Monday, October 20, 2014

Moshi Moshi Nippon

Japan is a country of systems. Everything, everything has a system and its important to realize that, because these systems are so culturally unquestioned that chances are no one will ever think to tell you about them. Don't worry about it too much, most are pretty obvious and as long as you're paying attention to your surroundings they're easy enough to notice and slip into. Unfortunately any sense of authority these systems may command is completely undermined by the fact that many of them are frequently and completely ignored by everyone else. It's pretty funny actually, watch what happens when one person goes the wrong direction down a one-way walkway; all bets are off, chaos ensues and everyone rushes to join them in the mayhem. And they all look thoroughly uncomfortable doing it.

Even after a month in the country I'm still surprised by just how deep into Japanese society these systems go. Some of them make sense, like train doors that align perfectly with designated waiting spots on the platforms or Japan's terrifyingly efficient refuse collection system that seems designed to single handedly save the world while also fucking with foreigners' heads. Some of them are just totally random though; like having different counting systems just for the sake of it, or inventing an entire symbolic alphabet to pronounce foreign words that are usually just spelled in English anyway. 'Futari' means two people, 'futatsu' means two things, and while the difference seems small, telling a waiter that you are 'two things' as you enter a restaurant tends to draw extended glares of bewilderment.

A few weeks ago I attended a festival called Moshi Moshi Nippon, and discovered yet again that there is no end to the systems that this country will devote itself to and rely on. Moshi Moshi Nippon was billed as a festival to promote Japanese pop culture and as such, entry was free for foreigners. The line up was pretty damn impressive, featuring some of the most popular idol groups of the moment such as Dempagumi INC., Silent Siren and headlining the whole event was global J-pop superstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. This was a really big deal for everyone else. Not for me though. Me and Kyary go way back.

As I arrived at the Tokyo Taiikukan, with two Japanese friends in tow, I was immediately impressed with what I saw. Merch stalls were, rather ingeniously, set up outside the venue to catch people on their way in and out, and the DJ booth, manned by a cross dressing DJ in a school girl uniform and two-tone bob wig, had drawn a massive amount of people absolutely losing their shit to some Japanese metal. There were gothic lolitas, harajuku fashionistas and waves and waves and waves of idol groups just standing around waving and smiling as far as I could see and this was outside the actual venue at like 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I couldn't wait to get inside and see, you know, the actual festival.

Unfortunately my entrance was impeded by yet another Japanese system. Japanese natives had to buy tickets to this event, whereas foreigners just had to register online for a free QR code which would be scanned on the day. Strangely, when we enquired at the door about this we were told that foreigners had to go queue at the "foreigner registration desk" (which brought up all kinds of republican eugenic feelings that I didn't totally understand) around the corner, while my Japanese companions were free to go inside with their tickets. So now they had to wait for me. Even in an effort to include foreigners the Japanese organizers just couldn't resist ostracizing them a little. But hey, it was still free right? Sure it was strange and inconvenient, but thirty minutes in a queue isn't such a big price to pay for a day of non-stop live J-pop.

After my foreign registration was complete, we decided that hunger was priority number one and ventured into the food stalls to see what we could rustle up. Excited to try some authentic yakisoba, I failed to notice my Japanese companions enter into confused, inquisitive conversation that, although incomprehensible, seemed somehow important. Turns out, the festival food stalls only accepted these strange little tokens that you had to buy at a smaller stall.

To reiterate, we had to queue and use money to buy special festival money so that we could then queue and use that festival money to buy food. Ignoring the financial implications of actually manufacturing those special coin token things, the question must still be asked. Why. On. Earth.

Japan. That's why.

The festival itself was amazing. The Taikukkan was laid out like a massive indoor market with cosmetic companies, fashion labels and independent designers selling their wares, which were all displayed between the live music via spectacularly produced catwalk shows. As for the music, well, J-pop is my thing. I dig it. So I had a great time. Even the idol groups, the many, many, many idol groups are interesting from a social perspective to me (and also a musical one) so there was very little I didn't love about the main stage or the second stage to the side, which honestly might as well have been called the idol group stage, because that's literally all you'd have seen there. As enjoyable as the whole thing was though, what really caught my attention was yet another unexpected, but rather brilliant, Japanese social system.

