During the day the hostel’s kitchen is mostly empty. People filter in to cook a quick meal or make a cup of tea, but they never stay for long.
But, like a fairytale, everything changes past midnight. People are drawn to the kitchen table like moths to a light, and then the interesting conversations begin.
We got a new roommate last night. I’ll call him John. He’s from England and working towards his masters in geology, but his expertise is in volcanos.
Billy. Where are you getting your masters from?
John. University of Northampton. Thing is though is that there are two universities in Northampton: Uni of Northampton where I go, and Southampton Solent University, which is easily one of the worst universities in the UK. I always get the piss when I tell people I go to uni in Northampton, they say, “Proper Northampton or Solent?”
Billy. And you’re here to study the volcanoes?
John. That’s right. Japan is effectively both made by and made up of volcanoes. I’ve been studying an active volcano in Kagoshima, but I’m here now for a bit of a holiday, although I do want to examine the hot springs in the area, so I guess it’s more of a working holiday.
Margaret. Is the volcano in Kagoshima dangerous?
John. Not particularly. It has the potential to be, but an eruption is fairly unlikely.
Margaret. Yellowstone is the most dangerous super volcano, right?
John. No it’s not actually. People make a big deal about Yellowstone but an eruption there is so unlikely that it’s almost impossible. I love deflating the Yellowstone myth. You see, the earth’s crust under the United States is so thick, particularly around Yellowstone, so in order for any eruption to occur the magma would have to burn through miles of crust before it came even near the surface. In fact, I got in touch with a geologist who works at Yellowstone and asked him if I could fly out and study with him and he told me not to bother coming because I’d be so bored.
Margaret. Well I’m relieved.
John. America has I think seven super volcanoes if memory serves, but yeah you aren’t in any immediate danger at the moment.
Billy. Are there any volcanoes we should be worried about?
John. There are several in Indonesia, one of which could very well erupt within the next two centuries. I’ll put it in layman’s terms. That particular volcano has “vents” so to speak, five of them to be exact. If three out of the five “vents” get plugged for whatever reason, the volcano will erupt, and that would not be great.
At this point John, after cheerfully increasing the anxiety in the room, leaves to go unpack his stuff. A Japanese man in his forties then enters the kitchen and offers us all fresh pears from a farm outside of the city. He makes himself a cup of tea and accepts our thanks via Margaret, who speaks Japanese.
John re-enters and we begin talking about the price of education. Meanwhile, a gaggle of Koreans poke their heads in the doorway every so often to see when we’re leaving the kitchen. They’re waiting for us to leave so they can stay up until five in the morning drinking and playing card games.
John. In the UK uni is nine-thousand pounds flat. Oxford or Southampton Solent, doesn’t matter, you’re still paying nine-thousand pounds.
Margaret. That sounds nice.
John. University is quite expensive in the US yeah?
Billy. Something to the tune of thirty-thousand or sixty-thousand a year depending on where you go.
John. That’s criminal.
Margaret. Yeah, but people keep paying it so here we are.
John. And aren’t there so many universities in America?
Margaret. Tons. A handful of them are worthwhile but most of them are not worth the price you’re paying.
Billy. What you major in counts for something too, though. Like, if you’re going to major in history you should either go to Harvard or a state school. Harvard is expensive but worth the name recognition. If you don’t get into Harvard, go to a state school. You’ll still get a good education but you won’t be paying the private school tuition.
John. Sounds like a game.
Margaret. It kind of is.
John. How long can that go on for? Just building and building—eventually it’s got to explode.
At this point another guest, Gina, comes down to the kitchen with a fearful expression.
Gina. I’m sorry I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I went to use the toilet and I flushed but the top of the toilet is just gushing water from a spigot.
Margaret. This is your first time in Japan, right?
Gina. Yes, how did you know?
Margaret. Toilets here have sinks built into the top tank. When you flush, water comes out this sink for you to wash your hands. It will stop on its own.
Gina. Oh. Okay. So sorry to have interrupted!
Margaret. It’s okay! It surprised me my first time too.
Gina leaves and we spend the next two hours talking about Japanese toilets and other fascinating details about life in Japan, all the while the Koreans patiently wait for us to vacate so they can begin drinking.