Tag Archives: trains

You don’t know nothing

It’s my thirtieth month as a high-school English teacher in Kobe, and there is nothing of any profound and shaking significance to report. This morning an old vagrant sat across from me on the train, then moved next to me and said hello, and immediately asked what country I was from, before volleying into some kind of conversation about my 3DS, which he could not see because he was sitting beside me, and it’s in 3D. He was like “can’t see it, can’t see it” and I was like “you sure can’t” and he was like “aha aha” then he got off the train before me. The two businessmen across from me to my right made some comments about how the weird vagrant man was a weird vagrant. One of the businessmen was wearing a facemask, which is totally normal.

We started watching this series called “Game of Thrones,” it uses a high-fantasy setting and started as books, which means I will never read them. The series was produced by HBO and, as I understand it, cost $60 million over the course of its ten episodes. One of the more charming points of the show is that the Exceptional Content is never wishy-washy–the series opens with two lingering decapitations, is followed by a minute-long scene of full nudity by not one but several women, contains conversations in which people bypass the social pleasantries of gateway curses and skip straight to Fuck, also some relatives bang each other and later in the series some throats are ripped/bitten out and or stabbed, also more banging. The characters have names, but I’ll be Fucked if I remember any of them, they’re all like Hodor Dargantio or L’Orealdrious Salafoop. The few that I remember are: Agent 006, Dwarf, Hot Naked Savage Wife, Tinymouth Bitch-boy, Bastard, Climby, and The Fat King. This show is pretty sweet let me tell you.

grapefruity slatherhog

JAPANESE MINOR ENCOUNTERS
– That soda called Citra is back, it’s called Citra, I haven’t had it in like fifteen years and here it is in Japan
– Ate a “chicken nugget sandwich” today, it was literally a chicken nugget on a bun, wrapped up and sold in the cooler section of the convenience store
– A man is balancing on one foot in front of the small gas heater, he has taken the shoe off of the foot and is trying to get the foot warm, I think he is finished now
– I thought I’d make some pilaf the other day with supper, thought I’d just see if I could find a pre-packaged rice mix of some sort to boil up all quick, but that is not a thing in Japan, I made homemade dumplings instead aw yeah
EAHRG

Jessy was gone for like three weeks during Christmas and I was all alone, so I had a forgotten taste of the bachelor life. I engaged in such scandalous activities as roleplaying as a female and marrying another female in a video game. Also I drank alone and with friends, watched Masters of the Universe back-to-back with Dragonslayer, ate at the sushi-go-round, stayed up until six in the morning twice, bought grass for my cat, and I guess some other stuff. Sometimes it was awesome to be alone again, and other times I remembered that the thing I notice the absence of most when Jessy’s gone is my random source of entertainment and companionship. On the other hand I did get like 70 hours of video games played.

I made mochi last week with the night school kids, and I remember to wear my jacket when the beatings happen because the splatter. I wielded Big Hammer, our third encounter, and it was like hoisting an old friend high above my head then slamming him down against a pile of squished grains to make stretchy goop. We ate the mochi with anko and the other orange powder that I forget what it’s called all the time, oh, kinako. It tastes like crushed up Cap’n Crunch cereal. Also we had ozoni, which is “soup.” You put the mochi in the soup. Another weird old vagrant next to me asked some questions about American Baseball, then when I mentioned the Orioles he said “Buruku Surobinson Buruku Surobinson.” I was like “yep he was good” but I dunno man Brooks Robinson stopped playing like six years before I was born.

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The seat of the soul

The nicest toilets in Japan will clean your ass for you chipperly, blasting water at your choice of areas via a couple of angles selected to most efficiently Neutralize The Threat, and with a level of pressure that you dial in with a little knob. Bad night? Dial an 8! The seats are heated, to encourage your productivity and free spirit. Some of them even play music which I have not yet determined to be one or the other: specifically for masking noises or just used as a reward mechanism. The units are called Washlets, and replace what sits on top of your bowl outright. Many westerners consider them magical, and I find myself in a conundrum: fascinated with the technical workings of the device, curious as to what exactly they are doing under there, under there, while I rest atop it, a time when it is impossible to examine the mechanisms, and to investigate any further during a time I do not care to utilize the functions of the Washlet I feel would be a betrayal of trust.

