Mac

www.halfwayanywhere.com

All the way back in the late fall you may remember me following a whim and taking an incredible weekend to hike and camp with a master. That was a highlight, but throughout my time here I’ve really come to count on two veterans, Mac and Carmelo, to help me pass some of the unbearable moments of living in rural Japan. Usually it was just an evening for beers and conversation, sometimes it’d include Karaoke, and even the occasional bowling-izakaya-all out party. If I needed to know something: “Do I really need to wear dress shoes to this ceremony?” “Is the bonenkai worth the price?” “How should I spend my winter vacation?” “Would a snowboard be a good investment?” Tyler was always the one with the correct answer. As I recently just messaged him about which type of camping supplies I’d need for weekend hikes in the summer, he still is a pretty good standard for advice. The only unfortunate thing is he now lives in Australia. Well, unfortunate only for me and anyone who lives within a 50 km radius of Fukui.

It seems after hiking to the top of the nearest and furthest peaks in Japan, the ultimate in between of monotonous grading and demeaning lesson planning finally became enough. Again it makes me thankful for having another ALT at my school, and  six fantastic and competent teachers to work with. Not everyone is so lucky. After venturing to Everest base camp for the second time over winter vacation Mac announced he’d be moving on to the next great thing.

Apart from a small tribute, I wanted to recognize that this is the first in presumably many departures that I’ll have to get used to. Come the end of the school year a month from now all the third years will graduate to high school, as well as the mystery of which teachers will switch schools. See around here (and I think most all of Japan) the teachers are bound to the local board of education and can be shuffled around any given year to other schools in the district often without notice. It’d be like a junior high school teacher working for an American county, but then add in all the elementary schools as well. Thankfully the likelihood that any of my teachers leave is low, but six is still a lot for this school.

From there three months will pass and then a bigger mixture of ALTs will leave. From the eleven foreigners who live by me,  at least five will move out. Honestly I haven’t thought like this since I was back in high school, paying attention to school years. Mac has started the inevitable impermanence we must face while being part of the JET program.

For me, Mac was a great rally cry to turn toward whenever the man (in this case multiple agencies) got me down. He really worked as a foundation for the community I’d developed, so it’s tough to see him leave.

I remember when I left New York one of my roommates who was a poetry professor explained it like this, “every semester you get new students, and every year you say goodbye. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, but sometimes you recognize them on the L train and they say ‘hello’ and it’s just something you get used to.”

It’s funny cuz this is a short guy with a beard and rock climbing fix, who biked across Manhattan back to Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer to pick up an acoustic guitar, he would sing folk songs all throughout the day and discuss Cormac McCarthy at night, he was vegan by default of our other roommate, and took in the feral cat that his ex-girlfriend left with him.

For a lot of reasons Mac has the same vibe, and will be the spirit I’ll try to imbue as I continue the often mundane life I’m living. I’m already considering taking his bigger apartment in order to host people more often, and scouring the net for any references to hiking in Japan (of which Mac has already written some of the best). I’m already dreading the time that Carmelo leaves, but I’m also working to be the adventure I want to have in my life. Off of Mac’s model I’ve written out a list of things for me to accomplish in the coming seasons and years. Hoping they’ll continue to keep me from mindlessly bingeing on Netflix and Imgur, and become a little more self reliant.


If you didn’t check the link at the top here’s your second chance:  www.halfwayanywhere.com . Mac’s got a really neat website that I highly reccommend. Also if you’re planning on buying any outdoor gear he’s got plenty of deals, and if you use his links you’ll also be helping him when you check out.

Debt

Fresh off the indulgent heels of the New Year vacation, my post paycheck raid of Costco, and endeavors in Nagoya, I started to notice a big trend in the way I was spending money. Particularly the way I was spending too much of it. With a week left until paycheck all my good times had worn thin, and the budget I’d put in place was stretching beyond limits. After months of living paycheck to paycheck, I realized I finally needed to put into action some sort of plan to become financially free.

Last year I’d used a handy online service called Mint to keep track of my purchases. At the time it wasn’t really too difficult — half my paycheck went to rent while the other half went to student loans — but it was still nice to check-in and see how much negative my net worth could be on any given day. My post graduation stint in New York had stacked my credit cards to their limit which I barely managed to reign in after 0% credit card transfers and a plump tax return. When I came to Japan my credit cards (thankfully I only have two) were back to being maxed out as I had to pay for move in fees, furniture, and food, and wait it out until the first month’s paycheck. I stopped using Mint entirely because I had no idea what to budget and the yen was especially weak against the dollar. Unfortunately, Mint has yet to enable foreign currency, and since I was still paying student loans I was using both the yen and the dollar.

I got pretty good at handwriting my expenses on scraps of paper in my free time. They would include the easy essential like rent and utilities, but then the difficult questions popped up like, how much money should I send home? and, what are the chances that I go to a big city for a weekend? As one is want to do around New Years, I decided it was a good enough time to revive smart habits and keep track of my spending. In this case, I literally mean every cent I get and spend. It’s pretty easy to do because there’s also a cell phone app I can use. Before everything would plug into my debit/credit card accounts and automatically get marked in my budget. Now I have to consciously plug in each time I spend money: on food, bills, clothes, games. I use a 1:1 ratio for yen to dollars which also means that I’m technically saving money while all my trends seems more expensive, too.

february budget

By Valentine’s Day I was broke and finally coming down with the unavoidable cold that had stricken at least half my students. Stuck inside on the still cold weekends (a wet and rainy winter) straining my stock of groceries with dinners of rice and whatever canned goods I could find, I found a sort of resolute second wind to analyze my future even deeper. When it came down to figuring what I wanted to do — after having contracted for another year, meaning I’ll be in Japan until summer 2017 — the more pressing question seemed to be how I would be able to do it.

