I’m presently on the waiting list for flights into and out of Narita airport, and have been for about two weeks. Everything’s booked and I have to wait for someone to cancel. Let’s just say I’m getting to know my new travel agent quite well.
Maybe I’ll just camp out in the airport for a few days and see if I can get on a random flight. I’ve got the time.
I’ve developed this strange kid-next-door friendship with a JET named Bishop who lives in Shuzenji. The only problem is that Shuzenji is ninety minutes and 2000 yen away, and Bishop will call me up at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon and ask if I’m doing anything.
One weekend we went to a mountain region called Hakone, which is famous for its beautiful vistas, copious sulphur springs, and scenic mountain lake. The trip required a switchback train ride, a cable car, and a gondola dangled between two mountain peaks, below which lay a vast grey-brown mountainside spewing clouds of sulphur steam. We looked down on arbitrary concrete waterways and half-fallen walls that scarred the dust-coloured landscape, a stark contrast to green and orderly vistas of the Izu Peninsula.
The ubiquitous stench of sulphur filled the air. Just as I started thinking we should crack open a few rotten eggs to complete the experience, we came upon a kiosk selling black hard-boiled eggs at the end of the path. Even the Hello Kitty dolls available at the top of the mountain were jet-black and sitting in silver-speckled charcoal eggs. They looked like Evil Demon Kitties. I’m still disappointed that I didn’t buy one.
On the way home, I took advantage of my rare trip out of The Village to buy some curtains at a home supply centre in Shuzenji, only to discover two hours later that I had somehow bought a single curtain. I also recently tried to buy a couch in town only to find that the one I wanted had been sold the day before. At this rate, my apartment will never be furnished. I’m presently sitting on a cushion, and I only have one of those, so I can’t even invite someone over and say, “Hey, pull up a cushion.”
Yes, I know I could buy another cushion. But that’s not the point.
Another Bishop-inspired brainwave was paragliding on the east side of the peninsula. In spite of the 6000-yen cab fare paid to get back to Shuzenji from Numazu the night before—as clearly no public transit is necessary in Japan after 11:00 p.m.—it ended up being too foggy to paraglide.
Undaunted, we rerouted to an aquatic theme park in P. Rock, where Bishop had heard you could swim with the dolphins. Apparently, if you want to swim with dolphins in Japan, all it takes is a bit of timing, a Japanese guy to help set up your reservation, and about 8000 yen, or $100. They did, however, try to make it sound like you needed some kind of special skill to snorkel. Note that the only skill required to snorkel is, “Don’t breathe when there’s water in your snorkel.”
An aquarium guide came along to narrate and supervise for the hour or so we were in the water. She advised us not to grab the dolphins’ fins—they needed those to swim—and to avoid putting our hands near their mouths, as these were typically used to bite things that got in there. Petting was okay, though.
From the ground, dolphins are very cute. They do flips and jump through hoops and do assorted other little tricks, all very far away from you. When you get in the water with them, you realize that they are actually half-tonne aqua-missiles, and when two of them are barrelling straight at you in pursuit of little blue ball, there’s very little question as to who’s achieved mastery of the environment. I nearly blew out a knee trying to keep up with them while they were only coasting. They kind of play with humans the way older kids will play with their slow and inept little siblings.
Dolphin skin feels like thick, wet rubber.
One day I decided to climb the tall hill behind one of the nicer-looking shrines in town. Following a set of ancient, moss-covered stairs for what seemed like forever, I finally arrived at what turned out to be the coolest park I’ve seen in my life. I’d expected to find nothing at the top but trees and maybe a radio antenna, but instead I found swings, a springboard, a do-it-yourself cyclotron, two amazing rope gliders, and, to top it all off, a tobogganing hill.
Someone had actually gone to the trouble of covering a big slope with inch-long plastic grass, and each of the two starting points was pre-stocked with a bunch of little plastic sleds and a functional hose to wet everything down—all completely free and unsupervised. I immediately pondered why we didn’t have such facilities in Canada... and then realized that it was because the sleds would be gone in seconds.