Sometimes, while I sit, I dream up possible delivery scenarios. Is the mechanism like a fire extinguisher, ready to go at any moment and swiveling into play when necessary? When I switch between angle one and angle two I hear a sort of robotic whirring. Is there a tiny robot arm that swings out prevented only from winning my prize due to the fact it is not a vertically oriented UFO claw and is designed to shoot water instead of capture stuffed toys? What could be in there, and what is it doing? I can’t bring myself to look. It is one of the mysteries I have left, and I clutch to it, perhaps just as to that stuffed toy, ready to drop at any moment.

With these considerations in mind and Jessy, Liz, and Dan in tow, I set out last weekend to Hakone, and most memorably a place that has a real name that is inconsequential, because we named this place Fart Mountain. It is the natural absence of Washlet, touted for this fact: active, sulfuric springs bubble and steam below and on top of and in all nooks of its rocky surface. The sulfurous gas smells, naturally, like sulfurous gas, and the Japanese, in their elegiac euphoria, at some point in the past, decided that they could boil eggs in the sulfury hot springs which pool up on the face of this olfactory hell. As it turns out, the water not only boils a fine egg but also turns the shell a powdery black due to some sort of “sulfite reaction,” which means that eating one egg will extend your life by seven years, or so they say. A pretty good value proposition at five eggs for five bucks, not that I could prove it. It is ingenious really, and we witnessed this process: a zip line holding a metal crate carrying cases of fresh, white eggs is jimmied up the mountain from the shop at the bottom, and then at the top they are unloaded, soaked in the hot springs, and then loaded back into the crate to be sent back down and sold for many times their actual worth. Modern day egg alchemy! If I die in the next six years, three-hundred-and-fifty-eight-days, I’m demanding a refund. Other black things that I ate on or near Fart Mountain, solely touted due to their blackness:

1. Black steamed meat bun stuffed with meat, ginger, and some spicy stuff

Fart Mountain is something like the halfway point of the prescribed trip around Hakone, a sprawling day-long affair involving every form of unorthodox transportation that one could likely utilize for mass transit. The first leg was a seriously long bus ride, made all the more agonizing due to the presence of a couple idiot American children up front, a brother and sister, the sister prodding at the boy’s Tommy Hilfiger duffle, and the boy belting out his best kazoo rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, only he didn’t have a kazoo. To our right, of no fault of his own, a mentally confused child who took every opportunity to vocalize his feelings to everyone in the middle of the bus (he was either pleased or disappointed).

After this came A Big Lake Whose Name I Forget, in which you can see a little red temple gate off in the distance, and which we traversed (after eating a station hot dog with shredded cabbage) by fucking pirate ship, a means of travel which exists there for some reason I yet fail to grasp. To me it seemed like riding in a train covered with plastic to make it resemble a Ferrari, or flying in an airplane decorated like a bird. Only this is Japan, and most specifically Hakone, where there are no pirates, and where pirates mean nothing to anyone outside of isn’t Johnny Depp a pirate. From the middle of this lake we caught our first peeps of Fujisan, the fabled Mount Fuji, enormous mountain, real big rock. Famously elusive, we were happy to see him standing at attention, only partially obscured by a sidelong wisp of cloud.

On the other side of the lake, there was only a building, and in the building you buy dumb souvenirs and board the ropeway gondolas, and jesus christ do I ever hate riding on ropeway gondolas. After the gondolas? Well it’s Fart Mountain. I watched the faces of the bystanders progress from cautious optimism, to mild interest, to fatigue. I imagined sticking my head up an ass and leaving it there.

We took a cable car at one point, and all I wanted to do was get home, and then we took a regular old train which apparently is some kind of special train cause it is old and slow and needs to stop twice to do a switchback and change directions. I stared into the soul of the conductor as I clutched the overhead bar. Inside his pupils I took a nap, and then uttered, in the obsolete language of the Demon King: get me out of here. It was ineffective.

