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Work-cation

July 25th, 2013 No comments

It felt like summer vacation for approximately two days, and now it just feels like a new species of work. I’m not complaining—I like work—it’s just that the feeling is even less “vacationey” than I expected. I’ve set up meetings with the Speech Contest students every weekday before my Germany trip, about an hour of practice per meeting. Since there are four of them—two individual third-graders, an individual second-grader, and a pair of first-graders who do a skit together—that makes up to 4 hours a day depending on whether they can all come. With an hour of lunch that makes 5 hours, which is not much less than the 8 I was spending before summer vacation started. I come in a little later, leave a little earlier, and don’t have to plan lessons, but other than that things feel the same. This is not quite a vacation—I should come up with a different word for it.

DSCF2929I did spend the first day of Summer Vacation doing something interesting though. I was planning to join Lily and Jack for her birthday dinner in Tokyo at night, but I went earlier in the day and went up the Tokyo Sky Tree to check out the view and take copious amounts of pictures, only a few of which I’ll post here. I’ve been to many “high points” of cities: the World Trade Center (when it existed), the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, the one in Rome with the really long name, and a bunch in various German cities, so this was nothing new for me, and to put it bluntly Tokyo is not a particularly aesthetic city so it wasn’t the fantastically amazing experience that many of the others were. The two best views are the Eiffel Tower for the aesthetics of the city, and Rome because of all the awesome landmarks.

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Not to diminish the awesomeness, though. It’s still pretty incredible to be looking out over this giant city from half a kilometer in the sky, nothing but urban jungle stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. My most profound thought was just how many people were in my field of vision at any given time—albeit most concealed by buildings—and how strange it feels to think of specific people, to call to mind those who mean something to me at a vantage point from which all people appear insignificant.

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Once that thought occurred to me I entered something of a zen-like state and remained up there for hours. I would have left much sooner if not for the fact that when I’d felt I’d soaked it in enough the sun was on its way down and I figured if I just waited a bit longer I’d get to see the city at night, so I watched the sunset over the urban sea and got a few pictures of early evening Tokyo (almost not of which came out well) before heading down and all the way across town to Shibuya for dinner.

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Dinner was quite pleasant, with Jack, Lily, Stephen, Lily’s French friends, and a few various others including people I met at the picnic on Spring vacation. Unfortunately I had to rush out in order to catch the last bus back to Togane, but it was a good time and totally worth going.

Finally, the last event since my last entry was my first enkai with the faculty of K-chu, which was last night. It was noticeably smaller than all my other enkai experiences, but the basic format was the same: lots of people topping off your drink as you’re served course after course of odd-looking fish cuisine. There was a pause half-way through as the coach of each sports team (plus the band) gave a speech about their club, and that was different from Togane Chu. Because there are less students here there are less sports. If they asked every coach at Togane to speak it would take up the whole enkai.

More interestingly, it might have just been where I was sitting but there seemed to have been a lot more drinking at this affair than those at Togane Chu. Except for the administrators, everyone is seated according to a random number drawing, and I happened to be seated right along with the administrators, right next to the Vice Principal who until that night was the most intimidating guy at any school I’ve been to. In school he keeps busy constantly, and when I have to go up and get my stamps on my pay sheet for Interac he treats me like a nuisance so I’m always afraid to go up to him, constantly waiting for what appears to be a break in his activity. He also occasionally loses his temper and explodes at a student, shouting and ranting for minutes on end about god knows what grievance the poor kid committed. But last night he was pounding down the alcohol and behaving so jolly and merry it was like a different person altogether. He insisted on sharing a bottle of sake with everyone around him and he made a point of carrying out a conversation with me to the best of his English and my Japanese ability, telling me he’d never had an ALT even capable of conversation before. He actually told me I’m too serious in the teacher’s room and should be more friendly. Irony.

The main event was followed by karaoke, this time at the smallest karaoke place I’ve ever been to, a restaurant of just two small rooms, each with a karaoke machine that can’t be going on at the same time because there’s no sound separation and everyone outside our back room could hear the singing going on inside. Of the original [relatively] small group, only about half came to karaoke so this was indeed much smaller than that times at Togane, and while the karaoke queue was always full at those events, here there were rarely more than two songs cued up and occasionally there was nothing being sung at all. I was asked to sing near the very beginning, even had a specific song requested by the second-grade teacher: “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, a song I don’t even like but heard often enough when it was popular in America to sing it pretty well. That was received very well by the staff. For my next song I took a stab at “Born this Way” by Lady Gaga and only did an adequate job but still got good applause. Finally, I screwed up by trying to impress them by singing the German “99 Luftballoons” and while I’ve done that successfully before, I was terrible that night and none of them knew the song anyway so the applause at the end was clearly forced. Oh well, not like anyone’s gonna hold it against me.

It was weird to come in this morning and see just about everyone from last night back at their jobs, but that’s the Japanese way.

Someone asked me if I had a hangover this morning. No, it had only appeared that I’d been drinking excessively last night, when in reality I’d been pacing myself so steadily I even had one last beer after getting home, and woke up this morning feeling fine. That’s the American way.

Spring Break Ends, Spring Begins

April 10th, 2012 No comments

Cherry-blossoms in Togane.

Just as the cherry blossoms start blooming, the new school year gets started in Japan. I’m technically working again, though because the first week of school is just as abnormal as the last week of school, I have no classes and have been told to stay home (but be “on call”) until next Tuesday when the normal schedule begins. The opening ceremony was yesterday and I spent half the day there, and while that was a deeply weird experience and I have a lot to say about it, it’ll have to wait. The last few days of what was technically “Spring Vacation” (though for all practical purposes I’m still on mine) were quite eventful and must be documented. However, because I have no desire to spend another entire day blogging I’m going to break it up into pieces and post the entries over the next few days.

I’d made plans to hang out with Ryan in Chiba on Tuesday evening, but that had to be post-poned because of windstorms. I went to the station at 5:20 to catch the 5:25 and everything looked normal, but the train from Togane to Oami was 20 minutes late and I was nervous about what might happen with the train from Oami to Chiba. My fears were well-founded, as while we got to Oami just fine and the train to Chiba arrived just a few minutes late, it was held on the track for close to an hour before the entire trip was cancelled and I had to take a train back to Togane.

But the weather was better on Friday, and I met up with Ryan at Chiba station at 6:00. He recently quit Interac because he got engaged and isn’t making enough money, and I’d actually met his replacement that same afternoon as she moved into the same building as me and the Interac employee helping her move rang my doorbell and introduced us when she moved in. Though we met on Friday we wouldn’t hang out until Sunday, so there’ll be more about her in tomorrow’s entry.

Ryan first took us to a pool-bar in Chiba, which was the first time I’ve gone to such a place in Japan. You are assigned a specific pool-table and don’t pay by the game but how long you spend there (you’re charged for every 15 minutes). There are phones by the table and you call in your drink orders from the bar. Ryan and I both suck at pool, so we were very evenly matched, with him barely winning the first incredibly long game and me barely winning the second. During that time we compared our impressions of teaching and the whole end-of-the-schoolyear routine. He feels a little bad about leaving his school so suddenly and he’ll definitely miss the students, but he just can’t support a family on an Interac salary.

After that we had dinner at a pretty good restaurant he knows, then went out to a bar where we ran into his friend Michael (also an Interac ALT but in his 40s or 50s) and his Japanese wife who speaks good English. They were fun people to hang out with but I only got to spend about an hour and a half there, as the last train leaves at 10:44 and I had no intention of pulling an all-nighter. I didn’t hang out with Ryan much even when we were colleagues, but now that we’re not anymore I don’t know what will happen. He’s a really nice guy, and one of the only people around who’s as big a nerd as I am for things like Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. I imagine we’ll probably hang out again.

Saturday was a big day. I went into Tokyo where I met up with Stephen and Amy, the two ALTs from my original training that I’d met up in Tokyo back in September (when we went to Tokyo Dome City and Shibuya). Stephen wanted to take us to what he calls his “happy place” but that first meant getting on a train for a 50-minute ride to a town called Fujisawa. It’s practically due south of Tokyo and right on the coast, but Japan curves inward there so the coast is to the south. Our destination was an island connected by bridge to the mainland called Enoshima.

 Hey, it's these guys again!

Stephen had decided to take us there when he saw how nice the weather was in the morning, but by the time we got off the train in Fujisawa it had clouded up significantly. Remembering how the last time the three of us met there’d been a typhoon and I’d jokingly made a comment after the third time it cleared up that it was definitely not going to rain for the rest of the day, it actually didn’t so they said I must have controlled the weather. I said I’d do my best to bring the sun back out with my powers of sorcery. Somehow we’d got into a conversation on the train about what mythical being each of us was, and it was decided that Stephen was a centaur, Amy was a fairy, and I was a sorcerer. I said we could become the new popular anime show, the “Magic Gaijin Trio and that became a running joke for the rest of the day.

As we walked down the bridge to Enoshima we could already see the sun starting to bleed through the cloud cover. Perhaps utilizing the powers of “The Secret” without even meaning to, I told them that if we all believed it would clear up it would, and lo and behold the sun actually did make a big comeback in the afternoon and we had great lighting for pictures the whole time. Maybe I really am a sorcerer.

Stephen waiting. Clouds breaking.