When I left St. Olaf, and before I really went, I had no clue what money has to do with anything. My family (including the many friends of my family) has always taken care of me, and there was no limit to supporting the things I wanted to do. With it was the facade that none of my eccentric interests from nordic skiing to running camps, volunteering with church, and gallivanting internationally with a youth choir  or study abroad programs came with any difficulty. Even the federal loans in my name that had been taken out for me for school went untouched all for years of school. I had no clue that when I got my first job outside of my work study that I should be saving for the future. And even when my college roommates mentioned it’d probably be a good idea, I still had no knowledge of the real price I was paying for tuition, or the fact that I could’ve started paying off my loans before I graduated. I should say that I think St. Olaf has made substantial improvements to increasing student awareness of post-grad life and employment opportunities, but for me, who was already a it stubborn and naive, it was three years too late. At the end of my senior year I had a brief session where my loan paperwork was put into a file and the dates of repayment were explained to me, but even that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. Instead, I connected my bank accounts, automated my payments (which would start six months after graduating, or January 2016), and set everything aside.

Until now, that is.

over time network

Many of my friends were lucky enough to graduate without debt, and I often become envious when talking with them. With only $40,000 in loans even I can’t fret too much, but it’s still at least $500 out of the bank each month. When calculating the interest by meeting just the minimum payments I was looking at paying $10,000 more than what I’d taken out. Even divided over a decade, a thousand dollars a year that I could instead save and put elsewhere didn’t seem nearly worth it. What about my emergency fund, inevitable housing down-payments, that thing they call a 401k?

So, the first big questions are answered: How much do I owe? How much will I pay? and when will I have to pay it?

The next questions were the real challenges: When do I want to be debt free? How much money can I afford to budget? What’s the snowball method everyone talks about?

The ideal date, of course, would be before I leave Japan. I feel there’s no use in saying as soon as possible because that has no tangential goal to it. Although, with the plan of only staying twenty four months in this country, and already being through six of them getting rid of all my debt which well over a year’s worth of salary even before taxes will probably be unlikely. So instead I’ve set an arbitrary five years as an absolute, with the formal plan being three years from now. I still want to live comfortably, but within my means. I’ve discovered that creating sound financial habits seems to be a better goal than constantly wiping away debt only to watch it grow again.

With that said, there’s the extremely meticulous task of figuring out how much money I can throw at my pile of debt an when I’ll be doing it. Since I’ve been here I’ve been focusing on getting rid of the credit card debt I racked up in the past months. It’s finally at its last couple hundred which means by next paycheck I’ll toss in the amount in my savings and unshackle that chain. Except if you remember I have two credit cards. While the one with the most expense on it is currently at 0% APR it also had double the amount of the other, remnants from New York, my junior year of college, or even the first time I’d gone to Japan. The fact is ever since I’ve had it, it’s always had a charge on it. This was definitely the mountain I’d been chipping away at.

As I mentioned before, I really had no clue what to do about money. A big reason for that is still letting my mom work as my health insurance and tax advisor, but those also come with the perks of taking care of my co-pay and getting an early tax refund. Such is the case for next month as my taxes have already been filed. There is so much that I fantasize using that money for: camping gear, a Playstation 4, even getting a car or at least upgrading my bike. However, now is the time for self control. I’ve looked at my debt as a game, and I definitely plan to win. My tax return can almost single-handedly take care of my last credit card, so it’s going towards nothing else.

Getting rid of credit card debt also means I could put the almost two hundred bucks I was spending every month, to the bigger behemoth of student loan debt. So, $200 added to the $500 seemed good enough, but there are still plenty of factors to consider. Every month of living in Japan has been a bit of a puzzle because of the exchange rate. When I first landed the yen was up to $1.22 to the dollar. That meant I lost more than a fifth of what I sent home. Thus the dilemma: should I send money home at a constant rate, or should I save over here and wait for the yen to get more even? The correct question is the latter, as the yen is finally dipping towards the $1.10 mark. But even then, can I trust my habits yet to conserve any surplus of money I’m hanging on to? At this point I’ve settled on sending the Japanese equivalent of $1000 home. It’s rough and arbitrary, and maybe once I see how all this planning unwinds I can reassess it, but for now I like the safety of knowing  I’ll have a meager cushion in my American bank account and an even point to work with over here.

monthly trend

Reaching the final stretch of financial figures — or at least my horizon line — the ultimate question was which loan to pay of first. I’ve got a private loan from St. Olaf that is the most expensive individual one (9%), a loan from Discover for when I studied in New York (8.5%), a federal loan through St. Olaf that I pay off quarterly (5%), and then an accumulation of federal loans that were distributed each semester equaling half of my total (avg. 4.4%). I’ll spoil it here and tell you that I’m paying them off in that order, but it was a decision with some thought. Economically it’s the best decision to pay off the loan with the highest interest because that results in the lowest overall interest cost. However, there was plenty of research to persuade me to take on the “snowball method” of paying off a small loan first. The idea is with the elimination of any debt no matter how small you become more motivated to stay on track. Except, in my case, I would already be clearing my credit cards which was already a sort of snowball in itself. Instead, I took the “stacking method” without the worry of self control or necessary motivation.

It certainly is slow progress, but it seems everyday I read some new article about personal finance, login to my Mint account, or draw up another budget for the next month which inspires me to continue the debt-free path. Especially as I turn toward considering what I could and want to do when I leave Japan, not having to worry about student loans keeps my options open. A scary part about living here is knowing that the salary is limited. Maybe I can be an artist in the future, but will have to take on unpaid internships, or consider myself a freelance writer without a steady income, and probably likely I’ll wind up in another city with absurd costs of living. Now I’m relatively safe (far from the reaches of Donald Trump’s presidency) and while I’m safe I might have to do the safe thing.