Fifty-seven hours later we returned to our lodging, the Hotel Okada, which was notable for harboring what is literally the saddest, most pathetic “game corner” I have ever personally witnessed in Japan, which has to count for something. Whereas a native English speaker would likely translate the Japanese katakana and actually sensible “game corner” to “arcade,”–had they actually decided to translate it in the first place–the hotel staff instead chose the excitingly colloquial “Amusement Saloon” for their floor map, which made it all the more depressing, my conjured mental images of feisty card games and spittoons and root-toot-tootin’ and yee-haw rootbeer sarsparilla and six-shooters notwithstanding. After we realized there was no amusement to be found in the five shitty redemption games and half-broken racing game, we figured of course that the saloon was also absent. It is no stretch for me to declare that the arcade on the Jumbo Ferry, a boat we took to Takamatsu several months back, was orders of magnitude more entertaining, and it was on a boat.

The Okada is of the traditional ryokan variety, which means that for a time we pranced around in our yukata like good little Japanese boys and girls, and then separated along those lines to go to the onsen on floor eight, where we stripped down and bathed publically, in the total nude, until we became so overwhelmed with the hot water that our arms tingled. As I was getting ready to leave the jacuzzi area near the end of my second and final onsen session of the trip, one man strolled up, took a step in from the side, and, presumably expecting a ledge or something, dropped in completely from the brisk outside air into the boiling magmatic pool. He laughed, obviously embarassed, and all I could muster up in Japanese was “big huh,” a comment I really hope he took as meaning the drop was big, and not anything else that might have been swinging around a foot and a half from my face. I left promptly, feeling myself coming to a rolling boil.

Should I mention the meals, massive and delivered to our room? To outline the entire process of a ryokan meal would be dry. I will say this: on one of each of our plates rested a tiny squid, the size of a Tootsie Roll, and when it was chewed, you could feel its brains explode out of its head like the juice inside a Fruit Gushers fruit snack. Or so I was told. I was content to eat the other morsels, which impressively all consisted of or contained some kind of fish or seafood in some capacity. It was around this time that I was stricken with the overwhelming urge for a large plate of hot spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic toast, a desire for which the only option of satiation was the breakfast buffet, where I ate a pasta and cheese casserole containing clams, and approximately two quarts of fruit cocktail.

As I mentioned briefly last time, Hakone is also the setting for my favorite animated show Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Hakone, sensing otaku greenbacks, has decided to capitalize with a variety of Eva omiyage cookies and cakes that you can bring back for your depressed coworkers. More exciting, however, were the “Hakone Instrumentality Project” maps, which provide reference points to view actual scenes from the show and movies as they appear in reality. To obtain this map Liz had to enter the tourism booth and fill out a special card indicating her profession and length of stay in Japan. When she emerged successful Dan and I descended on the booth like vultures, insistent that no we couldn’t share maps and yes we needed our own. My profession was “Schooler” and my length of stay in Japan was “years.” I got the map and left immediately. The next day, Jessy tried to get her own map and was flatly refused by the panel, who presumably have more pressing uses for the maps than using them to promote tourism.

Excitingly, and beautifully, the special convenience store (in actuality, a Lawson store), all dressed up like Evangelion to be the OFFICIAL TOKYO-3 LAWSON, was bombarded by sweathogs with fanny packs almost immediately after opening, creating lines to enter the convenience store, parking hazards, and–I’m just guessing here–severe employee unrest. And so, the store was stripped of its identifying Eva decor and closed after a mere three days, a fitting end. I never even saw where it might have been. Someone told me “in the mountains somewhere, a rural area,” but for me it might have just as well been in the actual Tokyo-3, committed to celluloid, a figment of imagination, cups of instant udon adorned with Reis and Asukas, and boxes of NERV brand tissues, to wipe your nose just before you are rendered a puddle of pure LCL goo.

After Dan and Liz went back to Canada, and before our Golden Week holiday had ended, we decided we wanted to do something really dumb, so we went to Costco. Let me tell you about Costco in Japan.

