Japan, Happiest Place on Earth

Japan, Happiest Place on Earth

Well, I visited a Japanese elementary school this week and had lunch with the kids, which was some kind of sparrow egg stew or something.  It didn’t really agree with me, probably because I don’t like stew that much.  Of course, thinking about the main ingredient coming out of a sparrow did little to improve matters.  And actually, I’m not all that crazy about kids either.  Anyway, the triple combination made me have to use the bathroom in a big way, so I ran down the hall, jumped in the stall, and was like, Oh Christ, where the hell’s the toilet?  Where the Throne of Glory was supposed to be there was just a porcelain trough.

Japanese National Exercise Program

I don’t know if you’ve used the bathroom in Japan much, but sometimes this happens, and it’s never good.  It’s just not right to feed a guy stuff that greatly encourages him to use the toilet, and then not give him a toilet.  You just have to squat, which takes a surprising amount of balance and thigh strength.  Like, I’m sure the acrobats in Cirque de Soleil can manage okay, but for a former American whose idea of using the can includes a steaming mug of coffee and a good internet connection, this is not a desirable situation.  However, as I was all out of options, I set about doing my business like a cave man.  And just then, I noticed this little framed poem on the wall in front of the trough, like someone’s going to be crouching down there so long that they actually get bored and then they’re like, Oh my, a lovely poem, how delightful.  Japanese people are pretty thoughtful, actually.

It read:

幸せはいつも自分の心が決める

Happiness is always something your own heart decides

Japanese people are pretty strange, actually.  Even still, it seemed like a pretty fabulous idea, being happy that is, so when I trudged back to the classroom I resolved to be happy, no matter what.  That lasted exactly about a minute.

The Japanese Classroom

When I walked in, the third-graders were eating their gruel in silence, all looking like the class rabbit had just died a fiery death.  So I decided to liven the place up with one of my hilarious jokes.  If you take two birds from flock, what do you get?  A chicken!  See, there’s this play on words in Japanese, where “two birds” sounds like “chicken,” get it?  It’s funny, right?  A chicken!  Okay, actually it’s not funny in Japanese either.  Whatever, you could at least pretend to laugh.  But instead everyone just stared at their porridge.  And then the homeroom teacher started yelling at the kids with his brown, pockmarked face, telling them to smile and making them ask me questions.

So this one boy looks up at me, and he’s about nine years old and he’s got a mouth full of sparrow eggs and rice and he mumbles, “How many cavities do you have?”  And bunches of rice are falling out of his mouth.  Japanese kids love to talk with their mouths full.  It’s gross.  I was like, Aw, chew with your mouth closed, for Chrissakes kid.  Also, I really couldn’t think of a decent response.  So I said “Six.”  I don’t know why.  All the kids nodded thoughtfully.  The teacher was pacing through the rows saying, “Ken-sensei came all the way from U.S.A.!   You should ask him many questions!”  You could see them all looking down and sweating hard, trying to think of something.

Eventually, this one terrified kid with watery eyes raised his hand a little.  Great, I thought, finally a question like, How big are American hamburgers? or, What kind of presents does Santa bring?  Or something.  And he just looks at me like he’s going to cry and says, “Do you have any regrets?”   Totally did not see that one coming.  I was like, Wha?  How’s a nine year-old kid come up with a question like that?  Regrets?  You mean like I wish I hadn’t been out singing karaoke and drinking shochu until four this morning?  You mean like I wish I’d stayed in bed and not come to your crummy school that doesn’t even have a toilet?  You mean that kind of regret?  But what I actually said was, Yes, I wish I’d done my homework like a good boy when I was your age.  I thought that was a pretty fabulous answer.  I should be a child psychologist, really.

The Sunny Japanese Cultural Outlook

But I realized then that this little boy’s happiness was not something he could just independently decide to have.  He was a product of a zitty teacher, a second-rate school, and a few thousand years of Japanese culture.  And actually, I was starting to suspect that maybe I was too.  Like, you ever notice that it’s a lot easier to be happy when the weather’s sunny?  You feel good, everyone else feels good, and pretty soon you’re having a summertime barbecue in your backyard with fifty of your closest friends and it’s midnight and the cops arrive to tell you to turn the stereo down again.  Well, that’s exactly what it’s like in Japan, only it’s not sunny and there’s no yard, barbecue, or stereo.  Just a bunch of people staring at their shoes in a daze, like zombies in a monsoon.  But otherwise, pretty much the same.

