8.31.2007

Reisurely Activities in Japan

After having lived in Japan for little over a month now and becoming comfortable with my job and my surroundings, I’ve been able to enjoy a little of what old Nippon has to offer its denizens in the way of leisure.

Firstly, I got back on the proverbial bucking bronco and joined a new and semi-overpriced gym here in Osaka. Now I’m used to the wonderful ‘mom & pop’ feel of the YMCA back in Jersey where it’s very laid back, the towels are a comforting pea green color and the machines haven’t been serviced in about 5 years. That’s just what I like. I guess I find a sort of comfort in mediocrity and not trying too hard. So the evil, new gym is located about a ten minute walk from work and it’s on the 6th floor of the shopping complex called Ame Mura, which of course, is short for America Mall. I do not know who does the translation for these people. I just know they’re usually wrong. So to get to Ame Mura, you have to walk through the trendy shopping district of Shinsaibashi. The streets are lined with hundreds of small, overpriced boutiques that sell typically Americanized fashion, or at least what the Japanese consider to be American fashion. All the stores sport signs for Hollister or Abercrombie and have mannequins on the sidewalk dressed in ripped jeans, converse sneakers, a trucker hat and of course, the typical dirty-looking and overpriced faded, vintage tee. Outside these stores and in several courtyards are all of the Harajuku girls and boys who basically sit or stand around and try to be noticed in their fashionable attire. Who are they trying to be noticed by, you ask? I have no fucking clue. They’re pretty much all dressed equally eccentrically so I can’t imagine anyone really being impressed other than a foreigner like myself, who happens to view the entire things as pretty absurd. But then again, at least they’re not smoking pot and killing little girls on bicycles.

So if the neighborhood is as uber-posh as I’m describing it, you can only imagine how faux-ritzy the gym must be. First of all, everyone gets way too dressed up just to walk in the door. But this is common in everyday life, people being ridiculously overdressed for mundane activities, so in comparison, getting dressed to go to the gym is perfectly reasonable. I mean, you’re going to be seen by easily at least 200 people walking there, taking the train and passing through Shinsaibashi so you should probably get out your red carpet gown. Once you’re finally in the gym, there’s a complex system of getting yourself started, JUST LIKE EVERYWHERE ELSE! God forbid I ever have an easy time doing anything but wiping my ass in this country. They’d make you wipe to and fro and side to side if they could only find a way to monitor it with a high enough level of customer service.

So when step out of the elevator, you enter the main lobby, which overlooks the humungous sky-lit pool on the top floor of the mall. I give my ID card to one of the many attendants at the desk, all of whom are dressed in the same uniform of sneakers, grey shorts and this blue jersey-type thing that’s not very flattering for the females but since when are females important in this society anyway? After I hand in the ID card, there’s usually some problem with something that I can’t understand even after it’s explained to me so I just ask them if the gym is open and if it’s OK for me to go. So eventually, they just get sick of trying to explain things to me and just let me go. Ignorance really is bliss sometimes. But before I go into the locker room I have to swipe my ID card through another card reader for attendance purposes I guess. Then I grab a towel and head to the locker, in which it is prohibited to wear your shoes, just like the fitting rooms in department stores. So I walk through the beautifully floored and lacquered locker room and choose a locker. Once at the locker, I put my ID card in a little slot in the door, which releases a numbered key from the door. This key is on a little blue bracelet that I wear at all times while at the gym and it’s a bit cumbersome but at least I don’t have to pay for it. So once that’s all set and I’m changed, I am ready to finally begin exercising. No! Wait! I still don’t have my shoes on.

I have to collect my shoes from among the mountain of everyone else’s shoes at the door, a totally inefficient system, and walk with shoes in hand to the stretching mats opposite the pool. After stretching sans shoes, I can finally tie myself up and get on a treadmill. Fortunately, my gym, which is called Tokyu Oasis: Club West, (uppity, right?) uses the same equipment as the YMCA so all the treadmill’s buttons are written in Japanese but are in the same place. So I run like I fucking own the place. Every time someone passes I fiddle with the buttons as if to say, “Duh, of course I can read Kanji. Do I look like an idiot to you?” Most of my life here is about fooling people into thinking I actually know what’s going on. I do pretty well at this considering my absolute Alicia Silverstone status.

After a sweaty half hour of treadmill, it’s time to move on to the weights. This is where I was first humiliated on my first day at the gym last week. Apparently this gym is all about ego because on each and every piece of weight equipment (smith press, leg press, etc.) there are two stickers on the weights, a red circle and a blue circle. Much to my own chagrin, I only realized that these stickers refer to recommended weight amounts for men (blue) and women (red) after about two days of using said machines. So, I was all over that awesome red dot because the blue was a bit too heavy for me after taking a month off from working out in any way whatsoever. And so I can just imagine how John Wayne I must’ve looked huffing and puffing away trying to lift those red dotted weights on my first few days. “Rook at the pretty rady rifting his weights!” They all must’ve had a good chuckle about that one later on in the tea room.

