The Shogun

OK, this is has gone from creepy to just hilarious. I think I literally did a double-take when I first walked by this.

It’s… here, a picture is worth a thousand words right?

The Shogun

Yes, the colonel put on his best armor this past golden week. Apparently (according to the internets) he’s spent his unholy fried chicken fortune on a sick wardrobe, and he has enough outfits to make Barbie tear out her own hair in a fit of jealous rage.

He likes to look pretty for special occasions.

It’s the Little Things

Now that I’m back in Japan, I’m reminded of why I want to be here: It’s so different! And often those differences are in the little things. Every now and then I run across something that really makes me think, “Whoa….I’m in Japan!” A few of them are notorious and even people who have never been here know all about them: Toilets with control panels like they’re about to blast off to the moon, anime everywhere, neon everywhere, neon anime everywhere and people who dress like they’re on their way to a photo shoot every day. But there are also some things I wasn’t expecting, things that in their foreignness, their uniqueness, their utter strangeness loudly proclaim “this is Japan”. And if you’re willing to listen, I’ll let you in on what they are.

Cold medicine

About a month after coming here I got very sick. I had a really high fever but I didn’t want to go to the doctor because I felt it would be too much trouble. “So what if my brain cells are slowly burning away” I thought. “I can’t be bothered”.

Well after two days of running a fever of 39 degrees Celsius I got tired of feeling like my head was about to cave in so I (wo)manned up and went to a clinic that had English-speaking staff. Long story short everything went fine and I was being a big baby, but look at this medicine!

Meds

My Meds

I mean it worked like a charm, but what’s up with having each medicine separate? Look, the fever meds aren’t even in a pill! It’s just white powder.

Fever Powder

Cocca-I mean my "fever powder"

What, was I supposed to snort this? Cause that’s exactly what I did…just kidding. Or am I?

I, used to the North American way of the One Pill to Cure Them All, find this somewhat troublesome. It makes me feel like I was on the verge of death or something, having to take all these different medications.

Creepy Colonel Sanders Statues

When I was a child, I used to go into my mother’s clothes drawer and mess up her clothes, so to stop me she stuck a scary clown night-light on the drawer handle. I never went near the drawer again. Since coming to Japan I’ve eaten KFC all of twice, and this is why:

The Colonel

If all across the country one night these statues come to life like in Night at the Museum we are soooo screwed.

Come on Japan, this is just bad for business. That thing is scary. But maybe this is the reason why many Japanese people are so slim?

Pushing on the trains

If you ever come to Tokyo, try not to take it personally when someone shoves and pushes you into the train car without so much as a sumimasen or gomen nasai, like you’re a stubborn piece of overhead luggage. This is the Way of the Trains. It’s actually quite civilized and efficient if you think about it. Every train everywhere is crowded* and if we all took the time to say sorry to one another as we pushed each other out of the way so that we could catch the train two minutes earlier, or to get off in the five second window that the doors stay open, we would never get anywhere now would we?

Crowded Train

Look at that hand outstretched in desperation as that poor man, no doubt pushed from behind, flails for balance.

*Your actual experience may vary, but I’m probably right.

No heat in the corridors.

This is a real pain in the winter. Central heating just isn’t the cool thing to do here in Japan. Instead every room gets its own AirCon unit that heats or cools the room. It’s fab because I can control the heat in my own room in my guest house, but that run from my room to the bathroom, or my room to the kitchen is murdah in the winter, and so is waiting for the thing to start circulating once I turn it on. And don’t get me started on the mental tug of war that ensues if I need to use the little girls’ room in the middle of the night. It’s the epic struggle of the ages: Warm bed vs. full bladder and freezing, dark hallway. Of course, full bladder and freezing dark hallway always trump warm bed in the end, but I relive this horrible night time battle every time I walk through the adult diaper aisle in a pharmacy. One day, one day soon, I might crack and start wearing them to bed, and don’t you dare judge me!

