Miscellany

Sales

Context: This vignette is set in the supermarket I frequented in my town in Miyagi Prefecture

Originally posted on April 30th, 2013

There’s a sucker born every minute.”- David Hannum, critic of P.T. Barnum

In early February, a modern-day snake oil salesman came to town and set up shop in my supermarket, in the corner formerly reserved for gachapon machines (dispensers of small, 100-400 yen toys that I thankfully quit, cold turkey, about a year ago). For the sake of this piece, I will call him by his initials, ST. He enthusiastically called out to shoppers passing by, inviting them to try a unique “healing” experience. Within the fenced-in corner were six ordinary looking chairs. After confirming that the experience would be free of charge, I took a seat.

“The process has already started!” ST declared with a smile. I paused, closed my eyes, concentrated, and then felt it. A slight tingling at the base of my neck. “Oh! You must have excellent circulation if you’re able to feel it!” I didn’t rebut him with the fact that I’m borderline anemic and have, several times in the past winter, had to actively bring back circulation to my ghostly white extremities with buckets of hot water and vigorous rubbing. “Is that so?” I replied, adorning my face with a single raised eyebrow and a smirky curl of my lip that would be permanently etched onto my visage during all successive visits. ST then explained to me and several senior citizens also sitting in the chairs that his company’s creation was a white, suitcase-sized device with Apple design sensibilities, off to the side. From the moment we sat down, 14,000 volts of electricity had been coursing through our bodies, hence the tingling. It was administered via pads on the chairs, hidden beneath cloth covers. “Even bullet trains only run on 12,000 volts,” he exclaimed, and the not-quite-untrue-but-still-doubletalkish fact elicited oohs and ahhs from the easily-impressed seniors. My raised eyebrow and smirk weren’t going anywhere.

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The second well-disguised electricity-emitting device I’ve had to contend with here.

ST went on to explain the process, without any real mention of the science behind it. These electric chairs are supposedly capable of healing all of one’s physical woes by balancing hormones, massaging the organs, and reversing the aging process. A number of posters attached to the fences displayed buzzwords connected to each other by arrows, as well as a diagram of a plant with roots meant to be a metaphor for the rotting of our bodies, all of which helped him in his explanation. More oohs and ahhs. “So how much does this thing cost?” I asked. ST replied that he wasn’t even sure that it would ever be for sale to the public at all, so advanced was the technology at play here. My raised eyebrow threatened to recede into my hairline.

What followed was a series of delightful parlor tricks. First, he touched the tip of a small black device to each of our palms. It gave off a loud buzzing noise and lit up, like an EMF-scanner for ghost hunters. This was proof that there was indeed electricity coursing through us, as the device did not react when pressed against anyone or anything not connected to the circuit. I was dismayed that the buzzing was significantly louder for many of the old folks than for me, which supposedly implied that they had superior blood flow. I brushed off that depressing thought by imagining my own blood was simply heartier, like a good meaty stew, with an extra +20 Elec. Resistance.

The next trick involved a bottle of water and was used to demonstrate the “massaging your organs” aspect. When someone in one of the electric chairs balanced the bottle on the tips of his/her fingers, the surface of the water inside would roil. “That sort of ‘micromassage’ is happening on every surface of your body, inside and out!” ST declared. “It can even eliminate wrinkles…with enough use!” The antediluvian ladies gasped excitedly. For the final trick, ST pulled a two-foot long fluorescent light bulb rod from seemingly nowhere and invited me to grasp it in the middle. I did, and when he touched his car key to one of the tips, the bulb lit up dimly, and my arm hairs stood on end. I convulsed and twitched exaggeratedly with a bit of frothing at the mouth for the easily-alarmed audience of ancient ones, and ST thanked me for my “Nice reaction” (in English).

He told us that the recommended dosage was a 20-minute session every day, for at least five days in a row. We all got business card-sized folding calendars with which to track our visits to the healing corner, on which he wrote our names and specific ongoing health problems. I asked if we would receive 10% off a large soft drink after 50 stamps on the card. ST said he’d share his lunch with me if that day ever came. He then produced a poster with a massive list of negative symptoms, citing them as potential reactions to the treatment that would occur right before an overall improvement in one’s condition. “If you experience heavy diarrhea or excessive eye crust, that’s perfectly normal! It means the healing is working. Even intense nausea and migraines are signs that you’ll start feeling better than ever quite soon!” ST proclaimed. Those side effects would apparently disappear and all our previous ailments would follow suit. I mentioned my malformed ankle bones and asked with a straight face if those too could be cured with enough shock treatment. “Perhaps.”

