Archive for June, 2014
A mere 19 days after I dropped off my University friends at Narita airport, I was once again taking the cheap trains to pick up visitors. This time I would be picking up my parents and sister.
My parents would have never considered traveling to Japan if I wasn’t living here. In fact, they have never traveled outside of North America before. My parents are in their mid 50s and live in a small town west of Winnipeg. My father is an air traffic controller – he was in the Canadian Forces for 27 years, retired, and then started doing the same job as a civilian. He is one of the friendliest people I know and has no issues starting a conversation with complete strangers. My mother is a teacher’s assistant at an elementary school. She specializes in helping hearing impaired and deaf students. My sister is a University student who lives in Winnipeg. She is in her early 20s, short, and very smart. However, she will believe almost everything I tell her, a fact that I occasionally abuse for comedic effect.
When I picked up my friends from the airport, I ended up having to wait a long time for them to clear customs and immigration after their flight landed. I had considered arriving about an hour after my family’s flight landed, but was worried that if they somehow got through early, they would be worried that they couldn’t find me. I got to the airport exactly when their flight arrived, and ended up having to wait about 90 minutes for them to show up.
At this point it had been 9 months since I had seen my family. My sister looked mostly the same, but my parents looked older. They all commented on how skinny I looked, since I had probably dropped about 5kg (12lbs) since moving to Japan.
We got tickets for the Narita Express and were on our way to Shinjuku from the airport. Just like my first train ride into Tokyo, and my friends after that, my family was amazed at the size and density of the city. Everyone always gets excited, and then they realize they are only in Chiba and things are only going to get busier.
We made a brief stop in Shinjuku to look at the skyline. The largest city my family had ever been to was Toronto. Tokyo is like stacking a few Torontos on top of each other. I taught them all how to use the train ticket gates, and we headed off for Noborito.
I couldn’t get the same guest room in Hello House East that my friends had, however I got a bigger, nicer room in Hello House West for my parents. They were impressed with the room (and the price), but were a little concerned about sleeping on futons on the floor. My sister was going to stay in my room on my futon, and I would sleep on my foldy floor couch. After giving them all of the key information on Hello House (where the bathrooms and coin operated showers were located), we decided to head out and get some food.
My dad can be pretty adventurous with food, but my mom and sister aren’t as much. To ease them into their Japan experience, we ate at a Spaghetti restaurant near Mukogaokayuen station. We walked from Hello House, and my family enjoyed looking at all of the different businesses along the way. Everyone ordered fairly non-threatening spaghetti (no squid ink sauce for anyone), and we had our first meal as a family in 9 months.
I really missed my family and was happy they came to visit me! It’s going to be a great few weeks!
(2014 update) My dad told me later that he had brought two apples to eat on the plane. He finished one, and kept the other in his carry on luggage. When the customs staff asked if he was carrying any fruits or vegetables, he pulled out the apple. The customs staff told him that he would have to dispose of the apple before he could enter the arrivals lounge. He considered arguing or eating the apple in front of the customs staff, but instead tossed the apple in a nearby garbage bin.
Today The Penpal came from Numazu to visit me in Kawasaki again. We hung out in my room at Hello House and listened to music. Afterwards we watched my Pixies DVD. I also practiced my Japanese by trying to retell the story about Green attempting to eat 20 Frosties at Wendy’s in Japanese. The Penpal understood my explanation of the story, but couldn’t understand why someone would try to eat 20 Frosties at one time. If I can’t explain it in English, I have no chance of explaining it in Japanese.
After she returned to Numazu, I went to the video store and rented American Beauty and Silence of the Lambs. I had seen both before, but they were both excellent.
(2014 Update) The ending of Silence of the Lambs continues to be terrifying even years later.
After work I had some Kiosk beers with co-workers. Going for a beer or two at Kiosk at Kawasaki station is becoming a regular event for some of the teachers. It is a great way to unwind after a shift, and watching all of the people in the station is never boring.
I like Kiosk!
After work last night I once again found myself at Daiei’s supermarket looking for some discount food. I decided on a delicious looking rice bowl covered in sashimi (raw fish). It had been marked down 50% because it had been sitting in the deli section unsold for the entire day. 50% is the maximum discount that Daiei gives, so I was pretty excited to dig into my giant fishy rice bowl.
I woke up this morning feeling terrible. My stomach was not happy with me, and after making three rapid trips to the bathroom I decided to call in sick and go back to bed.
After a day of sleeping and running to the bathroom, I finally felt well enough to get out and rent some movies. I spent my evening watching Terminator 3 (not nearly as good as 1 and 2) and Dreamcatcher (not as good as the book).
