Graduation

My last couple posts have been looking towards the future, so I feel this will be the culmination of those thoughts. At least its my hope for a while. You see all this time flu stricken and looking forward towards what spring and summer will bring has in a way made me complacent toward the present. Hence the void that will be March. The lessons learned from February had me scared to spend any money this month, though, that also put me discouraged about the future. After sorting out all my bills I’ve become a bit of a hermit. In the spirit of Mac I did host a small night for beer tasting (Okinawan based Orion won the vote), and I haven’t refrained from going out once or twice, but the quest for anything thoughtful was quite subdued.

It all came down to reminiscing and saying goodbye.

I suppose it’s a fair point to say that most of this month was dedicated to work. We had stacks of homework to correct, lesson plans to compile, and even went to a superfluous seminar in the city. It seemed like every day I was saying goodbye to someone, trying to capture that last good memory. Way back in the fall I determined that the second years were my favorite crew, but by the end of the semester I definitely wasn’t ready to have the third years leave. Back when they first entered this school, there wasn’t a foreign person in my position, and then my predecessor didn’t come until a third part into their second year. There was a bit of adversity that remained in their character. The ones who tried still struggled with natural sounding sentences, and the ones who struggled really couldn’t be blamed too much. (With that I’m not trying to make my teachers sound bad because they aren’t. There’s a lot of factors that play into the Japanese system of English education, but the presence of a native speaker correlates to better learning.)

The third years could often surprise you with the amount their honesty. When they gave speeches about what they wanted to do for a career one boy on the track team confessed he wanted to be a hacker in order to take down the Pentagon. During morning conversations I learned more than a few would stay up until 3 o’clock in the morning watching dramas, anime, or Youtubers. It seems they are primed at that age of still captivating the impossible while threaded with immortality. The five guys who still showed up to track practice would be especially hard to miss. By this point they were included in the few people I talked to everyday, and also ranked high on the list of those who understood enough English to talk back.

Thus we fall to the ides of March, as fitting a day as any to have a graduation ceremony.

I biked to school with my suit bundled up over one shoulder. Despite the on-off weather of the changing seasons, the few clouds that started the day would soon scatter as the sun rose. It did feel like a normal day in many ways, and I think some of that has to do with the fact that school won’t be over tomorrow. We still have half a month until spring break, the real end of the school year, but even that only lasts for two weeks. Nonetheless, under it all there was a certain attitude permeating throughout it all.

In standard fashion, the homeroom teachers for the graduating class were dressed in kimono. Apart from the sidelines in Kyoto, it was the first time I’ve seen anyone so formal in Japan. Along with the awe it makes you wonder what time they got to school to get dressed. Maybe they had a party where they each did each other’s hair and make-up, and then wrapped the bow into their gown because I can hardly believe a person would have success doing it alone. This, of course, only applies to the women as men in almost all situations nowadays can get by with just wearing a suit (in which can I’m not too sure who’s luckier — overall badassery aside, you just garner more respect while wearing kimono).

We shuffled into the gym as the doors were let open for parental seating. I was kind of surprised to be recognized by more than one, but grateful I could remember who’s parents or grandparents I was saying hello to. I’ve been stopped before by someone greeting me, usually in the grocery store. One time a Brazilian-Japanese student’s father stopped me surprised with English. He’s Brazilian, but he introduced me to my student’s grandmother who is Japanese. Those moments are special because it helps to remind me that my students actually have an outside life. Throughout any given day it’s easy to gloss over them as only students who I have only to teach English — after all, they’re only teenagers, what more important things could they be doing — but when I figure out their hobbies, their family life, their struggles in other classes or with other students it gives me more reason to care about their future. Not to mention it gives me a subject to bring up when I talk to them that forces a more elaborate answer than a mumble.

As mentioned, I’ve been handling a cold quite ineffectively since Valentine’s Day and during the ceremony was no exception. When the parents were seated, the first and second years filed in and sat down behind rows of empty seats for the third years. Then a small collection of students with string instruments started playing, and everyone stood up and started clapping while the third years strode down the aisle  in individual lines.

