A Sunday in Japan

Last Sunday I went for a hike, I think. I mean, you’re never entirely sure what just happened in this strange country, but after a while you get used to it. That’s Japan in a nutshell.

It all started when Ruriko called at six A.M. I fell out of my futon, which albeit is about an inch high, turned off two alarm clocks and unplugged the lamp before realizing the source of annoyance was the phone. Really gotta remember to turn off that ringer.

“Ken!” she said brightly, “feel like going for a hike?” Ruriko made it sound like it was noon.

“Do I ever,” I replied.

“Great,” she chirped, “Pick you up in half an hour,” and hung up.

I wasn’t actually done, as I’d meant to say, “Do I ever do anything Sundays other than sleep off hangovers?” but she cut me off. Well, whatever. I dug through my closet uttering profanities, grabbing hiking boots, water bottles, a parka, rain poncho, hat, flashlight, chopsticks. There was a half-eaten bag of rice snacks in the fridge, so I stuffed them into a rucksack along with some frozen edamame, a can of tuna, and a 2-for-1 coupon for a Starbucks latte. You just never know when you’ll stop at Starbucks.

We did not Stop at Starbucks

We made it to the meeting point in front of some suburban town hall and were greeted by twelve of the scariest-looking Japanese dudes I’d ever seen.

I turned to Ruriko. “Let me guess—-dock workers? Meat packers? Convicts?”

“Gardeners,” she replied. “They’re into hiking.”

“What’s it, like a yakuza landscaping company?”

“No,” she said. “Okay, maybe fifty percent.” She’s very particular about accuracy, Ruriko.

Then we all stood around looking mad. A guy with an Indiana Jones hat was talking angrily on the phone. I tried to look mad too, you know, just to fit in. This went on for what seemed like a long time. Then a Chinese girl in a blue Toyota pulled up and Indiana Jones said Let’s go, and we climbed into this old gray bus.

We drove for an hour, then stopped at a market and everybody rushed inside to buy bentos. I bought three rice balls, one large can of hot coffee, and two small tubes of mayonnaise. Figured I’d make some tuna salad. That’s always good on a hike.

Japanese Hiking Equipment

Back on the bus, I realized the only ones with anything resembling hiking gear were Ruriko, me, and the Chinese girl.  Everybody else was dressed in khakis, work coats, and those ninja shoes that gardeners wear. They’d brought a giant blue cooler and piles of randomly scattered plastic bags, and that was about it. A loud discussion ensued over where we should hike—-around some dam or up a mountain somewhere. One side of the bus was yelling, “Yeah, but what if it rains?” with the other side yelling back, “It’s not going to fucking rain!” No one asked my opinion, nor did I venture it, although it seemed kind of drizzly.

We decided on a short hike up the mountain, then everybody pulled out cans of malt liquor and started slamming them down. I sipped my can of coffee and realized I had not packed adequate hiking provisions.

Preparing for a Japanese Hike

At the trail head, we all piled off the bus. Now, if you’ve ever been hiking in Japan, you know what a big deal stretching is. Everyone forms a large circle and goes through this systematic series of warm-up motions. Bend forward, rotate your knees, stretch backward. Yeah, we didn’t do any of that. Instead there was a mad rush to down the remainder of the malt liquor. The first to finish was a stocky guy dressed like a football coach in an Oakland Raiders sweatshirt. He tossed his empty into the bus and went charging up the hill. One by one everybody followed suit.

It was actually a pretty good hike. There was this one wrinkled geezer about a hundred years old serving as a guide. He was like, “See this stick? You can eat it. Yeah, try it. See this tree? Here, have some leaves. Have a whole mouthful. How do they taste?”

The half-yakuza gardeners leaned in and stared.

“Leafy,” I mumbled, chewing furiously.

“Sure they do. Now, see this other tree? Looks the same, right?”

“Yeah, pretty much all trees.”

