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.

Mac

www.halfwayanywhere.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gathering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m eleven.”

“Really? How long have you played?”

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

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

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

“How many rounds are there?”

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

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

“Yeah, Grand Prixs a grind, man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

はい.”

“And did you win?”

“ちがう、まけた.”  Wrong, I lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ALSO PLAYED TWELVE HOURS OF MAGIC.


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

Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, the adventure begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Winter

So here’s a dangerous combination that I haven’t really encountered before: a paycheck, a city, and a vacation. Dangerous because it really throws a dent into any habits I’ve made in the past couple months. For the first time in my life I’ve become not only comfortably but naturally waking up before 6 o’clock in the morning. I’ve bought groceries without needing to forgo flavor. And I’ve gotten used to spending my time in a two mile radius (something I learned in good old Northfield). I can tell you none of those habits were continued through my winter break; although in school I usually say vacation because they tend to think of something completely different when I say the word break.

So the Christmas holiday comes and goes along with seemingly every other foreigner around. To be true a couple of my neighbors were still around, but it’s pretty easy to get lazy about trying to meet up or even just better to travel alone sometimes. Honestly I hate it, but there is the appeal of doing things on your own time. Luckily right before break  I was introduced to two great people.

First, Carmelo took me out the week before break to meet Yukie, a retired English/Math teacher with a part time job at Curves and a love of wine. We had great sashimi and washoku at a restaurant actually operated by one of student’s family. He showed up to see me, and I suspect boosted my street cred a little as he messaged all my other students about my unexpected appearance at this completely local dive.

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Then around the same time Amber,  who has probably met more people in the past months than I have total since leaving college, introduced me to Gavin who’d taken over the English tutor position of one of her friends. It was a bit uncanny the first time I met him, as we started to seem pretty identical in terms of interests. He started off by saying he was from Washington and lived in Seattle (my home away from home), and that he was into rock climbing, anime, and Magic the Gathering. Now if those weren’t already too specific the real kicker is the fact that he worked at Trader Joe’s after college (the exact job that I did on the opposite side of the country). At the end of the night I was beginning to think maybe we’d be too similar to get along. (After all, I do like to spend a lot of my time disagreeing with people.) Thankfully with our similarities it’s pretty easy to understand his way of thinking while there’s still enough difference to have some great conversation.

He’d only been in the country for a month by the time winter vacation hit, so we both hadn’t made plans and didn’t know where to go. On top of that it was his birthday right after Christmas (a fact he claims he almost forgot), I insisted we go to the city to celebrate.

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Thus begins the downfall into thinking like we could afford to do anything and go anywhere. After all my paycheck was still fresh, and there was nothing to do. We ended up going back to the city a couple more times in the next week to shop, explore, or drink. It was weird to see this different social side of Japan. One night we went to find dinner after 7 o’clock and went through at least ten restaurants before we found one that was open. Granted many people had time off because of New Years, but coming from the inaka, I wasn’t used to seeing so many crowds.

The New Years was also a strange thing for me. New Years eve has never been a big selling point for me. It seems like in the past every party I’ve been to has been a bust of either people getting to drunk or awkwardly having no other reason to come together. One time four years ago I wound up on the couch of a frat house at the U of M with a bunch of high school friends and company, while not knowing really anyone who lived in the house. It was almost awful, and awkward coming from a tiny liberal arts school with no frats/sororities or drinking culture.

So Yukie invited me to join her for a wine tasting party on the New Years eve and figuring it could be the best New Year’s eve to date I accepted. Her house is about a fifteen minute walk away from my apartment, so I left without a hurry after getting ready in whatever apparel I’d hoped could compete with the always on point fashion trends of Japan. I should also mention that I’d been growing out my facial hair since the vacation started and was now spotting a lackluster mustache and goatee. By Japanese standards it was pretty envious, but on a whole I’d call it dasai. Not to mention within a moment of heading out the door the entire sky unleashed a torrent of horizontal rain. I arrived with two tone pants and a hardly functioning umbrella thankful that this was the type of tasting where we wouldn’t spit out the wine.

