Sunday, May 8, 2016

One Down ??? To Go

So when I woke this morning from my futon in the future I checked my Facebook as one does. There, in popping text, was a button telling me to check my memories. There it was, on May 8th 2015, I left America for Japan. It has been a year since I left my home. It has been a year since in Japan. Holy shit.

Sounding as cliche as humanly possible, where did the time go? How has a year passed? It doesn’t feel like it. I feel like I’m still but a babe in this unknown and foreign country. Unreal. Though my Japanese is still pathetic at best, I know enough to get around, order, and to survive. Can I hold a conversation, hell no, but I’m confident enough to live. I’d say I’m doing alright. I miss you all like hell, but that was never going to be in question.

Work is work. To put it mildly, we’re in a ‘transitional period’ right now. What this means is my eyes are filled with tears as coworkers I adore leave and my responsibilities increase exponentially. So yea, good times. If I didn’t make it aware or the fact that I’m still here, I renewed for another year. So I’ll be Japan until at least May of 2017. What will the future bring? Unknown. I sort of like having my future so open. I’m sort of terrified to have my future so unknown. Fun.

I’ve seen a bunch of Japan, there is still a lot to see. This year, I want to knock out some more of those key Japan areas and maybe even some neighboring countries. Korea? China? Australia? Who knows. I’d really like to see the Great Wall. Apparently it’s cheaper to fly to Korea than Hokkaido. Crazy. I want it all!

I finally ran out of US dollars which is a bit of a headache. Also, doing your taxes in another country is super cool. One day at a time. It will all work out. I got a ‘to do’ list that I add checks to quite frequently. Language, reading, and simple tasks is still hard. Japan is still the most beautiful country I’ve ever been in and don’t regret my decision at all. The people here, the friends I’ve made, and the memories I’ve made are truly priceless to me. Oh, I've also lost 50 pounds. Here is to another year!

Lastly, who the hell leaves a country on Mother’s Day?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

When Life Gives You Rice, Make Sake

Last weekend was quite the blur. Quite literally, actually. Like most Saturdays, I had to work all day. The kicker on this last one was that I was sick. So I developed a sore throat that was a huge pain in the ass (throat). The fun part of a sore throat and my job is how much talking I do in one day. Super fun. For the first time ever I took a nap during lunch. Kicker number two - it was the night of a massive farewell party for some of my fellow teachers. You don’t miss this sort of thing. Thus, I went.

Besides the throat thing and just an overall feeling of mortal tiredness, I absolutely wanted to go to this part because parties are awesome and free for staff. So despite the soreness, I drank. The fun thing about this is that drinking helped immensely. Within no time, my throat pain was a thing of the past. Second wind? Check. Thus the party was fun. There were long sitting tables, a karaoke machine on wheels, Disney songs (I sung the theme song to Beauty and the Beast which I know all of 2% of the lyrics), and of course an endless flow of beer. Good times.

Then came the second party. Which, somehow, I had the mental fortitude to only stay at for a total of like 15 minutes. Why such a weak second party game? Simple. Tomorrow (today at this point) was a sake festival in Fujinomiya which starts at 9 f***ing am. So I got a total of about 5 hours of mildly-drunken sleep before some act of god getting up to meet my crew at an 8:00 train. Some funny things, I forgot my wallet and one of the three people I was meeting decided sleep/living was more important. That was a smart move. However, I went back for my wallet (necessary) and trained/trained/bused to the middle of absolutely nowhere for a now 10:30 am sake festival.

By the time we arrived at said sake festival I was still a bit hungover, super tired, and still pretty sick. Oops. But man oh man, was it the right decision. The sake festival was like is some powerful force picked my brain for the absolute perfect day and manifested it for me a whole bunch of friends to enjoy. I don’t know how to explain this. Okay, so like, the sake festival had a strict zero yen entrance fee and all of the super delicious sake was also free. Not free like buy this $20 wristband free but more of a walk up to the different sake stands as much as you’d like and have someone pour you sake free. If this sounds impossible, that is how I felt. This was top shelf sake too, I mean, I’ve never had better.

Collectively there were probably about 20-30 of us, most people I didn’t know. We had a tarp (and yes, even on a Japanese tarp in the middle of a middle of nowhere field you take off your shoes when getting on it). We just well, partied. The sake was about a three minute or so walk but instead of us all going individually people would collect the cups, fill them, and then bring them back for everyone to just start drinking from. In such matters - your cup doesn’t matter. Does the cup have sake in it? Yes - then drink it. A simple philosophy. Did I mention that the sake was free?

