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.

On Beppu Beach

The other day a group of friends went down to the beach. There’s no swimming allowed, so all one can do there is, among other things, sit in the sand and chat, watch people walk their dogs, and after it gets dark, watch people set off fireworks right in front of the sign that says “No fireworks allowed.” 

Everett. Do you think you’ll live in Japan the rest of your life? 

Mari. I hope not. 

Everett. Why? 

Mari. I just don’t want to live here all my life. 

Everett. Where would you like to live then?

Mari. Los Angeles. 

Everett. You came up with that answer pretty fast. 

Mari. I lived in Los Angeles for six months as an exchange student. I love it there. The weather is so nice all the time, the people are friendly—I just love Los Angeles.

Everett. What would you want to do there? 

Mari. I don’t care. As long as I get to live in LA, I’m happy. 

Everett. I’ve never been. 

Billy. I don’t think you’re missing much. LA is kind of sad. So many beautiful people congregating to one place in the hopes of becoming famous. I imagine them rehearsing their Oscar acceptance speeches in the mirror as they get ready for their morning shift waiting tables. 

Mari. You see this in LA? 

Billy. Yeah, but only because I’ve grown up knowing about the desperation of Los Angeles. 

Mari. I love it there. Do you have a Popeyes in your city? 

Billy. There’s no fast food in my town.

Mari. Popeyes was my favorite place to eat in LA. That, or maybe Panda Express. 

Billy. Of all the great places to eat in LA your favorite was Popeyes?

Mari. Yes. Or Panda Express. I would get out of class and go straight to Panda Express. Their orange chicken was the best. I loved doing this. 

Everett. So you want to live in LA so you can enjoy the weather, the locals, and the fast food, but you don’t know what you want to do for a job there. 

Mari. Yes. 

John. Cheers. At least you know what you want. 

Mari. What about you? Would you want to live in Japan? 

John. I don’t think I would to be honest. Japan is lovely, full of incredible culture and stunning scenery, but I can’t shake the feeling that, no matter how long I live here, I’ll always be a foreigner. I’ll say this about America: the few times I’ve stayed there I’ve always felt as though I’d eventually be an American. Despite my English accent and the fact that I was born in the UK, I know that if I were to live in America the rest of my life eventually  people would call me an American without hesitation; and I would believe them, too. 

The sun has just disappeared behind the sea, and people are already setting up convenience store fireworks, which reminds us that we have run out of beer, so we all rise and head to the nearest 7-Eleven to stock up for the rest of the night. 

Currency Exchange 

The first time I went to exchange American dollars for Japanese yen I got to the second step of the form, the part about the phone number of the place I’m staying in Japan. I didn’t know the number of the hostel and couldn’t connect to WiFi, so I had to mime my way through the phrase “I’ll come back tomorrow.” As I was leaving with my tail between my legs, I realized that the bank had in fact closed just as I walked in, and everyone was waiting for the bumbling American to finish so they could go home.

Today, though, I felt prepared. I confidently strode in and took a number, and upon seeing me a teller asked “You were here yesterday, weren’t you?” Yes, indeed I was. Though, to be fair, she might not have remembered the previous day’s bungling, for I’m fairly confident I’m the only guy in this city with red hair and a beard. Yesterday’s mistakes were behind me, and today I would get it right, for I had written down the phone number and the address of the hostel—just in case. What else could I need?

Teller. Passport?

Elliott. Uh. I have my license?

Teller. No. I need your passport.

Thankfully Billy had tagged along and was able to run back to the hostel to grab my passport. The alternative was to again slink out shamefully, and, like Macbeth, mutter “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” as I left.

I hate looking unprepared and stupid, especially here in Japan, where poise and elegance are so important. There’s no way I can lie to myself and say “You didn’t look like too much of a fool,” because that’s certainly not true. Yes, those tellers will probably have a good laugh over the American, but I can’t be too bothered by that. I looked foolish, move on.

