Trash Day Anxiety: A Tragic New Form of OCD.

GarbageThere’s a mental illness affecting Japan’s older generation that I hadn’t heard about before moving here. It’s a peculiar psychosis that causes non-homeless, non-starving people to dig through their neighbor’s garbage. What else could be the cause of such perplexing and disgusting behaviour?

Oh, the offenders will claim they’re just doing their duty as citizens of the globe to make sure the right garbage goes out on the right day. Japan’s garbage collection system is quite complex you see. Depending on where you live, Monday could be paper, (but only some types of paper) Tuesday could be cans and bottles (and you better separate them by glass, plastic and tin) Wednesday could be burnable garbage (yes all garbage is technically “burnable” but this is burnable burnable), Thursday might be glass, and may God smile upon your accursed soul if you have garbage over 30 cm long, because that will need a special sticker AND an appointment to pick up.

With such complicated rules, we should be glad that there are good Samaritans out there willing to aid others, especially hapless foreigners, by checking garbage bags to make sure their contents are correct, and helpfully dropping the bag off in front of one’s apartment door if something is amiss. These are paragons of altruism, willing to risk e-coli for the sake of good garbage disposal. Right? Right?

NO! They’re crazier than Miley Cyrus dressed as Lady Gaga for Halloween. What the actual hell? I was surprised to see this story once, on another blog. I started to get creeped out when I saw another incident on my Facebook feed, followed by multiple comments from expats and Japanese about their own showdowns with garbage vigilantes. I just couldn’t believe there were multiple people out there willing to dig through other people’s garbage for any other reason besides starvation, money or maybe misplaced drugs.

I haven’t had to deal with this yet: my place has a garbage room and I just chuck garbage in there whenever I want. At my old place I had to put garbage out on the right day, but I guess I got it right, because I never came home to a ripped-open bag of my own trash. However, on my last day at my ex-apartment I had to put out everything, regardless of what day it was. I’m sure one of the garbage vigilantes saw all the crap I had out there–cushions and cardboard and hangers, oh my!–and died of a heart attack. You’re welcome.

Whoa…I live in a Manshon in Tokyo?

Yes that’s right. I live in a real, honest to God Manshon…apartment. And no, I didn’t spell “Manshon” wrong, that’s the phonetic Japanese spelling, since I still can’t get this WordPress blog to render Japanese characters, no matter what plugin I install. Sigh. But I digress.

A “Manshon” is basically a large apartment building with a front lobby and an elevator, from what I can tell. And the word does come from English “Mansion”. An “Apato” is an apartment building that’s usually no taller than four stories and has doors that open straight onto the street like a house, making it easy for the Jehovah’s witnesses to come knocking. Yes even here in Japan. I’m sure if you go to the centre of the Earth there are mole people going burrow to burrow with pamphlets hanging from their mouths, while other mole people hear them coming, say, “oh crap!” and hole up, barely breathing, waiting for them to move on.

Manshon apartments are usually nicer than Apato apartments. They’re taller (so they have a better view), they tend to be newer, and Apato buildings are often made of wood. I have an irrational fear that a place made of wood would come tumbling down like a house of match sticks in a big earthquake, and light on fire just as quickly. It’s also likely to house a small independent state of roaches.

The blogs I’ve seen would have you believe it’s next to impossible to rent a Manshon in Tokyo as a foreigner. They’re pretty doom and gloom about the high price and the discrimination that are often deterrents to renting. But I’m here to tell you it’s a challenge, but not impossible, and I know many foreigners out here who are living in nice, new Manshons with a view. It just takes some work, patience, perseverance and money. There are three main steps to finding a decent living space in Tokyo

1) The Search

The internet is your friend, especially if you can’t speak Japanese at a near fluent level. That’s where I found a lot of agencies who catered especially to foreigners. You can plug in what you’re looking for and the sites will spit out some results, but I found that when I made an appointment to see the places, a lot of the time they were either already rented, or the landlord didn’t actually want to rent to foreigners. That was the most difficult part of the search for me. If anything has made me feel like a second-class citizen in this country it’s apartment hunting.

