Mr. Mike Goes to Tokyo

Date: Wed, 28 Nov 2001

Subject: The day Tokyo ate Mike


So I went to Tokyo yesterday, but by the time I send this e-mail it will no longer be yesterday since today is Thursday and I have ten minutes left in my free e-mail period and I'll definitely probably maybe have to continue this next time, which will most likely be on Monday. Or Wednesday, as it happens to be today. Yes, this took more than two hours to write, so don't complain that it's long.


So I went to Tokyo because I had a job interview. My housemates get the Japan Times every day, which is an English-language newspaper that occasionally features a classified section with reams of ten-cent text-based ads for jobs whose main qualifying requirement is the ability to speak your native language, so it's typically not a useful resource for the job hunter. But one day I happened to see an ad posted by a local branch of an American firm that delivers conferences and summits on business strategy, which sounded rather similar to the business with which I thoroughly enjoyed working last summer, so I was both interested in and possibly even somewhat qualified for the job. Well, almost. There was one slight hitch: the job was in the sales department, and I have little interest in sales and even less ability at achieving them. But I hoped I could use the interview to get my foot in the door and possibly end up working in the conference department or maybe the sales job would at least involve making presentations rather than being a phone jockey all day long. So I went and uncharacteristically paid for Internet access so I could use a computer that would actually accept an external disk, adjusted my resume and shot the thing off, praying that the text boxes I had used in Word that had disappeared when I used this other word processing program wouldn't reappear and make me look like an idiot when the file was opened by my potential employers.


After that, I rather forgot about the whole thing. But Wednesday two weeks ago I got a call just as I was approaching the house of a friend of my erstwhile Japanese teacher. It was actually rather fortunate that I'd gotten lost on the bus system and arrived thirty minutes late; I might not have been able to take the call if I'd been on time. So I blabbed about my hypothetical adaptability to sales and discovered that the guy in charge of the hiring process was a 3rd dan black belt in kendo, which may have been my peculiar "in" since I had listed my three years of Korean sword fighting experience on my resume. I spoke to the kendo guy that night, and ta-DUM: I had an interview in Tokyo.


This left me with a slight conundrum, however, because it was the first interview into which I would not be entering as a self-declared impoverished student. I looked at my "suit" - a blue blazer and green pants that have served me well since grade 11 - and decided that it might be time to buy a jacket and pants that match. The tie was getting a bit frayed, anyway. About 99.8% of businessmen in Japan wear full suits to work every day, and while the department to which I'd applied was indeed largely English-speaking, the Japanese norm set a rather tough standard. Furthermore, my boot-like shoes weren't really up to the task, and as my good shoes remain safely tucked away in my closet in Toronto, I decided that it was time to go shopping.


So I went off in search of a suit. And I promptly reconsidered the idea. Suits around here are as expensive as they are anywhere else: most of the ones I looked at started around ¥100,000, or about $1200. Thus ensued the debate: how much did I care about this job? Did I care $1200? And I still needed to buy shoes, pay for my train tickets, etc. etc. etc... I eventually found significantly cheaper suits, but they raised the dual problems of being unappealing and not fitting my abnormally long arms. So I could have bought something inexpensively ugly and ill-fitting or something nice for way more than I wanted to pay. I had originally wanted to buy a laptop during my trip as well, but the finances of the time rather obdurately dictated against the idea. I dubbed the impending excursion "My $1000 trip to Tokyo."


In the end, I bought a moderately-priced suit made by, of all people, Calvin Klein, which I decided I really liked, and politely declined to spend another ¥10,000 on a shirt thank you very much. The saleslady was actually quite pleasant and even tolerant enough of my infant's Japanese to make some small talk, but I was largely just happy that I didn't end up getting something I didn't want as tends to happen when I order just about anything that isn't on the standard list of options at a store around here (the other week at McDonald's I got something that tasted like ice coffee when I ordered Coke and Chicken McNuggets when I asked for a Super-Sized meal. I was quite displeased). I also successfully bought shoes and got a discount for some reason when I got the club card they insisted on giving me despite the fact that I really did try to tell them I didn't need it. They have club cards for everything here. The grocery store has a club card. Now I have a club card.


So I was decked out and ready to go, and I figured, well, if the job didn't work out, at least I would have a nice suit and shoes as a result. I needed them anyway. I had, however, been given the impression that my chances were rather slim. The people I'd spoken to on the phone had mentioned that they'd had a "surprisingly" large number of applications and tried to diplomatically ask me if there was a day when I'd be in Tokyo anyway so that, just in case things didn't happen to work out, it wouldn't be a total waste for me. I told them Tokyo was on my list of places to see, so any day was fine. I figured I'd make a mini-vacation of it and spend the night.


So off I went to Tokyo! That morning I ran around picking up my suit and using e-mail to get the map to the building where I'd be having my interview since the people hadn't apparently been listening when I'd told them I had intermittent-at-best e-mail access and sent the information to me the night before at 5:00, right around the time the government office where I use e-mail closes.  