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT COSTCO IN JAPAN

Costco in Japan is strikingly similar to Costco in the states, except that it is in Japan, which makes a remarkable difference. I have been there fully three times now, and each time I hope I will come up with a better way to say what I really think about it, but I never do. At this point, the best way I can sum it up is to say that Costco seems to serve as kind of a family amusement park. You bring the little shits and your wife on your holiday in your small boxy car, there is nowhere to park it, you wait in line for an hour to sign up to be let in, and then you pay the 4200 yen “membership price” (admission fee). Finally, after you grab a hulking behemoth of a novelty cart, you can proceed to ingest the stereotypical example of “American culture” in the bizarre shopping environment, which apparently involves trying to move around in the store when everyone has a Monster Cart and doesn’t even know how to walk normally let alone when encumbered with said cart.

For many, the highlight seems to be the restaurant area (much as it is in the relatively similarly-regarded IKEA on Port Island). To enter the restaurant area, which is set off as a “space” with little extending barriers and employees who only direct people-traffic and which serves essentially the same huge food at the same tiny prices, you must push through a sea of humanity, and will absolutely never find a seat. People stand around eating their 300 yen slices of pizza that are as large as Actual Japanese Pizzas with a look of desire in their eyes: am I doing it right? Am… am I in the group? Am I Costcoing?

The hilarious irony of Costco in Japan of course is that in a country where many people rely solely on public transit and have refrigerators the size of shoeboxes they can’t possibly ever have a use for ten cans of refried beans or a 2000 yen slab of pork, let alone some fucking place to put it. Bulk shopping is just a gag, a theory, a suggestion of the weird possibility that your problem would be too much space and not enough stuff to put in it instead of the other way around. The prices are good (decent) but offset in such a way by the membership fee and the absolute hell of the experience that just buying your stuff on a daily basis like everyone else probably makes more financial sense.

The only thing that I can think is that for many people in Japan Costco is not valued as a legitimate financial move in the realm of grocery shopping. Look at it this way: an average Japanese man is smaller than an average American man, he has a smaller fridge, he has a smaller house, he has a smaller car, he eats less, he doesn’t need a gallon of salsa, and all this massive stuff probably looks even bigger and more ridiculous than it does to a well adjusted fellow like myself. Once he opens the three quart bottle of ketchup, where will he put it? He will clear a space in his fridge, and make his children apply ketchup to everything for the next five months in order to use it all up before it expires. He will take home something as a souvenir. “Remember the time we all went to Costco and got that 40-pack of muffins? Those were the days.”

The kids mob the aisles like savage fleas digging for blood, it is their play area, these packages are too big to be called food and are instead obviously entertainment. If you are an idiot you can buy a 24-pack of Coke From The United States, made with good old-fashioned all-natural high fructose corn syrup instead of the superior sugar-based Coke they sell everywhere else in Japan. One family we saw had a huge cart full only of bottled water and potato chips. Surely it has not come to this.

As I stand being mobbed by the overeager women literally diving at a pallet of Ultra Downy fabric softener nearby, I contemplate my options. I am reminded of off-days in Iowa spent leisurely strolling through a deserted Sam’s Club with my stepbrother. Costco in Japan makes as much sense as the US changing all cartons of milk to quarts, eliminating frozen pizza, and refusing to sell packages of cheese containing more than six ounces. And yet the business is so routinely crowded that I can barely move, often times before I even get through the front door.

Costco is Universal Studios, only instead of riding on a rollercoaster, you push a cart and buy three pounds of cheddar cheese and some deck chairs.

Of course, we spent two hundred dollars there on bags of tortilla chips and gummy bears so large we can not ever possibly finish them all, two pounds of grated Parmesan cheese, a case each of vanilla soymilk and Dr. Pepper, and 1,400 Post-it notes.

THAT’S ABOUT IT FOR COSTCO

At school today I decided maybe it was time to see how the robot arm or the firehose or the Roto Rooter or whatever the shit it is that pops out of the Washlet really does its job, so cursorily, after visiting the sink to wash my hands, I popped in to the Washlet-equipped stall, locked the door, and pressed the spray button. As I did so, I suddenly realized that this would likely mean that some sort of nozzle was going to be blasting me in the face with toilet water as I peered over it.