There were also delicious food stalls. They, however, weren’t free but pretty cheap. I’m talking like a stick of bacon for 300 yen. Pretty solid. Food was also shared because why not. Did I mention the festival started at 9 am? 9 am. When we arrived at 10:30 people were already hammered. I taught many Japanese people that day what “hair of the dog” means. There is a similar saying in Japanese but hell if I can remember it. There was also live music and performances? I saw a man doing a show with bananas. He had a knife, was cutting bananas, was using bananas as props, giving bananas to the crowd, and weird enough everyone loved it. After all, how could you not? What he was saying? Unknown. Apparently he is there every year. Noted.

So the sake festival that starts at 9:00 also ends at 2:00. Also, unknown. This we bus/train/trained
back home. This is the part where I was going to go home and sleep (reminder, sick). Instead, a bunch of us went out for ramen and drink until 11 pm. Oops (again). Yea, well, you got to keep the train going… right? Right. Mistakes were made but it was an amazingly fun day. I payed for my decisions both Monday and today. A man whose belly is full of ramen and (free) sake has no regrets.

The moral of this story is to arrive at the sake festival right at 9:00 next year to get the free limited sake cups.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Auld Lang Syne

For a country which highly values New Years, I just went out to my favorite local bar and got drunk. So yea, not all that different than America for me. I spent the night talking to the company's head of sales and picked his brain some - good guy. There was a countdown, celebration, and drinking. While like America, it felt very off. In Japan, it’s mostly a family holiday where everyone gets together. The people I spent the evening with were probably other lone dogs like myself. Perhaps the strangest part of it all was that the next day when I was nursing my hangover with water, my friends and family back home were just getting ready for the ball to drop.

Verdict, living in the future is hard.

So my New Year's activities were actually not the point of this post, I just figured the topic was right appropriate. So, after work today I went grocery shopping with one of my coworkers, Auld Lang Syne (you know, the New Year’s Song) came on and just out of curiosity I asked her if this song is big on New Years? She said no, but it’s very commonly played when stores are closing as a sort of “time to scram” deal. Coincidentally, the supermarket was closing. I thought that was an interesting different cultural point. That’s all.

Continue with whatever you were doing.

Monday, January 4, 2016


So about five months ago (August 18th to be exact), I just happened to climb the 35th tallest mountain on ALL OF EARTH. Well, when you put it that way it doesn’t sound all that impressive but for a rotund, mostly out of shape, American - it’s quite a feet. Personal achievement. Mount Fuji sits 3,776 m (12,388 ft) in the Japanese sky and can be seen from many a places around Japan. While it may be the 35th tallest mountain in ALL OF EARTH, it IS the highest point in Japan. So yea, Japan conquered.

I woke up early, walked to the train station, got driven by my fellow hikers, and then took a bus to the 5th station of Mt Fuji. There are a total of four paths to hike Fuji, we of course chose the easiest of the three as most do. On the Yoshida course, there are a total of nine stations. These are places where hikers can sit, rest, rent a place to sleep, use the restroom, and eat/drink at ridiculously high prices. The majesty that is Fuji is not immune to the invisible hand.

My crew was assembled from fellow teachers, students, and past students. So yea, everyone on this hike was somehow connected to my job. Due to our crew of eight, our pacing wasn’t too fast. During the early phase we had a strict no man left behind policy but as the hike continued that changed. Our resident Fuji-Master told us that pacing is key to getting to the top. Thus our once unified group of eight splintered into smaller factions.

While Mt Fuji is undeniably a beautiful mountain to look at from a distance, especially when snow capped. On the mountain, it is ugly as sin. No life exists. No grass. Just soil and rock. I imagine the hike being just that, a hike. There was more actual climbing than I anticipated. I’m not talking rope and crampons here, I’m just saying some slight hand work and carefully placed footing. At no point was there danger. I’m just saying it was more than I expected. At the 5th station one strap of my backpack broke and I had to Macgyver it together. A few hours later, my belt broke. I used my Mt Fuji pin to hold it together. Somehow that worked. Off to a great start!

We pre booked a 5 hours of rest at one of the stations, I believe the 8th. Excuse this analogy but it’s really the most accurate I can think of - the resting quarters were like that of a slave ship. Packed tight like sardines in an impossible to stand crawl space. A tight walkway in the middle divided the room. Each side having two oppressive floors. So yes, there was a place to rest. However, no rest happened. Sure my body was beaten, but there was no comfort to be had. It was cold, it smelled, and the snores - god damn the snores.

