I am hesitant to make generalizations about Japan because many people reading this have far more experience in Japan than I do. I have this sense that they're out there making snarky lists of my errors in a little black book with a padlock on it. Like when I said that the Japanese don't understand minimalism a few weeks ago? Oops. Of course the Japanese understand minimalism. Just look at their food. They all but invented it, whatever Steve Jobs may claim. But the day I wrote that, I had just been exposed to colors that aren't even in the optical spectrum and had come back from Harajuku reeling. I had to watch a silent movie to get my wits together. Though the Japanese understand minimalism they are also masters of multisensory assault, it seems. Duplicitous bastards.

The point is that there are going to be the inevitable exceptions to my observations and I am often wrong. So get over it, black-book-writers. Whew. I feel much better.

Uh, so yeah, naked Japanese men? Well, yes. I went to an onsen this weekend. I think most of you may have heard about onsen, but maybe that's just me assuming again, like I assumed everyone knew what Roppongi was. So for the rest of you: an onsen is a Japanese public bath fed by a hot spring. Japanese custom is to thoroughly wash in the adjacent showers before entering the bath. God help the poor gaijin who sullies the bath water.

The bath, which accommodates at least a dozen, is typically a big stone pool in a big stone chamber filled with steam. The chamber is filled with steam because the water is unimaginably hot, often as high as 45º C (113º F). To the uninitiated such temperatures are tolerable for about five minutes. I am definitely one of the uninitiated and before long I have to climb out of the hellish pit, dizzy and rubbery. My vision inevitably goes black for a moment and I am forced hang onto a nearby wall or naked Japanese man to avoid falling over.

The onsen I went to this weekend wasn't that hot. In fact, it was almost tepid. I was disappointed because there's something soothing about the near-death experience of a really hot onsen. When you get out the volume has been turned down on everything else and your body is pleasantly painful and pink. And even though 113º F probably isn't hot enough to kill anything in the water except me, really hot bath water at least feels sanitary. The onsen I went to should have had complimentary petri dishes next to the guest towels, because I worry that there was a thriving mini-Tokyo of bacteria in the lukewarm water. The water was a bit slimy, too, due to the spring water's naturally high alkaline levels. At least I hope that's why, but maybe it was just from all the cholera floating around in there.

The spectacular outdoor bath more than made up for whatever communicable diseases I picked up this weekend. There are far worse things in life than sitting up to one's neck in a hot spring in the rain, surrounded by pine trees. It felt like a picture in a Japanese travel brochure, except the photographer would have probably made the bathers take the towels off their heads because they look ridiculous.

The towel is for modesty's sake: it's to hold in front of their bits when walking around the bath. When they get into the water they often fold the towel and put it on their head in a little pile. Historically baths were unisex but in recent times most onsen have moved towards same-sex baths. When I think of unisex baths I think of the Japanese Women's Olympic Volleyball Team, but after seeing some of the little old ladies who were staying in our inn I was grateful for this segregation.

Onsens often have a Japanese-style inn on the premises and are a good vacation destination. Some onsen are lavish affairs, like Japanese spas. The Japanese make a weekend of it, drinking and feasting and bathing to excess with extended family and friends. It's a good group activity: who doesn't enjoy watching their naked, sweating great-uncle pass out when he tries to get out of the bath? Onsen are also a good home base for Japanese sightseers. They go and see the local attractions (other onsen) during the day. They sample the local delicacies, which are usually various kinds of bean paste with a twist: it's wrapped in a maple leaf, or something. Then they return to their bath house, wash off the dust from a hard day touring bath houses, and prop up the occasional staggering white guy mid-faint. Afterwards, pink and happy in their rooms, they proceed to drink everything they can find, send for more, drink that, and start telling erotic jokes* about how fried chicken looks like testicles.

Beats driving three days to see the world's biggest ear of corn any day.

*Japanese humor is not incompatible with Western humor. But Japanese jokes are completely incompatible as far as I've seen. They're usually puns or one-liners that twist the Japanese language and presuppose an extensive knowledge of Japanese cultural history. For instance, "I will soon (go to New York/take a bath.)" Or there's the classic:
Q: Do you know how to build a fence?
A: (shrug)


Next time I'm coming on a corporate expense account.

It appears I need to buy an ironing board. We have an iron but no board, and I can't decipher our tiny washing machine's buttons well enough to turn off the "super-wrinkle" cycle. I could alternately get my clothes laundered at a cost of about six dollars per shirt. The local cleaners insist that any cheaper laundering will ruin the shirts completely and unfortunately I believe them.

I also probably need to buy a clothesline as there's no dryer. More hangers, as well, and a wheeled rack to hang things from. The "closet" that my room boasts is large enough for about six shirts if they've been ironed completely flat. Even then it's so shallow that it will crush the sleeves when I close the door. Though my apartment is furnished I still have had to replace many things that I couldn't bring with me. I hope the Necessity Replacement Phase is almost over but something tells me it's just begun.

The problem is larger than simply buying stuff. Of course, when my income's been halved and cost of living has been (at least) doubled, money is a big part of it. But it's a challenge just to solve problems whose solutions were self-evident in the Cities. This began my first night here, when I was finally done unpacking at one in the morning. I was about to go to bed when I realized: sheets and blankets? There have been many, many forehead-smiting moments like that. Usually they revolve around minutiae. Laundry is a big challenge, as is keeping my room anything like organized: I'll need to buy some shelving and cabinets before long--and then where the hell will I put them?

I have been forced to develop new routines for mundane tasks. It's all petty stuff, but the constant barrage of inconvenience wears me down at times. I look forward to when I have figured out all the trifling problems and my life settles down a little more. I would love a day during which I don't wonder "So now what the hell do I do?"

Another big one is food. Eating cheaply has proved all but impossible. I was eating every meal out during my first week, but started making stuff at home to save money. Lo and behold, that's expensive too. Good luck making a meal for less than $5. Though it goes against common sense, eating out seems cheaper than cooking, and either way I'm going broke fast. The only way to avoid this is to eat absurdly boring food. White rice and... well, maybe some kimchee or something if I'm lucky. And forget about eating healthy. Vegetables and fruit are absurdly expensive for the most part. The most I can hope for is to eat reasonably un-unhealthy.

