Election

“Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years but all the time. So let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear; making our economy work for everyone not just those at the top, protecting our country and protecting our planet and breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams.”

–  Hillary Clinton, November 9th

For about a year I’ve been saying the only reason I have to stay in Japan is a Trump presidency. Since then, I’ve come to find more reasons in my life, but none that seemed to compete so much with that reality. I never considered it seriously, and I never thought I’d have to. I sent in my vote a month ago with a Hillary mark at the top. I’ve been following the election more than I think I ever would’ve in America, and I didn’t think the question was ever “would she win?” but “by how much?”

Then again, I remember having a truculent debate one night in New York almost three years ago after a couple tall boys over how Hillary would never get the presidency. The only thing is I was on the side of the Republicans. Of course, Hillary wouldn’t become president, history would prove that a republican would come after Obama — it’s the ultimate form of our checks and balances.

I really don’t think I would’ve minded a Republican winning this year. I was always more Hillary than Bernie — and than other option — but I wouldn’t see such a dismal future had someone like Rubio, Kasich, or dare I say Bush been elected. The GOP party platform is so far away from aligning with my views of the world, but actual republican systems of smaller local government is something I prefer on most cases. The thing is this time it isn’t a Republican leading the country, and it’s not really a wolf in sheep’s clothing (that title can go to Pence). I feel we’ve elected an entertainer because in the end the American body wants to be entertained. The concepts of efficiency and solving problems have been disregarded for pure showmanship. Wanting to change the system is not a bad thing, but defining it in a vote for a man as crude as Donald Trump might as well be like ordering off the dollar menu at McDonald’s in order to save money.

All day yesterday I tracked the results. Being fifteen hours in the future and a day where all my students had standardized test, I had the convenience of being awake and present for the whole thing. I had multiple websites tabbed up in my browser checking the plots, maps, and down ballot results. I refreshed at least once a minute. I watched as the 538 website varied around 78/24, to the Pennsylvania & Michigan stalemates that brought them to 52/48, and then the plunge as Florida was called and New Hampshire was still undecided. I held out all sorts of hope as her chances reached 15%, readying myself for a Arizona win. And then I finally had class, and went away defeated.

The hardest part was returning to the teacher’s room, and having all my Japanese co-workers ask me for the results. Now, everyone has their own reasons for supporting their candidate, and there are certainly a few valid ones for choosing Trump. But Japanese people (as I suspect most parts of the world outside of Russia) on a whole did not want Trump to win the election. They are worried about what it means for their country. They’re worried about the leadership in their own government, and how American relations could influence the populous into a negative cursory change.They follow this race at the same level I say any reasonable person should. That’s where this result really impacts me.

Every time there’s an election in my life (this would mark the fifth) I hear people saying they want to move to Canada. They say they’re getting out before the place goes to hell. In the end I actually think that’s counterproductive to their cause, and most don’t actually fly north for the four year winter. Except I have the actual excuse of being out of the country. I have to choose now whether I should go back, and I don’t know if I feel safe doing so.

I also think people tend to overestimate the drastic changes that will happen. Remember back when Obama won the first time and everyone (on the winning side at least) had such a feel good outlook that the Bush years would be immediately remedied and systemic inequalities and discrimination would be solved? Or that baffling movie put out by the conservative right that discussed how Obama’s anti-colonialist upbringing would lead to America’s demise by 2016? The thing is both of those outlooks, positive or pessimistic, didn’t really pan out how people expected. Obamacare is getting extreme (or eradicated), as is Syria, and George Bush tried to fix education while isolation the poor, but both of their plans only strained a system that was already running. My point being Trump might be sickening to some and a savior to others, but I’m not completely convinced he’ll be able to do much to the extent of what he says anyway. I still have faith that Paul Ryan is as sane and pragmatic as they come. I believe Hillary and Obama and Bernie and Elizabeth will cultivate support and change on their own. I think the machine that is the American government might need some repairs after four years but it will keep revolving.

So now I’m stuck, having to introduce myself as a Canadian at least for a couple of months, while I decide what to do. Frankly, I’m not comfortable going back to a country that has Donald Trump as president, or a majority that would elect Donald Trump as president. I really wanted to consider going back to America. I’m going to see what happens in the next two months. It could depend if all the global markets compete against the dollar, or if the yen falls into another recession with the lot. It’ll depend on American living and increase in job potential. It might have to depend on what civil rights will be revoked.

Until then, I have the privilege to carry on, worrying about it a little less because I’m in one of the safest places on earth.

