Tuesday, 26 March 2013

TWEWY and AKBT: Sister games

Owing to my recent excursion, I'm left in a Toukyou state of mind. And you know what two games take place in Toukyou, and kept appearing in my mind while I was there? You do, if you read the posts. The answer is The World Ends with You (素晴らしきこの世界、 “What a Wonderful World,” in Japanese) and AKIBA'S TRIP. The former takes place in the fashion mecca of Shibuya, the latter in the geek paradise of Akihabara.

These games are hardly the only ones to take place in contemporary Toukyou (Jet Set Radio, Ryuu ga Gotoku, and Megami Tensei come to mind), but I have a few reasons for singling out this particular pair. Both are action-RPGs. Both feature fantastic stories taking place amongst their interesting, but comparatively mundane settings. Both were highly experimental titles with a lot of intriguing ideas. Both are single-installment games that debuted within the same console generation, on directly competing portable platforms, no less (the DS and PSP, respectively), with each taking advantage of that system's particular strengths. And finally, rather than taking the entire megacity as a basis, both games focus in on one specific area, lavishing it with an affection and attention to detail I haven't ever really seen anywhere else.

In TWEWY, you control two characters at once – one on each screen. The bottom screen is reserved for protagonist Neku, who attacks with a wide variety of touch-screen-driven psychic abilities, while his partner does the same on the top screen per commands from the D-pad. All enemies appear in both iterations of the battlefield; they share a lifebar with their alt-world counterpart, as does Neku with his partner, thus requiring cooperation (ie coordinated multi-tasking from you) to bring your enemies down. This aspect is further emphasized through the Puck, a green aura that gets passed between screens if you keep up a good offensive rhythm. The Puck confers an attack bonus on the character holding it, and it grows in power with each pass, but dissipates if you mess up. This means you have to be able to keep up a continuous assault with one character while not neglecting the other, lest they be overwhelmed. Moreover, if you fill up a special metre, you can unleash a Fusion attack, in which the pair combine forces to mete out heavy damage to all enemies at once. Neku's available attacks are governed by a slate of Pins – as in, like, the metal things that you attach to your shirt to show your political allegiance or whatever. Depending on what you have equipped, you might find yourself pressing an enemy to fire a blast of energy at it, slashing empty space to summon spiked chains, tapping a Pin itself for a quick round of healing, or blowing into the DS mic to have Neku breathe fire. Each Pin has an associated cooldown time, preventing you from merely spamming your strongest attacks, and each one also levels up individually, becoming more powerful or even gaining new properties.

The battle system in Akiba's Trip is less innovative, but based on just as good a concept. Your enemies, the Kageyashi, are basically a clan of hidden vampires, and thus extremely vulnerable to sunlight. Accordingly, in order to defeat them you must rob them of their clothes. The initial stages of any given encounter start out in fairly standard beat-em-up territory, but rather than injure your enemies themselves, it's their clothing you target. Each article – pants/skirt, shirt, and sometimes also some type of headgear – has its own health bar, and once that's been depleted, you'll get a Strip Chance. If your opponent doesn't manage to repel you, you'll rip their clothes clean off their bodies. Once they've been reduced to just their socks and underwear, their exposed bodies can no longer handle the exertion and they slowly burn to death. If you've sufficiently damaged a number of nearby enemies, you can chain together Strip Chances, moving smoothly from target to target like a whirling dervish amongst a storm of steadily increasing nudity. But beware: As a Kageyashi yourself, you too may find yourself on the receiving end of a lascivious onslaught. You'll need to equip yourself with the right combination of clothing, some of which confer situational bonuses, and arm yourself with the weapons at your disposal, which range from everyday items, like a student's bag or a rolled-up poster, right on up to a mythical sword.

Both games have surprisingly strong plots. TWEWY can be pretty overwrought at times, while AKBT is intentionally silly-serious. The former puts you in the shoes of a grimly cocky loner forced to participate in the Shinigami Game. This a strictly partner-oriented affair, predictably setting him down the gradual path of friendship and mutual respect. He and his new partner, Shiki, quickly realise that all the participants in the Shinigami Game are dead, competing to see which team will win a second shot at life. Each day presents a set of goals to achieve and challenges to overcome, but the teams are also harried by the Noise – the psychic manifestations of peoples' negative emotions, normally incorporeal but nightmarishly immediate in the realm the players now inhabit – as well as the meddling of the Shinigami charged with running the game.

AKBT is no more rooted in reality. As the Kageyashi require human blood as sustenance, often killing their prey in the process, the anti-Kageyashi organization NIRO has been formed to deal with the threat. The nameless protagonist nearly meets his end to a Kageyashi attack in a back alley, but his attacker's sister, who disagrees with the general Kageyashi ethos, saves him with a kiss, transferring some of her own blood to him and beginning his transformation into a Kageyashi himself. NIRO picks him up and recruits him into their investigative group, formed largely of locals with deep resources inside the area and strong knowledge of its culture. You set out to begin the long process of putting down a burgeoning Kageyashi rebellion, but as you encounter less militant members you learn that NIRO's perspective may not be the whole truth. In the end, you will have to choose whether to support NIRO and wipe out the Kageyashi, turn over to the rebellion and help them dismantle NIRO, or take a third option and try to pursue peaceful coexistence between humans and Kageyashi.

And all of that is awesome, but those things alone are not what make these two games special. It's that the interplay of plot and mechanics with ambient setting is so masterful and compelling in both cases. They don't merely take place in their respective districts, but are fixated on them. They outright state that there's something special about them, not only in being supernatural nexii, but also in the sense that they're epicentres of humanity and subculture. They go pretty far to have us agree with them, too, drawing out their essences and painting the whole experience with them.

Y'all know I'm a Kansai guy, so this is hardly my area of expertise. But as far as I can tell, the geographical accuracy is admirable, especially in AKBT, for which people have compared screenshots from gameplay to their Akihabara counterparts, with stunning results. Locations like the Sega Building and back alleys are artfully recreated. TWEWY is no slouch either, recreating basically all of Shibuya's landmarks – no small feat for an area of that size – with incredible fidelity, giving us such sights as HMV, 109, Hachiko, and Scramble Crossing. The director said in an interview that you could probably use the game as a guidebook for the area; I don't doubt it. Same goes for AKBT. Much as GTA IV taught me the basic geography of New York (minus Staten Island), these two games showed me how their areas were laid out. All three make their subjects seem like the most exciting place in the world.

That's not even the coolest part. What really keeps me thinking about these two titles, even years after playing them, is the way that they nailed the atmosphere. Everything just feels right. There's thorough research, and then there's stuff you can only transmit through a love of the subject. The game worlds feel inhabited and active; when you meet new people, you believe that they really do live in the area. They dress, speak, and think believably, insofar as they are still fictional. And finally, both TWEWY and AKBT make the best possible use of local culture. AKBT has it easy, of course, with its focus on otakuland, but it doesn't rest on its laurels. In-game anime starring a schoolgirl who transforms into a defender of justice when she removes her glasses; supermarketed, oversexed, ravenously popular teen idols; maid cafes where you can play stupid games to win prizes; the only thing it's missing is video games, but then, it is one. TWEWY is a little less obvious, but the fashion and musical influences are clear, especially the latter. How many other games can you name with battle music like this?

