Guest post by Akita Ben
As night closed over my first month in Japan, I walked past the Lawson, Daily Yamazaki, and Iwai-san the barber until I got to the river. From the middle of the bridge, I stopped and looked down at the serpentine water and beyond to the three-story Itoku and rectangular old hotel that comprises my town’s skyline. Everything was tinged with purple and orange in the fading light. It was beautiful, but I felt alienated. My mind became clouded with dark doubts: “Why am I on a bridge in Northern Japan? I don’t belong here. This is a waste of time.” Japanese joggers trotted past, like, “Great, another gaijin going over the rail. Better pick up the pace.” But after a few more minutes of sullen reflection, I walked back to my prison cell.
Japanese Prison Life
Sorry, I meant “my apartment.” I’ve been living here for a month and the hardest part of my new existence in this remote prefecture has been the solitary confinement. There’s nothing objectively wrong with my place—it’s spacious enough, not nearly the cramped closet I imagined I’d live in, completely furnished, including a small shelf, microwave, and infestation of spiders festooning the hallway with webs and desiccated table scraps—it just feels simultaneously claustrophobic and yawningly empty. Left alone, I don’t know what to do with myself, so my mind naturally throws this spectacular party where I somehow forgot to send out invites and find myself stuck with deflated balloons and stale carrot cake. I need to get out. Thankfully, I live in the same complex as the other grade-school English teachers in my town.
I’ve become particularly close with my senpai, let’s call him Patrick, who, although a few years younger, I look up to for wisdom and prowess in all things Japanese. So, feeling lonely and trapped in my cell, I sent Patrick a message to see if he wanted to go for a drink. Then after half an anxious hour with no reply, I went for a walk to the bridge.
The Japanese Horse Meat Trick
Once I got back, Patrick got back to me, and off we went out to this little izakaya around the corner. Upon opening the door, we found the small establishment packed and every head turned to stare at us. There followed a few seconds of awkward silence as we stood in the doorway with nowhere to sit. The bartender eventually pointed to a table occupied by two Japanese fishermen who obligingly shared the space. Patrick has an exceptional command of the Japanese language after only living here a year, so he did most of the talking, while I sat and tried to decipher what I could.
The bartender, an impish, mischievous man of about seventy, served us each a bowl of slimy black seaweed along with another bowl of some kind of meat. At first I thought I heard him say it was bear, then horse, until he finally insisted it was horse penis. I turned to the other patrons and asked if it was really horse penis and they assured me it was. It didn’t appear to be penis or horse meat, but having never seen or consumed either, I couldn’t be sure. I got the feeling it was “trick the gaijin” night at the bar.
Whatever meat it was, it was pretty delicious (horse penis tastes just like chicken) so Patrick and I wolfed it down. Strangely enough, Patrick didn’t eat the seaweed, so I polished his off too. People are picky in weird ways. Then the old bartender entertained us with a magic trick involving a pair of chopsticks and a wristwatch, but he wasn’t that great of a magician and kept dropping everything and having to start over. After that, we took the obligatory photo with him sandwiched between two tall white guys like a gnomish set extra from Lord of the Rings. Finally, Patrick and I made our goodbyes and lurched back to our apartments with bellies full of beer, slime, and schwantz.
If I could only eat horse penis and drink tall frosty beers every night, I’d be content. Alas, though I make a decent salary, I have neither the means to fund such a lifestyle nor the spare liver necessary to survive it. Thus it was inevitable that my loneliness and doubts would return.
Lonely in Japan
I’ll soon begin teaching at two junior high schools, so I’ve been preparing my self-intro materials. This requires hours of scrolling through old photos of my life in the States, my parents, and my girlfriend of five years, which is, of course, always a recipe for depression. One picture in particular had an impact.
My girlfriend and I were hiking in the redwoods three years ago. And at the summit of the hike, we found a big mustard-yellow banana slug and I opened up to her about my yearning to travel to Japan. I mean, to my girlfriend, not the banana slug. Actually, the banana slug didn’t have anything to do with the confession, it just happened to be there, so forget I even mentioned it. Anyway, at the time, I thought about how great it would be to live in Japan and imagined what it would be like. And now here I am, staring at a computer screen in an old, spider-studded mid-century modern office building—in Japan.
It’s easy for me to forget where I am. My first month in Japan, real Japan, doesn’t feel like the shining world of my musings. Life here is often as banal as it was back in the States. Sometimes I get the feeling of existing within my own detached bubble separated from everything, merely watching life go by like the repeating background of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. But moments of clarity hit me from time to time, when I suddenly confront the fact that I’m really and truly occupying this particular space called Japan.
Why am I Here Again?
But why? Tell me again why I left behind a loving girlfriend and large, close-knit family to plunk myself down halfway across the world on an Asian archipelago renowned for its economical autos, melodramatic cartoons, and death by overwork? Sure, I was twiddling my thumbs for years in the States, but will I just be twiddling Japanese thumbs for another year here? Did I come merely for the change of scenery? When I return, what will Japan have provided that I couldn’t have gotten by staying in America?
Advice about Japan
Over beers one night, Patrick shared some advice he’d heard: If you stay less than two years in the JET Program, you need to have a damn good reason to go back; if you stay more than two years, you need to have a damn good reason to stay. See? That’s why I say he’s wise. For me, I don’t plan on staying in Japan forever, and a year does go by fast, which is both a consolation and a challenge. My time here will be brief, so I have to use this interval to ensure this experience doesn’t merely become a series of wistful, hackneyed stories to be re-hashed at dinner parties.
If you stay less than two years, you need to have a damn good reason to go back; if you stay more than two years, you need to have a damn good reason to stay.
I’m happy to be teaching soon, or at least an ostensible approximation of such. When I’m feeling lonely or lost, it’s sobering to think that my first month in Japan isn’t some extended vacation, but rather that I’m here to do a job. Ultimately, my time here isn’t about me. It’s about my students and the community and what I can do as a teacher to help them. Any difficulties are simply an inevitable part of working overseas. And, if ever I need comfort, there’s always beer, slimy black seaweed, and a big bowl of horse penis waiting just down the street.