I'm sure I'm missing many possibilities for cheap, healthy, tasty meals, but how would I know? I can hardly read labels. Shopping for anything takes two to four times longer than it would in Minneapolis. For me it's usually a process of wandering around aimlessly hoping the sought-after item falls off the shelf and onto the floor in front of me. After a few minutes of this, when the staff starts trailing me like a shoplifter, I finally go and ask for help.

When I finally do get home with the miso paste, or whatever, I then have to prepare it. This involves more label-reading. Usually I sit there with my electronic dictionary and a bewildered, hateful expression, moving my lips soundlessly as I try to decipher directions. Reading them usually takes longer than actually cooking the item in question, and as often as not I prepare it wrong anyway.

Of course, it's not all that bad. One of the best ways to eat is to get a big bowl of rice and several small side dishes: kimchee, spinach, mushrooms, carrots, sausages, miso soup, seafood, whatever, prepared simply and easily while the rice cooks. As one might expect, Japanese and other Asian foods can be gotten at a somewhat reasonable price. Unfortunately I have no idea how to make many of them. Noodles are plentiful and cheap. Seafood is plentiful but less cheap. Chicken is cheap but don't even think about red meat unless it's a special occasion. Things like spinach, alfalfa sprouts, avocados, apples and bananas, are reasonably priced, as is bread.

Grapes are about four to six dollars for perhaps 20 grapes. Of course, they're also enormous and plump and delicious. In addition, the Japanese--who abhor skins on most fruit and peel everything--have managed to breed grapes that just pop out of their skin when you bite into them. Strawberries are ridiculous; I once saw a box of twenty strawberries for thirty dollars, but of course they were the most flawless examples of strawberryhood I'd ever seen. I haven't seen a melon for less than fifteen dollars and I believe that's cheap. Et cetera.

These are just the things I recognize. At least half of my neighborhood grocery store resembles an alien biology lab. There are bizarre vegetables I don't recognize and fish bits I didn't know existed. There are bags of different colored mush and boxes of pastes and packets containing flakes of dried matter. Many of these things would be delicious if I could figure out how they're meant to be prepared.

If anyone know any simple, quick recipes I could use, I'm taking suggestions. Preferably something compatible with rice.


The sun is shining.

Yes it is. Today is a good day. I just finished work for the day and enjoyed a walk through the city with a liter of cold green tea. There are so many different kinds of tea here, about six different choices in each vending machine, and it's hard for me to tell them apart. The tastes are different of course, but I'm not sure why or how. There's oolong, green, Chinese green, jasmine, barley tea, tea made with rice, autumn tea, and many more. As a rule they're all very light and refreshing.

Tea in hand, I walked from Roppongi to Aoyama 1-Chome. It was hot. Summer is still clinging on, and I was sweating a bit by the time I got to the subway. Tokyo is very hilly, so my walk involved lots of ascending and descending, mostly past restaurants and clothing stores. It goes without saying that they were expensive. There were tapas restaurants, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, and dozens and dozens of Japanese restaurants. Usually the Japanese restaurants have deceptively humble decor and seem to specialize in something--say, sukiyaki.

I miss the days of Rotary when people would take me to restaurants like this all the time.I wasn't really aware enough to appreciate it at the time. I didn't really understand what they were treating me to in the hopes that some iota of Japanese culture would penetrate the space between my headphones. Oh, I have some regrets about that. There I was, surrrounded by Japanese people speaking Japanese to me and giving, giving, giving, and all I wanted to do was hang out with my English-speaking friends (and Naoko, of course) and drink. I hope to make up for that now. I believe in redemption. So far my studying is going well, and I have plans. I always have a plan.

Today I worked at the LC in Roppongi for six lessons. It was an early Saturday morning, eight-thirty to be exact, but I was out by 3:15 so I can't complain. I have Sundays off and Monday is a holiday, Respect for the Elderly Day--and I get paid! Paid holidays a first for me and my evening is a cheery one. On the way home I bought two big Kirin beers for later.

I think the Berlitz teachers I trained with are getting together tonight for drinks. I can see it all starting again: fourteen foreigners are thrown together in a strange city and immediately become friends because it's convenient and they speak the same language. The same as Rotary was. I want none of it. Those guys were OK, but damn. If I wanted to hang out with English speakers I would have stayed in Minneapolis.

In fact, I'm kind of shocked by some my coworkers. I met someone who has been here seven years and can hardly speak the language--in fact, several people. I met someone who despises Japanese food, all of it, even after four years here, and will eat little aside from Wendy's. Some constantly complain about their job and all the terrible things about it. Some have unmasked contempt for the Japanese students who pay their bills. Many people complain about Japan and the various ways Japanese food, culture, language and custom are different from their own. Everyone bitches constantly, in fact, though many work less than eight hours a day. After talking to Japanese people who work twelve hours a day, I want to throttle the ungrateful bastard who complains because her student actually showed up for a lesson. If anything it's inspiring me to shut up and keep positive. I just hope the ceaseless moaning doesn't rub off on me.

So tonight I'm going to go out on my own and maybe try to make some Japanese friends. I'm going to stick around Shimokitazawa instead of going downtown. Downtown would be fun and all, but the trains stop at midnight and while that's a bit early, I don't really feel like staying out all night, either. I'll get to know Shimokitazawa a little bit, which is a great area anyway. There's a place called Bird Cafe where I've gone a few times and chatted with the bartender and his friends who hang out there. I'll probably start there and then find out where to go for a good show. I could do some live music and a few beers. No work tomorrow or Monday--sounds like a good weekend.


It's the Pip Hanson Show, The Book, The Musical: Now a Major Motion Picture!

I am sitting in an internet cafe drinking Chinese tea. Through the store windows I can see Japanese rain and Japanese traffic. The cafe (which has a full bar) has a covered patio with plastic transparent plastic curtains in the back so people are still able to sit outside. At one patio table sits a girl with a green mesh trucker cap with a silver sequined front. My waitress is tiny and cute and has very short hair. I am in love with her, of course, but like most Tokyo girls she is so jaded and bored of gaijin that I might as well be covered in guano. Or maybe that is just her inscrutable Asian countenance.