You hear a lot about the student debt crisis, and I definitely don’t think enough is being done through the government to regulate it. How can we expect higher education to be a necessity in entry level jobs without providing students the means to survive while having that entry level salary. I’m certainly glad and shaped by my experience at St. Olaf, but I applied to college as this issue was burgeoning across mainstream media. I guarantee my choices would’ve differed had I been smart enough to figure out the true cost of college.

Gavin asked me while we were discussing this at lunch the other day, “Wouldn’t you rather use that money to have fun now?”

Yes, of course I would, but I used to always think, what if I die tomorrow? All that saving would be for nothing. Although I still like to apply that thought to many aspects in my life (writing, travel, friendships), money is one where it can’t apply. With money I have to think, what if I don’t die tomorrow? As much as I don’t want to face the fact that I’m growing older the fact remain that I will eventually turn thirty. By then there are plenty of things I’ll want to finance, least of all being student debt.

Nagoya

The title of this post is a bit misleading because even though I’ve been in the city a night and a day, the reality is I’ve hardly experienced or even seen any of it. Remember the rain Friday night delayed my arrival and any chances of going out, and the entirety of my Saturday was spent at an event center full of folding chairs and two thousand men.

Thus, it comes down to Saturday night. Blake drove me back downtown closer to midnight than I was expecting, and I met some of the other ALTs he traveled with at his hotel. I half considered crashing on his floor, but I wasn’t quite sure what my plans were for Sunday (if I’d go back to the tournament) so in order to avoid being a hindrance I headed back into the night. I didn’t have much of a plan or clue on what to do. Luckily I’d charged my phone in his hotel so my GPS was useable, and of course, this was far from my first time wandering in a big city. Very much like my time over Silver Week in Tokyo, I headed first to find a place to stay at one of the elusive capsule hotels.

I say elusive because really, even when they’re on a map, they’re hard to find. Like most cities in Japan the shops are built vertical. You’ve got to constantly glance up at the unreadable signs to make sure you don’t miss anything. Even when you have a map, the shop or place you’re looking for could be on the third or sixth floor and you can easily miss it. For foreigners I’ve found this to be one of the biggest problems in enjoying time out.

I reached the first capsule hotel quite easily, but tentatively walked in after passing a chalkboard sign that I was quite certain read “no vacancy.” The small lobby was brightly lit and pretty extravagant for a capsule hotel so when I reached the desk my suspicions were confirmed.

Wanting to conserve my phone battery I asked the woman behind the desk if she knew where else another hotel might be and she pulled out a mapped and started circling a couple places. “But… probably, they’re all full,” she said in polite Japanese. I knew the probably was unnecessary. Still, lugging around a bag and tote full of clothes, cards, and camera finding a place for it all was the only mission I had.

Somehow I made it to the heart of the downtown nightlife, to a district that used the kanji for princess in its name. As I approached I was a bit surprised by all the light and sound, and even amount of people still strolling the street. Most of them were drunk, in some pretty risque fashion for January, and I was wondering if my second plan of going out would be too late. In general I think Japan’s nightlife starts early ends early, or else goes all night, without much in between. The fact that most metro systems stop around midnight probably contributes to that lifestyle. It can be a hassle, but also a pretty brilliant way to encourage both responsibility and indulgence.

Anyway, these are the things I wondered about as I wandered clearly not going anywhere specific and without many options. This was becoming less like Silver Week where I had four hotels before I could find a room, and more like my first night in New York where I spent most of the night exploiting the subway system.

Maybe that’s what led me to find the post office that was still miraculously and a bit strangely open even after midnight. When in doubt you can always count on government services (I do pay Japanese taxes, after all). So, walking on set to what seemed like a Stanley Kubrick movie, I sat down at one of the open tables and unfurled. It was a small area, more like a lobby, with an alcove of metal P.O. boxes and an escalator that was turned off. I sidled against a column and stretched out my legs hoping to be as discreet as possible.

There was a sole open post counter framed between the P.O. showing a slice of the ghoulish fluorescent office behind. Occasionally there would be a shuffle or loud mechanic noise, but for the most part it was subdued. For a while, except then someone came in from the dark and went to the counter. A woman appeared and they exchanged some words and then both vanished again. The threat level of my scene was diminished (no lurking anomalies to worry about as long as the worker was around), though now my film seemed more like a David Lynch feature. Again a man came in carrying a big cardboard box of what looked to be the latest sell off Amazon or eBay; an older woman purchased stamps and sat down at the table across from me to glue them each to a stack of envelopes; a slew of other people for whatever reason decided to make it to the post office at two in the morning to deliver their letters.

Eventually the strangeness was upon me, and not willing to commit to sleeping there I wrapped up my stuff and headed back into the night. I followed my phone in search of a net cafe, but had no certainty about the turns I was making. Somehow I wound up around Osu, a huge covered intersection of streets flooded with shops and arcades and hobby stores. It’s also referred to as Kamimaezu which sounds a lot like it translates into “Maze of the Gods.” At this point the streets were vacant and I felt like I’d entered Twin Peak’s red room. The paint off the wall literally gave everything a rose hue, and as I kept walking I wondered if I’d ever find my way back to the street. It’s hard to believe I could just stumble into such a place without realizing it, but it also seemed like a good reason to stick around and explore that part of the city in the morning.

