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Monday, September 28, 2015

Japan—It's A Wonderful Rife: Magic Carpet Ride

What we've got here, is a failure to communicate. That's the best line of many from the Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke. Watching Luke eat the hard-boiled eggs is one of my favorite movie scenes not involving a naked woman - ever.

I didn't really have that problem regarding communication. Sorry, Lukie-boy.

... except for maybe that first day in Ohtawara-shi. Then... then I had a few issues. Sorry, Boss. Shaking the tree, Boss. Shaking the tree.

This is Chapter 9 of the true adventures of my time on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme beginning in 1990 and officially concluding in 1993. It's a long story, but I know it's worth the extra words. To catch up, you can read the Introduction, Chapter 5 and Chapter 7.

Despite the year, these stories of mine hold up well… by that I mean it could easily be 2015, 2030 or whatever.

Yes, I taught junior high school English at seven schools - one per week, and yes I visited temples and shrines and traveled all over Japan, my stories while providing some description about those events, instead relies heavily on my interactions and internationalization with people. Internationalization… it works both ways.

Here's my first real experience one-on-one with the Japanese… one that shaped my view of Japan for the next three years or whatever year it is that you are reading this:

Chapter 9
Magic Carpet Ride
After that third day of our (dis)orientation in Tokyo (I arrived the night before the orientation started) and after lunch, all the new AETs (Assistant English Teachers) were told to meet again in the hotel’s meeting room before we would be separated by prefecture (province) for bus, train or plane rides to our specific destinations.

While I didn’t get to say goodbye to Kay who was off to live in Shiga-ken about five hours and 500 kilometers away by shinkansen (bullet train), at least I knew I would try and call her.
“Hi Kay! It’s me—Andrew!”
“Who?”
My greatest fear—even more than this whole Japan thing. Obsolescence before being solescent… or whatever the term is.
Us newbies waited outside the Keio Plaza Hotel for the bus to take us to our prefecture—but the heat! We were all dressed to the nines in anticipation of meeting our bosses. I was wearing a then-fashionable double-breasted navy blue suit and tie—and began sweating as soon as I stepped from the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel.
Come to think of it… I don’t think I was dry for my entire stay in Japan.

Ashley chatted beside me on the otherwise nondescript 1-1/2 hour ride north to Tochigi-ken’s capital city of Utsonomiya-shi (shi means city), while I silently repeated her name inside my head to avoid misremembering it (it’s a real word).
After meeting the Prefecture's education big wigs, they called our names out one by one, and were quickly introduced to the people who would essentially be responsible for our welfare over the next year, or should we/they wish us to stay longer, a second and third year.
I will say that we were given a line of Japanese to remember and to say when we met our bosses:
Watashi-no namae-wa Andrew Joseph. Dozo yoroshiku onegai shimasu.
It means: ‘My name is Andrew Joseph. Please look after me.’
That last sentence isn’t a direct translation, but basically, in Japan when people meet others for the first time, the hope for each to look after the other is a blanket statement by the Japanese, but I got the feeling that the bosses of all the JETs took it seriously.
During our initiation back in Toronto, I can state that I had been told by the consulate folk (who were Japanese) that the Japanese could be a tad xenophobic (afraid or even hateful of strangers). So, it was with even greater fear and trepidation as a visible minority involved in the JET Programme that I stood up and walked to the front of the auditorium when my name was called. Let me get one thing straight with you all… I don’t usually see myself as a minority. I see myself as Andrew.