Interestingly, both contain elements of eating and shopping, each of which makes perfect sense, and yet they both focus on one more than the other. AKBT treats food items as mere powerups and healing items, which is fine, but TWEWY tries something new by limiting the amount of stat-increasing ramen and burgers that characters are allowed to eat within one real-world day. TWEWY also uses regular clothing where a mediaevel world would armour, while AKBT can be basically one long cosplay sim if you want it to be, complete with a little sister to wear any clothes you want in exchange for money. Uh, that basically speaks for itself, so I will append no further commentary.

With all of this in mind, is it really possible to say which game is “better?” Well, yes, actually. TWEWY is better. It has cleaner controls, a more engaging battle system, a more compelling narrative, and, although the PSP obviously has far greater processing power, AKBT's 3D graphics are blocky and saturated, making TWEWY's atypical style the aesthetic winner as well. And let's not even get started on the music, because I could do a whole series of posts on just that. Basically, TWEWY is superior in absolutely every way. Just wanted to get that out there. But AKBT still left a good taste in my mouth when I was done with it, especially as the best parts of the game are towards the middle and end. They're both great games.

So please, Square Enix and Acquire. No sequels. Some things are better left as once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Also, know what's fun? Imagining that TWEWY and AKBT take place within the same universe.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Everything I did this weekend

Saturday is my last day of ESL pseudo-work, and I'm sad to see it go. Not just because of the money, but because I've grown attached to the kids. They were all so cool; I've even developed favourites. The fact that I did it for such a short period makes me feel like I've somehow left a job unfinished. I hate to admit it, but I may never see any of them ever again. I barely know them, and yet I'll miss them.

Heh. This blog is pretty sappy lately, eh? And here you all thought I didn't have a heart.

Oh my God, this is how it starts, isn't it? This is how they get you. One minute you're cooing over cute kids. Then suddenly you're waking up in a house that you own, and there's a stationwagon parked outside, and you have a real job, and screaming brats, and you've been with the same person for the last 30 years.

Since I'm already halfway there anyway, I head over to Pokemon Centre Oosaka so I can buy a bunch more useless crap I don't need. Apparently a new Pokemon game has been released this very day, and the place is packed with people here for the associated merchandise. Afterwards, I take a long stroll through Umeda. Kyouto's grown on me, but I can't wait until I someday move to Oosaka.

As it turns out, Gundam capsules are actually in every major arcade, including Kawaramachi Round1. To make full use of the game, though, you need a BaNa Passport, which allows you to save your profile data to Bandai Namco's servers and access it from any cabinet, anywhere. Unfortunately I'm too shy to ask where I can buy one. I get glum. No wonder I have so few friends – I'm too shy to even talk to a store clerk! And if this is what my social life looks like when I'm in fucking university, how the hell do I ever expect to meet anybody if I start working as a teacher? The longer I think, the more upset and pissed off I become. I decide to take a walk through Gion to clear my head.

As my legs grow sore, it suddenly hits me. Dumbass. I'm not upset, I'm tired. I have sleep issues in the best of times, but they've been particularly severe in the last couple of weeks, and sleep fatigue aggravates my depression. At least I'm getting better at recognizing when my mood is being caused by chemicals rather than my situation. If I know what's causing it, I can talk myself out of it...or at least avoid talking myself farther into it.

Seven, always looking for ways to include me, has invited me to her graduation. My suit is cobbled together from my own shoes, a shirt and pair of pants that I received from an old roommate, a tie borrowed from my father and a jacket borrowed from Cologne. The results should logically be offensive at best, and yet, against all odds, this completely stupid combination somehow comes together to form a cohesive and very nice-looking outfit.

Unfortunately, Insufferable Dumbass has somehow heard about the ceremony and decided to go as well. Worse, he somehow zeroes in on me as his would-be comrade, making him all but impossible to duck. Fortunately Cologne tags along as well, reducing the chance that sheer frustration will drive me to stab Insufferable Dumbass in the face, but he spends literally the entire ceremony squirming around, playing with his phone, and fidgeting with anything in reach. He's such a child he literally can't even sit still for five seconds at a time, never mind two hours. I have no idea why he came.

The ceremony is basically indistinguishable from a Western one, with two major differences: There is a great deal more bowing, and the girls all wear hakama instead of suits. Why only the girls I have no idea, but I heartily approve.

On the pretense of looking for people we know, Cologne and I manage to lose Insufferable Dumbass in the crowd, after which he decides he will return to the dorm and come back to catch the next faculty. In the intervening time, I attend an English Club meeting congratulating the graduating members. Very nearly everybody is there – including those entering fourth year (who have thus left the club) and even a couple who have already entered the workforce – so I'm able to catch up with some old favourites. Seven, dressed in her purple hakama, is even more adorable than usual.

I kill a few hours with Shiga, and when we board the bus to the evening's nomikai we're met with a glut of English Clubbers already en route. Super Junior and I engage in animated chatter for a good twenty minutes or so, at which point one of two middle-aged women who weren't adventurous enough in their youth and have been left nothing but dry husks with nothing but bitterness for the world, who have not said or done anything up to this point, grabs my arm out of nowhere.

“The way you're leaning over and talking is really fucking annoying,” she tells me, without preamble.

“Um,” I say. But I bite my tongue. “My apologies.”

“So could you shut the fuck up?”

“That's right!” says the other one, and I turn to her.

For a long moment, I give her a hard stare, trying to decide whether or not to tell her to eat a dick. After a few seconds of this, she squirms in her seat and breaks my gaze. I turn on my heel and go farther up the bus to talk to Shiga, angling my body towards the two old maids and laughing as joyfully as possible at every opportunity. I've had entire nights ruined by one asshole comment before; I'm not letting that happen tonight. But something must have betrayed my emotions, because later Super Junior tells me not to care about it.

As befits the mood of her final English Club event ever, Seven gets incredibly drunk and starts kissing every girl within striking distance. Izakaya is followed by all-night karaoke, specifically one of those hilarious ones where the background of each song is spliced together from a limited amount of stock footage that ends up becoming very familiar by the time you leave, and which all appears to have been shot in the early 1990's.

All in all, a pretty awesome weekend.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

My sister

I've got a bad case of the shakes before I even open my eyes. My stomach is overflowing, urging evacuation through the front entrance. It's like I've got some combination of a hangover and the flu. I don't, though; I'm just nervous. Today I'm going to see my sister.

