so returned her to the station. She was going to visit family, visit shrines and eat too much all day. January first is a good day in Japan.
Alone for the rest of the day I busied myself cleaning my apartment, studying some Japanese and going for a run. It was an uneventful day but a nice break from the norm. I retired for the evening hoping for a year better than the previous. All though last year is going to be tough to top!
Monday, January 2
I woke with sunlight falling across my face. My body needed to recover following my run so I had slept longer than anticipated. Quickly my mind raced to remember my dream. I had visited an おんせん and ate すし. A very Japanese dream. Another Japanese New Year’s tradition is to remember your first dream of the New Year. Dreaming about Mt. Fuji, birds or an eggplant are considered the most fortunate dream. I suppose my Japanese-esque dream was a good sign too.
In the afternoon I visited a local department store and bought a new ふとん. My old bed had become paper-thin and it was time to invest in a new one. I dropped a sizeable amount of money for a new mattress and toted it home on foot. I placed the new ふとん on top of the old one. Sleeping that night would be heavenly.
For dinner I joined Moto back in 町田. The next day would be his birthday and I was to treat him with a burger. Not just any burger, a Burger King. We made it to the restaurant before closing time and I opened the door. My nostrils were greeted with a familiar scent. My mouth began to salivate. We ordered our burgers and onion rings. We enjoyed the greasy goodness and caught up. It was our first time together since a week before. After our meal I gave Moto a Dragon Ball Z gag gift and a promise to do it all again next year. Here’s hoping I’m still around.
Tuesday, January 3
The final day of Mari’s holiday and she opted to spend it with me. We went to the store first thing in the morning and bought ingredients for lunch. We were having a picnic in the park. We made three delicious sandwiches: tuna fish, guacamole and egg. We packed up and set out for a park near Mari’s house. The park was teeming with people. We found a bench squarely in the sunlight and enjoyed our whole wheat sandwiches and juice boxes. A stroll through the woods on the winding trails was in order. After which we ventured back and returned to the city. It was a good day spent with the best person in the best conditions. No complaints.
Wednesday, January 4
My final day of the break. I stayed busy in the morning and went for a run in the afternoon. I left my house with only one goal, find the pedestrian tunnel under the American military base. Using Google Maps I had located what appeared to be a shortcut under the base to the river. I would try to find the tunnel after which I would run to one of many train stations, depending on my condition, and hitch a ride home. So I started running. And I kept running. I found the tunnel and the river. I crossed the river. Across from me was the Tanzawa mountain chain. It was very motivating running towards the mountains. So I kept running.
I felt like a running machine. My legs were powerful pistons that kept propelling me forward. My breath was calm and steady. The music in my headphones was uptempo. The sun was shining. The air was warm. The conditions could not have been more perfect. I found the mountain and ran parallel with it. The air turned cold. The sun was beginning to set. I lengthened my stride. I picked up the pace. Before long I found the train station, Isehara. At the station I stretched in the now cold mountain air. I looked at the jogging application on my phone, complete with GPS. I had run 25 km (15.5 mi) in two hours and twenty-five minutes. Expending approximately 2,000 calories in the process. I was beat.
A quick train ride later and I was back at home. I cranked the heater in my room but still had a strong chill in my core. My body had no fat on it to act as insulation. No longer drinking, no longer lifting weights and living off a near vegetarian diet has turned me into a very slender young man. The cold mountain air had cut through me and I couldn’t shake it off. So I slipped in the shower for a steamy rinse. Back in my room I stretched my tired muscles and soon got to bed. My body needed extra rest to rebound after such an exercise.
Sunday, January 8
Today was Mari’s 25th birthday. She’s a quarter of a century old and nearly half a century wise. But still with the spirit of a girl. I had asked her earlier what she wanted to do.
“I want to see the ocean.”
I smiled and was happy to oblige her.
We traveled to 江ノ島 beach. An hour south of my apartment and we could smell the salty sea water. We spent the majority of the day near 江ノ島 island. Looking in old caves, climbing the jagged rocks and of course praying at the temple. We took an elevator to the top of the lighthouse and looked down below. You could see the Pacific Ocean to the south. To the north was Tokyo. The Tokyo Sky Treecould be seen 60 kilometers (31 mi) to the north. To the west was Mt. Fuji. I could have admired the view all day but the sun was setting and the wind cut through my coat.
Back on the ground we navigated the Sunday crowds and found the station. We skipped a few stops down the line and came to our restaurant for dinner; ビルズ. Pronounced Bill’s in English. Moto had previously visited the spot with his girlfriend and had recommended it. He was even kind enough to call ahead and make a reservation on my behalf.