However the agencies I worked with were all very professional. They have no control over who a landlord wants to rent to, but they all tried their best to help me find what I was looking for. Although the internet can help you find an agency, when it comes to searching for apartments it’s best to schedule an appointment with an agent and have them manually search their databases. Some agencies I viewed apartments with are AghartA Inc., FLAT Inc., Tokyo Rent and Kimiwillbe.

2) The Application

Manshon-View

View from the Top

After you’ve narrowed down where you want to live, you need to apply. Many Japanese places, especially Manshon apartments, want you to have a guarantor. This is a person who is financially responsible if you can’t, or won’t pay rent. The best choice for a guarantor is a middle-aged Japanese man. If you know someone like that who’s willing to put his wallet on the line for you you’re set. However most of us foreigners don’t. That’s where guarantor companies come in. This is a company who will act as your guarantor. This company has to accept your application. So the average foreigner will be sending in applications to both a guarantor company and the housing company/landlord. BOTH have to be approved before you can get the apartment.

When I decided to move this year, I gave the housing company for the place I was previously living the obligatory one month’s notice, and began viewing apartments. I did it that way because I didn’t want to have to pay overlapping rent. With just two weeks to spare before I had to get out of my old place, I found it, the perfect Manshon: spacious, a rent and move in cost I could afford, and it was in a new building and with a great view. I heaved a sigh of relief and applied. I wouldn’t be homeless. I sat back sure that with my steady income and work visa it would be no problem. A week later I received an email from the housing agent.

I’m sorry but although the housing company has approved your application, the guarantor company has rejected you.  

Oh.my.god. What was I supposed to do? The agent said he would try another company. Yes please do, I said. A couple of days later I received another email.

Hello Amanda. Bad news. The second company has also rejected your application. I have one more company I can try. 

What the hell? What could possibly be the problem? I’d lived in Japan for two years, steadily employed the whole time, no problems with the law and paid all my bills on time. By this point I had my theories, but nothing I could prove. And the companies didn’t divulge why I seemed to be such a huge risk. At this point I was sweating. I had a week to go before moving day, and technically no place to live. If this last company rejected me too…would I have time to find another place?

After another day, I checked my email with fingers sporting nails bitten down to stubs. There was an email from the housing agent.

The last company has approved your application! When can you come in to sign the contracts?

Yay, yay yay! So to all of you let my recklessness be a lesson. I really didn’t think it would take a month to sort out an apartment, especially when I had been browsing for a month before that! But for a foreigner, there are some complications that can come up. So even though you’ll likely end up paying a week or two of overlapping rent, don’t give notice that you’re leaving the first place until you’ve found the second.

3) The Payment

Manshon-Room

My Bedroom

I won’t lie, if you want to move into a nice place in Tokyo it’s gonna hurt, BUT you can negotiate! This really surprised me because it’s been my experience in Japan that most things are pretty non-negotiable. I swear, if you go to McDonald’s and ask for McNugget sauce if you didn’t order McNuggets they’ll treat you like you asked for “filet Mignon– but hold the Mignon”.

There are at least three fees you’ll likely pay, but it’ll be more like 7-10 fees. The most common fees you have to pay are to the agency, the guarantor company and the deposit. You may also have heard of key money. This is a gift to the landlord for letting you rent the place and can be 1-3 months rent. But I asked the agencies to look for places that didn’t have that fee, and I think it’s becoming less common. There may also be a lock change fee, paperwork fee, insurance fee, cleaning fee, oxygen fee, Friday morning fee, Japan fee, or because-we-said-so fee, depending on how much money the renter thinks they can squeeze out of you. Expect to pay 225,000-400,000 yen (about $2500-4000 CDN) upfront to move into a nice place.

But as I said, you can negotiate. I was able to bring my upfront costs down by having the agent negotiate to lower the rent. Also the guarantor company I used turned out to charge less than the first two, the cleaning fee will be charged when I move out rather than upfront, and the housing company agreed to pay most of the agency fee, so I didn’t have to shoulder it. At the end I think I paid around 225,000 in initial fees.

