Candy Button Conveyor Belt

Well I’m back in my favorite $5 coffee cafe again today. Ah the coffee tastes a little burnt today…that’s a shame. I thought I would get here sometime mid-afternoon while it was still sunny through the cafe’s wide windows and might even be warm enough to sit outside for a bit, and I’d settle in for several hours. But through a series of lazy decisions earlier today it’s now 5pm and I just arrived, and I have to head out again in just 2 hours. Tonight one of my new favorite bands is playing at the Ruby Room. They’re the only live act in this event series called “Berlin.” I’ve never actually gone to the event before but it seems like my friend who organizes it puts it on about once a month; there’s free entry, some live music but mostly DJs, it goes until 4am, and (and this is what really pulls the crowd in honestly) free burritos. Also I use the term “friend” here a little loosely. I think most foreigners living in Tokyo probably know this guy. Well okay actually “most foreigners” is probably hundreds of thousands of people so that’s insane. But if you met a random foreigner around my age living in Tokyo there’s a better chance, statistically, he knows this guy than anyone else I know. Anyway I’ve never been to this event before because I don’t know if it’s exactly my scene. It’s amazing how the face of Ruby Room changes so much from night to night. I know this sounds impossible or like a figurative exaggeration but I think I literally feel more comfortable sometimes at Ruby than in my own apartment. I mean for one thing I’ve technically known the Ruby room longer– I’ve been going there for about 10 months longer than I’ve lived in my current apartment. And while (as attached as I really am to my apartment) my apartment is always a good 20 minute bike ride at least from the people I love, there’s always at least one of them within a few feet of me at Ruby. But, that being said, it’s amazing how the tiny place can transform. I’ve seen it brightly lit and weirdly naked the times I’ve gone there before an event starts to help set up. I’ve seen it in its cool red-hued lazy vibes on the Tuesday open mics. And then I’ve seen it at 1am on a weekend night, Japanese techno screaming from the speakers, strobes and oppressive black radiating from the hidden walls. I think the scene tonight will fall somewhere between the latter two, if such a midpoint between those worlds even exists. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

IMG_0055
Open mic red vibes

In my last entry – I don’t know if “entry” is the right word here actually, that makes this sounds like a diary. Although I guess this “entry” has about the look of a diary so far… Oh well I’ll just stick with “post.” In my last post I mentioned how disconnected I’ve started to become from the Japanese world around me. It’s kind of a queer concept isn’t it. I’ve started watching random Japanese people as I pass them on the streets, ones who looked busy in a very solitary fashion, and I wondered how connected they feel to the world around them. Or is it just as simple as, being Japanese, they feel implicitly connected? Connected isn’t even the right word. It’s like there’s this conveyor belt with the positions of each person riding it perfectly and fixedly arranged– like those awful candy buttons. Those on the belt live in a sea of other perfectly aligned humans, so there seems nothing remarkable in the fact that they have a carefully ordained place just for them– after all, every other person, as far as they can see, has the same. They’re so fixed in that perfect farm of people that they’re not even aware that the ground beneath them is moving, and, in fact, to them it isn’t. But I, on the other hand, am on solid ground watching this belt swirl around me. But actually I didn’t come here to drift into that same bleak tone again. I came to remark on some progress I’ve made lately to get back into the Japanese world.

As I mentioned before, I’ve started Japanese classes every Friday morning. These classes are run by volunteers at a center near the school where I used to work. That’s how I learned about it– from a teacher at that school who used to be a volunteer. It’s a great deal, really– for ¥6000 you get 10 2-hour classes. In my Friday morning class there’s about 15-20 students, all of whom (except myself, obviously) are married to a Japanese person (I might as well say man, since the class is all women except a single man who’s a video freelancer, married to a Japanese woman). The 20 person “class” is broken into 4 or 5 groups based on  Japanese level. For my first class, the volunteers weren’t quite sure where to put me. I had been to this place before, but that was almost 2 years ago now, when I first got to Japan. So before the tea break they placed me with an American, Italian, and Korean who at least had all the basics under their belt. Everyone in the group was very kind and friendly, but I was very flattered and delighted when the volunteers moved me up to the most advanced group after tea. So now my group is all Asian women who seem to speak with a completely flawless Japanese, except that some of their pronunciations are a bit odd and very Chinese-sounding. But honestly it does seem a bit like a waste of money that they’re here at all– I really can’t see how they expect their Japanese to improve beyond what is it now, almost indistinguishable from fluency. It can be a bit hard to insert myself into a group of this nature, obviously, but I usually can understand the conversation and I try not to let myself feel embarrassed when I speak.

But probably noticing that I was getting overshadowed in this group, the volunteers also arranged private lessons for me (for free). So my private tutor is a woman named Takahashi-san with an 11-year old daughter who loves Harry Potter. We meet once a week on Wednesday mornings at a Starbucks that’s about halfway between our houses (walking distance for both of us, since we live quite close). Takahashi-san told me at our first lesson that her daughter asked her to describe me and she told her I looked like Luna, which completely delighted her. So at our second lesson Takahashi-san asked to take my picture because her daughter had insisted she take a picture of “Luna-chan.” Our first lesson was a little awkward– it really had been such a long time since I sat across from a Japanese person and one-on-one delved into a long conversation. Plus neither of us had a plan or knew what to talk about. So we talked about Harry Potter, the newest movie, and my many different freelance jobs. And our next lesson was much smoother. She brought a Harry Potter magazine with her this time, so we started by flipping through it together. I learned there is actually a word for “spell” in Japanese that isn’t just a phonetic representation of the English word, and from there we talked about weird Japanese myths and magic and then somehow about Trump. I learned how to say “executive” “legislative” and “judiciary” in Japanese and then asked her if, for a Japanese person, seeing on the news the executive and judiciary branches of our country fighting with each other makes us look childish. God that really is something I could’ve talked about for hours– I really seized on it when she brought it up. And it was really nice talking about it in a completely non-incendiary fashion. I just calmly laid out all of my concerns, and she nodded, agreed, and laughed.