Stephen’s “happy place” turned out to be quite a happy place indeed, especially now that it’s cherry-blossom season. There were three shrines, gardens galore, and lots of little areas with food-stands, shops, and restaurants. Everyone there seemed to be in a good mood, more outwardly friendly than most Japanese. Also, there are apparently a great deal of stray cats who live off the generosity of tourists and are therefore very friendly and willing to let you pet them.

Me and Amy. One of many dragons.

Awesome view.

One of many cats.  Blowfish, blow!

Open mouth = life. Closed mouth = death.

The coolest feature of the island though is it’s view of Mt. Fuji, though this was unfortunately not on full display at the time. It could still be seen through the haze of the distance, but just barely and it refused to come out in any pictures. Still, that marks the third time I’ve seen Mt. Fuji (the first and second being from the shinkansen to and from Kyoto).

To the south. Volcanic rock outcropping.

We had lunch at this incredible place overlooking the bay, and we were able to sit outside and watch the sun descending over the water as we ate. The food was good, but I ended up ordering something too similar to something they serve at school-lunch all the time.

Lunch time! The view from our table.

After lunch we found our way down to an outcropping of volcanic rock stretching out from the island and spent a good chunk of time taking pictures there. It was beautiful, but also incredibly windy to the point of being uncomfortable. Still, there were some lovely images (most of them not adequately captured on camera).

On the rocks.

Some stones do gather moss. Starfish, star!

By then it was already getting late, so we just headed back to Tokyo and went our separate ways. But before we did, we made tentative plans to do a Mt. Fuji climbing trip on the weekend before Stephen’s birthday, the first weekend in May. He wants to camp out on the mountain and go all the way to the top, which sounds good to me but apparently it’s out of season and you need a permit, which is something I found out the following day. But after writing to Stephen this morning he tells me he’s going to try and get the permit. So if that works out, I’ll be standing on top of Mt. Fuji a week before I’m sailing on a boat in the Caribbean. May should be an incredibly awesome month.

Tranquility.

2012 Begins in Tokyo

January 1st, 2012 No comments

Roppongi, Tokyo

A wild New Years’ Eve party was hoped for and a wild New Years’ Eve party was delivered. While we didn’t end up going Ageha—the place with the acrobats—because admission was too expensive, we did end up at a club that turned out to be quite good. There’s really no need to go into much detail about the night. It was just a plain and simple good time filled with friends, drinking, and dancing, as the pictures will show.

Pre-game The night began with a small “pre-game” party at Trey’s apartment with Trey’s friends Victor and Andre, Andre’s fiancé, and Cinty, the Hungarian girl. After getting warmed up there for about an hour and a half, we ventured out and took the bus into Tokyo. Andre and his fiancé are not drinkers so they opted not to come with us.

When we got to Tokyo we had to navigate through the subway system to get to where we were going, a place called Muse in the area known as Roppongi. Trey was in charge of leading the way, and while he made a few Cinty, Trey, Victormistakes he sternly told us “not to question the leader”. I joked that this is also his policy when it comes to Obama. Trey was happy to take on the role of Obama for the night.

While on our way to the club we ran into a group of four Josai students, one of whom I recognized as Ollie, the guy I met at the Family Music Festival at Sanmunobori park a couple months ago. We were both amazed at the coincidence of bumping into each other again, and for a moment it seemed that he and his friends would be joining our group for the night. But while Trey and the others stopped into McDonald’s to fill their stomachs before the night of heavy drinking (I’d eaten earlier so I only got water), they went off in search of an ATM and we never saw them again.

When we got to the club it was just after 11:00 and the place looked virtually empty. Our first impression was that we’d made a terrible mistake and this place totally sucked. Trey kept turning to me and saying “don’t look at me like that!” as the parallel to Obama was clear to both of us. He had promised so much and raised my expectations so high, and now it appeared as though he’d failed to deliver.

But the place was filling up incredibly quickly, and more people we know were on the way. After ordering some Jack and coke with our first drink-ticket (entry was 4000 yen for men and 2000 for women, but everyone got two drink-tickets) we headed to the dance floor and decided to just make the best of the situation. We almost decided to leave and go to Ageha and screw the price, but we knew it was too late and if we left now we’d probably be standing in a line outside during the count-down.

Noise-makers To my pleasant surprise, Jack, Lily, and the French guys whom I’d told to meet us there arrived just in time for midnight, with ten minutes to spare. One of the workers at the club came around and handed a shot and a noise-making thingy to everyone in the club in preparation for the count-down.

The DJ stopped the music with just a minute to spare, and the whole place—now completely jam-packed—erupted with a count-down from juu to ichi, and with a loud cheer and the sound of popping noisemakers 2011 officially came to an end and 2012 got started.

The scene at midnight.

There were three floors to this place altogether and after the midnight count-down we decided to head downstairs to the lowest floor where we’d remain for the rest of the night. There we did more drinking and dancing until some of us found our way to a nice little seating-area in the back where we’d sit and chat whenever we were tired of dancing.

I bumped into Stephen at one of the bars about fifteen minutes after midnight, knowing he’d intended to come but sad that he hadn’t been there for midnight. So with him, Jack and the French crowd, Trey, Victor and Cinty, and a few other ALTs and Josai students I’d never met before, we were a pretty decent crowd. Ben couldn’t be there because he’s back in the states now and I’m not sure where Fred is, but other than that it was about as good a crowd as I could have asked for. We didn’t get to see acrobats or the sunrise over Tokyo bay, but the people are much more important than the place.

Dance... ...dance... ...whoah that looks crazy... ...dance!

Even before midnight started, Trey and Victor were trying to get me to join them in their hunt for Japanese girls to work game on, but I was not in that state of mind at all. I felt bad because Victor kept asking me to come and help back him up, but at that point all I wanted to do was just relax and enjoy myself and not get my mind all jammed up with thoughts of my perpetual sexual inadequacy.

But later in the night, one of the guys I’d just met—a guy from Finland named Morten—told me to go up to two Japanese girls who were sitting at a nearby table and give them a message in Japanese for him. I had no reservations at that point so I just went up and said “Sumimasen, my friend wanted me to tell you…um…” I forgot the Japanese phrase so I quickly ran back over to him and got it again, then attempted to say it for the girls who found the whole thing quite amusing and helped me get the pronunciation right. Suddenly I’m engaged in a chat with these girls and I ask to sit down and they gladly let me. Morten comes over and talks in Japanese with the girl on the left who doesn’t speak good English, and I have a nice conversation with the girl on the right whose English is good enough for small-talk. She seems genuinely interested in me and the whole thing is very encouraging, but while she was definitely attractive I just felt no desire for her and didn’t want to go too far down a path that I had no intention of going all the way down, so I gave up my seat and another guy moved in and picked up where I left off. I felt slightly annoyed with myself for giving up what was probably my first real chance of picking up a girl in Japan (or any country for that matter) but I’m okay with the fact that I didn’t. I’m not the kind of guy who goes for something just because it appears doable.

At another point I found myself wandering around in search of the elusive bathroom, and I couldn’t find it on the ground floor so I ended up using the one upstairs on the second floor. I stopped at the second-floor bar on my way back down to get some water and a beer, and was just completely dumbstruck by the bartendress who got me my drink. She was easily, hands-down, the cutest person to ever serve me a drink and I could not help but stick around and admire her gorgeous face for awhile. Not only was she as beautiful as they come, but she was a fantastic bartendress, always completely aware of everyone at her bar and getting everyone served as rapidly as possible. That gorgeous smile was obviously a mask worn as part of her job but she wore it skillfully. It never once left her face the entire time she was working. We exchanged glances a few times and eventually I did start talking to her, complimenting her on her bartending skills, but she just told me in Japanese that she doesn’t understand English. I knew it was a hopeless cause anyway. That girl must get hit on at least eight hundred times a night. I was just one more schmoe in a million.

Luckily the whole women-aspect of things was not dominating my mind the whole night. I was able to just sit downstairs and enjoy the company of the others for most of the time, though of course much of the conversation had to do with women. But there was plenty of fun to be had too, most memorably with a Japanese guy who’d wandered onto our couch and gone to sleep while none of us had been sitting there. We all got plenty of good pictures from that situation, though I suppose it makes us assholes.

"This is my friend. It's his birthday." Chillin with our Japanese pal.

Not a peep.

At about 5:00 the club workers were very efficient in getting everyone out the door, and soon enough we were back out in the freezing cold Tokyo streets, which were as jam-packed and Burger may not be actual size. full of people at 5:00 in the morning as Shibuya was at 5:00 in the evening. By now everyone was hungry again and the McDonald’s was right there, so in we went and sadly McDonald’s became my first meal of 2012. But it was also my first time eating at McDonald’s in Japan and it was shockingly good, both the taste and the quality of my fish-sandwich and chicken tenders far superior to how I remember them tasting in America and even in Germany. Of course being drunk probably helped with that.

Jack and Lily and those guys had hostel reservations for the night, and I think Stephen did too, so the four of us who’d come from Togane together Heading home. said goodbye to them at the McDonald’s and we began the long and frustrating journey home. Because the busses don’t start until 8:00 and it was just before 7:00 when we got back to Tokyo station, we knew we’d get back sooner if we took the train. We all trusted Trey to lead the way again, and again he managed to get us there with just a few minor errors.