I made it to the net cafe (open 24 hours of course), emerging back to the midnight blue streets. I went inside, but even as I walked down the stairs to enter  I was calculating the amount of money it would set me back. Even if I only stayed for the five hour minimum, I’m not sure I’d feel any better. My leniency while shopping at Costco the weekend before was coming back to haunt me. After looking at the nonsense paperwork I’d have to fill out just to get a membership card I exhausted said no thanks. Back on the sidewalk, now facing the way I’d come, I saw my respite.

Like some sort of mirage in a Vegas desert, illuminating the hollow street in yellow light was a great big sign with retro style font reading in plain English: Denny’s. If I’d cared to wonder why on earth there was a Denny’s in Japan, it came second to me being thankful that even in a foreign country  some habits never change. It’d been a while since I’d been for breakfast so late at night — if only Nico were around — and although I was guaranteed this wouldn’t be as good as the hash browns in Fargo I’d had a week before I left the states, after forgoing a proper lunch and dinner it seemed like breakfast in order.

The place was doing a decent amount of business which a strange crowd. Groups and couples of all ages who’d mostly looked liked they’d left the nightclub, but I even saw some people playing Magic. Had it not been for the lack of sleep and probable body odor I would’ve attempted to join them, though, at that moment I could barely focus on anything other than ordering.

I got a set with tea. The first plate was a salad dressed in fruit, followed by a hamburger patty drizzled in sauce with both fries and rice. The cap was a dish of ice cream with strawberries, whipped cream,  bananas, and chocolate sauce. It revitalized me a bit, or at least made the night worth it. Not as good as the Perkins I was expecting, but fine for a close substitute for home.

Really, in the corner of the restaurant I was in, I doubt it would’ve been a problem if I’d just laid out in the booth and passed out there, but being the civilized young man I am I headed back to the Post Office to finish out the hours before sunrise.

This time even the P.O. window was closed, though, that didn’t stop people from coming in. I didn’t really fall asleep, or maybe I did. I wasn’t exactly tired throughout any of the night. Luckily the stamina from cross country running can be used in many ways. I think I just tried to preserve any amount of brain power I had. Being in Japan helps, too, because I didn’t really have to worry about any mess of problems I could encounter in America (but even those are mostly irrational).

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In the early light of the morning I went back on the street. With the disheartening realization that most of the shops would still take two to three hours before they would be open, I headed into a coffee shop that is supposedly famous in Nagoya. There I recuperated the rest of the night and tried to make my day’s decision. I looked through the program from yesterday’s tournament and found the list of side events. In poor translation I figured out another mysterious game titled “Super Sunday Melee” with a couple of rules in bulletins I couldn’t quite understand. The sign-up started at nine, which was still before the rest of my days was planned to begin. Really, I’d come to Nagoya to play Magic so I figured I might as well do just that. When I want to enjoy the city I’ll come back and do it with proper planning.

When I got back to the convention center I was fully awake. I signed up for the tournament and even got to see the Day 2 main event start. After last night, I’m a bit relieved I didn’t have to go through another nine rounds today, but it also gives me something to work for. There’s another tournament in Tokyo over Golden Week and then in Kyoto in the fall. What was the most impressive was being able to see some of the well known pro-players. Especially this guy named Yuya Watanabe who’s one of the greatest currently competing.

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The game that I was joining in was the most bizarre format that I’ve participated, and it will probably remain that way for a while. At the last moment I had to rush and get a playmat because it was a requirement to play. They setup everyone at a long row of tables and handed out masks to every eighth player or so. In total there were over thirty people, and among my crowd I was definitely the only English speaker. Like the day before we were given six packs to make a new deck, but this time we would be competing with the people on either side of us. When someone lost, then they’d leave the spot and everyone would squish together — hence the melee. The catch is you could only play offense toward the person on your left, defend against the person on your right, while targeting both of them with other effects.

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There’s a format called EDH/Commander, which is touted as one of the more socially enjoyable ways to play. I imagine this was like that on steroids, but was actually some of the most fun I’ve had playing the game. It was just ridiculous to have to worry about if the guy six seats down from you had just hit ultimate on Kiora while encouraging the guy you’re supposed to attack in the future to attack the guy on his left. The masks were used as place-markers and being required to use them only forced the silliness that much. (Don’t worry, they were worn like hats instead of actual masks, no fear of the flu, maybe just lice.)

I lost just about the time one of the guys I’d driven with came and found me. Surprisingly he also had a bundle of packs in his arms he said he’d won from other side events. Seemed like I’d been playing the wrong games, since I’d won nothing but the belittlement of Japanese players much more intense than I.

I guess there’s not much more to this story than to say I also lost my backpack. Well, at least that’s kind of what everyone seemed to assume when I said someone took my backpack. I caught it when I was starting the melee and looked under my chair to find it vanished. Quite impressively too since it had my rain jacket, yesterday’s clothes, my lucky shirt, iPad, headphones, DSLR camera… Like me alone lugging it around was a feat, but to make off with it unnoticed is skill. I told a judge, who got event staff, and I went to lost and found, I backtracked everything, and despite everyone else’s disbelief I was certain it was gone because of someone else’s accord. I mean, yes, in Japan crime rates are lower, but not invisible, and at an international event like that with so many temporary people it’s not hard to believe. I definitely was a bit too lax about it, too, with too much trust in the system. Perhaps my best and worst quality is my faith in the “it can’t be helped” mentality, and when I started the melee I tried not to let it wreck my experience.

Honestly, though, the most annoying point was seemingly everyone putting the fault on me. Even when I searched out among my coworkers the word for stolen in Japanese no one seemed to believe that I hadn’t just lost it. Yes, plenty of fault on me for not keeping it connected to me at all times, but I mean clearly I hadn’t lost it right? I was starting to even doubt myself.