The “oouuuh” noise Japanese people make

It’s hard to describe, but trust me it’s weird. It’s like the North American version of “huh?” or “whoa”, but it’s a drawn out sound halfway between “oh” and “eh” with an upward inflection at the end. The sound somehow seems too masculine for a woman to make and too feminine for a man to make, and worst of all I think it’s contagious. Sometimes when I’m talking to a student and they tell me something interesting I catch my lips trying to purse into the position it takes to make that noise, so that my “oh?” of surprise comes out kind of messed up like a half-hearted attempt at the real noise. But I fight it and I will continue to fight it because although there are many things that I think are great about this country…this is not one of them.

The truck blaring a creepy voice that announces garbage pick up or something.

Listen to it here. This truck sometimes wakes me up and it’s just disconcerting. I don’t know what she’s saying, but the tone of voice is just so dead and robotic and…post-apocalyptic. Every time I hear it feel like I’m in some kind of sci-fi movie and the truck is announcing who needs to report for sterilization or something, (I assume that in the future there will be a  population crisis and maybe 20% of the population will need to be sterilized every once in a while). That’s probably not what she’s saying but, damn it doesn’t sound like it. Am I wrong?

Really narrow roads

 

Narrow Roads

I'm really glad I don't have to drive here.

 

This one really freaked me out when I first came over. The above road is theoretically a  two way street. There is a noticeable lack of sidewalks. Sometimes when a car is coming I have to stop and flatten myself against the nearest building. I don’t know how it works, but it does. When two cars meet up, they somehow manage to squeeze by each other. I am amazed every time I see it. It’s like those cartoons where a man jumps from a diving board into a glass of water, except this is real life. I guess it helps that the cars are generally much smaller here, and that more people take the train than drive.

These are only a few of the things that, while mundane for those who were born here or have been living here for a while, send shocks of culture down my spine even today, and even though they’re strange and some are downright annoying, I know that once I leave this country I will secretly look back on every one of these little quirks fondly as if they were mischievous yet lovable children.

The Prodigal Fly-jin?

Japan Again

When I went back to Canada on March 18, I wasn’t at all sure I was coming back to Japan, though I knew I wanted to. I’d left the majority of my clothes in my room in Tokyo like a frail, gossamer thread connecting me to Japan. An argument to any opposition on why must return.  Also in my arsenal were an outstanding cell phone contract, a six month lease on my place, and my job. It made perfect sense to me. I’d spent two months making a life here. I had people and places and things I wanted to get back to. So my plan was to fly home, prove to my family that hadn’t sprouted any extra limbs, monitor the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant and go back in a couple of weeks.

But, honestly I just didn’t know if that would be possible. I felt I had a reasonable shot at keeping my job — I wasn’t the only one or the first one leaving and the precedent had been set. But I was dreading having the discussion with my parents. I knew they wouldn’t be too happy about my return to the “danger zone”. I’ll forever remember the1000 watt smile my dad, a man who is usually very reserved with his emotions, gave me when he saw me at the airport. I know I made the right decision to fly home, but would it really be wise to return to Tokyo? I can’t say I missed the aftershocks or the daily reports of spreading radiation and contamination, and what about my job? Even if I got to keep it there could be consequences for becoming a fly-jin, a (cowardly to some) foreigner who left the country after the earthquake. What would my coworkers say? As the nuclear crisis unfolded, there emerged two distinct voices. The voice of panic — largely found in the foreign media — told us Kanto was doomed. The radiation plume was coming and there was nothing we could do about it. Hell, radiation would trickle all the way to North America by some estimates what chance did Japan have? Then there was the voice of denial, channeled by people who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave Kanto and supported by TEPCO’s sugar-coating of the facts, telling us the radiation was not an immediate health risk.  The voice of denial said everything was OK. So what if there was a sickly nuclear reactor threatening to spew harmful amounts of radioactive puke all over us? It probably wouldn’t happen because…because it just wouldn’t.

And so I found myself stuck in between the rock and hard place of legend. Behind the rock was my Canadian social network who, fueled by foreign media coverage, thought I was crazy to go back into the “mess” that was Tokyo. Clearly it was a ghost town. Clearly all the grocery stores had empty shelves. Clearly all the produce and the tap water were contaminated with radiation. What could I be thinking going back there? Yes, I doubt there was one foreigner here who didn’t wake up to frantic Facebook messages and Skype calls in the week after the earthquake. There was even an article in the Japan Times about it.