After leaving her on Wednesday and walking back to my apartment I still had Japanese ringing in my head– and for at least a few minutes I carried on thinking in Japanese, until I pulled out my iPhone and turned on an English song. Fortuitously, and yet unrelatedly, I’ve also landed a new freelance job in the past week or so that helps connect me back to Japan. A friend of mine works at a translation company in Chicago, so she set me up with a project manager over there to do some Japanese translation and transcription. I’ve gotten 2 jobs from them so far, with 2 more coming up this week. Basically, the PM sends me an audio file and a transcription that a Japanese native linguist transcribed, and my job is to check the English against the Japanese audio. I thought this would be an insanely easy job, almost feeling guilty for taking about $150 per assignment. But actually it takes me hours and hours. The Japanese voices are almost impossible to hear sometimes, and I find myself playing the same 15-second bit over and over again 10 times trying to catch the meaning. But I can’t complain because it pays well and it’s excellent practice.

So I guess all in all I’m feeling better connected– maybe running alongside the conveyor belt at a perfectly matched pace. Of course I do know that the best and most effective way to solve this issue is simply with a Japanese koibito (lover). But that’s really a whole new conversation…

 

 

The Japanese Cellophane Problem

I’m starting to feel a bit more optimistic about my freelancing just in the past few days. The elusive research article editing company sent me a big assignment last week and then immediately another even longer one after I handed that one in. And the LoveInnJapan people have been giving me consistent assignments every week.

Incidentally, something odd is happening in the cafe I’m in at the moment. In the area to my right of the pretty spacious floor there’s a bunch of people hovering around a rack of clothes, and hanging on the wall behind, there’s a TV with “Midnight in Paris” queued up to the DVD menu, the cursor at “Play” but no one taking any action to start it. So I can’t tell if it’s a pop-up clothing boutique, movie night, or some kind of odd party. The other cafe customers don’t seem at all perturbed by this, and they’re also not participating. I’ve been to this cafe so many times that I actually had a conversation with my waiter just now about how they changed their menu layout recently. Their coffee is a bit expensive (¥510/$5 for normal coffee) but it’s so incredibly good and they don’t bug me even if I’ve been working here for hours and ordering nothing more than 1 cup of coffee and a ¥400 plate of sliced baguette and fruit cheese spread.

img_2033
Seven Colors Cafe (Shimokitazawa, Tokyo)

Back when I was mulling over this freelance transition, I spent a lot of time carefully imagining to myself what my daily reality as a freelancer would be, taking special care to highlight and embellish the most negative side-effects that I could think of. One thing I worried about was loneliness. I wondered if I could actually spend every day alone, in a cafe or at home, working silently inside my own head, and not go crazy from loneliness. But ironically I don’t think I’ve ever felt lonely as a freelancer. I see the students I tutor and my manager for that company pretty regularly, and there is a vague feeling of socialness that comes from just e-mailing with my other managers. And then I also feel like I see my friends more often than I ever used to. Maybe that’s because when I was in a regimented 8-6 schedule it was harder to motivate myself to make plans after work. So in this way I feel like this lifestyle actually suits me quite well.

One thing that I didn’t anticipate, though, was how disconnected I would feel from the Japanese world around me. It’s like there’s this thin, taut film stretching out in front of me, dimming and distorting the Japanese society that I used to move in. It’s a weird thing to say though because how enmeshed in Japanese society was I before really? When I spent hours sitting in a corner of the abandoned English office with Japanese sounds faintly drifting in from down the hallway I don’t think I felt like part of Japanese society. But somehow waking up early every day and joining the other commuters, knowing I had a very legitimate Japanese destination at the end of my route, did make me feel like I was part of that Japanese world in a way that I no longer am. I’ve signed up for Japanese classes every Friday morning because I can feel my Japanese ability slipping from disuse. My social life has always been disproportionately gaijin (foreigner)-centric, with nearly all of my closest friends gaijins. But when my work life was Japanese-centric this didn’t seem like much of a problem. Now my work life is nothing-centric. Or it’s egocentric. And sitting in a cafe or even a co-work office space and watching Japan happen around me isn’t the same as actually living inside it…

I feel like I should end with a more uplifting resolution here, but I don’t really have the answer to this issue yet. My Japanese classes are a start, but I need to find something else that pulls me back in…

Sometimes when I think over this problem it reminds me of the occasions when I try to get myself to eat a bit healthier. It’s always such a pain at first when I try to actively restrict myself from things like french fries, ice cream, curry, etc. My life seems to be missing something of its vibrancy without these delicious things available to me. But over time, with lack of imbibing, I gradually lose my taste for them anyway and don’t even notice when these things have vanished entirely from my daily diet. I wonder if the same thing could happen with Japan. I wonder if the less I consume Japan the more I could lose my taste for it. And if so, is it possible to still be in love with Tokyo when I no longer have any feelings for Japan?

 

Freelance Reflections

Another two months, another blog post. I should probably stop starting each post with a reflection on how long it’s been since I’ve last posted, though. That’s just always the first thing that comes to mind when I have a blank canvass in front of me and I’m trying to begin again. Well in addition to being 2 months since my last posting, it’s, more interestingly, been 2 months since I started my new freelance lifestyle. Every time someone asks me how the freelancing is going I’m not sure how to respond. But after I hung up a Skype call this morning with a friend where I had fielded that question again I came up with a better answer. So far, freelancing has me regularly oscillating between feeling totally overworked and feeling guilty that I’m not working enough. There’s no middle ground, or not yet anyway. I’m not saying that I’m not enjoying it though. On the contrary, another side of my guilt is feeling like no one should have such a free and enjoyable lifestyle as this. But without a fixed schedule decided for me by some other body it’s hard to ever feel like I’m working exactly as much as I’m supposed to be working, no more and no less. For example, last weekend a bunch of assignments and jobs all landed at the same time, so I spent all of Saturday and all of Sunday working, at least 12 hours each day. And being the weekend, when most of my friends were likely sleeping or going out, this seemed cruel and unfair. But then I awoke on Monday with no immediate jobs or deadlines in front of me. So I “took the day off” — my first in 8 days, and that seemed fine. But now it’s Tuesday, and considering that this is an “on day” I haven’t been noticeably more productive than yesterday… Instead, I’m sitting in Starbucks, fiddling with my planner while listening to Allen Stone’s “Unaware” on a loop.