To sum it up, or at least to give a little bit of sunshine, I’d like to point to Stephen Colbert’s conclusion to his live show on Election Night. I insist you watch it all the way through. I think his feeling is the most accurate state of America. His rare candor through the whole segment inspires hope that no matter the turmoil of the past months the humanity beneath it all will still be able to laugh together…

Overtime

If you’ve questioned my existence in the past couple of months, don’t worry, I’m right there with you. Truth is I’ve got a backlog of drafts to posts because I have been doing a decent amount of adventuring. On top of that, however, I’ve also been working. Really, at this point it’s hardly working and more like living. And although for the longest while it was mostly like riding a storm, I think there’s finally a rainbow in the sky.

For the past 19 days I’ve gone into work. It started on June 6, a Monday, but an unusual Monday because I actually technically had the day off. The previous Friday all the students had gone either Kyoto, Tokyo, or a campground for school trips (while me, my co-American, the secretary, and vice principal were stuck all day in the school’s teacher’s office), and since the trip would overlap into Saturday, we got the consecutive school day off. I thought I’d go in to work on the blank bulletin board outside our language room. I did actually pump out a couple of posters (grammar mistakes aside), but I also signed on for a much bigger project.

As part of my job requirement, during the summer I’m put into two English day camps. Last summer my experience with these were mixed, by the end of the day I was comfortably enjoying my time, but completely exhausted and not at all thrilled at spending half the day sweating in a humid gym full of teenagers. Turns out this summer there was even more to dislike. One of the English teachers at my school had been designated as director of this year’s camp, which handles the duty of going organizing materials and meetings. I suspect this is usually an easy process of distributing the materials from last year, tweaking the cover page, and the endless supply of typos. In fact, going over a binder that was passed down to me from the lead ALT from last year I found out that in the past 7 years nothing has changed. From the crappy WordArt text to the even worse and borderline racist/sexist clipart, it seems the only thing that had been shuffled around were some of the games for one of the workshop. So really, the collective of schools coming to this meeting each just had to approve this ancient text of DIY 90s design and be on our merry way.

However, there’s a flaw in this design because although the Japanese teachers a liable for the camp, they rely almost solely on the dozen or so ALTs to take charge of the groups, motivate the activities, and make the day a success. The fact that we ALTs are almost entirely not of Japanese culture and thus don’t accord to Japanese bureaucracy also means we don’t sit idly. As an American I tend to question everything, and as a person I’m typically the worst when it comes to agreeing with anything neutral. So, hardly flipping through the poorly contrasted pages of this mono-colored document I knew this year would be different. Even outside of the fact that I’m a control freak who doesn’t work well with others, this f-ing camp hasn’t been changed in SEVEN years! On top of that, each year there are pages of feedback precisely listed out for each moment of the camp. It’s like they looked at it, nodded a bit, and said whelp we’ve already got the material so no need to change it.

Now, I’ll take a breath and admit to being a bit crass. These camps are always extra work for teachers who are already working enough, and I can see the full reason why they would just want to get it over with. Especially since ALTs are typically not expected to do any work with the planning of the camp. But really to think that over the past decade no one has been capable to come up with some improvements or just try something new seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to step in. Here’s where I’m also really glad that I’m so chill with my English teachers. They don’t have a problem asking for my assistance or advice, or the way I want to be involved with the school just like every other teacher. So on that Monday afternoon when I was at school even though I didn’t need to be (with practically half the other teachers) and I turned to my neighboring English teacher poured over papers on his desk like he was filing taxes to ask “What’re you working on?” his short reply of “Oh, just the summer seminar.” got me wrapped up in this biz that I’ve only temporarily levied.

Usually I make it to at 7:15, not the first person but usually in the first crowd. I need this time to unwind. At the start of spring I actually was the first person to arrive, overestimating my biking time, and just hung out on the grounds watching the sunrise until someone else arrived and unlocked the doors. This behavior wasn’t planned entirely. I’d just slowly gotten in the habit at going to bed at 9 o’clock, and as a result left me waking up at 5 the next morning. Eventually I started naturally moving the time even earlier, and instead of being cooped in a small apartment decided I needed to just start the day. For a while I was running, until one time I went a mile into a run and got soaked in the heaviest torrent of biting rain I’d least expected. When I made it home three miles later I found my kitchen turned into a pool and my mattress was a sponge. I rushed to shut the windows and whipped out my space heater and recently acquired fan while draping bed-sheets and towels across desktops and counter-space.

