“Remember that place I used to live, on the 5th floor?”
If this was Emi’s way of asking if I could ever forget her tiny, damp apartment where we spent several nights a week cross-legged on the floor powering through tins of mackerel and cans of malt liquor, the answer would be a resounding Oh hell no.
“Oh hell yeah,” I answered resoundingly. “That place was the best.” And of course by “the best,” she knows I mean “the worst.”
“Well, I just found out my sister lives around the corner. We passed her house every day for two years and never knew it.”
“And this surprises me why?” I asked.
“Because she’s my sister,” is what any reasonable, Western person would’ve said, instead of just “huuh?” but then I never dated Emi because she was endowed with oversized reasonability. Anyway, it’s no secret that Japanese people know basically jack shit about their own friends and family.
Is Japan a lonely place?
So recently, a reader named Chika asked, “Why do people say Japan’s a lonely place?”
Maybe that’s an overly-obvious question for a country where young men lock themselves in their bedrooms, eating instant noodles for a week, I don’t know. Anyway, people say lots of stuff, like alcohol’s a depressant, and I’m pretty sure that’s not true since the only time I’m depressed is when I open the fridge and there’s none of it. I really gotta remember to buy the tall cans.
Whatever, once you get over the fact that you’ll know virtually nothing of substance about anybody close to you, Japan’ll start feeling pretty normal.
Lonely in Japan
So will you be lonely in Japan? Well, if you’re nutty enough to consider moving here, or possibly already have, let me break it down for you:
1. You’re going to, uhh, a foreign country. Hey, it’s hard enough to make friends in your own land, much less someone else’s.
2. No matter how good your Japanese is, it’s tough to be more than a talking dog. Like, nice trick, but everyone knows you’re still a dog. It might be worth considering how foreigners are treated in whatever country you’re from too.
3. You’ll quickly fill up your phone with Japanese “friends,” names, numbers, and photos of hundreds of folks you’ll eventually realize you know nothing about.
4. The longer you’re here, the less you’ll have in common with gaijin. All those people hanging out in Irish bars will start to seem weird. Actually, they are weird, but anyway, good job; now you don’t fit in with them or the Japanese.
And yet, somehow none of that matters. Because somewhere there’s a dude whose brilliant idea is to pull a sled across Antarctica all by himself. He’ll spend months alone in the snow, negative sixty, freezing his ass off in a cramped, frozen tent, and if even if he makes it back alive, someday he’ll be at a party saying, “I skied across the coldest continent on earth and now I’ve got no toes” and everybody’ll pause for a second and then be like, “Okay, who wants more fruit punch? Celery sticks? Spinach dip?”
And still, for whatever reason, he spends his life savings, books a flight from Chile, packs up his sled, and does it anyway. Now, I’m in no way suggesting that Japan’s on par with that kind of adventure, only that, well, if you wanted to know if a solo polar expedition was a good fit for you, moving to Japan might constitute a pretty accurate preliminary test.
Alone in Japan
So today I was rushing back to my apartment when I passed this French café with “vegetable quiche” scrawled in chalk on the signboard out front. You had me at hello. I cracked open the door and peered inside. Sunlight slanted through lace curtains, illuminating round yellow tables full of little old ladies chatting over tiny cakes. Music was playing softly in the background. It was The Hokey Pokey, in English. You put your left foot in, you put your left foot out. You put your left foot in, and you shake it all about. Japan’s so freaking weird.
I put my left foot in. Now, I know you’re thinking, Whoa, isn’t Ken Seeroi really more of beer-and-ramen kind of guy? And yeah, you’d be right to ask that. But since Seeroi Sensei’d been locked in his apartment all week with short cans of beer and large cups of instant noodles until his blood alcohol and sodium levels approached critical levels…well hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. Plus, I fucking love quiche.
I slid the door wide open, and my silhouette in the entranceway produced a reaction like that movie scene where the cowboy parts the swinging doors and the whole saloon goes quiet. Blue-haired ladies with mouthfuls of cake stopped in mid-chew. Somebody dropped a spoon. The woman at the cash register looked like I’d just come to rob the place and seemed to be fumbling for a silent alarm button under the counter.
I walked up, and in Japanese said, “Vegetable quiche?”
She glanced around nervously, then her eyes fell in the direction of a thick slice under a fragile glass dome, shimmering in a ray of sunlight .
“What’s in it?” I drooled.
“Vegetables,” she replied.
“Well, good enough. That and a cup o’ coffee.”
“Cream and sug…?” she began hesitantly.
“Just black,” I replied, and she seemed relieved.
Of course, she forgot to mention that this particular vegetable quiche was enhanced with hunks of bacon, but since ham’s basically a vegetable in Japan, I let it slide. I carefully ate it with this wee wooden fork and a midget-sized cup of coffee listening to “The Hokey Pokey” on loop, and it was all pretty great.
And as the sun went down on another day in the land of the rising sun, I saw my shadow on the floor—a giant foreign guy quietly eating vegetable quiche chock full of bacon, cradling a tiny white mug of black coffee, alone in a French café buzzing with old Japanese women chatting over English music, and nobody batting an eye. I have to say, I’ve never felt more at home.