All in all it was probably the best New Year’s Even I could’ve hoped for. When I arrived I met Yukie’s four other guests, a mother and her three sons. Two were in college at 21 and 23 while the other who was 26 worked for Toyota. Now before this Yukie had invited me over twice before. Once I met another one of her older members at Curves, while the other time was with two high school sisters who were going abroad to Seattle. As someone who’s yet to really make any Japanese friend (or even at most acquaintances) they were not quite the company I’d been hoping for. Also the dating culture is a bit hard to understand so at many points I kept thinking she might’ve been trying to set me up, too. And yet now she’d introduced three incredibly smart and stylish guys my age, two of which lived in Osaka and Tokyo. Finally my potential for leaving my hermitage and exploring Japan gained some motivation. We opened six bottles of wine and one of champagne while, possibly, going through at least two more. We also ate mochi and osechi to celebrate the new year. In the end they even offered to give me their old bike (probably at the prompting of Yukie, I didn’t mention the subject), and gave me a ride home.

That night I went over to Gavin’s where we tried to figure out something to do while watching anime. As the inevitable midnight approached, I pulled out some fresh soba noodles Yukie had left with me and cooked them. Apparently there’s a tradition of eating them on New Year’s eve because they’re long and represent a long life or something. We chowed down, and then went outside to the chiming of temple bells to see what the night had to offer.

There were still people shuffling together down the empty and dark streets as we wound toward the river and a temple by another ALT’s apartment. It was weird walking around so late, and taking the back roads we passed through the normal road I take to get to school without me recognizing it until we were a block away. It really made me acknowledge how much I have to discover even in this city that I live in.

When we arrived we accepted a piece of dried squid and shot of hot sake from the oldest band of Japanese men manning the shrine. Not a bad life. We met the two other ALTs and hung out at an apartment for a while longer. It didn’t quite feel like 3 in the morning when we left, and it definitely didn’t feel like New Years. On the walk back home we stopped in a McDonald’s to truly celebrate like Americans.

Christmas

As you might expect from a country where only 1% of the 127 million people identify as Christians, the concept of Christmas isn’t really hashed out. In fact, if you presented my students with a picture of Jesus, Santa Claus, and Disney’s Olaf from Frozen I can tell you that they’d only be able to recognize two out of the three. With that said, a couple of my students are Christian which is pretty neat (though, they’re mostly Brazilian), and on a whole Christmas is still a pretty well known day. Of course, as many American conservatives would point out, the change in Christmas (is not a war but) stems from the fact that anything that can make a buck will.

The same hold true over here, as Christmas is mostly celebrated between young lovers going out and having a date, while some parents–especially those keen on Western cultlure–will break out a present for their kids. For me this hardly feels like Christmas time. I blame a lot of it on the lack of Christmas songs, though, my local grocery and convenient stores have an instrumental playlist going. I think the entirety of the issue probably stems from this:

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As someone who has literally never spent a Christmas Eve away from his Grandma’s house in snowy Minnesota, how the hell can I consider this appropriate winter weather?

*That picture was actually taken on Christmas day, meaning December 25.

So, weather wise it was such a lovely day, if  I learned anything from the Whos down in Whoville, it’s that the spirit of Christmas is all that matters. And with the last day of school the day before Christmas eve, it was hard for the mood in the teacher’s office not to be a bit festive.

This leads into what is probably the most formal celebrations any school has during the year: the bonenkai, or as I’ve been told in literal translation: the forget-the-year party.

After a pretty tiring day I quick walked back home to change after school and returned to school to make the bus up to the city. Not gonna lie in saying I was totally looking forward to the night. I was ready for the experience, but I was also extremely exhausted. I basically napped on the hour long bus ride up to the hotel where we got dropped off.