img_1291
I spend a whole lot of time in cafes these days…

Strange to say, since embarking on my freelancing, I haven’t really had to actively look for and apply for work. The first month, especially, I felt like I could barely manage the workload I had taken on, let alone apply for more jobs. So I guess here’s a good point to actually explain what these “jobs” are that I’m doing. All of the jobs I’m doing now are things that I set into motion about a month or two before leaving my school, to try to make the transition as easy as possible and also just to gauge if I could actually support myself freelancing. Anyway, my jobs fall into two basic categories: writing and tutoring. On the writing side, I get more or less weekly assignments from this pretty big Japanese company, writing articles about Tokyo for a blog on one of their websites called loveinnjapan. I’ve written something like six articles for them at this point, but only one has been published so far. I would put a direct link to it here, but it was the first article I wrote for them and I’m not overwhelmingly proud of it, to be honest. At least not compared to the later articles I wrote. Actually I’m pretty proud of the last one I just submitted, so I hope that one comes out soon. [UPDATE: They just released this article I wrote about one of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo. There’s also a video I made at the end of it so check it out!]. Besides that company, I do some fiction writing for a Japan-based startup called 96 problems. They’re in the middle of releasing a story-reading app called LongShorts. The concept of these stories is called “social fiction.” The app interface is made to look like Twitter and the characters in the stories are all Twitter accounts. As these fictional users tweet things a story gradually unfolds. You can download the app now (it’s in the “open dress rehearsal” stage of launch) if you follow this link . My story is called “The Accomplice.” Unfortunately, though, there’s a few errors in the first day of tweets which is really confusing for the reader, I think. Essentially, two characters are tweeting, and while one character is babbling on and monologuing, suddenly some of his tweets are confusingly misappropriated to the other character. Hopefully that’ll be fixed before the official launch though..

img_1640
PIGMENT, a beautiful art supply store in Tokyo– from my last Tokyo article

But continuing with my freelance breakdown: I also do some editing of Physics articles. These were articles written by Japanese researchers in English, so sometimes there are mistakes or it’s just hard to follow what they’re trying to say, so I revise it for clarity. Physics was one of my majors in college, so I really like these jobs. It’s nice to feel like I have some contact with the world of Physics and the state of research. It can be really challenging though, because the research articles are on super esoteric topics that I might struggle to understand even if it was written in perfect English– so trying to understand and clarify bad English is sometimes almost beyond me. This company also doesn’t send me enough jobs, though, and I have no way to apply for more work from them– they just send me assignments whenever they have them available, which so far isn’t so often.

Finally, on the tutoring side of things, I get all of my jobs through one company, or really through one person. I found this company kind of miraculously. The guy who finds these tutoring jobs for me, who I guess I can call my “manager,” posted on the JET Alumni Facebook page back in September asking if anyone living in Tokyo was interested in tutoring in Physics. I wasn’t even part of this group at the time, though, so I never saw his post, but a friend of mine who knew that I was very much interested in teaching Physics tagged me on his post and suggested he message me. I’ve gotten so many jobs from that one connection that my friend says he would like a commission. Through this manager guy I’ve gotten 3 regular gigs tutoring international high school students in Physics and Math. He also sends me random jobs pretty often, like revising college essays. And every couple months or so I’m signed up to teach a 5-day SAT prep course at Yokohama International School (YIS), where most of the students I tutor attend. Although SAT prep isn’t the most exciting material to teach, I actually really like teaching these classes. YIS is a small, cozy school to the south of Tokyo and close to the shores of Tokyo Bay. The neighborhood around the school is like a little Western hamlet– all the buildings are in a grand, sweeping European style, with big front lawns and Victorian facades. When one of my students talks to me about the school, she describes it as a cliquey, hostile place, but as a teacher I don’t see that at all. To me, the school seems warm, clean, and brightly lit from its many south-facing windows, the students cheerful and friendly. Not that I discredit her account of it at all. But it’s funny how differently the same place appears to the two of us. I wonder if some of my high school teachers also thought of my high school as a “warm and friendly” place, where to me it literally felt like I was walking in and out of prison every day.

img_1232
Park near Yokohama International School

I haven’t actually sat down and calculated it, but I would guess that my work time is pretty evenly divided between writing gigs and tutoring gigs. My income, on the other hand, I have to sit down and calculate and can clearly see there isn’t such an even divide there. Optimistically, I would say 75% of my income comes from tutoring/teaching, 25% from all my writing jobs. I’m hoping down the line I can even that out more, but for now my tutoring jobs are infinitely more lucrative. I could easily spend a month perfecting a week of story content for LongShorts, and it would earn me the same money I could make in 2 tutoring sessions. But I’m trying not to divide my work time according to pay scale. If I was really interested in the best time-spent-to-income-earned ratio I would still be working at my previous school as a glorified tape recorder.

Pilgrimage to the Sea and Mountains – Part 2

IMG_0729.jpg

Tonight is my second night staying at the big Japanese house in Kii-Tanabe. Last night I was the only guest, but tonight there’s 2 other families staying here with me–all Japanese–for a total of 6 other guests (4 adults, 2 kids). One of the kids is actually screaming in the next room at the moment. The walls are surprisingly thick, though, so even though I can tell by the tone of her voice that the 2-year-old girl is having a real fit, it’s actually not that loud in my adjacent room. This little girl and I definitely didn’t bond much this evening, as she spent most of it glaring at me suspiciously, and then somewhat cutely hiding herself behind a handkerchief as she rode next to me in the car. I did bond a bit with the other kid, though, a 6-year-old named Keita. I think in general I find it much easier to bond with Japanese boys than girls, and that goes for my students as well, actually. After my host and hostess entreated me to play a few songs for the group on their living room guitar, I handed the guitar to Keita and we had a little lesson. The body of the guitar was twice the size of his entire torso, so he had more than a little difficulty holding it, but by the end of our lesson he managed to push the string down on a fret strong enough to make a sound, which I thought was great progress. And more impressively, despite having no idea what to do with his hands and looking at me constantly in a pleading bewilderment, he seemed instantly fascinated by the instrument and never wanted to put it down.