My vindication came almost two weeks later when my school got a call from the local bank. My adviser told me the police had found my backpack outside a train station, and found my bankbook (which only works in Fukui and can’t withdraw cash anyway) that has my name on it. Afterward the bank called the school, and we called the station.

I stood dreadfully trying to listen in as I asked my adviser to ask them what else they found.

“Oh, a jacket,” he translated. “And headphones.”

“What about a camera?”

“A tablet.”

He asked about the camera.

“No, no camera.”

Exhale. Damn. Strange and impractical and thankful, only one thing, but also the most expensive to replace by far. At least I’ve got my lucky t-shirt. I suppose this makes it even luckier.

They were even able to mail everything back to my apartment instead of me having to go back there just for it. Still my only backpack and rain jacket (hauled through Thailand and New York), and it was a pretty big hassle to go without them — especially now that winter is ending and spring is starting.

So, yeah, another trip outside the safety of Fukui complete and when all is said pretty successful. My faith in the system is restored, my acceptance of my nerdy habits is complete, and my ability to travel alone became a bit stronger. Although, being the beginning of the month, I really didn’t budget very well, and it became a bit of a problem stretching out what cash I had left before the next paycheck so I don’t know how soon it will be before I get off on another adventure. Spring break is still a month away.

 

Gathering

Waking up in the morning was quite the feat. Maybe the anticipation of the tournament had worn on me, or maybe the anxiety of making sure everything was in order, but before 7 o’clock I was up and dressed. Soon after I said goodbye and went out in search of the train station.

The sky was a bright gray with just the fresh remnants of rain. I had only my phone to get me to where I wanted to go, but had at least memorized the colors of the trains I needed to travel by. I popped on my headphones and plugged in the latest podcast from Limited Resources banking on their latest set review to be my saving grace in understanding how to play in this tournament.

(For those interested in Magic: before I mentioned I play a format called limited, which means you only get to play with cards you see on the spot. I like it more because it can be relatively cheaper — for example, a card from a recent set has been hovering around $50 with it topping $100 in the fall — increases strategy, and does a good job at supporting those who truly understand the mechanics. It also focuses a significant amount on the actual deck building and tweaking which is 50% of why I like the game. A big appeal of this tournament was the entire main even being done in limited sealed and draft formats.)

With a quickened pace through the crowds, I twisted among the center of Nagoya’s largest station and arrived just on time to catch the train before its doors shut. As with many things in my life, I didn’t double check any of my steps, so as we rolled away from the platform I became I little panicked I was going in the wrong direction. I’m almost certain there’s some trait in my DNA, or perhaps humanity at large, which requires us to panic within the first fleeting moments of feeling relief. I looked around at the somewhat crowded train and felt assured by glancing at the cell phone of a pair next to me to see previews of the latest cards.

As with most convention centers this on was placed on the outside of the city. The long train ride gave me time to go over the game in my head, but also made me realize how tired I already was. I followed the crowd from the station to the pathway toward the center. The whole thing was pretty free form and I was pretty unsure about what exactly I needed to be doing at any one point. There were mostly just stalls set up showcasing hundred of rare cards in glass cases. It was actually the first time I’ve seen such material outside a game shop. I can hardly recognize any of the cards, it hardly seems possible that the game has been evolving for almost thirty years now. Among the Japanese faces I could also see plenty of foreigners, some who I found had come to Japan specifically for the event. Here I am planning my trips less than three hours away, looks like I should dream a little bigger. One of my friends played a guy from Norway who said he came with a couple of teammates to practice. Serious.

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I picked up a coffee from the vending machines (a staple whenever I plan a Magic marathon), and downed a small fruit flavored shot of vitamin D. Originally when I first studied abroad and lived in Tokyo, it was introduced to me as the cure for a hangover, but now I’ve learned that it’s the best sort of preparation whenever you plan on straining your brain. After meandering back and forth looking at all the merchandise and trying to supress a nervous feeling, an announcement was finally made to send everyone to their seats to start the rounds.

I found my seat, on the very edge of the English section of participants. Because hardly any of the critical information had been translated off the original website, I hadn’t expected this much grace. Looking back, though, it makes perfect sense that out of 2,000 participants they’d dedicate at least ten percent of the competition to English players. This only served as a better advantage being I’d practically memorized all the cards anyway thinking I’d have to play entirely in Japanese anyway.

I tried to make tepid small talk with the person across from me while at the same time trying to assume he didn’t speak English. In fact I would’ve guessed he was Brazilian from the phone calls he made, but either way he didn’t really show any interest or enthusiasm towards being there. I was still confused as we passed out packs and promos, wondering if he would have to be my first opponent and how disappointing that would be.

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Another perfect part about this format of the game is you’re always opening new packs. The thrill of finding rare cards, or the grind of making good with what you’ve got, makes even the start  of the game great. For me, after playing with physical cards in Japanese it was bizarre to be in Japan and have fresh English packs in front of me. I tore them open in my normal ritual, a slap on the back of the hand for good luck, and then counting them face down before looking at the lot.

(The next portion will be heavy on Magic, and instead of explaining every little detail, I’m just gonna put it all out there with the assumption what I say makes sense. Sorry in advanced.)

The system was well regulated, I even had to sign a consent form. The pressure was a bit different than what I’ve been used to because the time was also split up so we could mark on a checklist all the cards we’d opened. I supposed this was their way to prevent cheating, if anything absurd happened in a deck a player could always call a judge to check the list.