Because this was only a junior high school festival, it was hard to become to moved by the event, but compared to American school the formality of it was risen a notch. One of the last memories of my junior high school was meeting on the grounds outside with all the other classes in order to pass around and sign yearbooks. Here they had practiced the days before to prepare for the severity of this ceremony. I was intrigued, but also struggling to swallow a cough as the third years found their places.

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There was some bowing some greetings, and finally as one group they sat down together. My coughing subsided, and the next great struggle was staying awake. I’m actually sure a teacher on the other side of me had already dozed off, and I don’t blame him. If I had to do this each year I think the effect would wear off quick. Not understanding anything doesn’t help much either. Each student’s name was called, they would go up to the stage to get their certificate, and then sit down in a direct fashion. After that there was some more stifled coughing (relieved to hear I wasn’t the only one), and then some speeches. All I remember from graduation is Al Franken came to speak (that being my high school graduation). I can’t tell you what he spoke about. Similarly, the president of an eastern European country spoke at my college graduate (though, I can’t recall which country). What I only took from that was Russia’s technological base was far inferior, and that I was screwed because I hadn’t gone into the field of computer science. So I feel these students will probably look back at these speeches with the same indifference.

When it was all finished and they were dismissed the band started playing and they left the way they came in. A few tears were shed, but I’m not sure if it was sadness or the final frenzies of coughing that caused mine. It was pretty strange as their seats started emptying when they filed out. Collectively, there were plenty of them that made up the parts of the school I liked. It kind of reminded me of my own inevitable departure from this school. I’m equally mortal here so the ceremony reeled in some focus on the whole future at my disposal.

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I had written letters in all out English to a handful of the best students, some of the track team or the ones who always talked with me. I figured they won’t understand everything now, but hopefully if they hang onto it, by the time they leave high school they can look back at it and feel accomplished at how much English they’ve learned. Out in the parking lot everyone was distributing their goodbyes and taking photos. I wonder how long I’ll remember their faces. Some of them will stick with me, but even now when I go for a run or am biking by and see some high-schoolers I’m never too sure that if the students I wave to were every actually mine.

The next couple of days were business as usual. The absence wasn’t as strong, maybe only in the lunch room, and I still had plenty of wrapping up to focus on in the other two years. All the third year classrooms are on the top two floors of the school, so there’s not really a reason to pass by their emptiness. With them gone, though, I was blasted with how many first and second year student’s names I still have to learn. Their faces are easy to pick out, but we hardly ever use names throughout 24 classes, and I’m just getting the knack of reading their name tags. It’ll be a bit of a pain when they mix into new classes and I’ve gotta relearn the patterns over again. Really, I think the old ones will stick with me for a while.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Costco

Of all things great about America: grilled meat, Hollywood, shopping malls, Applebees, and credit cards, currently there is nothing I’m more thankful for than wholesale warehouse stores. Really, there are hardly any places outside the country full of such familiarity. For months I have longed for something more than the Walgreen’s style drug stores or the Home Depot home improvement imitations you can find in Japan. Especially now because I have an allowance in my budget, I’ve yearned to walk down the sheen fluorescent floors and red aisles of a Target. In Japan there are some 45,000 convenience stores (colloquially called conbini), but really none are quite as convenient as  the Target (or even Walmart) of America. And it’s funny. Back home I tried to avoid going to such stores, focusing on buying more local and sustainable goods. Here in the land of plastic packages and default organic, I’m not even sure if those values are applicable. Some things I buy already have such a neutral environmental impact compared to American counterparts that I’ve completely lost my awareness of an items impact. (The same is almost as true with my vegetarian values, but I still refrain from cooking with meat.)

The real discovery here are the roots of my American lifestyle. With half a year here I still can’t shed some of the living habits I’ve taken for granted. Probably the first example I noticed was in going out. I’ve finally been to a couple of bars in Japan, but that lifestyle is hardly livable. Where before I’d go on a weekly basis with friends, to meet friends, or to hang with the coolest bartender on earth, now I can only venture out once a full moon (if even) for fear of burning a hole through my  wallet. Then came the lack of an oven and the realization that I’d be without my favorite midnight pastime of making chocolate-chip cookies. And with that of course came all the other complicated dietary choices I’d have to make. The void of cookies, any type of cereal, the smoothies, the soy chorizo from Trader Joe’s, canned beans, macaroni noodles, blocks of cheese and creamy peanut butter. For the past couple of months I’ve been bouncing around a couple of supermarkets: picking up olive oil and ketchup at one; the bulk of my groceries come from another on my way to school; finally the sketchiest one  miles away from my apartment has the cheapest ice cream and frozen fruits. Apart from the lack of any insulation (a condition which my thermostat growing up already trained me well for), I think the shuffling around for errands and groceries was the last straw. I was(am) finally homesick. Or at least, in this sense, culture sick.