But there was no cause to worry. In addition to being heated, the Washlet seat is also pressure sensitive, and denied my request with a polite beep. All this means is that I am dry, and I am going to have to come up with some other way to steal a look at that mysterious robot business.

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No such thing as a stranger

WHEREAS one cannot possibly consider an abundance of space an important comfort; and WHEREAS the value of an experience may not necessarily be based on its relative uniqueness; and WHEREAS the mere act of looking at something is critical enough to necessitate three-hour-plus-each-way road and rail trips; BE IT RESOLVED that going to Yoshino, near Nara, in Japan, to view the cherry blossoms before the following day’s impending rain blows them away, is A GOOD EXPERIENCE and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that it is FUCKING DUMB. APPROVED, on this, the 14th day of April in the year 2010, by unanimous action of the Brandon, at his desk, fingers a-tappin’.

Racked with early Saturday-morning distractions (weird guys in spandex suits fighting monsters on TV, early registration for a Japanese language class, Oreo cookies with milk), we finally leave the house around noon, prepared for a trip that is going to take a while longer than we really figured.

Three-and-a-half hours later, halfway up the mountain, which is split by a winding road illustrated on our complimentary bus map (two-person fare Y700), I start listening to the young couple behind us, both peering out the window, and begin to decipher her Japanese language yelps of glee. They amount to “So pretty! It’s pretty, huh? Really pretty! Wow! Look look! Preeeeeeeetty!” Following this I become acutely aware of the fact that everyone else on the bus, the rolling definition of stuffed to the gills, sardines in a tin can, bursting at the seams, is saying these things too. For fun, I lean over as best as I can to Jessy, and say “IT’S PRETTY NEEEEEEE?????” She is not amused.

This is Yoshino, where “they” say you can see a thousand cherry blossoms in one view, one solitary gaze off into the distance. It would not be a stretch to say that if you were high enough, you could probably also see that many people milling about, waterfall-streaming from the bus drop off and bouncing around like the white dots of a badly received TV signal, pass the Chee-tos. The paths to wherever, where wherevers are places that you would be happy to unroll your tarp or blanket and sit, are lined with stores, restaurants, and (not) surprisingly enough, the houses of the poor bastards who have to actually live here and deal with the throngs of humanity pulsing in every spring for their shot at that hundred million yen view.

Salmon denying instinct, we push against the flow at one place where they’re grilling sticks of chicken meat slathered in sweet sauce on little metal grates over hot coals (the beloved yakitori). I can’t tell if it is an established business. I am leaning toward “some guy’s house” because the coal pits look kind of like emptied-out flowerbeds, and I think I can see into his porch. For a few hundred yen, I embrace the flavor. Later on down the line we stop into what actually is some guy’s concrete-paved yard, outside anyway, and feast on the goodies of the full-sized flat grill/deep fryer he’s standing behind. Hot, crisp tofu donuts (just like the ones from Kyoto that we love so much) and some sort of sauced, deep-fried tofu wedge open the way, and then I lust explicitly for one of the enormous hamburger steaks he has cooking, but the line has become far too long, and we have flowers to look at!

By the time we meet up with the people we know, we have already confusingly walked the perimeter of the village outskirts, cutely arriving atop a hill from which we can easily see the place the bus dropped us (we went north, and now we are south). They are packing up, some of our people, but not before I sample some homemade umeshu (this is a kind of sweet plum liquor) from a paper cup. I contemplate how early these people must have had to leave to get here, and then another friend arrives, having been ground to meat in the transport gears of Kansai, opting for the cable car instead of our bus route. Finally we’ve made it nowhere, and as I pass through a nearby cemetery confusingly littered with a handful of lost Yu-Gi-Oh cards, I figure looking ahead to the mountainside must be that hundred million yen view, sakura everywhere I can see, so long as I tilt my head up a bit to exclude the high-and-tight power lines. They are every shade of red and pink and lavender and white and eggshell and slightly pink eggshell and slightly eggshell red and all of those other ones and the hillside looks like hundreds of flowery birdshot wounds. It is pretty, and I left the house so long ago, and I figure that next spring I will find just one tree close to home, stick my head up inside the branches, and open my eyes. I joke with another person that I will merely tape glossy printouts of the sakura to my ceiling, which would be funny if I hadn’t been so close to considering what fun it would be to have such a colorful ceiling.

