Also known as, “Why on Earth am I Still Here?”
So the bad news is, I shattered a wine glass all over my new carpet last night. The good news is, hey, I got a new carpet. See, there’s a bright side to everything.
So today I woke up with the window wide open and this terrifying headache and did a quick systems check. Do I have on underwear? Apparently so. Are they my own? Hmm, pink and satiny, yeah, those’d be mine. Is anyone beside me? Perhaps she left to buy a vacuum cleaner. Do I have many small pieces of glass embedded in my feet? Sure feels like it. Oh God, why am I still in Japan? Then I looked at the clock and Whoa, no time for that—-McDonald’s breakfast service ends in 9 minutes! I still can’t figure out why it’s physically impossible to drop a freaking frozen hash brown into boiling oil after 10:30 a.m., but apparently it is. Ah, science, there’s still so much you can’t explain.
First Time in Japan
Well, there’s nothing like an Egg McMuffin to clear your head, that’s what I always say. All that cholesterol does wonders for the old cranial arteries. So while I was hunched over my molded yellow table trying to decide if I was having a stroke, a hangover, or both, I briefly blacked out into this flashback of coming to Japan for the first time, in which I played the part of Dorothy landing in Oz—-everything was weird and funny and there were all these midget people running around. I had a band of friends with no brains or hearts, none of us could read or say anything that made sense, and everything we did was wrong. All that was missing was the annoying little dog, although there were plenty of stray cats. My first day, I went jogging and then couldn’t find my hotel again. Later I walked into an elevator and a guy in a suit hugged me. People helped me dress myself, showed me how to eat, and taught me how to use the toilet. It was awesome.
Nothing stays new forever though. Eventually the Yellow Brick Road ended and I could order my own potato salad in a restaurant. Then I stopped getting on the train going the opposite direction. At some point I figured out what the buttons on my TV remote did and quit talking to people with my hands in my pockets. Men stopped hugging me. I do kind of miss that.
But although Japan has become familiar, there’s still a lot I don’t know. Now, I’m sure you’re saying, What, Ken Seeroi not know something? And yes, I too find it difficult to believe, but there you have it. For example, I still don’t know the name of the street I live on after a year and a half. I’m starting to suspect it doesn’t actually have a name though. Anyway if it does, you know it ain’t gonna be like Maple Avenue or something. More like 紅葉通り. See, impossible. Not my fault.
Japan Versus America
So that’s part of what keeps me here—-the remaining Mysteries of the Orient. Like, say, my washing machine. I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave Japan before I figure out when to add the fabric softener. But that’s just me. I like soft clothes. At the same time, the U.S. seems increasingly bizarre. What kind of a country has no public transportation? And don’t say “Uh, the bus?” because I rode one of those once and it didn’t even go in a straight line. And where else in the world is it legal to carry a gun, but you get arrested for walking down the street with a beer? Why is there no permit which will allow me to keep a spare can strapped to my ankle? I promise I won’t use it unless provoked.
Which is to say that if I now see the downsides to Japan—-the concrete poured all over the hillsides, the power lines that mess up every picture of a temple I try to take, the waitresses who ask if I can use chopsticks because I’m, you know, white—-I also know that no place is perfect. Well okay, maybe Finland. But then I’d have to cross-country ski everywhere and wear like a reindeer suit, so that’s out. You gotta draw the line somewhere. Although I do look stunning in deer horns. So really, all countries, and all things, have good and bad, and I accept that. Donuts are delicious but fattening. Old men are wise but have backs that’re all hairy. Girls with big boobs have big butts. That’s just how God made the universe. Hey, it was his first try so, well, A for effort.
Nuts & Bolts
Then there are the practical considerations. Leaving Japan isn’t that easy. Probably should’ve thought about that before moving here, but well, I’m not real big on planning. I enjoy surprises. So now—surprise—I’ve got a crapload of stuff: a comfy couch, a rice cooker, and a miniature motorcycle. Not to mention an apartment, a job, a new carpet that glitters like glass, and more girlfriends than I can shake a stick at. Trust me, I’ve tried. On top of that, I hate cleaning and packing because they resemble work which I’m allergic to, so that alone is enough to keep me from moving forever. Then I’d have to buy a plane ticket for about a thousand bucks which I don’t have and when I got the States I’d have to live under a bridge until Starbucks hired me because I’ve now got a giant Japan-sized hole on my resume. So it’s not that easy to just pack up and move, is what I’m saying.
