Archive for September, 2013
Today was orientation in Shinjuku (downtown Tokyo). Shinjuku station is the busiest train station in the world. We were oriented for 6 hours, with a break for some disgusting cold coffee. After, we went to Subway for dinner and the bar at the bottom of our building for a few drinks. The drinks were very expensive so we got a group of about 40 and wandered Shinjuku looking for a bar. About an hour later we found and English pub and the 20 that were left happily went in for a few drinks. Drinkng with English people is fun, I recommend everyone do it one in your lifetime.
Also, I got to see Fuji-san for the first time today!!! Simply awesome, even through the Tokyo smog.
There isn’t really a traditional “downtown” area in Tokyo. There are a lot of built up areas like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa or Ueno that have their own attractions and shopping.
At orientation we signed up for cell phones and bank accounts. If you decided to sign up for a cell phone at the start of orientation you could walk away with a functioning phone at the end. Most people opted for this. My phone was an awesome flip phone with a camera and web browsing features. It is primitive by today’s standards, but was far ahead of anything available in Canada at the time.
Other than learning about the company and the job, one of the topics that was focused on was drugs. We were informed that in Japan there is no difference between “soft” drugs like marijuana and “hard” drugs like heroin or cocaine. Drugs were drugs, and they were all illegal. The police have the power to detain you while investigating, and we were told in no uncertain terms that the company would not help us at all if we ran into trouble with Japanese drug laws.
After the orientation we ended up at the Rose & Crown pub on the first floor of the NS building. I feel bad for the Rose & Crown and their periodic invasions of new English teachers. Our group was loud and enthusiastic, but fairly well behaved. A few months after I started, one of the new teachers got extremely drunk and puked all over the restaurant. The senior instructors spent a lot of time apologizing on behalf of the teachers and the company.
After the masses left the Rose & Crown we were all keen on getting another drink somewhere. Nobody really had any ideas on where to go or how to get there. After about 5-10 minutes of everyone standing around I announced “follow me!” and randomly chose a direction. To my surprise, everyone actually did follow me. We slowly started losing groups of people who either found a bar to go to, or realized that the crazy Canadian guy at the front of the line had no idea where he was going. My group of followers ended up in Hub British Pub, which is a fantastic place to have a beer or watch some footy.
Lesson of the night – everyone will follow you as long as you look confident that you know where you are going.
The only notable thing today was eating at Wendy`s, which is exactly the same as Wendy`s in Canada. But I ordered in Japanese and felt pretty good about myself for it! I watched Jurassic Park on TV. When foreign films play on TV, the character`s names are shown in katakana when they are introduced. It is actually a nice feature that should be in all movies.
Unfortunately not all movies have the character name pop up. I still think it is a very good idea.
I ventured out again today with lack of anything else to do. I found the ward office and applied for my gaijin registration card. Thankfully I knew some Japanese or the application would have taken forever. The clerk was very polite and helpful. The map to find the office was not as I ended up wandering in a circle for half an hour. Would it kill them to name the streets here?
The rest of my day was shopping and killing time. Nothing interesting.
The ward office in the Noborito area is just north of Mukogaoka-yuen station. The north side of the station is full of very narrow, congested streets with no names. I literally had sensory overload trying to process everything I was seeing – signs, bicycles, people, cars in every direction. When I say I walked in a circle, I mean that I literally walked for 30 minutes and ended up where I started by accident.
The clerk at the ward office spoke almost no English, which is surprising considering that they process gaijin registration cards. Other than the language issue, the service I received was exceptional. Public servants around the world could take lessons from Japanese public servants.
Woke up and started waiting for my luggage. I called home with the phone card that Nova gave to all new instructors. After my luggage arrived, I had a long awaited shower, and found that my shampoo had exploded in my bag. After some cleanup, I was shown to the nearest internet cafe by Lux from Kitchener. Ariel Diner is a cool place to surf the net – just order food or drink and surf almost all you want.
After that, I asked Lux for help with some shopping. We went to the 99 yen store and Daiei Depaato. I bought a small stereo and some food.
In the evening, the plan was for all the Canadians from the train the previous day to meet up and go for drinks. My landlord Seiko gave me a map to the apartment we were meeting at, and some tips on places to avoid (hostess bars). After a half hour train ride and some time searching around I found the apartment. Well, I was the only one to show up because nobody else got the nice map I did. So I hung out with two Canadians and an Aussie. On the way home there were three schoolboys arguing over who had to sit next to the gaijin on the train. I was nice and pretended I didn`t hear them or understand. Everyone else is very nice here.
The alarm clock I brought from Canada was set for 60Hz electricity. How this works is the clock counts 60 power cycles and then advances time by 1 second. Japan electricity is 50Hz, so my clock was slow. I wanted to wake up at 7:30 to wait for my bags, but actually woke up closer to 10:00.