After an hour or two, which is all we have left if we want to catch the last bus to the station, excitingly departing at 6:00 PM, we make our way down the side of the hill past people who appear to have made the decision to wait it out, that pesky nightfall, and defy it like pitchfork villagers with rackets and badminton birdies, bags of Calbee consommé double punch potato chips, and, by now, mountains of empty beer cans, be gone knave!

My idea of food-based revelry comes to pass back in Osaka, with the most traditional of Japanese foods: Indian. I have been here before, and order the set and a half-price beer–spicy chicken curry and hot naan has tasted this good before, but not today until now.

We did it though, for the sake of doing it, for saying we did it, which I tell myself I am pleased of even though I am certain it is the same reason every other person in Japan went there. I wonder, have they seen sakura before? Is this their first time to Yoshino? I imagine a man, who, unable to deal with the concept of himself, attaches long strips of Velcro to his arms and fingers like jellyfish feelers and snaps at everyone wearing fuzzy coats just to pull them near, to be surrounded by a pulsing blob of mankind, and stands for a few hours, and decides to do it again soon. I am scoping out my tree already, a nice one with a view of my balcony.

HEY WANNA KNOW SOME THINGS ABOUT JAPAN THAT I FOUND ODD THIS WEEK?
– Too bad I don’t feel like thinking of any today
YEP THAT’S ABSOLUTELY EVERY LAST THING

As promised, classes have definitely begun. I had my first set of them at high school yesterday, the same awkward affairs of my arrival but honed by a wiser and more experienced hand: group work from the get-go, a brazen and unabashed class devoted entirely to Me, and things about Me and forcing the kids and their groups to come up with questions for Me dealing with things that pertained to Me. I do it so that to balance the karma, next week will be solely about Them, and Them talking about Themselves endlessly, the things They like, hate, and are indifferent to. I will use it as an opportunity to get their names (in both Japanese and English lettering) on papers with their student numbers, information cards of a Total Student Profile that I can consult easily any time I am tired of referring to a student as “yes, please” or “you.”
As we move forward I shall subject my kids to the rigors of my first year of work, those poor original guinea pigs, with all of the disgusting chaff cleanly nipped away and in its place polished shiny grains, morsels of streamlined edutainment, entercation, twenty-five minute action-packed fun-fests filled with me drawing cute elephants on the board and informing the girls that if they want to know my exact height (180.34 cm) or my birthday (I’m a Scorpio) that they had better bring presents.

My night school students, I am sure, will continue to not care about anything except cell phone e-mail.

Still, even though it’s initially a bit nerve-wracking to know I go up on display again, I can’t help but catch myself having fun from time to time, watching the minutes breeze by, enjoying how effortless it feels now to stretch two sentences on a class outline to an entire period, to gesture wildly, write Brandon in huge letters on the board without screeching the chalk.

WHEREAS I am finally in a position to carry out the duties of my job description; and WHEREAS spring pushes forward, leaving the fallen petals of the cherry trees in its balmy wake; and WHEREAS I am invited to two different school drinking parties in the next two days; and WHEREAS I finally start Japanese lessons in May; and WHEREAS we have some pals from Canada visiting the country soon; and WHEREAS I ordered an eBook reader and will finally be able to browse English-language manga on the train; and WHEREAS everything old is new again; BE IT RESOLVED that things are pretty NICE and GOOD; APPROVED, on this, the 14th day of April in the year 2010, by unanimous action of the Brandon, at his desk, fingers done tappin’.

