Chapter 4B: In a Strange Land

1年5ヶ月が経ちました。

Hello reader and welcome back. Last I wrote, I chronicled all of the events leading up to the moment when I decided to return to the United States. Today, I will finally pick up where I left off.

Japan is a strange place. At least, a strange place for westerners and perhaps anyone not specifically familiar with the country. This happens to be a fortunate thing when waiting two weeks for a flight to take you home. While I can’t really describe this period as enjoyable or anything to that effect, I definitely had some interesting experiences. Allow me to share a couple of them before getting back to more practical matters.

An encounter with an お爺さ(ojii-san)

Japanese culture heavily emphasizes respect for one’s elders. One is frequently expected to show deference to them, in both words and actions. In turn, they are expected to guide and protect you. This can lead to some truly meaningful and beautiful relationships – parent and child, senpai and kouhai, student and master. This anecdote does not describe one of those.

I visited 大通り(oodori) park a number of times while in Sapporo. It is very much the heart of the city – central to the commercial district, always bustling with activity.

大通り公園(oodori park)

On one of these visits, I was sitting and people-watching next to a fountain when I was approached by an old man with the scent of alcohol on his breath. He sat down next to me and (while finishing a cob of grilled corn from a nearby stand) began asking some friendly questions – how long I was in Japan, how I liked it, if I liked Japanese women (I dodged that question by feigning that I didn’t understand), etc. We progress through the conversation OK with a mix of his poor English and my poor Japanese. I was glad enough to talk to him but after this is where the strangeness begins.

The elderly Japanese man next says that he wants to introduce me to his friend, another old man sitting on a nearby bench. I decline, saying I’d like to stay where I’m sitting and that I need to go shopping soon (my still-exhausted emotions don’t really want to continue the conversation at any rate). He cajoles me to at least allow an introduction so I walk over with him, fully intent to make my 自己紹介(jikoshoukai) and then promptly excuse myself. We walk over to his friend, who refuses to say hi or make eye contact with me, and seems to be wearing a pleated skirt (but is dressed conventionally as a male otherwise). Ok, I’ve just become more uncomfortable but also I’m not the only uncomfortable one here. The first man I had spoken with tries to make conversation for a couple minutes and then without warning flicks up the second man’s skirt to reveal some bright pink パンツ(pantsu). First Man bids me look and asks what I think, while Second tries futilely to push the skirt back over his undergarment. Embarrassed and confused, I turn away and tell First I need to go shopping now, and insist when he protests. He finally accepts that I’m leaving, and after making a point of calling me “my friendo” gives me a parting hug reeking of booze – which I allow since at this point I could not possibly be made more uncomfortable. I swiftly leave the area.

Was he pranking his friend? Or me? Or trying to set us up in some strange way? Or is there another explanation outside the limits of my imagination? I’m not really sure but I’m done thinking about it forever.

An adventure with Don Quijote

What do the following pictures have in common?

If your answer was “these are merchandise from the メーガドンキー(Mega Donki) in 札幌市” then congrats, you are correct. Don Quijote is a Japanese discount store chain which has some really incredible sundries. I can highly recommend it as a way to waste inordinate amounts of time should you find yourself bored in a major Japanese city. The only thing I ended up getting after multiple visits of several hours each was a nice set of nail clippers as a gift for my brother. Japan has really high quality nail clippers.

Coming Home

I really wish I could have justified actual vacation activities during my last two weeks in Japan, since all my sojourn there ended up as was a very scuffed vacation. However, I felt the need to conserve cash (well, credit at this point) and as I’ll describe in later entries, this was a very good decision. Between exploring a context incredibly strange to me and playing 100+ hours of Fire Emblem: Three Houses I managed to pass the time and on August 5th began the flight which – after two transfers – would take me home uneventfully and in a reasonable amount of comfort. My brother Tor picked me up in my Buick at the airport and I booked a AirBNB outside Boston where I would settle down for my next job hunt. Things then went to shit for a while but I’ll cover that in the next entry, which should be forthcoming in a shorter interval than this one. Until then~

またねー!

P.S. Milk tastes weird in Japan. Something about the UHT processing but probably some other factors too. If you run into someone who’s lived in Japan, ask them about it. :)

Chapter 4: Setbacks

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
– Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (paraphrased)

In the pursuit of any worthy goal, setbacks are inevitable. And for my part, I only truly enjoy a task challenging enough that overcoming it yields satisfaction. That being said, I sit down to this entry (metaphorically, I’m writing in bed and have been here a while) more than a little discouraged.

The time period covered by the latest entry ends with moving into midterm housing in Maruyama, Sapporo on July 13th. It is now October the 28th. As you’d expect, the situation has progressed. Unfortunately, I must report that I find myself lonely and unemployed, staying at my parents’ house back in the States. But let’s rewind a bit to begin recounting the intervening months.

