Hanko and a proposition

Day before yesterday (Thursday) I taught just a couple of classes, then went out with my American coworker, Ryann. She took me to an Indian food place called Nirvana for dinner and a beer while we waited to hear from a friend of hers. The waiter and the man at the front where we paid our bill spoke halting Japanese through thick Indian accents. The food was good, if a bit on the bland side, but I’d go back in a pinch.

We walked through the red light district, a couple blocks off Odori St. just a few blocks long. Bars advertising what were apparently supposed to be beautiful women popped away from every wall, except for one with an illustrated man in a white ballet costume (tutu perched around his forehead) while a swan’s neck and head protruded from his crotch. Gay bar maybe? I need to start learning kanji.

We walked through the Moss building (a multi-leveled department store just a few blocks from work) so Ryann could show me something called friction pens: normal ink pens that erase without using up the hard rubber “eraser” at the back end of the pen. They’re fucking magical. I bought two, plus an erasable highlighter for people back home. I forgot to get one for myself.

It’s been raining on and off for a few days, and the weather has cooled considerably from tropical to balmy to pleasant to slightly chilled. I prefer cities a bit damp. They’re always more beautiful that way. I catch myself thinking, “I can’t wait to see that covered in snow,” recently, and I know I’ll be kicking myself for even thinking it later. Still, I have to make a promise to myself to take photos of the beauty of Morioka in the winter, no matter how cold it is. I signed up for this. I have to be brave.

Yesterday, Friday, was my first day off since coming here. Per usual, I got up, ate breakfast (eggs on bread now that the gas has been turned on), and headed out to the tourist center to make use of their wifi. Mine will take over a week to establish at my apartment.

Afterward I headed to the hanko shop to meet Nabuko-san so we could walk a block to the bank and set up an account for me. I stopped into a convini (convenience store) across from the hanko shop just to poke around. Some guy was standing around outside the store, seemingly waiting for someone and seemed harmless, so I paid him no mind. Inside, I was slightly alarmed to hear country music twanging through the speakers. Why. Jesus.

I bought some powdered coffee just for kicks and went back to wait outside the hanko shop (this particular hanko shop has a small monkey on its sign. When I mentioned this to Nobuko, she said, “Yes! That is because they used to have a monkey! Their advertisement was, ‘Hanko shop, with the monkey!'”). About a minute later, while I was editing photos on my phone, the dude outside the convini approached me, eyes comfortably meeting mine as he crossed the street.

Now, in Los Angeles, when a strange man approaches a strange woman on the street, he has to go out of his way to demonstrate he is not a threat, and usually does so by, as a friend recently so aptly put, “basically approaching like a hostage: hands up, totally helpless.” This man did not do anything of the sort. So I put my phone away, put my bags down and got ready for a fight without looking like I was doing just that.

When he reached me, he said, with a soft voice, in polite Japanese, “Excuse me, do you speak Japanese?” I replied with my best Tokyo accent, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t know Japanese. But, do you speak English?” He replied that he did not, and I apologized again. He then handed me a folded up piece of paper, and waited for me to open it. It has his phone number and email address on it. I smiled and said thank you. He said something else, and I said “Hai, arigato,” with a polite smile. He bowed, I bowed, and he left.

As Nobuko-san and I were waiting for the paperwork to go through at the bank, I told her about him to gague her reaction, and her first words were, “Be careful.” Then she asked his age. “Young man?” I said yes. Her shoulders relaxed and she laughed. I reassured her I had no intention of contacting him. I had to fill out the paperwork at the bank three times because I needed to write my name exactly as it is on my resident card (last, first, middle, all in caps). They gave me a few small gifts in a bag before we left to apologize for the mixup: a small towel, a small package of wet wipes, and a bottle of handsoap that smells like oranges, all of which is plastered with their logo.

I had a nice chat with Nobuko-san at the bank and on our way back to the school. She has lived in the Morioka area her whole life, and has a very old cat named Ku because that’s the sound it makes instead of meowing. We chatted about languages and dialects, and she said she speaks Japanese, English, and some Japanese dialects from around the area. When I asked for an example, she said that when giving food for others to eat, instead of saying, “Tabete kurasai,” people here might just say, “Ke.” Likewise, when receiving food, at a restaurant for example, one would usually say, “Itadakimas,” but could instead say, “Ku.” After telling me all this, she strongly discouraged me from saying it, and emphasized that it would sound rude. “I don’t care, I’m saying it anyway!” I threatened, and she laughed.