But to back up a little– yesterday evening I arrived in Kii-Tanabe so I could embark on a small section on the Kumano Kodo today. When I got to my hosts’ very spacious, well-built house out in the inaka (countryside), they laid out an elaborate dinner of grilled fish and sashimi, all of which the husband had caught earlier that day on his boat. Actually, some of the fish we had tonight was caught by Keita, Keita’s dad, and the husband, who ventured out on the ship together earlier today. After my first dinner, my host and hostess took me to a small onsen (hot springs) about a 15 minute drive from their house where they have a membership, so we can get in for free. By the time we got home I was so pleasantly sleepy that I only managed to do a bit of last minute prep for my Kumano trek before falling asleep. This morning I woke up around 6, had an early breakfast, and then headed to the station to catch the 8am bus to the Kumano Kodo route that I would be transversing.

img_0720
Sunrise from my balcony

The route I took connects the massive shrine Hongu Taisha to the hot springs village Yunomine Onsen. I took the longer route between these stops through the mountains, which was about 13 km in total through forest trails and across farmlands. I think my favorite part of the entire trek might have come one hour into my walk. After climbing through a shady forest trail for a few kilometers, the trail suddenly opened up onto a clearing and you found yourself right in the middle of these sparkling green mountains. I don’t know how to describe it– it was like you could jump off of the clearing’s edge and land into this soft green mountain bed below. And best of all, perched right against the edge was a tiny cafe selling onsen coffee and little pastries. I think that will forever be the best view I’ve ever had from a cafe. And that includes the forest cafe that my sister and I sat at on the Ogasawara Islands where you could look down over the cliffs onto the emerald ocean below.

img_0742

IMG_0746.jpg

The whole trek to Yunomine Onsen took me about 5 hours, including copious breaks, especially during the steep, uphill portions. But for the most part the trail wasn’t too arduous. The path leveled out at the summit of one of the mountains for a long stretch, so on either side you were flanked by the endless sea of green mountains.

IMG_0794.jpg

IMG_0776.jpg

I got to Yunomine Onsen around 3pm, so more than enough time to walk around, eat a late lunch, and most importantly, chill in the delicious hot springs for a good while. There were actually a surprising number of foreigners walking along the Kumano road– 2 of whom I spoke to during my trek, and then saw both again when I arrived in Yunomine Onsen. I even managed to act interpreter for some of them who came into the restaurant where I was eating lunch trying to call for a taxi.

img_0799
Yunomine Onsen village

After my 5-hour hike, 2 onsen dips (we returned to the Kii Tanabe onsen again after dinner tonight), and a massive dinner of grilled fish, sashimiyakisoba, and curry rice, I’m looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow for as long as I can manage without being rude by holding up breakfast too long. After that I really have no plan for the day, aside from taking the night bus out of Wakayama city at 9pm. One of my students, whose grandparents are from Wakayama, enthusiastically suggested I hit “Adventureworld” which I guess is some sort of amusement park/zoo, but I don’t really think that’s for me… My host here has hopefully suggested us going fishing together at least twice now, so I may take him up on that. I’m not so enthusiastic about the fishing part, but being out on the ocean in his boat does sound nice. If only Keita was still around tomorrow and could join us, but he and the rest of the Japanese guests here are all heading to Adventureworld tomorrow…

 

Pilgrimage to the Sea and Mountains – Day 1

I think this might have been my longest hiatus from this site now. I really fell off of my once a week posting plan. For the past few months I’ve been slowly transitioning from my job teaching English at a public high school in Tokyo to being a full-time freelancer. So for maybe a month and a half that basically meant working almost 2 jobs simultaneously, trying to make the transition as smooth as possible. I gave notice at my school a month ago and Wednesday was finally my last day at school. It was a weird, sad day. I guess now that I’ve left the school I can talk more freely about it here, but somehow I don’t really want to. I wish I could just narrow out my memory of my last day to the last hour I spent with my English club kids, and especially the 20 or so minutes where about 15 of the chorus kids, my English club kids, and I made an impromptu pow-wow in the middle of the hallway, passing around the guitar I had on me and singing a mixture of Japanese and English songs. But that sweetly sad and still blissful window is clouded out with a more painful, emptier sadness that seemed to cascade down on me in waves throughout the day. It reminded me stupidly of my first sleepaway camp experience. I was 10 or 11 and on the last day of camp all of the other girls were crying their eyes out and clinging to each other desperately, and I myself had no one to really cry over and no one to cry over me, and this pathetic, self-pitying thought oppressed me to the point where it made me cry ironically. At which point some of my bunkmates came over to comfort me, assuming I was crying over the impending separation, and reassured me that they were also sad to leave me, which instantly cured my own cause of grief, unbeknownst to them. Anyway my last day at school reminded me of that stupidly.

But anyway, not to mourn over that too much, I decided to take a short trip after my school job finally wrapped up and before going full-swing into freelancing. Actually, I told a few of my freelance jobs that my school job didn’t end until 11/9, so I’d have that extra free week. A month or so ago a friend of mine told me about this famous pilgrimage route in Japan called the Kumano Kodo (熊野古道) that connects the three “Grand Shrines of Kumano.” Actually, the road is a complicated criss-cross that laces all over the Kii Hanto peninsula. For awhile I vaguely landed on this road as the destination of my trip, but didn’t actually get around to planning the details until about a week ago, at which point all the ryokans (Japanese-style inns) and the only hostel I could find along the route I wanted were booked up. So instead, I’ll be hiking a small section of the route on Sunday that connects a series of famous hot springs. The whole circle can be done in a few hours, which leaves plenty of time for hot springs bathing as well. Today (Friday), tomorrow, and Monday, I’m exploring around the coast and mountains of Wakayama–the prefecture that the Kumano Kodo crosses through.

Since I’m doing this trip on the cheap as usual, I took a night bus out of Tokyo Station at 10:50pm on Thursday night, arriving into Wakayama city at 9am. It was a pretty long ride, but not too uncomfortable, and with enough stops that it never became intolerable. All in all I probably only got a handful of hours of sleep, though. When I got to Wakayama I had a slow breakfast while I waited for my train down to the coast where I was spending the night. Since I wasn’t too sure what exact area of Wakayama to aim for, I basically just airbnb’d the whole southern region and looked for the most appealing place. The one I chose offered a private room in an old but cozy Japanese house on a small farm in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

IMG_0571.jpg
View from the train

The train ride down the coast took about 3 hours in total, plus about an hour and a half stopover at one of the busier stations where I had lunch. On the left side of the train, cliffs and farmlands rose up alternatingly, and on the right was the most spectacular, gushing blue ocean.

IMG_0586.jpg

My airbnb hostess met me at the local train station at half past 2 (only 1 station attendant and no machines, so no using my Suica train pass) and drove me through the narrow dirt roads to the property, which is snaked in by forests and little rivers. At the bottom of the hill where we parked the car, the view opens up onto the vast expanse of green farmland.

