August 30, 2002
When beginning a life in a new land, the first few days are always the longest. The brain recognizes that it is in a completely new environment. As a result, it processes everything it can in minute detail. The new day feels much longer than the routine day, where the brain can switch off and ignore that which it is already used to.
–Toshio Asano, In the Mind of the Professional Tourist
The first thing Az saw when he left the confines of Narita Airport was a Starbucks. It stood defiantly in his path, giving his hope of a unique Japanese experience a very American middle finger.
For a moment he just stood there and stared at it, head cocked like a puppy, his knapsack sagging on one shoulder. It was identical to the ones in Seattle. He might as well be in Seattle: same music, same tables, same chairs, same décor. Having never actually seen a Starbucks being built, he wondered if they infected the bottoms of buildings like some kind of fungus made from mutated cappuccino.
Next thing he knew he was holding a venti-sized double-mocha latte with non-fat milk. A froth moustache was on his face before he realized what had happened.
The ride to Tokyo was also a letdown. As the sun set, all the buildings were shrouded in silhouette, but what he saw failed to impress.
McDonald’s, Mr. Donut, 7-Eleven’s, and Wendy’s signs flitted by. Even signs that were technically Japanese, like Sony, TDK, and Fuji were old hat to him. It wasn’t like he’d expected masked ninjas swinging down the city canyons like Spider-Man, but this was just too American. He had traveled across the world for this, bled his savings dry to start a new life. So far he might as well have been in Vancouver or LA.
At least the train’s interior was interesting. With the exception of some product names and phrases in bizarre English (“We Can Help You With Our Pleasure!”), Az was completely lost. It made him acutely aware of how isolated he was—all alone in a city of twenty-five million people. He was still an hour away from Shibamata, so to keep himself distracted he let his Imagination wander through the advertisements.
Ka-clak ka-clak. Ka-clak ka-clak.
A genie with the body of Atlas proudly indicated the size of his penis with his thumb and forefinger, while a woman looked on in astonishment. Perhaps it was warning people against steroid abuse. If it was supposed to be an “after” result for Viagra, Pfizer would be out of business within a week. It turned out it was for a loan company, and the genie must have been indicating how low the interest rate was. Az liked his version better.
The ad next to the genie had a kid on the floor watching TV, but you couldn’t see what was on the screen. Judging from the look on the kid’s face, it must have been a snuff film his daddy had made and forgotten to hide. They sure don’t give that kind of education in school, do they, Akira?
Ka-clak ka-clak. Ka-clak ka-clak.
More ads hung from the ceiling, which swayed as the train shuddered along. One seemed to be for a newspaper. A headshot of the Prime Minister sat beneath a towering vertical headline, so tiny it looked as if it were being crushed by an avalanche of large, angry Japanese symbols.
The interior lights flickered and dimmed, but nobody seemed to care. The businessman across from him continued to read his porn. At least, Az assumed it was porn. Maybe the girl on the cover was just interested in motorcycles. Really interested. The magazine no doubt went out of its way to show just how into them she was, in all kinds of enthusiastic positions with leather boots, a thong, some rope, and not much else.
It occurred to him that his Imagination was preoccupied with sex today, and wondered if it meant anything, aside from the obvious.
The train droned on into Tokyo as night fell.
Az had a job waiting for him. He knew a guy who knew a guy who got him a contract with one of the hundreds of language schools in Tokyo. They’d even found him an apartment; all he had to do now was sign the lease. They told him it was a sweet deal, the kind people who wanted to teach in Japan might spend years waiting for, and who might leave a rabid Rottweiler in his bedroom if they heard he'd had it handed on a silver platter like this.
But sometimes that’s the way life worked. Most of his life, it had worked the other way. Karma owed him.
Getting a decent job back home had been all but impossible. Up until he graduated, he’d worked the night shift at the Vids ‘N’ Cigs down the street, where he’d earned honorary degrees in both Cinema and Movie Trivia. The most exciting thing that ever happened there was when a twelve-year-old with a five o’clock shadow painted on tried to buy porn and cigarettes.
He was driven out of Redmond in shame when he applied for a job at Microsoft. Sure, the website said you only needed a B.A. to be a technical writer, but the woman with the Snidely Whiplash sneer and mustache in Human Resources told him that reality didn’t work that way. A Master’s in computer science was the minimum she’d consider unless he had five years of experience, which she could somehow tell by his clothes he did not. Given their incomprehensible manuals, he thought being able to write would have been more important.