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I opened a strange combination of cards. Typically people have an affinity towards a certain type of deck. I definitely favored red/white aggro as of late, hoping instead to pull off b/w allies, but was pretty stifled by all the colorless cards I opened. With a Thought-Knot Seer and plenty of colorless mana, I ended up going blue/colorless/black — a strong but complicated way of playing. Typically control decks are what I avoid because their margin for error is a lot smaller, but alas it’s what cards I was dealt.

It actually worked out quite nicely. My first opponent was Japanese playing with Japanese cards, but I understood almost all of what he was doing, with a blue black mirror that I was able to out perform. One of the biggest concerns, of course, was getting mana screwed, but I stayed pretty even the whole tournament. I won with plenty of time in the fifty minute round. I found another first year ALT from Fukui named Blake, who had barely arrived in time to open his cards and make things work.

The second round was a bit surprising as I faced a kid less than half my age. He was undeniably intimidating with slightly chubby cheeks, puppy dog eyes, wispy strands of hair carelessly strewn across his forehead, and an overtly cute blue hat in the shape of a dragon quest slime. (I quickly noticed that his father and mother were also in the tournament wearing the same hat, and noted it as a safeguard against missed connections.)

Onigaishimasu,” I said sitting down, the custom in Japan.

“Onigaishimasu,” he repeated nodded his suede blob my way.

Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult to win the first game. The advantages were clear cut, and there was no calling over a judge. For all I knew he could win the tournament, and I tried to treat him with that respect — even in that adorable Japanese lisp that all children seem to have until they turn twelve. The second game, well, that was less concise. By turn five he had the win. He’d ramped into a creature that continued to get pumped by counters while all I had was a potential deathtoucher. Our board states were hardly at parody when I started drawing into removal and evasive creatures. With an oblivion strike it was over, but I still felt guilty about the win. In a more casual game I would’ve made the assumed motions that he was attacking, or even suggested it to him. He clearly could’ve won and I would’ve been fine sealing my win in a third game. But this is the top tier of competitive Magic, so I could only hope that he saw his mistakes once we finished?”

“How old are you?” I asked. I wasn’t going to ask because I didn’t want to sound patronizing, but I was genuinely curious.

“I’m eleven.”

“Really? How long have you played?”

“Let’s see, I started when I was about 8, so three years.”

Damn. If he keeps it up he’ll be a pro in no time. I thanked him again, and this time with even more time left on the clock decided to go outside where food trucks had lined offering all senses of overpriced concessions. I got what was advertised as a Chinese burger, basically a burger on a steamed bun with lettuce and teriyaki sauce, and chowed down a little too quickly. Along the wall and people waiting, were also the slew of smokers and the smell overwhelmed the scene. Sometimes I’m amazed how quickly American laws changed about tobacco and how unaffected I was by it’s presence. I still don’t care if I’m at a rooftop bar or passing by, but here it’s still saturated to the point that my school still has a room the teachers can go to in between classes.

I lost the third round. It was close off a mulligan, and potentially misreading cards, but a loss is a loss nonetheless. It wasn’t until now, a little more than three hours since the start of the tournament that I finally did the math and asked Blake:

“How many rounds are there?”

“Nine total, but you’ve gotta win six to go onto Day Two.”

“Nine… but that means it won’t end ’til, like, nine or ten! I was thinking it’d be done by three or four.”

“Yeah, Grand Prixs a grind, man.”

So here we go. The real start of the marathon. Only, there was something else. By the time I lost in round four and looked down at my results sheet I noticed an amount of points next to my name. Each round is worth three points, with the goal of 18 (in the case of draws) being the qualifier for the next day. However now the slip only showed me with three points, when really I should’ve had six.

I approached a judge to find a solution to my problem. It’s a supreme level of geek now, but after watching plenty of tournaments on Youtube I’ve started to recognize some of the more frequent judges who travel with the tournaments and get on the feeds. It was pretty impressive to actually see them in action, or at least gave me a feeling of accomplishment for finally being at the same tournament as them.

The judge I started talking to introduced himself as Eric (Eric Levine) and he was practically everything anyone would want from customer service. He took me to the main booth at a raised platform in the front where Judges and players were dodging back and forth like bats in a fly-storm. He got someone to look up my results my matches, and thankfully I’d been smart enough to write down the table numbers I’d been playing in my memo. “Alright, no worries, this guy will get it all sorted out for you.”

No worries, but just a lot more embarrassed guilt coming my way as they made an announcement for my second round opponent to come to the front.

Needless to say it didn’t take long for me to see the three matching blue slimes bobbing among the heads my way. Where’s a soldier’s sword when you need it?

My eleven year old opponent approached the booth and the man behind him, in an excessively polite voice asked if I’d played him the earlier round.

はい.”

“And did you win?”

“ちがう、まけた.”  Wrong, I lost.

When I didn’t think beating a kid could get any worse the system has to go and rub it in my face, reminding me of what a horrible person I am to have no such mercy on someone willing to wear such an egregious hat simply because his mother told him to.

With my points back up, and my score now 2-2 I was ready to bounce back, refusing to let my chances at the second day end so quickly. (Blake in the meantime was scoring 3-1, while my ride from Fukui had made it 1-3. At least I had that to stay optimistic: I could do better, and I could do worse.)

Eric, the judge I’d met earlier, also boosted my confidence simply back making sure everything got sorted out and wishing me luck when he saw me heading to my table for round number 5. Honestly, the usually friendly community of players and people around Magic is often overlooked, but hard to say that’s not a genuine reason to like the game.

I’d done back to back tournaments before during pre-releases, and certainly online. This was nothing like those. The breaks never felt long enough, especially as people became used to their decks the rounds seemed to drag on a lot longer. I could only imagine how I smelled, and took breaks outside every moment possible. My mind wasn’t cracked yet, but it was pulsing to the point of unbearable.

