Archive for the ‘Living in Japan’ Category

Sumo Wrestler Mealtime   Leave a comment

April 15, 2009

I’m holding a small Japanese child in my arms.

Her name is Nana, and she’s the child of Shuji, a man I met a week ago who I spoke to for only five minutes. He invited me to come to his house today.
Earllier, I walked to try and find out where Shuji lived, somewhere in Maisaka. I took the main road, squinting occasionally as blasts of warm wind hit my face. Every now and then, and old woman on a bicycle would ride by, her face covered with a white mask. I was tired, but I wanted to go to dinner with Shuji and his family.
I’m walking for about ten minutes on the highway, and then I see a car pull over twenty feet away. I get a glimpse of the driver and I realize its Shuji. He gestures quickly for me to come. I hop into the car.
“I have some work to do, but I can take you my house. Is okay?” he said.
“Iku.” I replied. (Let’s go.)

He laughs as he tells me that he saw me walking on the road, and turned around to get me while he was driving. I feel fortunate, because I would have kept walking and probably gotten seriously lost. We stop by his house.
“I think my wife and daughter, they might be sleeping. Can you wait here? I check okay?”
I say okay, and let out a deep breath as I watch him disappear up a staircase. For a second I say, “What am I doing here?” to myself. I met the guy one week ago for a few minutes. I was peppered with questions about where I was from, and then invited to his house the next day. I wasn’t able to make it that day, but I ran into him after school one day. That day he said his English friend would be coming to his house, and I should come.
“We will have big party for you.” He said. His expression was firm, but he exuded a firm warmth.  He was well traveled, having lived all over the world. I thought about this, and then I heard his voice. He was on the staircase.
“Marcus. You come now, okay?” he said.
I walked up a narrow staircase and came to a small door. A flash of movement behind a stained glass in door revealed Shuji. The door opened to reveal Shuji speaking rapidly in Japanese to his wife. She looked at me and nodded.
“Can you wait in the car?” he said.
“Sure.” I said.
I went back downstairs and flopped into the car. In front of me, was the skyline of Maisaka. Small to medium sized houses, and a sea of powerlines. I saw Shuji with a small bundle in his arms. His daughter.
“You hold her. Okay?” he said.
I didn’t know what to say but yes. I opened the door and held onto his daughter carefully. She was adorable.
I felt an odd touch of something. Was it cultural? A person usually wouldn’t let a complete stranger hold their child in the front seat of a vehicle. She felt like a small bundle of heaven, and I was filled with a sudden desire to protect her, more so because of Shuji’s trust.
We drove to his house, which is also where his family business is. I had to stoop to get into the house, but it was warm and cozy. I met his mother and grandmother. “Hajimemashite.” I said. ‘ (pleased to meet you )
“Hajimemashite, yorushku.” His mother replied.  (please to meet you, may we trust each other.)
I was in a tiny lobby area. The floors were made of a firm wood and The walls were made from thin wooden beams and stained glass. Overhead, small pipes threatened to touch my head when I walked, and I kept ducking. Shuji appeared from the kitchen. “You can wash your hand here, then please, sit.” He pointed to a room to the left.
He would say, “please sit, please relax” many times that night. His father would also say that. Relaxing was a big thing in Japan, and he gave me insights into why Japanese people love reggae music. “In Japan, people work very hard. Very long.” He said, “Relax is very important. Reggae is very good for relax.”
I had to agree. After only three and a half weeks, I was starting to see the intensity of the Japanese work ethic; the school I worked at felt like an investment bank. Reggae music must be like a chill-pill for the Japanese I thought, which would explain their fascination with the music and culture.
I sat in a room with a Buddhist shrine in the left corner and a picture of his deceasd Grandfather above it.  A small table no more than eight inches off the ground sat on a set of tatami mats, adjacent to a large flat screen TV. Nana was sitting wth her mother to the left of the table, and Shuji sat in front of me. He said he had lived in the house until he got married, and I could see that if he hadn’t been married he would still be living there. I was starting to understand. His entire family had lived there, including his grandparents, parents and himself and his sister. I met his Grandmother as well, an old woman with a slightly bent back and kind eyes. “SHE IS NINTEY-ONE!” Shuji’s father would eventually exclaim.
As the night went on, I ate taksan tabemono (a lot of food) and a joke would be made that I eat like a sumo wrestler. “We Japanese people are very small.” Shuji said. “Normally we eat one bowl of rice. I like two. But you eat three!” I laughed as he said this. With me having to duck to walk through the house, I really felt like the large, imposing Gaijin.
When his father arrived, he spoke in  a bright, loud voice with a smile on his face. I thought he would have a great career in television in another life. He spoke very good English. “MARCUS! HOW IS THE JAPANESE FOOD? ISN’T IT DELICIOUS!” he said. I nodded, taking a sip of a new Suntory beer, called “STRAIGHT’.