When we got to the house she showed me around and brought me a truly delicious cup of coffee and a few sugary snack things to eat while I looked over her brochures. She recommended that I head over towards an area to the west called Nachi tomorrow after breakfast–about 50 minutes by local train–where there are tons of waterfalls and ancient shrines.

After chilling in the house for an hour, she drove me around the area a bit. She took me to this famous landmark where a nearly completely eroded beach connects the mainland to this overgrown island that has a single shrine on it. It’s kind of like a tricky path puzzle trying to make it from the mainland to the island, with so much of the “beach” covered in boulders or completely flooded. But I did manage to get to the island without soaking my one pair of shoes that I brought on this trip too badly. I would’ve continued further and tried to climb the wall of boulders along the side of the island to get at the shrine gate, but my hostess was waiting for me back at the entrance while I frolicked about and I didn’t want to be too rude.

IMG_0595.jpg

IMG_0600.jpg

After that, we swung by her son’s daycare and picked him up and drove together towards the local lighthouse (just learned that word in Japanese– toudai 灯台) and another gorgeous view of the coast. Her energetic little 2-year-old (Yu-chan) wobbled about ahead and behind us, pointedly refusing to be carried and insisting on managing on his own as much as possible. For some reason, I guess because he just came from daycare, he had this one friend fixated in his mind the whole time. As we walked along the path towards the lighthouse, he insisted on stopping at every peg in the wooden rail, approaching it in a friendly manner and addressing it, “Sota-kun?” (his friend’s name), to which his confused mother would explain that that is in fact not Sota-kun, who is likely back in his own home. As the sun set and the crescent moon came out, Yu-chan alternated his addressing of the wooden peg with addressing of the moon (“Konbanwa!” (Good evening)). I tried to combine these two games by patting the wooden peg with him and saying “Konbanwa, Sota-kun.”

IMG_0613.jpg

At the moment, Yu-chan and I are back in the little house with the stove brightly lit in front of us, since it’s rather chilly here at night. While I sit under the kotastu (heated Japanese table), Yu-chan is distracting me by trying to stand on his head in front of the fire-lit stove, eliciting from me a regular “kiotsukete, atsui (careful, it’s hot)” every time he gets too close. His mom is in the kitchen finishing up our dinner. I think she’s trying to time it for when her husband gets home, who called about an hour ago, presumably to say he’s on his way. What a nice life they have here.

Before I put this away to join them for dinner, I’ll close with a picture of the beautiful spread that Yu-chan’s mother just laid before us.

IMG_0621.jpg

 

 

The Neighborhood Cafe

Last Saturday was my neighborhood cafe’s outdoor BBQ— an event that I think I was first told about at the beginning of June, when I first started befriending the cafe owners.

I moved to my quiet little corner of Kichijoji almost exactly a year ago. I lived about a ten minute walk from my school before then, which put me about 5 minutes by train or 20 minutes by bus from Kichijoji, my favorite neighborhood in Tokyo.

When my apartment application finally went through, after several days of anxiety and an interview-type phone call with my landlord in Japanese, I was so excited that I took off for my new residence immediately from school, even though it would be a couple of weeks before my lease started and the keys were handed over to me. But despite knowing that I would be stopped at the front door, I couldn’t help myself from going on this phantom, lovesick walk from Kichijoji station, through the beautiful Inokashira park, and up through the winding street that turned onto my new apartment.

At the base of the street, in front of Inokashira Koen station, were a few tiny bars and cafes that I lingered in front of. I was particularly drawn to one cafe that had a gallery attached on its second floor, and coffee-making contraptions left outside so passersby could quickly grab some take-out coffee.

After moving in a couple weeks later, I would pass by this cafe and the 2 bars next door almost everyday, always assuring myself that I would go in and sit down by myself someday soon. But the cafe was small and intimate, meaning you couldn’t walk in without drawing all of the proprietors’ notice to yourself at once, and every day I couldn’t bring forward enough resolution to go in by myself.

Finally, in April, my sister visited, and one of the first tasks I set to us was visiting this little cafe and meeting the friendly-looking owners (an older married couple) whom I had been meeting for months without exchanging a word. It was a perfectly warm day when we visited, so we sat outside at one of the 2 tables they had provided that day. The owner showed us the coffee menu and offered some recommendations, but then, after bringing our coffees and coffee accouterments,  left us to chat amongst ourselves pleasantly, thus ending my first meeting with them.

IMG_0815.jpg

A few weeks after my sister left, I mustered the courage to go in myself, and managed to exchange a few words with the owner, being the only customer at the time. Our conversation was pretty minimal, but it was enough to establish a routine of saying “good morning” and “good evening” twice a day when I passed by his shop.

One evening, I was coming back from work a bit late, and the owners were lingering outside with a couple of customers/friends when I offered my customary “good evening.” This time they stopped me and entreated me to come in and sit down with them. The owner (Kaya-san) introduced me systematically to his wife/co-owner, 2 friend-customers in the cafe at the time, and his 2 dogs. Kaya-san asked me about my school, what brought me to Japan, where in the neighborhood I lived, and told me about the many young foreigners who live around here that he was anxious to introduce me to.

I think every time I meet Kaya-san he mentions a new young foreigner that he wants to introduce me too. I told him that I don’t really have any friends in my immediate area, and have never met any of the foreigners he insists live right near me. I was sitting on a chair next to the door and by the window one evening when I said this, and he replied that I should come by Saturday and resume sitting in the exact position I’m in now, and he’ll gently accost every person who passes by with the greeting, “Hello! Have you met my friend here?”

We never actually followed through on this plan, but over a series of evening chats on my way home from work, I managed to meet most of his closest neighborhood friends, culminating in the BBQ last Saturday which almost all of the principal characters attended. Gentle and exceedingly friendly, Kaya-san takes it upon himself to look out for all of the young people living in our quiet neighborhood, calling them all his sons and daughters. Halfway through the outdoor BBQ last Saturday, I wandered into the cafe in pursuit of one of his dogs, and was immediately stopped by Kaya-san and introduced to a young Japanese woman who had just arrived. He explained to her, teasingly, that I’m another one of his daughters. She laughed and said “Since when?” and I replied, “Oh about a month ago.”

IMG_0050.jpg

Last week’s BBQ went on for about 3 or 4 hours. A small, portable grill was set outside, with grilling delicacies placed in heaps around it, including an endless array of grilled vegetables (pumpkin, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, onions, etc.), grilled chicken, grilled lamb and pork, and many varieties of grilled fish.