And if I did move back to the U.S., I doubt I’d ever visit Japan again. I mean, why would I, really? Pay tons of money for a plane ticket, hotel rooms, train passes, food—-all for like two weeks? Hell, I’m already here; why not just stay a couple weeks longer?
I’d almost certainly not live here again. It took a lot of time, cash, and effort to get set up in this crazy country. I can’t really see dismantling all that—quitting my job, giving away my microwave with all the buttons I still don’t understand, saying tearful goodbyes to everyone—-and then coming back a year later, like Just kidding! Now can I please have my tiny apartment back?
Then there’s the language. You know, I don’t like to say that I wasted ten years of my life studying Japanese. Instead, I prefer invested ten years of my life, because it sounds much better. Phraseology is everything. The truth is that learning Japanese has been ridiculously time-consuming, moderately interesting, and even marginally useful. And now that I’ve gotten to the point where I can finally use the telephone without paralyzing fear, it seems a shame to scrap the whole project. If I’d learned Spanish, I could travel to a dozen countries and use the language. With French, at least I could go to Quebec. But Japanese? It’s basically here or nothing, and why keep working on the language after giving up on the country? Well, at least I can now order sushi like a boss anywhere on earth, so that’s something. You should hear me pronounce “edamame.” In a word, Sublime.
Bored, Jaded, or Just Slowly Turning Japanese
After you’ve been here for a few years, you know, things change. Japan stops being a foreign country and just becomes, what? home? I mean, it’s not like you’re living in a hotel forever, even if the room’s the same size. The tourist attractions that were so fascinating at first, they become an everyday background, until you find yourself walking through Kyoto with a friend and you’re like,
“Whoa, look at that!
“Yeah sure, a ten thousand year-old temple encrusted with pure gold. Been there, so what.
“No fool, behind the temple—-a new Kentucky Fried Chicken!
“Daaamn. They have a new seasonal menu! Let’s go take photos with Colonel ojisan.”
So that Japanesey stuff—all the geisha, karate, robot, maid cafe business—-it’s not real life in Japan to me any more, just some bizarre thing I read about on the internet. Like no way I’m taking a picture of a sumo wrestler; I’m more interested in bumping him out of the way so I can get a seat on the train first. Hit low and catch them off-balance, is my advice. Still, there are a few things that I love about Japan, and that I’d really miss if I left.
The 9 Best Things About Japan
1. The food is amazing. I can get sushi at the 7-Eleven that puts to shame a fifty dollar dinner in the U.S. None of those California rolls and week-old sashimi that people rave about in the States. Then there’s the restaurant I stop at after work, where everyone says “welcome home, Seeroi-san.” It’s like my house, if my mom had been both Japanese and hated vacuuming. So it’s a little shabby, whatever. But I can get a full, home-cooked meal for around six bucks. That’s everything—food, drinks, tax, tip. It probably helps if you like Japanese home-cooking though. The meatloaf and green bean casserole are a wee bit different.
2. Okay, just the entire dining experience. Like, ever have a waiter come to your table just as you shovel in a mouth-load of food and ask “How is everything?” Not in Japan you didn’t. Here if you need something, you call for it, and if you don’t, they leave you the hell alone as God intended. And when you do ask for, say, a beer—Boom, it just comes. Like in ten seconds. Why the same exact request takes ten minutes in the U.S., I’ve never been able to fathom.
3. Japan is cheap. You can live in a clean, safe apartment in a reasonable neighborhood of Tokyo for 800 bucks a month. Or cut that in half if you live in a smaller city. I’m trying to imagine the rat-filled hellhole I’d rent in like Chicago or Seattle for $400 a month, and it’s pretty terrifying. Of course, if you want to live in a big place it’s gonna cost you more. So just live in a small place, is what I figure. That’s just less I have to clean. I mean, hypothetically, should I ever decide to.