So we arrived at the dimly lit joint and I was met with immediately with two thoughts.
“This is a really nice place. And I wish I hadn’t of worn jeans.”
I said the former and thought the latter. The host showed us to our table and helped remove our coats. We ordered from the bilingual menu, always appreciated. Zucchini fries for an appetizers, pasta was next followed by the best swordfish I’ve ever eaten. For dessert we had a stack of fluffy pancakes. The food wasn’t gourmet, but it was fantastic.
Really though I was most impressed with the service. The reservation was in my name and it was clear to anyone that I was treating my girlfriend to a dinner. Our server played all of this perfectly. When speaking, he looked at me, even though I didn’t understand 80% of what he said. Whenever he served us food he would place the cutlery on my side of the table, so that I might serve Mari first. He waited to bring us our dessert until after Mari had opened her presents. He was at our every beck and call. The servers in Japan do not work for tips. Which was a shame since this guy earned a 50% tip. Instead I gave him a firm handshake and said “thank you.” Purposefully I used English.
Our table at dinner looked out over the beach. But because it was night we couldn’t see very much. So after dinner we went downstairs and walked down to the shore. The full moon could be seen high in the sky above us. The sound of waves crashing in front of us drowned out the city behind us. We breathed cool salty air into our lungs.
“Hey Mari,” I said. “Here’s the ocean.”
She hugged my side and let out a “ありがとうございます。”
“どういたしまして。” I returned.
A train ride later and we were back home.
Monday, January 9
Monday was a holiday, “Coming of Age Day.” In Japan a person becomes an adult on their 20th birthday. They have full rights and responsibilities as an adult. Once a year there is a national holiday to celebrate all the people who turned 20 during the last year. Young women wear kimonos, young men wear suites. All day they go to parties and attend celebrations. For the rest of us we get a day off from work.
For lunch I had lunch with Mari, Elisha, Lauren & her new boyfriend. We ate at Vietnamese restaurant in Ikebukuro that Bill Clinton had visited during his presidency. Cool. It was a great for me to spend time with both my friends and girlfriend. Everyone seemed to get along and we made some tentative plans for the future. After lunch we split ways. Mari and I walked the streets of Tokyo with no real direction for hours. Finally the sunset and we went home. For dinner we cooked up my new favorite food, curry! Mari went home and I settled down for the coming week.
It has been another successful two weeks in Japan.
-The Cost of Living-
Tokyo is consisted as of the five most expensive cities in the world. Well let me tell you first hand that is absolutely true. technically I don’t live in Tokyo, but for all intensive purposes, I pay the Tokyo price on everything I do. This means my modest salary is actually rather paltry compared to what I could be fetching in a different area. No matter. It’s a fact of life so I have to live with it.
Let me give you some examples of cost here. A loaf of bread (8 slices) is ¥188 ($2.44) & a liter of milk is ¥200 ($2.60), a train from my station to central Tokyo is ¥380 ($4.94), a McDonalds #1 combo is ¥700 ($9.10), my bare bones cell phone is ¥7,000 ($91.02) a month, utilities are ¥14,500 ($188.53) a month, rent is ¥54,000 ($702.12) monthly. And the grand daddy of it all are the taxes, ¥53,723 ($698.52) in monthly deductions. This means approximately ¥130,000 ($1,700) is cut out of my paycheck before it’s even-handed to me. Then I need to buy groceries and other basic necessities. This means I spend ¥150,000 ($2,000) a month simply living. Ouch.
The exchange rate is heavily in my favor right now. Today the dollar sold for 76.91 yen. That’s the lowest it’s been since the end of WWII. It’s a double-edged sword for me. It makes shopping here very expensive. But it makes wiring money home very enticing. As enticing as paying back student loans can be.
Mind you I spend. Enough that careful budgeting means some fun can be had. But I’m a single guy living an extended college lifestyle here. I don’t plan on having a family or buying a home here anytime soon. Just thinking about financing that makes my heart skip a beat. Yeesh.
こはく (Kohaku): Music singing competition between the sexes
えんか (Enka): Traditional sounding Japanese music
としこしそば (Soba): Another type of Japanese noodle
ぞに (Zoni): A traditional Japanese New Year’s soup
おんせん (Onsen): A Japanese hot spring
すし (Sushi): Raw fish
ふとん (Futon): A traditional Japanese bed
町田 (Machida): My nearest Tokyo train station
江ノ島 (Enohsima): A nearby coastal area
ありがとうございま (Arigato gozaimasu): Thank you
どういたしまして (Douitashimashite): You’re welcome