“Only if you eat this one you’ll die!” and all the guys roared with laughter.

“Interesting,” I said. Then when no one was looking looking I spit out a hearty mouthful of sticks and leaves.

Taking in the View

We got to the top of the hill or mountain or whatever it was, which took about forty-five minutes. There was heavy fog, and we couldn’t see a thing. Basically, we were in a cloud. But anyway we took a few pictures and argued about whether it was raining or just misting a lot. A couple of guys were passing around a flask, and several others were peeing in the bushes. Then a tall dude in a red bandana said, “Is everybody here?” And we all turned around and looked at fog.

“Maybe,” said a voice.

“I think so,” said another.

“How many people did we start out with?” I asked. “We should count.”

“Is everybody here?” said another voice through the cloud.

“Let’s go,” said Indiana Jones, and we started down the hill.

We came to a long, steep, rocky section. Being sober, the sight of those cold, slick rocks looked incredibly dangerous. I really wished I was drunk. The hundred year-old guide stopped us.

“This part’s incredibly dangerous,” he said. “So be careful.”

“Yeah, we should all be very careful,” said a voice.

I looked around at the ghostly shapes of a dozen half-drunk half-yakuza gardeners ready to fall like dominoes. “We could,” I suggested, “wait ten seconds before following the guy in front. That way if someone slips…”

“We should all be careful,” said someone else.

“Yeah, let’s be very careful,” said another.

And so we descended in a pack over the wet rocks, being very careful.

Japanese Picnic Lunch

When we got to the bottom it was sunny again, so we went to this little overlook with some tables and had our respective bentos and I made an exceptionally good tuna salad. By this time someone had broken out a box of shochu, plus more malt liquor, some chu-hi’s, and a glass bottle filled with some sort of homemade moonshine.

I was sitting between two scrawny guys and across from a big dude glaring at me over a pair of aviator sunglasses and under a hat that said “Junk Runners.”

“I wonder if he drinks beer,” he said, eyeing me.

“They don’t like Japanese beer,” answered one scrawny guy.

“Yeah, they do,” countered the other.

“Does he speak Japanese?”

“They don’t.”

“I’ll bet he does. You should ask him.”

The big dude scowled at me. His neck was huge. He leaned in and said in English, “Speak Japanese?”

“Have some tuna salad?” I answered in Japanese. “It’s exceptionally good.” And suddenly everybody burst out laughing, gave me a beer, and then some moonshine.

It tasted like paint thinner, with a just hint of vinegar.

“How do you like it?” they all asked. “Is it good?”

“It’s, uh, kinda strong,” I sputtered, “but the vinegar’s a nice touch.”

“It’s terrible!” they howled. “Saito-san made it!”

“Who’s Saito-san?”

I never found that out. After lunch, Indiana Jones stood up and said, “Is everybody here?” and we all looked around. I tried to count again, but between guys tramping through the shrubs or passed out in the bus, I couldn’t come up with an accurate number.

“I think so,” said the guide.

“Let’s go,” said Indiana Jones.

We drove to some dam, parked at one end, and everybody went to lean over the railing and look at the water. It was a really long way down. We kept trying to take selfies in the middle of the dam, which was also the middle of the road, while cars came weaving down the mountain and swerving through our bunch of drunks.

Finally the guide yelled, “Let’s go! Everyone here?”

“You know,” I said, “if we took a count…”

People piled willy-nilly onto the bus. “Anybody missing?” he asked.

“See, by counting how many…”

“Let’s go,” he said. And so we went.

Lost in the Mountains of Japan

For some reason, we seemed to be heading north for a long time. Then south. Guys were passing beers over the seats, and the Coach of the Oakland Raiders was mixing plastic cups of moonshine and water. The Chinese girl kept showing me music videos on her phone. We stopped at a convenience store, because everybody needed to pee like mad, and plus we were running low on beer.