When I told Seiko that I was going to meet up with other teachers and go to a bar she got very worried. The area where the other teachers lived was slightly seedy, and most of the places in the area were hostess bars. I am sure that many unsuspecting teachers have ended up in a bar where suddenly beautiful women are pouring their drinks and they end up with a huge bill at the end of the night.
The three high school students arguing over who had to sit next to the gaijin was my first, but not my last experience where people openly treated me differently because I was not Japanese. I learned that many people didn’t expect the gaijins to understand Japanese, and it is usually pretty fun to surprise them.
Well, that felt like the longest flight in the history of flying. I flew from Winnipeg to Vancouver, with a brief stop in Saskatoon. Then Vancouver to Tokyo which took 9 and a half hours. I only managed to sleep about 2 hours on the plane. When I landed, my brain thought it was 1:30am, but local time was 3:30pm. Immigration took about an hour and a half, and customs was pretty quick. All the Nova instructors met up, changed money, and sent our luggage for delivery. Then it was off to Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest stations in Japan.
En route to Shinjuku, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we could order and drink beer on the train. So all of the Canadians were introducing ourselves, drinking beer, and generally forgetting that we were in a foreign country.
When I finally arrived at Noborito it was raining hard. I was met by Minami who is one of the landlords. He walked me to Hello House and gave me my lease papers and key. By the time all is done it is 9:00pm. Not wanting to go to sleep yet, I ventured out to the Sunkus convenience store to get some food. All was well until I tried to pay and the clerk asked me a question. Well it seems my Japanese was not as good as I thought it was. Thankfully she clued in and pointed to the chopsticks that she had just offered to me. What a fun day!
Notes from 2013:
This was the longest I ever had to wait in the immigration line in all my trips to Japan. At the time the government was working on decreasing the wait times for incoming foreigners.
In my original post I should have spent more time describing the chaos at Shinjuku. Coming from a huge, underpopulated country to one of the most densely packed cities in the world is a HUGE shock to the system. The station was completely full of busy people all moving in every direction at the same time. Think of leaving the busiest sporting event or concert you have ever been to, and then multiply that by 10.
I learned another valuable cultural lesson on the train – Japanese people do not understand sarcasm. Nova was very good about having someone accompany our group to ensure that we all got off at the right stations. We were all met at the station by someone who would get us to our new homes. I was the only person getting off at Noborito station. I had blonde hair, a Canada flag backpack, a laptop bag and likely one of the largest noses that Japan has ever seen. I also was the only person not carrying an umbrella. I could not have looked more out of place.
My Japanese escort on the train said that I would be met by a man named Minami who would walk me to Hello House. I sarcastically said “gee, how will he ever recognize me”. My escort missed the sarcasm completely and called Minami to give him a description, just in case there were other blonde, jet lagged Canadian travelers getting off the train. Learning to curb my sarcasm was a very difficult adjustment, because Canadians are sarcastic bastards.
On departure day I woke up early, enjoyed my last free shower for the next year (more to come on this), and waited for my parents to pick me up and take me to the airport. My parents live outside of Winnipeg, so they spent the night in a hotel in order to take me to the airport. We didn’t want to take any chances on missing an international flight, so we got to the airport around 6:00 for my 7:30 flight to Vancouver. I didn’t expect anyone else to be there, but my friend Junk (not his real name) surprisingly showed up to see me off. My parents, Junk and I sat around enjoying my last Tim Hortons coffee for a very long time. For any non Canadians reading this – Tim Hortons is a hugely popular and succesful coffee chain in Canada. There are more Tim Hortons locations than McDonalds.
My parents were both excited for me, but also nervous at seeing their son travel to the other side of the planet for a year. When the time finally came I hugged them both and made my way through security. Looking back I could see them waving good-bye until I was out of sight.
Having never traveled by myself before, I was more than a little nervous. The first flight was easy enough – Winnipeg to Vancouver with a brief stop in Saskatoon to pick up more passengers. In Vancouver I had a 4 hour wait until my flight to Tokyo. Since Vancouver airport was huge, I was worried about getting lost and went almost directly to the international departure area. As soon as I entered, I started feeling like I had already left the country. My gate was between two other flights to Asian destinations, and I was one of the few white faces in the crowd. As I waited, I listened to bits and pieces of conversations in several different languages, trying hard to focus on any Japanese I could recognize.
When the flight finally boarded, I found myself sitting next to two young Japanese ladies, likely students. (To this day I can’t accurately guess Japanese people’s ages). I learned something valuable that day – Japanese people have the ability to fall asleep in any moving vehicle at any time. They were both soundly sleeping before take off. Being an excited Canadian guy who had never traveled solo before, I found myself unable to sleep for the entire flight.