The hard place housed the people who came up with the term fly-jin in the first place. They metaphorically glowered down at me in judgment; their eyes alight with romantic notions of bravely sticking it out in their adopted home. OK, to be fair, I can see how people with long-term friendships, wives, husbands and in-laws would feel wary leaving behind the people they love. However, I also say where there’s smoke (and there was literally smoke coming out of those nuclear reactors) there’s fire and you need to get the hell out of there before it’s too late, especially if there are children involved. And that’s exactly what my loved ones were telling me to do.

But even though I was safely tucked away in Canada and I had a chance to see old friends and spend quality time with family, I spent a good deal of time asleep. I passed it off as jet lag to both myself and others but now I know it was something else. I was homesick. How could this be? I was home. I’d only been in Tokyo for two months, how could it be that I felt that familiar urge to be “back in my own bed”, when I was in my own bed? The bed of my childhood that I had slept in for over 10 years?

Because I had internalized Tokyo. I had ingested it. I’d feasted my soul on the walk to the train station, drank in the shining lights of Shibuya and desert was the crazy confections that Japanese fashionistas and fashionistos wear. I like the place, dammit. I like the life I’ve built here, the life that wasn’t merely handed to me. So I weighed all the facts. I needed to be back at work before April to keep my job. I determined that in terms of danger Tokyo was maybe at a 5 out of 10, (not great but I wouldn’t die). Said a silent prayer of thanks to have my Tokyo home intact and that there was no need for a forced evacuation, and took the plunge. My parents, though nowhere near thrilled, didn’t try to stop me. They simply wished me the best and told me to stay alert and keep in touch.

So come what may I’m back in Tokyo. I’ve been focusing heavily on myself these last couple weeks. My aim now is to find ways to help the people who are suffering because of the quake and nuclear disaster: the people who have been forced to leave their homes behind, those living in temporary shelter among crying babies and dying seniors, shivering when it gets cold. The children orphaned by this disaster. The people who have had their livelihood washed away in the Tsunami. I’m eagerly anticipating the release of 2:46 (known on twitter as #quakebook). If you don’t know about it, check it out. 100% of the proceeds go to helping victims of the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami through the Japan Red Cross.

So, the prodigal fly-jin has returned to Tokyo, just in time for a warm sunny spring and cherry blossom season, a reminder that nature can be destructive, but is also capable of creating great beauty.

 

 

 

 

Whoa…I’m Not in Japan.

The ridiculously long line at customs to get back to Canada

The ridiculously long line at customs to get back to Canada

As I sit here, watching the movie Inception with my sisters in the room where I grew up, I wonder, like the characters in the movie, if I’m not having some kind of lifelike dream myself. I’m back in Canada, and it feels surreal. This time last week I had no plans and certainly not enough money to take an impromptu trip halfway across the world, even though I was sort of missing my family. So what am I doing here?

Well, the decision was based on many factors. As many reading this may know, right now, north east Japan including Tokyo is in a mild panic. A nuclear plant a couple hundred kilometres away could possibly go into meltdown. Workers are having an extremely difficult time keeping in under control. TEPCO – the company that owns the plant — and the Japanese government are being vague about the exact situation, giving us information hours after events have happened. There is the sneaking suspicion that there is something we’re not being told. Though we’re been assured by the Japanese government that only those within a 30KM radius need to evacuate, the US and UK governments suggest an 80KM radius. We’re told any radiation that does reach Toyko will be very low, not enough to impact human health.

However, many of us expats in the Tokyo area have family and friends who are not appeased. They have no perception of the situation other than what they hear and see in the media abroad, and the media always goes for the worst-case scenario, because if it bleeds it leads. So our families fear the worst –  a full meltdown followed by an explosion that would send massive amounts of radioactive material into the air. They feel helpless and terrified believing we could be in harm’s way. Many of us have been urged to pack up and leave the country, to leave behind our jobs and our friends and just come back home until things get better.