If You’re Happy and You’re Japanese, do Absolutely Nothing

Somehow Japanese people have managed to elevate looking bummed out into an art form.  It’s like this crazy mass hypnosis.  Did you know the U.N. actually has something called the World Happiness Report?  Yeah, me neither, but Denmark is killing it.  Meanwhile, Japan is dangling below Turkmenistan.  Seriously, I didn’t even know that was a country.

But going home, crammed into a steamy train car with a hundred people, everybody sweating through their suits and typing on their phones like mad, I was trying to make my heart decide to be happy without much effect.  Nobody talking, nobody smiling; everybody just heading back to miniscule apartments for a bath and five hours of sleep before getting on the train again.  On the plus side, I can now touch-type about 35 words per minute on my phone.  My fingers have gotten super nimble.  I guess I’m pretty happy about that.

And then at the next station, three gaijin women got on the train, all sounding like they were from Alabama.  I was like, Whoa, fat broads who dress badly.  But they were so full of energy, talking, laughing, oblivious.  I tried to remember what that was like, talking openly with other people, surrounded by supportive, encouraging friends.  Man, Americans can do anything.  I had a vague memory of my former life.  Hanging onto the train strap in my salaryman suit, I felt mixed emotions.  At least, I think they were emotions.  No, I’m pretty sure.  Anyways, it was very confusing, is what I’m saying.  And all that emoting was building up a powerful thirst.

Ancient Oriental Happiness Secret

So when I transferred at Shinjuku, I decided to head out of the station to this izakaya I’m crazy about and have a bite to eat and just one drink.  Six beers later, I was laughing my ass off with a dozen people, telling them about my sparrow gruel lunch and the toilet that wasn’t.  The guy next to me turned out to be a professional guitarist, even though he looked like some homeless dude with stringy hair.  So I said, If you can play it, I can sing it, which is exactly half true, and when he produced a guitar we sang this Okinawan number, followed by “Never Been to Me,” which brought the house down.  I sound so much like Charlene when I hit those high notes that it’s scary.  Really, trust me, it’s terrifying.  Then I decided to have another beer and suddenly realized that, all reports and observations to the contrary, at that moment, I was in the happiest place on earth.  Man, I love Japan sometimes.

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29 Comments

  1. I can’t believe the students really asked you that kind of questions!!

    I used to hate Japanese toilets. It took me many years to get used to them, but nowadays I sometimes even prefer them to Western ones.

    As always, it was a pleasure to read your blog post! :)

    • Yeah, those are verbatim translations from the Japanese. Kids never cease to amaze me.

      As for the bathroom situation, I still prefer something that doesn’t make me feel like I’m doing a yoga pose.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Totally feel your pain on the toilets,
    as I used to teach at some Japanese elementary schools and never got used to those toilets!! I prefer being able to sit and relax too, balancing over those squatting style ones takes so much muscle!!
    Sparrow soup.. I haven’t heard of that one yet though! :D

    • Truth is, I’m not really sure what kind of bird they came out of, but they’re mighty tiny. Maybe a hummingbird. Mmm, delicious hummingbird eggs . . .

      Ever notice that Japanese kind of have a thing for eggs? Between birds and fish, there sure are a lot of eggs in various Japanese foods. Peculiar.

      • Kennta

        It is quail.
        ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quail
        Common in Japan.

        • Well, I believe you, but I gotta say using quail is a pretty inspired idea. I mean, where’re they hiding all these Japanese quail? You sure they’re not crow eggs? There’s definitely a lot of crows around. Like have you ever seen a quail fly off with your garbage? No way, right.

          And if they are quail, what are the larger implications? Does this mean my Egg McMuffin could be made with quail? Terrifying.

          • Sorry,I meant quail eggs are common in the market, they are farm raised,so it is like we don’t see any chickens around but still there are a lot of chicken eggs in the market.
            I’ve never seen wild quails either.
            Sometimes chicken eggs are too big for Japanese dishes, so they use them.
            They are far more expensive per pound compare to the chicken eggs, so you don’t have to worry about McDonald’s using them

          • Whew, thank God. I went almost thirty-six hours without an Egg McMuffin, during which time I felt woozy and disoriented, which I attribute to my plummeting cholesterol level. Now I can start to gradually nurse myself back to health.