My Japanese sister, I mean. We're not related by blood. It's only that her family hosted me once, in the ancient past, and we've thought of each other as brother and sister ever since. It only took me three days to realise the depths of my affections, too. A lot of people just don't get how somebody can be your family without actually being your family, and I guess I can understand – if you haven't experienced it, it's probably hard to wrap your head around. It still irks me when people try to argue the point - and I won't suffer anybody who tries to deny the legitimacy of our bond - but I understand it.

She was, I think, not only the first person whose love for me I ever really felt, but also the first I never had to question, ever. Likewise, I love her with everything I have, wholly and unconditionally. In fact I feel more strongly for her than I do for any of my “real” relatives. She's vibrant, beautiful inside and out, and more full of life than anyone else I know. To me, she is perfect, and if anyone disagrees, I don't want to hear it.

Of course as soon as I arrived in Kyouto the first thing I wanted to do was to meet with her. And she told me that, yes of course, we should meet, but she was very busy right now and so sorry but could we put it off for a while? Well yes, of course we could, because she is not beholden to my whims and it's my dearest wish to support her from the sidelines, and sometimes that means stepping out of the way. It hurt a little, though. If it were me, I would move heaven and earth for the chance to see her, but that's ok, I thought. All it means is that she doesn't want to see me as badly as I want to see her. Of course she doesn't, that's obvious.

Months passed with nothing, and I seriously fear, but refuse to believe, that she's just given up on me. But a particularly heartfelt drunken message from me is the impetus for a reunion. I spend the intervening time battling occasional bouts of tachycardia and hyperventilation, and now that it's day of, I'm basically useless. It's an effort just to dither around on the Internet. I feel as though at any moment I may pass out and then die. What if I can't make interesting conversation? What if it turns out that, even after four years, we have nothing to talk about? What if we've drifted apart?

What if she's not proud of me?

I'm not entirely sure why her approval means so much to me. I've basically lived my entire life by my own standards, laughing in the face of anybody who's judged me by theirs. With her it's different. In a lot of ways she's been a moral guidepost for me, a silent hip-check. More than once, I've traversed a difficult ethical decision by stopping and imagining which choice would make her more proud of me, if she were to ever find out. I've come incredibly far since the last time she saw me. I'm very truly almost a different person. I'm more capable, more understanding, more attuned...if she doesn't recognize the strides I've made, I'll be irreparably crushed.

We're supposed to rendezvous for dinner at Kyouto Eki Daikaidan. I locate it with difficulty, but by now I'm already running late. I can't remember if we're supposed to meet at the bottom or the top of this gigantic eleven-storey staircase. A hurried search doesn't turn her up. Where is she? Am I getting this place confused with some other eleven-storey staircase? How long do you suppose she'll wait for me before she leaves in disgust? If I can't find her, if I don't get to see her before she moves back to Toukyou and have to wait another year or more, my heart just might break.

Then I hear her call my name and I know I'm home. The conversation flows like sake from Suika's gourd. She asks me everything about my life from the last four years, and I open up to her about all the stuff I can't share with most people. She tells me I've matured, that I'm becoming a better person, and it's the most validating thing I've ever heard. She's working at one of the most prestigious ad shops in Japan. And she's getting married.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Japanese in the English classroom

After three ESL sessions, I'm pretty sure I've learned more than I've taught. I've learned how to jive and flow with the Master's idiosyncratic teaching style. I've learned what he means when he writes “4 Q's (each/all)” on the lesson plan. I've learned that I need to work on classroom management, and that little kids can be a tough crowd. And I've learned that teaching them, much of the time, is like using a Mac: You don't so much command them as try to trick them into doing what you want. They aren't sock puppets, they're marionettes.

In my first attempt, I decided that English and English only was the way to go. That's how I learned, after all! My most effective Japanese learning experience by far came when I was in high school, attending native-level lectures all day, every day, for five months. No translation, no explanation. Didn't matter that I couldn't actually do the work, the progress you'll see in yourself in a situation like that will floor you. So comprehension wasn't exactly the point. I'd be osmotically familiarizing them with the phonemes and rhythm of the language. Besides, if so many bloggers confirm that you can teach an English class entirely in English, surely I could refrain from Japanese with an actual Japanese teacher sitting right across from me.

Yeah, about that. As I learned almost immediately, keeping silent during the class's Japanese discourse meant keeping silent for almost the entire lesson. Whether the Master is demonstrating subtlety or really is just a terrible teacher, I haven't yet figured out, but it seems to me that very little of English class is spent on English. And it makes sense in a way; for the most part, these kids aren't the rich elite whose future depends on their TOEFL scores, they're the ones who struggle with their English classes in school and and need the extra help. So, just once, I tried it out.

Just a few words, and the transformation that came over them was startling. Suddenly I had everybody's eyes; a few sat up straighter. And, like always, the room was swept by a wave of murmurs about how zomfg, this foreigner seems to be speaking Japanese, what fell sorcery could have conferred such power? In that moment, they found me standing on the same shore. Responses quickened, and they even started screwing together the courage to ask me questions. It seemed to have humanized myself. Plus, at least now I was doing something, even if our mutual tangents almost never have anything to do with the material. And I was actually finding this system concretely better for teaching.

It turns out that attempting all-English English teaching is like adopting an existentialist lifestyle: It works only as well as your commitment is full. The invisible hand may not solve all of society's ills, but it barely works at all when there are visible hands trying to direct it. In other words, I could try full-bore English all I wanted, but as long as the Master carried on and on in Japanese, I wasn't getting anywhere. Just as they responded positively to my Japanese, I got only thinly concealed scorn when I tried speaking English at literally any time that it was not an absolutely necessity. Maybe because, you know, they're elementary school students forced to leave their homes and go study a subject they hate on a Saturday morning.

The key, I've discovered, is to use English at just the right times, in just the right way, filling all other gaps with a hearty Japanese mortar. I have to lay down just enough pressure to find their engagement point in order to drive off without popping the clutch; too little and we'll stall, but too much and I'm just running my engine. What's my purpose here – to teach English, right? So if they'll learn English better when it's backed by Japanese, well, I best be busting out a little Japanese then.  

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Toukyou wrap-up

To get to Pokemon Centre Yokohama, go out the west exit of Minato-Mirai Eki, turn left, and then head left again on Sakuragichou. Eventually you'll come to a pretentious statue.

To your right is Landmark Tower, and your target is inside. I have to say that Pokemon Centres, as a concept, are somewhat losing their impact with each successive visit, since they're kind of samey. Doesn't detract from the sweetness of acquiring my Yokohama Original charm, though. Too bad I can't sell Soymilk on a daytrip to Sendai. I fantasize about working at the Oosaka location. That would be awesome.

Know what else? They've got Showers dolls, so my Eeveelution set is complete. Soymilk grabs a few for himself, because apparently profiteering is a lucrative industry among Pokemon-loving expats, who speculate on limited-sale dolls that are likely to become hot items in a few months and then sell them on eBay at a 1000% markup. Have I mentioned that Soymilk is morally against both advertising and having to pay money for entertainment?