I love my family. I don’t want them to worry, and despite the fact that Tokyo remains safe at the moment, I do feel some uncertainty about what will happen in the future. However I’ve been reading almost obsessively any articles I could find about the current crisis at the nuclear plant in Fukushima. I’ve read some reassuring articles on why this will not turn into a nuclear disaster the likes of Chernobyl, as many seem to believe. But I had to make a choice. The stress of worrying about me was impacting my parent’s health. Though I wasn’t worried about myself, as I had relocated to Osaka to wait out the worst of this scenario, I was worried for them. So, I decided to go back to Canada for a while.

Getting the re-entry permit

The crowd at the immigration office

I’ve taken a gamble, as I don’t know how this will affect my job, but I do know I’m not the only teacher who has left, and these are unusual circumstances. Before I left I went to the immigration office in Osaka to get a re-entry permit.  It was chaos. I waited in a crowd of about 200 people for three hours to finally get that stamp in my visa. I didn’t want to have to use it. I felt safe in Osaka because even if the absolute worst-case scenario did happen — the plant experiences a full meltdown and the containment somehow fails — the radiation would weaken before it reached as far as Osaka.

I don’t fear some kind mass-scale nuclear contamination, but I have to admit I was scared. I’ve never been a situation where my life could technically be at risk – however unlikely the worst case scenario may be. I can in no way compare with the people who have actually had to suffer because of this earthquake: the people in the shelters who are running low on food and water; the people who have lost their homes and their way of life to the tsunami. Yet this has been probably the most stressful week of my life. Every morning started with a frantic phone call from my mother, begging me to get on a flight, making me wonder if maybe I was in more danger than I thought. Every night was spent in fitful sleep, jumping up at every aftershock. So in the interest of lowering everyone’s stress level, I’m back in Canada for a while.

P.S: To give some much needed support to the survivers of the Tohoku Earthquake you can donate to your country’s Red Cross Society. Here’s a link to how to donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross Society. http://www.jrc.or.jp/english/relief/l4/Vcms4_00002070.html

Japan Earthquake 2011: An update

I didn’t sleep too well the night before. I was up reassuring friends and family on facebook and skype that I was OK. I was talking to people who had requested to interview me about the earthquake, and I was slowly being driven insane by aftershocks of varying degrees of intensity.

Every time an aftershock hits I freeze up, because the feeling is so similar to that little tremor I ignored that was just the preview of what was to come. My heart begins to beat double time. Adrenaline spikes in my veins as my body prepares to take flight. Thankfully, since the big earthquake yesterday I haven’t had to make the same frantic dash for cover, and the aftershocks are getting weaker.

But there are other dangers that have been set in motion by the earthquake. One is of course the Tsunami. It struck quickly and it struck without mercy. I feel such fear and sadness for all those caught in its path of destruction. Those who have died or were injured, those who are missing family and friends, and those who lost their houses and businesses. The other danger is fires. In one case an oil refinery was ablaze. And finally, the current concern is the explosion at the Fukushima No.1 (nuclear) plant. Since yesterday, people have been working non-stop to diffuse the threat of an overheated reactor. The earthquake caused the cooling system to malfunction, and as a result the amount of radiation inside the reator was 1000 times more than usual. So far, plant officials have been forced to leak some radiation to releive pressure and avoid a meltdown, and people within a 20km radius of the plant have been evacuated. My heart goes out to those who have been ejected from their homes. The situation at the plant does not look good and who knows when they will be able to go home again?

Thankfully, I’m about 250km away from the nuclear plant, and haven’t been affected. But here in central Tokyo we’re bracing ourselves for rolling black outs. Today I went grocery shopping and many of the shelves were empty.

Nothing

Nothing

Nada

Nada

The Day the Earth Did Not Stand Still

The Day the Earth Did Not Stand Still
Alright Miss Amanda, Tokyo’s not measuring up to your ridiculous expectations? You want lots of new exciting experiences? You want stuff to write home about besides how many people couldn’t pronounce “relax” that day? You want the ultimate Japan experience? OK, I’ve got just the thing for you, something big. — The Universe

Today as I was merrily getting ready for work, I noticed the mirror on my desk began to shake. “No worries,” I thought. “These little tremors happen all the time, I’m sooo used to it by now.”

But the mirror continued to shake, causing me to smudge my eyeliner. And then the desk began to shake. And then the floor. Soon my whole room was shaking!

