Reggae 

I have never really liked reggae. I remember being seventeen and watching as my friends drove out of the high school parking lot, windows down, playing reggae at a not disrespectful volume but still loud enough for passers-by to hear the echoes of the drums and twang of the guitar.

Reggae, I decided back then, was for stoned people, or people who have smoked so much weed that they’re perpetually stoned. No value judgements here; I’m just saying it’s not really my thing. I wasn’t about to tell someone off for liking reggae, but I admit that I would make some basic assumptions about that person.

Luckily reggae is like soccer: it’s there if you want it, but it won’t interfere with your day-to-day life. This notion held true for my life back home, but it has not been true for life spent traveling, especially in hostels. At the hostel I stayed at in India reggae was basically unavoidable. It wasn’t just your classic Bob Marley, although good old Bob was there of course, but he was mixed in with the abominations that are reggae covers of popular songs. Not that anyone needed a reggae cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” mind you, but we discovered back in India that someone had indeed taken the piss out of that famous song. The laid-back reggae grove somehow cheapens the content of that song and robs it of all its strange sorrow. I was glad to leave many things behind in India, the reggae certainly being one of them.

Cut to two months later: Billy and I are sitting playing cards in the lounge of a hostel in Marrakech. Above the hum of activity cuts those famous opening notes. We look up. Maybe it’s the actual song? You can’t tell from just those first notes. But then the echoing drums and twanging guitar crash in, more jarring and inappropriate than the Kool-aid man stoned out of his mind smashing through a wall into a funeral parlor.

“Oh how I wish you were here,” goes the song, but I wish I were anywhere else.

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.

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.

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. 

Kitchen Table Moths

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.