We had to transfer three times but due to mistakes we ended up changing trains about 4 or 5 times, but that’s to be expected when you’re attempting to navigate the Japanese railway system after 12 straight hours of drinking. But I’d been doing a pretty good job of pacing myself the whole time and drinking lots of water, so I had no sign of an encroaching hangover and just felt more exhausted than anything. I was extremely glad when I finally got back to my apartment at 9:00 and curled up in bed, though I was only able to sleep until 12:00. At least that meant I was able to call home before 2012 began in America, and at 2:00 p.m. here I watched the ball drop in Times Square on an online livestream.

So that was New Years’ Eve 2011-12. It was vastly different from the Marxist-Leninist-German-Turkish New Years’ Eve party of 2010-11, but both were enjoyable in their own way. As I keep writing, 2011 was a hell of a year, possibly the best of my life, and while I did get worried for a moment it did end up going out with an appropriate bang. I don’t imagine it’s possible for 2012 to top 2011, but you never know what could happen…

The Story of My Life

December 18th, 2011 No comments

Akibahara in Autumn

Prologue

Yesterday was epic. Now I’m faced with the task of writing about it in the level of detail it warrants while attempting not to step on the toes of any of the people involved, which in this case won’t be so easy. I could make this a private entry but the story is too good not to share and too significant not to include in the publicly-available narrative of my life, as these events will no doubt be referenced repeatedly for some time. I could give just a bare-bones account of what happened and avoid the risks of going into detail, but that would neither be true to myself nor to the original intent of this blog. I’m already editing myself much more than I was when I started, but I still feel as though I’m providing a deeply honest account of my life as I live it in my own unique style of aiming to making anyone who cares enough to read about my experiences feel as though they’re living through them with me. This entry will be no different, and in the unlikely event that any of the people involved read it and take issue with something I’ve written here, they need only confront me and I will remove the offending material.

Act I – Akibahara

I’ve had the intention of going to Akibahara, a district of Tokyo world-famous for its electronic shops, for several months. My external hard-drive needs at least 120 volts to run, but Japanese sockets have only a 100-volt output. Converters which reduce voltage are easy to come by, but converters which boost voltage are a bit harder to find. Neither of the electronic shops in Togane have them, but I’ve been told that if you’re looking for any piece of electrical equipment, you can find it in Akibahara. If it’s not there, it doesn’t exist.

The trip kept getting postponed week after week for various reasons, but that ultimately ended up working very much in my favor, as last week when I met Diana at the Togane International Friendship party and invited her to come to Tokyo, she couldn’t come the next day but she was able to make it the following weekend—yesterday—the day we finally went.

In keeping with my tradition of always getting sick at the worst possible times, I started coming down with a cold on Thursday. I called Diana on Friday evening to warn her that I might be contagious and if she decided not to come I would understand. She said that if I was going she would go, but thanked me for the courtesy of warning her about the germs.

Sweet Luckily the cold has been extremely mild, and my only symptom yesterday when I went to meet up with her at the train station was a sore throat. We greeted each other warmly and then walked together to the bus-stop where the direct bus to Tokyo stops. There was a little Christmas event happening across the street, and I couldn’t resist trying to take a shot of the man in the giant-head costume. Diana, super-outgoing person that she is, brought me across the street and talked to the people there, giving us a chance to get our picture taken with the guy.

We chatted while waiting for the bus, and when we got on I paid for both of us which she graciously accepted. On the 1 hour 15 minute ride, we listened to some music on her I-pod as I’d thought to bring one of those splitters that allows you to plug two sets of headphones into a single jack. It was some Japanese pop singer whose name I don’t remember, but it was surprisingly decent. Not something I would ever listen to on my own initiative, but enjoyable enough.

We were supposed to meet Stephen at the entrance to Tokyo station at 11:30 but he sent me a text saying he’d be late. Diana and I killed time by wandering around the station, but before we did we checked the schedule for when the busses would return. She suggested we shoot for the 7:35 bus but I said I’d rather leave an hour earlier because one of the other Togane ALTs, Ben, was having a Christmas Party that night which started at 6:00. Diana said that she’d heard people talking about the party and someone had asked her to come, so I said she should come and we could go together. So suddenly I’m not just spending the day with her but going to a party with her as well. Could the timing be any more fortuitous?

One of the things we had to bring to the party was a gift worth about 500 yen, and luckily the train station was full of gift-shops so Diana and I were able to take care of that very easily. After a bit of wandering, Stephen called me to announce he’d arrived, and we went to the exit to meet him. On the way, she remarked on how Japanese girls wear makeup all the time, but she thinks it takes too much time and only wears it on special occasions. She said she’ll wear it if she goes on a date. Um…don’t look now, Diana, but you’re kinda on one right now…even if you’re not aware of it. But at least that confirmed 100% that she isn’t married.

I was preparing for the hassle of figuring out how to get to Akibahara, but luckily Diana had been there once before and had a pretty good idea of what we needed to do. She double-checked with her I-phone but quickly determined that we just had to take one of the JR trains two stops and we’d be there.

The one and only.

When we got there the first thing we spotted was the AKB48 Café, which I was told by some people I should definitely check out and by some people that I should avoid at all costs. For those of you who’ve never heard of AKB48, they’re a Japanese pop-group consisting of forty-eight super-attractive young women who sing and dance in heavy makeup and skimpy outfits. Whoever came up with the idea is a very wealthy man, as they’re enormously popular and are likely to remain so for quite some time. Unlike other bands created purely for marketing purposes like N’Sync or the Spice Girls whose popularity fades as the members get older, AKB48 has enough members to be able to just kick the old ones out when their attractiveness fades and bring in younger ones, sort of like the Mickey Mouse club but with sex-appeal instead of cuteness. It’s a pretty disgusting concept if you ask me, but I don’t want to judge too harshly. Even the women who get booted will always be able to brag that they were in AKB48.AKB48

Incidentally, I finally learned what the AKB stands for: AKiBahara, where they do most of their shows in the theater beside the café.

So since we were there I figured we might as well go in and check out the place. We had to wait on a short line before a table opened up, and while we did Stephen and I discovered that Diana is actually a huge AKB48 fan. She was ridiculously excited to go inside, and when we got in she was grinning and gaping at everything, particularly the benches and tables autographed by real AKB48 members.

Wow, autographs of women I've never heard of!

Aside from the TV-screens everywhere showing AKB48 videos and the incredibly-attractive waitresses dressed in the schoolgirl-like AKB48 uniform, it looked just like any normal café. But unlike most cafés, the clientele was almost exclusively male. Diana was one of only three or four females there, excluding the waitresses who were no doubt the reason most of the men came there. It was kind of like Hooters without the big boobs.

We each got a ridiculously over-priced beverage and chatted for awhile, mostly about AKB48. This was the first time I’d heard their music (at least while conscious of the fact that I was hearing it) and it was just as bad as I’d imagined. But I didn’t rain on Diana’s parade and just let her enjoy the videos, which I have to admit were at least quite pleasing to the eye. Stephen got a real kick out of just how happy she was to be there. Her girlish joy rubbed off on me as well, so in spite of the assault on my eardrums I was very glad to have come there.

After that it was finally time to go off in search of the elusive adapter that would allow me to use my German external hard-drive in Japan. Diana’s presence turned out to be invaluable in that regard, as she was able to explain what I needed in Japanese at every shop we went to, and translate to me what the workers there told her. This was quite the impressive feat considering her native language is Chinese, and while she confessed that it was hurting her brain a little, she held up very well.

A colorful town.

One of the million electronic shops. The coolest ride ever.

Unfortunately, finding the required piece proved to be extremely difficult, even in the Electronics Capital of the World. Place after place just kept telling us they didn’t have it, though some helpfully pointed us in the direction of shops that might. We eventually came to a place that had all kind of voltage-adapters and it looked like we’d finally found the right part, but for some bizarre reason they wouldn’t let us test it before I bought it. It made no sense to me that the store would insist you buy something you couldn’t even be sure would work, but apparently that’s another element of Japanese culture I wasn’t aware of—they wouldn’t want to take the responsibility it didn’t work. They didn’t even want to sell me the thing because they were unsure if it would damage the hard-drive, but when I finally insisted that it would be my responsibility they let me buy it, but they still wouldn’t let me test it in their store.

Stephen at the sushi-go-round. We were all very hungry at this point, so we decided to find a place to eat and test it there. The first place we went to, it turned out didn’t have a single menu item other than soup or plain rice that didn’t have beef or pork in it, so we went to a sushi restaurant instead. That was delicious, and we had some very pleasant conversation there too. Once we’d had our fill of sushi I busted out the new adapter and gave it a test run on the electrical outlet in the wall, and for a moment it appeared to be working until the hard-drive shut itself off. I thought it might need a little while to get charged up, so I left it in the wall a bit longer, but it shut itself off again after the same amount of time.

So we went back to the shop and got a refund. Had we been allowed to test it there it would have saved everyone the extra hassle, but that’s just the way it goes.

We tried three more places, the last of which Diana made clear would be the last place we would try. She was getting tired of this and I couldn’t blame her. I had no idea it would be so difficult to find a particular electronic device in Akibahara. I’d assumed it would take a half-hour tops but we’d been searching for over two hours. When we came to the last place and the woman there said they didn’t have one, I decided to try something else and ask for just a basic voltage-converter which boosted the 100-volts from Japanese sockets up to what the hard-drive needed. Those were a lot more expensive than the adapter would have been, but after spending so much time on this I refused to go home empty-handed. The woman found a converter which boosted 100 Volts to 220 (the voltage in Germany) and I coughed up the dough and bought it. I hadn’t brought the cable I needed to test it, so I’d have to wait until I got home to test it.