“Amanda! Do you feel that?!” my roommate called. How could I not?

“Open your door!” I yelled back.

I’d remembered that one of our Japanese roommates had said that any time there’s an earthquake we need to open all of the doors because the door frame can shift, and we can get trapped inside. I then ran out of my room to open the front door, and by then the place was really shaking hard.

“This is it,” I thought. All of the other times when I’d felt those little tremors my heart would freeze for just a hair of a second as I waited for the trembling to turn into something more, and this time, finally, it did. Outside I could hear the world around me rumbling like muted thunder: a very ominous noise like the ground was getting ready to explode. And I could see the houses swaying. It looked like the beginning of the apocalypse. My other roommates ran downstairs, one of whom had only been in the country for a few days, poor girl. We all dashed outside. I will never forget the feeling of the road swaying violently under my feet like the earth was trying to toss me off its surface.

I then remembered that the door frame is supposed to be the safest place during an Earthquake, so I ran back to the front entrance, and two of my roommates followed. We stood there for what felt like forever. “When will this shaking stop?” I thought. “Will the house collapse?”

It didn’t. After some time, I don’t know how long but if had to guess I would say, “too damn long”, the tremors stopped. Then it was very quiet, until instructions started blaring from loud speakers all around the neighbourhood entirely in Japanese. It was disorienting and surreal, like living in a sci-fi movie. I had work that day, so I walked down to the train station to see what the situation was. Predictably, the trains were cancelled, but there were many people waiting around in case they started up again. As we were all waiting the ground began its tell-tale tremors and what followed was a big aftershock that sent us all stampeding up the stairs for fear of getting trapped underground.
Here in central Tokyo we were very lucky. Not even a mirror was broken in my house. But in other parts of Japan people were not so fortunate.

Right now we’re still experiencing little aftershocks that are freaking me out, because that’s how the big earthquake started — it was a little tremor at first, but quickly turned into something that couldn’t be ignored. Even now as I write this I can see my coat swinging gently on my clothes rack. Getting to sleep tonight will be tough.

This Mofo is Loco — in a Good Way

Loco and I right before he disappeared, like in "The Time Travelers Wife"

See?

See?

Today I met up with one of my favourite bloggers, Loco of Loco in Yokohama.

It…was…AWESOME!!!!111one

There’s a reason this man’s blog has such a following. Get over there right now if you don’t know him. Go. Here’s the link again if you’re too lazy to scroll the mouse up: Loco in Yokohama.

We had conversations that would have made my philosophy 101 prof in university shed a tear of pride. Never a dull moment with Loco!

One Month and Going Strong

It’s my one month Japaniversary!

One Month in Japan Fireworks

Yes, as impossible as it seems to me I’ve already been living in Japan for a whole month. I’m shocked at how easy it’s been, almost to the point of being mundane. Here in Tokyo it’s probably easiest for a foreigner to fit right in…kind of. There’s English on all of the train signs, and many people have a basic understanding of English, even if they can’t/don’t want to speak it. I’ve been dealt the beautiful hand of having a roommate that speaks both English and Japanese, and she’s been a huge help in getting settled. Also spotting foreigners isn’t a huge deal here…maybe a big deal, but not a huge deal.

So what have I accomplished in one month of living in Japan?

  • I’ve taught four kids classes (back-to-back)
  • I went to Harajuku three times
  • I went clubbing in Tokyo two times
  • I’ve japaniphized one cell phone

    Japaniphized phone

    Mariah Carey would be proud.

I haven’t been able to hit up too many tourist traps, and that’s how I know I’m really living in Japan. Work takes up a lot of time. But I have been introduced to the joys…ish of Japanese TV. I only have like 9 channels or something like that, but from what I’ve seen it’s pretty much all variety shows - a term which I use ironically — there is no variety here. They mostly involve a panel of celebrities talking about other celebrities, or celebrities eating something ultra-delectable. You can tell what they’re eating is better than anything you, the poor peasant watching at home, could ever dream of getting your grubby hands on by the way they close their eyes in happiness when they take a bite, like they’re eating the food of the Gods. Then they savour it ever-so-sweetly for 4.37 seconds, and after that exclaim “honto-ni oishii!” (sooo delicious!). Although once in a blue moon I come across something both unique and hilarious, the kind of shows that end up on you tube as examples of how cool Japanese TV is, a myth I bought into until we got our own TV. For example there was one show where we got to watch celebrities having the highlights scared right out of their perfectly coiffed hair in what was actually a pretty terrifying haunted house. Now that was funny.   