It felt kind of like going to a school dance. Some people where dressed up, and we shuffled into an elevator up to the banquet room. Our seating place were random, though I’m not sure I entirely believe that since I’ve been seated next to my adviser the past two times (not that that’s any bit a bad thing). It’s another time when I realized how lucky I usually am to have another ALT at my school. She sadly had to leave early to catch her plane back to America, but I was desperately wishing to have an English speaking friend go through this new experience with me. This time I got placed in the center table just a seat away from our kouchou-sensei, or the principal. While people were filing in, hardly anyone coming to our table, I figured I’d have to do my best to get into a conversation with him.

He’s actually a bomb guy. I’ve hardly had many interactions with him that don’t involve me being polite and letting him pass by me in the hall, or saying good morning, but I’ve heard enough fantastic stories. Even at the nationals race I went to in Yamaguchi, I met his wife who was a former English teacher and I think we mostly talked about him (and the fact that her somewhat British accent was some of the most fluent English I’d heard from a Japanese teacher). I knew that he was formerly an art teacher so I started off with that.

Lucky for me this topic of conversation hardly went beyond level 2 Japanese. It went something like this:

Me: So, I heard that you were an art teacher? My college major was art. What art do you do?

校長先生: Oh, really? I enjoy painting.

Me: Last year, I worked as a printmaker, but I enjoyed painting, who is you favorite?

校長先生: I really enjoy Pablo Picasso.

Me: (thinking about the only period of Picasso that I enjoy) Oh, me too. What is your favorite series?

校長先生: I have to say… his blue period.

Me: Fantastic! Me too (true story).

We then went on to talk about how–in about three months–he’ll be retiring. Completely new news to me, and even if I don’t get to see him all the time, pretty bummed to hear he won’t even be nearby. He’s got a motto around the school called “yaruki smile” (somewhere along the lines of shining smile) and he really lives up to it himself. He just seems like a completely jolly dude. He mentioned how after he retires he wants to get back into painting and visit Spain to see the art there. He’s been studying Spanish for a while now.

Me: Eh! Amazing! When I was in high school I spoke Spanish really well, but now, it’s just a bit. But I will try to practice with you if I can.

校長先生: por favor, un poco hablamos bien.

Off to a great start, and as my supervisor came and sat down next to me like clockwork the night started off with a highlight reel projected in the front of all the fun things that happened this year. A weird feeling to see how recently it was that a completely different person got to take care of all the students like I am doing with a completely different approach.

Then the servers brought in the beer, and like bees in a hive a rush of order beyond comprehension was occurring. We naturally had a moment to pause with filled glasses and say kampai lifting them in the air and clinging them against each other. But as I drank and sat back down, it’s like I entered the twilight zone.

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Eventually I looked over to my adviser and whispered, “Do I need to do anything?” He laughed looking around and said “No, I think it’s Ok, you’re kinda like a guest so you don’t need to worry.”

I was worrying because probably more than half the teachers were jumping around the seats and tables with bottles of beer cradled like a diamond in their arms stopping at anyone seated to fill, almost longingly, their drinks to the brim. Guess it’s a basic custom, not hard to figure out, where the lowlies and newbies serve the higher more respected. I felt kinda bad for kouchou-sensei because every time he took a drink he had to pause to have someone offer to fill his drink again. Usually it’s a good way of making sure everyone has a good time, but often also a very tenuous way to drink as well.

Anyway, once the drinks were thoroughly distributed our appetizers were served, and people got ready for the second year teacher committee who organized the night to perform their main act. It consisted of a somewhat racy and raunchy skit about how one of the teachers was looking for a boyfriend, and turned into a sort of Dating Game style act. I simultaneously wanted to understand everything they said and was thankful that I didn’t get all the jokes they were saying.

This was followed by games that even I was involved in, more drinking, more socializing, and all the while plates of delectable food placed in front of me.

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There were three forks, three knives, chopsticks and a spoon, so I’m thinking that’s what you call a four course meal.