Evening in Akibahara.

It was now about 4:30 and we decided to start heading back. At the Akibahara station Stephen wanted to know if we were going back to Tokyo station or if he should just buy a ticket back home directly from there. Diana mentioned the Christmas Party and I said he was welcome to come if he wanted, and he said he was so we decided to go back to Tokyo station and all ride the bus to Togane together. I hadn’t thought he would want to come all the way to Togane for a Christmas Party but I was glad to have him along.

Intermission

I sat next to Diana on the bus ride back and she dozed off while listening to her music, and I listened to music of my own. I was feeling pretty neutral at that point. She’d been just as warm and friendly with Stephen as she was with me, so I figured I’d just been misreading her last week and perceiving signals of attraction when there were none. This was probably just the way she is with everybody. That didn’t mean I didn’t have a chance or that I should give up, but at that point it felt likelier than ever that a casual friendship is all this is going to amount to.

But as I wrote last week, that would be a perfectly valuable thing too. At the AKB48 café we discussed what we were all doing for New Years’ and none of us had any solid plans but Stephen said he was thinking about going to the Tokyo Sky Tree where there would be fireworks. That sounded like a good plan, so both of us decided to join him. Being in Tokyo with two great people sounds like a perfect way to ring in the New Year whether or not romance is involved. Plus, Diana is going home to China for a month this year and some of that time will coincide with the school vacation, so I could visit her in China and she’d be happy to show me around and take me anywhere.

There was reason to be happy.

Act II – The Christmas Party

We stopped at a convenience store on the way to the party to pick up drinks and snacks to bring, as well as a cheap gift for Stephen to enter in the gift-exchange. He picked a magnet of a Japanese anime character, but the clerk at the counter wouldn’t let him just buy it but instead insisted that he pick a card from a box she had and open the back to see what the prize was. Apparently you couldn’t just buy the magnet—you had to win it. And you had to pay for the ticket first so if you really wanted the magnet you’d have to keep buying tickets until you got lucky. I thought it was absurd. If a person wants to exchange money for a particular item, such a transaction should be perfectly allowable. What’s the point of capitalism if you can’t buy something you want even if you’re willing and able to pay for it? But Stephen bought the ticket and instead of the magnet he got a little head-pillow with a different Japanese anime character on it, and while it looked pretty crappy we just had to settle for it.

I navigated the three of us through the cold to Ben’s apartment, which was already hopping when we arrived. Trey was among the first to greet me, surprised to see I’d brought another black guy. He jokingly told Stephen to go away because now there were too many. I introduced Diana to people but most of them remembered her from last weekend, Ben included. I saw a lot of familiar faces and a couple of new ones. I met a guy named Dan and a guy named Will as soon as I walked in the kitchen.

Red room.

I quickly noticed that the male-to-female ratio was about the same as it was at the AKB48 café. Other than Diana, there was only one other girl at the party: Zintia, the Hungarian girl from the International Friendship party last weekend (whom I now know likes to be called “Cinty”).

Diana and Stephen both went off and mingled as soon as we got in, and I poured myself a whiskey and coke and proceeded to mingle as well, saying hello to some of the Japanese guys I remembered from previous encounters: Kio from the two music festivals and Atsushi from the Okinomiyaki night. I found out that one of Atsushi’s judo students goes to my school, a kid whose name I actually recognized so I knew who he was talking about.

Trey busted out a deck of cards and got a drinking game going on the floor of what I’ll just call the “green room” because Ben had somehow managed to get the kitchen draped in red light Green room. and the other room in green. I sat down and joined the action, Stephen and Diana joining as well but sitting on the other side of the circle. But from where I was sitting I could see the next card in the dealer’s hand and I helped Diana cheat her way out of the drinking penalty whenever it came to her. Trey’s game started out well but fizzled after a few rounds as people kept leaving. Andrew, the guy from Alaska I’d met at the hippie music festival, tried to start up a drinking game of his own but by then only Stephen and I were left to play. It was a pity because his game was much more fun.

Before long it was time for the gift exchange, and Ben had about as difficult a time getting everyone to shut up while he explained the rules as I do getting my students to shut up while I explain the rules of a classroom game. But it was pretty clear—everyone got a number and each person would pick one of the wrapped presents on the floor when it got to their number.  You could either pick a new present or steal somebody else’s but no gift could be stolen more than three times. I was number 18 so I had the advantage of going very late. The most popular gift in the bunch was a slingshot Ben had bought, and it had been stolen twice by the time it was up to me, so I got to steal it and keep it for good. I can think of a few fun ways to use it in class.

Can you shut up please?

Diana opening her gift. Trey trying out his present.

When the gift exchange was over I finally found an opportunity to sit down by Diana and talk to her some more, although at that point I had to share her company with Dan, one of the guys I’d just met that night who seemed really nice but clearly had eyes for her. But the three of us talked and had a nice chat until the need for another drink or bladder-relief naturally split us up.

Trey came up to me and said, “Dude, I don’t think your girl is married.” I told him I knew. He then proceeded to give me advice. “You need to be more aggressive, man. Saddle up to her, keep talking to her and at some point take her outside and kiss her. I think she’s definitely into you and really likes you, but you just need to go for it.”

Trey is a wise man. I took a deep breath and resolved to do just that. Hearing from him that he thought she was into me gave me the extra confidence I needed, and at that point I had just the right buzz going to pull off the move I’ve never been able to make before: the leap from casual-friends to more-than-friends.

But just as I was about to go find her again, a new group of people arrived and were introduced to me. There was a French girl from Paris, another Josai student, and her boyfriend Jack who was one of the only American students at that university. They were a really nice couple and I didn’t want to leave them right away. The French girl, Lily, was interesting to talk to and we could compare our impressions of Europe. Although she’s from Paris and loves the city, I was surprised to hear that she agrees that the people there are snobs and it’s ridiculous that even the people who work at the train station refuse to speak English. I parted from them with a promise to talk later.

Before I could find Diana, I somehow got sucked into a political discussion with Trey about Obama’s chances in next year’s election. It was more of a lecture than a discussion as I could barely get a rebuttal in edgewise, but Trey was very persuasive and convinced me that Obama has a much better chance of winning than I’ve been thinking. When he leaves Japan his plan is to go to Stanford and get a master’s degree in law, then go into politics himself and maybe even run for office in California. It’s always nice to have a chance to talk politics as those chances are rare, but I had to pry myself away because it was getting late and I’d barely talked to Diana all night.

Now that I had the sole purpose of finding her and engaging in actual no-holds-barred flirtation with her, she was nowhere to be found. I looked everywhere twice and couldn’t find her, then I went outside and called her cellphone. She didn’t pick up, so when I got her answering machine I just left a message. “Hey, it’s Kyle. I can’t find you here so I guess you left. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I’m glad you came tonight. I hope you had fun. I’ll talk to you soon. Goodnight.”

So I breathed a heavy sigh but figured it was for the best—I’d been spared the anxiety of having to actually try to make things happen with her—and there would be another chance another time. I walked through the foyer towards the main room when suddenly the door to the washroom swings open and who should emerge but Diana…and Dan.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the story of my life.

They both acknowledge me like nothing significant has just happened and she walks into Ben’s room while he heads by me towards the party. I can’t help but stop him and ask, “Hey Dan, are you interested in Diana?”

He obviously has no idea that I’d been going for her as well. “Uh…yeah,” he admits, understanding immediately. “Is that a problem? I’m sorry.”

“No, I mean…” I stumble. What the fuck had I even wanted to say?

“Shit, I’m sorry,” he says. “You were trying to get with her?”

“Well, yeah, kinda, but…I honestly don’t know what I’m doing.” Keep talking. “But hey if you’re into her and she likes you than go for it.” My heart doth protest but my mouth pays no heed. My head knows that it’s the right course of action. I have no more of a right to Diana than he does. She isn’t mine and never was.

“Really?” he asks. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Because I don’t want to be that guy. I’ve been on the other side of this situation more times than I can count.”

He’s just won me over. He deserves her more than I do. After all, he was the one who went for it. I hadn’t been aggressive enough and I let her slip through my fingers. To the victor…

“Yeah,” I say. “You should go for it. Honestly, no hard feelings.” I mean, I’m still going to despise you and everything but that’s not your fault.

“Thank you,” he says. “I appreciate that.”

Diana emerges from Ben’s room. “What are you guys talking about?”

“Nothing,” I say reflexively. I think it’s pretty clear what our topic of conversation was.

“Basketball,” Dan says playfully, then moves in to playfully tickle her, thus diffusing the whole situation. Good man. I don’t think I’ve ever loathed a fellow less-deserving of it.

Diana asks me if I have a cellphone charger and it just so happens I do. I go into Ben’s room and find it in in my backpack for her, then she plugs in her phone. I don’t know if it was dead or just dying, if she’d heard my call while making out with Dan or listened to my voice message after. These are things I’ll never know.

The next few minutes are all kind of hazy. I head to the kitchen table in search of more booze. Ben asks me what I’m looking for and I just tell him I need something strong. There’s a little bit of whiskey left in the bottle. I just finish it off and then grab a fresh beer.