The village elders left, and ST chatted me up. After covering the essentials (“Why are you here?” “When are you leaving?” “Why can you speak Japanese?” “Can you use chopsticks?”) I learned that he was also a fan of the manga, One Piece, which always makes for an engaging connection and opportunity to nerd-out. I was unable to eliminate the eternal smirk entirely (the very premise of the experience did not allow for it), but the corner of my lip calmed down a little bit. This guy was good.

I sometimes ask myself why I returned the next day. And the day after that. And another 36 times over the next three months. The inevitable conclusion is that I appreciated the interaction with natives, which is surprisingly sparse on the job and, regrettably, nearly absent in my life outside of work. As a regular of the healing corner who was 50 years younger than the average user, I became ST’s audience plant and partner in crime by helping to demonstrate the various tricks for the geriatric grannies too afraid to grasp the light bulb, or by asking him leading questions about the nature of the product.

The man himself was as important to the narrative as the electricity, and his company-issued goal of reaching 150 users during a single day became well-known to all, to the extent that he tacked up a counter on the fence to record the number from day to day. Should he fail to reach that goal by March, he would be shipped away by HQ to a far-off prefecture (probably even farther to the north, in the inhospitable frozen lands), leaving his poor family behind in Miyagi. Becoming invested in ST’s wellbeing and doing everything possible to ensure that he was not ripped away from his wife and children was inevitable for anyone with a heart. I did not doubt that a soulless tech company would go that far to incentivize their salesmen, but of course I knew that every word out of his mouth played to the vulnerabilities and emotions of the other patrons.

But I liked the guy. His friendliness was infective, and being in the healing corner naturally led me to recite my life story to any fellow electricity junkies who asked. When we were alone, ST would engage with me genuinely, despite our friendship not serving his career goals in any significant way. He knew from the very start that I would never drop a single yen on this product (which was still conspicuously not for sale), so we talked about manga, the education system, why he should visit the U.S., and about my crippling loneliness in this wasteland devoid of people between the ages of 20 and 35. He loved history and literature but was not particularly good with the sciences, although that apparently presented no obstacle for a salesman of a high-tech medical device, as the target demographic was impressed enough by pseudo-explanations, “essential core balance dynamic synergy” jargon, and hand-waving.

We reached the 150-people-in-one-day goal, of course (his wife even dropped by to bump up the number), and his permit to squat in the supermarket was extended to the end of April (sometimes I did doubt whether he really went home at night). My visits became less frequent, but I was always well-received by ST, whose enthusiasm never waned, and by the retirees, for whom I was an endless source of fascination, like a rare zoo animal. As tiring as the xenophobia from generations born before the war quickly becomes, I don’t turn down free language practice.

Finally he opened for orders, and the prices went up on the wall. It was ~$6500 for the bare-bones kit (unit + pad), ~$6800 for a set with a heated (and electrified) attachment that could be strapped to one’s arms/legs/trunk, and ~$8000 if you wanted the chair itself in addition. These special prices were for a limited-time only, of course, and would shoot up by an extra ~$1000 if one waited too long or wanted to place an order via any other means besides Mr. ST himself. My smirk morphed into a full-on eyetooth-baring grin. Had he told me the prices three months earlier, when I asked (instead of denying that purchasing the wonder device would ever be possible), I never would have thought that a single unit would sell. But at this point I knew his efforts would soon pay off, because he was that good. I never noticed a single change in my own health (we turned this into a routine where he would ask how my “condition” was, and I would draw a flat line in the air and go *beeeep*) but plenty of the octogenarians were convinced that daily use of service had reinvigorated them and cured their chronic constipation and scoliosis. In the end, nineteen of them placed orders, and their names and selections were plastered up on the fence (about half used pseudonyms, apparently embarrassed about having quite so much disposable income to waste on such a thing). A few frugal fossils pinched their pennies by deciding on the basic set, but the heating pad variation was the most popular.  Even more surprising, a number of them had apparently been convinced that the rather ordinary chair was worth over $1000 and opted for the deluxe package.