So needless to say, weightlifting is quite a humorous and humbling experience in this country, for me at least. Anyway, on my most recent trip to the gym, I was on the treadmill, which looks across the open plaza (6 floors down) and faces the pool area across the plaza. So basically, I have complete surveillance of the pool and its swimmers at all times while I’m running, which really does the trick when it comes to distracting me from counting the minutes. Not only do I get to watch all the funny aqua-cise classes but I also get to scope out all the J-boys in their skivvies. So the other day, these two ridiculously toned guys come strutting out of the locker room, yes, strutting, and they make their way over to the lounge chair area where they are in plain view of my treadmill. They are both at least 6 feet tall, evenly tanned, wearing tight blue jammers and have at most 6% body fat. As if I wasn’t sweating enough already, my perspiration levels quickly spiked as my interest in the countdown clock suddenly waned. Now of course, the more handsome of the two boys decides that before his swim, he needs to take a few pictures for god knows what. I’m not sure how popular MySpace is over here but I need to get his fucking user name. So he hands his buddy a digital camera and proceeds to pose against the glass window with his ass directly in front of me. I’m pretty positive he had no idea I was watching as intently as I was, but at that moment, I could swear he was posing for my eyes only. Moving on, he takes a few pictures and after each one dutifully reviews it giving it the thumbs up for immediate uploading or the thumbs down due to over-smiling or bulge positioning. I thought this was bad enough and I was all ready to go get my frustration out in the locker room and skip my work out, but no, he was not finished yet. Mister super model decides to take his jammers off and reveal his skimpy-wimpy hot pink Speedo underneath. Yeah, I tripped on the treadmill and had to support myself with the railings for a few steps until I regained my composure. A pink Speedo I was definitely not expecting. I wasn’t complaining but I definitely wasn’t expecting it. So of course, there he goes with another round of pictures with even more suggestive poses this second time and I. AM. DROOLING. I mean, come on. I can only take so much before someone gets hurt.

Oh, by the way, these guys were completely straight. Behavior like this is perfectly normal in Japan and guys are dressed as prettily as girls are and if guys are possibly bisexual, girls get turned on like crazy. The idea of two guys getting it on is such a hot image for females that there are entire floors of comic book stores dedicated to man-on-man comic book action. And the customers are all girls, which is crazy in my opinion. But on the other hand, if two guys would ever decide o have a relationship, the world would probably end. Being gay is so hush-hush here. One explanation I received is as follows. Men are so important in this society and they completely overpower women; women being subservient and generally of a lower class. So, having two men get together is like seeing two Zeus’ fuck each other. It’s comparable to the Britney-Madonna kiss or Cher going on tour with Kelly Clarkson. It’s a meeting of the two highest forms of being which results in an orgasm of power and forbidden sin. However, these two supreme beings could never ever form a copasetic relationship because society has such strict views against homosexuality, even more so in areas outside Osaka. So, two guys are hot to watch but never meant to work. Fortunately, this is not the case in the rest of the world and we have Will & Grace to thank for that.

So as we have seen, the Japanese just love to be without their clothes, whether they’re wearing pink Speedos, frolicking around the locker room in dainty towels or hanging out in Spa World. Yes, you read that right. Spa World. My roommate Parris and I recently visited this wondrous location because August is discount month and we just had to do it at least once. Spa World is an 8-floor amusement park for the gluttonous in the middle of downtown Osaka. A place like this would never fly in America but the Japanese are just bonkers about it. Here we go.

Upon entering Spa World, you must deposit your shoes in a locker and go barefoot from here on. I hope you got your pedi done because you are on fucking display. Next, you must buy your ticket from the vending machine, which is not in English so it’s kind of a guessing game / do what the person in front of you does. It’s only 1,000 Yen for about 5 hours, a great price, so I’m not that put off just yet. I AM put off when I pass the beetle store. In the middle of this lush lobby with Corinthian pillars and plush carpeting is this ridiculous area where this old guy is selling scarab beetles. Yeah. Big, shiny, black and horned scarab beetles. WHAT THE FUCK! I’m trying to relax and go to a spa, not to steal the fucking lamp from Jafar. Who the hell sells scarab beetles at a spa?! Ugh! So Parris and I bypass the beetle booth and head toward the turnstile, yeah a spa turnstile, where this little girl in a smock takes our tickets and replaces them with green, electronic wristbands. From now on, if we need to buy anything in Spa world, we charge it to our wristband and pay at the end. Very smart idea, I thought.

They do this principally because you do not wear clothes in Spa World. I did not know this when I signed up for the trip. I thought I’d get a big robe with slippers and I could get a mud bath in a private room or maybe even a hot tub with four or five people. I was very wrong. Once, you’ve been wristbanded, you move upstairs to your respective floor, separated between men and women. That day, the men happened to be on the European floor and the women were on the Asian floor. I have no idea what the differences between the floors are but I was just happy to finally be doing something that wasn’t Asian. Parris and I get upstairs to the locker room where we have to get yet another locker for our clothes and we change into these little warm up suits that are comprised of blue, scrub-material Capri pants and a blue and white, striped barber’s shirt that fits me like a circus tent. So there we are, with our wristbands and ninja suits, ready to enter the wonder that is Spa World.