That’s how it came to be that after the first paycheck of the year I was literally begging anyone with a car to take me to Costco. Perhaps you’ll be surprised to find out that there are Costcos in Japan. I was pretty shocked back in the fall when I learned it. There are a mess of McDonalds, Seven Elevens, even a few Ikeas, but never would I expect Costco. Even Walmart operates under a subsidiary in this country. Whatever the reason, it existed, and I’d been trying to go for months. So desperately I was getting ready to bribe people, offering to pay not only the way, but also for the first jar of peanut butter, or box of mac and cheese. Luckily, Carmelo took pity on my dismal soul and offered to take me.

See, the biggest problem is the closest Costco is a bit over a two hour drive north in “Historic Kanazawa” (my grandma clipped an article from the Star Tribune around this time so you may have actually read about it in the travel section, but I can’t find a link on the website). On a good day its actually a pretty pleasant drive, but being that Costco alone takes a couple hours to tackle and the whole drive can be around five hours there and back you really have to devote an entire day to it.

So early Saturday morning I went to his apartment and a couple “are you ready?”s later he, his girlfriend Eri, and I jumped in the car to make the trip. As I said, it’s really not a bad trip to make. You pass through multiple cities, valleys, alongside mountain ranges, and a number of love hotels. It went buy quick with the good company and before I knew it were wound up the ramp to Costco’s parking.

I should mention that it’s been more than a few years since I’ve been in any sort of Costco or Sam Club. In college I would really only stop through the Sam Club liquor store because it was incredibly cheap to buy handles there and you don’t need a membership. Before then I think I was still in Junior High when I went, and really the only reason I remember for going was to buy bulk toilet paper. Never had I gone without supervision–not to mention we had just gotten paid. I pulled a couple of ¥10,000 bills from an envelope I’d used to send money home, and then took out a couple extra just in case. After all, this was a rare instance, and I didn’t want to get caught without enough cash to pay for whatever peanut butter came my way.

We walked toward the entrance with a bounce in our step. I was clutching a pocket notebook with a list of everything I was hoping to find when a worker pulled the oversized cart in my direction and we heading down one of those sweet escalators that are made especially for excess. As we slowly descended towards the trove of imported goods I made snarky observations of those returning towards the surface. “Who goes to Costco to buy only muffins and laundry detergent?” I said incredulously looking at the almost empty carts. Waste of a trip.

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As soon as we entered I made the decision to go down every single aisle. I live for the deal, the obscurities, the things I didn’t realize I needed until I realized I needed them. We started with the electronics, the tableware, the luggage. I stopped first for a LED rope light which I tagged for later, continuing the search for some ambiance to my room other than the fluorescent light. Next came hair dryers, batteries, wind shield wipers. I added a pair of running gloves, and then a bulkier pair of winter gloves to the cart. We went down the liquor aisle. I took a bottle of Kaluha, Vodka, Gin, Rum into the cart, made it to the end of the aisle and then put them all back. If I was gonna suffer through the winter then I guess I’d have to do it sober. We crossed past the wine, though, where Carmelo and I both decided to pick up bottles of wine (red and white) for the next time Yukie invited us to dinner. Next was fruits and produce. Not too punny if I say I went bananas for the bananas, but it’s so hard to find a practical fruit in this country. The grapes are often the size of strawberries, while the apples are like grapefruit, watermelons can be found in cubes, and don’t even try to differentiate the variety of oranges they produce. About all of the above goes true for bananas, so I definitely picked up a couple bunches of green ones to last a while.

Then we turned a corner, I was partially distracted by a man demonstrating a blender with a set of empty cups beside him, when it came into view. The Peanut Butter. I could’ve ran into it easily because it was more like a physical wall of Skippy advertisements.

