Update

It’s easier to say six months ago than half a year.

Half a year seems too far away. Half a year ago I had so much time, so many plans, so many choices yet to make. Six months ago was a bit more organized. I had the small goals to reach, the decisions to focus on one by one. For example, in January I had to decide whether I’d continue my contract for another year. I didn’t. In February I would visit Hokkaido for the winter festival. I planned for that, but not for an unexpected visitor to extend that into a week long vacation. By March, I would pay off my first student loan and use my tax return to pay off half of another. I succeeded in the first act, but turns out not paying federal taxes because I live in Japan means I don’t have enough taxes to warrant a return. The spring break was followed by a doubly unexpected visit and vacation plans that actually put me further away from my goals. I’ve gone to two job fairs, slowly polished my LinkedIn account, and have every job finding app alerting me every minute on my iPhone to some new opportunity perfect for my field. I’ve purged my closets and drawers of random socks or flyers to make a more minimalist living. I’ve looked at maps of where to go, and where I’ve been, and where opportunities might lurk waiting to be hunted down.

And I have two months. In reality it’s less than two months. If I pretend it’s two months than it will look organized. Those small goals will be met right on the deadline, but the overarching picture will be lost. If I wait until the end of July to understand what I’m going to do next I’m doomed. Instead I’ve been looking at it in paychecks. After all, those are what actually determine my safety. After the next seventy days will I have enough money to stay in Japan, continue to pay my student loans, have a place to live?

All of this I say lightheartedly, unable to muster the stubborn pessimism of my parents, falling in line more with their siblings. I’m not worried. Even now as I apply to jobs I’m finding things that I would love to do, and maybe more surprisingly that I’m qualified to do. I’m still studying Japanese, among other things, even though I can’t speak worth the time I’ve been here. My apartment is clean, and certainly warmer as the spring rolls in. I’m running more now that the weather agrees with my hobbies, and at least in the vaguest of senses back to making art. I’m not reading or writing nearly as much as I should or want to, my hair is slowly falling out, and I’m in more credit card debt than this time last year, but the wise philosopher Vonnegut once said, “so it goes.”

I think worst of all, I’m having a lot of fun. Over the past six months, half a year, several paychecks, credit card bills, burned CDs, photo uploads, anime seasons, onsen visits, and bullet trains I’ve twisted through every option of my future and where exactly I want to end up. I simultaneously don’t want this lifestyle to end, while fully supporting the drive to move on to something new.

I’m not calling this a revival, but this post isn’t very long, so if you’re still reading this don’t give up hope that I’ll write a couple more before long. After such a hiatus I’ve actually found a number of drafts more than half-way done that I never got around to publishing. Like all things in life, there’s never enough time, but in looking towards the future I think it will be good to catch up on the past. Only time, or seventy days in this case, will tell.

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…

Renew

A first impression of this post’s title might be misleading. I should start out by explaining this isn’t the type of renewal that you’ll see on the side of face creams, but instead more like the renew that you’ll inevitably do three times for the library book that you brought home on a whim and will return without ever reading. This renewal is about the start another trimester, the end of summer, and the second year of me being in Japan.

Summer vacation was a bit latent in August, but came on full force with the last week. There were moments in the morning where I realized I was just falling asleep, and moments at night when I wondered if I was just waking up; I saw plenty of fireworks, both in the air and out of my hand; I did my own workouts swimming in the outdoor community pool, and relaxed swimming out into the sea. There were few moments involving alcohol, except for those when I would drink wine and grill on my neighbor’s porch.

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The real take away came September 1st after missed connections home and a resignation to stay out of America for longer than a year was the new direction I needed to look towards. Mainly, whatever I would be doing after another year. I mean, I’m literally fourteen months and counting living outside of America without ever being back. This is the longest I’ve gone without contact home and sometimes it doesn’t seem more than a blink. Another blink past and I could be leaving this job and in the midst of an unknown.

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I think this feeling first came with the end of the summer seminar. It finished, and the next day I woke up wanting to go in and continue working on it. I suddenly had a ton of free time, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. The last time I’d really thought about the future seriously was applying for this current position. Re-contracting came pretty suddenly — without much thought, really, because I knew I was happy enough. But now after an entire year, I feel I’ve finally gone through the whole cycle, I know what’s coming and what to expect.