The keyboard is covered in Japanese as well as English and the layout is different; the space bar is about two keys long and the key next to it switches the keyboard over to Japanese. While typing I will hit the key where I think the space bar should be and suddenly二里利故意手巣にかに幹に身町背地味いとい midsentence.* Also I cannot seem to find the apostrophe no matter how I search, so I need to be creative with my wording. No contractions today, sorry.

I am waiting for my second block of lessons to begin in about an hour, at 6:15 p.m. Yes, my second block of lessons. I have what some might consider the schedule from hell: Begin work at 8:25 a.m. Work for three hours. Then a six and a half hour break, only to return at 6:15 and teach for another three hours. This is my schedule four days a week; On Saturday I have a shorter break and teach for seven or eight hours. I have Sunday and Wednesday off. Everyone says split shifts suck but though it's not ideal, I don't think it will be so bad. In six hours I can go home, eat some lunch, study some Japanese, and take a nap. Maybe even prepare for my evening's lessons, though no one else does in my Language Center.

Teaching English is not hard. The training made it seem really hard, applying confusing methodology and linguistic theory to a job that is not much more than speaking slowly to people who barely understand you. But it is not hard. The toughest part, I am told, is staying awake; I imagine that will come in a month or so when I am used to everything. But today was my first day in the field and it went fine (the first half). There will be a wrinkle or two, but not for long.

Nevertheless I am not excited about this job. It is easy to see the where this road leads because I am surrounded with extreme examples of what ten years would be like at Berlitz. On the one hand, I have the bitter lifers who have been doing the same thing forever; on the other, the peppy cheerleaders who slowly climbed the company ladder because they think this is all so neat. Neither one is appealing because I cannot really be enthusiastic about this work.

Really, I don't think the job is so terrible. My schedule sucks because I am a rookie, but if I pay dues (though to use that phrase in this context makes my skin crawl) I will achieve seniority. My schedule will improve along with my salary (the latter minimally, I am sure). And the work is almost admirable. I had a distaste for teaching English that was hard to get over, but after watching the Japanese students I respect them for wanting to learn English. That makes the job a more bearable.

Eikaiwa (English conversation classes) is a big industry in Japan. Every single train station seems to have at least one outpost from one of the big eikaiwa companies, and downtown there are literally thousands of them. Can you imagine a thriving industry in America that teaches Spanish? Because I cannot. Of course many Americans learn another language, but there is no way an enormous percentage of the population would regularly attend Spanish conversation classes by choice. Yet every day Japanese students pack the classrooms of the eikaiwa, patiently and shyly studying their little textbooks. They come for various reasons, and not all by choice. Some are only here because their company will pay for it and give them a promotion if they can then pass a certain English test.

But many are here out of a genuine interest in the language. Maybe they come because they lived in, say, New Zealand twenty years ago for college; though they may never return, studying English keeps that memory alive. Maybe they want to forget the humdrum of life as a middle-class Japanese person for forty minutes a week before they return to their jobs, families and responsibilities. I admire their quiet fascination with life outside of Japan. My feeling is that English offers them a brief escape from Japanese life, which I can imagine would be stifling. Seeing this makes me a little sad, too.

During training I watched several lessons on a closed-circuit video camera. (Yes, there are cameras in the classrooms.) One student was a pleasant, soft-spoken man with thinning hair and a round face. He was wearing the standard-issue salaryman uniform: black suit with a white shirt, top button undone. The subject for the day was "budgets" so the instructor began by asking him about his own job. Is his department over or under budget every month? Is it ahead of or behind schedule? Etc. With modest pride the man, who worked at Mitsubishi, said that his department was always under budget and ahead of schedule. A successful ladder-climber at the top of his game. But when the instructor asked if he liked his job he sagged a bit and shook his head. "No... I don't... like job."

(I've found an apostrophe key! Hoozah.)

It makes the job more bearable to know that students like him must be getting something out of the lesson, enough to devote a lot of time and money to them. The lessons are expensive; Berlitz charges ¥340,000 for forty lessons. That's not quite $3400, and many students go through forty lessons in a month.

Despite the high cost of these lessons, the plush days of the Seventies and Eighties are over. From what I've read, teaching English in Japan used to be like picking bags of money off of low-hanging branches, with high demand and low supply. But the economy is not what it used to be and there is a larger supply of English teachers now. The average salary of an English teacher in Japan has remained the same for eighteen years, despite inflation.

And that's fine, I guess. I can't complain about anything in my life and I'm going to try not to start now. Without going into too much detail (I'm about to go to bed) I will say that things are a bit rough right now. The past nine days have been a rude awakening of several kinds, and there are some lean times in my future. I'll leave it at that. And if that's all that's wrong with life than I should be grateful. Mind you, going home is not even a consideration. Instead I'm determined to improve my situation, however I have to do that. I'll leave it at that and try to elaborate later. Love to all of you.


*For those of you who can't read Japanese, that was gibberish. It was simply the result of typing, in English, "I will be writing in Japanese" after hitting the magic button.


Gwen Stefani was right, as usual

So far I have found that my recreational activities are broken down into roughly two categories: spending money and walking around. When I'm not walking, I'm spending money. Even if I just want to stop walking and sit down I have to spend money, because there is nowhere to sit in Tokyo that isn't the property of a cafe or restaurant. Oh, sure, there's the occasional plaza with public benches. but these are few and far between. When I do find one there are Japanese people sitting on it because they have exactly the same idea as me.

The public benches are always crowded because Tokyo is always crowded. Everything is crowded at every hour of every day. This might be an exaggeration, but only slightly. Rush hour in the subways begins at six a.m . and never really stops. It swells and subsides and swells again until sometime after midnight, when the final trains are packed hip to hip (or worse) with red-faced salaryman leering without focusing at girls who ignore them intently. It's hard to imagine the extent of human traffic in Tokyo; no matter where I go I'm fighting crowds. And of course there is no fighting the crowd. It's useless to try because there's no end to it. I'm surrounded and outnumbered. My only option is to be zen about things and just shuffle slowly in long lines down the sidewalks of Shibuya or Harajuku, keeping an eye out for a place to sit which will inevitably be occupied by Japanese people.