See, Japanese people need these systems. Not through some bizarre genetic quirk, just because that's how things just are here. So if you take that away, everyone's a little unsure what to do. The attitude isn't so much, "we need systems or we'll all die!". It's more "this would probably work better with a system so let's make one. ...and tell no one else about it". This even extends into Japanese concerts. Every J-pop song has a unique dance that goes with it, and while it might look to outsiders like just another cute trait of the genre, this in itself is another system for Japanese people. These dance moves are basically instructional videos on how to enjoy the concert. At concerts, Japan is a nation full of Will Ferrel in Talladega Nights; no one knows what to do with their hands. So everyone just does what the singer is doing. Because that's why she's doing it.

The other thing is, at concerts I'm Will Ferrel in Talladega Nights. I never know what to do with my hands. So seeing everyone just copy Kyary, and in turn copying her myself, freed me up to just enjoy my surroundings. I wasn't thinking about the fact that my tragically Irish sensibilities render me incapable of dancing or looking attractive while enjoying myself, I was just doing what I was told. We all were. And there was something strangely liberating about it.

The Japanese have a few different ways to say everything, especially "Hello". 'Moshi Moshi' is "Hello" for the phone. Literally. It means 'hello', but it's only used on the telephone. Mad right?

I got the train back from the festival with a bag full of souvenirs, some paid for and some handed to me for free by various vendors. It was the first genuinely social thing I'd done since I'd arrived and it had given me a first hand peek into the pop culture that I've admired from a far for so long. I threw my bags on the floor when I got home and, as per my skinny jeans removal ritual, emptied my pockets. Among the change and lint was a coin I didn't recognize.

Moshi Moshi Nippon. Moshi Moshi, Nippon, indeed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Akihabara Kadabra

Anyone who has ever told you that everyone in Japan speaks English is lying. Sure, all Japanese people study English at school, but it's taught in a way that can never practically facilitate actual communication and most people treat it in much the same way Irish students treat the Irish language; do just enough to get good grades then run as far away from it as you possibly can for the rest of your life.

That said, now and again staff members in cafés or shops, particularly in the tourist areas, will clock my pasty white face and address me in English and usually it's pretty good English. I'm never sure whether it's done out of desire or duty, and so I'm never entirely sure how to react to it. Some Japanese people are nervous using English, others are eager to practice and you can make someone's day a littler better by just allowing them use whatever language they want. Just be aware that it's usually not English.

One thing that virtually all the English speakers I've come across have asked me is why I came to Japan. It's not a question I expected to be asked, and anyone who knows me knows the answer already, so it's not something I've thought about in the recent past. There's no way around it, and I haven't wasted time looking for one. Anytime I've been asked the question I've been totally straight; I came to Japan because I am a massive nerd.

Being a massive nerd, Akihabara - nerdvana, the geek capital of the world - has been on my list of places to see before I die or grow up since I was 13. On my first real day off, the day before my first real day of work, I took myself to see it with my own eyes.

I practically danced out of the train station, through the electric town exit onto the streets of Akihabara and was met with a scene straight out of my wildest weeaboo fantasies. There it was. Exactly as I'd thought it'd be. Exactly as I'd hoped it'd be. Exactly as it was in Oreimo when Kirino did her panoramic celebratory shot thing and I felt just as excited as she was to be in the middle of it all. Mere steps from the station I came across my first fanboy store, floor upon floor of anime merchandise from shows that I adored, acknowledged and knew nothing about at all. I don't think I stopped smiling the entire time, which was probably really weird for everyone else when I stumbled into the adult section of the 5th floor.

Akihabara is fucking full of anime stores, but it's also full of arcades, most of which double as claw machine parlours where you can try to win, you guessed it, anime merch (although some had gadgets and cash). Most of the machines will have stuff that's currently popular, and apparently there is some genuine skill involved and a lot of money to be saved if you can get good at it. There's also a pachinko parlour, because those smoky, noisy cathedrals of misery are fucking everywhere.