On our way back to work, while, talking about her cat, I asked what’s its name again? Ke?” “Ku!” she said, and I smiled widely, delighted that I had gotten her to do the ‘ke/ku’ call and response with me that she told me never to do. She immediately realized what had happened, and stopped walking to let out a howling laugh by the roadside in the rain. I giggled as we started walking again, “Ke, ku, ke, ku…”

Today I taught one class in the morning, savored my first real ramen at Santouka with Ryann (the chasu was amazing, the best I’ve ever had), then headed to the tourist center and drained my battery facetiming with people back home, then taught several classes in the afternoon to some very shy young Japanese students, all of whom are polite to the point of being disorienting for me.

I gave a friendly “Jamata” to one of the women leaving work today, and Ryann said she had learned a different phrase: Matane. We asked Nobuko-san, who laughed and immediately came over to correct me. “No no, never say! That is very rude!” I threw my hands up and made a mental note to try to get in touch with my Japanese teacher back in LA who had specifically taught me jamata. “You’re bothering me,” I’ve apparently been bleating to my students as I left every class I’ve taught so far, goddammit. The correct phrase is, as Ryann said, matane, which I will desperately try to remember for the next 12 months.

I came home, dropped off my computer, threw on my trenchcoat and headed out to visit the nearest grocery store for the first time. I made it on my first attempt without getting lost, and grabbed all the essentials: eggs, milk (which tastes like cheese, goddammit), potatoes (pretty sure they’re potatoes…), salmon sushi (which was awful, god, Japan, what the fuck), squid sushi in an orange-pink sauce (too salty and tough, but otherwise not bad), ramen (soft and dry types), more powdered coffee (I hope it doesn’t suck, I’ve never even tried it), ice cream (chocolate and green tea), mint chocolate pocky, and a pack of lemon gum.

I arrived at home with a mind to make rice and eat the sushi when I suddenly realized I didn’t know how to use the rice maker, 60% of whose buttons are smothered in kanji. The other four buttons are up/down arrows, and katakana that I had to get out my flashcards to decipher (menu and timer respectively). Eventually, I hit a button that went red and assumed it was the “keep my rice hot” button. Ten minutes later I checked and it was warm, but not hot. I tried some other buttons, but went back to little red because it seemed to have the best work ethic. Turns out I was right, and now I have rice and no sushi to eat with it. It’s 10:17pm.

The cicaidas here make beautiful sounds. I’ll never get tired of it. I can’t wait to show this place to the people back home.


Documenting the experience

I was washing a plain, white porcelain cup in the kitchen at work when it hit me again, the indecision regarding how to document my time in Japan, whether I should bother doing so, and to what extent and why. Should I let myself get comfortable, force all the oddness into a common state, relax into a sense of normalcy and no longer be a stranger in a strange land (this would be a huge mental gift to myself), or should I maintain my foreigner’s eyes, find things my family would like to see, take quality photos of “the new” (a compulsion my generation has fully fallen victim to, that we judge each other by more than the experiences we document in a feverish, pointless attempt to impress via social networks’ visual dominance over… everything if you’re not living under a rock)? The kitchen has old silver tea kettles on antiquated burners in front of a window where empty milk cartons have inexplicably been collected. It would make a nice photo on a rainy day, but this would be a misrepresentation of my stay here so far. I don’t care about the cartons. I’ve only seen them once, but maybe I’ll see them again and again, and then I will wish I had taken a damn photo.

Walking along Odori St. to pick up my hanko, I passed a yakitori place, and forgot what it was called. Hanko retrieved, I walked back the same way, smelled the yakitori, and suddenly remembered.