Anyhow... nothing untoward happened, except I got to meet the people I respected the most in Japan.
Mr. Hiroshi Hanazaki and Mr. Masahiro Kanemaru (surnames last, in this case... from now on... it's surnames last!) were my supervisors. Both of the men were in their mid-40s, and younger than I am now as I write this, and were far more mature people than I am at any point of my life.
After we all bowed to each other, I repeated a phrase I was told to say: "Dozo yoroshiku onegai shi masu."
More bowing occurred as I said it. It was kind of cool.
 I like this bowing-thing. It denotes respect.
Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san (the Japanese call each other by their surname, adding the word san after it, denoting Mr/Mrs/Ms) were office workers at the Ohtawara Kyoiku Iinkai (Ohtawara Board of Education)—a place that I was told I would spend each Friday. It was expected that I would teach the workers there English.
Monday through Thursday I would be an assistant English teacher at one of seven junior high schools in Ohtawara City, visiting one school per week.
 While the students also went to school a half-day on Saturday, I was not expected to teach then, as JET realized that the non-Japanese were lazy buggers and needed two days off per week. It’s difficult to argue with logic.
We drove off in a white panel van… no windows in the back, nor any seats excluding the two at the front for the driver and passenger.
Rather than give me a seat up front, I instead got to sit on my luggage, while Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san joined me in the back, opting to squat rather than sit on my junk. I know what I wrote.
The trip was hot, bouncy and I couldn’t see a damn thing of Japan except through the front window—and I was busy trying not to slide around the back of the van while trying to not look freaked out.

In the hour-long drive up north from Utsonomiya-shi to Ohtawara-shi, my two supervisors—though not the older-looking driver—began to chat with me. Hanazaki-san spoke pretty decent English and immediately cracked me up with a dirty joke told in English.

Kanemaru-san chained smoked and was quiet. Too quiet it seemed, as he looked severe and often glared at me through his thin, wire-rimmed glasses. It figured to be a long year if this guy was going to be my boss. But then, it all turned on a 10-yen coin.
Kanemaru-san pulled out a Japanese-English dictionary and sidled close to me and between puffs of his cigarette began to speak looked-up-English-word by looked-up-English-word.
Five painful minutes later, it was over and Kanemaru-san had told his first ever joke in English.

Because of me.

How can you not like a guy who tries to do something like that? It beats me how they knew that I liked a good joke—or a bad joke, even. Sure, both jokes lost a little bit in the translation, but I sure as heck appreciated the effort and I laughed long and hard.
I’m still unsure if that was because I was kissing-up, or rather because I loved the absurdity of the situation. Probably a bit of both. 

Most of the road trip was a complete blur. I occasionally glanced out the front window to peer at the tiny white cars speeding by us on the Tohoku Expressway. Mile after mile (kilometer after kilometer) we passed rice field after rice field.
I once again wondered what the hell I was doing here.

That feeling never did leave me throughout my wonderful stay in Japan. The blurriness, I mean. I think I needed new contact lenses.

Kanemaru-san actually taught me the very first and most important Japanese word I learned I could really make use of in everyday society. That word is jodan, which means ‘joke’ or ‘I am joking’.
Any time I screwed up, whether it was me saying ‘hai’ (pronounced as ‘hi’ and means ‘yes’) rather than ‘ie’ (pronounced as ‘ee-ya or ee-yeah’ depending on the region – it means ‘no’), I could easily squirm out of the shocked face reaction of the Japanese by reacting quickly with a big smile and a “Jodan! And that’s no jodan.
Anyhow, Kanemaru-san, despite his calm demeanor, loved to laugh, and apparently loves physical comedy as he had me howling in pain thanks to his love of back-slapping.
Hmm, maybe that’s why the whole trip in to Ohtawara was such a blur. He must have slapped me so hard my contact lenses fell out.

We finally pulled off the highway and drove past a score more rice fields and according to Hanazaki-san whose face lit up like a birthday cake, we were approaching Ohtawara-shi.

Oh-ta-wara (Big-rice field-field) City. The city so rural they had to call it a field twice.

I quickly learned through Hanazaki-san’s teachings, that Ohtawara-shi had around 50,000 people. There was no McDonald’s or KFC (back then, it was still called Kentucky Fried Chicken, ya youngins!), but there were plenty of bike shops, restaurants, something called a Mosburger and plenty of other neat shops and attractions that I might wish to discover. 