I mentioned there that claw machine prodigies can save money and some of you are probably wondering what I mean. Any anime fan is at least aware of the phenomenon of the anime figurine. Japan's animation industry runs on an economy of resin and owning your favourite characters in physical form is part of the fun of being a fan. These figurines are usually incredibly intricate and some can go on to be rare which adds potential economic value to collecting them, if the simple artistic - or obsessive - value isn't enough for you. There are stores selling these figurines all over Japan, but Akihabara has the highest concentration of them in the entire universe and that has a pretty interesting effect on one's shopping experience.

If you're going to shop for figurines, or anything nerdy, in Akihabara, my advice is to shop around. Prices vary wildly between shops and there doesn't seem to be any real pattern or predictability to it. One Cardcaptor Sakura figurine (which I assume had just come out) was all over every claw machine and highlighted in every store and never at the same price. One store had it at 9,000 yen, another at 2,000 and several others hovered somewhere in between. Shop around. Don't get excited just because the first store you walked into had that Beach Queen Kyoko Sakura you'd been looking for.

Video Games get a fair shake in Akihabara too, with multiple game stores all piling floor upon floor of genres and platforms on top of each other. Turns out the PSP is still super popular in Japan. Strange, huh? But if games are your thing, Super Potato is your thing and chances are you probably know that already. Super Potato is famous for being one of the best, if not the best vintage game shop in the world and holy shit did it live up to its name. 3 floors spanning almost 40 years of video game history, all available to buy and play, topped off with an old school arcade on the top floor, complete with a change machine and sweet shop so you can actually feel like you're 12 years old again. It's beautiful.

Games, Anime and Manga aren't the only thing Akihabara is famous for though. A slightly lesser known but equally intoxicating industry lies at the heart of this geeky gomorrah; the maid café.

For those of you who don't know, Japan basically adopted the french maid as their official national fetish sometime in the 1990s and in typical Japanese fashion, the first thing they did was strip it of all its sexual appeal and turn it into something else. Maid Café's are designed to be as fluffy and adorable as possible. The waitresses all dress in elaborate maid uniforms and behave like they're all living in some sort of chirpy candy floss singularity. Naturally I had to see it for myself, so myself and my companion ventured in.

This involved taking a flyer from one of the many, many, many maids littering the streets shouting adorable nonsense trying to lure people, mostly tourists, into their café's. **sidenote: there are people handing out flyers everywhere in Akihabara, it's best not to take them. Taking a flyer equates to agreeing to do whatever service the person is promoting and refusing posthumously can result in some unpleasantness**What awaited us inside was no less bizarre, a pastel pink room full of low tables, frills, purple walls and a bar full of hard, hard liquor. It was immediately enthralling and offensive; like if someone opened a cocktail bar in a nursery.

The meal was full of crazy little rituals "to make the food more delicious", like casting a "magic spell" on an electric candle and making heart shaped hand gestures to fire "delicious" beams at the dumplings. It was mad and it would probably be very easy to feel totally creeped out by the whole thing. The two Australian guys hiding behind and clutching for dear life their oversized beers like the last bastions of their masculinity certainly didn't look charmed. My take on it was a little more charitable. I played along. These girls, these maids, knew this was strange. They knew, just as well as I did, that this was not even on the spectrum of normalcy for dining experiences and being non-compliant to their harmless requests would be akin to going to Disneyland to tell Mickey Mouse to fuck off. You'd just end up looking like a dick. The girls were fun, the place was weird and the food was ok. That was about it.

Like everywhere else in this country, Akihabara is a different place by night. Tokyo is like some kind of strange electric forest; by day it's unique and interesting and sprawling but the streets light up at night like they're trying to imitate the day, to make the day last longer, presumably so everyone can work longer, so it makes it worth while to stick around to see the other side of wherever you happen to be that day. At night Akiba lives up to its monicker of the "electric town" in every way possible. It looked electric. It felt electric. And for a few moments, as I stared into it, I did too.

I've been waiting to see Akihabara since I was 13 years old and it's still only sinking in now that I'm not in Dublin anymore and this place is 40 minutes away on a train. After 13 years of imagining and dreaming and wondering and sighing, Akihabara could easily have been a let down. Instead, it blew me away. Twice.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Prodigal (Jame)Son

In my interview for all of the three schools I interviewed with, they asked how I would deal with feeling homesick or isolated in Japan. I'll admit that wasn't really something I'd thought about at that stage, but thinking on my feet (and spinning spectacular loads of total bullshit) is a skill of mine and I wasn't about to be outdone by a hypothetical. I told them that homesickness and isolation were inexorably linked, and that if I felt homesick, I would force myself to go out and speak to people or experience the world around me, instead of just sitting alone and pining for the world away from me. I didn't really believe it as I said it, but part of me believed it after I'd said it, and after tonight, I believe it with absolute certainty.