It really dawned on me after a morning conversation with Stefan, my roommate from college. He’s probably been working since I visited him last year in San Francisco on convincing me to move out there. It doesn’t help that I was already leaning towards the West Coast (Seattle), another friend of ours just moved out there, and most jobs that fit my professional aspirations exist there in some form. After an hour of talking, I kept thinking. My final destination was hardly certain to be San Francisco, but the horizon of the next step seems to approach at a dauntingly steady pace. I’m not quite settled on leaving my job come next year (I still have two months to decide), although, if that happens I don’t want July 2017 to come without any plan or destination.

So I’ve renewed my position. At the same time, everything has changed. The Sports and Culture festivals this year were not nearly as fun as last year and if anything bordered on nostalgic. They also seemed over in a flash. Teaching has been easier to manage, but at the same time I can quickly scrutinize the parts that are wickedly flawed or inefficient. It’s certainly more demanding because a lot more can be expected from me.

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After the summer respite I really began to look around at what to do next. Or at least try to figure out what I want to do next. I’m so torn between writing and design, and a mix of other things. I kept telling myself if Trump wins the presidency I would be able to narrow down the next step to places outside of the United States, but now it seems like all those options will (thankfully) still be in the mix. Add onto that my friends are currently spread out so far across not only America but even the globe, and I have no clue where I want to end up. Last month I ended up visiting Carmelo, who left the neighborhood for good and moved to Tokyo. I ended up having a fantastic time. I’ll end up writing about it soon, so I won’t go into detail, but Tokyo has ended up towards the top of my options for what’s next. I feel like I’ve started to invest a lot into this country and language that I can’t just give it up now.

At first glance of this post’s title I wonder if you thought it meant the type of renew you use to describe the smell after rain in April when spring flowers are finally blooming. I’m not entirely convinced it’s the type of automatic renewal of your Netflix subscription you never think about but still exists there on the credit card statement you never see because you do all your banking online. Maybe it’s more like the renewing $10 I give each month to Minnesota Public Radio. It’s not something I feel bad about doing, and I’ll definitely continue supporting the cause, but when I leave, the system won’t fall apart and I’ll still contribute to the connections every now and then.

I guess this is just a mid-millennial crisis way of pondering: what the hell am I doing with my life? For now I’m here, and I’m content, but an impermanence that has always been present is finally speaking up to ask: what next?

 

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.

monthly trend

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

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

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

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

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

Nagoya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“What about a camera?”

“A tablet.”

He asked about the camera.

“No, no camera.”

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

 

Soba

As I wrote in the last post Christmas time just wasn’t here in Japan. Maybe if I came from the west coast like the majority of my peers I would’ve been more used to it, but alas the heart of the country always offers snow, time with family, warm blankets, and good food.

I guess one out of four isn’t too bad.

I went to work on Christmas day, a mere two days into Winter Vacation looking forward to relaxing a bit without any classes. After all, the picture above is literally what I came home to so it’s not like I could complain about the weather. Remember I’m still walking to school every morning (uphill both ways if it rains).

It’s a bit weird because this was basically my first time experiencing a school break since in the summer I had only just arrived and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Also during that time everyone was still around because of the Sports Festival, the Culture Festival, and just generally kids in this town don’t have too many other options as far as places to hang out. Now it’s a bit different because the end of the year happens to be a pretty big holiday in Japan with a decent amount of meaning attached to it so people tend to have better things to do than go to school. Unless you’re a teacher of course.

So there I was, without much direction, without even my American co-worker (who decided to go back to America), having the weirdest Christmas to date, sitting in the teacher’s room trying to plan what I’d be doing for the rest of the day when one of the teachers comes by and asks if I’d like to make soba.

“Right now?” I think at this point plenty of responses would’ve been appropriate, just cracking ten o’clock this did not seem like the right time to be making soba. But it’s not quite like I had anything else to do so, I followed him and a group of other teachers out and down to the home ec classroom.