Then I got to have my first experience of buying tickets for the Shinkansen (bullet train) using a touch-screen machine that was printed entirely in Japanese. I don't even know how to check my account balance on the Japanese bank machines here, so this was a bit of an adventure. I think there was an "instructions in English" button, but I must have missed it, so I just kept guessing based on the one or two characters I could read on each screen and ended up with a reserved seat on a non-smoking car that cost me about ¥500 more than I'd intended. I'd wanted a non-reserved seat, but I wasn't sure where I'd missed that option and I wasn't about to go back and try again. I did, however, happen to luck out and get an express train that took only one hour to get there. To give you some perspective, the local (JR) trains take about three and a half hours to make the same trip, and the Shinkansen usually takes about an hour and a half.


I keep bringing things to read and do while I'm travelling in Japan, but I keep forgetting that it's futile to do so: the countryside itself is entertainment enough. On the way to Tokyo from Shizuoka, you pass Mount Fuji, which looks absolutely spectacular and completely dominates the landscape in a way you simply can't grasp from photographs. I'd seen it before, but that didn't mean I wasn't about to gawk again. After that you pass in and out of towns and rolling hills and mountains, the most interesting points being those where the train shoots out from a coastal mountain and you can see the ocean hundreds of feet below, cradled between two mountains like in a verdant sling, with a long auto bridge seemingly floating in mid-air to connect one peak to the next. Then you dive back into the next mountain ten seconds later and do it all again. So much of Japan looks like a perfect model train landscape.


Tokyo itself almost creeps up on you. The outskirts are not unlike those of any other town you pass through, except that the houses seem a little denser and there are less large building interspersed among them. But as you move in, a code seems to take effect that every building must be at least three storeys tall, and you start to get hit with blocky apartment buildings and occasional large stores. As a North American, it's an interesting aspect of Japan that there are few real skyscrapers as we are accustomed to them: any buildings that are particularly tall are also very squat, so they seem more monolithic than the elongated milk cartons we have at home. As you move into downtown Tokyo, these things absolutely dominate the landscape, but don't really dominate the skyline as they do in places like Toronto. It was interesting to note that there seemed to be a lot of construction going on, and I saw at least five new buildings that were being put up in the downtown area. I guess it just surprises me to see large-scale development in a country that's saddled with a ten-year recession, while Toronto, which has supposedly been booming, has remained relatively stagnant since the SkyDome was built ten years ago. Oh, sorry, wait, there's the CBC building. Whoopee.


Getting out of the station was interesting. Much of Japan has extensive underground networks of shops and such, and Tokyo is no different, so I delved into the network in hopes of getting an idea of where to find a subway station that would get me to my interview destination. I wandered around for a bit following the bilingual signs in what seemed to be a random pattern, and yet when I finally emerged after finding the subway station I discovered I was right in front of the train station. It took me fifteen minutes to travel about fifty feet. I'm not entirely sure who was at fault there.


Now that I knew where I had to go to get to the interview, the next step was to find a hotel. Even though I knew they would be expensive, I figured it would be best for me to look in the area around Tokyo station since I had neither a map nor a clue of where I was. My only map was of the dozen or so pretzels that intertwine to form the Tokyo subway system, and it wasn't particularly useful above ground. I started heading toward the large buildings in the area, assuming that one of them had to be a hotel, but quickly discovered that, if aliens landed in downtown Tokyo, they would assume that banks were the dominant life-form. Every building in downtown Tokyo is a bank, and the fact that I could read the symbol for "bank" on every bloody one of them was of little comfort, thank you very much. I tried heading toward a building that was labelled similarly to the hotel in which I'd stayed on my first night in Japan, but it, too, turned out to be a bank.


I did eventually find a hotel; but it was, of course, full. I'm told that all hotels in Tokyo are perpetually full. The guy at the desk directed me to another hotel, which, miraculously, had a vacancy - for a price that was far less than miraculous. But the staff were surprisingly kind and even had the manners to respond in Japanese when I spoke in Japanese and revert to English only upon my request. They gave me a list of hotels one subway stop away that were cheaper but still decent, so off I went on another little trip in which I discovered, not surprisingly, that all the hotels were full, with the exception of one that offered me a double room at the same price I could have had a single room at the expensive hotel by the station. By the time I got to the last hotel somewhere in the middle of nowhere over some kind of weird waterway, I had only an hour left before my interview and I decided to give up on it and hit the subway. I'd arrived three hours early, and spent two of them running around in brand-new dress shoes looking for hotels. My feet were angry with me.


