Goodbye Japan

Elliott. In the future when people ask me “What’s Japan like?” I’m not sure how I’ll answer them.

Billy. I’ve thought about that too. When people ask me I’m just going to say “I have no idea how to answer that question.” 

Elliott. Right? The question is ridiculous in and of itself. What someone is really asking you to do is put your experience into terms that he can understand so he can have a sense of what it was like. 

Billy. It’s impossible to try. 

Elliott. I think all I’ll say is “People still wear Crocs there.” I can’t comment on Japan as a whole. I can maybe comment on Beppu, but even then I can only really talk about a sliver of what it’s like in this city. 

Billy. Yeah. It’s also hard to believe that we’re about to leave Japan. In some ways it feels like we just got here, but at other moments it feels like I’ve been here a long time. 

Elliott. Hopefully the further away we get from our experience in Japan the better we’ll be at describing it. Right now it’s like being really zoomed in on something so you can’t distinguish what it is, but the more you pull back the more you begin to see the bigger picture. What looked like blurry colors and indistinct shapes turns out to be an orange when viewed from a distance. You know what I mean? 

Billy. I do. But I am really hurting for some Pocari Sweat right now man, let’s go to a Lawsons or something. 

Karaoke 

Can you even say you’ve been to Japan if you never got drunk at a karaoke bar? I don’t think so, and so on the eve of our last night in Beppu we set out to get wasted and sing crappy pop songs.

Ever the innovative nation, the izakayas and karaoke bars of Japan have this wonderful option to pay a flat rate for as many drinks as you can down in an hour. So for about ten dollars each, we were all able to get as many drinks as was necessary to loosen up and begin singing without reservation. 

I should mention that karaoke bars are not bars in the western understanding of the concept. After paying, your group is lead to a private room with decent enough sound proofing. There’s a TV, an iPad type device on which to choose songs, and two microphones. In the foyer of this particular karaoke bar there was also a rack of free tambourines and maracas to borrow for the hour, which was a blessing, for not only are tambourines loud enough to cover up drunken screeching, they also provide proof that wasted people indeed have no rhythm. 

Packed into our private room, we scrolled through the song selection while patiently awaiting our drinks. The theme of our travels is thrifty-ness, so Billy and I pre-gamed the karaoke, but we didn’t pre-game enough, as I was suddenly handed a microphone as John Denver’s “Country Roads” kicked on. 

I realized two important things in that moment: 

1. I only know the chorus to “Country Roads.”

2. I am not nearly drunk enough to blunder my way through the verses that I do not and perhaps will never know. 

The drinks arrived during “Country Roads,” so I spent one of those unknown verses furiously chugging beer in an effort to get drunk by the end of the song. 

I can’t say when I officially became drunk, perhaps after the third drink, or maybe it was when Billy and I gave a stirring duet of “Lola” by The Kinks. We all got there eventually though, and all realized it too when we joyfully screamed our way through “Hey Jude.” 

There was a lot of love in that room when the final outro played on—a lot of beer too, or Moscow mules in Billy’s case. Somehow this was the right way for us to say goodbye, blatantly singing out of key and swaying altogether on and off the beat. It was a moment that would exist only in memory, and would become sweeter with each re-visit. 

Unfortunately Billy filmed the whole thing, so what would have been a memory that aged like fine wine is now something tangible, and will no doubt make its way to Facebook and dinner parties in the future. 

I’m not complaining. It’s a hilarious video. There will be plenty of memories made that only I will be able to visit. The “Hey Jude” drunk karaoke memory, however, is too good not to share.

Three French Hens

It’s strange when people from other countries perpetuate American stereotypes. A few days ago, three middle-aged French women moved into the hostel. They are on vacation, enjoying the many onsens Beppu has to offer. They are also loud, and one in particular, let’s say she hasn’t been skipping any meals, laughs heartily at her own jokes, which are numerous. They are also sleeping in the room right next to ours, and hostel walls being notoriously thin, we often wake up to an early morning chorus of French. 

Ah but French is so romantic sounding, no? Well, the French these women speak is about as romantic sounding as Gilbert Godfrey’s English.

I haven’t caught their names, so I’ll just refer to the one who laughs at her own jokes as Mother Goose. She is, after all, the ringleader from what I gather. Perhaps that is because she is the largest of the three. Maybe there is something in human nature that automatically defers judgement to the biggest person, like mobsters choosing the biggest tough to lead the pack. In any case, Mother Goose is large and in charge. 

We had just finished work for the day and were relaxing in the kitchen when we heard the booming voice of Mother Goose and her fellow hens. The three of them come barreling into the kitchen like bunch of drunks who have just caught whiff of a pizza, and they loudly begin saying hello to everyone in the room. The Koreans are petrified; unsure of what to do, they remain as motionless as possible, hoping the French threat is similar to that of the tyrannosaurus rex: if you don’t move, it can’t see you. 