This is the second outing of this kind I’ve been on so far, and I like these events. Here I feel welcome and I can relax a bit. My days have been a mixture of trying to understand Japanese, dealing with ways to adjust to the culture and working. After we eat, Shuji snaps a picture of us. The entire family joins us for the photo.


Most days when I’m walking in the city, I get stares, but no hellos. I traipse around happily listening to music on my Ipod, but I’m blocking out the world around me. I can’t just go up to people and meet them. I play video games at araceds and hangout at Gaijin bars to keep myself level.
This dinner outing is a godsend. The family is very sociable, asking questions about Jamaica, my traveling experience and school. I practice my Japanese with them, and Shuji’s wife laughs as she says I speak very good Japanese. At some point, Shuji points out that I’m the only black person in Maisaka, so I will be very easy to find on the street. This tickles me to no end.

By this time, the English friend, a young man and his mother, have joined us. The routine continues, with drinks for everyone and loads of food. When its over, I leave the house bowing profusely, thanking Shuji for everything.
I walk with the young man and his mother to Bentijima station, nearby. We chat for a while about living in Japan on the train platform. It is brightly lit but at least twenty feet above street level, and I feel like I’m standing in the future. I step on the train and know I won’t need to go anywhere tonight. For now, my head is clear and I can sleep peacefully.

Until tomorrow.

Blind After One Week   Leave a comment

I can’t see.