We formed a long line at the register, holding armloads of cans, fried ramen snacks, and something resembling Japanese Slim Jim’s. One guy had a bottle of whiskey and two quarts of milk. Good to see at least someone was concerned about their calcium intake. The cashier politely asked each person, “Do you have a frequent customer card? Would you like a bag?”

Of course, when I got to the register, without even glancing up she decided to say a whole lot of nothing. I get this “special” treatment, oh, only about one hundred percent of the time. So I handed her my frequent customer card. She silently put my cans of beer in a plastic bag. Since I didn’t really feel like killing a sea turtle just for two cans of beer, I said in Japanese, “I don’t need a bag.” Then she froze, like a dog had started speaking, and mechanically lifted the cans out of the bag. “I’d like the receipt too,” I said. She scanned the air, looking for a Japanese face, then handed me the receipt, and everybody started laughing. “Speaks Japanese!” said the guy with the huge neck, in English.

Back on the Bus

After one more round of “Is everybody here?” we started cruising out of the parking lot. Ruriko gazed out the window and nudged me. There was a guy sprinting from the restroom.

“Is he part of our group?” I asked.

The guide turned and looked. “Oh yeah,” he said, and we stopped and let him on.

We drove up hills and down hills, with the Raiders’ Coach stumbling back and forth pouring cups of shochu, beer, and moonshine. I soon had a cup of moonshine in my left hand and a beer in my right, until a box of Dunkin’ Donuts came round and I had to hold the beer between my knees. The sun was on our right, then on our left, and I got the distinct feeling we were lost in the mountains. Then a fight broke out.

Now, you might’ve heard that there are no swear words in Japanese. And like pretty much everything else people say about fabulous Japan, that would be, uh, wrong. It started with two guys in the back punching each other out, and soon erupted into an actual brawl, with an impressive stream of shouting and swearing and one guy on the floor of the bus. I’m pleased to say that my vocabulary grew quite nicely.

The driver, to his credit, didn’t seem too fussed about the whole situation. The guide turned to me and said flatly, “This happens sometimes.”

Japanese New Year’s Resolution

Things settled down after a bit and we made it safely back to the town hall parking lot. Then we all stood in a circle, thanked the guide, bowed a bunch, and promised to do it again soon.

Indiana Jones came up and shook my hand. “Can you drive home okay, Seeroi-sensei?” I was glad he’d learned my name.

“I’ll leave that to Ruriko. How ‘bout you guys? You probably shouldn’t…”

“We’re going drinking!” he said loudly.

But before I could say, “Sounds like an activity Ken Seeroi might be interested in pursuing,” Ruriko yanked me by the arm and pulled me into the car. She’s really no fun at all.

“We’ll stop at a convenience store on the way home and get you a malt liquor,” she said firmly.

“But I wanted to go drinking with the half-Yakuza gardeners!”

“You want to get into a fight? Because that’s what they’ll do.”

“Hell yeah,” I said. “I know karate.”

“You want to go to jail? Is that what you want?”

“Bring it on! I’ll get a prison tattoo and make moonshine with Saito-san!”

“Who’s Saito-san?”

“I don’t know,” I confessed.

“Come on, we’ll get you home and you can take a nice bath. You like baths, right?”

I do, actually. So I drank my malt liquor, fell asleep in the front seat, and when I got home, took a nice bath. And floating in the warm water, drifting in and out of sleep, I thought about how Ruriko’s always telling me I should have a goal in life. So I made it my 2018 new year’s resolution that next hike I’d find a way to end up in Japanese jail. Goals. Heh, I’ll show her who’s got goals.

56 Replies to “A Sunday in Japan”

    1. Wow, you’re quick. Thanks, I share your enthusiasm. Now that that’s out of the way I can get back to drinking beer. Cheers.

    1. I never did establish whether it was distilled from scratch—as in the case of actual moonshine—or just some ill-conceived, randomly mixed concoction Mr. Saito dreamed up. Neither would surprise me.