I won the fifth round against a jolly guy in his forties, who by the end of the games seemed more happy to be there and experience his loss then to actually be playing. I tried to embodied some of his spirit as he shuffled away from the table.

The sixth round I lost to another foreigner. It made the game play a lot easier, the moves and typical intuitions came back, but also the easy misplays and bad habits. Japanese play includes a ton of checks and pauses, so no intention is overlooked. It takes a bit of time, but is a lot more efficient to avoid problems.

I lost my fourth round at number seven making me ineligible to get to the second day. At first it was a bit of a disappointment, but not hard to believe. This was, after all, my first time playing this level of Magic. It did mean, however, that I was free to drop out, as many other players had already done. The clock approached 8 o’clock and the night had already started. Didn’t I want to go out and actually see the city I was visiting?

Of course I stayed at the tournament. In the end I paid to play nine rounds, and I really couldn’t turn down the extra opportunity to play Magic.

Both my next opponents were also in the same position so it made the game more fun. We didn’t have to worry so much about the right plays as much as the cool plays, and the pressure lowered the competitive atmosphere as well. Also I won both of them to end on a high note and realize that I was only one round away from making it to the second day.

I ALSO PLAYED TWELVE HOURS OF MAGIC.


By the time we left it was 11 o’clock, and Blake offered to drive me back to the city. It hardly seems possible that this trip could be split into three separate posts, but with the end of another day it seems a good time to break.

Magic

Only a small amount of people who know me (mostly those who’ve lived with me) will know one of my nerdiest and strongest interests. Indeed even when I subtly tell people that  one of my hobbies includes Magic, they often only think of it as the Penn & Teller version that junior high school boys get into one summer and then hopefully give up in pursuit of sports or even theater. Alas, my Magic is much more functional, geeky, addicting, and always concluded with “: The Gathering.”

After an early departure from President, archaeologist, and astronaut — goals which even at the age of five I could tell were not as fun in real life as in the movies — there have only been a few futures that I’ve really ever been passionate about in my life. Sitting right between writer and artist, somewhere before lottery winner and globetrotter, comes the dream job title “Professional Card Player.” It’s not too hard to imagine where this would come from. Before I learned to count in school I was playing card games like war with my Grandma. From there it graduated to complexities like Canasta and somewhere around Junior High my Dad taught me the ins and outs of poker. After solving a Rubik’s cube while waiting between races at track meets, Kelson and I quickly went to conquering counting cards in Blackjack with eighteenth birthdays looming.

All the while my generation grew up on Pokemon, with a slew of cards to collect and a somewhat functional gameplay I’d try to figure out with the other boy who lived in the apartment above me. When I finally moved in elementary school I met another neighbor who turned me to my first otaku habit: the Saturday morning cartoon show and card game imported from Japan known as Yu-Gi-Oh! Really it was more like the Pokemon for teenagers and I became engrossed. My past times included waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the latest episodes; delving over all my cards and makings lists of decks; walking the block to my local game store to play on Friday nights (ironically next to all the MTG players); forcing Mom to get me the PS2 and Gameboy spin-offs; not to mention towards the end writing my own fan-fiction that poised me as a finalist in the Battle City Tournament. If you haven’t looked it up yet, the Japanese word otaku is almost always synonymous with obsessed, and recalling it now it’s really unbelievable how much of a passion it can still stir up in me. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Upon entering the hurricane that is High School, however, those hobbies got replaced — or oppressed — as I focused on all the new things a burgeoning hipster has to discover. Occasionally I’d sort through my Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! (and Harry Potter) cards, I’d even briefly learned the basics of Magic with Kelson (using a starter deck Dad had bought me and X back in 2000), but really my overall appetite for the game became subdued. Although I should probably mention for the last two years of high school I got decent into WoW becoming a pretty heavy player over the summers, so maybe I only replaced the physical of strategy with a virtual one.

Then college happened and my MMORPG time was limited. I met a guy we called “Lucious” who ran for Olaf who shared my enthusiasm (at the least) and basically became my instructor for the intricacies of rules and gameplay. It was a lot easier to find time to talk about the game when you’re on an hour long run. Then an app came out for the iPad which made it easy to play, as well as an increase of material on their website and Youtube channel. What originally served as a distraction from homework has turned into a way to stay connected and social after college. When I was in New York with hardly any friends not named Kath, I was able to go to an awesome game store for some FNM where they even started to recognize me by name.

It’s quite popular in Japan, but I never really sought it out because the language difference. Instead I still find it easier and more convenient to play online (I focus solely on limited formats anyway), although, that still didn’t stop me for signing up for a huge tournament for February in Nagoya way back in December. I figured it was a good way to get me (who dislikes travelling alone) to go out an travel alone. When Gavin, who himself had sought out the Fukui MTG community, brought me to a pre-release tournament with a little over a dozen people at our local shopping mall — all in Japanese — I took it as a sign I was ready for the big leagues. You see, the biggest problem would be understanding the rules. Since everything is in Japanese, and there are over 200 cards in the set, I basically had to memorize the art from each card and then remember which rules and effects applied to them. Really when you’ve played through a new set each year, it’s not hard to follow intuition, but with each set comes a new group of mechanics which can sometimes throw you off balance.