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The jars came wrapped in sets of two, all crunchy. I took a pair, then another, and two more, and one more for Gavin, and then another because, hey, it’s peanut butter and I wouldn’t know how long it’d be until I’d return. We could’ve (and probably should’ve) left then, and my trip would’ve been accomplished, but we had hardly even hit half the shelves, and now we hit a stride. I’m kind of surprised at how packed it became around this time of the day, too. I didn’t expect Costco to be such a destination, but all types of Japanese folk and even some foreigners were perusing or stuffing themselves between the aisles.

I picked up biodegradable laundry soap, and biodegradable dish soap. Another mark in my notepad to pick up cheese by the end of it all. The jars of pasta sauce almost equaled jars of peanut butter. I considered a stack of canned diced tomatoes, but stuck only to the canned corn. Spices went in, sea salt, pepper, a bag of chia seeds, Nutella, triple-bound-bulk bottles of Heinz ketchup, salad dressing, soy sauce, katsudon sauce, and four liters of Kirkland olive oil. Bags of raisins turned out to be one of the best and cheapest options for salad toppings and late night snacks. We wrapped up around health and beauty, but I was disappointed they didn’t have the right type of razor heads that I use. “Hold on, I’m gonna go through the candy and snack aisles” so cleverly stacked in the middle of the warehouse before the registers. Eri came over with a huge box of Nature Valley bars in her arms, and I found the second most prized item on my list: chips and salsa. Apart from chocolate-chip cookies the single best non-meal meal I can survive on are chips and salsa. Granted, that’s mostly because of my grandma’s unbeatable homemade salsa stored in mason jars I would hoard away from my mother at any given chance last year. But still, at any given point from at least the past five years it would be considered a staple in my diet. Except now–trying as hard as I could to stay in view of my budget–I faced the dilemma of figuring out the ratio of bags of chips to salsa jars over the amount of time it would take to return to Costco. I picked up a box of 40 bags of microwaveable popcorn for hardly 25 cents a bag, figuring it was worth it even though I’ve yet to have a microwave.

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By the time I got into line, Carmelo and Eri had already checked out, and I frantically waved for them to notice me because I was using Carmelo’s member card. I made it without a hitch and was grateful to see that the number I’d calculated and the number that appeared on the register were exactly the same. In Japan, perhaps by law, every item will have its cost in small font and then the actual cost with tax as the main price so it’s easy to make sure your stay within whatever limit your spending.

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We celebrated out success by ditching our carts like cars outside a California diner, and getting in line for the classic American grill food they had serving. I opted for a combo slice of pizza and hot dog, almost going overboard with a churro and sundae. The eating space was packed  but I snagged an open bench table with an older woman who’d completely passed out at the end of it. Along with the casual leaving of carts along the eating area it hit me as a classic display of Japanese safety, that a woman could just fall asleep anywhere and feel OK about it. Although, when Carmelo and Eri joined the table she popped her head up with a bit of dismay.

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There was almost no better way to top off the day feeling so content than to eat so downright American made food with a Mexican in Japan. Carmelo and Eri smiled wide, completing the menu with a churro, smoothie, sundae, and bulgogi bake. Well, at least there was a good moment.

There was hardly anything to make us feel better, but there was certainly enough to make us feel worse. As I took another bite out of my hot dog I heard from the end of the table the type of sound that can only make you think, thank god I didn’t get it on my shoes. Eri reacted instantly covering her eyes into Carmelo’s shoulder, while I saw his jaw slump open and the brightness in his eyes burst to a look of total dissatisfaction. I flashed a look to the lady now slumped over the end of the table with a younger woman patting her back. It didn’t take much to figure out that the reason she’d passed out was now splattered over the floor.

“Man, I just can’t get that out of my head,” Carmelo said as he tried to take another bite from his bulgogi bake. “I was having such a good time, too.”

We scuttled like crabs across the table to the furthest open spot, but the mood was already crushed. As I bit into my pizza I was grateful for having missed all the action, but Carmelo was clearly traumatized. Even the churro couldn’t fix the sweetness of the mood.

The drive back was also affected with cloudier skies and tension worrying if my bags of tortilla chips would make it through this stuffed car ride. By the time we made it close to home, after a couple of pit stops, the strength in our accomplishment was back. However, unpacking all the food in my entryway proved to ask the biggest question: “where am I going to put all this?”