    1. Any time. I’m just full of good ideas.

      I kind of doubt I’ll ever climb Mt. Fuji. It sounds fairly terrible, although I expect it’d make a decent story.

  1. Happy New Year!
    And even though it might sound fun to go to jail, be careful or you might end up having no more material for the blog. By getting yourself deported. Better find some Japanese geezer and get him to tell you about his time in prison.

    1. Ah, just some random mountain somewhere. Doubt I could find it again if I had to. (I’m purposefully being a bit vague, in case you can’t tell.)

    1. Probably true. Although I’ve had some pretty interesting times on Takao-san as well. Any mountain with ski lifts and a beer garden half way up is all right in my book.

  2. Happy new year.
    Excellent work again,beer tickets on the way.
    Cheers Craig and Miho
    PS. I’m all for beer,trouble and home made liquor,but if the guy that made it can’t explain bleeding off the ‘Head’ and ‘Tail’ when he distilled it,DO NOT drink it.I’m no wowser and will tip just about anything at any volume down my pie hole,but incorrectly distilled spirit is very dangerous and can do some very serious damage,and as we know,apart from nurses with big Doe eyes,hospital in Japan ain’t a great place to be.

  3. As a Raiders fan, I can tell you the drink of choice at tailgates are Jaeger Bombs…but that might get lost in the cultural appropriation. I also agree that the Japan PR team should get incredible recognition for convincing the world that Japanese doesn’t have swear words…they have more creative words than we have in English, usually involving body parts that we learned about in Health Ed.

    Anyhoo, great post, looking forward to more. Akeome, kotoyoro…and all that!

  4. Happy New Year, thanks for the new blog. Hey, If you get deported to the middle of the United States-I will buy you the best BBQ you have ever had. Jeff in Kansas City and we have some pretty good micro brews here and free rides to the local jail if you want.

  5. Gosh love reading your blog posts every time one comes up!!!!!! They always make me laugh like mad!

    You should really write a book Ken Seeroi!!!

  6. Reminds me of the time some Japanese teacher dragged a bunch of us students up a mountain trail that involved actual climbing. Half of us were dressed in casual clothing. The summit was over 800 meters and going down the other side we lost the trail for half an hour. But we all made it back alive. Fun times.

  7. Hah. Enjoy your posts. Stumbled across your blog when I was hungover in Tokyo the day after my birthday last year and googled “Japanese hangover cures.”

    Read a lot of your posts that day.

    Now I always forget the name of your blog, but I remember Ken Seeroi, so that’s what I google.

    Oddly enough, on this trip, I had a whole bunch of Japanese people totally overestimate my 日本語 speaking abilities. I think I have mastered looking like I know what they are talking about too well. Limited Japanese can get you agreeing to all sorts of things you have no idea about.

    When I actually lived there (15 years ago) and my Japanese was a lot better, most people assumed I couldn’t understand a thing.

  8. I have a small phone screen + I am very tired, but with the lighting on the image it looked like Ajit Pai taking a mongo vape hit. Not at all what the article was about, enjoyed it nevertheless.

    How uncommon are burly Japanese men? Not like the break you in half with one finger types, but like visually muscular? I’d think they wouldn’t be too common, but this blog has broken all sorts of stereotypes in my mind so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was wrong.

    That’s what I thought of when you said scary. Ken Seeroi getting sauced with twelve 250 pound death machines in some sort of megabus. Well it was a taxi in mind for whatever reason. I think I need to sleep.

    Thanks again for the post!

    1. In this case, I think your stereotype is correct. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Japanese man I’d call “burly.” I’ve seen a few who were muscular, but even that’s kind of rare. Most guys are pretty thin, and seem to work at staying that way.

      Get some sleep and rest easy. Even the scariest Japanese guy isn’t likely to weigh over 170 pounds.