One floor up, there's a store that sells nothing but merchandise from Shounen Jump serials. Eh, meh.

Rude Boy: This would have been the coolest thing ever if I'd come here in high school.
Soymilk: Me too.
Rude Boy: Oh my god, is this what it's like getting older?
Soymilk: Yes. It's terrible.

Soymilk only agreed to my Pokemon errand on the condition that we at least check out the Yokohama DDR scene, and we're quite pleased to find that the group is made up of some pretty rad people. The culture here is pretty different from what we're used to. Japan has a higher density of players, a dickload more tournaments, and skews towards timing whereas the West has a stamina bias. Plus, when you want to play, you have to write your name down on a sign-up sheet.

Rude Boy: Hey, never seen it done like this before. In my arcade in Canada people just kind of do whatever.
Yokohama player: Yeah, we do things differently in Japan.
Rude Boy: Well, I think it's because it's a much smaller arcade.
Yokohama player: Japanese people need rules. If we don't have this, nobody will know who gets to play next.
Rude Boy: Are y...yeah, sure. That's gotta be it.

Also, there's two girls there, and they're both genuinely hot. Any idea how rare that actually is? Like, really rare. I mean, I know that all readers of this blog are stunningly attractive and intelligent, but outside of you guys, there's a dearth of hot rhythm-gaming girls. I'm just saying.

So, uh, we really didn't end up seeing too much of Yokohama. Um. The area around the station seemed nice.

Does it seem like we started strong on the sightseeing and then lost steam? That's not quite it. We still did stuff, it's just that most of it wasn't especially bloggable. For example, there's a ton of stuff I wouldn't mind getting to on my final day in Toukyou, but Soymilk vetoes all my ideas and takes me clothes shopping instead. God only knows why, but he's determined to transform me into some kind of fashionable ladykiller. I think it's a little side-project he's taken up. Not that I can complain, since he's got a damn good eye for this stuff, but it does mean that we're left with a very narrow window before I need to be getting on my way.

Soymilk: So basically you have your choice between Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. Neither one is better.

Right outside the station is Ikebukuro Nishiguchi Kouen, which features prominently in the drama “Ikebukuro Nishiguchi Kouen.” I'm disappointed to see a distinct lack of yankii, but maybe times have changed. Might be for the best, considering the stupidity I got caught up in last time I shot a group of yankii.

That said, I do see slews of uniformed schoolgirls huddling in groups of ten and fifteen, with nary a guy in sight. If the back alleys were arteries, these girls would have given Ikebukuro an aneurism long ago. I contemplate taking a picture of some of them in light of the yankiiless park, but decide that would probably get me in real trouble.

My very last Toukyou sight is Animate, or “Akihabara for Girls,” as it is apparently sometimes called. Which pretty much sums it up. Ever the niche fan, Soymilk makes a beeline for the doujins.

Soymilk: We're the only two guys on this entire floor. (beat) Yeah let's leave.

The highway bus company I'm riding back with has a number of classifications for their buses, and I'm a little concerned that I'll be riding Standard on the way back, given the experience I had with the level above it, which was called Relax. If you have to upgrade just to be able to relax, I can't even imagine what the hell kind of emotions the Standard ride is supposed to invoke. By the way, if you go yet one more level above Relax, only then do we finally arrive at “Comfort,” which speaks volumes.

Back in Kyouto, I feel like I've returned to my domain. My time away has only made me appreciate it more. Toukyou was great, but after all, Kansai is home.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Toukyou Tower

Today is heavy on rest and light on sightseeing, but I do cross two important items off my list. Remember how I said I was going to gather a signature item from every Pokemon Centre in Japan? I wasn't kidding about that. What I didn't realise at the time was that every single item in the Pokemon Centres is limited. So by the time I actually collect all of them, they'll be from completely different sets. At first I thought that kind of ruined it, but then I decided that in a way, it kind of makes it better. It's a more personal collection; you could get the exact same stuff as everybody else who completes the set, but this way, it ends up being a representation of what each store was selling at the time that you visited. Sure, the result will lack consistency, but it will have character.

I also got bummed out when I thought this meant that I wouldn't be able to complete my Eevee doll collection, since they aren't being produced anymore. Guess what though.

Yeah, I spent a lot of money this day.
Jealous? I even pick up a sitting Efii to maybe replace the one that has trouble standing. Would have done it for all of them except that the sitting versions are an earlier run and so most of them look like shit. The only one I couldn't find was Showers, but...I still have hope.

With the important part accomplished, we head over to Tokyo Tower, just because it's conveniently nearby. Soymilk's lived here six months and he's never even been. He's worried we might not be able to find it. Think about that.

Once on the Main Observation Deck, we have to decide whether or not to advance another 100 metres skyward. Soymilk figures we might as well go for it. To be perfectly straight with you, I can't say I recommend it. It's great, sure, but it's just not 600 yen more impressive than the Main Deck.

But, pretty though,  not denying that.
Soymilk: So your Japanese is better than mine now, hey?
Rude Boy: Nah.
Soymilk: You keep using words I don't know. And not just Kansai-ben. 同じく」
Rude Boy: “Likewise.” Funny you would bring that up here in particular, since I learned it from Sailor Moon.

I think this might be Sanchoume?!
Soymilk: If I were going to commit suicide, jumping off the top of Tokyo Tower seems like a pretty good method. Think I could get through the glass, or do they reinforce it so people don't try stuff like that?
Rude Boy: I don't think you could just defenestrate yourself, no. Maybe if you threw something heavy at it, like that lectern over there. Even regular glass is harder than you think, though.
Soymilk: I'm just worried the fall wouldn't kill me right away. Like I'd still be alive for ten seconds or something.
Rude Boy: Ten seconds to think about whatever you wanted to think about.

The staff told me it was probably this one. But I think they might have been bullshitting.
Rude Boy: Do you enjoy stuff like this?
Soymilk: No.
Rude Boy: But can you appreciate why I do?
Soymilk: Yes.
Rude Boy: I love cities, and I love people.
Soymilk: I love cities, and I hate people.
Rude Boy: They tend to go together.

Toukyou Tower is adorable because at least half the people there are couples.

Like this one!
Minutes after I took this photo, the reception girl went over and asked them to stop.

The journey down can take as long as the attraction itself. The elevator takes you up to the second floor of the Main Observation Deck, and you have to walk down to the second, where they have windows in the floor.

Guys guys look. If this glass and these bars suddenly disappear I'll fall to my death. How cool is that?!
The next elevator down leads you to another little area partway up. We trundle around behind a bottleneck of Kansai girls.

Even the security guard pointed out how pretty this lighting is and wanted to make sure we got a shot. Soymilk doesn't believe in photography, though.
There's a big display of miniature Tokyo Towers with the names of yuumeijin, but we didn't catch what they did to deserve it. Hey President, who's this?!

