A month in Japan (part the second)

So, I’ve been slack. What started out as a series of posts on two weeks in Japan still hasn’t been finished after a month here. It’s been long enough that I’ve started to forget what days I did things on, so this may be a little bit vague. On the plus-side, the boring bits have probably faded from my mind. The saga continues…

Monday 5 September

I can’t remember what I did on the Sunday, but Monday the fifth was my 24th birthday. With nary a person to wish me well, I decided to go to Tôkyô. Until this point, I’d been unable to recharge my laptop, because I couldn’t find, in Ôta, a power-plug adaptor for Australian appliances. Ah, actually, now I remember I’d spent Sunday riding around Ôta looking in vain for adaptors. So Monday I went in search of them in Akihabara, a district of Tôkyô famed for discount electronics.

I used the 2-hour train-ride to study Japanese. Already, I’d started to understand my textbook a lot better, leaping ahead through lessons from one to another recognition of something someone had said to me in a store.

At the end of the line, Asakusa Station, I was thoroughly bewildered about which way I was facing, and asked a man standing outside, in Japanese “which way is north?” He pointed uncertainly in a direction I later discovered was something more like east than north, and delivered the first English word I’d heard out of a Japanese person’s mouth since I arrived “perhaps.” I arigatô gozaimashita-ed him and went on my way, trusting my own instincts rather than his.

As it turned out, I wasn’t totally wrong, for heading what I thought was North I did in fact arrive at the Sensô-ji, a famous temple north of Asakusa station. The Sensô-ji’s most striking feature is, hanging on its front gate, the most gigantic red lantern I have ever seen. I didn’t have a camera at the time, so here’s a picture I poached.


Something worth noting about Japanese temples is that while they’re nice to look at, there isn’t really a lot you can do there. For visitors, the bulk of a temple is screened off. You can see the main hall, but through a screen, and you certainly can’t walk in on their tatami with your dirty gaijin shoes. And yes, there are definitely people around Tôkyo who would walk in with their shoes on. People can go around the side to enter and pray, but I’m not sure what they’d think if a foreigner took a seat in there and started meditating. As a Western Zen practitioner, the idea of praying to a Buddha seems antithetical to the ideals of Buddhism, but whatever…

From the Sensô-ji, I continued to get my bearings, wandering into a department store before resolutely setting out to walk to Akihabara. Map distances in Tôkyo can be deceptive, and it probably took me the better part of an hour to get to there, given that I went the wrong way at least once. It was raining all day, too. Fortunately, I had an umbrella, but the city streets were covered in a layer of water, and I had holes in the soles of my shoes. My feet got soaked, and very sore into the bargain.

Though Den-den town in Akihabara has a reputation as a good place to buy discount electronics, I didn’t find it particularly mindblowing. I did see some interesting things not available outside Japan, such as Sharp’s Zaurus [model number], an Linux-based PDA with a built-in 4MB hard-disk. Computers, in fact, are extraordinarily cheap and small nearly everywhere you go here: a lightweight Sony Vaio that might cost you AU$4000 in Australia is about 120,000Â¥ here (maybe AU$1500). But then, I spend most of my time working with computers, so Akihabara was pretty mundane. What was interesting to me, though, was that a lot of the electronics stores in Akihabara employ Indian guys who can speak English to foreigners. I managed to find out, from one such guy, on the seventh and top floor of a multilevel electronics store, that the power adapter I needed was of a kind that I’d seen numerous times in Ôta: I just hadn’t known what it was.

Though my trip was, in a sense, unneccessary, it introduced me to what I was missing in Ôta, what I’d come here for: some of the major cities of the world. Tôkyo is a sprawling, sometimes stinking, sometimes very shabby metropolis. But it’s damned impressive, even the most unkempt parts like Asakusa, part of the old Shitamachi (literally downtown, or under-town). With all its obvious flaws, Tôkyo is still a monument to the great power of human intellect and industry, a great congregation of humanity in pursuit of happiness, wealth, and progress. As important as Ôta, a factory town, is to human industry, it’s not at the center of things, and at the center is where I want to be.