We walk about ten feet and realize that we have to get naked already. Not two seconds away from the locker room is a bin of used ninja outfits and beyond that is the entrance to the men’s spa where clothes are not allowed to be worn. So why the hell did they give us these outfits to wear if we can’t even wear them?! As usual, things would probably make more sense in this country if I could just read a fucking sign every once in a while. So we strip down to our tangerine face cloths that can either be used to dry your face, cool your head or worn as a sarong. I chose the sarong route and boy were we a sight to be seen. Not a week earlier, I had gone to the beach and gotten this horrible burn on my stomach and chest which was in this intricate rash shape, making it even worse to look at. So, just that morning I was beginning to peel and there I was at Spa World, flaky, red and naked. Not the best of situations. I mean, I get stared at to begin with just because I’m white. I don’t need extra reasons to be looked at. Plus, I had Parris with me who is, for all intents and purposes, a black man. So as soon as we entered the spa, people’s heads were spinning to check out Fire-crotch and Tripod. We were quite entertaining and this is the kind of attention that I was not enjoying. I couldn’t even reply with a biting quip or anything cool like that. I just had to smile and try act as if I wasn’t horribly bothered by all the nakedness.

Little boys were running around completely naked, jumping and splashing in the hot tubs next to men of all ages and no one was worried about this. Apparently, pedophilia is not a thing to be feared or talked about in Japan so people just let their children frolic freely about the spa. This shit would never work in America! There would be signs that kids of a certain age need to be accompanied by adults and certain rooms would be ‘kids only’ and others would be family rooms and all sorts of other rules. Plus, there would be “caution wet floor, cuidado piso mojado” signs all over the place. The whole building is covered in ceramic tile, slick from people’s soggy footprints. I mean, this place was a lawsuit waiting to happen. But hey, if it’s working for them, they should enjoy it. But when some old man slips and falls on top of some little boy’s no-no spot, don’t come complaining to me. I warned you.

There are all sorts of different rooms in Spa World. There is a salt room where you can step on piles of salt (WEIRD) and a fish room where you can sit in a glass-bottom hot tub surrounded by fish tanks on all sides. That was a little strange for me but I still enjoyed it. Another fun room is the Greek room with three different kinds of baths all in a black-lit room with starts projected on the domed ceiling. Each bath has a different temperature and a huge potato-sac tea bag floating in it filled with different herbs like mint, jasmine and lavender giving each bath a distinct color and aroma. Verrrrry relaxing was the Greek room. You can also go in the outdoor hot tub with a blazing hot waterfall on one side of it. This is not refreshing and I did not enjoy this room. Also, my sunburn was quite visible in this area and people were not ashamed to stare rudely and blatantly. It’s unfortunate that giving the finger has no significance in this country because I was flipping the bird at so many of them that day. My favorite room was probably the Paul Bunyan room which consisted of log cabin saunas and log bridges over ice cold baths. So, we sat inside this horribly stifling sauna for a good three minutes because that was all I could take and immediately ran into the startlingly cold bath. I stayed in that bath for a good twenty minutes. Partly because I was enjoying the cooling sensation and partly because the shrinkage was so severe that I just couldn’t be asked to walk around like that.

After that, Parris and I decided to call it quits. We had been naked long enough and my skin was becoming oniony. To this day, I am still peeling and still pink and it’s been about two weeks since going to the beach. So I’m going to end this blog here for now. I have go re-apply and check my Johnson & Johnson stocks anyway. Domo arigato gozaimasu!

8.23.2007

Working for the Man

So I’ve started my job teaching English at Nova. Now, it’s not exactly what you’d imagine. The two main things that I need for my job are a lanyard and a McDonald’s drive-thru head-set. Sounds like a fabulous outfit, huh? Just imagine when I pair those with my frumpily pleated work pants and a dress shirt so moist from the walk to work that even the “dry creaning” guy cringes upon seeing it delivered every week.

Basically, I’m teaching English to people all over Japan via this antiquated web cam system called Ginganet. Who named it, I do not know. But I sure hope the poor guy’s name wasn’t Ginga. That would really suck for him on the playground.