Soymilk: Why the hell are you taking a picture of that? Fuck these stupid Eiffel Towers.
And then we wind down our brief bout of kankou with a round of vegan ramen at Toukyou Eki.

Don't you mean "We eat vegetables to live?"
"Chikyuu" isn't exactly a T, but I'll give it a pass.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Rude Boy's Trip

Since yesterday we did something I wanted to do, today we're doing something Soymilk wants to do. Ever since the first time he visited Toukyou four years ago, he's wanted to take me to a maid cafe, and for just as long, I've steadfastly refused. But now I have a blog. Soymilk is determined that we look our best, because he “feels sorry for the girls when they have to talk to ugly loser guys all day.” He isn't satisfied with my clothes and makes me wear some of his. Then he does my hair. I look in the mirror and have to admit that, hey...I actually kind of look fucking good. I resemble a fashionable and fairly stylish Japanese guy. He goes for the suave schoolteacher.

Rude Boy: So are we ready for Akihabara? Or Akiba, as the uncool kids call it.
Soymilk: Or Seichi, as the even uncooler kids call it.
Rude Boy: Seichi?
Soymilk: As in “Sacred Land.” An actual Japanese otaku taught me that one.

My interests have broadened since high school so the impact has dampened, but Soymilk thinks it's the greatest place ever. Our first stop is a seven-storey manga shop next to the Taito building. The first two floors are mainstream, the next one up is doujinshi, and then everything after that is three solid floors of porn. So is the basement. It's a truly staggering number of volumes, shelved floor to ceiling in narrow aisles, organized by fetish. The clerks greet us with an unnervingly casual “irasshaimase,” and I really wish they wouldn't, because in a place like this, I'm pretty sure I'd rather be ignored.

Many titles are labelled “for adult only,” just in case you couldn't guess from the covers. Customers are of all ages and all walks of life, and Soymilk and I discuss what it must be like to run into, say, your teacher. There is also one couple, and the girl is quite adventurous about picking stuff up and flipping through it. She's pretty good-looking. So is the one girl working the register, which I would think would be a sales deterrent. Soymilk once left with two full bags of interesting stuff, and is convinced that we're not going to leave until I buy something. I don't.

With that done, it's time for the maid cafe. I almost die of humiliation en route. Basically, I can see no conceptual difference between maid cafes and prostitution. And I don't have any moral objection to either, but I the idea of doing either one myself makes my skeezes me right out. Soymilk assures me that embarrassment is normal, and maybe part of the fun.

We're handed a list of rules in English and Chinese, the last of which is “no asking for maids' personal information.” Makes perfect sense, but it raises some interesting questions. What constitutes “personal information?” No asking for mail addresses, sure, but how about whether or not they're originally from Toukyou? Their opinions on current events or cultural fixtures? What about their job? Obviously they'd say they love it, if they said anything at all, but what if I asked why they took it? What do their friends think? And, by the way, what do their boyfriends think? Cause Soymilk and I would both totally be ok with it. Also, how stringent is this rule? Will first-time transgressors be given a gentle reminder, or will the slightest intimation be met with the sole male employee leading them out by the scruff of their necks?

A maid appears, leads us to our table, and all but sits on the floor beside us, which makes me feel all gross again right after I'd pushed it down. Then she tells us to ring a bell when we're ready to order, and I nearly start formulating a graceful exit strategy right then and there. I take a look around the cafe. There are a few scattered tables, a single long one, a bar, and a stage. The customers, contrary to my imaginings, are mostly college-aged, with one rather smarmy older guy buying a ton of stuff and strutting around the place as if by winning the girls' attention he has accomplished something. On Soymilk's recommendation, I take the A Course, which includes a photo and a souvenir box of cookies. He gets a “furifuri shakkashakka” drink, which is made up of two random flavours chosen by the maids, then mixed in a cocktail shaker in front of you...with an accompanying song. That you have to participate in.

I'm handed a cork board of pictures that look like they were taken by a serial killer, and instructed to pick a maid from amongst them for my picture. It's a tough call, but one stands out, partly because she's kinda my type, and partly because in her photo she's kneeling on the ground, leaning slightly forward, and making an extremely sexual face at someone or something off-camera. Mortifyingly, they call my name over the speaker when it's time, and I have to go up on stage. My fears that she might be less hot in person are very much allayed. Pro tip: When they ask you which set of animal ears you want to wear, ask them to pick for you. They like it. Then you pose together and they write on your photo, which you treasure forever and keep in your wallet for four years. Or you do if you're Soymilk, anyway.

I picture the maids getting together on breaks and talking shit about their customers. “God I hate that guy. Have you seen the way he stares at us when he thinks nobody's looking? What a fucking creeper, no wonder he comes to us.” Soymilk is of the opposite view, believing that most of them probably have a sort of affection for their regulars. “They're so sad. That's why places like us exist. They just need someone to love them.”

As one final thing before we leave, Soymilk requests a game session with his favourite maid in the joint, and we approach the bench to play. The diceroll yields one where you have to steal bones from an electronic dog without it biting you. The two of us keep a razor eye on both the timer and the scorecard, and by the time it's finished it's terribly obvious that she's nudged her own significant lead into a tie. He wins a coin for his efforts, which she has him put into a machine and wins...a picture with her! And not a wallet-sized one, but one of the bigger ones that you normally have to pay extra for. Our chosen maids bring us our developed photos and chat with us until our time's up, and Soymilk pretends not to speak Japanese very well so that I can enjoy the attention. His follows us to the door to see us off. Pretty good service.

I got a "box of cookie" with my A Course, you'll recall. Fancy box. Let's open this up...
A package holding eight cookies, which are all also individually packaged.
Rude Boy: Good call on the clothes.
Soymilk: They seemed to be really interested in our ryuugakuing.
Rude Boy: Sure, they probably don't get too many foreigners they can actually talk to.
Soymilk: My maid was totally into me.
Rude Boy: That's what they all say.
Soymilk: I could just tell...it was in her attitude. Like it wasn't all fake like some of the others.
Rude Boy: Buddy. You're supposed to think that. It's literally their job to make you think that.
Soymilk: She let me win that game.
Rude Boy: Yes, but think about this, do you think she did that because she was into you, or because it's store policy to let first-time customers win? Or maybe even because we're foreigners and she cut us a break?
Soymilk: She was into me. I can tell.

He will spend the rest of the night bringing her up every fifteen seconds, and later find her ameblo.

Random foreign guy: Hey, excuse me, are you guys from here?
Rude Boy: Kinda. I'm actually from Kansai.
Random foreign guy: Oh, great. Do you guys know anything fun to do around here?
Soymilk: Have you been to a maid cafe? Or the arcade?
Random foreign guy: Yeah, we just came from there, actually...I'm pretty sure we've seen basically everything Akihabara has to offer.
Rude Boy: How about three floors of cartoon porn?