The Tokyo subway system is surprisingly navigable if you're willing to do it inefficiently. I had to make a few transfers between lines to get to my destination, but since I didn't know how to buy a ticket for my final destination, I just bought tickets for the transfer points and exited and bought new tickets every time I changed lines. Interesting aspect of Japanese public transit: you pay for the distance you travel. So with the exception of the bus, you always have to think ahead unless you want to figure out how to use the fare adjustment machine, which remains a mystery to me. I was squatting in the last station before my final transfer, looking at the Lonely Planet guide to the Tokyo subway system that my housemate had lent me and trying to figure out how the map in the book related to the one for the "private lines" outside of central Tokyo when a Japanese woman came up to me and asked, in English, if I needed help. I'm told this is fairly common for lost foreigners in Tokyo. She told me that the stop I wanted was, in fact, the next stop, but if I'd stayed on the train I'd been on I would have missed it since it was an express to the end of the line. I had about fifteen minutes left at this point, so I was rather happy to hear that I hadn't made as huge a blunder as I'd feared.


By the time I got out at my destination, it was already dark out. I had about ten minutes to go and my brain went into rapid executive decision mode: I declared a reasonably logical direction "east" and headed that way. My map, however, had neglected to mention that there was a massive overpass separating me from the street I needed to get to, but at least the signs were printed in English so I was able to fumble my way around and get to the building on time. One slight problem, however, was my massive, ancient and paint-splattered purple backpack, which I'd intended to dump at a hotel prior to arriving at the interview. I'd gone to all the trouble of buying a new suit and shoes so I could be dressed to the nines, and I still had this dowdy old thing on my shoulder. I tried to leave it in the reception area, but the receptionist astutely spotted it and insisted that I take it with me. No need to give the whole place a bad image, I guess.


I was ushered into a small meeting room that featured only a table, four chairs and a potted plant in the corner. The potted plant got to make friends with my backpack. I was rather disappointed that the room seemed to be without a computer. I had brought disks of samples of my work in the hopes that I might be able to give some sort of demonstration of my random graphics and presentation skills. As it turned out, however, my skills were not really the ones required for this job.


The two people I'd spoken to the week before showed up a few minutes later. They were both wearing shirts and ties, but no jackets, which I suppose I should have expected given the massive cloud of irony that seems to envelop my life. The two guys rushed in, talked at me for about twenty minutes, and then rushed out and sent me on my way, asking me when I could come back for two more interviews.


And that was that.


The interview itself largely consisted of them telling me about the job, which would apparently largely involve talking on the phone eight hours a day trying to sell very expensive conferences to very important people. I would make fantastic amounts of money if I was good at this job, and I would likely starve if I was not. I would have to do research on my sales targets on my own time. They mainly seemed interested in determining whether I had a problem with this kind of work.


I didn't tell them at the time, but the answer is most definitely yes. I just walked out and told them I'd call them back on Tuesday.


At this point I really didn't feel like finding a hotel any more, and I just decided to head home. All else aside, my $1000 trip to Tokyo had already cost well more than its eponymic figure. I stopped at McDonald's long enough to sit down and spill coke on my suit and tie.


I headed back to the station from which my journey had begun and assumed that, wherever I emerged, I would quickly be able to find Tokyo train station again. I was very wrong. I ended up about half a kilometre from the station and had to ask a guy on a bike at a stop light how to get there. I consider it a fallacy that I only learned the Japanese words for "right", "left", and "straight ahead" halfway through my second year of Japanese - these are such essentially useful words!


From Tokyo station you can reach all of Japan, but that of course didn't mean this hapless Anglophone could figure out how to get ten steps from the ticket booth. I even found the "English language" button on the machines but they still didn't make any sense to me. The schedule insisted that there was a local train heading to Shizuoka, but I couldn't figure out how to buy tickets for it on the machine for the JR (Japanese Rail) lines. I ended up heading to a ticket booth with a real person in it and said in my halting Japanese, "I'd would like to buy a ticket on the next train that is going to Shizuoka." The man in the booth blinked and asked me where it was I said I wanted to go. I said, "Shizuoka," and he got to work processing my ticket. If I could have just admitted to being a normal idiot tourist, I should have just said "Shizuoka" in the first place and been done with it. I did at least get a ticket, though - and yet again, it was a reserved seat for the non-smoking section of the Shinkansen, ¥500 more than I wanted to pay.


I was feeling pretty lousy by this point, and I had about forty minutes to wait, so I consumed my fourth box of Pocky for the day. I've had a bit of an aversion to the stuff since.


Tokyo looks amazing at night. As the train pulled away from the station, I could see the whole downtown area lit up with neon in a way that somehow managed to seem techno-hip rather than gaudy as it tends to at home. I think I'd like to spend more time there... when I have more money.


I called the kendo guy back and declined to do the next interview. If getting to Tokyo weren't such a hassle, I might have checked it out, but it just wasn't worth the trouble or expense. I don't plan to go to Tokyo again until I have enough money to buy a laptop. So I'm still an English teacher, but now I'm an English teacher with a nice new suit and shoes who's seen Tokyo. I guess you can call that a step up... or at least a step in some direction.

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