      1. Some *past* Christmas histories. Sorry you’re, uh, 21 days late. But you can keep the promise you just made as well and deliver us the adventures that will happen to you, some days from now.

        But seriously, all the crazy stuff that happens to you all the time, you sure has one or two histories about Christmas to tell us.

  9. Ken, I was grading some of my university students’ essays on English language learning in Japan. I had told them to use five academic sources to back up their claims. Lo and behold, someone decides to use your blog as their academic source. Of course, I failed them immediately, but I wanted to let you know about your long reach and a potential new reading audience.

    1. Clearly an individual of keen intellect and discerning taste. I’m going to personally nominate that student for the Ken Seeroi Award of Amazing Excellence, an honor that few if any have ever received.

      And thanks for letting me know. After all these years, my life’s finally complete.

    1. Honestly, talk to a few gardeners in Japan. You won’t have to ask too many before you find one who’s in some yakuza gang or other. Yakuza organizations aren’t much different from labor unions, only yakuza members are less scary.

  10. Christ, you had me rolling around in a starbucks in Boston. Consistently idiotic as usual, Dr. Seeroi. keep it up, keeps getting funnier and funnier by the year. Happy new year!

  11. I was idly contemplating taking a hike in the eastern Tama area “an area that can be enjoyed in many ways such as hiking and visiting temples” but got as far as the Starbucks at Isetan and reading your blog. Which is just as well considering the bin-loads of snow pillowing down.
    The barista has just made a bright announcement to this table: something about hachi-ji. Perhaps she is looking for volunteers for a mission to Mars taking off at 8pm? 18 months of studying Japanese was time wisely spent.
    The snow is a good metaphor for this city actually: beautiful but cold. Doesn’t matter because I’m about to get my ass to Mars!

    Well Ireland anyway: heading back home on Wednesday after three weeks of alternating between thinking Tokyo’s an amazing place and that it’s a soulless dump.

    One thing I have learned is that futons are the work of the Dark Lord himself. I have had better nights sleep sitting on library chairs.

    I love reading your writing Ken. Behind every cynic beats the heart of a true Romantic they say.

    As the Wild Boys in Belfast say: live long and prosper.

    1. Thanks much. Hope you had a safe trip home.

      Funny what you said about spending “three weeks of alternating between thinking Tokyo’s an amazing place and that it’s a soulless dump.” I’ve been in Japan for over a decade and have yet to make any progress on that question.

      Well anyway, the food’s good, and since I eat about six meals a day, I guess I’ve made my choice as to what’s important in life. Okay, that and beer.

      And yeah, avoid futons at all costs. They’re hell on your hips and shoulders, and only make it that much harder to get up and pee in the middle of the night. Pretty sure that’s why God invented the bed.

  12. > But before I could say, “Sounds like an activity Ken Seeroi might
    > be interested in pursuing,” Ruriko yanked me by the arm and
    > pulled me into the car. She’s really no fun at all.

    kya! Girlfriends, right? It’s like you meet you meet this yakuza
    guy and he shows you his tats and is all like ‘Yeah, man, I can
    totally hook you up with an artist, man’. And you’re like, “totally!”
    And she’s like “iya!”. It’s like “where’s the beef?” Chances are, I
    forgot to pack it…

  13. Thanks for finally dispelling the myth that the Japanese language contains no swear words. It always seemed to me to defy the essential structures of language, but I generally believed it because “Japaaan.”

    Before I started reading your blog, I read Will Ferguson’s book “Hokkaido Highway Blues,” and surprisingly, given his experience, he perpetuated that myth. Then again, he only lived in Japan for five years versus your decade, so perhaps that’s the reason. Like you, he was also very candid about Japanese racism and xenophobia, but I noticed, in comparison to your blog, he did provide a more idealized perspective of Japan. He probably left before become completely jaded. Plus, he’s Canadian.