After overcoming the major hurdles of arriving in Japan and finding housing in the intended area, I set about the most important task – that which would allow me to remain in Japan, financially and legally. To my dismay, there were very few jobs listed online for the Sapporo area that I could A) locate without reading Japanese, B) was qualified for, and C) were full-time or at least offered visa sponsorship. I had done a dry run of this back in the States but obviously not diligently enough to realize the situation. If you want to know specifics, there were two jobs within commuting distance which fulfilled the listed criteria. One I never heard back about and one I received notification that I had not been selected.

Well, ok, online job boards weren’t my only plan for finding employment. A friend who had moved to Japan a number of years ago said that she was able to find a job at the local employment office. The name of the government organization in question is Hello Work. Of course, a city as large as Sapporo (around 2 million people) would definitely have a Hello Work and after some intense Googling and attempting to navigate their awful website, I found that the most relevant information for my situation could be found on the Sapporo municipal government’s website. There, I was able to find the address and contact info of the local office, their operating hours, and some limited information about available services. I saw to my relief that they did offer services in English but was immediately dismayed to learn this was by appointment only.

Appointments are made over the phone.

In Japanese.

Incredibly helpful.

Sarcasm aside, I resolved that I would use my limited Japanese to make an appointment over the phone and if that failed maybe I could go in person to do so. Here, though, it is necessary to describe somewhat obliquely some of my other experiences in Japan thus far.

n the perhaps week I had been job huntingImagine that you are, for the first time, learning how to downhill ski. You go to a ski lodge, rent your skis with little enough trouble, strap on your equipment and head out to the slopes. You walk out of the lodge and immediately fall over, attracting the attention of bystanders who alternately snicker or ask if you’re OK, both bringing equal embarrassment. You collect yourself and with a bit of stumbling and a lot of leaning on your poles, make your way over to the lift. This part seems very nerve-wracking since the lift doesn’t stop but you can clearly understand the loading procedure by watching others. When you reach to the front of the line, the seat hits you in the butt a littler harder than you thought but you make it on safely, albeit a bit rattled. You nervously watch the skiers below as the lift climbs up the mountain, somewhat uncertain of how much your seat should be bouncing and swinging. You approach the end and raise the bar. As you step off the lift for the first time, the seat pushes you roughly forward and you briefly ski forward before one of your skis unlatches and skates off down the ramp, spilling you unceremoniously on the ground. You quickly crawl out of the path of others coming off the lift and again feel incredibly embarrassed as a kind passerby retrieves your ski for you, helps you reattach it, and also explains that your boots are way too loose. He tightens them up for you, and as he helps you up you feel that balance comes much easier with your ankles tightly bound. With this feeling and despite your experience thus far, you are ready to make your first attempt down the slope.

Ok, this metaphor has grown too long. Anyway, imagine that in the all the above circumstances, from the clerks selling badges and renting equipment to the capricious bystanders, everyone is speaking a language that you only know the basics of. This is sort of what it’s like plunging into a new culture. You don’t know what’s going on, what’s expected of you, and how to do many basic tasks. Without the patience and kindness of strangers, you are completely lost.

Perhaps the most important lesson that I learned while in Japan is that I cannot abide this feeling.

I don’t want to delve into it in this entry but suffice it to say I was a neglected child and to this day have a significant amount of trouble with feeling unwanted and/or out-of-place. To continue, and not to be too cavalier about all of this, but historically I also have had a lot of difficulty adapting socially and have always had much anxiety regarding meeting new people and interacting with those I do not know well.

All this is to say, during my time in Japan I felt deeply uncomfortable due to my personal experience of “culture shock”. Many everyday tasks were a trial.

So, when I called up Hello Work Sapporo to try to make an appointment using my rudimentary Japanese, it required more courage than I had exercised since the last time I asked someone on a date (years prior) and my mentality lay on a knife’s edge. When the clerk answered, they spoke in curt keigo (Japanese honorific language) and I surmised from the scratchy voice quality that they were using a desk phone. I have virtually no practice speaking or understanding keigo, so despite it not being so different from teineigo (polite speech) I was accustomed to, I was completely fucking lost. I stumbled through a few phrases to try to voice my request, but couldn’t understand anything said in reply. I let the line hang silent for maybe 5 seconds, the clerk asked a question of me. I still couldn’t understand. I stalled for time by stammering out “nihongo wa chotto” and upon once again not understanding the rejoinder I paused for a couple seconds and then – without another word – I hung up.

Then I cried, for a while. And after forcing myself through some careful consideration, booked a plane ride home.