While mingling for a couple more drinks we got organized to move onto the next event, whatever that was to mean. And then kouchou-sensei leaned over to make one last comment.

校長先生: (in English, with yaruki smile) I’ve never seen an ALT do what you’ve done… (he pauses to figure out from my adviser what words to use next) to join running club every day. You care about the students so much. When I saw you at Yamaguchi, I was so proud that you are at this school. You’re a good person, and I think you will do big things in Japan.

Honestly, I blame it on constantly having to have his glass filled, but by the time he finished I was practically rippling in tears of happiness. Like, the last time anyone has ever said such a great thing about me is lost in my recent memory. My adviser was totally loving it watching on the sides, too, because kouchou-sensei was probably on the verge of keeling over in drunken glee.

The rest of the night was similar to the night I spent in Yamaguchi after we’d gotten dinner at the Korean BBQ restaurant. I went into a group with about six other teachers, some of my favorites, and we headed out on the town, winding down an alley to a legitimate bar, literally the first I’ve been to here. We order more drinks, so food, and I felt again like I was the most interesting thing in the room, but more than happy to answer the questions shot at me and practice my Japanese. When it got to be a little after 11 o’clock I was hoping to stay out more–do karaoke, or bowling, or anything–but since I was forced to take the bus home, I had to call it early.

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All together, though, a great way to end the first phase of being here, start the winter vacation, and make up for not going home for the break. It might not look much like winter, but it’s not too far away from feeling like it.

 

Salsa

So it’s a Wednesday. Winter has fully arrived with rain in the morning and rain at night. Within two weeks the second semester ends and Winter Break is here. Yet school is in full force with interview tests for the third years and worksheets to correct for the younger ones. So, what is a foreigner to do?

Ever since arrive I’m pretty often finding myself a little late to the party. I’m not quite sure if it’s always been like this, but some time long ago I really kind of just stopped paying attention to Facebook. I’d even considered deleting it, but in today’s age–in the long run–I think that’s just simply madness. So it was when I arrived to Japan, and even still I hardly use it except to occasionally check in and communicate with the less available people in my life. In those cases, it’s pretty easy to miss out on the things people plan. If someone–especially someone who lives outside of the same city–puts up an event online sometimes they just sort of let it go off on its own without any sort of promotion. So after a while I started to become vigilant with emails and Facebook events (including the things I did around Thanksgiving). Thus after being recruited by Carmelo, I wound up looking forward to this Wednesday event quite a ways out.

Really it’s a strange occurrence that we mostly twenty-something adults have the system in place to create such a space. Voluntarily submitted to the somewhat isolating experience of living in a foreign country, I wonder how this community formed at first. Maybe it’s something the program put in place all along, or maybe it’s something that developed organically. Either way it’s something I don’t think most people are lucky enough to have. That’s mostly last year New York me talking, where even with the greatest city in the world at my doorstep I often found it hard to figure out what to do alone with my free time.

So a small group of us looking to escape the toils of monotony convened in the small dance studio at the whim of one of the coolest Brits I’ve met (granted I haven’t met many people from England). It’s hard to describe what happened in the following three hours, but it was all a lot of fun. Basically imagine us getting into teams of six and doing winter themed…well, not really winter themed, but games that involved the silliest of silliness.

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It started pretty simple, some college games using solo cups and ping pong balls, but let’s just say it escalated quickly.

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This was kind of like reverse limbo, and well, I’m just gonna let you figure it out on your own. Just a note, though, I wasn’t wearing those green tights to begin with.

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Photos courtesy of www.whereisamber.com, she’s my neighbor and a new JET too, with a lot more wanderlust than me, so check out her website.

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Really, it’s cool to do these kind of things every once in a while. Like really, I feel like I’m constantly forcing these types of activities on my students so it’s good to be in their shoes and experience how to make things fun and have fun doing things completely random and unattached to anything important in life.

I was thoroughly exhausted by the end of the night, and it only emphasized how ready I was to take a bit of a break soon. I’m planning on sticking around to work on some awesome lessons for the next semester, but that hopefully won’t mean I don’t get down time, then again hopefully that means I won’t be too lazy either.