This gig also scored us a meal. Which was welcoming. It was full on Japanese style at a long table, sitting on the ground, and served on a tray as a set. The thing about a 5 hour rest is that the sun went down. This added a few more problems to the hike. The two most obvious ones are the darkness and the cold. Did I bring pants? Yes. Did I change? No. Why? I have no idea. I went up and down Fuji in shorts. What made the cold bitter was the wind. The wind was like I was near the top of a mountain with nothing to block the gusts. In all honestly though, when I was moving, I was actually hot. I kept removing my hat due to comfort. Darkness was whatever, I bought a head lamp as instructed. I was basically a miner.

At this point, me and a student took the lead. Others were starting to back down and the ultimate goal of hiking Fuji is to be be at the summit at sunrise. We were NOT going to miss this. Thus, we went ahead. Despite all my boasting and energy, This was the hardest leg of the mountain. Not because of the dark or cold, but because of the altitude. Part of the reason some rest like we did high up is to adjust to the height. Apparently my body didn’t get this memo. I suffered hard. It was a headache I never experienced before - practically stunning me. I needed to take frequent breaks just to get my head under control. Luckily the guy I was hiking with was awesome and didn’t mind. If not for him, I’m not sure what would have happened. I'm not sure if the little bottle of oxygen I bought or was just a placebo. It did nothing.

To make matters worse this part of the hike is very different. Remember how I mentioned that there are four paths? Well, they all sort of converge at this point so the path is filled with people. You literally take about three steps and then wait for about ten seconds before moving again. This part if extremely easy but extremely slow. I thought my head was going to explode.

Then, just like that, we somehow reached the top. The good part about this was that we had 45 minutes until sunrise. The bad part was that we had 45 minutes until sunrise. There were looooots of people at the top. There are restaurants, vending machines (yes, everything you read about vending machines in Japan is true), and scattered benches. I sat on one of these benches and woke up 40 minutes later. THIS was my single greatest mistake I made on this mountain. I woke up absolutely frozen. I had gloves on but my hands were so damn cold.

When the sun broke over the horizon, I honestly debated if I should take pictures or not. Why? I was scared to take off my gloves. They were really that cold. I did of course, I took the shotgun approach to photography since my hands were shaking so much. I figured if I took enough photos some wouldn’t have blur lines on them. All my bitching aside, the sunrise was so worth it. It was truly astounding. Unreal even. It’s just one of those “oh shit, this is real life” sort of moments that I’ll never forget. Worth.

We met with the few other which made it to the top and sat down to some top of Fuji ramen. I held the bottom of the bowl for heat on my hands. It felt divine. After checking out the very tippy top, you know like the volcano hole, it was time to head down. As the sun rose high I warmed up pretty quickly. I had been using a summer blanket as a sort of makeshift scarf until then. I both looked and felt like I had destroyed the One Ring. Good riddance.

At this point we had climbed a mountain and now we were heading down it. My body was a bit achy, very confused at the several temperature changes, still hungry, and brutally tired. While the hike down sounds easy in theory, it was all but. Imagine a never ending zigzag, that was the way down. Nothing surprising. Nothing particularly hard. Just never ending. The way down may have been my most hated part of the hike - despite my head feeling like it was going to explode earlier. As we headed down, my head felt much better. Oh, and the other strap to my backpack broke.

The morning was beautiful though. The sky was so blue. We were ABOVE the clouds. Surreal moment number two was when I could hear thunder below me. I was above the thunderclouds and was standing on solid ground. Surreal man, surreal. Very very cool. I took a sort of explorative path with someone which ended up not working and we had to double back some. Whoops. We ended up being the last two back. We ate at a restaurant at the 5th station. The ride home I did my best to stay awake in the car but just couldn't. Half our members went to an onsen (hot spring) after, I just wanted sleep.

I slept for 12 hours straight - something I don’t think I’ve ever done even sick. When I first came to Japan climbing Fuji was one of two things I really wanted to do, check! It was amazing, beautiful, a challenge, and 100% worth it. I would recommend it to anyone. Would I ever want to do it again? Nope!

Fun fact, the entire time I was hiking Mt Fuji I had Modest Mouse’s “Baby Blue Sedan” stuck in my head for zero reasons.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Reason #002 to Learn Japanese: Governmental Broadcasting Corporations

Well, for the first time since I’ve lived here, something has got my blood boiling. This tale begins with our hero, me, returning home after a long day of work. Like on most days, I arrived home at approximately 9:30 PM. However, this time, a man stopped in the stairwell. He seemed confused or lost so I attempted to help him (yes, even I realize how backwards that statement is). After some poor communication on both our parts, he wanted to know if I lived in the building. Like a fool, I said yes. At this point, he reveals that he is an NHK employee.