In the end, ST said that HQ might ship him away anyway, despite his fabulous success here, and that his wife has no intention of relocating. It’s just that sort of job. I asked if he would receive commissions or some sort of bonus for sucking a clean $130,000+ out of this town. “No. No money, just ‘points.’” I couldn’t help but imagine his own version of the punch-cards he had distributed, good for 10% off the product if he wanted to buy it himself.

Right before leaving, I shook his hand and congratulated him. Smirking the smirkiest smirk I could smirk, and with the coyest tone I’m capable of in Japanese, I apologized for not buying the unit myself.

“That’s all right, Caleb-san.” he whispered with a wink. “I wouldn’t really recommend it anyway.”

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Shock treatment not guaranteed to cure the shakes when holding a camera

Criminal

Context: I was visiting my homestay family from my college study abroad term; they live in Chiba Prefecture

Originally published on June 26th, 2010

Today I went on an adventure in Chiba, riding a bicycle for miles through unfamiliar streets. Two years ago my objective in Japan was to come home with as much worthless anime merchandise as I could cram in my luggage, but with little money to blow this time around, the focus was necessarily on these sorts of zero-cost bicycle outings. I wouldn’t even need to pay for lunch if I brought a riceball and thermos from home. I was near the store I had been searching for (not to buy anything, but just to have an objective that could be accomplished) when the sidewalk suddenly narrowed and I noticed a three-wheeled vehicle blocking the way. Some sort of wide-set motorcycle with two wheels in back instead of one. A motortrike? Just beyond it there was a police car and two officers talking to an elderly couple. I knew I couldn’t ride by on the Hashimotos’ wobbly, rusted bike without trouble, so I dismounted and started walking the bike along the very edge of the sidewalk, wary of stepping into traffic.

criminal vehicle

As luck would have it, the right-hand bicycle pedal scratched the vehicle. A tiny scratch – less than a centimeter long – but it was audible, and the police officers turned to me. At that point I had a choice. Either ride away before they could see my face and take my info, or take responsibility for it and pay the price. I quickly glanced at the officers’ utility belts, which held walkie-talkies and batons, but no visible guns. A few gaijin smashes might’ve worked if I’d opted for a life of crime. But no, of course I took responsibility, and they told me to wait on the side for a minute.

criminal scene
On any number of alternate Earths, this is the exact spot where my life ended after a bloody battle with two police officers.

At that point I realized that the elderly couple had also scratched the vehicle (with their car), and they were currently being processed. A guy from an auto shop was already there to assess the damage. After a few minutes, one of the officers approached and started questioning me. He looked at my driver’s license and asked a few questions about what I was doing in Japan, where I was staying, and for how long. His half-smile and soft, lispy voice were completely misleading; I hoped that at any second he would tell me to forget about it and ride away, but no such luck. I answered truthfully, all the while terrified that I would have to pay several hundred dollars in damage, or even worse, have some sort of police record in Japan.

The elderly couple drove away after a while, leaving me with the two officers and the auto shop man. One of the officers wrote a short note describing the incident and instructed me to give it to my host father. Finally, Automan told me to follow him back to the shop (it was just around the corner) to settle the matter. Apparently, the owner, who wasn’t present at the time, had just purchased the vehicle that morning and had chosen to leave it in a very inconvenient place. Automan somehow still had the keys (suspicious!), so he drove it to the shop and I followed.

I was greeted at the shop by the man who had driven the vehicle, another man who had an eye patch over his right eye, and a third with slicked back hair who was missing his right arm. If this wasn’t a front for a yakuza hideout then I haven’t watched at least a few Takeshi Beat movies. Lefty started explaining and gesturing with his one arm, indicating that the giant gash caused by the elderly couple meant that the entire rear bumper piece would have to be replaced at a cost of 30,000 yen (about 400 dollars). Fearing for my life but not ready to give up my scant figurine funds that easily, I showed him that the damage I had caused was a much smaller scratch near the bottom. I didn’t get the idea that he cared much, as I was the one present and at his mercy, whereas the elderly couple was not. But the original man from the scene of the crime said that for my part, 10,000 yen would be enough (about 130 dollars).

criminal yakuza
Eye-witness-based sketch of the employees of the auto shop. I am both eye-witness and sketch artist.