Before I know it, Dan is getting ready to walk Diana back to her place. I say goodnight to him and Diana walks right up to me and gives me a very long, very warm hug. Through her embrace I perceive a mixture of mild intoxication and guilt. Our first hug, and it’s also our last.

I walk away as they proceed to get ready to leave, and Trey comes up to me with serious news: “Dude, did you know your girl is leaving with another guy?”

“Yes,” I say without bothering to mask how that makes me feel at all. “Yes, I’m well aware of that.”

“What happened, man?”

“I got distracted. I got held up in other conversations and another guy swooped in.”

Knowing he was partially responsible for that, he runs to the foyer and grabs Diana as she’s trying to leave. What the hell are you doing, Trey? The damage is done. Leave it alone. I make sure I’m totally out of sight during whatever exchange goes on between them. When he gets back he just comes up to me and tells me I wasn’t aggressive enough.

I know. That’s always my problem.

He says I shouldn’t feel bad because she wasn’t worth it. He calls her a nasty name she doesn’t deserve and which I won’t repeat, but that’s the end of that. I go find a place to stand and think.

Oh, hello darkness, my old friend. It seems you’ve come to talk with me again.Lucky bastard.

As I stand there staring at the fish-tank and contemplating who I am, I feel that old familiar  emptiness, the same aching in my gut I used to feel in high school often. Oh goldfish, how I envy you. If my brain were as small as yours I would have already forgotten the whole thing by now.

The question is whether I should stay or go. I’m so tempted to just gather my things and slip away quietly without saying goodbye to anyone, to just head home and toss on some brooding music and do some serious wallowing. But I promised Stephen a place to crash. Plus, fuck that. It’s too familiar a pattern. I’m sick of it. I’ll just stay and try not to let my gloomy presence suck the fun out of everyone else’s night.

There are a few surprises left in store. Cinty, the Hungarian girl, has been in the process of getting together with Ben all night, but somehow her attention turns to me. She asks me how I’m doing and I’m drunk enough at this point to tell her honestly that I’m not doing well and what the reason is. She takes pity on me and asks me if I’d like to join her on the balcony for a cigarette. You have cigarettes! God bless your cancer-spreading heart!

So I join her for a smoke and find myself engaged in an incredibly unexpected emotional conversation with this girl I’d had such a hard time communicating with last weekend at the Friendship Party. Thanks to the alcohol and the fact that we now actually had something real to talk about, things are going much more smoothly now. She’s not just sympathetic but complimentary, telling me I shouldn’t care about Diana and that I could have any girl because I’m smart and handsome and funny and all that. If she’s trying to make me feel better, she’s doing a pretty good job of it. She even has me laughing a little. Who would’ve thought. This girl actually does have a personality. A damned good one too.

Once I’m shaken out of my initial slump, things become a little easier. I find myself in another conversation with Jack and Lily, the French girl and her American boyfriend. We’re discussing plans for Christmas and New Years’ Eve. It turns out that they and a small group of other Josai students are also going to the Tokyo Sky Tree on New Years’ Eve so Stephen and I can join them. (Diana probably won’t be a part of that now). But not only that, they’re also going to Kyoto that week, though on the days after I’d been planning to go. But they’ll be in Tokyo for Christmas and I’m welcome to join them, so I think that’s what I’m doing. I’ll cancel my reservations at the hostel I made and spend the holidays with this awesome couple and their friends. I won’t be alone on Christmas and I’ll ring in the New Year properly.

Cinty and Ben are clearly bound to hook up tonight and nothing is going to stop that train, but I still find myself smoking and talking to her on the balcony frequently, not just the two of us but with Ben, Stephen, or other random people as well. I’m so astounded by how wrong my first impression of her was that I actually come right out and tell her.

Back inside and near the end of the night, Ai and Miko come to the party. Those are two of the three girls from the okinomiyaki night, the hip-hop dancer who speaks decent English and the really beautiful girl who speaks almost no English at all. I’m actually loose enough and—thanks to Cinty—confident enough to try and flirt with Miko now, and while her reaction seems promising the language barrier is just too great. We do make a genuine attempt to try and communicate with each other but it doesn’t work. Oh well.

Finally, at around 2:00 a.m. a large group of people from the party including three Japanese girls other than Ai and Miko (who leave after a relatively short time) are getting together to go to a karaoke bar and Stephen and I are welcome to join. Neither of us feels like going but something tells me I should. I ask Trey for guidance. He’s not coming because there’s a Japanese girl with a one-way ticket to his bedroom hanging onto him, but he talks me into going with the group that’s leaving. I didn’t need too much convincing. My inner hobbit almost always gets me to err on the side of adventure.

Stephen and I take too long to decide so the group is already gone by the time we leave. We wish a goodnight to the few who remain at Ben’s place, and I call one of the people who went and find out where they were going. He says it’s a place right across from the train station so I assume it’s the same place where the infamous lost-key welcome party took place, and Stephen and I head there.

While we’re walking Stephen mentions Diana and says, “That was really funny when she left with that guy. I wonder what they’re doing tonight.”

“Actually, I didn’t think that was funny at all,” I tell him, and he guesses right away that I’d been interested in her, which I thought he’d already figured out. So I explain what happened, and that leads to another conversation about confidence and not selling myself short and all that stuff I’ve heard a million times already but never hurts to hear a little more. Stephen’s got a good heart. I felt comfortable enough opening up to him completely, even confiding the fact that I’m a virgin when he asked me what my longest relationship ever was and I had to explain I’ve never had any relationship.

But we leave all that shit at the door to the karaoke place when we arrive. When we get inside I barely have to use any Japanese to explain to the waitress that we think our friends are here—she leads us right to the room full of foreigners.

And for the next two or three hours it’s just pure and simple beer-drinking, food-eating, and bad-singing. The Japanese girls there sing a bunch of songs I don’t know, and once I finally figure out how to work the song-selection device I and the other Westerners sing a bunch of songs they don’t know. Some of the guys know songs that the Japanese girls know but I don’t. I would totally try and rectify that if I didn’t find the music to be so bad.

It’s actually the first time I’ve ever done karaoke. It always seemed like something I’d never do unless I was really drunk, but last night certainly qualified. Stephen had never done it either, but both of us found it surprisingly fun. I never fully shook off my depression, but I was able to enjoy myself in spite of it.

Andrew passing the Mike.Stephen popping his karaoke-cherry.

Sing a Japanese song, please. Mmmm that's good karaoke.

In case you’re wondering about the girls there, they were as uninterested in me as I was in them. One of them was getting cuddly with Andrew, but the other two just seemed interested in talking to each other and singing the occasional song. At that point I really didn’t care. One of them was cute but she never held eye contact with me for more than a second and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because she couldn’t speak English.

We had our last call at around 4:30 a.m. and left shortly before 5:00. Luckily it’s just a five-minute walk back to my apartment, and this time I didn’t lose my key. Stephen crashed on my couch and we finished our conversation about women and relationships while passing out. I told him and he understands that I really don’t feel like I need a woman, that I love my life as it is, but it would be nice to have someone to share it with and it feels like I’m missing out on one of the most fundamental parts of human existence.

Curtains

This morning I walked Stephen to the train station and saw him on his way, but not before testing my voltage converter to see if the trip to Akibahara had at least paid off in that respect. All I could do was laugh when it didn’t work.

We only got four hours of sleep but somehow it was enough and somehow, miraculously, the hangover wasn’t that bad. Rather than immediately go back and write this journal entry, I decided to spend the morning going to the beach and doing some good old-fashioned staring at the ocean and pondering life.

The story continues...

That was very pleasant. I didn’t come to any new revelations or anything, but merely confirmed what I’d told Stephen the night before. My life is fantastic. I live in a wonderful place, I have an excellent job, I know lots and lots of fantastic people and I’m meeting more all the time. So I let one chance for romance slip away from me. So what? It seems there will be other chances. It’s just that if the story of my life is anything to go by, I’ll probably fuck those up too.

Tokyo Team Tour!

September 4th, 2011 No comments

Picture of the day (if not the year)

The last three days felt like three weeks. After the incredible experience of starting my ALT job on Thursday and Friday and the crazy misadventure of Friday night and Saturday morning, my natural impulse was to just kick back in my apartment and have a nice long rest. Instead, I went to Tokyo.

This time I didn’t go alone. Two of the other ALTs I met at Narita training, both of whom live closer to Tokyo than I do but are stationed in different towns, had made plans with me to meet at Tokyo station and spend Saturday afternoon doing some sight-seeing. It was Stephen’s first time in Tokyo so he was really excited (I was psyched enough about going there for the second time, but it’s never the same as the first), while Amy lived and taught at a school in Tokyo two years ago. She would therefore be serving as our guide.

I took the bus into the city this time instead of the train, and found it to be well worth the extra ¥400. There was no changing trains, and while the bus made a few stops in the Togane area, once it got on the highway it went straight to a parking area on a road just outside Tokyo station. Rather than 80 minutes by train (and if you count the time it takes to get outside of the station from the train platform—90 minutes) the bus took just under an hour. That and the plentitude of seating makes the bus a far superior option.

I called Amy when I got to the station and she said she was there at our meeting point—the Yaesu Central Entrance—and waiting for Stephen, who unfortunately doesn’t have a phone yet. I went inside and spotted Amy, then we both went outside to wait for Stephen, hoping something hadn’t gone wrong because if it had he’d have no way of contacting us. We chatted for a few minutes about our experiences of the first couple days of teaching, and were relieved when Stephen walked up to us within five minutes.