The flight was about 10 hours long, but felt much, MUCH longer. By the end of a 10 hour flight the air is stale, the seats are uncomfortable, and you just want to get off the damn plane. I spent the last 30 minutes glued to the window, watching the land getting closer. My first impression of Japan from the air was that everything was really crowded and all the cars were driving on the wrong side of the road. What I thought was crowded was nothing compared to what I was about to experience once we landed.
To say that the day before I left for Japan was busy would be a huge understatement.
When you are about to go away for an extended period of time, people you know tend to call you to say goodbye and wish you well. They also always ask if you are free for one last coffee, drink, pizza, whatever. My whole day was spent avoiding the phone and packing. Not only was I finishing my Japan packing, but I was also packing my stuff to go into my parent’s house for storage. At the time my sister and I were sharing a two bedroom apartment, and she needed my room empty so she could find a roommate.
When you have lived in one place for a while, you tend to accumulate huge amounts of junk. Packing up the big things are easy, but sorting through years worth of random papers, pens, CDs, clothes, etc. is a never ending battle. My family and The Ex were helping as much as possible. I started the day grumpy, moved on to unpleasant and finished downright miserable.
At the end of my packing day, I had 2 large suitcases packed with clothes and essentials to go on the plane. I had my lucky Canada flag backpack filled with stuff for the plane, and a laptop bag with my sisters ginormus dinosaur laptop of doom. The rest of my room was stacked with packed boxes making movement difficult. On our last night together, The Ex did not stay over. She said that she didn’t want to come to the airport with me so we would have to finish our goodbyes the night before. For all intents and purposes, that was the last night of our relationship.
Getting to sleep was nearly impossible thinking about all that I was leaving behind and the promise of unknown adventures to come.
I woke up in Victoria hospital with an IV in the back of my hand. When I realized where I was, my first thought was to get out as soon as possible. Since my official graduation would be in October, one month after I left for Japan, my parents had scheduled graduation pictures before I left. My picture appointment happened to be later that very day. I needed to get home to recover and clean myself up before pictures. There was no way I wanted my parents to know that I had spent the night in the hospital.
I got the nurses attention, got the IV removed and headed to a phone. I didn’t know when The Ex had left the previous night or how angry she was going to be, so I called the frat house for a ride. I made it almost the entire way home without puking. Almost. My apologies to the people waiting for a bus in front of Burger King at confusion corner – I didn’t want you to see that.
At home I slept for a few more hours, had a shower, tried to eat something small, and waited for my ride to pictures. My family commented on how pale I looked and that I must have killed a few brain cells the night before. I didn’t share any details.
My graduation pictures look terrible. I am pale at the best of times, but on this day, I looked practically albino. Wearing a bright white shirt made the effect even worse. Only my sister noticed the band aid on the back of my hand and asked about it. I said that I must have bumped my hand at the wrestling show the night before. She said “good, I thought maybe you got really drunk and needed an IV at the hospital”. Lucky guess!
So if my family is reading this – there is the true story about why I look like an albino ghost in my graduation pictures.
For everyone else reading this – graduation pictures are really important to parents. Don’t screw yours up.
My farewell party was at the Premier Championship Wrestling (PCW) show on Thursday, September 2003. If memory serves, it was annual the “Back to School Bash” show. At the time I was a big pro wrestling fan, and had been going to weekly PCW shows for over a year. There was a core group of us that would always go to the shows including The Ex (also a pro wrestling fan), and a few of the frat boys. Not only was I a regular, but I was also the undisputed wrestling trivia champion. Since this was a special occasion pretty much the entire fraternity chapter showed up. PCW ran all of their shows out of a local bar located close to the University.
The problems started when almost everyone wanted to buy me a farewell drink. When I mean everyone, I mean the fraternity brothers and some of the other regular wrestling fans. Being a fun, friendly guy I didn’t refuse any drinks at all. The promoter made a point of telling the crowd that it was my farewell show, and got me into the ring to demonstrate my beer chugging abilities. I also got to be part of an in ring angle where one of the wrestlers had a shocking revelation about his personal life. My job was to wait for the signal and then hit the mat and bail out of the ring in a hurry. Considering how drunk I was at the time it is fortunate I didn’t end up falling on my head.
At some point my brain went into survival mode and I started giving away the drinks that people were bringing me. Memories get fuzzy later in the evening, but I ended up puking an ungodly amount beer and awful shots in the bathroom, and then went to sit with another group of regulars for the end of the show to avoid further free drinks. My last memories of the wrestling show were of Mentallo winning a championship and getting into someone’s car to go back to the fraternity house. My next memories were at the fraternity house. A few people were trying to convince me to drink water while I was sitting on the floor in the bathroom, hanging onto the toilet for dear life. My brain, still in survival mode, convinced me that they were trying to give me more alcohol, so I flat out refused to drink anything else.
The problem with drinking stories is that some of them start fun and end fun. Others start fun and end badly. This was one of the “ending badly” stories. To be continued…