In case you were wondering.
Hey, it's Cool Old Dude! I thought they'd have taken this down when he was defeated.
Hey, it's Akiabaoo from Akiba's Trip!
Hey, it's the Sega Building from Akiba's Trip!
As our last stop before heading home, we hit the arcades for a bit, playing a couple rounds of MaiMai and then Pop.

Rude Boy: Is this song off?
Soymilk: Um, no...the whole game is off.

Finally, we locate a Gundam capsule machine. It looks kind of lame from the outside but if you like Gundam, trust me man, these things are fucking awesome. Basically Gundam is a large collection of loosely related anime series about various political factions waging war with giant humanoid robots called mobile suits. It's less stupid than it sounds. Although not by much. Anyway if you watch it enough it becomes very easy to imagine yourself as a mobile suit pilot, and this game lets you live out that dream. You can even connect to other people playing in totally different parts of the country and go on team missions together, acquiring better machines and stronger equipment as your infamy grows. You see? Arcades aren't quite dead yet.

The Internet doesn't have much in the way of instructions, and it's heartbreaking to lumber around stupidly not knowing how the hell to control your ZAKU II (or GM, if you're lame), even if it does have the effect of making you feel like a real pilot slowly learning the ropes. So here's a few pointers if you've never played: The hand controls operate your machine's feet (obviously!). To shuffle sideways, move both left or right; to turn on the spot, move one forward and one back. The right index trigger fires your primary weapon and the left one swings your melee weapon. The thumb buttons are for your special weapons. The right pedal boosts – maintain steady pressure because the boost ends immediately and becomes unusable for several seconds after disengaging, so you can't cheat the metre by feathering. The left pedal jumps, and a midair depression will fire up your jetpack, allowing a brief hover. It can be frustrating to start but it's rad once you get it down!

Sunday, 10 March 2013


A throwaway joke quickly morphs into serious plans. My longtime friend Soymilk, who by complete coincidence ended up studying in Toukyou for the exact same term as I was invited to Kyouto, had always had the idea in mind, but last week we realised that with the way our academic schedules are likely to work out in the wake of this coming semester, if I didn't go now, I probably never would. So it's decided. Try to cram in as much Toukyou as possible in five days. Go time!

Because of my stupid-ass sleep schedule, I wake up at 6 in the evening on Friday but have to teach from 10 to 12 am on Saturday, at which point I should reasonably be sleeping. By the time I get home and make ready for my journey, I've only managed an hour's worth of recharge before I have to pack up my laptop and head out. I steal away in the late evening without telling anyone I'm leaving, or where I'm going, or how long I'll be gone. Just to be a prick. Laden with everything I've ever owned, my pack weighs more than I do. I look like a goddamn tourist, which, I guess, I now am. At least I don't have one of those stupid hiking backpacks.

Travelling alone always manages to make me feel capable and mature. No one else can guarantee my successful arrival; I have only my own skills and knowledge to depend on. Even if I have to ask someone, it was still me who had to parse the Japanese, and me who had to remember the information. Heading towards Kyouto Eki at night feels somehow sublime. There are only a handful of people to be found, which makes it feel somehow more momentous. Some of them have suitcases; fellow adventurers! I hope I don't need my passport. No passport as long as you're not crossing international boundaries, right? But then, this is Japan. You can't even buy a cell phone without your passport. I imagine them refusing to let me on the bus. 10,000 yen, burned. I'm detained incommunicado for 28 days on suspicion of terrorism. My possessions are seized, my Internet search history plumbed, and I'm deported as a sexual deviant.

Instead, they don't even ask for ID. Because this is Japan. I'd expected a permanent wicket somewhere inside, but instead, a battery of informal ones have been smashed together on shoddy school desks out front. I easily locate the departure area by the completely massive crowd of university students thronging around it. The night bus is notably cheaper than the daytime one, for the small tradeoff of being almost intolerable, making it naturally quite popular with those who lack the means to afford something better but possess the endurance to survive the indignity. I've also garnered a small discount for being a student, and another one for booking less than seven days from the date in question (a measure designed to tip nearly full charters through to completion). Pretty damn affordable, considering the distance. Shinkansen would have been twice the price, and I might not even have gotten a seat for that figure.

I've ridden the Greyhound before, so I have a pretty good idea of what I'll be up against. It turns out to be completely wrong. If this one experience is any indication, seats on highway buses in Japan are like seats in coach on an airplane, except not nearly as spacious and luxuriant. My backpack occupies an absurd amount of space; I have to take up contortionism just to fit. The entire vehicle rattles like a machine gun. The drivetrain sounds like human screaming. My plan is to sleep through the night to be ready for the day ahead, but it turns out it's kind of difficult to do while aboard a roiling murdercage. I somehow get in two hours, but then I'm too well-rested to fall asleep again, but too luckily not so alert that time seems to hold any meaning. Instead, I'm drawn into a netherworld built of my own repressed thoughts. My mind ranges to bizarre topics, a postmodernist pastiche of lucid dreaming, thoughts of the days ahead, and music I listened to ten years ago.

When I re-emerge into the real world (or once more descend into the illusion?), it's because we've arrived. So this is Toukyou. Though this is my fourth time in Japan, I've somehow never been. First impression is good; the surrounding buildings slap Kyouto and its dumbass construction ordinances right in its stupid face. I anticipate intimidating complexity from the Toukyou train system, with its intertwining lines and plethora of stations. (Not that Kyouto mass transit is underserviced. It's just that making full use of it requires taking the bus, and that's just not something I tangle with, ever, anywhere in the world.) As it turns out, once I figure out where the hell I'm supposed to go I find that the layout of the transit network is exquisitely clear and intuitive. The only thing that throws me is that their tickets are orange and their train interiors look like carseats. I quickly and easily find my way to Soymilk's station, well ahead of schedule, and contact him by loitering in front of Starbucks and stealing their Wi-Fi.

Rude Boy: I've slept 3 of the last 38 hours and my entire body hurts.
Soymilk: I told you not to take the night bus.

We head to his dormitory, where I will be illicitly staying while I'm here. Following another couple hours' respite, he asks me what I want to do first, because planning is for the weak. In my mind, there's no contest. The one place I want to visit in Toukyou, more than any other, is Shibuya. For Soymilk, this is the most boring possible choice. It's not just that he's been here for six months already and the charm has worn off, he never saw the appeal in the first place. For him, it's just a bunch of streets...with some people...and maybe one or two interesting shops. But he's a great sport about it, and dutifully leads me through the district, even helping me locate some of the most important landmarks from The World Ends with You, which is the main reason I want to go.
Scramble Crossing, the Times Square of Japan! And the place where Neku wakes up at the beginning of TWEWY!
Hachiko. Not as cool as Dougezazou, but it's where Neku first meets Shiki.

109, Shiki's favourite store. Damn but I love that design.

