“O-isogashii-tokorode denwa wo shiteitadaite arigatougozaimashita. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.”
“Hai. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
Click. Her voice was like the bird that calls one out of bed in the morning. Huckleberry could imagine her bouncing irregularly through the air as she politely wrapped up her obligatory long winded summary of his gas service cancellation procedures made even gustier by the blessings of formal verb conjugations in polite Japanese. The message was clear. “Give us your money.” Huck had just finished his fourth call of the day. Deciding to call all three utility companies and social health insurance right in a row revealed itself to be a painful decision, but at least it was finished. Half of his contract cancellations were now checked off the Bai Bai Japan list. Arriving to Japan the whole world screams Keiyaku (Contract) at you. As you leave, Kaiyaku (Contract Cancellation) hits you between the legs. Kaiyaku means ‘contract cancellation’ and those two Kanji came to define Huckleberry’s life during this summer when it wasn’t devoted to running around Tokyo with guests from abroad.
But, as annoying as bureaucracy was, getting through the kaiyaku’s was just a necessary growing pain of leaving. It was a necessary part of ‘Bai Bai Jyahpan!’ The Japanese say bai bai like Americans say ciao, but it also interestingly means “buying and selling” in their own language. What a remarkably telling cultural confession for the Japanese. “a-Buh-bye, I’m off to go shopping!” “Later, I need to check out that new department store.” “Cheers yo, I’m gonna get cracking on selling off all my things.” That’s the stage Huck was at: a bye-bye bai bai sale. When you leave a country you can’t just pack everything up and take it with you. There were going to be a few tough sales. After all, in the middle of summer, who’s going to be seduced into acquiring the future comforts promised by an electric kotatsu and blanket set? Nobody. But, he’d leave sales and giveaway’s for another day. Today was bureaucracy or bust.
In an attempt to shake off the telephone frazzle, he took a break by getting back into the covers of a book he’d just picked up at his local Book Off. For exactly the same price as a bottle of mineral water from the Family Mart or Seven Eleven, he recently forked up a whole 108 yen to own a hard cover copy of DanceDanceDance by Murakami Haruki. After the last Murakami novel Huck hadn’t imagined picking up another for any good reason. Yet, after two years where the only Murakami book suggested to him by Japanese people was DanceDanceDance Huck finally gave in to curiosity. Plus, as he moved out over the next month he would need an easy read. He opened up the covers and got cozy.
As he picked up reading in the chapters which essentially just said over and over, “I’m a Murakami novel. I’m a Murakami novel. I’m a Murakami novel,” he couldn’t help but feel the nagging.
It kept pulling at his shirt, saying, “Hey!” and “Hey.” Even, “Hey!”
He’d tell it “Yes yes. I know. Hold on just a bit longer”, but that would only pacify it for a few moments before it interrupted his reading again.
The nagging eventually walked up with a pen, his notepad, and a sincere look. Sincere eyes a teenager gives an adult when they learn that their opinion will never matter unless they put their foot down like an adult, using tainted adult speak and self-aggrandizing adult gestures. “Look, it’s not that I’m not going anywhere, this isn’t going anywhere,” the nagging told him. It was right. Something needed to be done about this, thought Huck.
Being the tainted adult that he was, he was finally capable of understanding what the fuss was all about. Months ago he had often mused over the lifestyle changes experienced while living in Japan and how they compared to his previous lives. Getting out of the covers, and pulling out a Pocari Sweat bottle to drink from the fridge he penned it all out. Regarding daily life, it read thus:
I rely heavily on metro lines, and railway systems. The bus is hardly necessary for my purposes and using a car for anything but to doraibu around town sounds absurd.
I spend incredible amounts of money every day. Food budgeting alone is an act of self flagellation. Which is it today, the hair shirt or the toothed whips?
I walk more than before, which –if you know me – says a lot. A LOT.
I play very little guitar. The lack of back pain, neck pain, wrist pain, and headaches is fantastic. In contrast, practicing shakuhachi hasn’t brought on any pain as the traditional posture for playing is a hundred times more ergonomic than that of classical guitar; an instrument posture and construction has to be entirely rethought given how many guitarists I meet with chronically damaged bodies.
I rely heavily on my smart phone. Especially for GPS, and during my boring train commutes.
I eat immaculate ramen a few times a month.
I create little.
I teach kids in a classroom. Kids are awesome, but classrooms sure have their days.
I shave my head.
I simultaneously attended school five days a week while also teaching classes five days a week. For four months I lived for those espresso breaks in between.
I feel entirely at home in a city that so desperately wants me to go home.
I have abundantly frequent encounters with acquaintances but such alarmingly few engagements with friends.