4. The trains. You don’t need a car. So I was talking to an American friend of mine about this and he said “No, I like driving.” Now, I feel that. I also like the idea of whipping through the ocean spray as my tires grip the surface of an endless winding road—that sounds great, but the reality is that I’m actually sitting in traffic for hours plotting to murder the person who cut me off while badly needing to pee. And that’s less great. Then there are the hundreds of thousands of dollars that buying, maintaining, and insuring cars costs throughout one’s lifetime that I’d rather use for something more useful, like beer, which I can drink plenty of and then safely pass out on the train ride home.
5. National health insurance. Even when I took a few months off from work (okay, like a year), it only cost 20 bucks a month and could still go to the doctor. Sure, maybe with ObamaCare I could go to a public health center in the U.S., if perhaps death or prison were my other options. Actually, I’d choose prison cause it’s less scary. Like I was in this clinic in San Francisco and everyone was crowded into one giant waiting room for hours. Somebody big on planning had thoughtfully equipped the place with exactly nine chairs for a hundred people, and so finally, when this big fat lady left her seat and walked out of the room, I sat down. Then she came back and screamed “That’s my seat!” I jumped up and started looking to dive out of the emergency window. Jeeez fatty, have your plastic chair already.
6. So I guess I’d have to add to the list that Japanese folks aren’t obnoxious. They generally dress like adults (even the kids), have less tattoos than a carny Ferris wheel operator, and don’t reek of cologne. They even have a reputation for being polite (basically a massive PR campaign enlisting every Japanese person to remind you, “We’re polite, you know”), although I wouldn’t go that far. They have plenty of ways of being rude, but at least they do it freaking quietly. Even the minor put-downs seem almost innocent just because they’re delivered so delicately. “Oh, you can eat sashimi and drink green tea—sugoi!” Really, that impresses you? Just wait till you see me slam a family-size bag of Calbee’s barbecue chips and a 12-pack of Kirin Lager. But anyway, at least they’re subtle about it, which I appreciate.
7. Japanese leisure activities. Singing karaoke until 4 a.m. and then sleeping in the booth until dawn. Floating in a bath under the stars at an outdoor hot spring. Sleeping in Starbucks and nobody bothers you. Passing out after a festival on the grass. Okay, I like to sleep a lot. It keeps my skin radiant and youthful. And the department store free samples, arcade photo booths, batting cages, all that stuff. Okay, I’ve never actually been to a batting cage, but it seems kind of fun, what with the flying baseballs and all. So maybe this weekend.
8. Convenience. Convenience stores on every corner. Color printers and fax machines in convenience stores. A vending machine at the top of a mountain when I’m out for a hike. Taxis everywhere. Underwear in the convenience stores for those times when you’re not feeling that fresh. Taxi doors that open automatically. Toilets that flush automatically and partitions that go all the way to the ground. All that adds up to time and energy saved that I can then use for other things, like, well, drinking beer. Man, I really gotta get a new hobby. Hey, I tried wine and look how well that worked out, so I guess it’s back to shochu.
9. All the little things. Taking off shoes indoors. Buying fresh vegetables outdoors. Not fearing for my life when I take a couple hundred bucks out of the ATM at night. The city workers that pick up cigarette butts and discarded cans of coffee and cut the limbs off the trees every November before the autumn leaves can litter the ground. Eating pasta with chopsticks.
Well of course I figured I’d write The 10 Best Things About Japan, but when I came back from McDonalds I got so busy dragging my new carpet onto the balcony and trying to de-wineglassify it that I got stuck at nine. Sorry, workplace hazard. And then when I put on the little balcony slippers I could kind of imagine they were ruby-colored, even though they’re in fact blue, and anyway I thought maybe I’d try saying “There’s no place like home” a few times just to see what happened.
There’s no place like home.
But then when I said it, I realized, Hm, yeah, there really is no place. No place like home any more, and that was kind of strange and a bit nostalgic. But I guess the incantation actually worked, because I had another moment of clarity. Probably shouldn’t have eaten those three hash browns now that I think about it. Anyway, the clarity said, Well Seeroi, you’re certainly not in Kansas now. In fact, you’ve never even been to Kansas. And hell, you’re not even in Oz any more. What you are is a tall white guy in satiny underwear and little blue slippers flapping a big red carpet off a balcony, somewhere in the middle of Japan. And then I realized how fortunate I am to have a balcony that gets such good sunlight, and that made me kind of happy.