It was almost a year since 9/11, and America was still trying to figure out what it was going to become. But behind the patriotic rhetoric to get the bad guys, it felt like the country was in danger of closing in on itself. It wouldn't be the first time in its history, and when it happened it was never a good thing.
Mark Twain had said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” The last twelve months had made Az realize just how little of the world he had actually seen (Vancouver didn’t count; in his mind, a different country couldn’t be closer than the next state). And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he needed this.
This was his chance to put his old life behind him, start a new one, and see where it went. Rebuild, regenerate, revitalize…and other metaphorical crud that started with “re.”
Or maybe he was just running away. That was just as possible. He had as many reasons to go as he did not to stay, and Nadine fell into both categories.
Within two weeks, he was on a twelve-hour flight to Narita, watching five progressively worse movies on a five-inch TV screen embedded in the headrest of the economy-class chair in front of him, wondering if all the Japanese girls were as cute as he imagined they would be.
And here he was. In Tokyo. At night. Alone.
There was something off-putting about meeting a real estate agent after dark. It didn’t help that the agency’s office was a small, windowless burrow, lit with flickering fluorescents and hidden away in a back alley so obscure that the taxi driver had to check his GPS three times and still managed to get lost. It felt like he was arranging a deal with the mob rather than leasing an apartment.
Considering the extortion that took place next, maybe he was.
“Key money? I need money for a key?” Az’s tone and attitude screamed “I’M NEW! SCREW ME!” but he couldn’t help it.
“Hai. Two-month deposit in advance, plus first and last month rent. Plus damage deposit.” The school had referred him to this agent, probably because he spoke English reasonably well.
“A deposit, huh? So I get it back when I leave?”
“No. It is key money.” Something in his voice made it sink in; this was money for the privilege of renting the apartment. They called it Key money. Az called it a bribe. Whether it was to the landlord, the agent, or both, he had no idea. But it seemed to be the way things were done.
The agent pointed to the lease. “Sign, please.” It was in Japanese. For all Az knew it could have been a confession. He hadn’t even seen the apartment yet. But the company had arranged this and, really, what choice did he have?
He glanced at the monthly fee and had to fight off a panic attack. He reminded himself to “drop two zeros, drop two zeros” when visualizing what yen was worth compared to dollars.
It was still damn expensive, even with two zeros dropped.
The blue LED on the dashboard of the agent's car flashed 10:00 as they wove through the neon-soaked streets. He was moving into what they called a 1DK, meaning it had one bedroom plus a second room that doubled as a dining room and kitchen. Had it been big enough to also act as a living room, it would have been called a 1LDK. He wondered how big it would be. It sounded small, but how small?
For a moment, Az wished he had done more research about Japan. At least then he’d be better prepared for this. Part of him was glad he hadn’t. If he’d known too much it might have scared him off. But he was here, and his return ticket was conditional upon working at least six months at the school. It was a powerful incentive to suck it up and get on with making a life.
Driving on the wrong side of the road didn’t disorient him as much as he thought it would. Of course, he wasn’t doing the driving. Even at this hour on the outskirts of Tokyo, there were the bright neon signs of countless stores, many of which were completely foreign to him. Restaurants, clothing stores, drug stores, bookstores—one of which insolently told its customers to “Book Off”—and an awful lot of casinos clogged the streets. At least, he assumed they were casinos. Even inside the car, he could hear the white noise of nightlife all around.
The car veered from the flood of neon and cruised into quiet darkness. Not a soul to be seen. Houses and buildings stood silent, illuminated by pale orange streetlights.
“We are here,” said the agent as they pulled into the tiny lot of an apartment building.
It was large. It was probably yellow. It looked like a giant brick turned on its side. They took a rickety coffin-sized elevator to the third floor where the agent fumbled with a key—larger and somehow more mechanical-looking than the ones Az was familiar with—and let him inside.
It was small. It was off-white. It looked like a dollhouse, and he had been shrunk down to fit inside. From the doorway he could see the whole apartment. Straight ahead: an empty bedroom with a ten-inch TV. Right: a mini-kitchen with mini-stove and mini-fridge. Left: an open bathroom door where he could see what could only be described as an ingenious use of space.
Sometime in the 1970s, someone must have held a contest for who could cram a bathtub, shower, sink, and toilet into an area the size of a closet, molded into a single unit. Clearly, the winner was the designer of this bathroom. He could pee in the toilet, brush his teeth, and take a shower all at the same time.