Chapter 3b: …and Those Which Followed

After waking up in the Tokyo hostel regrettably soon, I spent a little time figuring out logistics for the next step. The general plan was to head directly to Sapporo via the Shinkansen (bullet train). I walked back to the subway, rolling my obnoxious bags back through the streets of Akihabara and took it a few stops to the JR Station. After working through some ambiguous signage I found the correct Shinkansen line and went to the ticket counter. After navigating some language barrier difficulties and spending much more money than I had anticipated, I walked away from the counter with three different tickets and the route itinerary which would land me in Sapporo by early afternoon.

After a small battle with the ticket gate, I walked down to the platform and bought breakfast while waiting for the train to arrive, making sure to include some caffeine to sustain my jet lag-addled brain. At this point I think its worth mentioning that I had mostly passed the exhaustion threshold where every waking moment starts to feel stressful. The caffeine provided some relief but things were nearly as stressful as the previous day even they were going more smoothly. In this state, I boarded the Shinkansen, somewhat precariously stowed my oversized luggage, and settled in for the ride. This part was actually really exciting, as it comprised my first real look at Japan. I’m not sure I can write a proper description except that watching slice-of-life anime definitely prepared me for the Tohoku aesthetic.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see much of my prospective new home Hokkaido from the train since most of the track on either side of the Tsugaru Strait is actually underground, as is the track which crosses the straight itself. However, coming into the transfer to the local rail in Shin-Hakodate, I did catch some nice views.

After getting off for said transfer, I spent some time collecting myself and acquiring more food and caffeine. This meant missing my transfer but the ticket was good all day so I decided to catch the next train. After another battle with the ticket gate in which I (theoretically) finally came to understand how the ticketing system works in Japan, I went out on the open-air platform to wait. Now I had a very good chance to scope out my surroundings and mustered the effort to take some pictures with my DSLR (well, my brother’s DSLR that I have on indefinite loan).

After waiting about 45 minutes, I boarded the train and again somewhat precariously stowed my luggage. I settled in for the 4-hour ride to Sapporo. 20 minutes later, while staring out the window I was confronted by a train employee who informed me we were at Hakodate. I was like, yeah, passing through Hakodate. Only then did I realize that literally everyone else had gotten off already. I was like, oh this is the terminal. I caught a train going the wrong direction. I had blithely gotten on whatever train I saw without thinking to check it was even on the correct track or going the correct direction. Fantastic move. I stepped off and being careful not to expend my tickets by exiting the ticket gate, I figured out what the train schedule was after a protracted battle with the JR Rail Hokkaido website. It looked like there were no trains of the type I had the ticket for which went directly to Sapporo from here. So, I would have to hop on local train back to Shin-Hakodate and then grab the express train I was supposed to be on there. And just pray they didn’t check my ticket on the local train, considering I didn’t actually have one. Fortunately, this did go to plan and I made it back to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station to catch the correct train.

I got on the train and stowed my luggage, quite securely this time since they actually provide a nice space for this between each car. However, after a little while I heard an announcement over the intercom that those with non-reserved tickets (e.g., me) had to sit in car 6 or 7. Shit, what car am I in? Turns out it was 5. So, after about 20 minutes of steadily rising panic, I hastily grab my bags and start struggling toward the back of the train, assuming that the numbering system went from back to front. After making it through two cars, miraculously without injuring anybody, I realized my mistake and that I was now between cars 3 & 2. I stand there for a minute in sheer panic about how I’ll possibly make it back through with my bags and decided to just leave them in the nearest stowage. I walk up to the poor people cars where I belong and spend the next three hours incredibly anxious to be separated from my baggage, which contains literally all my worldly possessions outside those in my backpack. When we finally arrive in Sapporo, I wait for everyone else to leave and then hurry toward where I had the baggage, disturbing several cleaning ladies who had already started working the train. It isn’t there. Shit, maybe I miscounted. I walk one more car, startling another cleaning lady and stepping over the No Entry sign she had just hung. My bags! With immense relief but now brimming with stress, I grab the bags and make my way out and into the station.

You would think that I would’ve learned my lesson and would’ve scheduled housing at some point during all this. I had left it for the second leg (from Hakodate) but didn’t have service on the ride and couldn’t get the WiFi to work. Also because of my supreme foresight, my phone is at about 4 percent battery and there is nary an outlet anywhere I search in the station. So I go outside, find somewhere to sit for a while and charge my phone from laptop, which fortunately was at full battery. Although difficult to push aside my dire practical concerns, I enjoy the sights and sounds of Sapporo Station Square for an hour or so while the phone slowly charges.

A friendly Japanese guy who looked to be in his early college years stopped to chat for a bit while waiting for the cross-walk light to change. He explains how he moved to Sapporo three years ago and mentions that while I’m in the country I definitely need to check out Kyoto. He showed me some pictures of beautiful temples there on his phone and we further chatted a bit about he has difficulty pronouncing his Ls and Rs in English (you aren’t alone in that, friend). The light changed and we bid farewell with a wave. I’m really grateful he stopped for a brief chat.