I’m sitting on my bed, and all I can feel is pain coursing through my left eye, the likes of which tell me I did more than just “boof” my eye, as we’d say in Jamaica.
Last night I was at the No Name bar, the fourth or so time I’ve been there this week. The owner is an ebullient Turkish man named Memet. Everytime he sees me he greets me with a large smile, then seconds later says, “What are you drinking?”
I’ve been getting my bearings around the city. Between going to No Name bar, walking around Daichi-dori, occasionally popping into the Izakaya neart the North side of Hama station and grabbing snacks and beer from any of the numerous 7-11s about, I’m starting to know where I am.
The luster of a city filled with bright colors is almost gone, but I still smile whenever I see a Japanese hip-hop video playing on the widescreen near ZaZa city. The pink neon lights that dot a lof the entertainment buildings still make me stare for a few seconds. Shady streets have tiny signs with “hostess bar” scrawled on them still make me curious. One day, maybe.
Training to be an English teacher is interesting, but mostly its an exercise in energy management. I’ve traveled to Europe a few times and I’ve never been jet lagged. I’ll I’ve ever needed was a fully day of no sleep and I would wake up fresh in whatever new country I found myself. Japan was a different monster. The lag had been hitting me all week, and my disorientation left me waking up at odd hours, unsure of the time and occasionally, very thirsty. The disorientation would hit me in waves, and the air around me would feel like a wet blanket. In these moments I felt my stomach curdle, and my throat fill with liquid, but I never threw up. It was all phantom, all part of the readjustment process.
During this time I went out almost every night, exploring the city. I don’t ever like to sleep to much in a new place because I hate losing my sense of direction day after day.
Now, the second day I’m in my apartment, I literally can’t see, and it was all under simple circumstances.
My fellow ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) had been partying pretty hard since they arrived. Once people found some bars with people who spoke English, the drinking began. I drank a little bit myself, but not enough to get drunk. After two days of training, a few people stumbled into the hotel lobby, drunk and loud, singing songs and chatting about nothing in particular. That night I was a little buzzed myself, courtesy of Femme Fatale and her group of friends. I had seen them almost every night that week, and drinks appeared from nowhere. The bartender would give me a shot, or a person would buy me a beer. Then more shots appeared, and more beers. I was powerless to resist.
When I reached home after this No Name outing, I saw that many of the other AlTS were completely inebriated. I watched them slightly bemused, but not judgemental. I wasn’t drunk, but I wasn’t completely sober either. The guys at No Name had been joking about my sleepy eyes. Femme Fatale and a guy known only as “Ten” Femme Fatale’s best friend had a conversation about my beady eyes and how they became more slit as I got more drunk.
This was funny, the eye conversation, as it seemed a bit portentious. Little did I know in a day or two I wouldn’t be able to see properly.
The group was laughing at me about looking sleepy and drunk, and this is when I made my exit. In actually I was extremely tired and a bit tipsy, so they were half correct. Then I made my way back to the hotel.
At some point, I tried taking a picture in the elevator. My jacket has an interesting design. It is a well tailored coat with a thin hood sewn in the fabric. The head of the hood can be adjusted by pulling two elastic string with small black knobs on the end of the string. When I raised my camera up to take the picture, one of these knobs got caught in my Camera strap, stretched to full length, and then slapped me in my left eye at full speed.
It really, really hurt.
That night I went to sleep without much worry, but the next morning I couldn’t remember why my eye hurt. I looked in the mirror and it was red and throbbing and then I said, “Oh, the camera.” I went about my day with no problems.
Three days later, I can’t see.
If I open my left or right eye, pain floods both eyes. My room was dark, because the curtains were drawn, but still my eye hurt like nobody’s business. The light from my laptop was like a needle hitting my nerves, and I had to grit my teeth and go under the covers. Even the ambient light slipping in under the covers made me cringe. I had been in my apartment for about two days, and now I was visually impaired. I shut the laptop and groped around the room, covering my left eye with one hand. I found a tie and made a makeshift eye patch.
The situation is terrible. I open the blinds slightly and see everything go white for a moment. I shut them quickly, and try to think. I need dark glasses of some kind. I slip into some clothes quickly and head outside with the tie over my eye. The light is murder, but I’ve made the tie good enough to block almost any light from hitting the left eye. Squinting my right eye, I can just barely manage to walk on the sidewalk.
I make it to a Brazilian store a few blocks away and buy a pair of sunglasses for a thousand yen. I slip them on, and I have temporary relief. The light still hurts, and I’m still wearing a tie over the left eye.
For the rest of the day I operate like this, wearing the glasses indoors and out. My eyes feel less stressed and I think I’m getting better. I’m wrong.
The next day, its worse. I can barely get out of bed and I’m worried about permanently damaging my eye. Luckily, I’m meeting with my IC on this day (she is the person who will help me get my telephone and a few other things) and we go to the doctor. It’s so bad that I hold on to hand-rails when I walk and follow just the soles of her feet as we walk to and fro. My eyes are really slits now. Eventually, we make it to the Doctor’s office.
I’m wearing my glasses and a sleep mask, and my eyes are completely covered. For some reason, I fall into a deep stream of thought about past love. I’m sitting in the darkness, listening to the sounds around me, and I get inspired to write. I squint with my right eye and catch a cute secretary smile at me, then I write this on a notepad:
In these moments when darkness is all around me, I sometimes think of love. Love is elusive, and the idea of it sends a quiet echo of feeling I can’t describe in my soul.
Attraction and sexuality are normal parts of what we know as reality, but the idea of love–or being loved has made my sensibilities change.
I think about this while waiting for Miss Nakamura to return to the doctor’s office. In the darkness I can get a sense of what is going on around me. Machines beep in the background, electronic doors open and close with a hiss. Nimble fingers shuffle through papers somewhere in front of me. I can hear a cartoon playing on a television somewhere to my left.
It is quiet in the office and it has the same smell of every Doctor’s office I’ve ever been in. It’s always moments like this that the silence acknowledges my fears. My spirit is quiet, and I have no real desperations, but I fear I will not be loved. I’ll just forever be the guy in the corner with the cool jacket
<scribble>
She doesn’t know.
She doesn’t know that posting a message on my facebook wall triggered a slight shift in my equilibrium. She doesn’t know that whenever I see her name in an old e-mail, or on an old piece of paper, a feeling that I can’t describe hits my chest. Excitement? Fear? I cannot say, but she doesn’t know.
Seeing her name caused me to dream about her two nights in a row, which bothers me. She reminds me of love lost, and whenever she sends me a small communicade, it reminds me that she is truly gone. Years have passed and still the thought of her gives me pause. After all the women, all the traveling and all the introspection, she sti
ll touches me in that place that almost no one can reach, with a simple message.
Like most birthday wishes, hers was most likely the simplest kind, a momentary lapse of our radio silence that sends her briefly into my world, where we exchange a candid e-mail and then remain silent until the next convenient event rears its head.
She does not know the effect she has on me, and I don’t know why she has it.
Telling the truth always seems to get me into trouble. It leaves me feeling burned and empty, like the black husk of a sacrificial lamb. When you lose love you lose a piece of your soul, and I fear I will never find that missing piece.
I did not want to think of her when I was here, because she would be holding onto me from afar, clutching at my neck and filing my head with dreams I don’t want. Is this really love? Or is it some kind of unique torture? I want to be happy, but I don’t know what price to pay. I don’t want to tell her anything, knowing she doesn’t’ love me back. I’m supposed to be starting a new life, but I don’t feel that way just yet. People are similar and love and pain are universal.
I want to party again, but the price of admission seems a little fucking steep…
<end of writing>