So there you have it, the process for renting your very own Manshon in Tokyo.

 

Japan’s Rising Reggae Star

Plenty of foreigners are doing big things out here in Japan. In fact a lot of us just use teaching English as a side-gig to pay the bills. I’m writing a book, a lot of people also model, act or are into film and photography.

My girl Monique is a soulful reggae songstress and she’s just put out a video! Reggae has a huge following in Japan and Monique has a killer voice, so I’m sure she’ll be “big in Japan” pretty soon! Check out her video! 

And if you dig the song show her some love on iTunes!

Monique Dehaney- Look of Love- Single (U.S Store)
https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/loo…

(Japan Store)
https://itunes.apple.com/jp/album/loo…

Funny Stories on Being a FOB in Japan

The Nametag

nametagI am still such a FOB out here. One night my friend came over and we were drinking. There was a nametag on my table, which had my name on it in English, and above that my name in my own crappy katakana writing. (For those who don’t know, katakana is the Japanese alphabet  for writing foreign words.)

“What’s this?” he said. I took one look at it and burst out laughing. It was the nametag I wear for Japanese class. I’m supposed to leave it behind and find it again every week but I always forget and wear it home. And last time, I even went shopping after class and had it on. If you were a Japanese person, what would you do if some foreigner came up to you and started asking for help in toddler Japanese with a childishly written name tag pinned onto her collar? I must have seemed mentally challenged–more so than usual. Maybe that’s why the staff girl didn’t laugh in my face, the pity in her heart wouldn’t let her.

The French Fries

Fries

Japan is known for having the best customer service, and yeah, the staff are way more polite in general than any other country I’ve been to, but Japanese businesses are not so big on bending the rules to be accommodating. I was out at an izakaya restaurant with another foreign friend. Now this next part I won’t blame on my own fobishness, because the menu was in English. We’d already eaten a lot, but the French fries at this place must have been salted with crack cause I was  jonesin’, so even though I felt like I was about to pop I said, “let’s order more!”

We order the fries and there are options like “ketchup and mayo” or “garlic butter”. Now, these sound like the names of condiments right? But no, they were actually the “flavours” of the fries. So I thought I was getting fries with ketchup, mayo and garlic butter on the side but it turned out to actually be two orders of fries, one that was garlic butter flavoured and one…with ketchup and mayo on the side -_-. There was just no way we were gonna finish all that off.

There was still a full plate of fries left and I felt bad throwing them out so I wanted to find a homeless person and give them away. So we asked the waitress for a box.

“Oh I’m sorry, we don’t do take out here.”

“A bag? Anything?

“No, I’m sorry.”

Nope there was no box or bag anywhere in the whole establishment, no sir. So what happened was while my friend kept watch I put the two plates together and shoved them in a plastic bag and into my purse, like a ghetto Robin Hood. Yes, I stole my own food and the izakaya’s plates were a casualty. I felt a bit guilty but the homeless woman who got the crack-fries was really happy. They were still hot and everything. Unfortunately, I can’t go back to that izakaya anymore.

The Devil Sandwich

sandwich

Sandwiches in Japan don’t make no sense. I remember when I first came here I was shaking my head at the spaghetti sandwiches at the grocery store, literally noodles in a hot dog bun. But Japan gets a lot more creative than that. I was running late to work one day. There’s a cafe next to my building and I needed to quickly buy something for lunch. So I breezed in there, glanced at the sandwiches and grabbed one that looked good. Lunch time came and I was huuungry. I was ready for that sandwich. I took a bite and I thought to myself, “huh, this tastes familiar, but somehow wrong in a fundamental way.” That’s because I was eating the unholy union of potato salad and bread. It was a potato salad sandwich. I ate it all and hated every minute of it.

The next week I was prepared. I gave myself lots of time, I carefully read what the sandwiches were, and this time I picked up a ham and lettuce sandwich. But in Japan, (and of course this is understandable) sometimes the spelling is a bit wrong for English words, and while they spelled it ham and lettuce what they really meant was potato f*cking salad again!!! Seriously, I don’t know how this demon sandwich made it into my hands for the second time. It probably possessed what actually was just an innocent ham and lettuce sandwich. I had to eat it again, and again it sucked. And I will never return to that little cafe of horrors.