For those unfamiliar, NHK is a governmental broadcasting television network. It’s funded by people living in Japan who they are able to catch. It’s a television network which if you own a TV, you have to pay for it regardless of everything - if, one of their agents talk to you. Are you following still?

So like, I have a TV because everyone in my building has the same TV. Ask me how many seconds of Japanese TV I’ve watched in my apartment? Answer, zero. However, by OWNING a TV I am forced to pay this service charge. Dafuq? I know what you’re thinking and no, this isn’t a scam, this is actually how this is run. Why isn’t their a bill or just a tax for this then? Why do you only have to pay if you are caught by an agent? Unknown.

I’m getting ahead of myself. So, in the stairwell, I tell the man I don’t speak Japanese (which is true) and he didn’t speak English so it was a sort of “good day sir” sort of situation. Or so I thought. He takes out his smartphone and starts translating the most broken of broken phrases I’ve ever heard. His opening statements were things along the line of “It’s Japanese law. You have to pay. Could go to court.” Keep in mind I’m changing these phrases to make sense.

I sigh, he demands to go to my apartment. At this point he’s trying to get payment from me, asking for my bank card. That was a huge red flag with a 0% chance of happening. He was totally trying to strong arm, threaten, and pull if this crazy fear tactic that quite honestly was having the reverse effect. I wasn’t afraid, I was super annoyed.

Thus, I pulled out my own smartphone and argued back. I said things such as. “But I don’t watch TV.” He replied with, “It doesn’t matter.” What. I asked him, “What if I remove my TV?” He said, “Then you don’t have to pay but you have to pay this month.”

This went on for a good 30 minutes. I have to imagine this was about as fun for him as it was for me. I felt super uncomfortable paying for something when I didn’t understand the situation or what I was paying for (at the time). I called someone to translate for me, which they did. Even after that phone call we still had some back and forth. All peaceful mind you, but quite annoying.

In the end I lost and paid the damn fee. It was about $20 and ONLY for this month. I refused to pay with card and paid with cash, which he wasn’t happy with (small victories). There was no way I was giving them my card info though. Moral of the story, unhook my TV and answer the door for no one. If I see someone in my building, grab a late dinner.

What a dumb system.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Loco in Yoko

At the beginning of this month I had a three day weekend. This means traveling! For about a month I’ve been telling people that I’d go to Yokohama. I finally went to Yokohama. This port city is just south of Tokyo and is fabled to be the place ramen started in Japan. How could I not come with sort of resume?

After a later start than I wanted, I took a LOCAL train to Yokohama instead of the Shinkansen. I traveled half the way with a friend/coworker so the increased length really wasn’t that bad. She was headed to Tokyo so we rode the train together until she had to change lines.

I had been asking around for a powerful ramen place to try there. Someone had promised to go to a specific place with me sometime in the future so I decided to put off the ramen outing until she is available. I wouldn't want to ruin my first Yokohama ramen experience afterall. This is key.
A note about my trip to Yokohama. I walked. I walked a lot. My phone keeps records of steps I take and on both Sunday and Monday I broke records. The following days I was sore from the ridiculous amounts of walking I did - that much walking. Could I have taken more local trains? Of course. Why didn’t I? Well, I’d never been to Yokohama and walking the streets allows me get a better feel of the place. At least that is what I tell myself.

I stayed in the smallest and worst hostel yet. I wouldn't recommend this place nor would I stay there ever again. It wasn’t in the best part of town - which explains the price. I had an interesting, umm, experience. As I left my “room,” this older gentleman who appeared to be on something spotted me from down the hall and walked up to me, getting very close, and said “konichiwa.” I responded but then he just stared at me. I returned to locking my room, double checking it now, but he just stood there. Eventually he just walked away. F’n weird man.

My first destination was the port. On may way though I passed by Yokohama Stadium - home of the Baystars. No baseball games were being played but I still scoped the place out as much as I could. Someday.

The walk from the stadium to the port wasn’t too bad. There was some really weird/entertaining street “show(?)” going on. I’ll let you watch the video below. I can’t say I understood entirely what was going on but I did watch it for a bit. I went from never expecting to hear “Dancing Queen in Yokohama” to “100% listening to Dancing Queen in Yokohama” in a matter of seconds. Japan is one hell of a place.