  3. On the one hand, I’m a little upset that you didn’t explain the Rule of 7. On the other, this post hit home so I’ll let it slide.

    See, I taught at a Korean elementary school, and had a similar experience. Standing in a hot, damp subway car, watching everyone wear that oh-so-recognizable facial expression that reveals the single, repeating mantra behind their faceplate: “God damn it, I woke up again today.” After a while I wore this same expression.

    Only when I heard a bunch of ‘foreigners’ laughing and talking one day did I realize how far I had come from my roots. The Koreans and I either stared at them, ignored them, envied them, and hated them (just a little bit).

    That night, unlike your karaoke session, I went to a Korean BBQ joint, drank a bottle of Chamisul soju as I tried to relax my work-generated stage two hypertension, and felt a lot happier. You see, alcohol, by making all detail foggy, simultaneous allows one to focus on the big picture; this is perhaps not the best time to make decisions, but an excellent opportunity to gather information about one’s situation. Smiling, I walked back to my tiny apartment in which I passed out on the sofa while watching Star Trek: The Next Generation dubbed in French.

    Realizing that I was only happy while inebriated, I gave my one-month notice the next day, and then backpacked around Korea for months. It was great.

    I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this, but the important thing is that I need you to explain the Rule of 7.

    Make it so.

    • Whoa, your Korean experience sounds scarily similar to mine in Japan. You know your mind’s gone strange when you look at visitors from your home country as foreigners, and the local folks as your own people. But living in Asia long enough seems to do that to a person. Of course, logically speaking, if you’re only happy while inebriated, the singular logical conclusion would be to stay drunk as much as humanly possible. I’m pretty sure that can only lead to good outcomes.

      Next up, the Japanese Rule of 7. I’m trying to get that done before summer break, in between the drinking, womanizing, and occasionally working that takes up all my time. Thanks for keeping me on track. Man, there’s a lot of stuff about Japan that needs to be written! I gotta get me a secretary.

  4. Love Japanese “squatter” toilets, I never found it difficult to use them but actually quite enjoyed peeing in that position. It reminded me of growing up and peeing in the woods, just a very natural feeling.
    Wonderful to read your artice though Mr. Ken and very happy to have stumbled upon it this morning.

    • Yeah, don’t get me wrong–I love using the little men’s room in nature too. Like if I’m at a cocktail party and the bathroom’s on the second floor, I figure, Why not just light up the ficus in the hall? It has all the feeling of the great outdoors plus it’s way more convenient. Planter full of herbs on your balcony? Not a problem. Philodendron hanging over the kitchen sink? I’m up on that counter in a heartbeat.

      On an unrelated note, I’m free the entire month of August, in case anybody’s hosting an event they’d like to invite me to.

  5. Ah… the trough… I was wondering when you were going to get to that. I still can’t figure out which direction I am to face. But it does seem to be an endless source of comedy. I was doing my “Cirque de Soleil” balance in Tokyo Station once, when my belt-clipped point-and-shoot camera slowly slid around my waste and into the trough.

    • No doubt, the whole thing is just a disaster waiting to happen. Anything on your belt or in your pockets has a high likelihood of ending up in the whizzer. Probably the best bet is to get completely naked before even going in.

      As for which direction to face, I try to mix it up, just for some variety.

  6. I couldn’t be sure without seeing them, but the eggs are probably quail eggs. I get them in our school lunches every couple months, and they’re often in soups or stews. Your local store might even have them in packages in the can isle or freezer.

    I did a post on toilets in Japan, looking back at Japanese history, its easy to see where they came from… but yea definitely can be a pain to use.

    I teach at 6 elementary schools once a month and each group of kids is very different. I get inquisitive and kids like the ones you ran into. Hope you have better experiences in the future, they can be the most fun to teach.

  7. I dunno, quails, sparrows, robins–I say anything smaller than a chicken is just downright concerning. It’s like I’m trying to have lunch, not expand my ornithological horizons. And if there’s eggs on the shelf in the can aisle, somebody needs to tell the staff so they can move them things into some refrigeration.

    But thanks for reading, seriously.