Amy rattled off a list of possible places for us to go, and they all sounded perfectly good to Stephen and me. We decided to walk towards one of those places—I actually don’t remember which because the destination would change a couple of times as we walked—and headed off in that direction.

There was a typhoon making its way across southern Japan at the time, so the weather was somewhat schizophrenic. It was sunny one moment, then all of a sudden it would start pouring rain and everyone would run to take shelter. During the first downpour we were lucky enough to be right near a highway underpass, and from there we took our first pictures.

 Shelter from the typhoon. Waiting for the rain to let up.

Stephen and Amy Dragon streetlights. 

The rain let up within just five minutes and then it was sunny again, so we continued our journey, mostly just walking the streets, taking in the scenery, and exchanging stories about teaching. Both of their first days apparently went just as well as mine, and we were all on the same page in terms of how awesome it was to be able to talk and communicate with the Japanese students. Although I must confess I’m a little jealous of them, as Stephen teaches high school so their English is more advanced so it’s much easier for him to talk with them, and Amy’s Junior High School is much smaller than mine so she’ll actually be able to get to know all of her 120-some-odd students, while I don’t think I have a prayer of getting to know all of my 600.

None of us had eaten lunch before we came, so before too long our primary goal was to pick a place to eat. Our destination then switched in favor of a place where Amy was more familiar with the restaurants, but she wasn’t quite sure how to get there and we ended up wandering through a part of town conspicuously devoid of eateries of any kind. It’s just like it is with ATMs—they’re everywhere when you don’t need them, but as soon as you need one they’re nowhere to be found. Of course the weather also decided to hurl some more wind and rain at us, but none of us minded too much because it was a welcome relief from the heat and if you’re going to be wandering around semi-aimlessly in any city, it might as well be Tokyo.

Typical Tokyo street. Typical Tokyo weirdness. 

When the rain did let up, I jokingly predicted that that was it and it wasn’t going to rain again for the rest of the day. At the time I figured that there was no chance of it not raining again, but it was like the kami heard me and adjusted their plans accordingly because it actually didn’t rain again for the rest of the day.

We eventually came to a place Amy had eaten at before and said was good, so we went inside and sat down for a much-needed lunch at 3 p.m. Stephen got dumplings of some kind and both Amy and I ordered strips of garlic-covered chicken which were extremely delicious (oishi). I was surprised when Stephen said he hadn’t yet tried Japanese beer yet and ordered one. He said he wasn’t much of a beer drinker, but he definitely liked the beer he ordered—some seasonal brew of the Kirin company—and both Amy and I tried some and were surprised to find we liked it too. Normal Kirin is crap, but this stuff wasn’t bad, and was certainly refreshing after all that walking through the humidity.

Dome City!After lunch we headed off to what had at some point been decided would be our actual first destination—Tokyo Dome City. It was where the Tokyo Giants baseball team play their home games, but they also have concerts there and we later discovered that this evening there was a big event with a bunch of Korean pop stars all from the same record label. But right next to the stadium is a little theme-park with a Ferris wheel you could pay to go on and get some breathtaking views of Tokyo.  There was a great location to take pictures there at a little river along the way.

Close-up. Beautiful shot of Stephen and Amy.  What a place to be.

We went in the wrong entrance at first and found ourselves in a little-kiddie area, which had a Massive crowds for the concert.very cool steam-thingy that Stephen and I took pictures of before realizing how we might have looked. We got out of there and found the correct entrance, and headed up the stairs to the  Ferris wheel.

While this place was packed with people I was shocked to find absolutely no line at all to get on. We just purchased our [somewhat overpriced] ¥800 tickets to get on, had our obligatory photo taken by the professional photographer who tries to sell you the picture for ¥1000 when you exit (none of us bought), and hopped into our car for the fifteen-minute go-around.

Dome City, on the way up.

There was a jukebox in the car and while I couldn’t stand the J-pop that was playing and just wanted it to be turned off, Stephen really wanted to hear it because his students were always talking about it. I acquiesced and we listened to about 4 minutes of the stuff, and while Stephen actually seemed to genuinely enjoy it I eventually had to put my foot down because it was sucking all of the potential profoundness out of the experience.

Super-tourists!Climbing higher.

All three of us were snapping massive amounts of pictures the whole time, and we definitely got some incredible shots. This was the first time I was able to see Tokyo from an aerial view and it was just as awesome as I’d imagined. Just this gargantuan urban environment stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions, and even then we were only seeing a part of it.

No edge in sight.

Even the sky was picturesque, with low-hanging clouds from behind which the sunbeams could be seen raining down on the city below. Unfortunately pictures can’t really capture it, but that didn’t stop us from trying.

Awe.

On the way down we discussed what we wanted to do next, and it was decided that evening would be the perfect time to go to a part of town called Shibuya, a busy place filled with all kinds of shops, arcades, bars and restaurants, and all kinds of random Tokyo madness.

We had to take the subway to get there, but luckily Amy knew what she was doing so it was not nearly as confusing an experience as it had been for me a week ago (was that only a week ago?) I also loved having Stephen there because he was impressed by just about everything, including how you could see the subway cars twist and turn as they made their way through the underground tunnels. But even he felt a little too weird about taking pictures on the subway.

Shibuya! Crazy scultpure.

We got to Shibuya (which I liked to call “Shi-booyah!”) just as evening was turning to twilight, and found ourselves at this crazy triangular intersection which is apparently famous or something. The whole atmosphere of this place was so insane and so distinctly Tokyo that I had to get a video of it.

After walking around that little area—apparently some famous meeting point—we crossed that crazy intersection ourselves and walked up one of those streets, snapping photos all along the way.

Streets of Shibuya.

Like Asakusa last weekend, Shibuya was filled with tourists and foreigners. We heard lots of English being spoken, including by Asians which always gave us pause. But I think unlike Asakusa the majority of the people there were still locals who just like to go there to hang out, shop, or play at the arcades.

Last week I remarked about how Tokyo is swarming with beautiful women, but Shibuya took it to a whole other level. The establishments there mostly catered to the young, so nearly every girl there was somewhere between late teens and late twenties, maybe early thirties (it’s so hard to judge with them). But there was enough going on all around that I wasn’t bothered by them. One pair of super-hot girls would walk by and there would be six more behind them.

Arcade megaplex.I spotted a crazy-looking place across the road and asked Amy what it was. I couldn’t tell from the outside, but it was apparently some kind of arcade/gambling-megaplex. We decided to go inside and check it out, and I’m glad we did. The first floor had a bunch of those claw-machines and those photo-booths where you can edit your photos to do things like massively enlarge your eyes (which the Japanese seem kind of obsessed with), and each of the upper floors had its own unique flavor of things to play. There was a gambling floor with some kind of electronic roulette-table thingy (I actually have no idea what it was) and a corner where you could actually just sit and bet on horse-races, which I assume were being broadcast live from various parts of the world where horse-races were going on. The top floor was just a straight-up video arcade, mostly fighting games with graphics like you wouldn’t believe. I remember when arcades were little more than pinball machines and Pac-Man. We’ve come a long way.

Photoshop-booths. The look on Stephen's face...

Super-fun happy time!

6000 yen on...um...? The fastest way to lose money.

After that madness I kind of had a hankering for a beer, so we went inside the nearest bar and sat down. It was a very western-style bar and there were a lot of foreigners there, but none of the pictures I took of it came out. We wanted to ask the bartender to get a picture of the three of us but he was too busy so we decided not to bother him. The most interesting thing about that place was the food menu, which had just about every type of bar-food from anywhere in the world you could think of. You name it: pizza, fish & chips, bratwurst, quesadillas, spaghetti, and on and on. The only thing missing was—alas—buffalo wings.

It was about 7:00 now and I wanted to get home at a decent hour because, after all, I desperately needed a good night’s sleep, and the others seemed to agree that it had been a nice full day and we were ready to go home. Amy helped us navigate back to the Shibuya station, and I took a few night shots along the way.

Sibuya at night.   Happiest man on earth.

Kind of a lot of people...

I’ve yet to truly experience the true Tokyo night-life, but I’d left quite early last week so this was the first time I’d seen Tokyo all lit up. Amy, however, informed us that there used to be a lot more lights than there were now. Apparently the Japanese are conserving energy due to the earthquake (which is, incidentally, the only sign in Tokyo that there even was the biggest earthquake in Japanese history just six months ago).

We changed trains at Shimbashi station, just like I’d done last week, and got to Tokyo station  and the Yaesu Central Entrance from where we’d started. Neither of them were in a hurry to get back, so they came with me to the busses and I asked the very friendly guy there when the next bus to Togane would be (in Japanese of course). He said 8:15, and it was now just 7:40, so we had some time to walk around this area and take some night photos, though almost none of mine came out.

Stephen's photo: "Two Passengers in a Foreign Land"

We came to a point where we spotted a German flag across the street, and I said we had to go in for a closer look. It turned out this was a genuine German bar in Tokyo, and not only that Die haben echtes Bier hier!but they served hefeweizen, my favorite kind of beer. I didn’t think I’d be able to find hefeweizen anywhere in Japan, so I couldn’t resist going in to have one. I asked the others if they wouldn’t mind and they didn’t mind at all, so we went downstairs and into the bar, which was completely and utterly empty except for the two Japanese guys who worked there.

