Nov 19, 2007

In Which I Move. Also, I Mingle With the Myriad Freaks.

About a month and a half ago, I was at a party on a boat in Tokyo harbor when someone, a guy in IT, asked me how long I'd been in Japan.

"A year," I told him.

"Oh," he replied, "so you must be getting pretty settled, then."

"Yes," I said, "which is why I'm moving."

He seemed puzzled by this, and I told him that I didn't want to be settled, that I didn't want things to become ordinary. I came here trying to get away from the ordinary, and early on in my stay I decided that if I were to keep on in Japan for more than a year, I would move to a different city. I considered Osaka and Kyoto as well, but when I visited Tokyo for the first time last March, I immediately fell in love with the place. Not only that, but I fell in love with Kori as well. The busy streets of Osaka and the temples of Kyoto were fine to visit, but I knew that I might as well go for the big one: Tokyo, a massive sprawl that I now live, comfortably, on the outskirts of.

Sayonara, Okayama

I hate, and sort of love, cleaning out apartments. On the morning of my move, the sun was brightly shining through the tower apartment that I'll probably never see again, and I was blasting Japanese hip-hop into the sunlight. The mix CD was a goodbye gift from my rap-loving coworker, and I found myself liking it a great deal. I'm continually fascinated by how Japan processes and then spits out other western, and was quite liking the bilingual hip-hop blaring from my speakers. I'd slept little the night before- partially out because I'd been out late, and partially because of excitement.

I cleaned out my place, packed up the last of my things, and sat down to way for my successor, who was quite late. When he did show up, he looked like the dead. The night before, my school's staff had thrown a goodbye party for me, and my replacement had a fair amount of booze foisted upon him. Having to move the next day, I was smart enough to avoid abject drunkenness. But, my replacement, new to Japan, seemed to have succumbed to the alcohol-soaked zombification that Japan can inflict upon foreigners.

"Here's the apartment," I said, showing him around and giving him the keys. He took in the place, and I packed away my things into a taxi. I'm actually quite happy with my replacement- I worked with him for a week, he observing my classes and me watching him teach, and I felt entirely at ease with his capabilities. My students, I know, are in good hands. However, the last I saw of him was as a bewildered, nauseous, and dead-looking foreigner. I'd been in his position a few times. It's part of the learning process, in a way.

I boarded the Shinkansen to Tokyo, and leaned back in my seat, sleeping intermittently. When I woke up, near Shizuoka, I could see Mt. Fuji massively looming up through my window. I'd never seen it before on any of my trips on the train before- it had either been cloudy, or I'd been asleep, reading, or on the other side of the train. This time, though, I woke up just in time to see the conical, snow-capped mountain looming over a bristling industrial field.

I was thrilled to be unsettled.

"So, what do you do?" "I work at the airport."

I live, now, in Narita, which is about 35 miles from Tokyo proper, and an hour away by train. It's a nice placement, actually. My school is right next to the train station, and my apartment only 15 minutes away on foot. Kori lives in Funabashi, about 45 minutes away from Narita, and fairly close in to Tokyo proper. My commute, then, is fairly good for Kanto- my work is 20 minutes away from my own place, and an hour away from my girlfriend's. I go against traffic both to and from Narita, so I can sit down and read on the train, which makes the commute pass rather quickly. Best of all, I don't have to change trains. This is the land of two hour commutes and train switches, so I have it quite good, actually.

My school overlooks downtown Narita, and from my window I've got a direct view of Nartia-San, the city's famous Buddhist temple. From my window, I can see the sloping green roof and the tall main pagoda with it's gold spire jutting from trees. It's an ideal sort of landscape view, actually. Almost all of my students are involved in some form or fashion with Narita International Airport, which serves as Tokyo's (and indeed, all of Japan's) main link with the rest of the world. Regrettably, I don't have very many kids' classes.

What I've found strange about Narita, though, is the sheer amount of foreigners. In Okayama, I did a double take when I saw another foreign person. In Narita, I can't seem to walk down the street without seeing non-Japanese people. I suppose this makes sense, what with the gigantic international airport and all.

It makes me happy, though, that my first year in Japan was in Okayama, a fairly English-free place. I was motivated to learn Japanese because of the undeniable necessity of it. Now I'm studying not only for pragmatic reasons, but also because I've discovered that I love foreign languages. I question, though, whether or not I'd have discovered this new passion if I'd initially been placed in Narita. My coworker seems to get by without speaking a word of Japanese, and that makes me slightly apprehensive that my studying may slacken a little. I don't think it will- I get far too much joy out of learning to stop.

