Sunday, June 2
My assignment in Kamiooka (上大岡) finished after 10 weeks. For eight of those weeks I had lived just north of Yokohama station (横浜駅). The branch was really busy and I had worked hard during my time there. But the clients, and my coworkers, were all awesome. I looked forward to going in every day and talking with everyone. The apartment location was also primo. My local station serviced three different lines. One of which was a direct line to my apartment in north Tokyo. And I was only a 15 minute walk from Yokohama station, one of the biggest and busiest in the country.
By the end of May my replacement had arrived and I was no longer needed. I helped the new person transition into their schedule and I was out the door.
And on Sunday I was right back for more.
The branch was having a combination farewell/welcome party. I ventured south from my Tokyo apartment for nearly two hours. We were to have a barbecue on the shore in Yokosuka (横須賀). 40 students and 10 staff members came out for grilling and ice-cold drinks. We had a great time yakking it up for the six hours I was there.
I’ve now been to enough of these parties to know I must pace myself with the drinks. I also know that drinking in the sun presents a whole set of challenges, so again I must pace myself. Additionally the Japanese love to drink, so I must pace myself. And so I did, pace myself. For six hours.
As we wrapped up the party I gave a brief speech and turned my attention to positive support for the new person. I gave her a warm introduction and talked her up. I gave a final bow and I was gone. Done forever with this chapter and ready for the next.
Except for a brief intermission.
Having left the beach I realized I needed to relieve myself. I made a quick pit stop in a grocery store. I stepped inside and felt air conditioning for the first time that day. In front of me a customer walked by pushing a massive grocery cart. That was odd.
I looked to my right and I noticed the triple-wide aisles jammed pack with equally oversized carts. I shook my head. Everything was huge. The washing detergent, Tide, was in a two gallon US size container. Something was wrong here. Very, very wrong. I walked over to the shelf and looked at the price tag. That’s when I saw the “always low price…”
I WAS IN WALMART.
Upon my realization six hours of drinking washed over me and I was instantly drunk.
I staggered back and just like a scene out of a Hitchcock flick.
My heart raced and my breath became shallow. This was the first Walmart I had seen in two and half a years. I didn’t even know Japan had any. I hadn’t prepared myself for a Walmart trip. Not wanting to cause a scene I ran to the restroom. Finally alone I could think clearly.
“This is awesome,” I thought to myself, “you’re in Walmart. Let’s do some shopping!”
“No way, Jose,” my brain was countering its own argument, “you’ve got a wallet full of cash, you’re two hours from home, and you’re drunk. This is a recipe for disaster.”
“He’s right,” I continued to think. “You should save your first Walmart trip for a special occasion. Just walk out the door and put this behind you. Pretend it never happened.”
So I straightened up, composed myself and walked out the door. Walmart would wait.
Tuesday, June 4
My local train line shut down for a few hours on Tuesday. Apparently during a recent construction project an unexploded bomb from World War Two was discovered. It was a Japanese Imperial shell that had laid underground for nearly 70 years. The Japanese civil defense forces were called in to detonate it and the surrounding trains were decommissioned for an hour. Pretty cool, living history!
Monday, June 10
At 5 o’clock sharp I met Moto in Kanda and we made a brief walk down to Devil Craft. Devil Craft is an amazing Chicago style pizzeria that also serves fantastic microbrews. We took a seat and Hide, from Kamiooka, joined us. We ordered a big pie and a few pints. We had a blast catching up.
I say catching up, because it was the first time all three of had been together in two and half a years. During my third weekend in Japan I attended a party thrown by Moto. At that party I had sat next to Hide. After which I never saw him again until I walked into Kamiooka. Having drank with both men, then working with them separately, we were back together. It had come full circle.
Both Hide and Moto are great guys and I couldn’t imagine two other fellas I’d be happier to spend a Monday evening with.