I’d finally nailed the average of waking up, making scrambled eggs while listening to MPR/All Things Considered, showering and shaving, making a PBJ sandwich, dressing, and eating said sandwich, heading out the door, and arriving to school at just the right time. From there I’ll pull up three tabs on my computer: WaniKani for quick studying, Lifehacker for general well-being, and Bloomberg currency rates to see just exactly how much (until recently) I’ll suffer when I send money home. Then we have a morning chat for about twenty minutes.Each morning one class gets split into ten groups of three students to talk with me or my co-ALT. Usually it’s great, but it’s quite monotonous and if I’m unlucky the three minutes we talk will be a grueling roll of fishing for answers. Hopefully when the first bell rings, I’m not going to class, and if I am I only pray I don’t have class back to back. Any planned class activities or even periods are regularly changed which leaves me with a heap of last moment adjustments and worksheet creations. If my version of Microsoft Office wasn’t entirely in Japanese, I would be a pro by now.

At 3:30 there’s a bit of respite: fifteen minutes for mokudou, a traditional style of of the regular “cleaning time” ripped from zen monasteries where the students wipe down the floors and walls of school silently. It’s a brief relief since after that and a sort of cool down meeting they all zip off to their club activities and I gather with the track team outside the school. That practice usually lasts over two hours, yet we still only manage to run between 5 to 7 miles every day. I forgot how easy I used to have it with running. Our fastest guy can run a 4:30 1500m but most of them are struggling to break 5.

At least when it wasn’t June, now would be the time I go home. Actually, I’d rally a bit of studying in, mope around on Flipboard to figure out what global events I’ve missed out on, stop by the grocery store and then make it home around 7. Lately I’d gotten into watching Japanese anime (as “listening practice” for my upcoming test) while waiting for the next season of Mr. Robot to come out, but I’d also been trying to sit down and make sure I write for at least an hour each day. Well, that was before I signed on for this summer camp.

Every night for a week I stayed past 10 o’clock, and always left earlier than at least one of my co-workers. Then the following Saturday after an awesome start to the day with track practice — something I’ll write about later — I wound up staying at school until 11 o’clock. For the next week that became my new norm, but I didn’t exactly mind. I found out a lot more about some of my co-workers who’d go in and out throughout the night. A majority of nights someone brought in ice cream treats or snacks from the nearest conbini, and over such a span the workload became manageable. Except that was for me, the boy who started packing his dinners, got to exercise halfway through the day, and didn’t really have any responsibilities waiting at home. I figured I’d really be wasting my time watching TV shows anyway, so I might as well stay and be productive. Most of my co-workers, though, have lives. This is especially true of the English teacher leading the seminar (the same free spirit that took me surfing in January). He has two young boys at home and can hardly get the chance to see them before they go to bed at night any given week day. Apart from last Tuesday, the final marathon where we both were the last to leave a few minutes after midnight, I’ve never seen him leave school before me. That is the aforementioned bureaucracy I’m trying to combat. The mindset of overworking is embedded in almost all job I’ve come across in Japan, but that is especially true of Junior High School teachers. They act like surrogate parents, but to the extreme that they are more responsible for a lot of things the students do. So they stay at school and work because working from home is still a milestone many parts in Japan have yet to reach. It’s actually such a problem that the prime minister is rapidly working to change the culture. My guess is he hopes if more people can go home early then maybe more people will start having babies and solve the current population conundrum between the generations.

But, it’s really easy to fall into. Without really meaning to I just fell into the system. I’ve had Rhinna’s “Work” running through my head for the past week, and it’s sort of a sadistic meditation. I was averaging 12 hour days, seven days a week and thinking that finally I would make a permanent change.

And then we had a meeting for the summer seminar.

As I mentioned, it’s rare that ALTs have any part in the planning of the seminar and so showing up to the meeting was probably an uncomfortable surprise for the other teachers. I remember in high school and college hearing the foreign language teachers talk together in non-English while going down the halls and thinking how awesome they were. Here those instances are fewer. Of course, whenever one of the ALTs are around at my school all the teachers are well equipped to discuss in English, but I feel like the majority default to Japanese. So the meeting went, with awkward exchanges as some of the teachers tried to encourage the use of only English, and other stuck strictly to Japanese. I get how intimidating it can be to sit in a room with an official meeting of important things surrounded by your peers who can immediately judge your skill by comparing it to their own, but both me and the other ALT at my school (both far below the level of Japanese used here) were present so the lack of any effort was a bit annoying.