I feel the best way to describe my job is to take you through a day in the life of Biru. (That’s Japanese for Bill because the fucking riceheads can’t pronounce Ls to save their atomically-shortened lives.) I’m not bitter, I swear. Moving on, I start my workday at 5:30am on Sundays and Mondays. My alarm jars me awake and after about 11 hits of the snooze button, I’m out of bed by 6:00. I take a nice cold shower using no hot water whatsoever. This isn’t to punish me in some sort of Buddhist manner but just to cool me off as I have no window in my room and as the sun rises, it brings with it about 90 degrees of pure hate every morning. So by the time I roll off my futon mattress and onto the tatami mat floor, I’m already sweating. After my ice cold shower, I shave. This never happened back in Jersey. I’d estimate that I shaved every 4 or 5 days with only one electric moustache touch-up every 2 days. I was perfectly comfortable with that. A little stubble never hurt anyone and shaving is such a fucking chore. However, the company handbook clearly states that only fully-grown-in facial hair is acceptable and any stages before that are strictly prohibited. Translation: if you don’t already have a lumberjack beard, now is not the time to start growing one. Unfortunately, that means I have to shave every single fucking morning or risk being sent home for stubble. Nova is Japanese for Nazi.

After shaving, I think about completely shirking the ironing process but instead I haphazardly run the semi-warm iron over the closest pair of dress pants I can grab while I mentally plan out which of my 7 ties I’ll match with the outfit. Some shirts just do not have a tie that can support their color and I just don’t know what to do. The dress code states that a knotted tie is a must but I can’t just not wear three of my dress shirts. I didn’t bring them all the way across the planet to hang in my room all year. They’re just too hip to be omitted from the daily rotation. So, I think some tie shopping may be in order soon. Anyway, after I’m dressed, it’s 6:30 and I’m already running late. So I pack up my bag making sure I have the following items: apartment key, iPod, sunglasses (tigers optional), cigarettes (for the much needed smoke breaks), money, train pass, lanyard, head-set and a train book. The train book is one of the most important items in my artillery as it lets me immerse myself in a comfortable world of fiction during the 20-minute train ride to work and ignore all of the “look, it’s a white man” stares I get. However, before the train is the daily stop at the one of fifteen (no exaggeration) vending machines on the way during my 10-minute walk to the station. Seriously, there is at least one vending machine at least every 100 meters and that’s downplaying it. Usually, they’re grouped in 2s or 3s with one being for coffee and green tea, one for Gatorade-like sport drinks and soda and the third for cigarettes. The Japanese are an extremely automated society. So I grab my steel, not aluminum, can of iced coffee made by Suntory Boss. Suntory Boss: Suntory is the boss of everyone since 1992. No lie, that’s the company’s motto. Cocky, right? I love it. So I got my coffee and I’m on the train and everything’s goin’ fine as long as I catch the early train. If not, I’ll be extra sweaty for my arrival at the office. I exit the train, push my way through the platform up to the main station. Now, I work at the Namba Station which is comparable to the 42nd Street Station in NYC. It’s fucking crowded. In the station, not even above ground, is an entire mall called the Namba Walk. I have to walk half the length of the mall (ten minutes) underground in order to reach my building which is adjacent to the Osaka City Air Terminal. I don’t know why it’s named that, there is a train station there. There is no helipad or runway there. Like I’ve said before. Japan is ridiculous. Maybe they sell air somewhere there, but I doubt it.

Anyway, I walk through the mall, past the art gallery, which consists of 25 paintings on the wall of the mall, and into my building. Once in the elevator, it’s a race to see who can put their lanyard on the fastest. On the company lanyard is my ID card that grants me entrance to every single door in the company. I mean every single door. You can’t get anywhere without this ID card. You need it to get to the cubicle. You need it to get into the smoking room. You need it to fucking wipe your ass. But that’s really only if you run out of TP. Just check before you sit down and you won’t have to bother with the ID card. The first employee to get their lanyard on shoves to the front of the elevator car and waits earnestly for the doors to open up to the 15th floor where the time cards are located. To get into the time card room, you have to swipe your card and for some reason, people treat it like an honor to be the one to swipe so there’s this little race to the door, but no one really acknowledges it. It’s just one of those things everyone does but never mentions. Anyway, if you win the race, you really actually lose because then you wind up having to hold the door for everyone in back of you and that just sucks, especially if you’re late. So I take my time. After I clock in, I have to check one of 22 television screens for my booth assignment for the day. The screens advise me of my booth number, the level of the student I’ll be teaching and what floor I’m on. I usually have to head up to the 16th floor to teach and once I find my cubicle, I’m ready to go. This is at 7:30am.

Exactly on the half hour, the bell rings, which signifies the beginning of the 40-minute lesson. The bell is the classic Bing Bong Bing Bong…Bong Bong Bing Bong. Then it repeats. Apparently, this tune is used all over the country as the signal for anything to begin whether it be a class, a workday, a meeting, etc. Even the trains use a little Mr. Belding xylophone system whenever they make an announcement over the loudspeaker. It’s a little childish but whatever they need not to go crazy, I’ll let them have it.