“Zuiko Haitsu! (Zwe-co Hi-tsue),” exclaimed Hanazaki-san like I knew what the heck he was talking about as the van pulled up to a parking lot in front of an apartment building.
Apparently this fancy place had a name—Zuiko Haitsu. Its nickname was Zuiko Mansion. Okaaaaay. This place had almost as many names as me (John Andrew Matthew Stephen Joseph).

Grabbing my seven (yes, seven) pieces of luggage—including an electric keyboard, a clarinet and at least one change of underwear (it cost my dad an extra $400 to get the stuff on the airplane!), we decided not to take the elevator and dragged my stuff up the stairs to apartment 307 on the third floor of the eight-story white-painted building.

Having never lived in anything higher than my parent’s basement in over a decade, the thin air took some getting used to.

My actual apartment jutted out from the main part of the L-shaped complex as a wing—meaning I had no neighbors beside me, just one above and one below.

Expecting to see hunchbacked mice in my new tiny apartment—according to those in the know (???), Japan is crowded and everyone has a tiny living space—I grabbed a deep breath while I could, as Hanazaki-san gave me a door key and bade me to open my apartment.

Unlocking the door, they pushed me in—really, the whole hands on the shoulders-thing… I guess I must have hesitated. Taking a few steps forward, the three of them immediately began screaming at me—oh crap, I thought, they really do hate foreigners here—they’re going to kill me!

Slowly I turned and stared blankly at the ever-smiling face of Hanazaki-san, and the ever-smoking visage of Kanemaru-san, and the bespectacled face of the driver whose name I never managed to learn even though we “worked” together for three years. I know, I know. Pathetic.

Apparently upon entering any Japanese home, whether one is guest or resident, one is expected to take off their dirty shoes and slip into something more uncomfortable—the indoor Japanese slipper.
The indoor Japanese slipper is an interesting product. Invariably made of plastic and available in masculine and feminine colors (blue and pink, respectively), these ugly and uncomfortable cruel shoes are always neatly placed facing inwards to the home by the side of the door when you leave the premises, so one can immediately slip then on and walk unfettered into the place.
As host, you must always ensure the slippers are placed in the proper inward direction, and your now-removed outdoor shoes face the door. You don’t have to, but it is considered good manners. Despite being told this later by a very old Japanese woman, I never saw a homeowner do this themselves, as the shoe-wearer usually self-regulated their footwear direction.
There was another issue with the Japanese slippers, however.
As you may or may not know, the Japanese as a whole are not described as being overly big people.
Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san were both about 5’-8” (I think as tall as Gasoline!), while I was a towering 5’-11.25” (around 1.83 meters). As a smaller race, they tend not to sell shoes in Japan larger than a men’s North American size 9 – or what they call a size 26-cm.
I’m a size 10-1/2 aka 30-cm foot—which apparently makes me sound a lot bigger elsewhere, if you know what I mean. My nose, unfortunately.

There were two sets of slippers laid out in front of me—one pair of baby blues and the other in cotton candy pink. Both were a size 5... which I would assume to be a 3 in Women's...

So there we were: two sets of slippers and four people—two Japanese supervisors, a big-foot Canadian, and a Japanese driver of indeterminate name and rank in the apartment.

Who would have to wear the pink slippers and who would dare go without?
Believe it or not, I grabbed the blue slippers—jammed my feet in tight.
Two of the Nihonjin (Japanese people) brought their own—pulled them out from the inside pocket of their jacket.
That left Kanemaru-san, who began taking off his socks after first slapping his forehead in disgust and swearing at what I assumed was himself. He also lit up another cigarette—Golden Bat, I believe. At least it smelled like bat.

No one put on the pink slippers. I liked these guys already.

They all took turns showing me how to put on the tiny slippers—uh, there’s no real Japanese secret to that. But, I think that after my initial gaffe they thought I might be a tad slow.
I slid... skated (thereby affirming my tetched-in-the-head-ness... but really it was to keep my large feet neatly tucked into the too-small slipper) past the linoleum-covered floor that was the bathroom area immediately to my right and straight along a carpeted four-meter hallway into an enormous living room/dining room/kitchen (LDK) open concept area that was easily 10m deep by 5m wide.