I was running out of time and just wanted a quick beer, but these guys clearly expected us to sit down and spend some time there. I explained in broken Japanese I just wanted one beer and we would have to be fast (hayai), but when he showed me the drink menu and I saw how much the hefeweizen cost, I had to decline. It was about ¥1150—almost $15—and practically as much as the bus to Tokyo itself cost. As much as I wanted a hefeweizen I wasn’t going to pay that much for it and there wasn’t really enough time anyway.

The guy there was extremely friendly though, and joked that maybe I wanted a bigger one, taking out this giant 2-liter hefeweizen glass, which Stephen couldn’t resist getting pictures of, though unfortunately they didn’t come out well at all.

Trinken wier hier? Nein, trinken wir nicht :(

We apologized to those guys on the way out and they were both very friendly about it, and I resolved that I’ll eventually go back there sometime and fork over the price for that hefeweizen, assuming the place hasn’t gone out of business by then. It was a really nice place—just a terrible location. And it’s a shame the Japanese don’t seem to have much of a taste for German beer.

We walked back to the bus stop and I bid Amy and Stephen a goodnight. They were definitely great travelling companions and I hope to see them again at some point. Stephen has expressed an interest in coming to visit me in Togane, as he likes to surf and the beach is much closer to me than it is to him.

I tried to pay when I got on the bus but was told to pay after. But after an hour when we reached Togane station, everyone who got off the bus there just said goodbye to the driver and left without paying anything, and there was no one there to collect money. It wasn’t even like everyone went back to the station to pay someone there—everyone just went their separate ways. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I somehow got a free trip back from Tokyo, which actually meant I paid less overall than I did when I took the train.

When I got home and made myself a quick dinner I couldn’t resist having a couple glasses of whiskey and listening to music while contemplating the events of the past few days before going to bed, so I didn’t actually make it to sleep until midnight. At least I got a full eight hours, and I’ll definitely get another nap later on. But it’s nice to finally have a day completely free. Other than blogging and doing laundry, there’s nothing at all I have to do. I don’t even feel the need to “seize the day” because I’ve seized the living crap out of the last few days and starting tomorrow I’ve got to work six days in a row. On Saturday there’s some kind of open-house thingy at the school and I’ll be teaching to the students while their parents are there, as though they haven’t put me through enough stress already. At least they cancel school on Monday to make up for it.

There may not be another blog entry for quite some time, but I still plan on doing some work on this site. I started publicly posting journal entries a few months into my first year in Germany, but I’d like to go and back-post the entries I wrote before that, stretching back to my first day in Germany so readers can go back and compare the initial experiences of Japan with those initial experiences. I’ll make a note whenever that’s complete.

Until then, enjoy your break from the heavy reading material! Get some rest if you can. After today, I certainly won’t be getting much.

A Tiny Taste of Tokyo Town

August 29th, 2011 No comments

Cross another city off the list of places-I-must-see-before-I-die. When I was placed in a city within reasonable travelling distance of Tokyo, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to wait too long before heading there to check it out. Having discovered on Saturday what a trip from Togane to the beach entails, Sunday was about determining what it’s like to get from Togane to Tokyo.

Tourism Center of the Universe

Trey told me there’s a bus that goes there directly, but I was just as curious about the Japanese rail-system as I was about Tokyo itself so I decided to make my first trip there by train. I checked the schedules online at a site called hyperdia, and decided that the 10:31 train would be my best bet. I’d have to changeover once in a city called Soga, but from there it would be a straight-shot in.

After riding my bike to the station (which took about 4 minutes) and locking it up, my first problem was figuring out how to get a ticket. As far as I could tell there were no live human beings working there, either because it was Sunday, because there was another building I wasn’t aware of, or because they just don’t have people working there. I went up to the ticket machines and attempted to buy a round-trip ticket for the day, but they only offered a small list of destinations—all nearby cities—and none of them was Tokyo. I stood there scratching my head for a minute and was about to go ask someone for help, but it turned out I didn’t have to. An older Japanese man came right up to me and said in English, “Would you like some help?”

“Please,” I said, and explained that I was new in Japan and this was my first time taking the train. I told him I was an ALT, and he turned out to be an elementary school teacher in Narita. So this super-friendly English-speaking dude helped me through the whole process, which involved going to a different machine and calling for an operator, then explaining in Japanese that I needed a round-trip ticket for the day to Tokyo. The price showed up on the screen, about ¥2100 (just over $25), I put my cash in and as though there was a man living inside the machine, it took my money, printed out my tickets, and gave me an arigato gozaimashita.

I chatted with the teacher for a few minutes, telling him I was from New York which turned to the subject of the hurricane that’s currently blasting my friends and family there right now. Everyone in Japan is aware of it, as they’ve even got Japanese reporters in Manhattan to cover the story for their TV news reports. We also talked a little about the differences between JET and Interac, as the school where he works in Narita has JET ALTs and he says he thinks JET has better working conditions for its teachers. I wouldn’t know.

The train was right on time, and I stepped aboard and sat down for the 20-minute journey to Soga. Compared to the Deutsche Bahn, these trains measure up nicely. The seating is all along the side as opposed to rows like in Germany, but the seats are just as comfortable and the trains run just as fast. They stop for less time in each location, but other than that there’s no substantial difference. I do have a feeling they’re a bit more efficient than in Germany, as while the Deutsche Bahn was once famous for its efficiency, they’ve been slipping in recent years (which I judge both from my own experience and from talking about it with Germans). Every train I took throughout the day was exactly on time, but we’ll see how they operate in bad weather. I’m sure the efficiency falls apart pretty rapidly whenever there’s an earthquake.

Changing trains in Soga was not nearly as confusing as I’d feared it would be, as the train to Tokyo had LED-screens on the outside flashing the words “To Tokyo” in both Japanese and English. In fact the entire Japanese rail-system was incredibly user-friendly, with everything clearly marked and easily-readable schematic maps posted everywhere. The train to Tokyo itself had each stop announced in both Japanese and English, as well as LED-screens above the doors constantly letting you know what the next stop would be in kanji, katakana, and roman letters.

I was tempted to take some pictures from the train but I held back. We did pass through some very cool scenery though, including Tokyo Disneyland. I don’t foresee myself ever going there, but I suppose there are plenty of pictures online and everyone pretty much knows what Disneylands look like anyway.

The last few stations were all underground, so I only got to see the outskirts of the city on the way in, though the outskirts were certainly urban enough in their own right with skyscrapers aplenty, quite in contrast to Europe where everything is low to the ground. Japanese cities are far more in resemblance to American cities than Europe, with very little mind paid to aesthetics and almost no statues or fountains to be found.

We arrived in Tokyo station, and its monstrous size felt like a microcosm of the city itself. It took almost ten minutes just to get up all the escalators and finally emerge outside. Incidentally, just as driving is on the left side here, escalator-etiquette is also reversed. Because on Japanese highways the right-lane is the fast-lane, those who stand still on the escalators do so on the left while the people on the right are moving. They also really stick to that, as while you’ve often got some jackass standing still on the left side of the escalator in America (or even in Germany), every single person on the right-side of these escalators was moving.

My first glimpse of Tokyo.

So I finally got outside, took my first pictures, then headed off in the direction of the park. I was flying with absolutely no plan whatsoever, as while the original plan had been to meet a really nice guy I’d met at ALT training in Narita named David and have him show me around, he cancelled on me at the last minute because he had to do a one-on-one lesson with a guy who had an upcoming job interview in English, and besides that he had no spending money anyway. So without David I was left to my own devices, which I wasn’t upset about at all because I’ve probably solo-travelled more often than I’ve travelled with company anyway, and I felt it appropriate that my first time in Tokyo would be through my own eyes alone.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day and the park seemed like a natural first destination, so I moved in that direction until I spotted an empty tour-bus parked on the side of the road. Having had great experiences with bus tours in London and in Rome, I figured a bus tour of Tokyo might be a good way to start me off. I went up to the driver, asked him in Japanese if he spoke English—he could not—then proceeded to strain my Japanese skills to the limit to get the information about the tours. Luckily he had a flyer with all of the information, so he gave that to me and gave me some rough directions on how to get to the office where I needed to sign up.

I headed off in search of this office but I couldn’t find it. I found a few information boards with maps of the area and the locations of interest clearly marked, but the tour bus office was not among them. There was, however, one circle that marked the Tourist Inquiry Office, so I decided that would be my first destination. At the very least, they could tell me how to get to the bus-tour office.

The tourism office was in a giant building filled with shops and restaurants on the bottom floor and various other businesses in the floors above. The tourism office itself was actually on the tenth floor, which I suppose helps keep the place nice and empty most of the time. When I got there I was instantly greeted in English by the two ladies who worked there, the only two other people in the room. I’ve never seen a tourism office so empty before, but I was rather pleased because the ladies could focus all their attention on me.

All I did was ask them how to get to the office to sign up for the bus tours (it turns out it was marked on a small map in the flyer the bus driver had given me—I am an idiot), but they were eager to give me far more information and suggestions about where to go. They gave me free maps of Tokyo and Japan, circled points of interest in Tokyo and showed me brochures with pictures of what I could find there. I don’t know why I’m still surprised by how friendly Japanese people are, but these women were among the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve yet come across. They even gave me free postcards and a little paper-crane as a “welcome to Japan present”.