What could he say? “Where’s the rest of it?” “Do you have anything in a large?” “Do I time-share this place with Barbie and Ken?” It was already paid for, and the lease signed. He was stuck with it.
“Yeah, it’s great. Thanks.”
The agent smiled, gave him the key, bowed, and left.
Az dumped his backpack on the floor and tried to make himself comfortable. He wondered where the bed was, and then remembered they didn’t use beds, they used futons. He knew futons, he used to sleep on futons, but what was tucked away in the closet was no futon. Futons were uncomfortable sofas that folded down into less comfortable beds; this was a glorified duvet that weighed twenty pounds. And why the hell was the floor made out of wicker in this room? What was the point of that? Did it double as a dojo?
He checked the fridge and cupboards. Empty, of course. He explored the bathroom again. Yep. Small.
Now he was bored.
He turned on the TV. Of the twelve channels on the dial, only four and a half actually worked. He couldn’t understand anything on the four good channels. There was some kind of game show, a serious news program, a movie set in medieval Japan, and a show that could only be described as total chaos. The half-channel was playing The Dukes of Hazzard, with the General Lee jumping over a river, but had only static for sound.
He turned back to the chaos show. Two people were in a bowling alley having some kind of race to eat a roll of sushi that stretched all the way down the lane. About halfway down, the audience shrieked as they had to eat through The Wasabi Zone (fortunately labeled in English).
Japanese neophyte or not, he had eaten enough sushi to know what wasabi was. He didn’t know how to use chopsticks, but he did know to avoid that green paste from hell. The thought of eating through five feet of it as sushi filling made him slightly nauseous, and the picture-in-picture view of the audience’s horrified reactions only reinforced the feeling.
Still, it wasn’t as lame as Survivor.
The next morning he made a list.
He didn’t know what “Apartment Stuff” was at this point, but figured it would leap out and grab his attention when he saw it.
He stepped onto the balcony and surveyed his new neighborhood. His building was easily the biggest thing around; nothing else in the area had more than two floors. A vast canopy of Japanese roofs and treetops spread out before him, all the way to what looked like a river. A haze settled beyond that.
“Wow,” he said to no one in particular, then left to find a grocery store.
The elevator felt even less stable on the way down than it had going up. It felt like a couple of gorillas on top of the building raised or lowered the contraption with mighty vines. It missed his stop by a full foot and slowly wobbled back up. When the doors opened it was still a few inches shy of being level.
Stairs. He would definitely take the stairs from now on. He could use the exercise.
Outside it was quiet. Aside from the architectural differences and narrower streets, this felt a lot like the suburbs of Bellingham.
The address for his building was 6-30-5, but the numbers had nothing to do with streets. He had no idea how they worked; it seemed completely random. On one side of the street you could have 7-24-3, and right across from it might be 9-10-22. None of the local streets seemed to have names.
Again he felt he had been shrunk down to fit inside a miniature village. The proportions just felt wrong. There was a truck across the street, as aerodynamic as a cinder block, which could have fit neatly inside some of the larger SUVs back home. The houses around him were two stories high, but slender. They reminded him of the iconic San Francisco homes you saw on postcards, only smaller and less colorful.
This was Tokyo? Largest metropolis in the world? Technological jewel of the planet? A place where cyberpunk dreams came true? He had half-expected to see robots selling sushi on street corners and cars cruising the sky next to giant blimps broadcasting television advertisements. On those counts, he was sorely disappointed.
He headed west, he assumed. He was pretty sure this was the way he had arrived last night, so this road should take him back to the neon street with all of its convenience stores and minor luxuries. Given how disorienting the maze-like streets could be, like someone had a seizure while drawing up the plans, he made mental notes of the landmarks so he could backtrack his way home. First, on the corner there was a vending machine, and…
Az stopped. A vending machine?
He looked around. There wasn’t a store in sight. Only houses. Yet on the street corner was a vending machine, all alone. It stood before him like a huge, mysterious monolith, offering no reason for its existence. It simply was.
An all-knowing hum emanated from within. It displayed full-sized cans of its contents—soda, iced coffee, hot chocolate, juice, and something called “Aloe” with green tentacles that seemed to reach out from the can—and demanded that he choose.
He chose orange.