At the end of it was a large sliding glass door leading out to a full-sized balcony (facing north).
Alongside the hallway on the left there was a 4m x 4m room that had a small walk-in closet, a writing desk and chair and another balcony (facing west). A second room beside it and accessed through the LDK was the designated bedroom, and a third larger 5m x 5m room that contained what can only be described as a turn-of-the-century German mahogany clothes drawer/liquor cabinet. At least that’s how I used it.

Even though I have no idea what a meter is, I’m pretty sure that this was a really big apartment. I wondered how the other new assistant English teachers (AETs) had fared?

All of the rooms were carpeted in a thin, ugly moss green ply, and had real doorknob-type doors on them, save the middle designated bedroom which was laid with tatami (grass floor mats) and had authentic Japanese sliding doors complete with a beautiful hand-painted landscape on it.

The kitchen area had a nice stove—but no oven, a fridge small enough to satisfy a Brit (1-meter high), a single deep sink, lots of shelf space, and a convection oven with English-language buttons informing me that I could heat up one cup of sake (pronounced sah-kay - rice wine), two cups of sake, or god help us all, three cups of sake. There were also separate buttons for warming milk, and for cooking and defrosting various weights of meat, including beef, veal, pork, chicken, and I kid you not, goat.

The dining room consisted of a small four-seater pine table and chairs and a wooden China hutch (actually a Japan hutch according to two-pack Kanemaru-san) that was filled with four sets of dishware and flatware, as well as various cups and mugs, plastic bottles of spices and a tin of Twinings of London Earl Grey tea.
Hanazaki-san opened up some of the cabinets beside the fridge under the not-so ample counter space and proudly showed me the cooking implements, including what Kanemaru-san’s dictionary said was a rice cooker.
However, since all of us were men, none of us had actually ever cooked a meal, so the cookware was a bit of a mystery for us, although I was able to correctly point out a frying pan. 
As an aside, Hanazaki-san promised to send an office girl or three around to show me how to use the cooking utensils.
They arrived the very next day, but he failed to send one who could speak English or who owned a Japanese-English dictionary. I never did learn how to use a rice cooker. 

The living room contained a three-seat couch and an armchair that were both covered in a soft, luxurious but ugly, moss green fabric that I think was made from left-over carpet. Along with a 24-inch television on a small stand, a 2m-long marble-top table and a book case with a faded avocado green dialer telephone, there was also something called a kotatsu.
My kotatsu was a 30-cm high, dark wood table frame covered by a futon or heavy blanket, upon which a table top sat. As an added bonus, the table can be plugged in to act as a heater with the blanket capturing the heat.
Since it was August and I was sweating with the +30C heat, I couldn’t ever see a need for it. The walls of the apartment were covered in white wallpaper with a light, light, light blue floral pattern that looked nice and not too feminine.

Each room had a 10-foot high ceiling - I hate the Metric system – and had more than its fair share of fluorescent lighting.

Drapes covered every floor-to-ceiling door/window in the place – except for the tatami/bedroom which had a pair of non-decorated Japanese sliding rice paper windows that covered up the 8-inch wide x 12-inch high window.

There. Hopefully you get a pretty good idea of how the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) set me up.
The OBOE were my bosses… the entity that paid my salary, and paid for me (via JET) to fly to (and from) Japan, stay at the hotel, and after that to look after every instance of my general safety and well-being while in Japan.
They were the ones who rented the apartment for me—taking care of any key money where landowners will demand anywhere from three to six months of rent in advance—but damn… this was one fine apartment.
I will tell you that the OBOE also paid for a large chunk of my monthly rent. This place cost around $1,000 a month to rent, but I only paid $327. Keep in mind that others, like Ashley, only paid around $100.
She could save over $200 a month more than me, but I lived in luxury. She... let's just say that my apartment was as welcoming as I was.
I guess the OBOE really wanted to impress on me on how much they wanted me to enjoy my stay in Japan. If I was to compare my situation with any other AET in Tochigi-ken or even Japan, I might actually have had the largest apartment with the most Western amenities.