Side note: Japanese people go crazy almost every day. It is not uncommon at all to be late to work because of a “jumper.” At least once a month, according to multiple sources, some ‘salaryman’ (pronounced ‘sarariman’ and it means anyone who works in an office) takes it upon himself to commit suicide because he’s either overworked or just lonely. So, he files off his fingerprints, pulls out his teeth and jumps in front of the subway train of his choice, usually during the morning rush. They maim themselves so badly beforehand in order to die anonymously to save their family from public shame but seriously, if you stop coming to work, someone’s gonna notice and call your house. So I think it’s just for dramatic effect. If the train actually kills the sarariman, the removal team is called to clean it up and the whole thing is over in usually under a half hour. Then, upon arrival at your destination station, there are several attendants standing at the doors with little tickets that say there was a jumper, which caused a train delay. This ticket must be given to your boss so you don’t get in trouble at work. I’m not kidding. They have cards for this. Could you just imagine how much creative freedom Hallmark employees must have in this country?
Sorry your dad committed suicide on the train tracks but I’m even more sorry I was late to work! Haha! Just kidding. But seriously, my condolences. Love, Louis.

Back to the main story. Ok, so once the bell has rung, I have only ten minutes before the next lesson period begins. In that ten minutes, I’m supposed to socialize, have a smoke, grab another iced coffee from the break room and plan the next lesson, all in ten minutes. Obviously, I’m a very new employee because all I’ve ever managed to do in those in-between moments is plan my next lesson and possibly read a bit from whatever train book I brought with me that day, but I’m slowly getting better. Really, I am though. Just the other day, I almost made it all the way to the break room and had about two coins into the coffee machine when the bells rang. And of course, we’re not allowed to drink at our cubicles for fear of mussing up the ancient keyboard apparatuses. So I sullenly trudged back to my desk, coffee-less and therefore, energy-less, to plan my next lesson.

When planning lessons, you have to look at each student’s past lessons and see which ones they’ve taken and which one’s they’ve passed/failed in order to choose one that hasn’t been done yet or one that hasn’t been done in at least three months. There are about 50 different lessons per student level, of which there are 7, which gives us a pool of 350 lessons to choose from. The good thing about this is that since we teach 7 to 8 lessons a day, we repeat lessons like it’s our job, which it is. So, once you’ve taught one lesson, you know where you can rest during it, what might be hard for the students and what stupid little jokes you can make to break the ice. It’s very customer service-oriented, to tell the truth. So now that you’ve finally settled on something appropriate for the jappies, you have the remaining moments to look it over and practice the lesson in your head, if it’s new, and then you’re off.

The bell has rung and now you’re stuck with 3, at most, jappies for the next forty minutes during which you’re forced to converse with them, correct their grammar and basically schmooze them into falling in love with the English language enough to buy another lesson period. Students range from junior high schoolers to working professionals ( lots of people in the medical field ), to elderly men and women so bored with their lives that they’ve decided to conquer a foreign language. So far, my least successful student group has been older males who are around 30 and up. I know that must be quite a shock given my past dating history but let’s keep in mind that I’m not dating my students, but teaching them. With that said, my favorite students have turned out to be the housewives of all ages. These women are so much fucking fun. When I have three of them together in a class, I’m a fucking Don Juan and these women are giggling up a storm and learning at the same time, I really love it. They generally have loads of time on their hands and are prohibited to work by their husbands so once they’re done cleaning and/or cooking for the day, they’re completely free and need something to fill the gaping holes in their schedules. So, that renders them very much open and willing to learn as much as they possibly can and their individual progress is absolutely astonishing. I mean, this one lady Hidemi has only been studying English for a year and a half and she said to me yesterday, “My husband is a silly man. He no let me touch the computah because since I don’t know how to work computah good, that I might make computah sick. How can computah get sick? He say something about a weerus (virus) but I don’t berieve him. Computahs don’t get sick. They don’t take medecine.” Frankly, I’ll be ecstatic when I can get that ridiculous point across to someone in Japanese.

So that’s the gist of the lesson. Lots of silly phrases that need correcting and a lot of Japanese egos that need coddling. Once I get through eight of them, I can happily clock my ass out of there and hit the streets. Unfortunately, the streets can only be hit every so often due to the subway closure time of 11:45. Who the fuck is ready to go home at 11:45? This curfew is ridiculous. So you have three options: 1. Get your ass home at 11:45 and save some money and lose some friends. 2. Go home whenever you like by paying $30 for a taxi who won’t even bring you directly to your house because there are no fucking addresses so you’ll still have to walk from a subway station or local landmark. 3. Stay out until the subway re-opens at 5:00. Oddly enough, option 3 has been the most popular one so far, even considering our early work schedules. But let’s think about this. The job doesn’t really require that much effort. You’re sitting at a computer and as long as you look clean, no one can tell you smell like a vagabond. Also, you’re already in your work clothes from the night before so there’s no need to change because you still look semi-professional despite the cigarette burns on your collar and the sake stains on your tie. The only thing that really ever needs to be taken care of is your sweaty-ass face. Spend a night out in Osaka and I dare you not to sweat as profusely as a sorority girl in a clinic. I guarantee you; you will be moist. But not to worry, that’s nothing a few wipes of a deodorized wet-nap won’t ameliorate. So that’s the latest in the life of Biru. Do stay tuned as I hope to move to a new apartment next month, which should definitely be providing me with some new material. My roommates will be a red-neck hippie Canadian from New Brunswick and a black valley boy gay from San Diego. And people say the Real World was stereotypical…

Herro! How May I Herp You?