Tower Records, where new ambient and battle tracks are available for purchase.
Meiji Jinguu is on my list as well, and he half-remembers having seen a big shrine somewhere near Yoyogi Kouen. Bingo! It's, um, smaller and less interesting than I'd been led to believe. Does feature some beautiful long paths through the forest, though. Yoyogi Kouen is similarly underwhelming only because its 90% dirt right now. Really, it's goddamn massive. We pass some dudes doing their rockabilly stuff in the middle of the plaza, which I hear is a thing that people do. I'm also pleased that Toukyou, much farther to the north, hasn't yet succumbed to the hellish heat that's been brooked in my area the last few days. When I return to Kansai I will probably instantly die.

About time to head back. He remembers that there's a station just outside the park, which transpires to be...oh hi there! Harajuku Station!

Not much in the way of lolita or anything like that, but everyone around us is cuttingly fashionable. Soymilk repeatedly gives me hell for wearing a plain green shirt to Shibuya. We're both underdressed, he complains. And maybe if you dressed better, you wouldn't get rejected as much! Look at the Japanese guys around you. Start copying their style. You'll do so much better.


Soymilk: So do you feel like you could live here?
Rude Boy: I was just thinking that! I still prefer Oosaka, but yeah, I could really enjoy living here.
Soymilk: Oh, that's good.
Rude Boy: Mock if you want, but I really like the Scramble. Walking away from it, I feel like I've just seen the centre of the universe.
Soymilk: That sounds like something Murakami Haruki would say.
Rude Boy: Thanks!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Toukyou sojourn

As I mentioned in my last post, I will be taking a trip to Toukyou for most of this coming week. I hope to be able to post tales of adventure throughout this period, but various factors might make that impractical. So if I end up going radio silent for the next little bit, rest assured that I will soon be back with a bunch of enticing material.

Also, a quick PSA: my blog buddy Stupid Ugly Foreigner is entering a Big Blog Exchange contest. I guess the winners from each region get to trade lives with each other? I'm not totally clear on the details. Anyway, you should totally click your way over there and then, when you see what an insightful, articulate, and generally entertaining blog he's got going, you should vote for him. Or maybe even not bother with reading him and just vote for him on the strength of my recommendation. There's a link in his sidebar.

Thursday, 7 March 2013


To get myself hyped up for my impending trip to Toukyou, I decided to re-watch the Always series. Consisting of Always 三丁目の夕日、Always 続・三丁目の夕日、and Always '64 三丁目の夕日、the first two feel more like one longer movie that's been divided into parts for convenience, while the third takes place six years later and serves as a sort of “and then more stuff happened.” Also, they're great, and you should watch them.

The story is timeless and for the most part could happen anywhere, in any era, but the films take place in Toukyou in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That gets major bonus points from me, and they make good use of the asset, showing a country on the precipice of a new era. Sundresses cross paths with kimono, and bulbous cars race alongside electric trams, down streets lined with pagodas and primitive neon. The titular 3choume is just a few blocks from Tokyo Tower, which ends up a recurring sight throughout the series, proving particularly effective in the first of the three, in which the landmark's construction matches pace with the film's progression.

It's hard to pinpoint a single “main” plot, as they're all fairly mundane, slice-of-life type storylines that intertwine with and support each other. The action opens with Mutsuko (Horikita Maki), nicknamed “Roku,” arriving in the big city from provincial Aomori, fresh out of high school and having signed onto a one-year contract with a car repair shop. Mistakenly believing she's bound for secretarial work in a big automotive company, she's distraught to find that she'll be a live-in wrench wench. The misunderstanding creates some initial friction between her and her new benefactors, but she toughs it out and ultimately comes to find her place in their home. She doesn't get nearly enough screentime, but she has pluck and sweetness to spare, and her attendant Tsugaru-ben is delightfully endearing.

Her employer, whom everybody addresses as Suzuki Auto after his business, is a loving husband and father, and enjoys the respect of much of the neighbourhood. His amicably antagonistic friendship with the old lady from the tobacco shop is especially pleasing, and she always seems to show up at exactly the right moment, just in time to deliver the coolest lines. (“If you're really a man, gamble on your talent!”) She's ever ready with a biting quip, she listens to contemporary music, and she's quick to coach young love through its first hesitant steps. Basically, she's the kind of old person I hope to become: Old, but not old.

Suzuki Auto's gradually growing friendship with struggling novelist Chagawa Ryuunosuke is equally believable. Like everyone else, he initially dismisses him as a disinherited Toudai washout, but comes to acknowledge his kind heart and his commitment to taking care of Junnosuke, an abandoned youngster whom he takes in and starts to care for as his own son. Though meek, mentally scattered, and hilariously awkward, Chagawa turns out to be genuinely talented, and it's Suzuki Auto who most fervently pushes him to be his best, his earlier bullying notwithstanding.

Plenty of moments gave me chills, but if I have one single favourite, it's the sequence in which Chagawa decides to buckle down and seriously contend a prestigious literary award. If he wins, his future as a writer will be cemented, he'll be assured of his ability to support Junnosuke, and he'll be united with the woman of his dreams. Moments after hearing of his resolution, Suzuki Auto's wife Tomoe pledges to take Junnosuke into their home and even cook Chagawa's meals for him, so that he can give the work his full concentration. Word spreads and soon the entire neighbourhood is behind him, giving him their sincerest support and fervently praying for his success.

Just about the entire story takes place in what looks like a roughly one-block radius, with the various characters working side-by-side, stopping to chat when they cross paths in the street, and hitting up local haunts for an evening drink. It's possible I'm overly romanticizing it, and maybe the situation presented in these films doesn't reflect the real 1950s, but I feel like the characters inhabit a moving, breathing place that I would like to live in myself. I love the fact that when everybody I know has a working cell phone, I'm in constant contact with them to the point that it's almost like never being alone. But there's something to be said for the human feeling of value that must have come from having everybody you know be just a short stroll away. To me at least, it's that visceral, unapologetically positive humanity that serves as the story's centre.

Always is all about family and hope. How family can mean a lot of different things to different people, and who your real family is, and the power that it gives you. And also how to rebuild after setbacks, and facing the future with a sense of community. Although the circumstances are sometimes contrived, and these aren't themes that typically resonate with me, damn if it doesn't put them out there with skill, grace, and an utter lack of pretentiousness. It's a truly feel-good story in the best way possible.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Confronting my discomfort with small children

It's 8 am, and I'm walking through the morning snow-shower with a battered issue of Aquaman cradled under my arm in a gigantic manila envelope. A Slavic-looking young woman in a wreathe of furs and a two-inch skirt is arguing with an Indian guy in heavily accented Japanese. The Kiyamachi mornings can be just as hilarious as the nights.

Herp derp, going to work!

I've always contended that everything you really want from the world, you have to go out and take, because nobody's going to give it to you. Actually though, this isn't always borne out in my real life. A little while ago, my Japanese Politics teacher held an end-of-semester party for everyone who'd been in the class, also inviting a couple of her personal friends. One happened to be an English teacher who was planning to be out of the country for a bit. Bang, part-time job.