When you move to another country with a very different culture, especially if you can’t speak or ready the native language well and few people speak your own, things definitely start to feel…hostile, in a way. Even though you know the people are just people after all, and Japanese people are very friendly and helpful on average. It’s just this deep sort of discomfort, and likely a large part of what is referred to as “culture shock”. I’m a fairly anxious and agoraphobic person inherently, and so presumably this makes it worse than it would be otherwise. The reason why I’m really grateful for the conversation described above is because it definitely did a lot to make me feel welcome.

My phone finished charging and I booked a berth at Capsule Inn Sapporo for the night. I punch in the location on Google Maps, and seeing it isn’t too far I decide to walk. I have some issues finding the place though. I arrive at the place Google points to and there is a commercial building with no sign of anything looking like a capsule hotel. I circle the block a couple times, thinking it might be a bit off but can’t find anything. Ok, the address must’ve been wrong I guess. Sometime around this, Google Maps starts going on the fritz a bit, I think because the roaming data connection kept browning out or outright dropping, or something along those lines. I check the AirBnb listing again and it has a different address. Oh, shit, that must be it but it’s like 1.5 km away. With a sigh, I set off with my bags in tow. At this point, my entire body is sore but especially my right shoulder, which has a history of injury and I re-injured relatively recently. I struggle along for a while, but it doesn’t seem right so I stop to double check the directions again. After a little poking around the listing, there seems to be three separate addresses listed in different places. Well, two of them are basically the same spot so that must be it. Said spot is back where we already checked. Shit, my shoulder is killing me. I try a few different methods to redistribute the baggage with very limited success. I walk back the about 1 km I had come and again can’t find it. I circle the block, once, twice more. There are tons of people around, enjoying the nightlife and god do I feel out of place. I put in the most likely address in Google Maps once more. This time I narrow down the approximate location to one small part of the block. I check it, but don’t see anything. I walk again and finally see a small entrance at ground level. “Capsule Inn Sapporo”. Holy shit, why is this so hidden.

This guy chose to break at a very opportune time

I go inside, and after inferring I need to change into the provided slippers and doing so, talk to the guy at the desk. His English is…not great. I wouldn’t hold that against him but it’s a frustrating obstacle at this point – I’m mentally shot and in some pain and a lot of discomfort. After taking my name, Desk Man says I don’t have a reservation. I’m too tired to even panic. I think to tell him it’s with AirBnb and this information allows him to locate it. He has me put my shoes in a locker and give him the key. I guess this is so people can’t leave with the keys that are provided for the luggage lockers, as you have to trade those back in to get your shoes. Ok, but how do I go out during the night? I haven’t eaten since Hakodate and I’m devastatingly hungry. I’ll need food. I listen to Desk Man give the whole rules/how the hostel works spiel, again in barely functional English. I then ask him where I can get food now, since I can’t really seem to go back out given that my footwear is being held hostage. He doesn’t seem to understand the question. I ask again, in Japanese. He points out some specific areas on an information sheet/floor map which seem to mention food. Great, cool, lemme put my bags away and check it out. Long story short, of those mentioned only one floor actually has food and it’s like cup ramen. And it looks like I’ll have to talk to Desk Man again to actually buy it. Ok, fuck that and fuck this. I’m so done at this point that I just walk outside in the stupid hotel flipflops and find the nearest convenience store. I buy the safest ready-to-eat protein option I can find (some extremely salty hardboiled eggs, I think it was) and some milk and return to the hotel. Desk Man either didn’t notice what I’ve done or doesn’t want to say anything. I eat, manage to clean up in the Japanese-style communal shower/bath area, and go to bed.

Having now at least partially learned my lesson, first thing in the morning I look to book housing. I checked about staying at the Capsule Inn again since my experience was fine and the learning curve surmounted, but it looks like they’re booked. I start poking around AirBnb but don’t find anything before it’s time to checkout. I grab my stuff, trade for my shoes, and depart.

Housing still on my mind, I grab breakfast from a nearby konbini and look for a park nearby on Google Maps to chill at while I work on booking. I see that Odori Park is quite close by and make for it. Still feeling silly with my massive amounts of luggage, I make my way to the park and find a bench near a fountain and some picturesque flower planters to wait at while I try to get my still-weird data reception to cooperate. I’ll spare you the details of that task but eventually I book a place about 1.2 km away via AirBnb and it takes me about 5 hours. Setting aside the frustration, this was probably the most I had enjoyed myself thus far – people watching at the park. It looks like Sapporo is a large domestic tourist destination (I can imagine especially during the summer for people looking to escape the heat) and I also see a lot of Chinese and American tourists. There are also various locals including an adorable Japanese daycare group and many older persons and housewives with their children. Around noontide, many high school students arrive as well and a couple set up near me and start playing a guitar and singing softly. A really nice atmosphere to be sure.