 

Black History Month in Tokyo

Last night I had the chance to get together with my fellow expats of African descent  and do some cultural exchanging at Free Your Mind 2013, a yearly get together celebrating Black History Month. It was nice to be able to meet other expats and mingle with the Black community in Tokyo…and to eat!

Soul Food

I ate it all in exactly 4 minutes 53 seconds

I was all over that soul food plate like I was a thirteen year old girl from the suburbs and it was Justin Bieber.

There was a big turnout, the place was packed! Aside from the delicious food there were performances–singing and spoken word poetry. There was also a Black history trivia quiz, and a salsa lesson that turned into something like the cha cha slide.

The Crowd at Free Your Mind 2013

The Crowd at Free Your Mind 2013

I had a fabulous time, and if I’m still in Tokyo next year I’ll definitely be going again.

People in Japan Can’t Dance

…not unless they want to risk getting cuffed and kicked out of the club.

Technically, it’s been illegal to dance in clubs or bars after a certain hour since 1984, but that law’s never really been enforced until the last few years.

 

 

The picture above is an excerpt from an interview with Daisha Hunter, founder of ENTokyo. You can read the rest in the October issue of tsuki magazine.

Daisha works with clubs in Tokyo to put on artist showcases, CD release parties and so on, and she had a lot to say about this law, it’s discriminatory nature and the negative effect it has on the entertainment industry.

Everyone from DJs, to club owners to promoters, [face the risk] of having their events raided, being arrested…I heard ballroom dancing is now separated from the entertainment law, because they look at ballroom dancing like its…I was told it’s morally good for Japanese people to ballroom dance. And I was like well how can you say that and yet hip-hop dancing is under this law, salsa dancing…

I haven’t run into this law myself, but I’ve heard from friends who have seen the “no dancing” signs on the walls in clubs, or felt that polite shoulder tap and heard sumimasen if their rhythmic swaying to the music started to become just a bit too organized.

Now, I already had an inkling as to the purpose of this law, especially after hearing only certain kinds of dancing we’re restricted, but I decided to use it as the topic for one of my group lessons, to hear what the youth of Japan thought — about clubs, about dancing and about this law. One of my students was pretty candid and simply said dancers, especially hip hop dancers, we’re considered “bad boys” in Japanese culture, (he had no comment on female dancers).

So reading between the lines, obviously the law has nothing to do with the actual dancing, but rather the type of people who would be most likely to bust a move. There’s nothing wrong with trying to crack down on crime, but because some stuffy old men with side parts and comb-overs decided dancers were the trouble makers, but couldn’t quite get away with shutting down clubs out right (think of all the money that would be lost!) they decided to use this blanket law. Now you can’t even shake your tail feather at a concert out here without looking over your shoulder.  I can only guess this is a move to discourage the riff-raff, with their baggy jeans and over-sized shirts (clearly meant to hide their weapons), or their tight muscle shirts, (clearly meant to show off their biceps and seduce innocent Japanese women) from going out at night.

 You can read more about it here

Sigh, the whole thing makes Japan seem more…ominous to me, like the government is this shadowy, giant foot constantly dangling above our heads, ready to drop down and squish any time they want.

What do you think, is there any merit to this law?

tsuki September and Fading Friendships while Living in Japan

 

After lots of hard work, the September issue of tsuki magazine is on sale! You can check it out here and even get a discount using this code: tsuki0912

My favourite part of this month’s magazine is a story called “The Next Offensive” by Peter Able. It’s about two friends chilling playing some video games online, but as the story goes on you can see the subtle distance that’s started to grow between them. This part of the story especially shows it:

When Billy’s follow-up question finally came it was in a sympathetic, yet sarcastic tone: “So it’s driving you nuts, huh?”

“Not all of the time,” came Tom’s delayed reply. “Sometimes it’s pretty cool. Everything is different, so every day is interesting. But some days, you just want everything to be easy, and it never is. Even the simplest things, like making a dinner reservation, or getting an oil change, can be so friggin’ difficult. Second wave leaving in ten.”