I had a skype call with my family tonight. While it was fantastic to see and hear them all again (including the dogs, one of which, it's reassuring to know, is still an insolent little bastard), seeing something as aesthetically mundane as my own kitchen was enough to make me miss Ireland. For a moment I almost gave into it, got into my pyjamas and sat in front of the playstation. I didn't though, instead I put my shoes on and went for a walk. I didn't know where I was going, but I figured I'd find out on the way.

I walked to my train station and past it and all around it and took note of every shop and restaurant in the area. Japan likes Italian food. Or at least Minami does, as there are like 5 within two minutes of each other. As interesting as it was to see my area in its entirety (there was a donut shop and a chocolate/ice cream cafe that piqued my interest. I'll never understand how the Japanese aren't all fat with all this delicious stuff around them all the time), it wasn't long before I was wandering back.

Every time I've gone home I've walked by this mysterious little bar, all with english language signage and always advertising foreign beers. Tonight I decided to be brave and go in. Shut up, any social situation, let alone one with a potential language barrier, is brave for me. The counter was FULL of whiskey bottles from all over the world. Within seconds, I'd located Jameson, my favourite. I explained (in Japanese) to the barman that I was Irish and loved Jameson, he laughed and went about pouring my drink, then refused to charge me because there wasn't enough Jameson left for a full measure (there was just about enough I can assure you). I managed to understand him and we chatted in Japanese about why I was here and how long I'd been here. It was relaxing. Then I saw they did food, so I ordered a pizza. Pizza and whiskey. What more could I want?

I joked that Irish whiskey was the best in the world, he retorted that Japanese whiskey was also great, to which I promised to try it afterwards. Another guy came in, a regular, and the three of us spent the next hour talking about what whiskeys we like and the differences between food in Japan in food in the UK & Ireland. I won't lie, there were a few moments where I resorted to English, and I was very relieved to hear that the regular, Hiroshi, and the barman, Kiwa, both understood and spoke a little English, but I can honestly say that the majority of our conversation was in Japanese and I was somehow able to hold my own. I tried the Japanese whiskey, Yamazaki (recommended by Hiroshi) and yeah, ok, it was good. So good that I might have bought a bottle for my apartment on the way home.

A current teacher at Shane sent us prospective teachers a guide to living and adjusting to life and work in Japan, a week before we arrived. One of the things he mentioned was "finding a local", a place you can go where people will be happy to see you, even if only because you'll spend money. I guess I've found my local.

White Drama in Saitama

Since I arrived last Saturday (a week ago tomorrow, I realize as I type this), my routine has been pretty rigid. Follow instructions on how to get the train and subway to the school's head office, spend the day with native English speakers, train & subway home, sleep, repeat. I've tried to punctuate it with mini-adventures, or what this untraveled boy perceived as mini-adventures, like trying to use my Japanese wherever possible and navigating basic social situations; buying stuff at the (many, many, many) convenience stores (Konbini's) or ordering a coffee or food without resorting to English. Admittedly that usually resorts to pointing and grunting, which is probably worse in the long run, but the point is that my routine was so rigid and English language based that it hadn't really felt like I was actually in Japan. Yesterday I went to Shinjuku. Welcome to fucking Japan.

Shinjuku rules. Let's just get that out there right now, but we'll go into that shortly. My day started with something much less exciting; registering as a foreign resident of Saitama and opening a Japanese bank account. Registration was complicated, but ultimately successful, so much so that I was able to enquire (in Japanese) about Japanese lessons in the vicinity and acquire said information. Small victories. Opening a bank account wasn't the nightmare I expected it to be either, the staff at Shinsei Bank spoke just enough English to make the process straightforward and quick. And my modest Japanese came in handy too.