The Japanese people are so fucking nice and courteous that it’s really starting to get to me. Just once, I’d love to see someone blow up on a customer at the supermarket or just slap someone who’s acting like a douchebag in line for the train. But alas, I doubt I will ever see this unless I take a firsthand part in the horrid event myself. Good news for the Jappies, though: I suffer from conflict avoidance.

Everywhere I go, people are literally bending over forwards to do things for complete strangers. I have never encountered such a blindly kind culture before in my life. For example, on my way to work in the morning I take the train, which is about a 15-minute walk from my unmarked, unaddressed building. Only Emperor Akihito knows how anyone finds one’s way around in this labyrinth of a country. Anyway, on my way to the train, there are your typical street hander-outers by the subway entrance, which is typical to most urban settings, you see them everywhere. However, recently, the hander-outers have been peddling free packets of tissues like those travel Kleenex my mom always sent with me on my sniffly days in sixth grade. Now, instead of just trying to haphazardly hand them to passersby like a normal person would in NYC, the hander-outers have been trained with such a high level of customer service that they must bow to each person as they hand out the tissue, the bow being just to say “thank you for taking my free tissues.” The best part is that these people have to hand out these tissues at such a velocity that doesn’t let them fully recharge from a bow after it’s been made. So, in order to get ready for the next customer, they’re already halfway down to the ground before the tissues ever touch anyone’s hand.

If this is unclear, which I’m sure it is, here’s the picture you’d see outside the station: a bunch of women in kimonos and men in black and white suits without jackets bent halfway over down to the ground with tissue packets in their outstretched hands searching for a taker. Once the tissue packet is finally taken, each person snaps back up, grabs a new packet and slowly lowers him/herself back into a semi-bow, ready for the next taker. This goes on until all packets have been cleared from their baskets. No, I didn’t stay around to watch the whole cycle, but what if I did, huh? Would it have made the story any better?

Since arriving only 6 days ago, so many Japanese have gone very far out of their way to help me, a complete stranger and obvious foreigner, and each person has found each situation an absolute laugh riot. Not ten minutes ago, I left my apartment to recharge my phone card and call my father for his birthday. The brochure that comes with the card says that all you need to do is bring the card to any Lawson (like a WaWa or QuikChek) and the cashier should scan the card and then just charge you the amount of yen that you want on the card in installments of 2,000. Easy, right? Not for me. Of course, my fucking card doesn’t scan so I have to whip out the booklet, which, thank Yeshua, has directions on how to recharge in English and Japanese. I shout out the phrase that the booklet tells me to tell the cashier in the worst and probably loudest accent he’s heard all day. He obviously doesn’t understand me and begins to laugh along with his friend, during which they both look at each other and point to pretend booklets and shout out loud. Apparently, I’m a regular Jerry Lewis over here. After they have a good laugh, the one cashier takes the booklet from me and after reading the Japanese translation, takes me over to this little ATMish thing on the other side of the store. He points at it and starts going off on a minute-long rant on how to use it, showing me gestures and getting more and more excited as the explanation continues. I, of course, don’t understand a single word that comes out of his mouth and just nod, saying, “Hai, hai,” the entire time. After he’s done, he folds his hands and looks at me earnestly as if it’s my cue to perform the previously-mentioned task at hand. Fortunately, there’s an explanation for dummies in the back of the booklet that tells me how to operate the machine step by step. As I press the first button on the machine, the cashier starts giggling and covering his mouth in the classic “I shouldn’t be laughing” manner. As I continue on, selecting how much I’d like to pay and typing in the card number, his giggling gets more and more intense and the cashier back at the counter can’t contain himself any more than my little friend by the machine. I finally complete the transaction and a receipt prints out for me to bring to the counter where I’ll pay for it. As soon as the receipt finishes printing, both Japanese cashiers start to clap and shout, “Hooray! Hooray!” They were genuinely really excited that I got it to work but at the same time, I was utterly humiliated that I needed cheerleaders to get me through such a menial chore.

Anyway, the point of the story is that the Japanese are super helpful and I’m very impressed with their level of customer service and general kindness thus far. I can’t wait until Saturday when I get to pick up my dry cleaning at the store on the corner. That should be good for about a whole half hour of laughs for everyone present. Seacrest out.