The road had more bends than a pair of wrestling ferrets, and he passed another vending machine before he found the neon street from last night. It looked pretty ordinary in the light of day. Some restaurants, a pharmacy, and a video store immediately caught his eye. And, of course, a 7-Eleven. He had come to Japan in search of something new, but right now he needed something familiar, if only so he would know it was there later on.
The doors were automatic, but didn’t hiss open until after he walked straight into them. Az rubbed his nose and looked at the grease print his face had left on the glass. The sensors must be off. A teenager leaving the store gave him a goofy look, but said nothing.
The speakers chirped away with intense, cheerful voices. He listened while he browsed, and once in a while caught fragments of English. They pronounced the name of the store in their bouncy jingle, “Sebun Irebun.” Aisukuriimu sounded like “ice cream,” and he had a vague impression that koohii meant “coffee.”
For some reason, it reminded him of the kids back in third grade slanting their eyes singing, “Me go pee-pee in your Coke.” Az felt an uncomfortable twinge of guilt remembering that, but there it was, Japanese English. Engrish, the recruiter had called it. It was something he’d have to get used to.
The store sold almost everything he would have expected in the States, but it was the unexpected that stuck out in his mind. He divided what he saw into four categories: familiar American products, Japanese versions of familiar American products, familiar American products with unfamiliar Japanese variations, and Japanese products he wasn’t familiar with at all.
He wondered if Häagen-Dazs ice cream in lychee nut and green tea flavors would ever catch on in America, or if dried octopus tentacles would someday be found next to the beef jerky. What about curry-filled donuts (What the hell?), or chocolate-coated bananas. And of course, there were those strange cans with the green tentacles promising Aloe inside. Aloe was something they put in shampoo, wasn’t it? Why would anyone drink it? For that matter, why put it in your hair?
He shrugged and grabbed a can anyway, along with a bag of chips and a bottle of cola, both of which were smaller than the ones in the States; so much so that he checked again to see if they had anything larger. Nope. He also picked up some pre-made meals that he could have at home tonight. That should do for the day.
He fished out his Japanese phrasebook, tried to look up what to say, gave up.
“Do you speak English?”
The woman behind the counter looked at him sheepishly. “A little.”
“Cool.” That was a bonus. If they spoke a little English out in the suburbs it would make life that much easier. “All this, please.”
She rang up the total, displayed on a color screen swivel-mounted on the cash register. Classy. Back home he had only ever seen green LEDs, but Bellingham wasn't a big city. Maybe they had these kind of cash registers in Seattle now.
She bagged the order. Smiled. She was cheerful, and cute in a pudgy sort of way. He tried to give her a sexy smirk, but probably only succeeded at looking constipated. As he left, she bowed and gave what he assumed was the standard, “Thank you, come again” line in Japanese, only it was much longer and spoken much faster, like she was trying to cram the local news and weather in at the same time.
There was a mound of garbage outside a house next to the 7-Eleven: three dozen shopping bags piled against the wall like a child’s half-hearted attempt at cleaning his room. If it all came from that one house he didn’t know whether to be worried or impressed. Az was startled by some movement at the base of the heap.
The biggest damn crow he’d ever seen pecked at the bags, then turned to face the intruder.
It was definitely a crow, but on steroids, and made of evil. It looked as though it could boast direct ancestry back to the T-Rex. Its beak was designed to crack skulls instead of seeds. It glared at Az for a moment, ready to throw down if he came any closer, then returned to the business at hand, pecking away at the garbage. It was soon joined by another, then another. Two more.
Despite their symbolic associations with doom, Az had never found crows to be particularly menacing. But these were. He’d feel sorry for any American crows that had to face them in a dark alley. These guys probably packed Glocks under their wings. He gave them a wide berth, and continued to explore.
He noticed a number of stares from the people who passed him on the street. Not from everyone, but enough to make him self-conscious. Perhaps this wasn’t the more culturally diverse part of Tokyo. He hadn’t seen another foreigner since he had arrived.
There was a gray, flat, and windowless tower nearby, as tall as his apartment building, but he didn’t have the slightest clue what it was for. Then the wide doors at the bottom opened. Something about the metal platform inside seemed familiar. It hung sort of like a coat hanger. Then it rotated up and to the left, and down the right a car rotated down, then stopped. Someone got inside and backed the car out.
He looked over the tower again. It was some kind of parking Ferris wheel. How hard up did you have to be for space that you couldn’t build a simple parking garage? He moved on.