Oh… and much to the chagrin of Jeff, my bathroom came with a Western-style toilet.

I also had a washer/dryer machine—an important luxury in a country with 200% humidity—as well as an adjustable shower head that could easily accommodate my height. There was also a small gas heater that I had to turn on if I wanted hot water, which was necessary for showers, doing dishes and running the washing machine.

The toilet room—a 1m x 1m (3-foot x 3-foot) cubicle—came with its own set of slippers, a dark green pair with little cartoony frogs sitting on lily pads. Apparently they are only supposed to be worn in the toilet room and woe to the person that doesn’t wear them.

No offense to Hanazaki-san or Kanemaru-san or to the people of Japan, but I never wore any of the slippers ever again in my place. Worse yet, I encouraged others (Japanese or otherwise) not to as well.

By the way, my hosts had hung a banner across the living room: Welcome to Japan Mr. Andrew Joseph.

They had spelled it right and got the order of my names correct, too—something that doesn’t happen often enough back in Canada.

Hanazaki-san then pointed to a large black and white map hung on the wall above the low bookcase holding a telephone.
That map was a local area map of Ohtawara, and while few things were even identified, those that were were written in English, so even I had a good chance of understanding it.
Showing me a small photo in his wallet, Hanazaki-san told me that the map was drawn by my predecessor, Cheryl Menezes, an English woman of Indian descent.

I didn’t think it odd for them to have chosen another person of color to be an AET. I thought it was pretty cool, actually. Cheryl only stayed the one year previous, and had written to me a couple of times back in Toronto to provide a bit of background on Japan and life in Ohtawara and such. Her help was invaluable… or valuable… which one is good? It’s the same? English is stupid! How stupid will the Japanese language be?
Just then, the telephone rang snapping me out of the future when I am writing this.
Picking it up and saying "Moshi Moshi" (hello – for use on the telephone only), Hanazaki-san handed the phone to me.

Monkey see, monkey do, I said "Moshi" just once; a fact that elicited laughter from everyone in my apartment including the person on the phone but me. I soon learned that ‘moshi’ means ‘insect’. So, if you say it twice, shouldn’t it mean insect-insect? Or is that exactly what it’s supposed to mean: "Sorry to bug you…"
Man… Japanese is as weird as English. Who knew?

On the other end of the phone, it was Cheryl wishing me good luck in my stay in Ohtawara. She told me to have fun, because that’s what it’s all about. Life, that is. That and the Hokey-Pokey.

After taking down her phone number—she was back home in the UK (that’s the United Kingdom, not the University of Kentucky – go Wildcats!)— I slapped my two new friends on the back and said “domo arigato” (thank you very much).
In the process I dislodged Kanemaru-san’s lit cigarette onto the floor.

And that’s how I got a new blue carpet in my apartment. Really.


Images below, are builds I did of my apartment in Japan made with LEGO... click to make larger... I hope. I have one million bricks, but it always seems like I never have the exact pieces in the right color required for any build. I know, poor Andrew.

Schematic of my apartment Top view in LEGO.

A real look at my apartment in LEGO, minus the interior wall separating the hallway from the kitchen. You can get more HERE. Yes, I usually had women in my apartment.... telling me to lego, or something like that. I'm in the corner room at my writing desk. It was like the Japanese knew I needed just such a desk.
I constantly refer back to Kanemaru-san telling me a joke at that time to put me more at ease… what a dear, dear, dear man.

Although I wrote to Cheryl and was replied to perhaps three times out of courtesy, I never needed to call her. Japan was brand new to me and I was going to enjoy discovering everything about it, including learning how to speak fluent Japanese during this year. And I was going to do it without any help.

The best laid plans of mice and Andrew...

I kept the titles the same (book, blog and original entry) because it fit perfectly. Plus I like the Steppenwolf song.

Somewhere learning to communicate,
Andrew "What am I doing here?" Joseph

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