I handed over a crisp bill and asked if there were any forms to fill out or papers to sign, but he insisted that with the money I gave him, our affairs were capiche’d. I was a bit uneasy about handing over cash without any sort of documentation, but I was also happy to have escaped with both of my pinky fingers intact. In retrospect I could definitely have tried to bargain them down further. There was only 6,000 yen in my wallet proper (with 30,000 in my concealed dorktastic passport belt for actual emergencies), so I very easily could have feigned not having enough. …But that really would have been a gamble, and I didn’t want any more interaction with the police.

My host family received a call from the police concerning the matter, and within half an hour, Papa Takashi somehow found me on the streets (he was driving his car, and I didn’t have a cell phone, which made it all the more surprising). We went to the nearest McDonalds, where I described the whole saga truthfully, though probably portraying myself as a little more brave and handsome than I was. Of course the family was more concerned about my safety than my money, but they couldn’t believe how much I had been charged. Later, Papa said that he had been thinking of calling the auto shop to thank them and apologize, but that the more he thought about it, the more he felt that they had ripped me off. People with “kinder hearts” wouldn’t have wanted to get a foreigner caught up in the affair (especially when there had already been an accident, caused by Japanese people, not 20 minutes before) and would have let me off scot-free, he said. “No, they weren’t yakuza. Yakuza make no pretense about who they are or what they want. They say ‘We’re yakuza, and you’re going to pay us if you don’t want to get hurt.’ These kinds of people are worse. They lead the lives of ordinary people but under the mask they are rotten.” …Not that I regret taking responsibility.

Of course my host family made fun of me for the rest of my time there, recounting the story to every guest and occasionally telling me emphatically (in English) “Don’t move! Don’t. Touch. Anything!” During one retelling, I mentioned that had I chosen to fight the Automen, it would have been two arms versus five. That got a few laughs.

Cold

Context: During my two years in the JET Programme, I lived in a small apartment in northern Japan; SK was my American neighbor/buddy

Originally published on January 30th, 2012

cold dante
Who wants to be my Virgil?

“Place us below, nor be disdainful of it,
There where the cold doth lock Cocytus up.”
-Canto XXXI, Inferno, Dante Alighieri

“I’ve lived in the American northeast for most of my life. The cold is no big deal. I’ll get to show these Japanese what kind of hardy stuff Americans are made of,” I boasted to myself, minutes after learning of my northerly job posting and immediately following the initial distress regarding proximity to Fukushima radioactivity.

The only hardiness about me was foolhardiness.

The radioactivity was in fact nothing to be feared. My school diligently measures the microsievert level out in the yard every week (a task the vice principal hands off to me, of all people?), and every time, it’s lower than normal. Additionally, to ensure that my cancer-chance-reducing dark green veggies aren’t actually giving me cancer, I’m always sure to purchase American-grown broccoli instead of Fukushima broccoli, although sometimes I find myself wishing they wouldn’t place the two only inches away from each other on the same produce shelf…

In any case, even the summer was nothing to sneeze at in this land of harsh extremes. With the humidity rarely dropping below 90%, I was drenched in sweat every waking and sleeping moment, with the only respite being in the shower, where I could feel clean for a few minutes each day. Mosquitoes buzzed outside, and electrolytes were lost by the bucketful. “Being hot all the time sucks,” I whined to no one and everyone. “I can’t wait for winter. At least then you don’t sweat and you can always put more clothes on if it’s feeling nippy! No way am I gonna complain about the cold after going through this irksome summer.” What a moron I was. For you see, heat does not impede life in the way that lack of heat does. Cold requires strategy. Survivor contestants are never placed in the Canadian wilderness or the Siberian tundra, for they would die in minutes, shirtless as they are. Facing down the cold requires ingenuity and fortitude, and it’s laughable to recall that I ever once thought winter would be preferable to summer.

Continuing down the timeline, fall was downright pleasant, as it is wont to be in most of the world. The air was chilled enough to cut off the flow of sweat, but not so much that I still couldn’t prance around in nothing but a t-shirt, sweatshirt, jeans, socks and sandals. Then winter crept up. Now, the trouble with winter in Japan is the lack of insulation in buildings, such that the inside and outside temperatures are the same, and any heat produced inside quickly escapes through the windows and walls. They say that buildings in Hokkaido are constructed differently to deal with the cold, but apparently I’m located about as far north as you can go without hitting that crucial dividing line.