In Okayama, I was one of two foreigners who didn't really speak Japanese. In Kanto, though, it seems normal for the westerners to not speak any Japanese. I find this really surreal, actually, the sheer amount of people who haven't really bothered with the language. So, I've gone from being the odd man out because I could only speak a little and could only have basic conversations, to being someone who's considered skilled because I can speak a little and have basic conversations. Two nights ago, a student asked me if I could read Kanji. I replied that I could read a few.

"How many is a few?" she asked.

"About 450 or so," I said, sheepishly, "But I don't know all the proper pronunciations and word combinations."

"What?! Wow!" she replied.

In Okayama, a foreigner who knew about 450 Kanji was illiterate. Here, a foreigner who knows about 450 is considered skilled.


The Panoply of Incandescent Awesomeness: In Which I Peruse The Offerings of Tokyo's Hipster Population, and Am Pleased With My Findings

The Tokyo Big Sight is rather aptly named.

Going there yesterday for the Tokyo Design Festa, I sort of wondered how I'd find the place after getting off the train. There was no need, really. Tokyo's gigantic conference hall fills the skyline heavily, and in yesterday's sunset I looked to it eagerly, happy that I now live in the largest urban area in the world. I'd come to the Design Festa to visit a friend of mine, a ceramics artist, who had a booth there. I went for purely personal reasons, and didn't really anticipate or think about what the rest of the outing might entail. I was pleasantly surprised.

The Big Sight, of course, is huge, and the Festa, which occurs every six months, took up a good half of it. The other half was taken up by a Dentistry convention. In the convention hall, I had to spend quite some time before I found my friend's pottery booth, and was amazed at the sheer amount of artists and displays in the offering. After saying hello to my friend and buying one of her tea cups, I set out to the rest of it.

Here's a bit of what I saw: A booth with various comical depictions of snot, extremely intricate doll houses, several graffiti murals, innumerable t-shirts, lots of girls wearing cat ear hats, a guy dressed as a leather-clad panda, another guy dressed as Winnie-the-Pooh, some very loud, abstract heavy metal videos, stained glass depicting characters from Hamlet, a guy who seemed to paint nothing but skeletal samurai, a trio of folks dressed as long-nosed aliens who walked about the hall waving and shaking everyone's hands, several grotesque horror movie monster sculptures, caricature artists, breakdancers, poets accompanied by bass players, a giant pillow made to look like curry and rice that the creators invited people to take naps on, an S&M rope-tying demonstration, three girls wearing dresses made out of balloons (think of balloon animals, but in gown form), random paintings, installment-style sculptures, traditional Thai dancing, and more goths, gothic lolitas, punks, cosplayers, and random freaks than you could swing a cat at.

The whole thing was incredible. I'm definitely going to the next one in May.

I found this all especially refreshing because I just read a book called Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori, a memoir by a Japanese woman who has since relocated to the States. I hated this book.

She has a few interesting observations to make, but for the most part I found her monochromatically negative depiction of all things Japanese to be incredibly irritating. Mori obviously had an abusive father, a depressed and tragically suicidal mother, and a complete bitch of a stepmom. However, the logical leap that she seems to make in her book is "My childhood was awful. I spent my childhood in Japan. Therefore, Japan is awful." Japan, according to Mori, is a colorless conservative, repressive place dominated by etiquette and hierarchy. This is true in some instances, but there's far more to this country than just the conservative element. Had she written about having a bad childhood, that would have been fine. But she seems to use her childhood as a referendum on an entire country, and that's quite unfair.

Walking around the Big Sight, I wondered what Mori would think of the congregation of Tokyo's freak population, whether she'd dismiss them as an aberrant minority or brothers and sisters in arms. Or perhaps she'd take a uniquely negative position and say: "Look how repressive Japan is- it turns the youth into graffiti-painting hooligans who dress up as cartoon characters and animals!"

In any case, I thought, amidst the artists weirdos, that countries, like people, are complicated. Mori's nasty simplicity, I thought, had to be wrong. If Japan can produce the fantastically weird stuff that was invading my eyes, then there was no way it could be the bland country she described. True, Japan's corporate culture and gender politics still have a long way to go, but walking around the panoply of the awesome and weird filled with hope.

And now, I live in the place that produced all of this insanity. This is going to be fun.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I think it's good that you started off somewhere out in the country to begin with. I know I like the cities, but it's too easy to just get by without really trying to expand yourself - all the comforts are there and you don't need to go native to get by. But now that you've acclimated somewhat, the city probably can offer a lot more for your intellectually curious tastes, and you'll be able to do more now that you know some of the basics of the culture. Keep up the exploring!