They quickly unpacked all the good and I saw how much of operation they planned. One of the older teachers said that he usually made soda once a week, so I did my best not to look like a fool when he was teaching me the techniques.

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Up until now I haven’t really ever looked at the food that I was eating. Occasionally – especially when having yakisoba – I’ve tried to discern what exactly goes into the dish so that I can try and buy and make the foods myself. The biggest problem I’ve found is so many ingredients in Japan are misleading at first glance. Take for example daikon (in the picture above). It’s a unique Japanese vegetable whose name literally translates to “big root.” I’m not quite sure how to explain its flavor. It’s sweet and bitter like an onion with the texture of a potato but seems more like a radish on steroids.

The actual materials that go into soba noodles are equally as flummoxing. As far as I can tell soba is the literal word for buckweat, but otherwise it’s sometimes used to refer to any sort of thin noodle. (For me this was a huge revelation when I finally understood that yakisoba is not made with soba noodles.) And the actual process of making the noodles only included two ingredients: buckwheat flour and water (and you can hardly include water as an ingredient).

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Luckily the process of folding the dough and then rolling it out was as simple as the ingredients and coming from a family of bakers and cooks I think I got the gist out of it pretty quickly.

We also made a crap ton of dough. I wasn’t even sure what kind of time was passing because I was so focused on making the stuff. We were doing all this for some sort of holiday cafe. Obviously it was all on school time so we had to have some sort of focus for it. As we were going occasionally one teacher would peek in and ask if it was ready. Most of them were engaged in whatever sports club they were leading so they still had a lot of free time.

After rolling out the dough for the longest time, we folded it delicately in half three times and then brought out the biggest knives I’ve seen. In fact they could’ve easily been mistaken for butchering, but they were specifically made for the sole purpose of slicing these noodles.

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When they’re all chopped the cooking process doesn’t take any bit of time. I’d say they can’t being in the boiling water for over two minutes and I was taught to let the water get to boiling over at least twice before you knew they were ready. Noodles, I find, are such a particular thing. Some people prefer them firm, which I’ve never really noticed or understood, but if you don’t pay extreme attention to them then they’ll instantly become chewy pieces of goop. So I think I got the gist of how to cook them, but really I can’t really know if anyone else noticed.

Also an unusual thing we were doing, at the end, was dunking them in ice water. Because of all the flour, the noodles need to be washed vigorously. I haven’t really figured out how you would serve them hot, or even if this recipe produces that kind of soba, but all the well, our noodles would be served cold. Which before thinking about it might seem try, after trying it is unusually delicious. I can only compare them with a pasta salad, but coming from America all my pasta salads have been drenched in mayonnaise or salad dressing. Instead this was pretty fresh on its flavors.

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With the combined ingredients and a little bit of soy sauce to fill the bowl it was a tasty snack, a filling lunch, and definitely a new favorite. I’ve been told it gets to be a great refresher in the summer when you don’t want something hot. Although, without the materials I doubt I’ll ever be able to make it at home, at least this time I’ve got all the ingredients checked off so I can actually buy them and know what to do with them. If we could do this every holiday I think I’d be set. For now maybe I’ll just try to convince the Home Ec teacher to let to sit in on the classes where they cook food. I’ve seen the kids skewer and fry whole fish, so it’d probably be a good way to get over my queasiness of cooking with foods that have eyes still attached to them. After all, my hatred for the niboshi they serve in the school lunch has slowly diminished.

Anyway, a big hit and fulfilling Christmas. In the end I could do without the snow and warm blankets, and it was spent with what’s become a kind of family, at least the closest I can get within three thousand miles. Itadakimasu.

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Halloween

It’s funny to think that one of my most memorable Halloween would come not only in my twenties but also in a country that until this century didn’t even know Halloween existed. I’d begun to see the candy sold in the stores, and then the themed signs and advertisements up, as the conbinis even started to add in a couple of halloween themed songs to their evening mixes (mostly, though, just “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas). Truly, it seems that anything that can rack in sales from commercialization can become a global phenomenon.