I invited Socks and Bishop to come along for a return trip, advocating that we take full advantage of the hoses by buying some massive water cannons on the way. Despite their size, the cannons turned out to be pretty "crap-tastic", as Bishop likes to say, but it didn’t prevent us from soaking each other and using the sleds as suicide strike vehicles as we ran up and down the hill for about an hour. We felt a little guilty for frightening off a family with real children.
Come to think of it, I wouldn’t have let my kids play anywhere near us, either. But I didn’t care. I was laughing aloud out of pure, unadulterated enjoyment for what was probably the first time since I was ten.
No, we are not gay. We just look that way.
The cool neighbours who lent me my VCR tend to invite me over just about every time I do sword fighting practice, and after my third visit I finally managed to remember their names. Miki K. likes Pinky and the Brain and keeps a Star Wars Lego X-Wing Fighter on their TV. Her husband Nuki K. is a factory worker from Yokohama whose interests and enthusiasms take him in the most random directions.
Our discussions are both incredibly lengthy and broad in range. Miki once spent half an hour defending the validity of the statement that there are “office ladies” (educated women who do nothing but serve tea and snacks in offices) because “Japan is America’s slave”. I explained the whole philosophy behind my university education in Japanese for the first time. Nuki gleefully went into the workings and benefits of “Soap Land”, and insisted that I visit one as part of my research into Japanese culture.
As you might guess or fear, a Soap Land is a kind of establishment found in most big cities where men will pay 10,000 to 30,000 yen to be bathed by women. (“60,000-70,000 yen if you want girls who are actually pretty,” says Nuki.) Nuki further described the “ecchi chair”, the main feature of which is a large slot in the middle.
Miki recommended I go since it would be a treat for the women. I politely declined.
…live in my apartment.
One Monday after school, a student ran by the office yelling “Snake! Snake!” It took me a minute to figure out what was going on since I didn’t know the Japanese word for snake, but I followed the vice principal as he bounded out the door to the schoolyard.
I found the vice principal standing over this typical-looking garden snake with a backhoe in his hands. Before I could be sure if he was serious, down came the hoe and the snake was cut into two pieces. Maybe it’s because I like snakes, or maybe it’s because it was the first time I’d witnessed the death of anything big enough to bleed, but I found the vice principal’s expression of total glee at killing an apparently harmless animal rather distressing. I asked the other teachers about this afterwards, and they said that it’s just traditional for people to kill snakes on sight. Apparently, the same goes for megapedes.
I talked to the K.s a bit about this, too. They said the poison from megapedes (locally, “mukadé”) could be bad enough to put you in the hospital, and they recommended either crushing their heads or dousing them with boiling water to make sure they’re dead. If you don’t feel like keeping boiling water on hand at all times, I’m told another good option is to buy a cat, which will pick the things off like a roving bug zapper.
The other day while locking my door, I noticed three really big sticks poking out from under the lid of my mailbox. Then I noticed that the sticks had hair. After finding an appropriately lengthy stick of my own, I lifted up the lid to uncover a very stealthy-looking spider with one-inch body segments and three-inch legs that was so big I could see it breathing. I think he was waiting for the mailman.
I now inspect both my mailbox and my towel from all angles before I even think about getting close to them.
One day I needed to inflate my bike tires at school and the pumps were all spewing air. In short order, every male teacher in the building ended up sitting around the teachers’ room trying to assemble a single pump that would work.
“We need a new washer.”
“Don’t have any. Let’s grab one from this old pump.”
“We need some grease.”
“Let’s use this glue.”
“It’s still leaking.”
“This electrical tape should do it.”
I have surmised that, if you give a bunch of guys in any part of the world a mechanical problem, they will relentlessly bang their heads against it regardless of proper tools or personal knowledge.
After nearly an hour of bumbling, the principal came out and said that the problem wasn’t with the pump, but with my tires.
Did you know that tire valves these days have “open” and “closed” settings? Danged newfangled contraptions.