And if you attempt to watch TV in Japan, you will quickly get sick of seeing these mofos on the left here.

Arashi

Japanese N Sync. The one in the middle is Justin.

They’re in a group called Arashi, and they’re frikken everywhere! They’re on so many variety shows, when do they have time to make music? And even though I see them at least once every day on TV, I still hadn’t heard them sing at the time of writing this post. For the purposes of this fabulous and informative blog, I had to Google them. I am underwhelmed.

I broke down and went to McDonald’s for the first time, because I got coupons outside a train station and they were going to expire. Right now at McDonald’s in Japan they have this atrocity called the Idaho burger, part of the “Big America 2″ burger line-up,  which I believe is part of McDonald’s diabolical plan to export obesity to one of the skinniest counties on Earth. The commercial for the burger features some redneck farmers in Idaho doing something with a truck, I can’t remember what. Anyway the Idaho burger is made up of the burger, bacon, and cheese, questionable sauce and a hashed brown on top. That’s some artery-clogging goodness right there.

Idaho Burger and Friends

Idaho Burger and Friends

 If culture shock and homesickness suddenly hit, and I become suicidal, I’ll eat the Idaho burger in the hopes of inducing cardiac arrest.

I’m Comfortably Uncomfortable

But its Tokyo

This could be any big city, but it's Tokyo.

Right now, everywhere I go I feel like I’m listening to everyone talking with a towel over their mouth or something : Japanese sounds familiar, it sounds like something I should understand, but nothing makes any sense. It’s a strange and unsettling feeling, and one I’m anxious to fix. Too anxious, it seems. Here’s a story:

Every day on my way to work I pass a small family- owned (I assume) grocery, where a little old man with a bent back stands stooped over his vegetables. He always gives me a nod when I walk past, and I got it into my head that I wanted to be friends with this old man. He would become my unofficial Ojiisan (Grandpa), and he would teach me Japanese, and be delighted at my adorable attempts to learn his language — and he would give me free groceries.  So the other evening as I’m walking by, I gave my best casual wave to him and called out “Oyasumi”.  My roomate, who’s walking next to me, bursts out laughing. I’m thinking “oh man, what’d I do now?” She tells me I basically told the old man something along the lines of “you have a good sleep now”. It was about six in the evening. The old man’s response? He just nodded as usual, as if to say “yup, as expected.”

Sigh.

If I had my way I’d be fluent in Japanese in the next month, too bad that’s impossible. But I still feel I’ve made an excellent choice in Japan, specifically Tokyo, as the place where I will begin to expand my horizons. It’s like slowly dipping into the cold ocean. Even though I’m well out of my comfort zone, there’s something so familiar about this place. It’s got the same big-city feel as Toronto. And I’m finding, to both my amazement and relief, that it’s perfectly possible to live here without knowing how to speak Japanese.  Yep, I can get by just fine on the King’s English, but can I learn anything? Can I really understand this place, and in doing so better understand myself? No, I don’t think I can.

And although there are quite a few things that are familiar, there’s still a lot that’s different.  Say I go out and buy lunch. I take it back to work. I’m the break room, laughing it up with the coworkers, having a good time right? But then it comes time to throw out the container. I’m suddenly darting my eyes around, waiting for someone to make the first move, because I never quite know where the hell I’m supposed to throw the thing. It’s plastic, but there’s still food in there. Or it’s plastic, but what about the chopsticks? The garbage system here freaks me out man, because  –  and no one’s told me this officially yet but — I’m pretty sure that if I throw something in the wrong bin red lights will start flashing and alarms will go off, and a spotlight will centre right on the criminal who so thoughtlessly put non-combustible material in the combustible bin, and Japanese police will rappel down from the roof and crash through the windows to haul me off to garbage jail. I must have been lucky so far, but I’m dreading the day it happens.