How much of the world is left unrealized or unfulfilled because people are afraid of looking foolish? If you were to weigh that silent mass of unrealized action, the scales would collapse under the immense weight. Those scales would sigh as they break, and that sigh would sound just like the one that passes your lips when you decide to do nothing, rather than take a risk and perhaps look like a fool.

Octavian

Conversation had at the hostel’s kitchen table.

Margaret. You think there are weird people at this hostel? I met the weirdest guy ever at a hostel I volunteered for in Scotland.

Billy. What was he like?

Margaret. Well first of all, his name was Octavian and he was a thirty-six years old Romanian guy volunteering in Scotland so he could sample all the different varieties of scotch.

Billy. He already sounds like a winner.

Margaret. What was even weirder was that he volunteered at all these hostels and yet he didn’t know how to make a bed. That, and he would constantly talk about how much money he had. “Oh Margaret,” he would say, “I just bought a boat for back home.”

Billy. Sounds like he was trying to impress you.

Margaret. Yeah he tried to sleep with me. *shudders*

Billy. I’m surprised that no lucky lady had already locked him down.

Margaret. He did have a girlfriend I think. But he referred to her as his Muse, and apparently she was doing volunteer work in Africa.

Billy. Probably to get away from him.

Margaret. He would talk about his knife collection, and wax poetic about his guns back home.

Billy. What a catch.

Margaret. And there was this one time where he baked everyone scones—seems like a nice gesture, right? Well no one ate them because the day before he was talking about how he hadn’t seen a whole hostel with food poisoning in a while.

Billy. No one here even comes close to that level of insanity.

Margaret. No one yet. Oh, and did I mention he had a pony tail?

Lint Rolling the Stairs 

There is a perfectly functional vacuum cleaner on every floor of this hostel, but the owner prefers his workawayers to lint roll the carpeted stairs. There are four floors, so I’ve spent a good amount of time today hunched over, lint rolling stairs.

Doing this makes me think of details. When guests walk these stairs do they notice the cleanliness? If they do, do they then wonder how the stairs became so clean? Would they, in their wildest imaginings, have guessed that the cleanliness was owed to a lint roller, of all things? The lint roller, perhaps the seemingly most impractical tool for cleaning stairs, does in fact do a good job of getting a stair case clean. The only drawback is that it takes time and patience.

Luckily I have both. I wonder, as I roll up hairs and bits of rice, where I learned the skill of patience, or if it truly as Plato supposes, that my immortal soul has always known patience, and lint rolling the staircase has allowed me to “remember” patience, so to speak. I get caught up in these thoughts, and before I know it I’m done, and someone is handing me a brush and telling me to go scrub the toilets on the third floor.

Thirty-Two Days

We’re thirty-two days away from our departure date of August 19th. That seems like plenty of time, but the reality is that thirty-two days is not much time at all. We have thirty-two days in which to try and become as prepared as possible for this year-long (or as long as our wallets will last us) trip. Of course, trying to prepare for a whole year of traveling is impossible, that’s why we’re mostly focusing on preparing to live in Japan for a month.

We are going to be living and working in the city of Beppu. Beppu is located on the island of Kyushu, Japan, which I think is the southernmost Island of Japan. Beppu has the most hot springs out of any city in Japan, eight of which have become known as the “Beppu Hells.” In Beppu, Billy and I will be working in a hostel. We’ll mostly be cleaning, making guests feel at home, and working a reception desk, and we’re not worried about any of that; if there’s any cause for concern it’s the language barrier.

We both decided to try and learn as much Japanese as possible on Duolingo before we left. I was lazily holding out on starting when I received this text from Billy:
Billy: You should start duolingo if you haven’t yet.

Elliott: Yeah I haven’t started yet :\

Billy: Japanese is a bitch.

Bitch might be an understatement. Hiragana is a whole new alphabet! My goal has, by degrees, slipped from being able to hold a basic conversation in Japanese to just being able to read signs, and even that is beginning to seem like a stretch. However, I think people will take one look at me and know that I don’t speak Japanese, so perhaps I will be mercifully spared from struggling through some broken pantomime of halting Japanese whenever possible.

Whatever. I’ve got thirty-two days.