IMG_0051.jpg
Near the end of the grilling

When the grilling finally came to an end, Kaya-san’s wife emerged with a giant bowl of yaki-soba (fried noodles), soon followed by giant slices of honeydew and watermelon. I invited 4 friends of mine to the BBQ, and had fun introducing each of them in turn to my kindly cafe owner friends. After all the guests were a pleasant 2 or 3 drinks in, Kaya-san brought out his 2 acoustic guitars, handing one to a professional musician friend of his, and fiddling around on the other himself. His musician friend, who did some very passionate, if questionably accurate, Beatles covers for us, is apparently somehow involved in the recording of the Japanese-version of Tim Burton movie soundtracks. Even those more fluent in Japanese than myself couldn’t get a completely clear idea of this story from him, though. I think the most concrete information I was able to extract is that he does not like Danny Elfman, which I found sad.

My friends and I were some of the last lingering guests, only heading home after a bored police man from the police box a few buildings down came over and reprimanded us for making such noise on the street. But surely he was just upset that he couldn’t join in on the warm, cheery festivities himself.

IMG_0054.jpg

The LASIK experience in Japan

For the first time, I’m sitting across from my laptop without any glasses or contacts between my eyes and the screen in front of me. Last Saturday, I finally got LASIK surgery here in Japan.

The first time I considered getting LASIK was back when I was living in Wisconsin. Probably at least partially due to the inhuman winter I experienced my first year there (what did they call it again? winter vortex?…oh polar vortex), my eyes slowly became too dry to wear contacts comfortably. I had a lot of tricks for combatting this very unwelcome change— including wearing just one contact at a time in my stronger eye—but ultimately I had to succumb to the fate of wearing glasses everyday— albeit cool, hipster Warby Parker glasses, but still… I didn’t like having so little control over my appearance everyday. And after a couple of years of wearing glasses, well past the point where I finished off my last desperate supply of contacts, I became aware of a much more serious concern.

I started to become aware of how dangerously dependent I was on my little Warby Parker frames. My vision is (or was, I guess) so unfathomably terrible that if I was wandering around the streets of Tokyo and my glasses happened to fall and break, I would be essentially helpless. I started even having nightmares about this fatal dependancy.

One of my friends in Tokyo had gotten LASIK a few months before I met him, and I remembered him talking to me about this early on in our friendship, almost two years ago now. So I pressed him for some more details, and he directed me to this article that does a profile on one of the more well-known LASIK clinics in Japan: the Kobe Kanagawa Clinic. Despite the name, it’s base is actually in Osaka, and it has a branch in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The article’s super helpful (though maybe a tad lengthy), and the best part is that at the end, in one of his comment updates, the author offers his readers his membership ID so you can get a referral discount.

Exactly a week before my surgery last Saturday, I went to the clinic for the first time for a consultation. Except for a quick 5-minute chat at the end with the head surgeon, the entire consult was in Japanese, which I had basically prepared for, but still, by the end of the ordeal I was feeling more than a little disheartened. This queer kind of self-pity takes possession of me whenever I have to do something serious/risky/excessively complicated in Japanese. I remember about a month or so after moving to Japan, a guy from the electric company came to my door one day to inform me that I hadn’t been paying my electricity bills (which at the time I had no idea how to pay, and somehow thought it was automatically included in the transfer I made to my real estate liaison every month), and I could barely understand him or make my own meaning clear, and I nearly broke down in tears. Or maybe I did break down in tears, after he left of course, I can’t remember.

Anyway, the multi-step eye exam portion of the consult was fine; the eye doctor attending me was sweet, polite, and humble, and gave me the comforting impression that my ability to understand his directions rested in his own ability to speak understandably, rather than in my power of Japanese comprehension. But at the very end, as it came time to actually select the procedure I’d undergo and schedule the excessively expensive surgery, the receptionist sitting across from me in the little cubicle they had arranged for these matters gave me a very different impression. She didn’t alter the pattern of her speech to adjust to my far-from-fluent Japanese skills. When it was evident I didn’t understand something, her only recourse for helping me was to (condescendingly, it seemed to me) translate words like “Saturday” and “4:00.” But again I do think this is my own problem. Even then I could sense that the feelings that were welling up inside me causing me to tear up, and the vicious wrath towards this woman that was heightening dangerously, had their origin in some kind of misguided self-pity. I think my instinctive reaction in these high-stakes Japanese situations is a deep feeling of shame that my Japanese isn’t good enough to protect myself, which quickly turns to a resentment towards my tormentor, and then finally self-pity. Needless to say, I left the office a little frazzled and anxious about my upcoming appointment.

Incidentally, I might as well say what the procedure ultimately cost me. Since I have such severe myopia (near-sightedness) and an astigmatism, I opted for their most expensive treatment, called “I-Design Lasik.” For both eyes, after the referral discount and a discount for paying in cash, it was 307,000yen. It definitely felt uncomfortable walking home from my bank with $3000 in cash sitting in an envelop in my bag. (Also I definitely fanned out the wad of cash when I got home and sent my friend a tacky picture of the obscene stash).

On the day of my surgery, my friend came with me, mostly for support, but also to take me home afterwards, since my vision would probably be pretty hazy. She happily joined in on my continued rants towards the receptionists (the same ones present that day as from my consult), both to comfort and distract me.

After less than ten minutes of waiting, I was dressed in an OR gown and led into the OR hallway. The eye-exam doctor from the consult sat me down outside the operating room and applied eye drops in my eyes to numb them. Strangely, I think those 5 minutes sitting outside the OR, with my eyes turning numb, was the worst part. It was such a queer sensation not being able to feel my eyes, not needing to blink but just doing so out of habit. It felt like there was a gaping hole at the front of my head.

When I entered the OR, the surgeon kindly switched to English, which I really appreciated. The whole procedure must have taken less than 10 minutes. I was laid on my back, one eye at a time propped open with a plastic ring, with a massive machine positioned over my head. As I explained to my friend afterwards, it didn’t feel that drastically different from a normal eye exam. In the course of a normal eye exam I’m also not really aware of what they’re doing to my eyes—at some point some drops are administered that may or may not sting, a few different machines are put against my head where lights, lasers, or puffs of air may come out. Here too I didn’t know exactly what was happening at each point in the procedure, and so tried to just think of it as a typical ignorant eye exam.