I can cram myself between them and probably ruin their day in the process, or I can continue on to the local cafe, order an iced coffee and sit for exactly as long as the iced coffee lasts. I say that because depending on where I am there are usually people standing around holding trays and waiting for me to finish my drink and get the hell out of the coveted chair. Some cafes seem to have perpetual lines out the door. It sometimes just seems easier to keep walking.

I went to Harajuku today determined to walk off the pain in my knee caused by walking too much. Off I set, bum knee or no. Harajuku is everything it's cracked up to be and more; whereas Ginza provides posh shopping for adults, Harajuku is for the kids. I can't even guess how many clothing stores I saw today, catering to every imaginable culture, subculture, and untersubculture. The major streets are the domain of the big name labels, but the winding back alleys are packed with hundreds of tiny little stores catering to one fashion fetish or another. Make no mistake, these are not clothing stores, they're costume shops. Life in Japan seems like perpetual theater, at least for the fashion-conscious.

I saw fifteen-year old girls with black lacey French maid outfits. Glam-rock wannabes who clearly spent hours doing hair and makeup together just so they could swagger down the street together--and I'm talking about boys. Girls in matching blue and pink striped overalls with matching pink lame and rhinestone purses. Tattooed neo-tribal bike punks with dreadhawks, straight out of Mad Max. Lip piercings seem to be big right now. I saw many kids with twelve spikes, hooks and rings jutting from their mouths, heavy enough to make their lower lip droop. And hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop.

In Osaka I remember being repelled by the colors found in Japanese fashion. Now I find I love them. They are indeed repellent, but mesmerizingly so. Wild, clashy hip-hop sneakers with bizarre patterns are huge here, and I can't say I mind that. Clashing colors are like dissonance in jazz: beautiful when executed well. Some Tokyo fashions are all about sensory overload, using color in a completely different way than American fashion. "Often the more the merrier" is the rule.

Tellingly, I tried to explain "minimalism" to a girl who worked in a clothing store today. It wasn't easy. The idea that "less is more" is a difficult one to convey here. (Or maybe my Japanese just sucks.) Here, less often seems to be less, at least as far as fashion goes, and stubborn Midwesterners who try to deny it are either cheap or lazy.

O, Whitey. So square. You can always spot the gaijin: ill-fitting clothing, sloppy haircut, stained sneakers, poor choice of facial hair. And of course that goes for myself as well. Even the gaijin here who try to adopt Japanese style usually look to me like fish out of water. It's weird to be ethnocentric against my own ethnicity but the Japanese simply look cooler than white people. If they want to wear FUBU and bling, they can pull it off. If they want to wear a pinstriped suit and cuff links, likewise. If they want to wear enormous grandma sunglasses, white boots, a leather hip pouch and a cowboy shirt that says "Ass Man"... it works, though a white dude wouldn't make it two hundred feet in a get-up like that. Gaijin stand out not because we're blond but because the even best-dressed of us still look like hicks.

Of course Japan has its share of schlubs. I expected to find Japan populated by fashion plates, which of course it isn't. But the ceiling is higher here, as is the median. In the midst of very normal people walk the most bizarre sartorial Darwinisms I've ever seen. Some go to insane lengths for fashion, and usually even the geeks look cool in a geeky way. Japanese fashion is fertile and experimental and wild. I lack the eye to see who is cool and who is not; I don't get the underlying formula yet.

In fact, I'm not sure that rules of "cool" and "uncool" even really apply here. The girl in short-short-shorts, cowboy hat, platform shoes, white mascara, hair extensions and a full-body bronze tan probably thinks that the girl in the white maid's outfit with angel wings, elbow gloves, top hat and fake blood dripping from under a fake eyepatch looks pretty weird--and vice versa. Without dwelling too much on the usual cultural stereotypes I would say that Japanese fashion culture seems to be a series of in- and out-groups rather than a hierarchy whose pinnacle is Prada.

Though I don't usually get a sense that these people are all inventing their own original styles. Undoubtedly there are some creative people doing creative things with fashion, but when you look through a doorway and see two dozen different mannequins in Elvira-bondage outfits, or when you find thirteen different guys' stores selling the same line of turquoise-studded snakeskin belts, or when you happen to glance at a newsstand and see magazines that offer beauty tips for girls who dress up like anime characters... You start to get the sense that these are all predetermined styles that they're buying into. The styles are manufactured and sold, like almost everything else here, and any decision is a pledge of allegiance to a particular subculture.

I don't mean this in a sinister way, because it's not. People have to buy clothes.They have to choose from a set. Fine. Tokyo offers much more choice than Minneapolis, but like Minneapolis every choice is culturally significant. So what does the guy in zombie drag signify?


A real estate tour of Tokyo

I've been in Tokyo a week now.

It doesn't really feel like a week, but I couldn't tell you what it feels like either. Time feels mushy. Mostly it seems that I've never been anywhere else. Minneapolis is distant. I think my mind is busy adjusting and doesn't really have time to reminisce at the moment, so maybe I'll get a wave of nostalgia sometime in October. For now simply coping is a full-time occupation. I've been training every day and squeezing Japanese study into the gaps. After training I usually have some kind of Berlitz-related homework and then I eat dinner and usually conk out at about ten.

Yesterday was a day off, though it didn't really feel like it. I met with two different realtors. A few days ago I gave my month's notice to my current landlord, so the pressure is on to find a new place. It's a bit worrying, really, but a month should be enough. In a city as large as Tokyo there's always apartments turning over, but in the meantime it's stressful. I would call my landlord and try to take back my month's notice except that everyone, Japanese and gaijin alike, seems to think that I am getting ripped off. It's the neighborhood; Shimokitazawa is very hip, apparently, and so even the lousiest den can command unreasonably high prices. I was talking to a bartender who lives in the area and shares a one-bedroom apartment with two other guys.