After some creativity it all fit. I cracked open the bag of chips, poured out some salsa, and felt good about not wondering (at least for a couple more months) where the staples in my diet would come from.

Eiheiji

Previously I said that I wouldn’t be making any resolutions for the new year. In reality I think it’s almost impossible to follow that rule, or at least unlikely that you can avoid the influence and meandering thoughts that consider what part of your life needs improvement. In past years I’ve had some success with these ideas: giving up pop (soda), learning guitar, writing more; I’ve also had some short lived denials: keeping a planner, travelling the world, writing more. From the past couple of years, I’ve resigned to not make any changes in a life which on a whole is pretty content.

With everything in mind, though, it’s still hard not to try the future outlook, especially with the unique and impermanent situation I find myself in. For example, I’ve been living in a foreign country for four months and still haven’t really made any native friends. OK, so that’s not entirely true when you factor Yukie and my two English-speaking co-workers, but even they’re not particularly the company I can unwind with completely. Similarly when I lived in New York I had a similar series, where it basically wasn’t until the third month that I finally went out with someone I hadn’t known in college. So if the new year isn’t a time for me to make new guidelines or set out to achieve goals, I think it can be a period for me to completely reset.

Basically a winded entry into discussing my new habit of approaching every weekend fresh. I never decided to make the most of my time, and I haven’t really sought anything out. Maybe my zest for exploration is just continuing off the curtail of my winter vacation excess. As it had just seemed right to finally go out and surf, it also just seemed right that I’d finally make it to the oldest temple in Japan.

Besides, I didn’t really have anything better to do, and certainly wouldn’t have had any other plans, as I rode my newly donated bike to Yukie’s house on a cloudy but fine Sunday morning. She greeted me with her lap dog in her arms and with a boisterous, “Hello! Shall we be going?”

We made a pit stop for gas and then stopped at a garden store where she picked up a couple of plants before setting off on our way. At least that’s what I thought until we stopped in the neighboring city. “Oh, why don’t we have obento, it’s really nice. You’ll like it, really cheap and beautiful.”

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With the bento on board we were finally set. We drove about an hour away, past the city into the reclusive town of Eiheiji. Well, I guess reclusive is not the right word because, in spite of it being far out from the city with hardly any train access and a small population, it is among the most touristy places I’ve visited in Japan.

As we drove up to the castle we passed parking lot after parking lot with people outside them waving signs and trying to schuck the oncoming traffic into their lanes. “Oh we can get one much closer,” Yukie said, driving uphill at full course, “I know the place.”

We parked quite literally as close as possible in the back lot of a tiny souvenir shop. The weather was a bit cloudy but seeing how it’s winter you can’t ask for less. Although, I do think the whole area would look pretty great covered in snow. Because the area is pretty inland their chances are higher of having it, but apparently it had all melted the night before. Instead as soon as we were out of the car it started to drizzle rain. The woman running the souvenir shop handed us two umbrellas and wished us a good time. Sometimes nothing beats small town convenience.

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From the outside I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the temple. You really don’t see much of the grounds from the approach as it’s dug into a mountainside and surrounded by forest. From the entrance you meander down a hall taking off your shoes and being reminded not to take photos of special places or any of the monks there. I’ve yet to discover the reason behind this rule, but I suppose it’s probably to keep the temple separate from a full out tourist spectacle and respect the monks who practice there.

We followed a decent crowd up the staircase to a grand hall with a fantastic painted ceiling of individual vignettes depicting nature. It was a place you could easily just lie down in and spend over an hour wiggling around to glance each frame. I snuck (honestly accidentally) a picture with flash of what was probably my favorite scene:

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The extravagance immediately stopped in that room, as we followed the way to the main building. The tatami and carpet on the floors, the sconces lining the wall and the decorated ceilings dissipated.The rest of the temple was tranquility unbound.

I could see why someone would choose to study there to escape the superficial forms of life. Apart from the abundance of nature outside the walls, only the minuscule things could distract a keen mind. There was a doorway we passed, where the line of visitors slowed and hushed and peered in. Monks were lined sitting seiza on pillows facing wooden barriers inches away from their face. I can only imagine that room isn’t the most ideal for meditation as anyone squeaking by with their mumbles and coughs could wreck a train of unthought.

