Japan, at first


When I was a child, I would occasionally come running to my mother asking if some random string of words spelled anything. “Mom, does
h-o-u-s-s spell anything?” I can remember how excited I was when, one day, I successfully spelled ‘house’ quite by accident.


I imagine young Japanese children taking a bowl-full of spaghetti and throwing it against the wall and asking, “Mom is that the Kanji for anything?”


As I was walking through Shinjuku trying to navigate my way with a Japanese map, my eyes began to blur and I thought, spaghetti. Luckily, I found a nice British lady who had lived in Tokyo for a couple of years who helped my find the realty office.


Technology rules in Japan, but not in the reality office – 90 minutes of having lengthy, legal documents read to me; dozens of forms laboriously filled out by hand with carbon-copy paper carefully placed between documents; and, numerous requests for signatures in impossibly small squares, before I had the key to my apartment.


Turns out that the Japanese have little stamps made for them which transfer their family Kanji onto legal documents. I defy anyone to sign, ‘Jxxxx X. Rxxxxxxxx' in a square no bigger then an 1/8 of an inch.  


In any event, the paperwork finished, I was handed the key to my apartment in Roppongi. My apartment is easy to describe: sufficient but small.  Imagine a 30 x 30 square with one corner cut-out for a bathroom, kitchen appliances against one wall and windows on the opposite wall. That’s it – no rooms, chairs, closets or shelves. I will be living out of my suitcases.


Returning to the spaghetti theme… Japan has a very extensive and impressive subway system. It is safe, unbelievably punctual and goes everywhere. The map, however looks like someone took multi-colored spaghetti and, yep, threw it against the wall. There are dozens of subway-lines which repeatedly crisscross one another. The colors are the key, as each subway line has its own color. Assuming you aren’t color blind (are there color blind Japanese?), it is actually very easy to navigate. I have already figured out how to go from Roppongi to Shinjuku for my Japanese lessons and how to go 1-2 hours away to the various Dojos. I’m figuring out short-cuts and transferring from line-to-line like a pro.


As you get farther away from Tokyo, the fewer Westerners you see and the less English is understood. As I was returning from training, in a remote part of Noda, I found myself in a nearly empty subway car. Two drunken business men got on and sat next to me. An elderly Japanese woman was sitting across from us. Despite the fact that drunk business men on trains late at night is not at all unusual, the women seemed amused by their antics.


The elder businessman fetched some mints from his pocket, took one for him and gave one to his younger colleague. While looking straight ahead, he handed one to me. Not knowing what else to do, I accepted the mint and thanked him, <Domo arigato goziamus.> He nearly jumped out of his seat with surprise.

“<Nihongo o hanashimasu ka?> You speak Japanese?” he asked. The woman who was watching us laughed.


I told them that I spoke a little Japanese and that I came from Chicago, and so on. He spoke no English and we quickly used up what little Japanese I knew. He then forced his younger colleague to sit next to me because he spoke English. It turns out that the younger man worked in Toronto for a while where he learned reasonably good English. We made small talk until we got to my station.


As I stood up to get off the train, the older man handed me his last mint. “No thanks, I’ve had enough, <kekko desu>” I said. To which he replied, in Japanese, “But you are so big, and the mints are so small!” 


I didn’t know about that, but I took the mint and I was happy to have it.