He was fortunate not only to find a supermarket, but the train station was right above it. This must have been the one the agent had told him about, the one that would take him to central Tokyo. A large sign in Japanese and English announced that this was the Keisei Subway Line and he was at Shin-Shibamata Station. Whatever “Shin” meant. He saw the word used a few times on the subway map, and wondered if it was important. He added to his list:
Az wondered if he should move that to the top of the list.
He entered the supermarket and immediately kicked himself for buying anything at the 7-Eleven. Even the tentacle juice was cheaper here.
He could see over the shelves, and the aisles were barely wide enough for two small carts to scrape by one another. He was beginning to understand that space was at a premium everywhere.
As he passed through the fresh fish section, he heard what had to be the single most irritating and repetitive jingle in the history of Muzak.
Sakana sakana sakana…sakana wo tabe ruto
Atama atama atama…atama ga yoku naru
It was chirpier than the “La-La” song of the Smurfs—madness captured in the form of a little ditty. The chorus kept dancing in his head even after he fled to the cereal section.
He was looking over a package of Cocoa Rice Krispies with a monkey on the box, wondering if they tasted the same here, when he got the feeling he was being watched.
He looked to the right and saw a beautiful Japanese woman staring back at him. Her hair was just past shoulder length, shorter than anyone else in the store. She was taller, too, though that might have been more about how she carried herself than her actual height. She was dressed casually in jeans and a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt, and filled every inch of them nicely.
He smiled at her, but there was probably nothing he could say besides “Hi” that she’d understand. She smiled back, and then returned to her shopping. He saw her give him another sideways glance before she left.
He moved “Learn Japanese” to the top of his list, and underlined it. Twice.
He bought some basic supplies: canned goods, cola, and pasta. So far it was just like college. He chuckled to himself. The only thing missing was a Domino’s Pizza to order from every Sunday night.
As it turned out, there was a Domino’s on the next block, sandwiched between a ramen noodle shop and the local post office, across the street from a large drug store. It offered a sizable discount to those who picked up their order rather than having it delivered. It looked like Sunday nights were taken care of.
The drug store reminded him what “Apartment Stuff” on his list meant. He hadn’t brought anything with him for the bathroom. He picked up the essentials: toothpaste, toothbrush, toilet paper, and shampoo. The shampoo could work as shaving cream and body wash (he was a bachelor, after all). He’d forgotten to bring a towel, too, but they didn’t sell those here. So he made do with a couple of facecloths instead.
Az called it a day. He was a million miles away from his apartment, and didn’t want to risk getting lost by straying any further. Besides, he was hungry. He backtracked his way home and unloaded the swag into his pint-sized fridge and cupboards.
Cups! Dammit! This place didn’t have any cups or dishes. No cutlery, either.
The hell with it, he’d get those tomorrow. The 7-Eleven meal came with chopsticks. It was nothing fancy anyway, just a bed of rice with some chicken on it.
He had every intention of not making a fool of himself with the chopsticks, the way they do on TV for a cheap laugh, but failed miserably. Fortunately, the chopsticks made adequate spears, and what couldn’t be speared was tipped and shoveled.
He was going to drink the Coke straight from the bottle, then saw the can of tentacle juice peeking from behind it in the fridge. He was somewhat hesitant, but assured himself that Coke could drown out the taste of anything if things went badly. He took out the can and cracked it open.
It tasted sweet and familiar, but couldn’t quite put his finger on what it reminded him of. Then he felt the pulp. Huge pulpy chunks of…something…swishing around in his mouth, and the tentacles of the Aloe monster chased after his Imagination.
He blocked the mental image out, swallowed, and took another swig. It was actually quite good once you got past the huge pulpy chunks of God-knows-what swishing around inside.
He retired to the bedroom. Well, really the other room, since it was also the living room. The only room when you got right down to it, since he was pretty sure he’d end up eating in front of the TV most of the time. The stool and table that passed for a dining room seemed to have been stolen from a child’s tea party.
As soon as he lay down, Az had trouble keeping his eyes open. The “Chaos Show” from last night wasn’t on and nothing interesting was in its place. He couldn’t understand the news, other than something bad seemed to have happened somewhere in the Middle East. Again.
He couldn’t believe how drained he felt. It was only a quarter after seven. It wasn’t even dark outside.
“Oh, right, jet lag,” he said, and fell asleep.