Yamaguchi

Maybe I’ve said this before, but even if I have it bears repeating:

It’s sometimes unbelievable how much a constant running has been throughout my life.

Out of so many other sports, clubs, interests, religions, hobbies, and places I’ve gone in life, it’s the only thing that’s stayed there. It’s responsible for some of my closest friends, my biggest achievements, and quite entirely my college experience.

So ever before coming to Japan I was doing research on what the running scene was like. My expectations for a low interest and slow field were pretty wiped when I found out that there’s a decent crew of fast runners throughout the nation (though mostly central, like America’s heartland of talent). Especially with the Olympics approaching, the government is encouraging and funding even more programs specifically towards younger people to do well in sports. (For example, this 16 year old track star will likely podium for Japan in Tokyo 2020.)

I was pretty happy to be put in Fukui just out of the fact that it’s got some nature to make long runs through. I’ve been holding off talking about my own running experience for the proper post, but I’ll just add that this is the first time in a while I’ve been running without a direct goal.

Even last year, my first seasons out of college running I still looked forward to my alumni races or the season in the fall. Unfortunately here, the season is less year round and more marathon focused. And I am one to swear against any sort of marathon in the foreseeable future (though Tokyo was tempting).

After busting my foot for a month and then working my way back for another, I was pretty set come October (when it finally started getting cold after I left work) to join the track team at school. It let me do something other than crushing my mind against correcting pages for the last hour of work and deleted the excuses I’d later come up with to convince me not to run. I’d been told how great the school’s track team was, and looked forward to running with a team again. Turns out the rumors were pretty true, or I was just really out of shape (and probably a bit of both). After a 3000 meter time trial where the top time was around 9:40 I decided that at least three of them could be faster than me (the equivalent of an American ninth grader). It intrigued me to find out how fast the actual elite were, and I immediately vocalized my interest in going to the national race at the end of the season.

So, the days go by, and the time I enjoy at school grows exponentially simply because I recognize more students and know more about their lives. I’d been thinking about my counterpart back home, Kelson, who’d signed up for his second season of coaching and get why he enjoys it. At the least it keeps me from getting fat, at the most it keeps me young.

And finally it the week of the race, and I’m psyched. I came in to the teacher’s room after practice on a dark December night to see some of my co-workers huddled in the end of a discussion. “So,” one of the teachers says, “it’ll be about 1 mansen yen, is that OK? That’ll cover everything, transportation and hotel.”

I shrugged, not quite expecting it to be that much, but really can you put a price to anything nowadays. “Sure.”

And we’re off. The end of the week there was no practice because over ten kids were going to this race in Yamaguchi, which included all the long distance side of the team and even a couple soccer players. There was a lot of nostalgia on my part, remembering packing up the St. Olaf vans for the rides to Regionals and Nationals. Thus was the feeling that came to me as I got picked up a little after the afternoon on Saturday to make the eight hour ride to the end of honshu Japan.

Now, a long time ago, I wasn’t really considering how long it would take to get to Yamaguchi. When accounting for the less than three hour trips in each direction to get to Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Nagano, I’d always had this skewed image that Japan as an island couldn’t take any time to get to any important point on the map. But whatever, I was committed with a notebook and Clive Cussler novel and ready for the trip.

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As much as I love to go into the menial details, I’ll skip over the drive to wind up the night sitting at the end of a table full of raw meet and drinks. By the time I was at number two, everyone else was telling me it was number three, but the food was delicious so I didn’t care. It was my first time eating this kind of Korean bbq, and I topped off the meal with bibimbop thinking of Stef in San Francisco. One great common thing when getting meals with a group of people in Japan is the evenly split bill at the end of the night. It’s pretty nice for everyone just to take responsibility for the whole, and encourages a pretty good time. It can get a bit awkward if you’re sure someone has been hogging the drinks or food, but then you just deal with it through a bit of moral superior karma. Of course, the 5000 yen bill at the end kind of hurt, but at that point in the month I still had time to live wealthy.