I’m in the middle of teaching five weekly adult conversation classes and it’s driving me quite mad. I have no textbooks, no materials, no plans, and no training in dealing with the fifteen people of mixed levels who all just happened to sign up. The brain behind this innovation is a guy at the local board of education named Sunny, and in retribution I force him to partner with me for all my demonstrations. He doesn’t speak English.
Sunny’s a nice guy and an instructor at the kayak club, but because of him I spend three days every week thinking about what on earth I’m supposed to do with fourteen housewives and a middle-aged man for an hour and a half.
Two months ago, I thought I could never possibly teach kids. Now I don’t have the slightest interest in teaching adults. If you don’t want to run to the wall to touch the monkey, I don’t want you in my classroom.
As much as I like to think I’m still in touch with my childhood, there are so many things I’m realizing I’d forgotten—like the way bright green snot can just flow out of a kid’s nose entirely untouched by a tissue, and how that finger just goes right up there without the slightest hesitation.
I was also reminded by a very-cute-but-very-weird little grade 2 girl that biting and goobering are perfectly acceptable signs of affection.
“Hello! What are you—?”
“Augh! That’s my arm, you little freak!”
Well, that’s what I was thinking. But then she looked up at me and smiled with big shining eyes, and what could I do but smile right back?
I keep inadvertently finding new ways to make myself a mobile theme park attraction. At my Monday school I’m a piggyback machine for the first graders; I once spent twenty minutes pushing two little girls around in a big cardboard box they’d cut out to look like a car. On Wednesday I have to be on the lookout for guerrilla attacks from my grade fours all day, and on Thursday I am now expected to bring my big inflatable dice for lunchtime volleyball on rainy days. At my Friday school, rather than looking in futility for something to sweep during cleaning time, I do animal impressions at the kids’ command, with favourites including gorilla (for those of you who recall my abnormally long arms, this works really well), alligator, vampire, dragon and zombie.
When I simultaneously saw kids from all my schools at a Japanese-language performance of the Merchant of Venice a few weeks ago, I went from playing Mai-keru-pon to being shot as a zombie to returning a bashfully waved “hello” just about every other second.
I don’t think the kids see me as an adult. To them, I’m just a bigger kid. When I join swimming practice after school these days, they’re all impressed that I’m so much faster than they are. They don’t seem to consider that I’m twice their size and a hell of a lot slower than I’m supposed to be. The kids who go to swimming school put me to shame. Most of them also destroy me at soccer. I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything more of myself since I’ve never really taken any sport seriously other than gumdo—and even there I’m not great—but there’s just something pathetic about having to put in an effort to outdo an eleven-year old.
Don’t even ask about the junior high kids. I’ve determined that I can only play table tennis without being an obstacle or a pity case.
I think my gloss is going to start to wear off as the kids gradually figure out that I’m not very good at most things. My neighbours the K.s seem to be impressed by everything I do, though. They like to think I’m going to be a brilliant author some day and want me to sign their wall. Nice to have fans.
As for the near future, first off I’ll be heading to the Hayao Miyazaki animation museum in Tokyo on what was supposed to be my last day of work before the summer break. Bishop grabbed us tickets for the 19th of July, the only day that wasn’t sold out, and I subsequently got a “Letter of Concern” from my employers for asking the teachers at my Friday school if it was okay to skip out on the closing ceremonies.
I’m starting to wonder if my employers are even remotely pleased with my performance. I never hear from them either way.
I’m also hoping to head to the Fuji Rock festival for a few days with my friend Fozzie from Kyoto, then meet up with Big Sis of Akita fame to hit an amusement park and climb Mt. Fuji. In and around all this I have to go to Shizuoka to buy a re-entry permit and get my visa renewed, which could be a problem since my visa expires on September 18th and I only get back from Canada shortly before that. I also have to get documentation from Blight for the visa process, which bodes ill since it's July and I haven’t heard a peep about the Letter of Employment I asked for in April.
But those things are all in the background at the moment. Right now I’m just happy to have only two more weeks of school before a nice, long summer vacation. Without air conditioning. In massive humidity.
Okay, maybe this is going to suck.
You go, my mighty electrical fan!