Al otro lado del mundo

Una historia para mis amigos hispanoparlantes… Pues, esta noche fui a algunos barres con amigos nuevos de la compania. Al principio, fuimos a un bar que se llama Murphy’s, era un verdadero pub irlandes. Nos sirvio copas muy baratas de cerveza irlandesa y otras cosas que no se encuentran a menudo en Osaka. Habia un guitarrista y una mesa de billiards que nos gustaba mucho. Bebiamos durante dos horas pero despues nos aburrimos y nos fuimos pa otro lugar. El segundo bar se llama Cinquecento y era un sitio super amable donde trabajaban algunas personas de varias nacionalidades, como un negro, dos japoneses y tambien un ingles que conocia a mi amigo… un poquito de foreshadowing si sabes lo que quiero decir. Despues de dos copas, tuve que irme con mi amigo a causa de la temprana hora cuando cierra el metro. Gracias a dios, tenia conmigo mi libro favorito que compre en Madrid hace dos anos, Historias del Kronen. Lo llevo conmigo cuando salgo por las noches porque me gusta leer durante el viaje del metro y tambien porque no me siento muy seguro llevarme un iPod cuando camino por las calles en la peligrosa oscuridad. Pues, sigo… estaba leyendo mi libro y no molestaba a nadie. De repente, las puertas del tren se abren y entra una pareja mixta que estaba hablando espanol. Esta chica que parecia japonesa hablaba espanol en una manera muy extrana y sabia que no era una espanola indigena a causa de su accento. Pero su novio, un tio rubio hablaba con accento madrileno, con el lisp y todo. Que largo tiempo ha pasade desde que he oido un accento tan excitante! Mas tarde, nosotros tres salimos en la misma parada donde vivo yo y al salir, el tio me miro al libro y noto que las letras eran espanolas. Me pregunto si de verdad eran y le conteste que si, claro. La chica se dio cuenta de que debia haber entendido todo lo que ella decia durante el viaje y se puso roja al saberlo. Pero no paso nada porque su conversacion era completamente inocente. Yo les hablaba durante algunos momentos y supe un milagro! La verdad era que el tio nacio en Madrid, en el mismo barrio donde vivia yo durante el verano pasado en 2005. Pero, crecia en francia, asi que habla las dos lenguas como yo pero no hablo el segundo muy bien. Espera, espera, espera! La chica no era indigena como creia y ella es estadounidense. Yo la pregunte de donde venia y me dijo que era de New Jersey. No me digas, la grite. Dijo que era de Bergen county! Ayyyy! Yo tambien, soy de Bogota! QUEEEE???!!! Sus padres viven en la calle al lado de la mia! Eso no podia creer. Si existiera una pareja heterosexual con quien me gustaria follar, ellos lo serian. Pues, veremos. Tengo un ano entero…

Bill Moves to Osaka

Just as the title says, I’ve just moved myself to Osaka, Japan and it’s official: shit is going down. People are driving on the left side of the road, there are little men sprinting through green doors on exit signs, there is plastic food in the window of every restaurant. And best of all, not one building ever has a legible address.

After a 13-hour flight (not so bad) from Detroit to Osaka, I met up with a few other instructors in the airport and a Nova representative (Nova is the company for whom I’m working) handed out train tickets, apartment keys and various other directions and insurance information. I was immediately shocked and a bit dismayed that they were not placing me with the semi-Shia LeBoeuf-ish boy from Connecticut for my apartment accommodations. It’s all right though. There’s always this weekend. I don’t think he’s even gay anyway, but he’s from CT so he might need to let out some pent-up regression after a few sake shots, you never know, really.

By the grace of emperor Aikhitu I end up at my apartment, comically misnamed the Lion’s Mansion. It is no mansion. But it’s not a dump either. Of course, you must remove your footwear at the entryway and all the lights are fluorescent and circular, very peculiar. The floors are made of straw mats and the doors are all sliding and as paper thin as the walls. My room is quite cozy to say the least. It’s about 8x6ft but has this massive shelved wall closet with sliding doors. It’s not a walk-in but it’ll certainly store my cumbersome suitcases (whenever they arrive). I sleep upon a thin futon mattress covered with a quilt and some sheets and believe it or not, it’s very comfortable. I just wish I had more room to hula hoosp and what not. Curiously enough, one wall of the room is lined with about 4 mini entertainment center-like display cases, which I use for clothing storage and bookshelves. I guess the last person who lived in my room had a penchant for garage sales. There are two other rooms that belong to my flatmates who are absent upon my arrival. I’m sorry, but if I had a roommate moving in, I’d at least have a fruit basket waiting.
The bathroom is probably the oddest room of them all. It has no door, but a shower curtain in the doorway. That’s ok. Inside the bathroom there is one main room with two smaller rooms jutting off on either side. The main room has a plastic apparatus that looks strangely similar to a Fisher Price play sink but it’s functional. Next to that is the cold-water-only washing machine that looks like it can fit about three of my boxer briefs. Looks like my sheets won’t be getting washed this year. One side room contains the toilet and one must put on special little red slippers before entering this room. The Japanese have this rule that you can’t wear your house slippers in the bathroom and you can’t wear the bathroom slippers in the house. Why not just get rid of the slipper rule all together? Things don’t make sense here and they make less sense upon hearing explanations for the various rules. The last tiny room is the shower/tub room. You’re supposed to shower first in the middle of the room, which has a drain in the floor. Then, you’re supposed to get into the tub and sit in the hot water but not use any soap whatsoever in the tub. That’s just impolite, considering that every member of the family is supposed to use the same bathwater. Eww. Just eww. I will not be taking baths this year, principally because the bathtub looks like a prop from “Big People, Small World”.