“My troops took out eighty percent of wall defenses so you shouldn’t lose much. Yeah, I can see how it could be frustrating,” Billy said noncommittally.

* * *

“So how long are you going to stay?” he asked.
“I don’t know, at least another year. Maybe forever,” Tom replied.
“Wow, really?” Billy said. A few more moments passed before he added: “I’m gonna have to come for a visit one of these days.”
“Yeah, definitely.” It was Tom’s turn to sound noncommittal.

Losing friendships — it’s not something I thought about before coming to Japan, or read about on any other blogs. Nobody warned me about this! *sadface*. I’ve never been that good at keeping in touch, even when I did live in the same country as my friends. I wasn’t so big on long phone conversations. I used texts or Facebook instead, or just saw them in person the old-fashioned way. And even if we hadn’t talked for a month, we’d get together again and it would be like we hadn’t skipped a beat.

However, last Christmas I met up with my old crew, and while I was glad to see them, I could tell something was off. The old jokes weren’t as funny, the old hangouts weren’t as fun to visit, and the old sushi didn’t taste as good. I’m not the same person I was when I left almost two years ago. I probably haven’t changed as much as I’d like to think I have, but there has definitely been some growth.

I feel guilty for feeling like I’m not on the same wavelength as my friends in Canada. Am I just being stuck up? Thinking I’m fancy ’cause I live in Tokyo?

I’ve grown by living abroad and expanded my horizons while my poor friends are stuck in their small-town mindsets, and now I can’t relate to them.

I cringed just writing that, and it’s an exaggerated example of what I feel, yet when I go home I don’t quite feel that old sense of belonging anymore. It scares me. Is there still a home for me when I go back…if I go back? Maybe this is one reason some people stay here longer than they probably should have. I wouldn’t say I belong here, but truthfully, part of why I like it here is that I’m not supposed to belong. I’m a foreigner, an outsider, and nothing will change that, which leaves me free to stop trying. But if I don’t belong here, and I no longer belong in Canada, then where do I fit in?

 

 

 

 

Quirky Japan: The Delightful and Disturbing

This may come as a shock to some of you, (if your idea of shock is being completely aware of something and not surprised at all) but in my youth before I came to Japan, I had a great love for what I considered to be “all things Japanese”, which was pretty much kanji, Final Fantasy, anime, geisha and Tokyo street fashion. I was what they call a full blown Japanophile — in love with the happy and colourful fantasy land Japan represented to me, so much more exotic and inviting than my boring North American life. In my first year of university I heard about the JET program and I was ecstatic. What!? I thought. There’s a way I can actually live in this paradise?? I was determined to be on the first thing smoking to Japan as soon as I had the required degree in my hand.

But that didn’t happen. Student loans intervened and I got an office job. As I got older my idealized view of Japan focused to something more realistic, and it would be three more years before I finally decided to move to Tokyo, but for very different reasons than I first intended. With age came wisdom and I knew that if I built Japan up into some kind of impossible wonderland it could only disappoint me. So I researched, reading blogs about other people who were already out here, and came here with what I feel was a balanced view of this unique country.

However there was one perception of Japan that never left, and after over a year and a half here it’s actually strengthened: This place is quirky. I mean, there is some stuff going on here that just makes me scratch my head like…”huh?” Some of it is charming, and brings up those old feelings of Japanophileness, but some of it is just like whoa…what? OK, no…no! You know? Let me give you some examples.

Delightful — Kyary Pamyu Pamyu Videos

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is something like the Lady Gaga of Japan, if your brain can even comprehend such craziness. Take Lady Gaga, make her a Japanese teenager and double her wackiness and you have Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Her videos are cute, creative, colourful, surreal and always have some talented dancers.