They said they were the only Tourism Office like this in all of Japan, and I think I believe them. They gave me a flyer with their phone number and said I could call them any time if I had questions about Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan. I thanked them profusely before leaving, making sure to use the Japanese, and they told me “gambatte” which has no real English equivalent but carries the same basic meaning as “go get ‘em!”

One of the areas they suggested I go to was called Asakusa, where there was apparently a temple and a shrine located in a big shopping district, as well as boat tours along the river. I could head there, check it out, then take the boat tour down to a small island in the harbor where there would be more awesome things to see including some kind of dancing robot. Seemed like as good a plan as any, so I nixed the bus-tour idea and decided to do that instead.

I was a bit wary of having to figure out the Tokyo subway system, and it was kind of a pain. The subway map is a mess—easily the most complicated subway map I’ve ever seen—and even though I was supposed to go to Ginza station to take the Ginza line, the first “Ginza station” I came to was only for a different line. But I certainly don’t mind walking around awesome cities, and I got to go down a pretty cool street that was blocked-off from traffic and where I spotted a film-crew of white people shooting some kind of film (perhaps Lost in Translation 2).

No traffic today.

But I eventually did find the right station and the right machines to buy a ticket to where I needed to go, the simplified maps posted everywhere marking exactly how much you had to pay to get to each station a huge help, not to mention the English option on the machines. [Side-note: screw France. They give you an English option on the ticket machines in Japan, but you French assholes can’t even give your tourists that simple courtesy?]

By the time I got to Asakusa my stomach was in desperate need of something inside of it. There were restaurants all over the place, but I just wanted something quick, easy, and guaranteed not to make me sick so I went to KFC. I know, I know. But I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to sample the genuine Japanese cuisine in Tokyo, perhaps even with people who know the best places to go.

After eating I went to the river to snap a few photos and find out about these boat-tours, but it turned out there were only two of them today and they were both happening after 4:00, by which time I was planning to already be on my way home.

Across the river. Asakusa

I followed the signs to the Senso-ji temple, a very familiar name and a place it turns out I would have put near the top of my list of things to see in Tokyo if I’d remembered it was there. There was an awesome gate leading up to it, and I decided to take the obligatory photo of myself in Tokyo in front of that, going up to a pair of cute girls and asking them to do it. I asked them in Japanese but they replied in English, and afterwards they asked me in English if I could take a photo of them. They must have been tourists too.

The Gate

           A shrine.    Another victory.

Incidentally, one of the most noticeable things about Tokyo is that it is absolutely swarming with beautiful women. That seems to be pretty much true of Japan in general, and I know I’m going to have a hard time living here. It was nice and easy in Germany because while there are certainly exceptions (and long-time readers of this blog know there are exceptions) the vast majority of German girls are completely undesirable. Most guys love having lots of gorgeous women around, but only because to them they exist as possibilities while to me they’re just objects of unquenchable desire, and I hate desire. Living in Hannover I was lucky enough to rarely experience it (maybe only three or four times a day) but in Japan it’s been about fifty times a day and in Tokyo easily in the hundreds. It’s no wonder the Japanese are so into porn.

Anyway, back to the story. Between the gate and the temple was a long walkway of souvenir shops, ice-cream stands, and what-have-you. It felt like the center of the Tourism Universe.

Tourists, tourists, everywhere. Souvenirs, souvenirs, everywhere.

I’ve been behaving like a Japanese tourist ever since I got here and snapping photos of every little thing, which in certain places (the supermarket, for instance) makes me feel very awkward. But here I was surrounded on all sides by fellow tourists with their cameras also snapping photos of everything, and it made me much more comfortable.

There were plenty of white people around for sure, but most were still Asian. I’m sure plenty of Japanese people who don’t live in Tokyo come to Tokyo for sight-seeing, but I’m certain there were plenty of non-Japanese Asian tourists in the crowd as well. You could spot the non-Japanese Asians whenever they were simultaneously walking and eating food at the same time, which is rather frowned-upon here and which I’ve refrained from doing myself.

I saw a sign for “Ice-Cream Burgers” and decided to stop and try one (after my lunch I was kind of having an ice-cream craving anyway, and this sounded interesting). It turned out to just be a small wad of ice-cream between two wafers, and while it was tasty it was a bit overpriced at ¥300. I’m sure I could have done much better for myself at Baskin Robbins.

The Senso-ji Temple.

I finally reached the Senso-ji Temple, got another picture of myself in front of it, took more photos of the surrounding area, and went inside. It felt very weird in there, but comparable to a cathedral in Europe. It’s supposed to be this holy place, and you’ve even got people praying there, but they’re surrounded by assholes with cameras taking flash-photos of everything, and now I was among those assholes. I only wish I was a bit more versed in Japanese history so I could have appreciated it more. I’ve only read one book on Japanese history and the bulk of it was focused on the 20th century.

 Awesome stuff inside the gate. Another awesome Japanese structure.

Holy smoke! The devout.

Outside there were some awesome Giant Buddha Statues (daibutsu) and a little pond with awesome fish. It was a lovely little area, and would have been quite peaceful if it weren’t for the theme-park right next to it. The sound of screaming kids kind of spoils the atmosphere just a little.

               A Buddha statue?  In Japan?  Get outta here!    Map of the area.

Fish pond. Serious ninja-faced fish.

I walked along the outskirts of the park and came across a performer putting on a little show for the kids, and used my camera to take a rare video which I shall now post here in lieu of a description.

A bit further down I spotted a Dippin Dots vendor and stopped dead in my tracks. Although I’d just had some ice-cream I absolutely had to indulge in some Dippin Dots, as they’re one of my all-time favorite edible substances and I haven’t come across them since 2006. When I was young the rarity of them tricked my brain into thinking they were the best stuff on earth, to the point where I actually fantasized about becoming a Dippin Dots vendor myself so I could eat them whenever I wanted. So having found to my delight that they exist in Japan, I got myself a cup of banana split and ate it right outside the shop (wouldn’t want to do it while walking), discovering that they’re not nearly as delicious as they were in my memory.

I checked my phone to find that it was 2:30, which I thought would give me just enough time to do one more quick thing before going back to the station to take the 4:00 train back which was my plan. I could have stayed longer but I wanted to be back to have dinner at home, and the longer I spent in Tokyo the more money I’d be wasting on things like Dippin Dots.

One of my favorite things to do in big cities is to go up to observation decks on tall buildings to get an aerial view. There was a giant tower right across the river but I wasn’t sure if it was open to the public. Because I was short on time I didn’t want to go all the way there, so I called the Tourism Office at the number they’d provided me with and asked them about the tower. It was called the Tokyo Sky Tree and it was, in fact, still under construction and won’t be open to the public until next year. I thanked them for sparing me from a long disappointing walk.

Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance.

I decided to head back to the area near the main station and check out that park that had been my original first destination. I took a different route back to the station than I had coming from it, got a few more photos of shrines and Buddha statues along the way, and after a bit of wandering eventually got back to the station and managed to figure out how to buy a ticket back. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been because for some reason not every machine sells tickets for every line.

More shrines. More Buddhas.

On the map of Tokyo the Tourism Information ladies had given me, it looked like the nearest station to the park was called Shimbashi, so after a twenty-minute ride I got off there and left the station, attempting to figure out which direction the park was in. I thought I figured it out but another glance at my clock revealed that there wouldn’t actually be enough time to get to the park and back to the main station with enough time to figure out how to get to whatever platform I needed to get to, so I just wandered around this area a little and took in the scenery.

When it was 3:30 I figured I should start walking back to the station, and since there were no information boards around I went to a little food stand and asked the guy there in Japanese which direction was Tokyo Station. Luckily I know the Japanese words for “far”, “30 minutes”, and “walk”, so after he kindly came out onto the street to show me with hand motions and words like “lefto” and “straighto”, I decided I’d probably be much better off heading back to Shimbashi station and hoping I could get from there to Tokyo station in time for the train I wanted.

I bought a ticket without really knowing what I was doing, but I asked a guy who worked there which train I needed for Tokyo station and he told me Platform 5. Luckily enough, the train came just a couple of minutes later and Tokyo station was just two stops down. I entered the station and went up to the Information counter. I showed one of the women who worked there my ticket and prepared for another Japanese explanation of where to go, but she spoke English so it was an easy process. She not only told me which platform to go to and how to get there, but she looked up all of the information about connections and wrote it down for me. I’d actually be taking a slightly earlier train than the one I’d looked up, and changing over in Oami instead of Soga, Oami being just two stations away from Togane.

Although the train was packed when I got on it, I was miraculously able to get the last open seat and I stayed there for the whole 72-minute trip to Oami. There were lots and lots of people coming in and getting off at each station, but the overall trend was a gradual thinning-out of the crowd the farther away from Tokyo we got. I successfully changed trains in Oami, confirming that I was taking the right train by asking one of the guys on it, and ended up back in Togane at 5:25 and my apartment at 5:30.

So having now officially journeyed from my apartment to Tokyo and back, I can safely assume that I’ll be doing it quite often. It’s not difficult at all to get there (it’ll be even easier if I take the bus), the cost is very affordable, and the time it takes is very reasonable. It takes just a little bit more time to get from here to Tokyo than it did to get from where I lived in New Jersey to New York City, and a little bit less time than it took to get from Hannover to Berlin.

It wasn’t the world’s most exiting trip ever, but this was just a taste. Tokyo hasn’t seen the last of me.