My check-in time for the new place approaches and I also realize that I am now incredibly sunburned. The sunlight wasn’t even particularly strong but I’ve barely seen the sun and am correspondingly pale this year so I’m not too surprised. I depart the park and take the subway as close as it will get me to my destination. The last half kilometer is really difficult, being uphill on very old, gritty pavement which drags at my rolling bags, but I make it ok. I check in there with the friendly host and spend the rest of the day sitting by the riverbank, still incredibly exhausted.

Morning arrives again, and by this time I’ve made arrangements for my midterm housing at a “share house” in the Maruyama area of the Chuo ward. However, the room wont be ready till Sunday (it is now Friday) and it looks like all cheap accommodations in the city are booked out for the weekend. I book a two-night stay in Noboribetsu (a small touristy town about an hour out of the city by train), travel there by local rail again having to manage luggage in places not meant to accommodate it, and again after some trouble with Google Maps I find the guest house and check in. I decide to explore since its still early in the day.

I make my way towards the seaside, assuming there must be something interesting there. It appears that Noboribetsu has a sizeable fishing port and fleet but for some reason most of them are in port on a Friday. Perhaps they go out for multiple days and they’re around now for the weekend. I walk past a sign which (probably) prohibits entry but I can’t read much Japanese so *shrug*. The path I’ve chosen provides access to the breakwater and I see an excellent opportunity for some photos. I take a number while remaining out of sight of a nearby construction site and then make my way back to the guest house for the night.

I wake up the next morning and see that I can actually watch the Overwatch League stage playoffs. My team (the Hangzhou Spark) loses in a disappointing match and I go back to sleep. I wake up a few hours later and for the first time in Japan feel relatively well-rested. I adventure out to a beach, chill for a bit and take some pictures, but quickly get bored and come back. I eat, hang out in bed for a while, and go to sleep.

The next day I make my way back into the city to move in to the sharehouse. I arrive quite early and spend a few hours in Maruyama park sort of napping and getting all kinds of weird looks. I then go to the share house and meet with the property manager, who goes through a brief interview and then gets me set up in the room. Some furniture is supplied (with a rental fee of course) but it doesn’t include blankets or a pillow. Nonetheless, I’m pretty much at my limit physically and don’t venture forth to try to secure these items. Using my sweatshirt as a pillow and a curtain as a blanket, I finally fall into an inevitably low quality night’s sleep.

View from my room in the share house

I’ll end this entry here. The play-by-play wasn’t strictly a necessity but I wanted to convey how long and stressful my first 6 days in Japan were. Dewa, mata.

Chapter 3a: The Longest Day…

I’d like to begin this entry with a strong admonition:

Do NOT assume you’ll be capable of accomplishing anything while jetlagged.

As you may remember from my last post, my flight itinerary took me to Kobe despite initially landing in the more convenient port of Tokyo. I was fairly confident that my bags would be unchecked here so I could just not take the final leg. This did work out (I skipped the last flight) – however, I had not wanted to assume it would and end up separated from my bags by several hours of rail travel so I did NOT book lodging ahead of time. A mistake. I’ll loop back to that in a minute, probably.

I arrived at my brother’s apartment on July 7th quite late at night. It took yet longer to fall asleep but we needed to wake up at 6:30 AM so he could take me to the airport. I slept about 3.5 hours. I then flew 2 hours to Chicago and another 13 to Tokyo, arriving just after 3 PM local time. Upon landing, I managed to walk off the jet bridge to the wrong area, ending up in the international connections area. It took me quite some time to figure this out, but there is NO WAY OUT OF THIS AREA. You literally have to go through the security screening checkpoint in reverse. Embarrassed of the mistake that landed me in the situation and my usual trepidation for approaching strangers exacerbated by the unfamiliar surrounds and exhaustion, I wandered around the terminal alone for about 1.5 hours trying to find the way out, an exit not being shown on any of the maps. I then summoned by courage and asked the polite Japanese girl at the information desk, who pointed me to an area I had already checked. Assuming I missed something, I spent another hour or so cross-referencing two different maps and several landmarks to make sure I was looking in the right spot, since the terminal maps are not geographically precise/to scale. I was. There was nothing there. I checked another spot which seemed likely. There was a bunch of big red “NO ENTRY” signs. Finally, I went back to the United Airlines desk near where I had come in and asked the lady there. Thankfully, she was the one holding the arcane secrets of escape from the airport. A short jaunt to a VERY hidden elevator later, I arrived at the security checkpoint, still on the wrong side. I explained the situation to one of the agents and he was kind enough to direct me through the checkpoint in reverse and walked me to the correct exit from the international flight lobby.