Anyways, after three pints of superb beer Moto made the brilliant observation that we were no longer enjoying the expensive brew. That it would better if we relocated to someplace cheaper. Hide and I agreed. So we took to the street and wandered around until Moto found a well-known Japanese restaurant (居酒屋). We were seated and ordered a flight of three top shelf sakes (日本酒). Nevermind we came here to save money. The drinks were delicious. At least I think they were.
We called it a night before nine and made our way home. It had been a good night with good guys.
Tuesday, June 11
I started my new long-term assignment in Ikebukuro (池袋). This is the largest/busiest branch in the whole country. I’m planning to have to work very hard as long as I’m stationed here.
That said, I’m really happy to be working in Ikebukuro. It’s only a 10 minute commute from my local station. The station itself serves nearly three million people a day, and is the second busiest train station in the world. (Second only to Shinjuku station, which is one stop away.)
Anyways, I’m very positive about this going forward.
Monday, June 17
Mari and I went windsurfing in Zushi (逗子市) on Monday.
We were the only two people and so we had an instructor to ourselves. We road our surfboards up and down the beach all day. I got my butt kicked repeatedly. While Mari took to it like a natural. However we both had a great time and I recommend giving it a try!
Drinking alcohol occupies a place in many national cultures. In Japan, it has an important place, both at work and at home. It is impossible to go a day in Tokyo without seeing an alcoholic advertisement or someone indulging. It’s always, subtly, in your face.
Alcohol comes in many varieties here. Beer, wine, cocktails, Japanese sake, potato wine and all sorts of sweet flavored drinks. There is seldom a person who cannot find something to their liking. No matter the person they’ll be able to find something they like.
The legal drinking age in Japan is 20. Although most people start when they enter university at the age of 18. Throughout university, and especially during induction into their new companies, young people will often face tremendous peer pressure to binge drink. It’s a serious problem here that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Alcohol is heavily advertised. On television. In the trains. In pop culture. Alcohol is seen as a normal part of adult life. It is packaged, labeled as good, and sold everywhere. You can even find beer only vending machines. Although those have become increasingly harder to find.
Booze also serves an important social function. Workers often go out for drinks in the evening. By nature, many Japanese people are very shy and reserved. Especially in a large group setting. Being able to drink some liquid courage is necessary for some people to communicate at all. You can rest assured if there’s a gathering of people, and food is involved, alcohol will definitely also be there.
I’ve often found it difficult in Japan to have social gatherings without the use of alcohol. For some people it’s very difficult to go out at night for a coffee or dinner and not order a drink. Alcohol is such a part of socializing it’s almost a presumption.
That said, some people can be incredibly dumb when it comes to social drinking. If at a dinner party, it’s considered polite for everyone to first order a beer, even if you don’t like it. Beer can be served quickly and everyone can raise their glasses together for an opening cheer. What then follows is a complete disregard for the old adage, “Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear. Beer before liquor, never sicker.” People rotate through drinks by whatever strikes their fancy, completely ignoring the alcohol percentage.
You know what happens next? Everyone gets drunk. I mean really drunk, and really quick. Thoughts are shared that should have never left a person’s mind. Actions and behavior both become very liberal. In short, people tend to quickly embarrass themselves. But there’s a catch, no one holds a drunk person’s actions against them.
This is a cultural novelty to me. People, in general, are very forgiving of a drunk person. Come Monday morning everyone in the office will have forgotten about “Kenji’s” rude remarks and vomiting outside the restaurant. And because it was so much fun, they’ll all go for drinks again on Monday night. And so the cycle continues.
Yet for all of this consumption, violence and crime are relatively rare in Japan. The people here have as good a handle on it as possible. But there’s one point that really irks me. The prices. Alcohol is heavily taxed in Japan, especially beer. A case of beer, 24 cans, in the US will run you 10-20 dollars. In Japan, 40-60 is the average. Even though it’s expense, people don’t give it up. They simply order another round.