I had asked the first realtor about apartments in the neighborhood so he met me at Shimokitazawa station and we walked to a nearby unit. It was shabby as hell and there was a hefty deposit and "key money" as well. Key money is like a deposit except you don't get it back at the end of your lease. It is a uniquely Japanese institution that infuriates foreign residents. For obvious reasons: you're paying someone for the privilege of then paying them rent.

So in the case of the Shimo apartment I viewed, rent and "management fee" was ¥82,000 (not quite $800) per month, but the deposit and key money were both equal to two months' rent. Plus a month's rent for the agency fee. Plus the first month's rent, plus fire insurance, and I've probably forgotten one or two other additional fees. If you're doing the math with me, we're at almost $4800 just to move in, $2400 of which I will never see again. Plus of course a cleaning fee when I move out, plus a cancellation fee if I don't stay for two years. Etc. And it's unfurnished--I still need a bed, refrigerator, and everything else I didn't bring with me from Minneapolis.

I didn't take it.

The second agent was more helpful. He showed me there were some deals out there. He was able to find several departments without a deposit and without key money, which the previous agent was unable to do. The second guy was named Nomura and he spoke decent English, though we switched to Japanese after he found out I could speak it. And speak it I did, with an ease that is improving every day. It's coming back!

When you're a foreigner looking for an apartment with no key money and no deposit in a cool part of Tokyo... well, you get what you pay for. More importantly, you don't get what you don't pay for and at first Nomura didn't really have any good news, trotting out floorplan after floorplan of hellholes without refrigerators for ¥87,000 or whatever. In my head I was already composing the cringing email to my current landlord begging for my room back, if he hadn't already given it away.

Then suddenly Nomura found something: a virtually brand-new studio in Ikebukuro with no deposit and no key money. The rent was ¥85,000--what I'm paying now. There was an additional maintenance fee (of course) of ¥15,000 per month. That brought it up to almost a thousand dollars per month (at current exchange rates I suppose it's more like $900). That seems like a lot, but it isn't much more than I'm paying for this crappy room in this crappy guest house and I'd have my own place in a pretty bustling area of Tokyo. The building was built in 2006 so it's not only squeaky-clean but it's also up-to-code as far as earthquake safety, which has been much on my mind of late. Not only that but for another ¥10,000 a month it would be fully furnished with a bed, covers and futon, HDTV, refrigerator, microwave and clothes washer.

A thousand dollars a month. I was almost certain I couldn't do it, no matter how nice the place was or how good a deal, and I tried to dissuade him from showing me the apartment. I suggested that I would think about it and tell him tomorrow if I was interested, at which point we could go and view it. I didn't want to waste his time. But he seemed quite intent and after a few attempts at refusing I relented and off we went to Ikebukuro. I figured I had dropped enough hints; he couldn't be mad at me when I didn't take the apartment. I had never been to Ikebukuro and I had nothing better to do that afternoon. He also wanted to show me another place for almost the same price and it would be useful to have some kind of baseline for later apartment searches.

As he promised, the apartment was beautiful. Shiny floors, fresh paint, big bathtub and shower with a separate toilet. There was a balcony, a washing machine, a pretty HDTV. A big closet, a desk to study at, 24-hour management help and a good security system. A gated lot for parking bikes. A bed with a futon. All I would need to buy was sheets. As far as deals go, this was a great one; the price was right and it saved me a lot of trouble and expense (in the short term). There was no key money, only first month's rent, an agency fee of one month's rent (this is inescapable no matter what you rent or where; it's the system) and a guarantor's fee of half a month's rent.

And yet. Ikebukuro seemed like a decent neighborhood but I wasn't that enthusiastic about it. It was fine, I guess, but I wanted more than "fine" for a grand a month. Nor was it especially convenient for work; it wasn't very close and I would have had to transfer every morning at Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world. 4 million people a day use it; it's one of the stations where begloved platform attendants still have to physically cram people into trains every morning. The Ikebukuro-Shinjuku line is probably the most heavily-used line in Tokyo. That wasn't quite what I was looking for.

If I had been certain that my salary with Berlitz would cover it I might have pulled the trigger despite these considerations, but while I'm reasonably certain that I will be working a lot I don't know for sure yet. The last thing I wanted was to be locked into a two-year contract and hemorrhage money on some fancy apartment. As good a deal as this place was, I knew I didn't need an expensive nice apartment, I needed a cheap crappy one. It was an agonizing decision but I refused the apartment.

As if to underscore what I would be passing up, the next apartment we saw was lousy. The building was not very nice, located in a shabby neighborhood quite far from the station. It was easy to refuse. Curiously it was only about ¥7,000 cheaper than the other place. Again, no key money or deposit.

So I didn't get an apartment yesterday. I did get a five-hour tour of Tokyo and some Japanese practice as well as a few ideas of what to expect from my apartment search: lots of crap punctuated by the occasional good deal. I did not, however, call up my landlord and ask for my room back. I have a friend who is also looking for an apartment and we have decided to join forces and split a two-bedroom place. Based on prices we've seen, we will be able to get something much nicer together than we could afford on our own. We're going back to the same company tomorrow to look into 2DKs (2BR+dining+kitchen) and see if we can't find something for about ¥75,000 each. As long as we don't want Shimokitazawa I think we'll find something.



It's Friday night. The past week has consisted of daily 8 1/2 hour training sessions with my English conversation company, Berlitz. The sessions take place in a business district called Aoyama ("Blue Mountain", if you're curious). Things can get grueling by hour seven, but they are liberal with breaks and I can't really complain. It's not bad once you get used to it.

The first few days I was waking up at four or five in the morning due to jet lag. Though that's almost subsided by now I've continued to rise early; six a.m. seems to work well. I arrive at the Aoyama subway station a little after seven and check into one of the many coffee shops in the underground corridors around the subway station.

Though the Japanese do have malls, there aren't many. The Japanese don't really need malls because they spend a huge amount of time in various mass transit stations and these stations have become prime commercial real estate. Each subway station is a mall unto itself. This is especially true in the big central stations. Who needs a mall when you walk past thirteen shoe stores on your way to work?