The entire structure was built from wood, and in Japanese tradition probably lacked any nails or metal holding it together. We walked up steep slanted steps peering through the plastic covered windows to what seemed like the main ceremony hall.

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Apart from the gold it was actually pretty dull without a high ISO. I saw some pictures of the space being used full of light and people and it does seem like a fantastic thing to join in. It’s pretty hard to imagine living in that space. First, it is saturated with traditions and rules and systems that even growing up around the culture doesn’t prepare you for immersion in the lifestyle. I have a third year student who recently wrote a speech about how when he graduates high school he wants to become a monk. I don’t wonder the reason why so much as to how. The whole thing seems like quite the process. Also, there’s the slight inconvenience of having no heat. I mean, I get that you can stoke fires and everything, but I struggle every night not to run up the electric bill with my air con, and I certainly didn’t take off my coat anytime walking around there. I wonder what the constant feeling of cold in the monks robes must be like. I get the appeal of camaraderie and life skills and finding inner truth through hours of meditation. Except there is such a history that you’re carrying on your shoulders, it seems like quite the burden as well. I wonder if it’s much like a men’s college cross country team.

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All in all, quite a good place to contemplate. There really isn’t too much to see, but in that case it also makes it a good day trip–especially if you bring obento. I think I’ll have to go again in the spring to see all the flowers blooming, and it is certainly full of color in the fall as well. It’s strange to think about how long the temple has been around, nearly 800 years, and even perhaps how constant its culture has been through that time. Compounding that incredulity is the comparison to some of the places I went to in Germany with a history equally as long. These places existed in the same Earth, but in such different worlds.

I’ll wrap up before I get too deep and embarked on my own meditation of time. In college I learned an amount about religion in Japan (unbelievably enough to have written a twenty page paper about the history of Shinto), and since that time I’ve even been able to retain some of it. In my senior seminar “Buddhism, Peace and Justice” taught by the beatific Barbara Reed we learned about a practice of meditation called Vipassana. There have been many revivals and uses of it in the past couple decades, and I’ve looked into retreats here in Japan that offer the ten day teachings. I don’t want to go into it unprepared, but who knows. Maybe next time i have a vacation I’ll give it more thought. Sometimes the real meaning of a break is not going out to the most decadent places, but realizing what you don’t need to have in the world

Surfing

There are plenty of things I hadn’t expected about this winter vacation. Last year I worked between Christmas and New Years, so I didn’t really have much to consider. In September I’d had dreams about skiing and snowboarding down the famous slopes of Fukui’s ski resorts. Even at the beginning of December I’d thought about making a dash to get back to America for a little while. The least likely of my unexpected plans would have surely been surfing.Yet, with the end of winter vacation upon us, and a random Monday off the first week of school, surfing is exactly what I found myself doing.

You may think it’s crazy, and I’ll admit to it being not the most appealing winter sport, but you’ve gotta remember that it hasn’t even snowed anywhere short of the mountaintops. Not even two weeks earlier I’d gone for a run in shorts and a t-shirt. Really the weather was not an issue. In fact, as my advisor and soon-to-find-out surfing virtuouso, told me that the winter in Japan was the best time for waves to form. After nagging from me for over two months he finally gave in and offered to take me. The nagging was more persuading, though, as every time I asked to go he got this longing look in his eye as if there’d be nothing he’d rather do than ditch school for the waters.

It only adds to his resume as the coolest teacher I’ve met. He’s been at my school for three years, but told me that his previous school was closer to the beach. He’d wake up early most morning in order to drive out to the sea and surfing for a couple hours before heading into class. He learned back when he lived in California after high school and continued when he moved to Australia after that. By the time he was back in Japan he competed near a semi-pro level, and I could see that surfing for him was like a long run to me.

So my persistence finally paid off and we were off predawn on that Monday morning. The weather was a bit cloudy, but looking to be good at the point a little over an hour and a half drive’s north. At first we drove out to a beach with roaring waves and no surfers. It looked awesome and I reassured him that I could figure out how to surf after my few years of skateboarding and boogie boarding when I visited my aunt in San Diego. He deferred to his better judgement and scoped out a more mainstream section with more regular waves.