Of course, that wasn’t the end to the night by far, and as we left I quickly got a small glimpse of Japanese social (gender) expectations, as the women of the group headed of in one direction (presumably to the hotel, but I’d have to guess that’s strictly a presumption) while the men stroll in the other direction. I ended up in another bar, somewhat izakaya style, while we brought up another chair to a table and ordered a nomihoudai. It’s times like these, only a few so far I’ve had, that make me feel like I fit in exactly how I should. Even in the presence of two other English teachers, I was shooting out Japanese back at the questions asked to me.

Not too much excitement for the night, but enough contentment for me.

(And I got to sleep in a bed! Always a good time, compared to the futon that I roll out on my floor every night. I hardly feel uncomfortable sleeping on the floor, but sleeping in an actually bed still comes off like a luxury.)

Thus, it came that I woke up within ten minutes of check-out time–luckily before my co-workers messaged me to ask if I was ready to go–as I rushed to put on some athletic clothes and shove the rest of my stuff into my backpack. I scanned the room with the inevitable feeling I was forgetting something, and went to the lobby sheepishly ready to start the day.

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It was beyond impressive to see the extent of how the race was set up. It’s basically in a state park, but the park from what I gleaned is set-up specifically to hold outdoor running events. Now, I know we’ve got shoe companies in America that host these races–this one was sponsored by Mizuno–but even at my college level I never saw such support built in for running teams, let alone for junior high school level. The tents alone were a little over fifty teams, each with a tent the size of my apartment and a decent amount of people there to watch. (Also, take into account that only 6 of the dozen students they brought were racing, but all of them rode the shinkansen and hosted up in a hotel for three nights. Quite frickin’ awesomely unbelieveable.)

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We waited around for a good couple of hours. I took a chance to walk around. It’s weird because back home, I never feel too far out because plenty of my students are mixed race, not to mention a decent amount of my neighbors are Brazilian. Now, at this pretty specific Japanese event, I was quite certain I was not only the only non-Japanese person, but the only dark skinned human over six feet tall. I mean, I certainly have that constant look over your shoulder in America, but here’s it’s a similar feeling for a completely different reason.

Anyway, I ended up running into a couple of my students heading down to the merchandise stall. They helped me in choosing a sweater, and I ended up meeting some of their parents. It was weird because I could hear them talk about me before I turned around to them, and even though I’d never met them, they already clearly knew who I was. Later on, one of the third year’s mothers thanked me so much for joining the team and even a little sister from one of my elementary school visits recognized me with a surprised, “Dillon-sensei?!” We’re talking first graders here that I taught for one hour two weeks ago remembering me by name. It was a crazy realization just to point out how connected I was to the community without even doing anything–or much, at least.

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The boys race went off after the girls, and anxiously I crowded around to saw a mass pile through the first curve of the track hardly distinguishable from one another until they passed beyond the treeline to the 3km trail. Basically over the next hour it was me running back and forth trying to cheer at all the good spots, take times and pictures, and keep warm. The weather started decent, but actually got a bit shady and chilled during the middle. An hour went by, and well, the lead team was dominating and my team, well, was not. We weren’t in last, or too near it, but we definitely weren’t towards the front or, maybe even in a standard deviation of the middle. Oh well, it was inspiring to see everyone try and think about pushing them through the winter to make a better performance for next year.189188

And just like that we were back on the road, literally as the students were bowing in the traditional appreciative thanks my group was shuffling back to our van to make the eight hour return trip. Can’t say it was as much fun as the way up there, but I was satiated on a well spent weekend full of nostalgia and inspiration. As I start to expect snow any time soon I can already say I can’t wait for the spring. I know I’ll keep up running, but really it’s just awful compared to the rest of the year. Luckily I’ve still got a great team to keep me motivated.