Either because of the pain killers I had taken just being the surgery, or just due to the weirdness of the whole experience, I was visibly shaking when they finished and had to be helped slightly off of the bench to the seat where the surgeon examined my eyes one last time. My vision was very weak and hazy, but it actually was drastically improved immediately. When I went outside, I could make out my friend’s face perfectly, whereas before, without glasses, I wouldn’t be able to read her expression even if I was six inches in front of her face.

It was good my friend was with me, even though the receptionist had said that it’s not uncommon to come in for the procedure alone, because I wouldn’t have been able to direct myself to Shinjuku station and onto the correct train home by myself—my vision was too blurry. After about an hour, as the pain medicine wore off, my eyes started aching and the dryness was more and more noticeable, and I became anxious to get home and go to bed.

The next day I woke up with no headache or pains, and with vastly clearer vision from the day before. And in the past few days my vision’s really started to stabilize and improve. At night, there’s a pretty severe halo effect on any lights contrasted against the darkness, which can make it quite difficult to see properly, but in general my vision is already better than it ever was with glasses or contacts. After my one-week check-up tomorrow, I think it’ll start to feel like the recovery is behind me, with the privileges of wearing make-up and biking to work returned to me. It really is amazing how fast your eyes can heal. I feel essentially no awareness that the were cut open, burned, and reshaped less than a week ago, except for a little dryness, and of course, the constant, beautiful awareness that I can finally see the world around me as it actually exists.

Japanese Cooking: Lesson 1

So after almost 2 years of living in Japan, last week I finally ventured into some Japanese cooking for the first time. I’m not sure exactly what brought on my sudden inspiration during the day last Tuesday. Maybe because one of my students was entering some kind of speech contest at the time, and had to write a speech on the topic of Western food’s increasing presence in Japan, and what are the potential consequences of this? She wrote that the speediness of Western cuisine makes it more suitable to the workaholic Japanese lifestyle, but recommended that Japanese people take the time maybe once or twice a week to make a traditional Japanese meal, not just because it’s healthier but because it’s important to pass on these traditions, and because, in her words, “we can feel our mothers’ taste and our hearts will be warmed” when we eat Japanese food, or something like that. She went on to explain how, if something bad happens at school, no matter what the cause or the problem, if she goes home and has a bowl of miso soup she’s immediately comforted and recovered. What a nice thought. She said all of this so sincerely and unpretentiously too, with none of the emphaticness about the preciousness of Japanese culture that I often encounter. She spoke practically and simply, with this sweet and natural warmth. It really made me want to try a bowl of miso soup to cure some of my life problems.

Anyway, following her recommendation, I stopped by the grocery store near my school on the way home and set to work buying all of the kanji-ridden Japanese ingredients that I would need and have thus far doggedly avoided. I learned that there’s a small handful of staple ingredients you’ll find in a bunch of Japanese dishes:

-ginger

mirin (sweet sake, according to my dictionary) (below, right photo)

sake (normal sake)

-rice vinegar (below, left photo)

dashi (a kind of soup stock)

-soy sauce

This is one thing I both love and find intimidating about Japanese cooking. Instead of having one main course, or at most a main course and a side dish and/or appetizer, like in most Western meals, the whole meal usually consists of a wide assortment of small dishes. There’s some exceptions to this, like when eating massive soup-based communal dishes, like nabe (a hot pot filled with big pieces of seafood and vegetables), or shabu shabu (extremely thin slices of meat that you dip into boiling water or broth for a few seconds and then eat). But most home-cooked Japanese meals (drawing from my somewhat limited experience of eating in a Japanese home maybe 8-10 times, eating fancy home-cooked meals in ryokans— Japanese traditional inns—, and filling in the rest with the highly reliable resource of Japanese dramas I’ve watched) are made up of an assortment of small dishes. This is another example of the Japanese regard for form and presentation, which extends well beyond just the cuisine. I always found it funny when one of Haruki Murakami’s bachelor characters would lament that he’s only capable of putting together the simplest of meals, and then would rattle off at least 6 dishes he planned on preparing for a single dinner.

IMG_0918
Highly elaborate ryokan dinner spread

For my first meal, I decided to cook gyudon (牛丼), which basically means “meat over rice”— a very simple dish to start with. You can find this is Japanese fast food restaurants for something like 300yen (~$3), but usually the cut of meat isn’t that great (unsurprisingly, I guess, for the price), so this seemed like the perfect simple dish to recreate at home. I found a Japanese cooking website that gave me a very easy-to-follow recipe, and casually suggested pairing this with miso soup and sunomono (酢の物, literally vinegared food, in this case a sort of vinegar-dressing cucumber salad) to make it a more complete Japanese meal.

I think the hardest part of the whole preparation was probably buying the ingredients I mentioned above. I had no idea which aisles of my grocery store to go to for each of these, and stubbornly refused to ask any of the friendly grocery clerks for help. I guess because words like “dashi” and “komezu (rice vinegar)” I had literally never seen before that day when my dictionary introduced them to me, and until I use them or hear them out in the world they don’t seem like real words to me, but just a senseless combination of sounds that are just as likely to elicit a blank stare of non-comprehension as anything else. I can just see the clerk stammering in wild confusion “dashi? da-shi? dashii??” trying to force a shallow sliver of meaning into these mindless syllables… I don’t even know if I’ve had the experience of this kind of alarmed affronted response before, or if this is just a scene I’ve played out in my own head many times.

Anyway, after circling my grocery store about 7 times, pausing surreptitiously in the same aisles many times and shielding myself from passersby while I took out my camera-enabled smartphone dictionary, an hour later I had all the ingredients I needed and headed home.

The cooking itself wasn’t too time-consuming or labor-intensive. The only hard part was towards the end trying to time everything so the rice, miso soup, cucumber salad, and sautéed pork strips were all finished at the same time. But the whole cooking process was probably less than 40 minutes. So flushed with pride at my first Japanese cooking success, I assembled all of my dishes on my glass coffee table along with a glass of 500yen convenience-store wine.

IMG_0013
Gyudon (pork/beef bowl), sudamono (cucumber vinegar salad), miso soup

Unlike my inevitably over-sized Western meals, my Japanese meal was light and perfectly proportioned, and almost as delicious as the Western meals I’m so seasoned at creating. The next couple nights, my preparation time greatly reduced by the lack of ingredients I subsequently needed to buy, I tried a couple more dishes: tofu chicken meatballs, and chicken teriyaki stir-fry (not deviating all that much from the shape of my first meal).