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We parked and he tossed me an old wet suit he’d had. Wasn’t sure what to expect, but lifting it up to me it was clear that we were in the “make it work” mindset. He is after all third of a foot shorter than me. I struggled slipping into the thick lining of the suit, thankful I’d decided to wear compression shorts when he had to yank the waist up while I held my body down. With a final squeeze it zipped up and I was off to waddle with the penguins.

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After a short bit of stretching on the beach we waded into the sea. I was pretty giddy with excitement so I didn’t consider the fact that I’d be going into tumultuous waters, nor the fact that I hadn’t swam in a couple of months. My stretching could hardly be considered anything by the time we got afloat and started balancing on our surfboards. Well, Keisuke was doing just fine, but I was more like the long forgotten diversity promo of a Weeble Wobble.

I think I probably would’ve been fine had it not been the couple of other surfers clearly more experienced than me. It’s not really that I was embarrassed, but more that I just didn’t want to try to get up on a wave and end up crashing into someone else. So I stuck more to the edge, paddling into waves and chilling with a woman who also was a bit new fine to chillax on the outer edge.

Eventually I ran into a problem. I had gone out the night before (it was after all a three day weekend), and though I didn’t really feel so hungover I also didn’t realize how much the waves would rock me back and forth. Combine that with the ever-crushing squeeze of the wet-suit and you’ve got a bigger mess than a Tijuana truck stop. I shuffled off to the restroom, also for the first time realizing how freaking cold my bare feet had become. It was as if my outer limbs were the glaciers in Antarctica while my innards were the hole in the ozone layer rapidly depleting. Also, a pretty unique anxiety to feel, but there’s almost nothing like having to take a too small wet suit off in two minutes urgency.

I shivered my way back to the sea, contemplating not getting back in. Alas I decided I’d have to stick at it, and there was an idea that I’d learned long ago that water temperature is usually warmer than air temperature. (I think I understand how that doesn’t work in this case, but with bone white toes I needed anything to convince me I could get warm.) Luckily the nausea subsided, and I was still flip flopping around.

The sun had risen high in the sky by this point and the blue sky was quite stunning. It was really staggering to believe it was barely January on top of the situation entirely. Really almost the most ideal conditions I could imagine, though it could’ve been a bit warmer. Keisuke swam over to me and asked if I was ready to go. I hadn’t been able to keep any track of time but he’d said we’d been in the water for over two hours. I didn’t believe him at first, no way had I survived that long, but I guess it seemed plausible. When we finally dragged ourselves onto the beach I started to feel the aches. I supposed for the most part my body was completely numb, so I didn’t realize how much work I’d put in until I warmed up.

Luckily the veteran surfing master came completely prepared. After stripping out of his wet suit in the blink of an eye, he brought out a container and poured hot water into a bucket. I was helpless and so thankful to just pad my feet around until they got any sort of feeling in them. It’s a good thing I lost all the nerves in most of my toes from Nordic skiing or else I would’ve faced a world of hurt.

 

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When I finally, with much assist, ripped my wet suit off, Keisuke asked if I wanted to go into the town. Within a fifteen minutes drive is one of the more famous natural monuments in Fukui and even among some crowds known in Japan at large. The thing is, the cliffs of Tojinbo are mostly known because they’re a popular sight for people to go and commit suicide. But when in San Francisco you’re not gonna avoid seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, so I figured this had the same reasoning.

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They weren’t anything super staggering, maybe because the tide was higher from the rain, but really the biggest thought was how unappealing a spot most of the cliffs would be to jump off of. Japan is pretty famous for having spots like this around the country, but I would hope this isn’t the first choice of most people. When we arrived the sea was clear and there was a pretty sweet rainbow off in the distance. It was good just to check it off the list, top off the day, and enjoy the weather.

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In the winter Fukui is pretty famous for its crab, so we stopped by a restaurant for a quick lunch of crab ramen. Fresh and fantastic. At first I was worried at the cost, but Keisuke pointed me to a different menu. Turns out the one I was looking at listed the prices for crabs reserved to be sent to the Emperor’s palace.

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All around a bomb diggity way to start my interest in surfing. Wouldn’t mind going again, but definitely need to scour the YouTube for more technique and practice videos. For now, I just hope it can snow soon so I can surf the slopes instead.