I feel little social stress.
I live independently without internet at home.
I hardly ever take naps.
I constantly think about society.
I host many people in my apartment or in my city. It’s good to pay it forward from those couch surfing debts I racked up with my generous friends in the past.
I crave burritos.
I consistently eat meal portions that agree with my body.
I am surrounded by so many people all the time.
I have access to real sushi at real sushi prices.
I feel poor. Very poor.
I stop into a convenience store about twice a day.
I pay expensive cover charges for bars and live music that I’d never agree to in the U.S.A.
I’ve used applications like Tinder and Happn to meet people, and actually met wonderful people.
I care little for ‘drinking’ and am torturously bored in the presence of self professed ‘drinkers.’
I drink wine, whisky, nihonshu, shochuu, umeshu, and beer all with equal frequency.
I own many waterproof items.
Never before have I known the concept of mi casa, tu casa so thoroughly. ‘Kasa’ is the word for umbrella in Japanese. And let’s be honest, your umbrella is my umbrella in Japan. My kasa, your kasa.
I’ve been engaged in the business activity, “let’s go eat and drink for hours so that you’ll agree to do something for me.”
I bought gatchapon or manga and felt not even a sliver of, “this is dorky.” Favorite gatchapon: cats wrapped in mochi like wagashi for matcha tea. Runner up: Gudetama stamp I use to stamp students’ homework. Favorite manga: LAND.
I live isolated from my community during tough times. I.E. 2016. All of it. Japan could just as well be the moon compared to the rest of the world in 2016.
I buy music on cd from record stores and then sell them to Book Off or Disc Union.
I read art journals, literature journals, novels, and short story collections entirely in Japanese.
I feel largely free of social pressures and stress.
I live tantalizingly near to a superb yakitori restaurant. Kawanakaya, it’s the best. Hands down.
I live near four convenience stores, and each is within a 2 minute’s walk from my house.
I rent books, cd’s, and movies instead of downloading, buying, or even borrowing them.
I carefully protect the public from my chest hair. When it shows, it’s clearly too much to handle. Never before have I noticed other people so fixated on my body hair, in general. Sometimes I feel like a cute puppy wandering around and people can’t help but reach out and touch my body hair in amazement.
I go to Tower Records (yes, they still exist here!) routinely to listen to new album releases on their headphone stations.
I avoid morning rush hour like the plague.
I go to parks with the singular purpose of hearing cicadas. They come every summer here, and it’s amazing.
Beer and cheese barely make their way into my diet. I’m a Wisconsinite?
I have on occasion taught bartenders how to make a brandy old fashioned sour. I’m a Wisconsinite.
I really don’t care to ever see ‘the herb’ again, but I dream about basil and cilantro. Imagine two years without cilantro or basil in your diet. Here, I have more tissues if you need them for your tears.
I am constantly reminded of how unfashionable I am, and how little hope I have of looking good compared to Tokyoites.
I visit shrines, ring the bells, toss in a coin, clap my hands and all that jazz. Often.
I’ve played claw machines,… and won!
The list went on. From sleep patterns to neighborhood idiosyncrasies Huck took inventory. But the nagging had fallen asleep. He tucked it in with a blanket and left the apartment for a walk. With just a month left in Japan it was easy to get caught up indoors. He couldn’t let that happen, not on his watch! Note to self, he thought, add this to the list: I involve watches and concern for time in my life like never before.
At the intersection of his little alley and Ome Kaido highway he waited for the light to change. To his right a middle aged man walked with a cane taking very short steps westward along the highway. Out from the next parallel alley came a one of Huck’s neighbors he saw frequently at this very intersection. She walked with a cane, too, this old lady. She always wore a fisherwoman’s hat, a backpack, and a hip bag. The windbreaker like waterproof jacket and loose pants must have been with her for ages, but the pink colors were still resilient. She made it to the sign post at the edge of the intersection and braced herself up.
Like a lot of other Tokyoites she had a condition which prevented her from walking with the same ease and comfort as Huck. When she walks her upper body curls over and swings a bit side to side as she put extra momentum into her step. Her feet barely lift off the ground and she walks on the outside of her feet which fold underneath her. She always just barely makes it across the intersection in time. Huck slowed down just in case, but kept on moving ahead so as not to bother her.