Sidenote: I can't tell you how thankful I am to have learned Katakana and Hiragana before I came out. There is a ton of Kanji everywhere that might as well be egyptian hyroglyphs, but being able to read station names and being able to write my name in katakana came in very handy at the bank, and the next quest; buying a phone. Onward to Shinjuku and to what surely must be the best electronics store in the world: Yodobashi Kamera. Spaced out across several blocks and several stores, this place is like a giant electronics market that has everything. Like, everything. Everything electronic. Anything electronic you want, you can find it in one of Yodobashi Kamera's sections, which are so labyrinthentine that staff actually hand out actual maps.

Apparently there was a huge problem in Japan where foreigners would sign up for a year long contract with a phone company then fuck off home with the fancy phone. As a result, phone networks now demand a two year contract and having a one year visa makes it very difficult to get around that. Thankfully Yodobashi Kamera had some English speaking staff who negotiated with various networks on my behalf. Eventually I left with a spiffy new phone for only slightly more than I had intended to spend, but the guy translating, as it turned out, worked for a rival network to the one I signed with. As I left and he returned to his post I realized that he'd spent an hour (along with the Korean guy who had to think in English AND Japanese to try process my application. He told me he was nervous at one point. Not as much as I was I assure you) helping me get a phone with A DIFFERENT company and would not see any commission on that sale. I felt well and truly out of my depth.

And then it was dark and I was supposed to meet my friend Chie for dinner. Japan, it must be said, is a different place by night. By day, Shinjuku was impressive. By night, it was majestic. I couldn't help but stand there dumbstruck by the neon onslaught, the rain and the noise and the sheer volume of everything around me was astounding. I felt well and truly out of my depth. And I loved it. Welcome to Japan.

Myself and Chie wandered around after dinner and I dragged her to Yodobashi Kamera's game store. It was relatively small, in comparison to the other sections, but it was was more than enough. Within seconds I'd found, without even trying, two Japanese games I'd considered ordering online less than a month ago for less than half of what I would have paid for them. I can't understand shit when playing them, but I'm going to use them as incentive to get my act together with the language.

Tonight, as you probably saw, I managed to order a pizza from a local pizzaria called Komugi. I spoke Japanese the entire time, but I'm not sure it counts as the guy was clearly eager to practice his English (or subtly hinting that I should cease butchering his language as he's better at mine) and we basically switched languages for the duration of the transaction. It was pretty great. I now have a local pizzaria, and can at least sort of navigate a nearby urban metropolis.

Now I feel like I'm in Japan.

Eating Out in Iidabashi

Today after morning training myself and one of the other teachers had quite a long wait before our observations so we decided to have lunch together. Yesterday, when we all went to lunch as a group, we completely ignored the rousing and rather brilliant speech given by the orientation guy that morning and went to a place called Royal Host that's pretty much as un-Japanese as it gets without just giving up completely and going to Burger King. Today, myself and Katie, another teacher, were determined to be brave and have some proper Japanese food.

We wandered Iidabashi for a while and eventually decided on a really old-fashioned looking place where the menu DID NOT have pictures and WAS NOT in English. It was, strangely enough, in French and as it turned out once we got inside, an English one was also available. But there were still no pictures and I did at least TRY to speak Japanese to the waitress, who understood me but didn't care about what I had to say because, why would she? Anyway the food was great, as you can see below.

After that I had to make quite a treck from Iidabashi to Shin-Shiraoka, a small surburby place waaay up north. Getting there required a train changeover, which is not unusual. However, this particular changeover involved me getting off in Akihabara. Akihabara; nerd mecca. The place I'd been dying to see since I was 13. I didn't have any time to sightsee, I couldn't even leave the train station, but as the train pulled up, I turned around, looked out the window and I saw it. I saw it with my own stupified Irish eyes in all it's geeky glory. It was beautiful. I am itching with anticipation to get back and get lost in it.

Once I arrived at Shin-Shiraoka I had to observe three lessons, an adult lesson and, more importantly, two childrens lessons. The adult lesson was pretty much what I'm used to, and the kids lessons, although drastically different, weren't quite as difficult to wrap my head round as I thought they'd be. At 6.30, I ventured back out to the train station to try find my way home.