The Aoyama subway station is no exception. Though it's not as commercially-oriented as some of the big Loop stations, I still find convenience stores and newsstands before I've even left the station proper. Once out of the station I'm on the first floor basement level (there's also a second floor basement level below) and surrounded by stores and restaurants. At seven a.m. most of these are shuttered but there are a few cafes and coffee shops catering to the early commuters and I set up camp in one of these to enjoy a "morning set" and some Japanese study before training begins. Sometimes I choose Cafe Croissant for their crab-and-avocado croissant sandwiches, but the music there is too distracting. Think peppy, square jazz covers of Marvin Gaye. Yeah.

So usually I choose Cafe Loire (don't even ask how the Japanese pronounce this). It's clearly an old place and I dig the vibe. It has that diner-gone-to-seed feel that most Denny's used to have before they reupholstered everything in fuchsia and cyan plastic. The wood tables are scratched and scarred. The walls and ceilings are smoked mirrors, which give the place a sepia tinge. Whether this is due to an actual glass treatment or to the fact that they allow smoking in Cafe Loire--and everywhere else--is uncertain. Regardless, the mirrored ceilings allow the servers to look up at the ceiling to see how your meal is coming along, rather than hovering and staring at your table. The leather booths are shabby and worn, and badly need to be reupholstered in bold, "funky" plastic as envisioned by an American restaurant consulting firm, but thankfully that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.

Like many Japanese restaurants, Cafe Loire serves water in three-ounce glasses and servers seem surprised when you're able to finish it. Their early menu is limited to four or five different "sets", which in this case means a small meal and a coffee. The choice of meals is limited to the following: buttered toast with jam; "hamtoast": a piece of bologna and mayonnaise in between two pieces of toast; a "mini-sando": a tiny egg and bologna sandwich cut into three pieces with a side of corn; and one or two hot dogs with ketchup and mustard, cut into two halves. Those feeling adventurous can order a boiled egg for fifty yen. The Japanese are mad about sets, but usually they're a little more varied than this.

Loire's food is far worse than their coffee, which is a forgivable offense at seven in the morning. It seems like a lot of places don't offer refills as freely as American restaurants. Some places, if you order a coffee you get just that: one coffee. But Loire offers free refills so I sit and slug down coffee as I study tiny, cramped characters in a workbook. I've overdone it a few times and rattled around the building like a windup toy.

By noon the place is bustling. All the restaurants are open and doing a brisk business with the people who work in the twin 25-floor Shin-Aoyama towers directly above. There are French cafes and bistros. Chinese restaurants. Stores with stacked lunch boxes containing rice, pickles, and pork cutlet/fried chicken/tofu and sesame with seaweed/what the hell is this? There are salons and a shoe store apparently specializing in gold lame. There's a store selling dozens of different clothes hangers that look as though they should be in a museum. Next to that is a Riedel wine glass store and across from that a Spiegelau wine glass store. The basement levels and the first two levels of the towers are full of these places.

To my surprise traditional Japanese restaurants are the most common of all. The Japanese are so preoccupied with other cultures it sometimes seems as though they are uninterested in their own (*wild generalization alert*). But in the Shin Aoyama building there are dozens of places selling tempura, soba, donburi, tonkatsu etc, as well as more modern creations like the "omurice"--an omelet of sorts with ketchup and rice in the center. Today I sat in one of these semi-traditional Japanese restaurants. I say semi-traditional because even though they look the part, the fare is very standardized Japanese Food and not really distinguishable from competitors. While I ate a katsu-don and soba set (they love their sets, man) in a room filled with tatami and sliding doors, the Beatles played on the speakers overhead.

The other day I discovered a restaurant with a big window through which you can see a man making soba (buckwheat noodles) by hand. He takes a big sheet of floured dough and folds it three or four times, making a big heap. Then he lays a big board across the top and uses that to guide a flat-bladed chopper about a foot and a half long through the dough, cutting long, even strips of noodles. It's very cool to watch him work.

Enough emailing. I've been sitting in a stuffy, flourescent-lit office for five days now and finally I can go out. I have earned this weekend, that is for sure. I am off to meet a Japanese friend, Yuji, for drinks in Ginza. I look forward to the prospect of both drinks (I haven't had so much as a beer for eight days) and Japanese conversation. Yuji's a great guy so it should be a fun night.



I had a pretty good day today, which was badly needed. Culture shock has definitely been taking its toll in weird ways. I didn't really know what to expect but it's been impossible to ignore it in the past 72 hours. (Only 72 hours?!?!) It comes out in different forms. One of the biggest of these is a sense that there's nowhere to go and nothing to do. Considering I'm surrounded almost constantly by opportunities for diversion, this is an odd sensation. Not having many friends–and not yet having a phone to call them with–intensifies it. Restaurants, karaoke, theaters, bars, shopping: they're all around me but it's no fun to go alone, especially when I have to wrestle with Japanese to do it.

The language barrier is also a big thing, and it is a barrier indeed. My Japanese is shockingly bad. I have neglected it terribly in the past two years since graduation, and it shows. Ordering food at restaurants was terrifying at first because I had no idea what the hell they wanted from me sometimes (even if it was things like "for here or to go" or "what will your side dish be?") so I got very awkward. My confidence is slowly coming back, which helps a lot, but I have a long way to go.

I feel like I've wasted so much time. Part of me knows this isn't true. I've learned a lot of different things in the past few years that I wouldn't trade in: drumming and mixing drinks were both skills that I expect to draw on in unexpected ways later. But at the moment they're simply not applicable and so I'm left with... virtually nothing. My peers in the Berlitz training classes are all pretty talented, intelligent people. A few of them speak five languages while I'm struggling with my second. One taught rock climbing. One majored in Chinese politics in college. One lived in Singapore, Thailand, France, Hong Kong and Australia.

I've gone from feeling pretty on top of my game in Minneapolis to being a complete newbie in Tokyo. I can't even feel like I've done something all that special because there are a lot of foreigners in Tokyo--a lot. You see one every thirty seconds or so, it seems. More, in some neighborhoods. Foreigners in Tokyo seem to be pretty harsh judges of each other, which doesn't help. In general it seems like gaijin resent other gaijin for ruining their Japan experience. For ruining their sense of being special? Or maybe that's me projecting. Regardless, as far as gaijin go I rank low and I don't enjoy that feeling. My Japanese is so embarassing right now that I get nervous speaking it around other gaijin. Ech.