Elementary

Look, whatever follows, I’m not saying I don’t like little kids, I’m fine with taking care of them, they’re super cute and imaginative, but I will never again want to educate them, and I hardly think I can manage to believe they’re all anything but demons in disguise.

After meeting with a teacher from one of the two elementary schools I would visit in the coming week, I woke up around 5 o’clock to get a jump start on the day and make sure any final lesson plans I had were taken care of. I’m not exactly sure when we said to meet, some point around 9:45 I’m sure, which would normally mean I get to sleep in a little. Without having car, though, I didn’t want to risk underestimating the amount of time it would take to make the 5km walk to the school. So naturally I left before nine o’clock bag packed with scissors paper and crayons.

Early would underestimate how quickly I got there, and even though punctuality in Japan is stereotyped towards the ten minute beforehand  arrival, this was awkwardly coming in at over thirty minutes. The teacher I’d previously met greeted me at the door and brought me in and showed me to an empty desk in the teacher’s room. I felt pretty proud of myself for figuring out to introduce myself to the vice principal who then in turn showed me to the principal’s office, a stoic man who was a bit more intimidating than my vice principal which is like comparing Jack Nicholson to Robert Deniro.

Then I got to work cutting out the remaining props for my plan. They were to provide me with an oversized version of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear. It’s kind of creepy to see my education finally come full circle where that book was being used back when I was in kindergarten and now I’m teaching it to kindergarteners.

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They weren’t much, but I must say (off the tail of my Batman outfit) that they’re little you can’t do with a couple of crafts from the dollar store. Finally the bell rang, the door to the teacher’s room opened and what can only be described as the most adorable interaction I’ve had thus far in Japan commenced.

Imagine yourself for a moment being six years old again. Probably hard to do, I was even struggling after today, but just think about how little you know about the world, how fun and exciting each experience is, the longing and jealousy to just be older like everyone else. Then, imagine you’re in a homogenized society where virtually everything you see conforms to a single cultural lifestyle (plus or minus a few) so that anything that is ever out of place is magnified disproportionately. OK, so you’ve got that situation, and you’ve got this tall (ginormous by their standards) (handsome) opposite skin color guy who doesn’t speak your language, and you’ve been commanded to fetch him from the teacher’s room and bring him to your classroom. Remember, you’re six so your grasp of anything let alone the language you speak is just barely becoming functional.

Thus I was put, as three kids waddled in through the aisle between the desk wearing their red track suits (gym uniforms) and boshi (caps) practically sucking their thumbs and stopping in front of my desk staring at the ground. The teacher accompanying them flapped her hands and whispered in broken English, “Please come with us.”

They rocked back and forth and then together in a squeaky accordion call repeated, “Please, com-mu, withsu, us.”

And then I stood up, and realized that if I wasn’t careful I would trample them. They barely made it past my knee.

Once we got out in the hall, their territory, they livened up a bit. One girl grabbed onto my pant leg while a boy instantly put his hand between mine. The questions were equally as flurried but I found them easy to answer. Finally a group of students on my level of Japanese. I made it to the classroom without stepping on anyone and my guts still in tact.

I guess now’s as good as anytime to mention that this first class I was teaching was special education. I had been told this beforehand, but really didn’t have much to compare it to apart from my own junior high school’s group of ten students. Really, it was nothing like what I expected. Along with the teacher who came with the students, five other teachers were in the room to greet me with a horseshoe of desks with a dozen students. That was almost one teacher for every two students! Seemed like incredible resources and certainly made the class more fun. I started by asking each student their name, and had them ask me questions. Pretty fun, pretty simple, and almost all of them were involved. Then we went over the characters of the book–going through names and colors. I read through it once, and then had them (attempt) at repeating me and take turns at guessing which character would be on the next page.

