February 3, Sunday
I went into the mountains with the staff from Akita. For the third time this year I strapped onto a snowboard and tried not to kill myself.
The task proved to be a challenge. Rain, and not snow, had covered the mountain through the night. The slopes were covered in ice. Perfect for going fast, deadly for stopping. Still though, I managed to do well. I only had one wipe out the whole day. I can now safely say that yes, I can snowboard.
Feb 4, Monday
I spent the morning in Starbucks drinking coffee and surfing the web. Between cups I saw a foreign couple standing near the door. They were flipping through a phrasebook and looked frustrated. I approached them and made a pass.
“Need a hand?”
“Ohh, yes please. Thanks mate.”
They were Aussies.
They told me what they wanted and I helped them order. I didn’t need Japanese to order. I just spoke English with a Japanese accent. You’d be surprised how well this works sometimes.
After ordering we stood around chatting for a few. I quickly became aware that my English is awful. These were two fresh foreigners with non-adjusted speech. They spoke fast, ripe with slang and half-finished thoughts. It was literally a challenge for me to follow along with them. Whenever they finished speaking I would follow with a three second pause.
“Yeah, mate, it’s just so bloody hot in Canberra we had to jet. So we came up to Japan and it’s really great. Everyone’s so nice here. Really friendly. And this is the first time I’ve seen snow. It’s beautiful. So we’re going up the island, south to north, using the trains and enjoying ourselves. The fish is great. Bomb, really People are great. And they’ve got Starbucks too. Not bad, ehh?”
“… Yes, it is hot. Do you like coffee?”
I’m pretty sure they thought I was an idiot. They looked at each other as if to say, “is this guy really a teacher?”
Before long they were out the door and I was back at my table. “Crikey,” I thought, “…they speak fast!”
My birthday! I’m not really sure how old I am anymore. I think somewhere between my late-teens and mid thirties. It depends on the day and my mood. More important than the number is the cake. Cake day!
The staff at Akita surprised me with a cake on my birthday. Actually it was a shared cake with the other teacher, John. After work we sat around eating cake and chuckling. It soon grew late, but who’s counting?
I returned home to grab my suitcase and returned to the station. I was taking the night train, the Akebono, あけぼの. I departed Akita (秋田) at 9:30 PM and would arrive in Omiya, north Tokyo, at 6:00 AM. Night train!
A quick aside about transportation in Japan. It’s expensive. The cheapest time to travel is during the night. Normally people will take night buses to save some money and catch some zzz’s on the way. Through luck and research I found a night train. This is actually unusual. I don’t know anyone who has used a night train before. I was going into uncharted territory.
At the station I boarded the train and found my room. My cabin! I set down my bag and took a few pictures. I climbed inside and closed the door. It was tight. Like a capsule hotel. But I didn’t care. It was awesome! I slid open the full length window cover and looked out. I could see the Japanese countryside covered in snow and moonlight. I laid down and did my best to sleep. It was hard with the excitement, but I managed.
At six I left the train and entered a busy station. My first time back in Tokyo in five weeks. My first thought: human traffic. There were people everywhere. People standing. People walking. People sitting. People. People. People. I had forgotten how many people are in Tokyo. Wow.
A few trains later and I was in Yokohama. I met Mari for the first time in a month and began my birthday celebration. She had planned out the day in great detail and gave me an itinerary.
To the museum! It was great. A celebration of the inventor and invention of instant ramen. The tour was topped off by making our own Cup Noodle. We decorated the package and chose our flavors.
The zoo! We visited the free Yokohama City Zoo. Most of the time was spent looking at the chimpanzees. I had never seen a chimp in real life before. It was amazing. They were so human. So, so, so human. My soul shivered when the big chimp looked at me in the eyes. It was like he knew who I was.
To beer! We joined a tour group and learned about the biggest brewing company in Japan, Kirin. We learned about the brewing process, packaging and recent efforts at environmentalism. The whole tour was in Japanese, but I got the gist of it. Oh and we had free beer samples at the end!
We went north to Ikebukuro (池袋) and saw a planetarium show about constellations. Again in Japanese, but I could enjoy the great visuals. I was also surprised to learn the Japanese didn’t name constellations. So they use the latin names the same as the West does.
Dinner at a comfortable mom & pop Italian joint. I wish I remembered the name, it’s worth a visit!
It was a great day and Mari really outdid herself. I appreciated everything she had done for me. And I was happy to be reunited with her.
The next day Mari and I met Lauren, Elisha and her new fiance, Yoshinori. We had a birthday lunch at a Mexican restaurant. Elisha is engaged, Lauren is going home, soonish, and I’ve been exiled in snow country. We all had a lot to share.
That evening I met up with Trevor who wanted to buy me a birthday beer. How could I say no? One beer turned into many, and we ate some kebabs for dinner. We entered an arcade and lost ourselves in games. Out of tokens I looked at my watch. It was midnight. Oops. We both missed our last trains. Luckily I live close to central Tokyo. We caught an alternative train and made the last leg home on foot.
We got home late and promptly crashed. I feel like I’ve done this before…
The next morning came too early. I found myself on a bullet train (新幹線) back to Akita at 7:30. Back north and back to work. Work hard, play hard.
Waste Not, Want Not (もったいない)
There is a popular Japanese word, mottainai. Translated it roughly means “a deep regret for an irredeemable loss.” When spoken it means, “that is wasteful.” It has such deep meaning in Japanese life that I myself have not only adopted the mantra, but I urge others not to be mottainai.
I should clear the air now and say that I’m an unapologetic environmentalist. I don’t support E.L.F. But I do believe people have a responsibility to be environmentally responsible. I was raised on the three “R’s” of the 1990’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Building on the ideas of Japanese social awareness and Shintoism, mottainai can be applied to near everything. Examples include:
Not finishing your meal. That’s mottainai.
Consumer packaging. That’s mottainai.
Forgetting to return your mother’s call. That’s mottainai.
Disposable chopsticks. That’s mottainai.
Working a job that’s not using your abilities. That’s mottainai.
Stockpiling arms while people starve. That’s mottainai.
Forgetting your lunch at home. That’s mottainai.
Mottainai applies to physical things and the intangible. It’s a driving force to harness yourself and your environment for maximum efficiency. An (extreme) example of mottainai can be found like this:
Suppose your friend made you a cup of coffee and you accidentally spilt it. You would say, ‘Oh, no. Mottainai!’ You not only wasted the cup of coffee but you also your friend’s gesture of serving you coffee and the work and time that went into brewing you that coffee. You also wasted the water, soil, time, and effort that went into growing the coffee beans. The whole process has been wasted.”
I don’t quite carry mottainai to that extreme. But you could.
It’s a small thing, mottainai, but an important one. It’s left a deep impact on me. I’m glad the Japanese stand by it. I hope others can get on board too.