I walked down several flights of stairs and referenced my map to try to find the immigration and customs checkpoints. They weren’t on the map. After wandering for another 30 minutes, I was able to interpret from some contextual clues (e.g. immigration forms) the correct place to go. There was a HUGE line and only a few stations serving it. I fill out my forms and take my spot in the queue. Now, let’s consider for a moment my physical state. I had been up since 6:30 AM EST and it was now about 6:45 PM JST. There is a 13 hour time difference, which when accounted for reveal I had been up for just over 25 hours (on 3.5 hours of sleep). This ordinarily would be a problem, but also consider that I was lacking for food because the mid-flight meals had been paltry. So a larger problem, but also consider that the flight was cramped and unergonomic (never fly United overseas unless it’s business class, friends) and I am a fairly large person, physically. So add on a lot of soreness, but also consider I had just walked around the airport for at least 3.25 hours on aggregate. So I was uh…a very hungry and sore and extremely fatigued-camper while waiting in this line. I felt quite lightheaded and was concerned I might pass out. There’s no punch line here, it was just awful.

I made it through finally and claimed my baggage, then proceeded through customs. No issues there, thankfully. I caught my breath and once again referenced my terminal map. What a useless piece of shit. I needed to know how to get to the right place to get a pocket WiFi unit and also an IC card (for public transit), but it had no answers for me. Using the very slow airport WiFi, I was sorta able to extract the info from Google and caught the correct shuttle (after some puzzling) over to terminal 2. There, I couldn’t find an IC Card booth of the type that I was made to believe was ubiquitous at the airport. After some more useless wandering, I asked at the info desk. The attendant pointed me downstairs. There were no IC Card booths downstairs. I did find a place to ask about the Pocket WiFi. They’re incredibly expensive, so thanks everyone on the internet who said they are cheap. I ended up instead deciding to use the international/roaming option for my US cell carrier. After some more wandering, I did notice that there was a Japan Rail East desk and remembered something about JR selling IC Cards even though I don’t believe (?) they actually are responsible for any of the card brands. They were able to sell me one, cash only. Good thing I stopped at the ATM first.

Around this point I realized that I had nowhere to stay the night. I checked AirBnB and fortunately there was a decent looking hostel in Akihabara with an open bed, near the center of the Tokyo metropolitan area. I requested a booking and crossed my fingers they would accept. It’s now about 10 PM local time. I opened up Google Maps to figure out how to get there and saw several options to take like a million sequential buses to get there. I did not think I was equal to the task but did see one subway option. Great, I know how subways work. After a little more puzzling, I figured out you can get to the subway from near the JR East desk and swiped my IC Card to enter. Luckily that was an intuitive one, though then I realized I didn’t know where in the subway station to go. Using my 5 remaining brain cells, I figured out the correct platform eventually and after a brief chat with a friendly Scottish guy who was also feeling a bit lost, I boarded the train. I received a notification that I was set to spend this night at the hostel and was much relieved. At this point, riding the subway, I was absolutely unable to keep my eyes open. I resorted to holding my phone loosely in my hands so that if I fell asleep before my stop, it would drop and make a loud noise, hopefully waking me. I did drop it. Twice. It did wake me. Twice. Finally, I reached the stop, made a quick transfer through an unbelievably clean and nice concourse (the Tokyo subway is amazing) rode a couple more stops and arrived in Akihabara about 1 km away from the hostel. I walked to the hostel with Google Maps giving me just a bit of difficulty and checked in.

Oh, but I still hadn’t eaten since the flight. I walked to a convenience story, groggily picked out whatever ready-to-eat food seemed least likely to offend my Western tastes, and paid with pretty much the last of my cash (oops). I walked back to the hostel, ate, showered, and went to sleep.

Home, for a night. Sorry for the lack of pics in this post but you can guess why.

And then I woke up a mere 3.5 hours later, thanks to jet lag. But that’s a story of and for another day…

Chapter 2: Logistics of Departure

Summer has arrived in Massachusetts, warm and humid. My AC has been working overtime while my lifestyle has slowed to a crawl. I had planned to continue working at the airport for a while longer but couldn’t really tolerate working a third-shift job anymore. As as aside, I would recommend never working third shift unless absolutely necessary. It’s a life destroyer.

My final five weeks in the States are a combination of a sort of final hurrah with my friends and family and completing my preparations. I am staying with various friends for the duration of June and then will spend the first week of July (I leave July 8th) at my parents’ house in Vermont.

Moving to another country involves a litany of smaller tasks. Get a passport, figure out financing, book a flight, plan for housing and employment, cull possessions, buy luggage, update wardrobe, practice packing, anticipate lifestyle changes, organize a going-away party…

first passport I’ve had since I was 8

For one of these items – the final shindig, as it were – my friends and I lit a fire on a local beach and stayed there till dawn, drinking and swapping stories from the good ole days.