I realized about halfway that I had know clue how long the class period would go, and so while I stalled for time at the end I pulled out the always (but hardly) faithful “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I don’t remember it being so simple, and really it’s a terrible song to captivate little kids for any amount of time. Or maybe it’s not, but I just felt like after three times, and then going slow and going fast, no time had passed at all and I was still on the clock for their attention. Luckily just as I stumbled for time, the bell rang, and they all jumped up to carry me back to the teacher’s room.

And that’s where the highlights of the day end.

I mean, not really, at least, at the time I didn’t feel that way.

So, I’m back in the teacher’s room where I started, and the bell rings, and another group of students slink into the teacher’s room and bashfully warm up to me as we walk to the next classroom. Only this time I enter a classroom with one teacher, who doesn’t speak English, and about thirty more of these shrilling minions.

I read somewhere online that kids are just tiny drunk adults, and that’s never been more clear to me before today.

Really, it’s more like their classroom was a rock show and I was Def Leppard. Probably even worse than fans at a Def Leppard concert, maybe Poison is more accurate.

I walked in to a literal rush of screams as the tiny devils leaned over their miniature desks with mouths blaring and eyes squinting together. Once I calmed them down the first time, anything I did or picture I showed would incite the squeals again like the tsunami after an earthquake. It got to the point where I looked down at one girl who was plugging her ears, while the girl behind her screaming full force also plugged her eyes then continued to scream louder. An hour of that happened, and I ran out of time again resorting to playful songs and handshakes. At least this time I took more questions and was able to understand and functionally answer in Japanese.

The time passes eventually, and I wind up with another ten minute break before I have to prep myself to do it all over again. The second time was with third graders and a bit more manageable. I made it through my introduction slideshow with my ears ringing, answered most of their questions successfully, and made it to the end of reading “Teacher, teacher what do you see?” just as the bell rang. So, overall not too bad. But now it was lunch time. And I was so confused.

A couple of students rushed out the classroom to come back donned in the most typical outfit of a white apron jacket and chef hat. The rest of the students either organized a table at the back of class or moved their desks together to form small groups. So, I supposed I had to find my place to sit. One of the boys waved me over to a open desk by the window, so when everyone was being directed to take their turns and get in line at the main prepped table, I decided to go and sit over there. Not exactly a perfect fit when a guy over six feet tall tries to cram into a desk chair made for pint sized devils. My back ended up bucked against the window, and there was little way I would’ve been able to chopstick my food to my mouth sitting parallel to the desk. Instead, I grabbed a chair and sat between the group of desks next to the little brother of one of my first years who is on the track team.

Anyone with experience with kids, puppies, or drunk adults will probably already understand why that was a terrible idea, and it wasn’t long before I looked back at the group of desks I’d left to see the defeated face and bubbling eyes of the boy I just left. Of course, as time goes on those bubbles bubble over his eyelids to be a steady stream of abandonment and betrayal and I was faced with the fact that out of many of the potential stumbles I made that day, the worst came unexpectedly and within the last half hour.

After lunch I tried reassuring the kid that it was not in fact him that made me move, I signed his textbook, I drew him a picture, I played with him at recess. Ever time the essence of a smile would creep up on his lips, though, his eyebrows would furrow and I’d be shut down. Oh well, win some lose some.

I did have one of the best moments of my time living here so far when the lunch bell rang and the students were getting ready to go out to the play ground and one of the students tugged on my hand and ask, “Ani, will you come and play with us?” using the Japanese term for older brother and in the cutest voice you could imagine a little kid using.

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So, they’re not all bad, but definitely not enough to get me to ever want to do it again.



Update: So, as it turns out it’s was only a week later that I had to go to another elementary school. This time it was with fifth and sixth graders so they’re energy was a bit more controlled and they were definitely used to being in the classroom. I made sure to have extra small games and activities in case I ran over time, but it never happened and their English was actually pretty impressive compared to my junior high first years. Most importantly I didn’t make anyone cry, but I did have to assist when during recess a kid got blasted with a soccer ball to the face. Seems like these visits will be a once or twice a semester thing, so I can only hope the next one takes its time…

 

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.