After their gregarious hellos, they collapse into chairs and begin pouring out lamentations. All the trains have stopped due to tropical storm Talim, which has left them stranded at the hostel. Unable to go out due to the weather, they sit at the kitchen table and chat. 

Mother Goose notices some bags nearby, and says:

Mother Goose. Whose bags are these?

Billy. They’re—

Mother Goose. In France, if you see unattended bags, they’re your bags. *laughs loudly*

Billy. They’re—

Mother Goose. Yes, they’re yours, or it’s a bomb. *laughs even louder*

Later, Billy and I noted how Mother Goose was far more stereotypically American than either of us. Large, loud, and friendly. She’s a force, but the only trait I find fault with is her volume, and even that is a small thing for me to gripe about, for it is ultimately my own problem that I’m occasionally bothered by this woman’s loud voice. Being with lots of different people from all over the world makes one wonder who stereotypes are really for. They’re for people who don’t get out much, I think, because when you are out and about, you see just how wrong they can be.

Meanwhile, two middle-aged French gentlemen have sauntered into the kitchen, long abandoned by Billy and I, but still occupied by the three hens. I come back into the kitchen to make some noodles, and the five of them are speaking rapid French over what looks like a five course meal. After they eat, they clean up, and, despite the tropical storm, stand outside in the wind and rain for a cigarette break.

Curry

At CoCo’s curry, you get to decide how spicy you want your food to be. Mari claims to love spicy food, and so she recommends we all get level four spice. 

Elliott. Is level four really spicy?

Mari. No not really. It’s like a good spicy. 

Billy. If you think it’s good then I’m on board. I need some spicy food. 

We order the food, or I should say Mari orders, because she’s the only one of us who can speak Japanese. To order, you press down on a little brown box that sits on the table, and within seconds someone is there to take your order. The arrival of the food is no less prompt, and so in moments we’re talking over curry. 

Elliott. I’ve got an eyelash in my eye.

Billy. Or are your eyes just watering from this spicy curry? 

Elliott. It’s the eyelash. See? Here it is. Now, let me think of a wish. 

I think of a wish and blow away the eyelash. 

Mari. Why did you think of a wish?

Elliott. You guys don’t do that here? The story goes that if you find an eyelash you should place it on your fingertip, think of a wish, and blow the eyelash away. If you do all this, the wish will come true. 

Mari. This is true?

Billy. No. Not everyone does that. 

Elliott. I do it, and I think it’s true. 

Mari. In Japan, whenever we lose a tooth we make a wish and try to throw the tooth on top of a roof. The wish only comes true if the tooth successfully lands on the roof. 

Elliott. Have you ever tried throwing your teeth on a roof?

 Mari. Yes, but I could never reach the roof. That’s why none of my wishes ever come true. 

At this point Mari’s eyes are watering and her face is flushed. I think she is going to cry over her tragically weak throwing arm, but then she presses the service button again and a waiter bustles over. Mari points to a sign on the table that depicts some kind of sauce. The waiter smiles and walks away, and we hear the rest of the staff laughing amongst themselves. It turns out Mari’s watery eyes and flushed face had nothing to do with sadness. She couldn’t care less about her lost teeth and wishes. She was ordering a honey sauce that lowers the level of spice, and the staff undoubtedly thought the sauce was for the two foreigners. She looks at me with distress, and says, “Too spicy. I don’t like.”

Eavesdropping 

I want to start a journal of just quotes from Billy. I forget the circumstances, but the other day we were chatting and he asked “Did you feel your bed moving last night?” I said I hadn’t, and he replied, “Good, because I was doing a shadow puppet show to some music and I was afraid I was moving around too much.” I was amused but not altogether surprised when he then said “I really want to get into shadow puppets.” 

I’d like to remember little gems like this, funny and thoughtful, for Billy is often both in the same breath. Some time ago, he mentioned that he hadn’t anticipated how much he would miss eavesdropping on conversations. It was funny because it was ridiculous; of all the things to miss about home, eavesdropping came to his mind. Reflecting upon it, though, I hadn’t realized how much I miss eavesdropping too. 

Listening in on conversations between strangers is perhaps the closest we will come to complete invisibility. When people are engaged in conversation, you become a figure in the background, something to fill the space, and direct the eye to the focal point. Truly wonderful eavesdropping reaches that pure invisibility. You leave the background figure that is your body, and your imagination walks into other people’s lives. Who then can see me using the scraps of conversation to create a limp outline of this person’s life? I’ll remain just as unseen when I inflate that outline with imagined details, until eventually I have a tangible figure, who takes up space in my mind. 