Driving to the electronics store with two of my coworkers in Nobuko-san’s car. She drove me home from work the first day I arrived, and met me at the train station. That day, her car had made some grinding, groaning noises, and my American coworker sitting shotgun had commiserated with a giggle, “Oh, Nobuko, your car sounds so tired!” followed by, “I think you should stop letting your husband fix your car.”
Nobuko edged out of the parking lot at work, attempting to merge with stopped traffic. “Komene, komene,” she murmured to the other drivers, and I joined her whispered “Arigato!” when a young woman (who was smiling about something totally unrelated) let us in front of her.
We bought wireless router, and the two of them came into my apartment to help me set it up. After a half-hour of successful tech-navigation, we pulled up short when we realized we didn’t have the password for the internet account due to the idiocy of the previous tennant. “Grraaagh, Tim! Bakka!” I barked, and relaxed when my coworkers giggled, and nodded in agreement.


First days in Morioka

I was surprised, on my walk back from the tourist center (which is my only source of wifi right now), to see bottles of water sitting outside on the street, gathered around poles outside buildings. I’ve seen that practice just once before in an anime where it was mentioned as a superstitious custom used to keep cats away.

Well it’s fucking working, because WHERE ARE ALL THE CATS. Or the dogs for that matter. This little town is immaculate, and I’ve only seen one dog (which was hilarious, btw, small and fluffy, with a smushed-in face that always looks like he’s about to whip out a cigar and call someone mugsy, see?). I was also very excited to see a small dish of salt by the window of a shop! This is a custom whose name I can’t remember now, which was started by a woman attempting to draw the horses (who love salt) that drew the emperor’s carriage to her house so she could make out with him and have his babies. That woman was a genius.

It’s afternoon now, and I’ve seen two more dogs, one of which lives at the end of my block and is a giant gray Irish Wolfhound, and seems friendly but totally beaten by the heat, poor lil’ pony.

So, quick recap:
I arrived at Narita airport, went through immigration, got a resident card, and picked up my luggage which I immediately arranged to have shipped to the school where I’ll be working. Next I exchanged some cash and bought a bus ticket into Toyko. I kept passing out in awkward positions during the 45-minute bus ride. I’d nod off only to wake up with my mouth hanging open and my head dangling off my shoulders at an odd angle.

I got off the bus and immediately started looking for a cafe where I could hook up to some wifi. I stopped into the first one I found, bought a sandwich in a plastic bag, and asked if there was wifi. There wasn’t. I stuffed the sandwich in my purse and kept moving. I turned up a small street and hit a Starbucks. Bingo. I bought a scone and a bottle of water out of a sense of obligation, and sat down to discover that I needed a login and password to use the wifi. I went back to the sales lady, and showed her my phone. A look that resembled “Oh, honey, you’re so screwed” flashed across her face, then she quickly said, “I give you mine!” She snatched the phone out of my hands and started typing furiously while I bowed deeply and thanked her in the most formal way I knew how. Once back at my seat, I discovered that the research Boyfriend had done on hotels were nearby the wrong train station. I found a few in the area, and decided to try the nearest, which turned out to be adorable, affordable, and very, very small. The man at the front desk was very kind and efficient, and waited awkwardly behind the desk, avoiding eye contact once he had given me the “women’s package” (a small bag with a pink clip, some nail polish remover, etc.), until I mustered up the courage to ask, “Sumimasen, demo, key desu ka?” (Excuse me, but is there a key?). He burst out laughing and apologized a few times while he handed me the card for the room he had forgotten all about.
I laughed at the tininess of the room, ate my sandwich, changed and went to bed. In the morning, I returned the room key, and went to find the train station. Once accomplished, I bought a Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket ($135) to Morioka, and barely found the right platform in time.
The train ride was a breeze, but I didn’t sleep. I bought food on the train, a few tiny onigiri and karaage, and tried not to cry.
My coworkers met me in Morioka about an hour after I arrived, since I came on an earlier train than expected. They drove me to work, where I volunteered to teach a couple classes before I was declared unfit for duty and duly driven home.
When I arrived at my apartment, the electricity was off and there was (and still is) no internet, which I didn’t notice until my coworkers had already left, making arrangements to come back after work to help me find a grocery store nearby. I laid down and tried not to cry, to no avail. I didn’t sleep.
They came back, turned on my electricity, and we drove around, bought some food and they dropped me back at my place, at which point I noticed the water was off, too. I figured out how to turn it back on, only to discover later the next day that the gas has also been turned off, and won’t be turned on until the gas company comes by to “verify [my] existence” (my coworker’s exact words tonight).
I fell asleep yesterday, my first day in Morioka, around 7pm and woke up this morning around 3am. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I ate, watched Wreck it Ralph, then decided I didn’t want to wait until noon for my coworker to pick me up. I wanted control. I wanted familiar faces. I wanted some fucking wifi.
I got dressed, procrastinated a little, and finally set off in the direction of a tourist center based on the combined information from a map printed out at work and a pamphlet I had picked up at the train station. About a mile later, I had gotten to know my neighborhood a little better, and the tourist center had just opened up. It was 830am.
I stayed until about 11, facetiming and chatting with friends, and watching the rain come down outside, hoping there would be a break in the weather for an umbrella-less tourist to make her way home eventually. And there was. Because Jesus loves me.
I got home starving (finally), ate some chashu on rice I bought the day before, and watched Ghost in the Shell until my coworker showed up. We chatted easily on our way to work, and bought some food for lunch at a nearby grocery store. Once at work I was on my own, and did a much better job than the previous day of paying attention and being engaging and energetic. I feel less like a zombie today than I did yesterday (no thanks to my uterus, which, fuck you, uterus, why, of all days, jesus christ), and I’m willing to bet tomorrow will be better than today.
So now I’m finally home, in an apartment I’m looking forward to making my own, and hoping I can find enough cool stuff to do when my friends and family come to visit. Either way, it finally felt like it’s all going to be ok, and I know the moment that change happened: when I got a shitty little loaner bicycle. It’s so fucking small, and it’s so shitty, and it’s mine, and everything is going to be ok.