Or at least, that was the plan.

As it turned out, someone called the cops on us and we got kicked out after a mere couple hours of fireside revelry. I was disappointed to be cut off before basking in the warm nostalgia and sentiment, but I’ll admit that it makes a nice bookend at the end of an era. We’ve spent many nights at that same beach without incident so it’s vaguely satisfying to get kicked out for the first time at the occasion of our last time.

a picture from a previous fire which represents how the night was supposed to go 🙃

And so I’ve been bidding farewell to my friends in a more granular fashion. As I write this, I’ve just said sayounara to my closest friend and greatest (sometimes only) supporter of the past half-decade and for the first time feel a twinge of loss regarding the life I leave behind. While the North Shore of Boston in the present year feels empty and husk-like to me and demands abandonment, I do feel the weight of leaving those patches of warmth and succor that yet remain. I set off into the unknown and I estimate companionship will be scarce for some time.

By contrast, there are some material realities that I’ll be glad to be rid of. These include but are not limited to:

  • East Coast infrastructure (and lack thereof)
  • mm/dd/yyyy
  • US Standard units
  • Car ownership generally
  • Puritan ethics and attendant facets of American culture
  • Crappy job market (theoretically)
  • Did I mention poor infrastructure?

While I’m sure Japan will have its own annoyances and bugbears, I’ll be glad of the change and am hopeful for an overall much better situation.

Time will tell.

I leave for Japan on July 8th. I’ll be flying out of Boston and transferring in Chicago for the leap across the big puddle. I then touch down in Tokyo and have a quick follow-up flight to Kobe. The details here are still somewhat foggy but I will then take light rail to Sapporo to set up shop. If something about this itinerary seems weird to you, be aware that flights which actually end in Tokyo are $100-$200 more expensive across the board.

it should be fun to compare notes from my experiences on the ramp at Boston Logan Airport

The 8th is a little over a week from the time of this writing and I’m quite excited and impatient to get going.

I think that’s about all for this entry. As a small aside, I recently had the experience of trying to verbalize something and coming up with the Japanese before the English phrase! It’s encouraging that my efforts are bearing fruit and I’m excited to see what other experiences learning a new language can offer.

Until next time~~~

Some pictures and maybe narrative, disregard if you like structured content

Recently, I was going for a morning run in the municipal park near my house. There I observed the following:

It appears that a person who is homeless wintered here. The town I live in had taken issue with their squatting:

Some detail shots of the camp:

The site looks down upon what looks (and smells) to be a sewage processing plant and another industrial-looking set of buildings:

I went for a similar run one week later and observed the following:

Two sets of tracks, one which looks to belong to a tractor and the other to a small-format dump truck. The dump truck tracks lead in and out several times.

The site is now (mostly) empty. The “eviction” notices had been taken down

The area where the tents were looks to have been swept clean.

It appears the cleanup crew was not entirely diligent in their work.

Looks like the tractor had some issues maneuvering.

Several small trees seem to have met their demise during the proceedings.

The view remains largely unchanged.

Chapter 1 : Preparations in the Cold Season

Last week, I had a vivid dream about the “soul-draining” white collar job that I referenced in my last entry. I reentered the office to find everyone frantic during a busy time and somehow not questioning the gaping Khazad-dûm-esque chasm which now separated the building in half. The scene actually most reminded me of the section-spanning bridges from Blame!:

The situation I found myself in seemed approximately as stark and depressing. I woke gripped by a profound sense of anxiety and dread. Discussing the experience with my friend Mike a few days later, I arrived at the conclusion that my 19 months with the company had been in a very real sense traumatic.

My current employment situation, while not without its own stresses, is quite endurable and sometimes even pleasant by comparison. I work about 25 hours a week in a cargo house at Boston Logan International Airport, spending most of that time loading or unloading mail from these guys:

While officially called “Unit Load Devices” or “ULDs”, you’ll most often hear them referred to as “cans” around the airport. We scan and load packages into these to be flown elsewhere and conversely scan and unload those arriving by plane. The packages come in and go out on trucks in these pallet-size bins:

Here’s a few more contextual pictures:

The work doesn’t pay particularly well and can be physically demanding at times but overall I’m fairly content with my current employment situation as a stopgap measure while I gear up to head to Japan. As an added bonus, I’m already getting on the East Asia sleep schedule since it’s a third-shift job.

In some way or another, I’ve already been preparing to leave since June of last year. One of the reasons I quit my office job was to sort out some longstanding health and lifestyle issues and such has been my main focus.