  8. This made me laugh. I’m currently living basically next to an elementary school and a daycare so i’m pretty familiar with the topic. Usually younger japanese kids seem to like me tho for some strange reasons, well it’s not really mutual unfortunately.

    • Ah, living around schools is a joy of life in Japan, where all day long you can hear the delightful laughter and screams of children. No one could ever tire of it.

      Kids apparently like me as well, if the amount of time the spend touching my hairy arms is any indication. I’m like the pony in the petting zoo. I tell them beer keeps my coat lustrous.

      • yeah, right hahah
        i was in Yoyogi park today and a kid around 3 came up to me and gave me a flower, than set next to me and casually started eating my food. it took 10 minutes for the parents to realize their kid was gone, it was quite funny but somehow felt a little bit un-japanese if you know what i mean

        • Yeah, kids are hilarious.

          As for feeling un-Japanese, I kind of know what you mean, but then that situation isn’t hard to imagine here. While they’re often touted as being rigid, Japanese people are also remarkably uninhibited in some situations, and children are no exception. You know what I mean? Sometimes where you’d expect a boundary (or even common sense), there isn’t one. It’s one of the interesting things about living here.

          • Oh yes definitely. I have been here once few years ago, but it was quite different as I spent only 2 weeks here with three girlfriends of mine and none of us spoke japanese at all. I still haven’t mastered the language (right now dont’t think it’s even possible hahah) but working on it, and now i’m here for three month, and came completely alone. Back than obviously no one would come up to us just to have a causal chitt~chatt, or something (well at least no sober people), so we just easily accepted the fact, that Japanese people are quite distant with foreigners. This time it took me exactly one and a half days, to prove how wrong this idea was. I mean they tend to be, but I can talk to most of them, even if we have to mix three different languages, write down worlds and kanjis. I usually meet the most amazing people while I’m doing my laundry. I already went out to eat randomly with three guys, got good ‘friends’ with my neighbor who is a 90 years old man hates the world and the only English he knows is ‘motherfucker’ and got invited over for dinner to another neighbor’s an old lady’s place while i was smoking downstairs… and they are all amazing people! As I said, i’m still speaking very limited japanese (and when other foreigners are around me even that disappears hahaha). I would say it usually depends on how you approach them.
            What I really ment by “un-japanese”, as you said as well, on everyday basis they tend to look quite emotionless, and so stereotypically…um…well… japanese it still can surprise me if someone smiles at me on the train in a lazy morning, or someone comes up to me in a park. But it’s not too difficult to get some warmth from these people. Every time I feel lonely or just fed up with the studying, I just go down to do my laundry and I will defo run into someone who would be willing to have a weird conversation with me. It is challenging. Everytime when someone asks me why I came back, and why I want to come back here after university, when Japan is so… and you know there comes the list, the bad things usually people know about this country. And the thing is I spent my entire life in Hungary, than lived in Minnesota for a year, went back to Budapest, thn moved to the UK and have been to plenty of places around the world, but I have never found a place as different and challenging in EVERY aspects ever. I don’t think I could move here permanently but would definitely want to try it for a year or two, and mainly because of the people, secondly because of the food. And for fuck sake, it’s a country with panty thief. How wonderful is that!
            (okay now i will shut the fuck up and go back to my kanjis. maybe get a beer and than the kanjis.)

  9. Hello!
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    http://news.searchina.ne.jp/disp.cgi?y=2012&d=0716&f=national_0716_019.shtml,
    which describes wonderful topics related to Japan.

    Thank you for your information.

  10. Hey Seeroi-san. I’ve been reading a lot of your blogs and they’re really interesting! Even the one’s about the educaiton system and teaching that other people say are boring, I think they’re cool. Anyway,when I leave Uni I want to become a backpack journalist (writer, blogger, photographer and camraman all in one) and live in Japan. I was wondering, how do you generate your income? How would could I make a job out of blogging in Japan? Thankyou very much! You are a real inspiration!

    • Hey Connie! Thanks a lot for the props–that’s awesome.

      Your questions really got me thinking. Like I went out to the park last night and looked up at the sky and thought about your questions. And I thought about life and the universe. But then it was really hot and I got thirsty and so I went to Family Mart and bought a big beer. And then I went back to the park and thought some more.