Alright, the adventure begins:

I signed up for the event in late December, even though I’d been considering it since before the fall. That gave me well over a month to make of some sort. Since in half a year I hadn’t drifted very far from Fukui, I’d never been to Nagoya let alone really knew it’s relative location. My former roommate Yasushi had always said he’d lived close to Nagoya, but I couldn’t remember, did he mean the city or the prefecture? I was a little lacking on the details, so assuredly I’d reach out to the JET community and find someone to stay with, probably someone else who’d be going to the event, too. That’s what I thought, at least, and unfortunately anyone who knows me knows that I’m a class S procrastinator. The week of the tournament approached and livin’ on a pray I just decided to wing it like most things. Remember only the weekend before I’d gone to Costco and stretched my budget a little bit more than I’d wanted. A hotel was certainly out of the question, but a capsule was something to look forward to. A lot of this trip hearkens to my experience in Tokyo last September, so I figured if I could do it there than Nagoya would be a piece of cake.

Luckily enough, about two days before the day I was planning to leave by God only knows what kind of transportation, I got a message from Gavin connecting me to one of the guys who runs most of the the local Magic events. Through my elementary Japanese and broken English we figured a way to meet and car pool with another local to Nagoya. About the same time my last minute pleas to various couch surfers were finally answered and it seemed like I had a place to stay.

The rain as we left on Friday night had been pouring for hours. It seemed like a perilous plan to make the two hour drive with limited view in a kei car, but then again our other options were naught. For an hour we drove smoothly making a merciful attempt at awkward conversation, or otherwise cruising in silence. He had switched off a playlist of what I thought was hardcore videogame music (think Castlevania), probably out of assumed embarrassment. We picked up our third companion and he drove the rest of the way. During that point I was only glad to be in the back seat, trying to ignore the speeds that he was flying at. We stopped briefly for dinner, but were still a bit lost on time. All the while I messaged my host giving him estimates that kept creeping later. When we finally made the outskirts of the city we detoured from a huge traffic jam, adding some more time.

With the map on my phone we slid down side roads, a bit turned around, until finally I decided I’d be able to find the place. They dropped me off, and I waved goodbye glancing up at the stories of apartment buildings surrounding me. As I closed in on the pin I messaged my host hoping I had the right place. Thankfully the rain had stopped in the city, so I loitered a moment at the bottom of some buildings until one of the various doors opened to a lighted hallway.

“Hey, Dillon?” a fluently English voice called out.

My eyes adjusted to see my unexpected host as we went into the elevator. I don’t think he’d mind me posting, but I’ll just say from his profile name alone I could tell two things: he was Japanese, and he wasn’t. That fact was reaffirmed as soon as we began talking. He was shorter than I expected (though, I should really just readjust my expectations in this country), with sleek black curls on his head that reminded me of my older brother. His skin is a light shade of cream like everyone else during the winter, but among his features I can see what’s characterized as Japanese and what isn’t.

“I’m sorry, am I pronouncing that right: Dil-lin? Dee-lon?”

“Don’t worry, even I get it wrong sometimes. But you’re gonna have to help me with your name.”

“Well,” he pronounced his name, “but you can just call me Vyn.”

I was happy to see his apartment wasn’t too larger than mine, just a bit more modern. If I’m living in the country and I can’t even boast about how much space I have, at least I get be proud about how freaking fortuitous my subsidized rent is, right?”

“Yeah, I pay a decent amount for this place, but I used to have a roommate who left about three months ago, and thankfully the landlord just hasn’t charged me differently.”

He opened a door that could’ve led to a closet and showed me my new room for the night.

“So now I’ve just been using it for friends and to host couch surfers. Usually I have to tell people how to use the air conditioning and lights, but I guess you already known how to do that.”

It was probably the same size as my room, with just a cheap bed, blankets and pillows.

“And the place looks a little weird right now because I’m actually moving out tomorrow, which is why you can’t stay on tomorrow night.”

Right, he’d mentioned something like that before. This last moment savior seemed more like another twist of fate to introduce me to another world’s version of myself (Gavin being the former). At first I didn’t understand what he meant by “a little weird” because it looked pretty normal to me: shelves of books, and kitchenware, and shampoo. Except I’ve moved from tiny room to tiny room more than a couple time the past years, and it dawned on me that he was seeing what tomorrow would bring: how to carry the bookshelf with the books still in it; stack the plates so the forks will fill the between; and mix the shampoo with the videogame controllers. He was super accommodating, ready to let me do my own thing and call it a night, but from what bits I’d already found out about him I had to ask, “Mind if I stay up and talk a bit?”

After confessing my commitment to Magic as the reason I’d be leaving so early in the morning, he spit out a slew of nerdom mostly in the form of videogames to even the playing field. I found out he was from the prefecture, but one side of his family had Brazilian heritage. Being that a large population of my town  consists of Brazilian immigrants, I asked how it was for him growing up as hafu looking for some insight on how my students might feel. Also a bit of a coincidence that we could compare my experience being racially diverse in American school systems. It was easy to understand how he knew bother Japanese and Portuguese languages, but the English was still a mystery.

“Well, I learned it in school.” Yeah, my purpose of being here, but also none of my students learn to speak so fluently. “And then I also watched a lot of American TV shows.” Some of which I watched, but he was way more versed in prime time television.

He’d moved to the city first to go to college in computer science (he’d graduated about the same time as I) and was moving again because of a job. In the interim he’d be going to Amsterdam, to do enjoy what Amsterdam has to offer, and was planning to leave the following Tuesday.

“Yeah, I’m not really Japanese,” he said with a laugh.

I’ve heard this from a number of Japanese people, but none with more candor. After breaching midnight, figuring the long day ahead of me, and the amount of packing he may or may not have spent all night doing, I decided to call it a night.


I really wasn’t expecting to say so much in this post but to keep things concise I think I’ll call it there. After all, most of the magic from the weekend actually happened in getting there, and the tumult that follows will probably be an equally long story.