IMG_0016
Tofu chicken meatballs and miso soup
IMG_0020
Chicken teriyaki stir-fry, miso soup, and Hibana

And each time I paired my meal with a glass of white wine and Netfix— opened to my new favorite Japanese drama (Hibana, a Netflix original) that I’m sure I won’t be able to resist talking about in a post very soon, especially as I only have 2 episodes left, and the more it slips away from me the more fanatically attached and invested I become.

As a non-Japanese person, I can’t say I had any experience of the nostalgia that my student described, but I really did feel a strange greater closeness to Japanese culture while making and eating my Japanese dishes. I’m not sure how to describe this exactly, especially without sounding kind of reductive towards a culture I do indeed admire. It’s not like I was thinking intently about the ingredients I was handling or the Japanese mothers who may be preparing the same dishes in their own homes at that very moment, or anything like that. But still I felt my attention drawn in this clean, light way to the actions I was performing. The form of the preparations was imbued with a kind of valuableness that drew in my focus pleasantly, drawing it away from deeper, buried concerns from earlier in the day. For the first time all day, or maybe even for days, I didn’t think very deeply or intently, or rather my mind didn’t fall into the deep recesses of normal life worries/anxieties/etc that are always churning in the back of my subconscious. The smoothness of my movements, slicing the pork strips and cucumbers, stirring the rice, cutting up tofu pieces for the miso soup, occupied my mind and filled me with a simple contentment, without having to think deeply over the source or justifiability of this contentment. I don’t know if this is quite what my student meant when she said that a bowl of miso soup can make all of your problems go away, but in a way, at least for a time, I guess it was sort of true.

 

 

The unplugged logic of Tokyo love

I feel like I’m falling into too much of a routine in my Tokyo life lately. I have English club (aka ESS— English Speaking Society) 3 days a week after school on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, which means I get out of work around 6:15/6:30 on those days. So on the non-ESS days I try to leave work as precisely at 5 as possible, challenging myself to bike to the gym and change into my gym clothes so that I’m on the floor by 5:45 (usually unattainable). After the gym, I bike home, make a late dinner, and watch TV until bed. On Tuesdays I have Ruby Room so I try to leave school right after ESS finishes, bike home quickly, change/put on makeup, and ideally make it to Ruby by 8:30ish. Any time before my friend and favorite performer, Sou, goes on is okay with me, but an arrival after 9 means leaving my friends in the lurch a bit, plus there’s no possibility of an exit before 11:30 or so.

My Tokyo world is starting to contract around me. Its thick, receding walls enveloping a smaller and smaller area— the red-glow Ruby Room lounge, my little apartment, certain cuts of the path around Inokashira Park’s pond—not even the whole park—my school, my gym, a few commonly frequented Starbucks…What a dreary picture.

And yet the tiniest deviation from this strictly planted routine is enough for me to feel the thrills of Tokyo vibrating through my whole body again.

Today, for example, with no live shows/plans/dates/etc I dallied at school until around 7, ate a quick dinner of gyoza and ramen at a fast food joint near my school that I haven’t been to in months, and then biked directly south of my school’s station to an as-of-yet unvisited Starbucks to do some writing.

Even though the roads were mere blocks from my school’s station— the station I visit on a near daily basis—I had never treaded over them before, and the sheer and total newness of that was even physically thrilling. That’s one of the beautiful things of living in Tokyo, that it’s so unimaginably vast and sprawling that there’s effectively an endless number of streets and streets corners that I’ve never passed over before.

Excepting Ruby Tuesday night, I think those 15 minutes on my bike this evening were the happiest I’ve felt in the past 5 days. And even as I was flying down the dusk-covered streets, I knew there was nothing especially exceptional about them. At one point I rode down a wide, completely unlit residential street, and suddenly a massive school rose up on my left, the grounds and buildings also totally unilluminated except for the ground-floor gym, whose sliding side-door was swung open, light pouring out onto the dark sidewalk, and the sounds of shrieks, whistles, and shoes scraping against the wax floor echoing over the quiet streets. Across the rectangle patch of light, Japanese high school boys flew back and forth, hunched over and staring straight ahead, embroiled in an intense basketball game.

Around the next corner I stopped and back-tracked over the entrance to a beautiful apartment complex. There was a black wrought-iron gate out front, with the complex’s name engraved on an afixed stone plate, so I could only peer between the bars into the sprawling brick-paved grounds, little pockets of which were lit up by electric lanterns, making their corners just visible from where I stood.

It’s times like this that I wonder, almost worry, that my love for Tokyo is something ungrounded in rationality. I feel myself falling on a Japanese word in trying to describe this: 理屈抜き(rikutsunuki), which means something like “without logic,” though my dictionary translates it to “visceral” (which to me seems to have the sinister echo of the word “vicious” hidden inside it) and the individual kanji (Chinese characters) mean something closer to “unplugged of logic” if that makes any sense.

Anyway I don’t know why this is something that actually worries me. I guess it reminds me of that feeling of blind infatuation towards a person. The kind that, when you try to assign legitimate reasons to your obsession, you feel at a loss and begin to wonder if the object of your infatuation even exists in the external world, or if its merely an idea you’ve created in your own head. I guess that’s the root of my fear of my rikutsunuki love for Tokyo. I worry that without being cemented to concrete logic, my infatuation risks being detached from reality itself…

But Tokyo does have a strange, unaccountable power. Just last Tuesday I met a cool Brooklyn-based musician, who did a passionate solo keyboard performance at Ruby, and who was visiting Tokyo for the first time. I guess she had been traveling around Japan for nearly a month, but only budgeted a few days in Tokyo (Tuesday being her last night). But she was already in love with the city. Before starting her second song, she said that she hails from the second best city in the world (New York)—Tokyo being the first. And she didn’t even say that just to appease the audience (though they loved that). I’ve actually seen this so many times before, especially from short-time visitors— this sudden, almost frantic attachment to Tokyo.

I guess a love as vast, formless and unreasonable as a “love for a city” has to be somewhat detached from reality. And at least it’s a comfort to know that this unreality doesn’t just exist fragilely inside the bounds of my own head, but is inexplicably shared among nearly all of the visitors that Tokyo possesses with its queer spell.