    I noticed that, like you, he also devoted much of his time in Japan to drinking copious amounts of beer and liquor. It seems there’s a pattern here…

    1. My view of Japan has gotten to the point where it’s really unremarkable. It’s hard to idealize what’s simply normal. I’m no more surprised to see a woman in a kimono than a woman in a bridesmaid dress. Maybe that’s what “jaded” is; I don’t know.

      Maybe that could be a goal for you: get to the point where the people, language, culture, and sights all become normal, so you’d sooner take a picture of a church than a temple. Once Japan stops seeming foreign (and you no longer see yourself as a “foreigner”), you can start actually understanding it.

      Just a thought.

      1. Yeah, I get what you mean. I doubt I have the tenacity to live in Japan long enough to the point where it becomes unremarkable & I no longer view myself as a foreigner. But who knows. I could surprise myself.

        Please know that my using the word “jaded” in reference to you was not meant as a slight. I just couldn’t think of a better description for the tone of your blog.

        And, as for me, I still take pictures of interesting churches here in the states, so were I to become as acclimated (there’s a better, more neutral word choice) as you, I would likely still have photos of temples clogging up the memory on my smart phone.

  14. Hilarious. Don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard – how I love your writing 🙂

    As they would say in India “How do i make frandship with you’ ?

  15. Fantastic post…had kind of the same experience when I was asked to carry the portable shrine thing around our town. The thing is I am the one with the huge neck ( 5 foot 7 inches 85 kgs …. amateur cruiser weight boxer ) who can drink anyone under the table ( Irish parents) so me and the local good ole boys got on like a house on fire. Like you, I don’t try to be Japanese, and people respect that alot more. We started drinking at 6.30 in the morning and finished around 9 at night. Got some very interesting looks from some local hot mums but wifey was around to make sure the only thing I would be under was the shrine thing!!!!

    Loving your blog…keep it up

    Mike, osaka

  16. This reminds me of the time my husband’s friend called him one weekend morning inviting us to a riverside barbecue. I stupidly assumed it would be just us at the local river for a few hours.

    OF COURSE NOT. The party included three cars of people I didn’t know and in the friend’s car his girlfriend and her three sullen, silent friends who didn’t speak to anybody and gave me dirty looks all day, never learned their names.

    The riverside barbecue was a full parking lot halfway up a mountain after a four hour trip (I get carsick on those narrow winding mountain roads) where lots of other people were having barbecues (the exact same yakiniku menu of course). A parking lot. Ah, nature!

    Nobody in our party seemed to be having a good time. It was dark by the time we started for home and the friend mentioned stopping at an onsen. I told my husband, in English, calmly, that there was no way in hell I was going to get naked in front of these horrible women who hated me and to please drop me off at the next train station if he was even thinking of prolonging this nightmare. The friend didn’t understand English, but he got the drift. I believe I used the f-word at least twice. It was after ten when we finally got home.

    I wanted to kill my husband and yet it wasn’t his fault. Nobody ever reveals details. It’s as if there’s some sort of communication like dolphins or whales that I can’t understand. Doesn’t matter if I ask who-what-where-when-how long. I never know. It’s best to just assume you might be out for days or hiking or get carsick because you’ll be trapped in a car for hours, or who knows what and hope for the best.

    1. Yep, that sounds like Japan. And don’t think it’s just you. Most Japanese people have no idea what’s going on most of the time. If you work here, that’s shockingly obvious. If there were half a decent plan, everybody’d be knocking off at five instead of working till midnight.

  17. By the way, is that photo from Obama, Fukui prefecture? They have a fabulous food culture museum (Mackerel Road) that used to have a nice Barack Obama gift shop with things like empty cans called “Yes, we can.” Delicious sushi at the port.

    1. It was actually a photo of a random poster in Kyushu prefecture.

      I passed through Obama in a bus, but unfortunately we didn’t stop there. Mackerel Road sounds like it would be worth a visit. And you gotta appreciate a shop that’s figured out a way to sell empty cans. That’s quite a skill.

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