Tradition

Anyone whose known me long enough knows that I don’t see movies (barring special events like Star Wars) except for on New Years day when I hop around and see four of them. It’s been a tradition of mine for nine years now. Nine whole years! Created off a whim and the realization that movie theaters don’t close on winter holidays. I recruited a crew with my brilliant idea and we went to the theater  back on January 1, 2008 pockets full of gas store snacks to see Valkyrie, Slumdog Millionaire, Yes Man, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Ever since it’s pretty much become the only annual tradition I have in my life, and certainly up there (if not number one) for the day I look forward to most in the year.

Except now here I was in Japan where most Hollywood movies don’t even get released until six months after their Western dates. I wasn’t only worried about hopping around this time, but just seeing any movie in general. Usually it takes a decent bit of research and planning ahead for a aligning schedule of movies and times, though now I didn’t even have a website to visit. I woke up that day in the afternoon and after much waffling eventually determined that  I had to do it. If I did it this year then next year I’d definitely be able to do it, and that would make it a decade. Unfortunately there isn’t a movie theater in my town, but it’s not too hard to walk to the theater in the city if you take a train. Lucky for me on the first of the month the movie theater has a discounted price, too.

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When I looked at the list of options I didn’t have much to work with. There was Star Wars which I’d seen, and James Bond which was already half an hour in. The Peanuts movie was showing too, but I’d  have to wait over an hour for the next time. That left me to choose between three other viable options, all Japanese movies I didn’t know. I was left staring at the posters for what looked like the typical high school romance drama and what seemed like the Japanese version of Philomena. Honestly I had know clue.

Originally there was system I’d follow to choosing movies. You typically eased into it with some sort of action or comedy movie first, then there is always one kids movie (God forgive me the year I took Steph to see Up in the Air followed by M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar), then third is the main course which was usually that year’s best picture or at least a nominee. If you’ve made it thus far–a reasonable six hours–without collapsing or depleting your supply of smuggled sandwiches, the finisher would be something light but worthwhile for example True Grit or The Adventures of Tin Tin. (If you noticed the very first time we ended with Benjamin Button as our fourth movie, a mistake never repeated.)

Lately, however, the purpose of me movie hopping on New Years has been to go on an emotional sweep and start the year fresh. In fact it all started after that terrible New Years eve party (mentioned in the last post) when I at the last minute–and for the first time without anyone to join me–decided to go and see Life of Pi and Les Miserables. Both are pretty heart-wrenching movies to watch at any time, but to watch them back to back and then be alone in a movie theater full of people was an experience I had not prepared for.

So with all the above in mind and the time limit of only seeing one movie, I decided on the high school drama. I figured it’d at least be a little more practical. First, it’d be all in Japanese without any subtitles so at least I was more familiar with the vocab, and second, it was a movie targeted to the people I spend everyday with so maybe I’d be able to relate to them with my pop culture knowledge.

Predictably the movie theater was pretty vacant, but I was surprised to find a few clusters–maybe a dozen people–in their seats while I skulked in three minutes past the start time. I got to see a few trailers, and then the movie started. I’m not sure if I had to adjust to the language. Visually it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s happening, and I mean, it only involved high schoolers so it never got too complicated. With that said, it was hardly the typical love story I expected.

In fact, I don’t even think it was a love story. The movie I saw was Orange made on a trend of turning shojo manga into live action movies. Pretty quickly I could understand it was about time travel. The main character gets letters from her future self and in way of the movie Frequency, this present version would have to figure out how to stop a person she cares about from dying. Incredibly, as the movie goes on you figure out it really a story about perpetual suicide and depression and all but the lightest of topics that high school students should have to think about. Needless to say I cried a couple of times, thankfully less than when I saw Life of Pi, but still one of the most unexpected movies I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended. I never quite understood the title, there’s this moment with a juice box, and that’s about the only thing bad about the movie. Granted, I didn’t understand it word for word and there’s a lot of corny Japanese tropes that I was OK overlooking, but really I left the theater lighthearted, emotionally fresh, and ready to start this year.

I think I’ve got a plan (not calling it a resolution). It’s not really anything that’s brewing, but just sort of an idea I’ve finally left out in the open. Something to get me motivated to enjoy my life more, to prod my laziness, and make the most of this time.