Everyone told me to check out this Red Brick place if I visit Yokohama. So, that’s what I did. This whole area had a sort of Boston vibe to it. The architecture was, well perhaps you guessed, red brick. It was filled with all sorts of shops from chotskies to high class bars. It was a neat little place. From there I walked to Cosmo World. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Yokohama I think of that damn big Ferris Wheel. Well, this wheel is near the port. It’s called the Cosmic Clock which is admittedly pretty awesome. It’s huge, lights up, is rideable, and tells you the time in a digital format - a near perfect Ferris Wheel. I walked past the Cup of Noodle Museum but unfortunately it was closed.

My last stop for the night was Chinatown. Yes, Chinatown IN Japan. Why not? What did I do in Chinatown? I ate of course. The food was a bit pricy but it was pretty damn good. I spent far too much time trying to decide on a place to go. In the end, I’d say it paid off.

The next day had a serious rain problem. I didn’t let this get me down nor stop me. I went to the closest convenient store and bought myself a 500 yen umbrella for the day. My destination was Sankeien Garden. For this walk, I relied on Google Maps to get there. The route was, um, interesting? It took me through several neighborhoods, up and down small mountains, and through more side roads than I could count. I just blindly put my faith into Google. I found a Dennys along the way. I HAD to try out a Japanese Dennys. It was not the Dennys I knew. I’m talking small breakfast menu and breakfast only at breakfast time. I had omurice. It was good, just verrrrrry different.

For being such a big garden, this place was damn hard to figure out how to get in. There were two entrances and I just totally failed in finding them at first. At this point the rain cleared and the day was improving. Sankeien Garden was a random, last minute find but man - it ranks as one of my favorite places in Japan thus far. It was beautiful. Being early November, the foliage was beginning to start. That was awesome. I don’t know why this place stuck such a powerful note with me, it just did. Hell, it was beautiful and peaceful. I took 324756295 pictures of it.

At this point I decided I was done with Yokohama but I still wasn’t ready to journey home. What does this mean? A half day dertour to good ole Tokyo. It was only about an hour away by local train. Since I was running on a weird garden high, I continued my trek Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park. The foliage gave another powerful assist to making both of these locations awesome. Meiji shrine just bled history and tradition. Yoyogi Park (beside sounding like someone hard talking to a famous picnic basket stealing bear) has a delightful juxtaposition of being a hidden away fantastical garden while being surrounded by the skyscrapers of Shibuya. Pretty awesome.

While contemplating heading back that same coworker that I left with a day ago contacted me about meeting her and her friend (who lives in Tokyo) in Roppongi. It was closeish, drinking sounded awesome, and I’d get to learn how to take the buses from Tokyo to Numazu. Win win. Though I claimed it would take me a half hour to get there, I got super lost. Super lost. To be fair, I had never been to Roppongi before and the bar was on the 5th floor of a skyscraper. I was at the skyscraper within a half hour, figuring out it was on a different floor and then the three different elevators I (had to?) take to get there was another thirty minutes. It sort of reminded me of delivering pizza to the Boca Hotel Beach Resort but with no one speaking English. I accept the fact that few people will understand that reference, but just know I mean it as a sort of time restrictive personal hell.

I found it though! Then drinks were had. I was drinking some foreign beer that I had never heard of nor remember the name of. It tasted decent and came is fun gigantic sizes that impressed/worried the bartenders that served them to me. It was that or Hennigan on tap, now you understand my decision. I got to witness higher class Japanese game spit and equally got to watch higher class Japanese game get rejected. Despite my lack of Japanese language skills, some things are universally clear as day. The drinking was incredibly fun and was completely worth the frustration of being momentarily hopefully lost. Fun times for all! I want to have a big night drinking in Tokyo in the near future.
As promised, I got to take the bus back. The bus is sort of awesome. Don’t get me wrong, trains for days. BUT, taking the local train to Tokyo involves transfers and doesn’t guarantee a seat. The bus has no transfers, takes about the same amount of time, cost cheaper (on weekdays), and guarantees a seat. The downside to the bus is traffic, which luckily, was find when I took it. Once back in Numazu we said our farewells, and thus ended the long weekend voyage to Yokohama... and Tokyo.

My next goal is to figure out how to get this giant moth out of my room.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

I Stopped Believing

I just sang Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" in a karaoke room with 10 non-sober people and not one person joined in. Everything I know is wrong. Where am I? I question everything.