But today was pretty good. No real reason why. I think I'm just getting a little more comfortable. I've gotten over the feeling of being stared at, which makes me awkward and thus a bit bumbling. My Japanese isn't getting better yet, but I'm getting more confident in it: I'm remembering that I do, indeed, know the language. And actually know it pretty well, if I can but remember it. I had several successful conversations today, pulling forgotten words from the dusty recesses of my memory. One hard month. There was a little strut in my step today. Of course, it's hard not to feel cool walking around Shibya in a pinstriped suit listening to the Pharcyde, but it's more than that.

All this is also an incentive to study hard. I borrowed a pencil from a cafe today for kanji practice because my ballpoint pen was not really conducive to kanji practice–the strokes were all the same width and the feel just wasn't right. Plus I couldn't erase my many mistakes. The waiter lent me an old-school wooden pencil (sharpening it for me first, of course) and after using it for a while I grew to love it. Normally I hate pencils like this, but there was something about the ritual of sharpening the pencil every page or so that was very soothing, like keeping a knife sharp or a drum head tuned. With good tools, there is something satisfying about the work. I immediately went to a stationary store and bought a little pouch of three wooden pencils with clear plastic caps to protect the tips, a sharpener, and an eraser to inspire my kanji practice. A small but satisfying purchase that makes the studying an almost reverential act.


I'm here. I'm home. Tokyo is awesome. I don't really know where to start. The plane ride was uneventful and everything went pretty smoothly and on time. Several friends met me at Narita and we took the "Skyliner" into the city. Narita is quite far out of the city–in fact, it's not even part of Tokyo–so even on a super express train the trip took over an hour. At first the land was lots and lots of fields which were mostly invisible at night, what with rice not having streetlights and all. It took about fifteen minutes to enter anything remotely urban.

Once we were on the outskirts of the sprawl, though, I started to get excited. I started to see things that jogged my memory of what Japan is really like. It was more than just seeing the stores and signs that I had once known well, it's the whole jumbled vibe of Tokyo. I had forgotten the chaos and the closeness. Things really are just a different flavor here. It's like a meteor buried itself in the ground and unfurled into a city: stairs winding up the sides of buildings, roads unfolding and branching, capillaries pushing through the earth to become subways.

Tokyo doesn't go up as high as I expected. The tallest building in Toyko is the Midtown Tower in Akasaka and it's only 54 floors. The IDS is 57. This seems impossible to me but everything I've found on Google seems to support it. My best explanation for the comparatively short buildings is the necessity of designing them to withstand earthquakes.

But Tokyo makes up for its stature with density. Tokyo is absurdly dense. Each street is pretty much a canal through concrete buildings eight to ten stories tall or more. On each floor of each building on every street there is a bar, restaurant, salon, massage parlor, clothing store, English classroom, sex shop, karaoke parlor, electronics store, or cafe. Most of the signs are tiny, a little vertical rectangle advertising "Monsoon Cafe" or something, surrounded by dozens of similar signs. And this is the prime real estate: no matter how obscure the sign, at least it's on an actual street. If you turn off into an alley you'll find the same thing: more buildings. More tiny winding stairs. More bars/restaurants/etc on each floor. And then you turn down into an even smaller alley and suddenly you're wandering through tiny cramped corridors where you have to duck to avoid the ceiling and there are all these little sliding doorways with red curtains across them and the smell of noodles billowing out on a head of steam.

And that's just one block. I have been here just 24 hours at this point, so I still don't have this place figured out. In fact, I'll be lucky if I ever "figure out" Tokyo. But in a few months I should be able to comprehend it a little better. At the moment I just stare and giggle with glee.

My house is kind of a shithole. It's not the worst place in the world but I have some qualms. Security is lax; our front door is flimsy and seems to be mainly decorative. The same can be said for my own door and also the door to my veranda. Yes, I'm on the ground floor so I have a tiny little veranda surrounded by a flimsy wood fence higher than my head. There are seven people in the house and one shower for everyone. The toilet is in a separate room but there's only one of those as well, so we'll see how smoothly these things go in the morning. Among my friends in Tokyo the consensus is that I'm paying too much for what I'm getting, so the apartment search will begin promptly.

The neighborhood I'm living in, Shimokitazawa, is actually pretty cool. My immediate surroundings are a pretty sleepy residential neighborhood with a school across the road. In this kind of dense urban area, a residential neighborhood is an interesting thing. Everyone uses as much space as they can squeeze from their lot. Everything abuts everything else and usually there's not much more than a few inches between house and house. There are plants and fences everywhere for some semblance of privacy, and clutter is the rule. Since there was very little planning involved there is no kind of organized grid system. Things are crammed into any space that will fit them.

A few blocks from my house is where Shimo gets interesting. There are dozens of tiny streets that are mostly used by pedestrians, bikes and scooters. Lining these streets are more shops, restaurants and bars. The difference here is that everything is really small and quaint. The streets would barely accommodate a Hummer and the building styles are more old-fashioned than the downtown area. The entirety of many of these little restaurants would fit within the bar of, say, Temple in Minneapolis. Somehow they manage to cram like twenty seats and a kitchen into that space. It's a cozy neighborhood and I would be happy to live near it if I can find a new apartment somewhere in the area. It's also really convenient, just a few quick subway hops to my job.

Speaking of subways, Tokyo has a very cool new system for paying for subway use. When I was in Osaka it was all magnetic tickets: little orange rectangles with origin/destination information encoded on the black coated back. You fed the ticket through a slot and it would crunch through a bunch of conveyor belts and then pop out of a slot at the end of the gate. That system still exists in Tokyo as well, but they've also installed what seems to be RFID readers in every gate in the metro area: little glowing panels that read your "Suica" pass, or better yet–your cell phone. Suica passes are commuter cards that you them with yen. When you lay your wallet containint your Suica against the panel the gates open up and a little screen at the end of the gate tells you your balance as you walk out. Alternately you can use your cell phone as a Suica card, preloading it with cash and laying that against the panel. It's much quicker than mechanical ticket delivery systems and perfect for a rube like me. This way I don't have to sit at the ticket machine squinting at subway maps in Japanese and trying to find the price of a ticket to my destination. Instead I just enter with my Suica, somehow find my way to my destination, and exit with my Suica and the price is automatically calculated. A nice step to skip.