UPDATE: Later that night…
So I just realized the hard way that without gas, there is no hot water. I had a cold sponge bath and sit with a nice warm laptop on my legs to warm up, and comforted myself with the recognition that I’ve had worse. Much, much worse. I survived Belize, where the only water deemed fit to bathe in still wasn’t fit to drink, given that it was captured rainwater held in a cistern that was often populated by frogs. It was also totally unheated. We were told to turn on the water to get wet, then turn it off, later up, turn on the water to rinse, and that was it. So having a cold sponge bath in a secure apartment in a clean, safe city using water I’ve been drinking for 24hrs with no ill effects is hardly an issue. It’s a fucking luxury. Still, note to self: get the fucking gas turned on already.



Holy shit, this flight is showing Neko Samurai. My whole life just lit up a little brighter.

LAX is still awful, and now at a significant distance from me. I fully bawled for about three seconds when the wheels left the runway.
Before I go on, let me toot the saddest horn in my personal psychological symphony and say that I love the way I cry when a life presents something crushing. I completely collapse for
at which point the waterworks shut off like a faucet, and I move on. This happens in small, unpredictable bursts, but it makes dealing with issues feel managable since I know that when I start crying it’ll stop quickly. I give myself total permission to become a puddle, then snap back to being a semi-person again. My humanity becomes binary: functioning human on, functioning human off, repeat until tired or tired of functioning-human-off setting (usually followed by food). It’s genuine, mentally healthy, and, frankly, pretty fucking convenient. So. *toot*

Anyway, I’ve been crying off and on all week: sitting at home watching cartoons, eating (crying while eating might actually be the accomplishment for which aforementioned horn was made for. It’s harder than it sounds), saying goodbye to just about anyone (especially my ESL students, a few of whom caught me on camera breaking down while thanking them for giving me an amazing first experience as a teacher with my very own classroom, and I am not excited about seeing that hit Facebook sometime soon), my family, my friends (especially my dojo family), the list is a predictable, beautiful representation of the people I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by until I chose to book it halfway around the globe for a year to have an adventure in making mistakes and feeling lost while overdosing on ramen (reimen now?). I only feel regret when I think of who I’m leaving behind, and I get totally selfish and fantasize about stuffing my luggage full of person-I-love-and-suddenly-can’t-live-without in a heartbeat until the inevitable (and suddenly unfunny) sound of breaking bones that would inevitably result when said luggage was elegantly launched off a cart and onto the tarmac. I think that’s enough of that.

Meanwhile, I have the entire row on this flight to myself, which is fortune I didn’t dare wish for, and UGH OMG the duty-free cart just went by and I choked a little on the perfume. Bleh. This row is probably larger than my apartment in Japan. I should relish it while I have the chance.