Disturbing — AKB48 Videos

AKB48 is unfortunately Japan’s latest pop sensation. They are a bunch of young girls — 48 of them I would say if I had to guess, which I do — though only a few appear over and over again to represent the group.  Their fan base is primarily preteens and old men. Their most popular video is centred around the ground-breaking theme of spying on a group of girls at slumber party, beginning with watching one as she undresses. The video features lingerie, allusions to porn and orgies, and them doing their own craptacular dances. My adorable little 9 year old students sing along to this video and know all the dance moves. I shudder at the thought that 9 year old girls in Japan look up to this.

Delightful:  Hilarious Pranks on TV

The creativity and/or cruelty that go into Japanese pranks make for some of the most hilarious viewing in the world, and they’re the only thing on Japanese TV that I can understand like. Something about watching people scream and run in fear from one of those creepy Japanese women ghosts – you know like the one from The Ring – sets me off.

But the Japanese get crazy with it!

Watch this prank at a ski resort where guys think they’re in for a relaxing naked sit-down in a comfy chair, only to have the chair flip up and dump them through the wall, outside in the snow…naked.  How cruel. How unusual. How hilarious.

Disturbing: No Foreigners Allowed

The lack of sensitivity in the above situation also has a dark (darker?) side.  It causes Japan, in general, to lag behind in the political-correctness parade, and because of that there are various “no foreigner” establishments sprinkled throughout the country. I haven’t encountered this issue yet, but it’s frustrating to know there are hot springs or bars or anything else where I can’t go, simply because I’m foreign, and not many will have your back if you try to fight it. It’s eerily reminiscent of the “whites only” bathrooms or restaurants or whatever else that existed in the West not so long ago.

Delightful: Perfect Train Service

http://locohama.tumblr.com/

This is not just some stereotype floating around. The trains here are on time down to the minute. And everyone is so spoiled by the excellent train service that if the train is even 1 minute late we’re tapping our feet and rolling our eyes while we look at the time on our cell phones, the profuse apologies coming from the loud speakers doing nothing to appease us. You can, and I have, set your watch by the trains.

Disturbing: Decoy Porn Newspapers on the train

Every now and then as I’m riding my perfectly on-time train I see a man reading a newspaper and I think, “What an upstanding citizen, catching up on current events.” I might even be nosy and casually turn my head to the side, to see what he’s reading, (never mind that I can barely read Japanese). But sometimes I sincerely wish I had minded my own damn business.

Waaaaitaminute…this is not a regular newspaper aaarrrgh!!

Scattered throughout the unintelligible (to me anyway) Kanji are ads with women, limbs akimbo and as naked as the day they auditioned to be porn stars.  Why, my dear man, would you want to read such literature on a crowded train? So you can get a hard-on and everyone can see you’re a perv? Actually, that’s probably exactly why.

So you see? Something about this place is just…special. Sometimes it’s SPECIAL! And sometimes it’s “special”, if yuhknowwhatimean. But take it or leave it, Japan will probably always be one of the most head-scratchingly quirky places on the planet.

Is Japan a Small Step Away from Becoming a Utopia?

This post is inspired by a lesson I had last week. I was explaining the phrase “peer pressure” to my students. One of my students said that she experiences peer pressure when she goes out to a cafe with her girlfriends.

“I don’t want to eat cake, but if my friends all get some, I have to get some too.”

I was a little taken aback, I didn’t quite understand.

“Do you mean it makes you want to eat cake too? That would be my problem, but that’s not quite peer pressure.”

“No, no, if I don’t get cake they will all think, ‘why doesn’t she get cake too?’ It’s like…sisterhood.”

“…ooooh so you mean you all have to get fat together, lol”

“Haha yes, something like that…”

At first, this conversation made me depressed. I immediately thought of that Japanese proverb people like to quote: the nail that sticks up will be hammered back down. I though of the salary man who just wants to go home, but has to sit through drinks with coworkers after work for fear of not being a team player.  Jesus, I thought  people don’t even have the social freedom to choose what they want to eat in this country?