Becoming obscured, that is easy. Simply sit quietly while others around you speak. Becoming invisible, however, requires people to speak in a language you understand, so your imagination may have free reign. The common language gives you the outline, without it, you have nothing to begin building the replica of a person in your mind. 

This realization that you have no starting point is, as Billy mentioned, one of those unexpected features of traveling to a new place, and it bothered me until I changed the way in which I eavesdrop. With no starting material, the imagination does not have to be concerned with the possible, and can build a person from nothing, totally independent from the actuality of a person’s life. It is the difference between being given a set of Legos with instructions, and being given a tub of Legos of all shapes and sizes and being told “Have at it.” 

I cannot make a value judgement on which option is superior. Both have their merits and drawbacks, but I can say that I’m enjoying telling my imagination to have at it. 

Host Clubs

On the way to dinner the other night we passed by some peculiar businesses. Luckily, Mari was able to alleviate my confusion. 

Elliott. What are all these shops? And why do they have women in skimpy school girl outfits out in front of them? 

Mari. They aren’t stores, they’re host clubs. All of these side streets have host clubs on them. 

Elliott. Hosts clubs? 

Mari. A host club is a place where either a man or woman can go and pay for someone of the opposite sex to talk to them for a while. 

Elliott. What? Like, about personal issues or something? Like therapy?

Mari. No no it’s generally more sexual. For example, a guy goes to a host club and pays to chat with a girl, although the guy does nothing at all, the woman does all the work. She acts like she’s fascinated by his life and his hobbies. She pretends to fish him. 

Elliott. Fish him? Do you mean flirt with him?

Mari. Yes! You guys don’t say fishing? 

Elliott. Not really. Anyway, you’re telling me that at all of these places guys come to pay for a girl to talk to them and pretend like she’s into them? Don’t they know they don’t have to pay women to talk to them anywhere else? 

Mari. It’s not just guys. There are female host clubs too, where girls pay for guys to talk to them. 

Elliott. That’s so sad. Why is this a thing here? 

Mari. Japanese men and women are lonely. They have no confidence. Of course some of us do, but I would say there are still many more Japanese people who feel more comfortable paying for conversation than trying to initiate it themselves for free. 

Elliott. But why do they have no confidence? 

Mari. I don’t know. This is just how it is. 

Elliott. Have you ever been to one of these?

Mari. No. I think they’re sad, too. You don’t have host clubs in the US?

Elliott. No, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have lonely institutions. The strip club, for example, still miraculously exists in the United States, but I think they’re going extinct. 

Mari. They’re being shut down? 

Elliott. Not exactly shut down, more of a going out of business sort of thing. 

Mari. Why?

Elliott. Internet porn. 

Mari. Ah. 

Elliott. That, and I think younger generations aren’t as interested in the gross exploitation that goes on in places like strip clubs, although I can’t speak for everyone when I say that. 

Mari. I think strip clubs are sadder than host clubs. At host clubs you just talk. Strip clubs, on the other hand, are much more humiliating for everyone involved.

Elliott. I don’t know how I can decide between what’s sadder: paying women to talk to you or paying women to dance naked in front of you. I guess it depends on if you think sadness can exist in degrees. 

Mari. No tetsugaku. We’re here.

Messes 

We clean rooms and make the beds when guests leave. The more guests checking out, the more beds and rooms we have to clean. There is no consistency to guests coming and going, so sometimes there’s little cleaning, and sometimes there’s a bunch that needs to be done. 

The other day there was a mass exodus of guests, so I spent all morning vacuuming rooms, replacing pillow covers, and fetching new sheets. None of the work is too difficult, just time consuming, but I don’t mind. 

It would be easy to look at my work sheet for the day and sigh when I see I have seventeen rooms to clean plus toilets. Why complain though? In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius says “Just as you see your bath—all soap, sweat, grime, greasy water, the whole thing disgusting—so is every part of life and every object in it.” 

This is true, and it is therefore entirely good and healthy for the soul to see and clean up messes. I’ve discovered that hostels are a particularly good place to practice this sort of cleaning. This is because all walks of life move through hostels, and, like snails, leave a slimy trail of mess behind them. 

There is an ancient bit of wisdom that goes something like this: judge no person until you’ve looked upon every face. I think I’m bungling the saying, but I bring it up only because I see now that I previously understood just the surface of it. When I see a new face in the hostel, I see a mess galloping towards me on the horizon. 

The beautiful young Austrian couple—mess.

The Korean man in his forties who lives in New York—mess.

The French family with the little daughter who smiles so brightly even though she’s just lost her two front teeth, who always says “Bonjour monsieur” to me—mess. 

I ask, then, am I clean? Do I know a mess only because I alone am spotless? I don’t think so. I see the mess now because I have come to recognize it in myself.