(2014 Update) Calling in sick at NOVA was fairly easy and painless. An English speaking operator answers and asks for your name, your branch, and the reason for missing work. If you sound particularly sick they also ask if you need any further assistance. As long as you call before certain times (8:30 for early shift, 10:00 for afternoon shifts) there is no penalty for missing your shift, other than not getting paid.
When I told them that I wouldn’t be showing up due to discount sashimi, they didn’t sound impressed. I found out later that sushi and sashimi were by far the most common reasons that teachers would give for missing work. Japan has fairly high food safety standards, so it is likely that some of the sushi and sashimi calls were actually booze related.
I used up all of my vacation time and did some shift swaps to get the time off for my friends recent visit to Japan. To get time off for my family’s visit I did all shift swaps. I have basically destroyed my June and July work schedules, and have a stretch of 20 work days in a row. July is NOT going to be a fun month.
(2014 Update) In case you are looking at the dates of my posts and wondering why there are large gaps, it is entirely due to the non stop work required to get time off for my visitors. Nothing really interesting happened on most of those days other than work.
Today was my first day back to work after my friends returned to Canada. Kawasaki NOVA is just the same as when I started my vacation. To cover the shift swaps needed to accommodate two sets of visitors, I will be spending a lot of time at work in the near future.
It was a lot of fun rewriting the posts about my friends’ visit to Japan. My original blog posts ranged from two sentences to a paragraph each, which was not nearly long enough to properly describe the events. Using a combination of my original blog posts, pictures from the time, and recent conversations with some of the guys, I was able to flesh out some of the details.
There are a few small things that got missed in the daily updates:
Flounder stands out: Flounder was stared at almost everywhere we went because he was gigantic compared to most people. He actually started counting the number of people staring at him on each day. He was in the double digits but stopped counting when we walked by a few hundred elementary school kids.
So much Playstation: We played a lot of Playstation while working off our hangovers. The most popular game was WWE Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain. I only had two PS2 controllers, so two players had to use PS1 controllers that we borrowed from Lux. Since taunts were only usable on the PS2 controllers, we had to impose a house rule banning them.
Hippies like gyoza: Hippie took a serious liking to gyoza from Shop 99 – the awesome 99 yen store near Hello House. I have never seen someone so enthusiastically demolish an entire package. “I like dumplings” because his catch phrase for the trip.
Laryngitis: I had a bit of a sore throat when the guys arrived. They bombarded me with so many questions about everything around us that I actually lost my voice completely a few times in the first days of their visit.
Are we there yet: On our many train rides, the guys would annoy me by asking which station we needed to get off at. Then they would ask how many stops were left. Then they would ask me which station again. Then they asked how many stops now. It was a variation on the classic “are we there yet”. I told them to just get off the train when I did and to stop asking questions.
To stop this game, I got off the train unexpectedly at a station on Odakyu line with no explanation. All of the guys followed me off the train and then I jumped back on suddenly. They all scrambled to get back on the train before the doors closed. I though this was hilarious. They didn’t appreciate the humour.
Representing Canada: Like most Canadians, we proudly displayed the Canadian flag in our travels. However, all the flags got put away when we were drinking and acting like idiots. This was something we learned in our fraternity days – don’t act stupid while wearing fraternity letters.
Not everyone can read Japanese: On one of our Tokyo adventures, I needed to hit a bank machine. I told the guys to meet me at the coffee shop across the street. They asked which coffee shop. I told them it was the only coffee shop on the street. They still didn’t see it. At this point I realized the problem: the coffee shop sign was in Japanese and I was the only person who could read it.
Thailand: If you are standing on a train holding on to the handle and someone asks you what the capital of Thailand is, you are about to get punched in the junk.
The final word:
It has been ten years since my friends came to visit me in Japan. We don’t always see each other very often, but when we do we always have fond memories of our 17 day adventure in Japan. We have all grown up since that time and now all have real jobs. The crazy guys who had a non stop karaoke, video game and booze filled vacation are now a professional accountant, an elementary school teacher, a train conductor, a corporate account manager and something to do with military intelligence. Hippie and I were in each other’s wedding parties and I look forward to setting up play dates with my newborn son and Flounder’s soon to arrive baby.
If I hadn’t joined a fraternity in University I likely would never have met Code Red, Green, Hippie, or Flounder. There are some people who say that joining a fraternity is just a way to buy some friends. If that’s the case, I didn’t pay nearly enough.
Today my friends all returned to Canada. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the terrible travel agent booked Flounder on a flight leaving Narita airport at 2:00pm for Chicago, while Code Red, Hippie and Green were on a 4:00pm flight to Chicago. Hippie lost his ticket, so we decided to all get to the airport early so he could fill out some paperwork at United Airlines and get a replacement.