      But where was I? Oh yeah, anyway, so I think the idea of being a backpack journalist is fantastic. My experience with blogging is that, in addition to writing, there’s a lot of marketing and social networking involved. I really don’t devote the time I should to that aspect of it. Also I’m not selling anything, which would be a really good thing to do if you wanted to generate some income. So think about something you can sell. Like one of these days I’ll get around to publishing my book entitled “Holy Crap, The Last Train was When?” and its companion volume, “Ken Seeroi’s Guide to the Most Comfortable Park Benches in Tokyo.”

      Aside from the question of income, you also have to somehow deal with the whole visa issue. In order to stay in Japan for a while, you’ll need a visa, which usually means you’ll have to work full-time, at least at first. So even if you could support yourself on your writing, you’d still need to get a job working for somebody else. Otherwise you’ll be limited in how long you can stay.

      For income, I do the same thing many other long-term ex-pats do, which is, namely, lots of everything. In addition to writing and photography, I also do translation, consulting, voice recordings, and of course, teaching English. If you’ve got good qualifications, you can usually pick up a heaping variety of short-term contracts. The compensation can be pretty good, but your income will fluctuate from month to month depending on your workload. Having an amazing resume helps tons. So publish some things in your home country, do some photography work there, and acquire any certifications and licenses you can. See you when you get here.

  11. Hey Ken!

    Just wanted to say that this was really an entertaining reading and it made me happy ;)

    One question though – do you go to izakayas alone? I never dare to enter one with no company and I cannot imagine how it would be if I was alone :)

    Cheers,
    Simon

    • Absolutely. Sometimes I go out with friends, but a lot of nights I just want a couple of beers and a bite to eat, so I drop by some neighborhood izakaya on my way home.

      Speaking and reading Japanese helps a lot, of course. Although many menus feature the same items, so a little knowledge goes a fairly long way. Take a look at the menu outside. If you can read some of it, you’re set.

      Generally, I try to pick places that are fairly small and have a positive vibe. Most izakaya have both tables and a bar counter, so if you look in and see a few people sitting at the counter, that’s a good sign.

      Of course, you can expect to be bombarded with the whole Rule of 7 questions before long. Having an electronic dictionary in your bag is probably a good idea.

  12. Super late comment but it’s a slow day here so..

    Your izakaya ending reminded me of a (perhaps false) insight I got a while back. I was dating a girl from Kyushu and for a while I had decided to quit drinking (for health reasons and just generally to mix things up) and she was a bit put out by it. I forget her exact words but she basically questioned whether I could enjoy myself and be happy if I didn’t drink. I’m not “Fun Bobby” from Friends, I can chat away fine with people stone cold sober and have a laugh :)

    Anyway, shortly I ran into an English guy in a bar who happened to be married to a lady from the same part of Kyushu as that girl. For some reason I relayed to him how my girlfriend was suggesting I should drink for my happiness. He said his wife sometimes encourages him to drink for the same reason and his theory about it was that these women grew up with a stereotypical salaryman father, and the only time they saw their father relaxed and smiling and happy was when he was drunk. So they grew up with this notion that men need alcohol to be able to relax and enjoy. Which is kinda true, but not always or exclusively true :)

    I was shocked (even as an Irish person) at how much alcohol is a big part of Japanese culture and I’ve heard it speculated elsewhere that Japanese people use alcohol as a form of “self-medication” to deal with their lives, instead of doing what would make them happy or getting therapy or a divorce or whatever.

    It’s great to go for a drink with friends (or strangers) and have a laugh and enjoy. But if that’s the only way people in a society can feel like they are happy, when they’re under the influence, it’s maybe not super healthy..

    • You know, I actually quit drinking for a while here too. Remind me to write about it sometime. So I know what you mean, alcohol is kind of built into the culture here, especially if you’re a guy. Don’t get me started on eating all kinds of meat. There’s this macho hangup that Japanese people have, which is weird because the men are supposed to be simultaneously kind of feminine. Like you’d want to be a super skinny guy with long flowing locks and a tiny man-purse, who’s also capable of consuming his weight in yaki-niku and shochu. That basically describes all the guys who work in host clubs. Think like a young Keith Richards.

      Guess I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Japanese culture is ridiculously appearance-oriented. You don’t get any credit for being healthy, or funny, or cool, only for looking like you are. Man, I gotta go get a beer.

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