After I write this, I hear my name.
“Maracoose Baroodo sama?” a voice says from somewhere behind me. I grab my bag and sit on a chair. A tall, balding Japanese doctor barks at me rapidly in Japanese. I don’t understand a word of it. I think he is telling me to look forward and tell him what I can see. I explain to him in my best Japanese that I cannot open my eyes. He huffs and then gestures for me to go back into the wating room. Miss Nakamura hasn’t returned yet, and I slip the eye patch back on, and fall into the darkness again.
Eventually, miss Nakamura returns and I see the doctor. He is a different fellow from the first person I saw. I sit in a dim room and he flashes a few different colored lights into my eyes. “Ue mitte kudasai.” (look up) he says. “Hidari to ue mitte kudaisa.” (up and left) he says. He repeats the variations for a while and then speaks quickly. “You eye is fine,” he says. “It seems there was an injury about two days ago, but now it is all right.” He prescribed some eye drops and I was free to go.
I was glad. I’ve had a history of painful injuries and to live with a bad eye on top of other “bad things” in my body wouldn’t make my life any easier. I float outside with miss Nakamura and she says, “Are you hungry Marcus? I know a good place we can go to eat something.”
“Yes,” I say, “That would be great.”
We come outside and the light doesn’t feel as bright. I’m still wearing the sunglasses, but already the pain has decreased considerably. I take a deep breath and force a smile on my face.
I can see.

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The First Night in Hamamatsu   Leave a comment

Jet lag is causing me to feel weird. I only have a few hours or so to get ready before I start my training, and I can’t sit in the hotel. My room is the size of a breadbox, and my suitcases must remain in the corridor; they can’t fit anywhere else. My bathroom is also tiny, and a touch of claustrophobia hits me. I decide to go out into the night, and take some pictures.

I’m not sure how to describe the feeling of being here. It is definitely new, chilly and interesting. The delicate architecture of the buildings, the cobblestone on the sidewalk, the roar of trains nearby. This is Japan. I don’t walk too far, for fear of getting lost. In the distance I can see powerlines silhouettted against the nighttime sky. Small cars drive to and fro, but I never hear a horn. Vending machines and bins are in Japanese. A trickle of excitement goes through me. Who will I meet here? What will happen. The intrigue is interesting, but I am still quite tired. I go back to my hotel to get some well deserved rest.