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The early taste of domesticity

In my best Japanese I sound like an unintelligible toddler, at its worst I must sound reanimated with 4% brain functionality.  I gave my first “all Japanese” speech today, a cursory introduction to some new co-workers who I’ll see only once a week and decided to practice on.  A rough translation of what I hope I said:

Hello.  Nice to meet you.  My name is Brandon.  I am 25.  I am from America, in Pennsylvania, in the city Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh is famous for Pittsburgh Pirates baseball and enka singer “Jero.”  I don’t know much Japanese.  I am trying to learn.  Please be good to me.

What I probably said was that I lack abilities pertaining to spatial and linguistic functions and processes, and that I was a very poor choice for a colleague (please be good to me).  They applauded at least, either to make me feel good or because there are flies in the air and they are showing me the one thing I can do around here to be of any discernible use.

On the bright side (very bright), I purchased a can of “BOSS COFFEE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN BLEND” on the recommendation of an Internet Friend who I met in Kobe for some udon last night.  The udon was really delicious and this coffee is too.  I think I am totally gonna get used to this canned coffee thing.  Icey cold and eerily refreshing!

On the homefront, things are picking up.  We had our first domestic couple-experience of purchasing a major household appliance on Sunday, it is a washing machine, and the sales processes (and machine itself) operate entirely in Japanese.  We got it during some wild sale for around ¥26000 (down from ¥32000!) and they delivered it and installed it the next day, exactly when they said they would, for free.  We so much enjoyed our purchase from Yamada Denki that we immediately bought a wall-mounted air conditioner/heater from them during the 1-day-5-units-only blowout special for a frankly insane ¥37000 (half-price!), which is so cheap compared to all others we’ve seen that I literally defecated on the floor as we made the purchase.  They will be delivering and installing the aircon on Saturday.  Both appliances being Toshiba-made, we now routinely operate our Toshiba rice cooker, refrigerator, washing machine, my Toshiba Biblio phone, a Toshiba laptop at work, and soon our new Toshiba heating and cooling unit.  I feel an odd sense of Japanese brand loyalty and pride that stirs me deep inside.

Having recently received a massive salvo of goods left by my predecessor from the school, we now also have a small table and two chairs, a sorta-coffee table, an iron, a toaster oven, a tiny vacuum cleaner, and even my own futon with comforter.  All this really leaves on my Oh-God-I-Can’t-Be-Comfortable-Until-I-Get-This-Stuff list is a big fucking plasma television and Internet access, the acquisition of either most assuredly actions that will be not unlike those of a similar harbinger of most resplendent fortunes: descending slowly upon our living room an astral choir shall irradiate the area with blessed light, produce from within a holy instrument, and interface the communal knowledge of Gods with our spongey corporeal cortexes.  In conclusion I want a TV and some Internet.

The TV at least I know won’t come for another three months or so–I’ve been telling myself (and all who would dare to ask) that “my birthday” is the planned pick-up date, far enough ahead to allow me time to save, close enough to seem like a plausible future event.  Internet is more nebulous: I guess technically Jessy arranged service with Yahoo BB while getting her phone.  We got a paper with today’s date on it in the mail, but she knows nothing about it and neither of us are home during most of the regular weekday hours.  I can’t even call Yahoo to find out what’s going on–my language skills prevent me from saying anything other than My name is Brandon computer Internet please hamburger supermarket nice to meet you cool interesting delicious Monday, and this will get me nowhere.  My laptop thirsts for world-juice, it has been deprived since the final Tokyo morning fifteen days ago and at night I hear it sneaking to the balcony and whirring idly at the moon.  I want to tell him it will be O.K., that everything is on the way, that we’re gonna make it through this, but the strange mail makes no sense and all I can read on it is something about an octopus which I am guessing is wrong.

To keep our minds off TV and Internet we have taken to cooking.  Two nights ago we made honest to goodness gyudon, or “beef bowl,” which is thinly-sliced beef boiled in a sauce composed of dashi (a ubiquitous stock-like broth), mirin (a sake-containing sweet cooking liquid), soy sauce, sugar, and onions, then poured atop a bowl of rice.  When I told one of my fellow teachers I made gyudon, he said “oh, you went to Yoshinoya?” (A popular fast-food gyudon restaurant.)  I said no, I made gyudon, and he went “eeeeeh sugoooi!!!!” which roughly translated means “Oh!  Brandon!  You are more incredible and industrious than any man I have ever known!”  I was like yeah I know.