But, that’s not entirely true. I don’t want to position Japan as a place where there is zero individuality, and people can’t think for themselves. I had to remind myself the “just be yourself” message we get in after school specials all the time in the West just isn’t pushed here. Instead, it seems more important for people to work as a unit. So instead I focused on the word she used: Sisterhood. Camaraderie. Fellowship. These are good things, are they not? The very core of the concept of world peace. Everyone doing everything together, supporting one another –  it sounds pretty good to me. Majority rules and no trouble makers allowed. Perhaps it’s this attitude that is responsible for the aura of safety here in Japan. I’m not as worried about having things stolen here, or leaving my door unlocked, or walking around late at night. There is something to learn here. I sometimes think about what the world could accomplish if we set our collective will in action. Look at the amazing contributions that have sprung from the minds of just a few people: the airplane, the internet and the mapping of our solar system to name a few. If we could all get our act together the results would be nothing short of magical.

And yet…

I caught the other half of her sentence, after the ellipses. Of course, this is simply a translation of the unformed vibrations hanging in the air above her head at the time, but they felt something like, “but sometimes I just don’t want to eat any #&^% cake!”

NOT sisterhood: For one, where are the travelling pants?

This sadly led me to believe that this is not true “sisterhood” after all. When consensus comes at the cost of free will, I call that peer pressure, and pressure is usually not a good thing. That kind of consensus seems to me to be on the other end of the spectrum: the consensus that is the mother of apathy. After all, why try when you’ll simply be bowled over in favour of the majority? I hear this attitude in the Japanese word shogannai (roughly translated, “it can’t be helped”). I know this attitude is by no means exclusive to Japan, but back where I come from, peer pressure is…almost something to be ashamed of — it doesn’t mesh with the “be yourself” indoctrination. Here in Japan though, peer pressure, it seems to me, is just a fact of life.

Nevertheless, I think Japan is on to something. It’s like I can see the ingredients for a delicious utopia cake, where everyone’s got each other’s back,  but it’s like the recipe is wrong and the cake comes out too sweet.

Maybe that’s why sometimes my student just doesn’t want any.

 

Life is Puzzling

The other day I went to what is probably my favourite store in all of Japan: Tokyu Hands. It’s a splenderifous place of wonder, filled with all kinds of fantastical things for creating anything your imagination can imaginate. I love to go there and browse for a couple hours, just looking at all the arts and crafts stuff and thinking about what I could make. I bought some things to decorate my apartment — some tiles to stick on the walls and a puzzle of Tokyo Tower.

If you are ever having a rough day, may I suggest taking 10 minutes to work on a puzzle? It will completely tune your brain out to anything else. All that matters is finding that missing piece.

The puzzle really reminded me of life in general. For example:

Sometimes you find a piece that looks like it’s perfect, and it should fit. It matches the pattern you’re looking for, and it even looks like the right size and shape, but when you go to put it down, it doesn’t quiiiite fit. It’s just a little off. It’s tempting to leave it there, because oh man it you were so excited when you found it! Yes, this is the piece, you thought. But you know that if you leave it there it’s just gonna screw up the rest of the puzzle. Besides, there is another piece somewhere in that daunting pile that fits perfectly.

Sometimes you find a piece and think, nah, this can’t be it and you throw it back and keep looking. But it nags you, and after numerous failed attempts you go back to it thinking oh what the hell, none of the other pieces are working might as well try and well I’ll be damned, it fits! I never would have guessed.

Sometimes you have an instinct about a piece. You haven’t really examined the pattern or the shape, but it kind of looks like it should fit in with the other pieces, so you give it a try and it slides satisfyingly into place.

Sometimes you get a piece that looks like “the piece”. It has the right pattern and shape, but when you try to stick in in place it’s all wrong. Huh? But this has gotta be it you think. You stare at it and stare at it, willing it to become the piece you need, you believe in this piece! Then it hits you: What if I just… You turn the piece around, and it slides snugly into its rightful spot.

Sometimes a piece just refuses to be found. In these cases it’s best to move on to some other area in the puzzle, an easier area where the pieces form a distinctive pattern, and eliminate some of the pieces. Before you know it that other piece, the piece the couldn’t be found, will be in your fingers.

And speaking of distinctive patterns, it’s the areas of the puzzle that are the most busy, that have the most contrast that are the easiest to put together. You ever try to make a puzzle of a cloudless blue sky? It’s a pain.