Even more annoying was the inevitable fact that I didn’t want to back down from any of my ideas. I was extremely dismayed and bolstered at the shudder that went through the meeting room at the mention of change. Sure, I was biased toward my ideas, but some of the members were also biased against them. The part of the camp I was most critical towards was a moment were the students “travel the globe” and learn about other cultures. On the surface it’s not the worst idea, except this year 7.5 of the eight ALTs who can help with preparation are white Americans (myself included), while the remaining Jamaican — upon finding out she’d have to talk about her country’s culture — replied, “Oh, please don’t make me do that.” So the deepest concern is accurate representation. Especially from the current climate of American cultural politics ethnic stereotypes are something to avoid at all cost. When you combine that with a group of people who freely left their country for more than a year and add in the already abstruse diversity of American culture it’s really hard to figure out where to start.

In the end, the duel was worth more than the victory. I learned a lot about forming a compromise, how I could’ve approached my ideas more effectively, and accepting that maybe my ideas weren’t all that anyway. We did end up changing all the games to well rounded activities that focus on spontaneous uses of English in a group dynamic, and gave the student more freedom in creatively forming original ideas for a skit at the end. The cultural aspect remains, but I’ve given into an over-representation of part of my heritage can still be done respectably. I still have doubts about if teenagers from a country who’s 98.5% homogenized ethnicity can really grasp the fact that I’m Irish-Swedish-African-Native-American-and-some-big-unknown, but it helps that my area has a decent minority of Brazilian and Asian immigrants and even a few random ex-pats from Her Majesty’s colonies. If I really wanted to get into I’d point out how even that raises a problem because so often assumptions are made towards any given class of students as being entirely Japanese (like, “Let’s find out about another country’s culture.”), which even further alienates the ethnically mixed Filipino and Thai students in the bunch.

That meeting was the straw. Over the next week I amended the changes being made and my co-American ALT (who’d been gone over the weekends to meet her friends visiting from America) finally snapped me back to reality with a poignant, “Go home, man.” It was a bit of fun taking on the role of a true Japanese salariman, but also deeply disturbing that a significant portion of people live that way. Sure, I don’t really have any responsibilities in my life apart from work, but I certainly have better things to do.


So, with that I’m back. At least for now. I do have a couple of posts just waiting to be updated, and in the next couple of days I’m being visited by a friend from America and taking my first vacation days in order to show him around Kyoto and Osaka. If you’ll remember I foolishly let my camera get stolen which is why lately the posts are lacking in photos, but I’ll make a point of snapping some memories from now on. You still have yet to see my new haircut. Also I moved. Come to think of it, a lot has happened before I started this working streak. Look forward to it.

Debt

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

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

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

february budget

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

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

Until now, that is.

over time network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

monthly trend

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

Skywalker

SPOILERS

Tonight I saw the newest Star Wars movie in theaters. It’s something that could join because at the beginning of the month one of the other JETs were able to round a group for pre-sale tickets. I couldn’t believe it’d been a decade since the last one came out, and really I only remember seeing Episode I in theaters with my dad and brothers back at the turn of the millennium because afterwards me and my older brother spent more than an hour with fight with stick swords on a sandy volleyball court pretending we were Jedi.

So after avoiding watching almost any trailer I was ready to be blown away by not only a great series, but one of my favorite directors. I also felt morally obligated by the value of Star Wars knowledge instilled in me through my piano teacher.

And it was great, and weird, but the Japanese subtitles were hardly noticeable. Anyone who’s seen a movie with me, though, will know how I react and can make a guess at how that is completely opposite to how Japanese people see movies. I mean, come on, when the Millennium Falcon is blasting away and Finn is matching almost the exact moves of A New Hope how can you not just want to shout with glee. Well, basically I did while trying to contain as much of it as possible pinching the other American sitting beside me and basically lacerating his arm as Han Solo steps onto the walkway. But really no reaction from the crowd, to anything, no cheers, no gasps, no sighs of relief gave me that rare realization of another thing I’m missing in America.

After experiencing it all–and literally all, because lights don’t come on until after the credits–I can say it was a great idea on my part, and I would’ve failed not seeing spoilers. Although, for once I was pretty impressed with the internet’s ability at restraint.

Also, short story to the featured photo. I have know clue who that person is. While I drove with the woman taking the photo, the storm trooper came up beside her and joined in my picture. I was convinced it was one of the guys we were meeting at the theater, and greeted him as such with a, “took you long enough.” It was only during taking the photo when the guy I expected then actually finally walked up beside the photographer that I realized if my life was a scary movie I’d have already been doomed.