The guys had spent nearly all of the money that they brought with them from Canada, so we decided to take the less expensive, slower route to the airport. We took the Odakyu line from Noborito to Shinjuku, Yamanote line to Nippori, then Keisei line to the airport. This route takes twice as long as the Narita Express, but only costs half as much. Taking giant suitcases on busy trains is never a fun experience.
On the Keisei line we were seated next to a father and his young son. The young boy kept staring at our group, especially Flounder. Flounder turned to him and said “hi”, which caused the boy to hide behind his father for the rest of the train ride.
When we arrived at the airport, we all went directly to the United Airlines departure area. Hippie explained his situation and paid to get a replacement for his lost ticket. When talking to the staff, they looked up the tickets for the other members of the group. It turns out that the travel agent had moved Code Red, Hippie and Green to the 2:00pm flight without telling them. If Hippie hadn’t lost his ticket then he, Code Red and Green might have all missed their flight home! I wish I knew the name of the travel agent so I could publicly shame them here.
Everyone got checked in, and I said goodbye to my friends before they went through the security gate. The past 17 days had been a lot of fun, but I was ready to get back to my regular life in Japan. Also, my liver needed to recover from the never ending deluge of inexpensive beer.
I left the airport to start the two hour trip back to Hello House and proceeded to have one of the laziest, most relaxing days I had experienced in a long time.
The guys are leaving tomorrow, so after returning from our rainy day in Kamakura, everyone slowly started packing. We also watched the hockey game on the Hello House TV (Calgary lost again) and tried to finish any leftover alcohol from Canada.
All of the guys booked their flights through a travel agent in Green’s home town in northern Alberta. The travel agent was a friend of Green’s father. For some unknown reason, the travel agent booked all of the tickets from Winnipeg to Chicago to Tokyo instead of the faster, easier Winnipeg to Vancouver to Tokyo. Also, not everyone was on the same flight home. Flounder was flying solo at 2:00pm, while Green, Code Red and Hippie were on a 4:00pm flight.
During the packing, Hippie couldn’t find his ticket. He carefully checked all of his bags and still couldn’t find it. We searched my room that Hippie and I had been staying in from top to bottom – no ticket. Flounder, Code Red and Green searched through their room and suitcases carefully – still no ticket. After about an hour of careful searching, we took to the phone.
Due to the time, we couldn’t get in touch with the airlines. Green called the travel agent and someone in the office answered the phone. Green explained that he and his friends were in Japan, leaving tomorrow, and one of them lost a ticket. The travel agent told Green that they were closed and hung up on him. Hippie then turned to his last resort – calling his parents for help.
We got a call back at 4:30am from Hippie’s father who had just talked to United Airlines. Hippie could show up at the airport with ID and fill out a lost ticket form. He would receive a new ticket in exchange for $100 US dollars. Hippie was not thrilled about having to pay, but was happy that we would be able to go home.
It turns out that Hippie losing his ticket was a good thing for the whole group, but we didn’t find out until we got to the airport…
(2014 Update) It’s hard to imagine that only 10 years ago it was that difficult to get in touch with an airline.
Today was the last full day in Japan for my visitors. Breaking with our trend, we all actually got up early. The plan for the day was to meet The Penpal and her friends in Kamakura and see some of the sights. It was raining steadily as we left Hello House for the station.
We met up with The Penpal and friends, and got a quick lunch before sightseeing. During lunch, Flounder was trying to teach some rude English to the Japanese people in our group. He was trying to convince them that “motherf**ker” was a commonly used word between friends, and provided various examples. I think Flounder believes that we all live in a 70’s blaxploitation film.
After lunch we started our sightseeing at Hachiman-gu shrine. Despite the rain we saw yet another traditional wedding. From Hachiman-gu we walked to Daibutsu. By this point the rain was bucketing down and we were all soaked, even with umbrellas. Almost nobody carries an umbrella in Winnipeg, so Code Red, Hippie, Green and Flounder were all having umbrella fights as we walked.
At Daibutsu we spent most of our time under cover trying to stay out of the rain. Since the rain didn’t let up, we decided to go back towards the station and find an indoor activity to do. We went to – you guess it – another game center. The game center had a large selection of print club machines. Print club machines are large photo booths that are popular with teenage girls. You can take your pictures with various backgrounds and then draw on the pictures or add cute pictures. At the end the machine prints out copies of your pictures. We loaded all 8 guys in our group into the print club machine and took some ridiculous pictures. After the game center, we found some nearby karaoke where we sang and ate.
We returned to Hello House soaked to the bone after a fun day. Going to Kamakura is always good, but today was was even more exciting because I got to introduce my girlfriend to my friends.