Of course, as soon as I get a cell phone–which will be as soon as humanly possible–I will be using that instead. Cell phones are not quite as insane as I had expected here, but there's no way they could have met my expectations unless they were actually implanted in skulls. There's nothing like the iPhone (yet)–but I'm not convinced the iPhone is the technical benchmark of cell phones. It may be the benchmark of cell phone user interfaces, but phones here could show it a few tricks, I think. In addition to using them as a subway pass by preloading cash, you can use them as credit cards at any store with a reader on it. So most convenient stores have a little glowing panel at the register that you lay your phone against to pay for your cans of coffee-flavored oxygen (yep). In addition to anything you can find in the US (internet, GPS, mp3 playback), here are some other common features of cellphones in Japan:
> Large, beautiful screens that swivel horizontally to become widescreens
> TV tuners
> Fingerprint-recognition locks so no one can use your phone
> Micro SD cards for storage
> Fairly advanced 3D graphics and games like Katamari
> Touch-pads for your thumb to move a mouse on the screen
> 5 megapixel cameras
> Video chat by a second camera facing the user
> Purty designs
In addition, lots of phones now have motion-sensing capabilities like the Wii remote. I'm not sure how this is useful except to play games, which of course they have in droves. I have seen a Katamari Damacy game on a phone that is controlled by tilting your remote. You can also use the motion-sensing capabilities–this is really really cool–to take panoramic pictures. Just turn on the panorama feature on your phone's camera, hold it up and turn in a circle. The camera will sense the turn and calculate the appropriate panoramic image based on that.

Gibson, eat your heart out.

Japanese, jet lag, and culture shock are all challenges that I am definitely dealing with at the moment. For instance, at the moment it's four a.m. and I'm continuing this email because I can't sleep any more. I conked out at nine last night, almost midsentence. My room is still a bit of a shambles because despite my best intentions to finally organize everything I didn't make it past 9 p.m. last night. Getting up early will no doubt become hard soon, but if that's as bad as jet lag gets I'm fine with it.

Japanese and culture shock are knottier issues, but I have faith that they will be overcome. I dealt with them when I was eighteen, so I can deal with them now, too. But my Japanese is rough, that's for sure. The knowledge is there somewhere, but it's hard to access. Even if I had less actual Japanese education when I was in Osaka, I had way more confidence. After a year there I would blithely sail into any situation and tackle it. Right now, though, I feel awkward and bumbling at times, which can be hard. Ordering food can be a challenge because even if I can order my shrimp burger and consomme-flavored fries all right, the server invariably has some question that I don't for the life of me understand. It sucks at times.

Of course, yesterday was pretty much my first day here. I'm writing all this with about twelve waking hours of experience under my belt, so I have a long way to go and I know that. Definitely an incentive to study hard. I can't pass judgment on the situation quite so soon. One hard month–that's what I've resigned myself to.


I suppose this as good as any a way to begin.

I'm on a plane again. To Japan. Again. People are beginning to board; I was one of the first, after much confusion, and so I can see them as they enter and find their seats. Mostly Asian, though not necessarily Japanese. The man next to me is headed to China, to a city that sounds to my ears like “Talien.” From Tokyo he flies to Beijing, then to Dalien. Sixteen hours total, so I guess I won't be complaining about my own flight.

No one looks their best in an airport. Some combination of light and grim exhaustion, I think. Not many youths on this plane, mostly oddly-dressed middle-aged ladies and businessman who constantly apologize to each other. There's a cute girl two rows ahead of me whom I noticed earlier in the airport. She's wearing a baggy hoodie; the combination of hip-hop fashion and Japanese girls has always appealed to me. Another young Japanese guy I noticed in the airport was wearing a bulky Adidas hoodie, white with small green Adidas logos tiling it. He walked down the aisle later with his hood up and is head down, looking oddly stiff. I noticed there was a tear rolling down his nose after a moment.

Our plane has two aisles, which I enjoy. I rarely ride in planes with two aisles, and they remind me of visits to England when I was a kid. The trip to England was bad enough; the return trip was interminable, and the last two hours were excruciating.
They're ready to depart now, so my laptop has to go. More later.

I'm off. It's 3:31 p.m. Johnny is setting up the bar right now. Traffic is getting bad, if it's not already. I stared hard at Minneapolis's skyline from the plane window thinking thoughts like this, trying to frame some kind of goodbye. There are never really any definitive goodbyes and hellos in my life. The lines are blurred. It's one, then it's the other, and somehow the transition was never really noticeable. I couldn't really comprehend that I was leaving Minneapolis, couldn't conceive of any other posible place I could be, and when I'm in Tokyo Minneapolis will be a myth, too. Something you scare misbehaving foreigners with: “If you're bad you'll have to go back to Minneapolis...”

We flew over Edina on the way northwest to the Pacific. I suddenly realized I recognized my neighborhood. Seeing cars on the highway near my house reminded me of the hellish traffic I've slogged through in the past week while luggung possessions to Edina. Subways were never as appealing as when I was stuck in gridlock two blocks away from my house on Como Avenue. I feel sorry for everyone who will have to deal with the aftermath of the 35W collapse until the end of 2008. Lakes were choked with algae so they were a cloudy metallic green. Boats carved Lake Minnetonka into spirals. That was goodbye enough, I guess.

I have escaped. I refused to believe, even this morning, that I was going to Tokyo. I've had this sense that the city would refuse to let go of its own. Even on the plane, I thought, Minneapolis would reach up its hand and snatch me out of the cabin seconds after lift off. I would land in the dust, bruised and winded for my hubris. But no, I'm out. In the clear lakes below me I can see white clouds reflected, and blue skies beyond; the choppy lakes sparkle like TV static. I'm on a plane to Tokyo, which is going to sparkle even brighter and crazier. The hand of the Orient lifts me now, snatching me from Minneapolis and whisking me to strange new lands.