So upon arrival, I shower and dry myself with the t-shirt I wore on the plane all day because I forgot to pack towels. It’s ok though. No one’s home to know I did that. Wait a minute, my roommate Andrew just walked in. He’s cute, British and semi-twinkish but it’s ok because he doesn’t know it. He’s also undeniably straight and a bit timid. Says he doesn’t go out to bars and hasn’t even done karaoke yet. He’s been here for six months. Why hasn’t the boy done karaoke yet? The other roommate comes in as well. He’s Patrick, 40ish, not cute and not that social either. So I ignore him and eat some trail mix. Now I write this note. My first hours in Japan are over and I’m pretty content and somewhat tripping out on not sleeping. I’m going to sleep now.

Culture shock update – July 20, 2007

I’m semi-bored. Fuck that, I’m very bored. My first day here, I had to register myself at Suita City Hall as a legal alien and that was an event in itself. As I’ve commented before to several friends, the Japanese are extremely efficient but they’re so fucking peculiar. When they hand paperwork or cash back from a register, they hand it to me using both hands and bow their heads just a tad as if the item being passed was the fucking constitution or something else of equal paper-like importance. I guess it’s just a humility issue. Other than that, the fashion is very fun to admire. Most girls are dressed for runways. Leggings are very big here but coincidentally so are arm-ings, if that’s what you can call them. Girls will be walking around in 90 degree weather with these hot outfits on, like straight out of magazines, but they’ll also be wearing these fancy sock-like things on their arms, no matter what the temperature is. Some armings have glove-like extensions attached and most don’t even go very far above the elbow but either way, they’re very popular. I think that people are sensitive to the sun here. Most women walk around the city carrying umbrellas, wearing hats, very large visors and in the younger cases, these questionably fashionable armings. Whatever, at least the guys aren’t wearing them.

Speaking of the guys, I can’t tell who’s gay here and who’s not. At least not yet. Pretty much all the guys look either very angry or aloof like a coked-up model. Some of the aloof guys are kind of good-looking but all of the angry guys are very scary and I do not want to approach them. However, when asking for directions or something, I usually approach older women because they look the friendliest. However, not one older woman has been able to reply to me in English so far, so maybe I need to change my approach.

Speaking of older women, I was approached in the grocery store today, which is called Gourmet City, by two senior citizen women in the rice aisle. Out of nowhere I hear, “Hahahahahaha! Herro!!! How arrrre you! Hahahaha!” I didn’t use a question mark because it wasn’t a question. The phrase was pretty much just shouted at me. I turn to the ladies and I see one has a sporty rainbow fisherman-style hat and the other is just as clueless as hell and has about as many teeth as I do Japanese words in my vocabulary. They’re obviously excited to practice their limited English with me so I smile and say, “I’m great. How are you?” Of course, they continue to laugh and don’t even realize that they asked me a question and I just did the same to them. I guess that was the only phrase they knew. So then I say to them, “Nihongo wakarimasen”, which means, “I don’t understand Japanese”. This was kind of a warning to them that they could either speak to me in English or just go away and nod happily. Nope. They decided to start up a conversation with me in Japanese, pointing to various things in the aisle and in their baskets throughout the (no exaggeration) 5-minute one-sided conversation. It was more of a speech, I guess. Then finally, they looked into my basket, pointed at my food and said with the famous double-entendre Ms. Wong intonation, “Banana-wine, eh?” True, I did have bananas and a bottle of rose wine in my basket but she said the phrase in such a way that I thought she was offering me her prostitute son or something. And so I just rubbed my belly in response, saying, “Yes. Delicious.” After that, I was pretty uncomfortable so I just turned around and left the aisle. Enough of that.

By the way, the supermarket is a trip in itself. About 5 items in the entire store were labeled in English and every single package is as bright as a Pokemon cartoon. Every single piece of food looks like it’s going to be sooo much fun! Then I got upstairs to the second floor and found a whole section of nothing but raw, scaly fish packaged like chicken should be. Yes. Whole fish in those styrofoam plates covered in plastic. So I steered clear of that shit. When I finally did find the limited chicken section, it was ridiculous. It’s no wonder the Japanese are so fucking tiny. The chicken was packaged as follows: two raw chicken tenders laid side by side on the styrofoam plate and covered in plastic. All together, the package cost $1.40. Why even bother to waste all that material for two fucking tenders? Just put more in there! So I bought about eight of those packages and can not believe how many carbon shares I’m going to have to buy to offset the amount of pollution I’ll cause this year. Way too much to ask. I think I’ll just stick to Cup o’Noodle, which is as popular here as oxygen, which brings me to another point. The Japanese expect me to eat my cupped soup with chopsticks? You’ve got to be kidding me because that shit is hard enough to manage with a fork, let alone two splintery sticks. I’ll have to update you all with my chopstick progress as the time goes on.