The first thing that needs mention is starting a sertraline prescription for mixed depression and anxiety. I’ve contended with depression to varying degrees since I was about 8 years old. There’s a lot to be said about the causes – an alternately neglectful and abusive home environment, social difficulties, genetic predisposition, and so on – but suffice it here to say that for various reasons I spent the overwhelming majority of my late childhood and adolescence without any relief for low- to mid- grade depressive symptoms. My experience had been more variable during college (this is when the anxiety started) and following but overall I hadn’t made a satisfactory amount of progress despite considerable cognitive and behavioral adaptations. And so decided to explore the medication route.

This was 100% the correct decision. It’s difficult to describe how subtle and profound the change is, but it’s like one day you wake to find the sun shines brighter, food tastes better, and the lead weight in your chest feels lighter. Not to say there aren’t still considerable difficulties, but the results are better than could’ve hoped for. I think my case is one of the successful ones but I would encourage anyone dealing with something similar to at least try medication, regardless of the stigma sometimes associated with it.

Another goal for quitting the office job was losing weight and establishing an exercise routine for both fitness and aesthetics. I gained quite bit of weight following college (60 pounds or so) and wanted to lose about 50 of it back. Dieting relatively casually, I’ve thus far lost about 30. There was quite a learning curve but for anyone attempting something similar the most helpful advice I’ve found thus far is to drink tons of water and ratchet down your calorie intake slowly. My fitness efforts have been on pause for a while now while my body adapted to my new job but I’m hoping to resume very soon.

Perhaps the most obvious preparation for living in Japan is learning Japanese. The language itself is actually largely how I became interested in the country. It started as a casual exploration when my curiosity was piqued by watching anime but I quickly became fascinated with the structure of Japanese and how incredibly different it is from English. It took me until around now to figure out how to study it effectively on my own but I’m progressing reasonably quickly at the moment. For anyone who is unaware, Japanese is considered a very difficult language to learn for native speakers of Germanic languages (and most other language families) due to how different its paradigms are and how…uh…inefficient the writing system is. My time with it thus far has been at times both very frustrating and very rewarding. I hope that by the time I leave for Japan (prospectively this summer) I will have achieved at least basic conversational fluency.

Recently, I’ve also begun actual logistical preparations for my trip but I think I’ll leave that for the next post. Thanks for reading.

Prologue: A Brief History of (my) Time

Why Japan? Why now?

I actually don’t think I’ve been directly asked these questions since I started mentioning my plans to go abroad to those around me. But someone less familiar with my life and circumstances would certainly wonder. So, friends, family, acquaintances, and internet denizens, allow me to start this blog in earnest by answering them.

Now, I’d wager a certain percentage of you probably just thought to yourself: “Why Japan? Obviously just because this guy is a huuuge weeb.” You’re correct, so let’s move on.

Just kidding.

Well, I am a huge weeb.

But optimistically that doesn’t quite cover it.

Since approximately my sophomore year of college, I’ve wanted to spend time abroad. A bit of a cliché, but I’ve earnestly wanted to expand my worldview by spending time living in a foreign culture. (Since then, I’ve found reason to perhaps never come back but that’s a topic for another time.)

So then, why Japan specifically? It’s true that anime was the entry point. I loved Naruto growing up but after Shippūden descended to toilet tier I gave up. In early 2016, about 9-10 months after graduating college, I decided to watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood after seeing my friend Ben watching it while I was staying at his apartment. Safe to say, I was hooked. Next, I watched Re:Zero and Your Lie in April and by the time I was through I had started falling in love with the genre and furthermore with animation generally. As my myAnimeList (edit 04/15: I use AniList now because it’s vastly superior) grew longer, I found inspiration to reverse a prior decision to essentially give up on life, which I had done during the year after graduation due to issues involving no less than employment, relationships, mental health, lifestyle, and physical isolation. The following series inspired me to pick myself up and move forward the most (descending order by rough contribution amount):

  • Fairy Tail (yeah, I know)
  • Your Lie in April
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
  • Little Witch Academia
  • Hibike! Euphonium

Thusly motivated, I initially planned to quit my soul-draining white collar job (another cliché I’m afraid) to go back to school for my Ph. D.. Long story short, I did indeed quit but the doctoral direction just kinda felt wrong. And so I started casting about for other potential adventures to embark on.

This coincided with a growing interest in Japanese language, culture, and history that had developed from consuming so much anime. At AnimeBoston 2017, I came across the JET booth, which advertised a program to teach English in Japan. An idea was thus planted in my mind and swiftly grew. Around August, I had decided.

Now, the question regarding timing remains, though a perceptive reader may have already picked up a hint above. To invoke a common anime trope, in the two years following college it felt that my time had stopped, and this is my attempt to get it flowing again. I feel urgency to stop wasting my life in a rut and thus I embark upon my new path at the earliest opportunity.

I’m optimistic since preparations have already helped me feel much better. But that’s the topic for the next post~