Just as Huck reached the end of the crosswalk he heard her fall. He turned around and there was immediately an older Japanese man trying to help her up, holding her left arm and asking her if she could get up. The man’s gray border collie handsomely looked up at her. The light had of course turned green by this point but all of the cars lined up just waited. The woman kept saying, “I’m good. I’m good! I’m not hurt!” all the while reaching for her cane. She kept saying how ok she was, but she clearly felt some desperation for her cane. Huck picked it up and handed it to her. Once she had the cane she defiantly broke free from the older man who tried to help her. He understood, of course. As Huck and the old man slowly walked with her to the finish line Huck realized there were a few other people hanging around just to make sure things ended alright. “I’m good! I’m good!” she kept saying, reassuring them. And she was. Huck had seen her fall before. She was a tank. She’d be alright.
The old man and his gray collie turned to Huck and smiled a “Thanks.” Huck smiled back. They even walked down the same road for a little bit. Yet, Huck didn’t know if he should talk to this person. Clearly the mood was friendly. The man even seemed like he would be open to a little small talk but after a year and ten months of living in Japan Huck just couldn’t shake the programming. “Don’t talk to strangers,” it read. Huck passed up the old man and the gray collie and headed towards Nakano.
That incident seemed to really get to the heart of his experience in Japan. At times the Japanese are thoroughly considerate and thoughtful individuals who will reach out to help each other, but the aloofness and ‘stand alone’ mentality of Tokyoites can be tough to decipher. After a while, you learn to second guess everyone’s niceness. “It can’t be real.” To Huck the constant feeling of encountering two faced kindness eventually led him to second guess even the simplest, most genuinely safe interactions like this.
Recently during a day of heavy rain Huck left the house as usual to walk for bit and check out the bookshop for kicks. Waterproof Timberland boots. Waterproof and windproof spring jacket. Umbrella. Huck was ready to go. Crossing the intersection at Sugiyama Koen and walking into the bookstore he was immediately confronted with some new publications. Journals, novels, self help books, manga, pop singles, recipe books, diet fads, coloring books, test preparation materials, stationery, kids books, light novels (heavens, the Lai-Nobe section! It’s peculiarly massive), historical fiction, non-fiction, and a few fold up fans for 900 yen. He saw some things he liked, and things he couldn’t afford at the moment so he walked in the rain down the street to the nearest Book Off and looked for a copy of DanceDanceDance. The only copy of the first book (the Japanese version is separated into two parts) they had was a rather large sized hard cover which wasn’t as convenient or stylish as the small paperback version but the price was right: 108 yen, tax included. Time to grab a cup of coffee and read the hell out of this book somewhere warm and dry, Huck thought. So he left the shop and made for central Nakano but was caught at the intersection.
As he waited he noticed out of the corner of his eye a little boy absolutely soaked from the rain. T-shirt, shorts, sneakers, I.D. card and train pass lanyard, and Kidzu-Keitai. He was looking at the ground with an expression of his face straight out of some, “Ah shucks, oh man. Mom’s gonna kill me! Today’s the worst” Disney movie moment. Huck had waterproof Timberland boots on, a killer rain jacket with a hood, and an umbrella. So teacher Huck kicked into gear and held out the umbrella for the kid. It was this point that Huck made a choice. “Do I speak, or not speak to this kid?” Just because the kid was visibly born of non-Japanese parents doesn’t mean he’s not Japanese or that he can speak English. Best not to assume, Huck thought. So Huck just held out the umbrella which the child took. The look on the kid’s face was, “Do I talk to this guy? He’s foreign, but does he understand English?” But he did, anyway. “Thanks!… I’ll only borrow it!” he said both delighted and slightly confused as to how he should handle being given the umbrella for free.
Borrow it? Huck was humored. How would he find me to give it back in a city like Tokyo? “Don’t worry, I’ve got a hood. See? This jacket will keep me dry. Keep the umbrella.”
The kid thanked him and they parted ways, Huck north towards central Nakano and the child east towards Shinjuku.
By time Huck reached the south side of Nakano station he learned how incredibly effective his jacket truly was. Water just ran off it. Nothing got in. However, due to the heaviness of the downpour this meant that all that water ran down to get soaked up by the edges of his checked green shirt poking out from underneath the jacket. The thighs of his jeans were also soaked.
By time he walked into his favorite laid back coffee joint, the lady who’s always there just looked at him like, “You’re a mess!” as she continued talking to her customer at the bar seating. Huck just shrugged and smiled a, “I know, I’m totally soaked…it’s cat’s and dog’s out there.” The store owner went into the back as Huck took a seat and she returned with a nice fluffy towel. “Here,” she said, “dry your things off with this. I’ll come back and take your order when you’re ready.”
Huck soaked up the wetness from his shoulder bag, his clothes, and the edges of his jacket which were threatening to damage the beautiful wood furniture and interior. Then he sat down, ordered their Momozono blend named after the neighborhood and got cozy between the covers.