I wrote a guide and left it at home so Jessy can prepare some curry tonight, which Japanese-style is super-often eaten and sold in dozens of forms nearly everywhere.  I think she’s putting carrots and chicken and potato and corn in it?  I won’t get home until late tonight, but I can already smell that distinctively spicy aroma.

We’ve also made spaghetti a few times, notable most specifically because of Japanese spaghetti sauce, which mostly comes in two or three varieties, and always in feeds-two non-resealable plastic pouches: “Neapolitan,” which tastes mostly like ketchup and contains bits of green pepper and mushroom, “Meat Sauce,” which is sweeter than standard American spaghetti meat sauce but still weirdly delicious, and then an odd variation of Neapolitan, composed mostly of oil? and tasting kinda like stuffed shells or something.  They’re all edible anyway, and at ¥88 or so a pouch I can’t really complain.

Another area of existence here that is finally beginning to be less of a crapshoot is the train system.  Used to be, on a given day I’d take four trains: two to work from home and two to home from work, at an average daily cost of around ¥850, for a weekly five-day cost of about ¥4250, a whopping ¥17000 a month!  But I got wise–turns out there are these things called “Commutation Passes,” which you buy at your local station and which enable unlimited trips to and from two points on a single train line for three months.  My total cost for those passes (for the two train lines I take each day) was ¥41130, which seems like a lot up front but does not require absolute intelligence to make itself an obviously better deal when compared against the total of twenty normal day-per-month average travel costs for three months (¥17000 x 3 = ¥51000).  It’s a massive savings of ¥10000 in a three month period!  And not only that–unlimited trips means no more paying to go downtown and back at night after coming home or on weekends and holidays.  Take that, Japan!  Even as I write this my brain churns, frantically devising new and industrious ways to get better deals and monetary savings, which I can promptly annul by spending hundreds and hundreds of yen on gashapon capsule machine toys (totally worth it).

On that note, we are even getting better at the grocery store, checking the “discounted” areas of the bakery and produce sections in the evenings when the Japanese obsession with freshness goes corporate and leads to sweeping 40% discounts on many daily perishables.  Among my favorite scores: “Pizza Bread,” a wholly different entity than anything that moniker would elicit an idea of in the states–a paperback book-sized soft fresh bread, brushed with pizza sauce, garnished with tiny bits of pepperoni and thin slices of onion, then topped with cheese and individually wrapped.  At night they go all the way down to ¥60 sometimes, a sum that has never tasted so good.  Popped into the in-range grill for a few seconds in the morning the doughy delight makes a delicious breakfast.  And while I’m on the topic of bread do the Japanese ever love theirs.

In addition to the “standard” white bread (sold in weird packs of five texas-toast dwarfing enormous pillowy slices), you can get melon bread (sweet and crispy), curry bread (a deep-fried bread filled with Japanese curry), choco bread (a baguette stuffed with chocolate sauce), and even burger breads, which actually have a burger, mayo, and teriyaki sauce inside and sit there with the other bread, wrapped up in paper like a fast food burger for ¥100. You can microwave it, toast it, or just nom it as is. They are alarmingly delicious. Disarmingly delicious even.  I cannot comprehend how they do it.  Anyway it all works out for us to get an expiration discount on bread that doesn’t “expire” for another two days anyway since we’re used to the states where they’ll sell you anything as long as you forget to check the sell-by label first. 

So, we are moving right along.  We have the trains mostly figured out and walking paths to and from the stations to work and home are beginning to stabilize.  We can shop, cook, do laundry, sleep normally (finally), use our mobile phones, and even utilize Japanese bank accounts.  Most importantly, we can do it all without looking like befuddled tourists, a personal element of pride offset only by our looking genetically like Americans no matter what we do.  In this case, I think I’ll take what I can get.

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