It started in school. Of course, two American English language teachers can hardly pass off the chance to dress up and amuse their students with a day that mostly revolves around them. All the teachers seemed to be on board with having a big party, and although the board outside our language room was void of any decor I think we managed to introduce Halloween pretty well. For about a week I gave the same presentation, and found out a lot about the holiday myself. Turns out, plenty of cultures have a days similar to the roots of Halloween. Japan has a festival called Obon during the end of the summer that I’ve really been looking forward to ever since my third year in Japan class when we had a unit about Japanese festivals. Sad to find out I’d have to wait a year until we got to that point.

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Somewhat strange to report on something so modern. The presentation wrapped up with how long lines for Haunted Houses can get and the fact that a dozen new scary movies winds up featured across movie theaters. Still got to mention the differences between a hundred years ago and now the evolution between the two, so I don’t feel like it’s a complete waste of educational resources.

At the apartment complex the Thursday night before Halloween we had a bunch of students from a nearby junior high school and even some younger ones come around a go trick-o-treating. With over ten doors to knock on it seemed like quick the hit. I spent over ¥2000 on candy and ran out half way through. I didn’t even have a costume at that point, relying on a pirate skull daizo mask that one of the teachers lent me. I was surprised how much fun I’d had, only realizing just now that it is the first time I’ve actually been the one in charge of passing out the candy… weird. My grandparents have a neighbor who used to take care of me, and every time I trick-o-treated there he’d creep to the door with a god awfully scary mask. I suppose I learned a lot from him, as I crouched next to the peep hole in my door, listening and waiting for students to get close. Once the reached out for the doorbell I’d crack open the door with a “Boo!” All night I was a bit worried I’d wind up toppling one of the kids with my antics, and it’s just my luck that on the very last one another ALT happened to get rammed by the door.

So, two days before Halloween and I was rounding out the night in high spirits, looking forward to the weekend. You see, Fukui City’s international club had this annual gig going where they hosted a Halloween party. The only catch is the party was hosted in a city almost two hours away. Well, I guess that’s not the only catch because in order to get there the IC rented out a train, old style since retired by the main transit, and to make sure the party went as long as possible decorated that train with black lights and sound systems. It’s something I’d been told was one of the best events this side of the New Year, so I’d been wanting to go. However, the tickets initially sold out, a pre-sale that I’d never even been privy to. Luckily one of my friend hit me up right away when the club was selling the remaining tickets, all I had to do was be at the station an hour before take-off.

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After a Friday night out for nomihoudai and some karaoke, Saturday comes and everything is good, except that I’m going to a Halloween party, and I have yet to get a costume. After pedaling slow in the morning I rushed out in the afternoon to trek to the not so near mall in search of black duck tape. Yes, because what other material would you have in mind for a last minute costume. Actually, I must admit, a lot of help came from the Internet (the true killer of creativity). Originally the night before I’d borrowed a cardboard box used for bulk microwavable popcorn and had initially decided to make some sort of mask out of that.

If you look back at my earliest Halloween photos you’d be hard to distinguish year from year. Not because I remained a chubby cheeked adorable kid for five year, but since I remained a chubby cheeked adorable kid in a Batman costume for five years. Honestly, looking back on it I have know clue when or where the Batman obsession came from since even in my pre-teens I was definitely rooting more for the Marvel/X-Men side of things. But in those early years it was only the wealthy, detective solving, crime fighting, bachelor I wanted to emulate. Thus, it seemed a worthy costume to attempt in the course of four hours.

I ended up buying the last roll of black tape they had in stock, and with yellow for accents as well as some fingerless gloves and black trash bags I was on my way to making the best costume yet. It had been a while after all, since I had come up with anything to wear for Halloween. Last year, I hosted a party for fifty in the space of my 300 ft living room and kitchen, so ain’t nobody got time for costumes, and every before that I’d been able to rely on my aribeito at Ragstock to provide me with endless Halloween fun. I knew the toddler sized pumpkin outfit would be a tough one to top, but I think I did it this year.