Japanese train stations, the big ones anyway, are like fucking airports. They've got food courts and department stores and shit. It's nuts. I almost got lost in Omiya station just from admiring the different cakes and food options that surrounded me. Thankfully I didn't and it wasn't long before I was home at Mushashi-Urawa. I decided to take a picture, but it didn't come out very well. On my day off I think I'll go a bit snap happy but for those of you wondering where I am in the world, that top picture should do for now.

Irresponsibly reductive fact of the day: Japanese crickets are the loudest thing on earth.

Day Zero.

The following was taken from my facebook page and written before I decided to start this blog. It's posted for narrative clarity and to fill my archive quicker.

Sorry to everybody for being so out of touch the last two days. After a night's sleep (and a day's training) my head's fresher and I can recount my first two days in Japan.

Arrived yesterday (Saturday) after an 11 hour flight from London. Flight was surprisingly unremarkable. Not as tortuous as you might think given the length and Virgin's in flight entertainment system is pretty good. I watched X-Men: Days of Future Past (Soc, you'll be happy to know I really enjoyed it) and then mostly slept.

At Narita, I watched mournfully as the baggage carousel emptied with no sign of Elizabeth (my bass). A staff member approached and after explaining my situation he told me that she was in London but they would bring her to my apartment tomorrow (today). He then assured me that it would be ok, because he was a guitarist, for a Police tribute band no less, and 'understood how scared' I must be. He then escorted me through customs while showing me pictures of his vintage guitar collection and a picture of him with Steve Lukather. Then he let me use his phone, gave me his contact details and asked that I get in touch with him so we can play music together. I am definitely going to do this.

On the train from Narita I spoke with two other new teachers who were both living in the same area and thus going in the same direction from our connecting stop, Ikebukuro. I was not going that way. I stepped off the train and met the coordinator in charge of making sure we knew where we were going, shared 5, maybe 6, words with her which were mostly 'get on this train' and 'okay' as my train arrived at that exact moment. I was told my apartment was a 20 minute walk from the train station, but decided to try it anyway. I could have gotten a taxi, but I like to take my time and I trust myself on foot.

I made the right decision. My little village is really nice. There are two (hilariously titled) Italian restaurants, several convenience stores and a really nice supermarket (Co-Op, more on this later) as well as loads of other stuff that I haven't noticed yet, I'm sure. I liked it, it already felt like home.My apartment is small but I really like it. It has a (surprisingly slick) TV and everything you'd probably expect from an apartment, just squashed together to the point where the hallway is also home to the kitchen, which merges seamlessly into the laundry room and shower room.

After an afternoon spent reading materials left in my apartment by my company, all of which might as well have been called 'how to not be a dickhead in Japan in 564534534 steps', I felt a strange combination of courage, exhaustion and blind terror. I wanted to go explore, but I also wanted to sleep and also to go home because oh my god what have I done etc. etc. Fortunately, my razors and plasters (for tattoo covering) were in my luggage (which was taken to be delivered today) and I needed both for my first day. So I ventured out to the local Co-Op to pick up some supplies. I got lost, finding it inexplicably difficult to simply reverse the directions I'd followed perfectly on the way TO the apartment, but eventually found it and managed to purchase some basics and a small bag of croissants. I returned feeling pretty good about myself. A basic social situation; tick. Done. Small, but important to the part of me that was terrified. After a shave, I sat in my apartment and watched stand-up on my laptop eating a croissant and thought 'If this is rock bottom for my time in Japan, I'm actually okay with that'. Forgive the mundane level of mundane detail, I'm just trying to make this post as close to my thought process as possible, and making something mundane out of what seems mountainous is extremely helpful. Today I successfully navigated the train and subway system to find the offices where I was being trained, ordered a cappucino (it wasn't great, if you're wondering), had lunch with colleagues and went to the co-op again on the way home. The train home was familiar, the walk home even more so, and this time I didn't stare rabbit-in-headlights style when asked if I wanted a bag for my shopping.

So sorry for the lack of contact and info, I'm still getting used to the time difference and also getting used to, you know, being here. Still haven't quite taken that in. I'll get better and communicate with you again soon, people of facebook.

Also, Japanese television is 10% anime, 20% advertisements and 60% talk shows. Irresponsibly reductive fact of the day. X