As near as I could tell, it was basically a low-pressure juku. I had little to no interest in teaching English, and I had my reservations regarding children (for whom my loathing is matched only by old people and dogs), but I don't have the luxury of turning down a job. And anyway, it might be fun. Plus, if it turns out I absolutely hate teaching English or something, now would be an excellent opportunity to find that out – rather than, say, after signing a one-year contract.

For a harrowing moment it looked as though I would be inexcusably late, but some A-level train tangling puts me at my destination a solid ten minutes ahead of schedule. Instead, it's my co-teacher-to-be who's late; I wondered if a guy standing near me, also clearly waiting for somebody, is the man in question, but reminded myself that there couldn't be too many young white guys roaming around the asshole of Oosaka on a Saturday morning. Eventually I did get to meet the boss, or the “real” teacher as I can't help but think of him, a middle-aged, slightly weird guy who delivered us to the school by van.

I've taught a few lessons in the past, TA'ing Japanese in high school, and I've also spent years fielding grammar questions and tidying up essays. Obviously, this was a totally different game, due mainly to differences in level and format. Unsurprisingly (I remember being that age), the majority of the students' energy was spent trying to derail the lesson as frequently and as distantly as possible, and the real teacher humoured them to an almost alarming degree. Not only did he spend huge amounts of time speaking in Japanese on interesting but completely unrelated topics, he actually allowed them to address him in kougo. And not just familiar kougo, either, but explicitly rude kougo. It was a little jarring to see them get away with that, even knowing that they were mostly joking. I mean, I don't even let my kouhai get away with that shit, never mind little kids. Nobody tried it with me, which was wise of them.

I tried not to let on that I spoke any Japanese, because I figured that would kind of defeat the purpose. It was a lost cause, though, because they were all so hilarious I was left stifling laughter the whole morning; the smartest girl of the group figured out what was up right away, and I had to gently steer the discourse away from a Japanese explosion. My sudden monolingualism, however, also meant that I was frequently left with not much to do but sit on my cushion for minutes on end. I introduced myself and talked a little about Canada, ran through a couple of exercises, and provided pronunciation, but really, I'm tasked with incredibly little. It's actually kind of disconcerting; for being present in a room and occasionally speaking my native language, I made 7000 yen. What the hell? Isn't making money supposed to be hard? I shouldn't complain, but if “real” English teaching doesn't turn out to be more challenging, I don't think I'm cut out for it.

As for teaching children, I needn't have worried. Well, one kid delivered a detailed analysis of my apparently fascinating stubble, one tiny girl accidentally (?) called me her boyfriend, and another little boy tried to touch me inappropriately (triggering my co's single and only Serious Hat moment), but nothing worse than that. I'm sure elementary school teachers get all that and more on a daily basis. They're all so adorable and sweet, I barely wanted to vomit at all. In one hazy, distracted moment, I had actual visions of myself running into them, years later, and marveling at how they'd all grown up. Damn, maybe there's a teacher lurking inside me somewhere after all.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Inter-semester Period

Rude Boy: So what's going on?
Kojak: Nothing. Just “oh I love you, I'll miss you so much,” and then in two weeks nobody cares.
Rude Boy: Sounds like a metaphor for life. You're here for a while, and then one day you're not.
Kojak: And things carry on.

With the semester formally ending in just a few short days, most would be off gallivanting about Japan, Korea, and whatever other spots they'd blocked in before their ultimate repatriation. Tutors and other friends were scattered around, there was (predictably insufficient) food and drink, general chatter, and the walls lit up with constant camera flash. All very expected.

One table had been set aside with some posterboards set out, that we might submit a message to the outgoing owner. Over the years I've gotten pretty good at dredging up some suitably inane scribblings. But as I stood there, I came to a somewhat dispiriting realisation: I don't know these people.

There are some that I like. Kojak, Little Italy, Hecate, Philosophy, the Koreans. But even for them, what the hell could I write? Kojak and I shared little more than the occasional conversation and a love of Boss cafe au lait. The rest of them? We talked, sometimes. We never went anywhere together. We didn't study or even hang out.

I don't really try to be friends with anyone in this house because I've reserved that energy for Japanese people. They've cottoned on to this, and I think some of them resent it a little. Maybe they think I think I'm better than them. I don't know; I don't even care.

There was a casual ceremony in which people were given certificates of completion and, afterwards, asked to make a speech. People said the kinds of corny things you can only say out loud when you really, really mean them. There were hugs. There were tears. I was hit with a slight rush of concern, like when your car's suspension falls out from under you. I was hit with the urge to cement my place among the remainders. I worked the room, chatting up the handful of people that I like who will still be here next semester. Like maybe we can be actual friends, you know?

After a while I got bored. When I'm not the centre of attention I tend to get tired and moody. It's why I hate not being in charge of anything. Which, incidentally, is why I decided to get everybody to write some messages for the outgoing head teacher, as well, partly because she deserves to know how grateful we are, but also to give myself a project to manage.

I sat by myself for three hours, as the rest of the party whorled around me. Nobody sat down to talk with me. I contemplated a lot of things, but mainly what I should do in relation to the new students next semester. Should I be taking more of a leadership role in this house? Maybe I owe it to them. Maybe I really do need to just get off my high horse.

It's inspired a lot of self-reflection regarding my own position and how best to move forward. Lately I've been feeling pretty isolated, not because of anything that's happening over here so much as I've started feeling a quiet anxiety over what's going to happen between me and my Canadian friends as the years go on. I've made it clear that I'm making Japan my home; everybody knows that. And I also know that afer throwing out all the “casual acquaintances” and “people whose existence I am aware of,” the people I truly love and trust are friends for life. Next time we share a continent, we'll be sure to meet up, and in the meantime we'll chat electronically. That was the case even when I could stand on my balcony and look through President's living room window. Inevitably, I'm going to lose contact with some people, but that's just a consequence of the choice I've made. Priorities. Everything has an opportunity cost.

More immediately, I'm realising that I've undergone a huge social transformation since I landed. In Canada, I was like goddamn Edmond Dantes, except I helped people instead of destroying their lives. I had a strong core of people rallied around me. When I needed something to get done, I knew I had the influence and the authority to make it happen.

Logically, I should be able to move in much the same manner here. I've spoken before about what a lone wolf I've been lately, looking after pretty much just myself. Next semester, the new students will look to us for help. I have no doubt that Anarchy in the UK will be a social rallying point, but I'm beginning to wonder if my hands-off approach might be a bit of an injustice. I have no real desire to participate in dormitory life, and I'm quite happy being ancillary to all of its goings-on. But the thing is, maybe I should, because maybe my capacity to help also confers an obligation. I don't know what I'll actually end up doing, but I'm pretty sure that for once, both Kant and Mill think that I should.