With four hours before my train left, I thought I’d be able to round out a decent helmet and utility belt. I stuck a plastic bag on my head, whipped open the tape, and scissors already on my hand, pulled up this quick and easy instructable. Perhaps, it’s a little too quick and easy. Of course, at first I felt like a fool, and wishing there was more documentation on the website clearly under stood why there isn’t. I didn’t only look like a fool, I was whole-heartedly foolish for a least an hour into the process. You’re basically just rolling tape around your head, while starting to break into a sweat because hey, it’s duck tape layered plastic you’re strapping to your head and that’s generally not a good way to allow breathability. I ended up using the popcorn box to form the nose and that’s when I felt like I was finally getting somewhere. That’s also when I realized there was no way I’d be able to finish off the costume, run to the station and make the train in time.

Luckily, Mac came to the rescue, offering a ride to the station. I wounded up shaping the eyebrows and attaching the ears to the mask before donning anything black in my closet, shoving all my materials into a shopping bag and rushing out the door. Of course I looked even more ridiculous halfway into the costume buying a ticket and waiting for the train, but thankfully I ran into two other ALTs; one dressed as a pirate and the other wore a hand sewn Popeye outfit brought all the way from South Africa.

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By the time our train arrived in Fukui station my outfit was complete. Needless to say we were gawked at by many people, but once there was a decent crowd of foreigners we were also asked to pose for multiple pictures. I think I was actually surprised by how many Japanese people were also dressed up, and not only those who were going on the Halloween Train. Mostly younger, but all wearing some form of cosuplay and bloodied makeup. It was a lot of lingering around for the next hour after I’d gotten my ticket, but also just a crowd of giddiness as people showed up in more and more ridiculous outfits. I think Ghibli themes win out, but I must’ve seen at least and equal amount of Marios and Luigis.

The train ride was gradually epic. I hopped on with a slight buzz, and once everyone got comfortable in the tight quarters and rolling experience it was really all new and cool. The one thing that I’m always anxious about in these situations, though, is recognizing people, but never remembering their names. We’re all spread across the prefecture so it’s really hard to remember so many names without ever seeing them often. Add to that the amount of first years and veterans mixed together and I’ve gotten used to never assuming anyone, Japanese people included, can 1) teach English and 2) even speak Japanese.

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Hard to describe the atmosphere of the train apart from that as part social club part night club (and I guess, also, at the very front part kid’s venue where all the parents brought their Minions (literally dressed as minions from Despicable Me) to chill and be all cool with their roles as parents in Japan’s society), and I won’t go into much of the feeling apart from decent music, the occasional bumping of the train off the tracks, and  really you sometimes had no clue where you were relative to everyone else.

On the train time didn’t seem to pass quickly or slowly. I hadn’t checked my watch when we got on so at any given time I had known clue to know when we’d arrive or how far we’d come. Eventually the train slowed, and everyone filtered off. We were literally herded off the platform and through the tiny station where a crowd of people had gathered to greet and take pictures of us all. I felt somewhere between a celebrity and saved hostage. Everyone wanted to see us, but I had no clue why. Not of course, til I got outside and saw the filling dance floor.

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It was definitely a new experience to add to the unexpected ones I’ve had in Japan. We basically had a huge party in the station parking lot. Many people cruised across the street to raid the remains of the closing supermarket. I felt I was good for the night, but ran into their backroom to use the toilet. It’s funny, but I could sense a difference in the way people reacted to me. Being Batman kind of gives you this sense of trust or protectiveness, probably along with some sort of invincibility, so it’s pretty good I was staying tame that night. On the whole. I took many a pictures with various people, and even found a tiny Batman (a me of years past?) and accompanying Cat woman. At some point, somehow, I got onto someone’s shoulders, and I’m not quite sure. One of my neighbors went as Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, so I can only assume he was strong enough to hold me. It was during the song Jump (the Kriss Kross one), and I was pumping my hands in the air getting while everyone was getting as high as they could. Pretty sweet moment.

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Surprisingly the night ended with everything still in tact. I thought for sure the cape wouldn’t make it on the train ride back, but it actually acted well, being slippery enough that anyone who wanted to squeeze past me had no problem. When we made it back to the station and said our goodbyes many people were headed to the after party at a venue nearby. Looking back it probably was a missed out opportunity to meet new people, but I decided to go back with Mac and some the neighbors, thinking two nights out would be pushing it for Monday morning class.