Tôkyo is inspiring. After seeing it, Ôta seems like a prison.

(After returning from Tôkyo, I went out to an Ôta izakaya called Gin for a few birthday drinks. Great sashimi and interesting yakitori [including skewers with nothing but chicken skin on them]. Thanks for taking me out, guys.)

Tuesday 6 — Thursday 8 September

For the next three days, I had training at Takasaki in Saitama prefecture, about an hour from Ôta. On Tuesday I yet again caught the wrong train, to Akagi, got off early at Aioi, made a phone call to NOVA HQ in Tôkyo to say I’d be late while waiting for the train to Kiryû, but then managed to get to Takasaki for training with about 2 minutes to spare. It was a mistake I haven’t made since.

As with orientation, training was for me alone. Paul, the trainer at the branch, had a great sense of humour, as did the staff at the branch, and though learning to implement the extremely packed lesson format at NOVA was a little stressful, the three 8-hour days I spent in Takasaki were fun. I got to meet several more instructors, and see them at work. One, Brendan, had an MA in Japanese Studies, which he’d got for writing a thesis on how Japanese attitudes to Nobunaga Oda had changed since the Meiji Restoration (based on an analysis of textbooks). Again, I came face to face with instructor lack of Japanese ability. Behind Brendan, and Richard, a guy from Adelaide who’s been here six years and has a Japanese wife, my Japanese was probably the third best in the office, and at that stage I was only up to Chapter 8 or 9 of my beginners’ textbook. Disappointing.

Friday 9 September

My first day teaching a full schedule (a whole 5 lessons over four hours) at the NOVA branch in the Aeon shopping centre here in Ôta. For the most part, unremarkable. Preparing lessons and filling out reports in the meagre 10-minute breaks allotted is a hard task for a newcomer, but in the days to come, it turned into a habit rather than something to be thought about too much. As a beginner, one can teach only a very small range of ability levels, and one doesn’t take free conversation (VOICE) or kids’ classes, so shifts can be a little monotonous. But it’s a pleasure to meet students, and the shifts, for a part-timer, are very short. Easy money, perhaps…

Saturday 10 September

Today I took the plunge and went up to Yamada Denki to secure my own mobile phone, no thanks to NOVA who led me to expect they’d help and then didn’t. Though I asked, reciting a phrase I’d meticulously and (I now know) incorrectly composed in my notebook, if anyone could help me in English, the only person in the store who could was busy at the time. If you thought Japanese people learned English at school, and could speak it, think again: if you’re out of the major cities, odds are they can’t. So I tried in my broken Japanese, and to my surprise, once the woman who spoke English was free to help, it was usually easier to keep the explanations in Japanese. So, I got a phone, a Sharp 903SH with a 3 megapixel camera built in. 15000Â¥ (about AU$180) on a 1-year contract. I swear the same phone would have cost me at least AU$600 in Australia. We sure do get ripped off at home.

At night, I went out to Gin again, this time with a much larger group of gaijin, including instructors from schools other than NOVA. Though it’s fun to go out drinking, staff at the izakayas around here don’t have the best ordering and billing practices. I kept getting sent beers I hadn’t ordered, and as a result ended up being both drunker, and poorer, by the end of the night than I intended. Once Gin closed, we went to an all-night place where my intention to order nothing but Coke was actually heeded, but we didn’t stay there long.

Sunday 11 September

The national election is today, so I can say goodbye to the vans waking me up with blaring political slogans at 8am in the morning. I was going to try climbing the local mountain today, but it was rained all day. Just as well, since I was hung over from drinking beers I hadn’t ordered. I stayed inside and… I don’t know. Did I read a book? Somewhere around this point I managed to get internet access by plugging an Airport Express into my upstairs neighbour’s broadband modem, so creating a wireless network that I could use in my own apartment. So I may have spent the day Skyping or something.

An uneventful close to a big week. More coming up.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.