I started adding another layer to my outfit and switching to slightly heavier outerwear every two weeks. Sleeping became unbearable, as the two walls hugging my bed are both exterior ones, and each contains a massive window. Fortunately, Papa Hashimoto’s care package with an electric blanket arrived after only a few sleepless nights. With that, I could stave off the threat of frostbite to my fingers and toes, and preheat my pajamas and pillow at night and my clothes in the morning before getting dressed.

At this point, the electric-powered wall-mounted heating unit still sufficed to heat the living room adequately as long as every door in the apartment remained closed. I bought a cheap area rug in the hopes of raising the average temperature of the room by a degree or two and so that I wouldn’t have to sit directly on the cold wooden floor at the (non-functioning) kotatsu during breakfast every morning. I began pre-heating the shower water to avoid two minutes of naked shivering while waiting for the temperature to adjust. The several times that I forgot to put the milk back in the fridge for the whole day were of no negative consequence. I started getting dressed in the living room, directly under the blast of warm air from the heating unit, for the alternative (stripping down in any other part of the apartment) was a painful prospect that produced Pavlovian palpitations in my heart.

The first snow fell a few days before winter break, and with it came the sad realization that I could probably not wear my flip-flops to work for that much longer. Taking the advice of some Miyagi JET veterans, before heading back home for Christmas, I shut off my water and power, and poured a bit of vodka into the toilet tank to keep it from freezing while I was gone.

My two weeks in New York were amazing. I strolled out into the streets of Nyack and even NYC with my light fall jacket and only the fifth warmest pair of gloves I own. I rolled my eyes as I heard strangers speak with trepidation of the upcoming 35 degree weekend. My cozy bed in my radiator-heated childhood home never felt so amazing. When it was time to come back, I had no reservations about returning to the job, the kids, or the strange lack of hamburger buns and vanilla yogurt. Just the damned cold.

So, just as Dante departed the comparatively toasty Eighth Circle for the frozen prison of the Ninth, so did I plunge back into Miyagi Prefecture. The sun was shining and only two inches of snow coated the ground, but when I went around back to turn the water back on, it started gushing out of the external pipe box. I unscrewed the cover plate and discovered a small but critical crack in a single pipe. It turned out that even with the water shut off, what remained in those pipes was enough to burst them. My neighbor and fellow American, SK, had forgotten to turn off his power, so he was fine, because apparently as long as the power is on, a small heater runs inside that pipe box. A plumber arrived an hour later to assess the damage, but the problem could not be fixed for an entire week. While I was nevertheless grateful that the town would foot the bill, this still represented a mild inconvenience. With no running water, I brushed my teeth either with bottled water or at school, got takeout for every meal, showered at SK’s place, and took care of most of my toiletry needs while on the job. Still, I had no choice but to pee into the dry shower drain a few times late at night. I have to wonder what they would have proposed had SK not been there to offer me his shower.

The plumber did come back a week later to take care of the problem. Unfortunately, he didn’t bother verifying his handiwork before leaving. As he drove away, I discovered that even though the water was turned on, none of it would run, as all the pipes between the external box and my faucets were completely frozen. As the kitchen is the room most distanced from the unforgiving winter air, the kitchen sink was the first to be liberated of its icy shackles; its water started flowing after about an hour of leaving the faucet on. I poured buckets of the hot water from there onto the shower’s tap unit, until at last I heard the ice inside breaking up. It was at that point that I checked the toilet for the first time since getting home. The inside of both the bowl and tank were solid blocks, despite my turning them into vodka cocktails. Higher proof next time, perhaps? Several more buckets of hot water sufficed to defrost the toilet. The bathroom sink, though, refused to start for another week or so.

cold hotel
Basically what my place looks like. Nah, just kidding!- I never have company over. Too cold for that.

Even with the water back, though, conditions continue to worsen. I wake every morning to an additional two to three inches of snow and ice coating the world and, more tryingly, my car. Despite my blasting the heater as soon as I arrive home, the inside temperature refuses to rise above 37 degrees. I bought a pair of rugs and tacked them up over my bedroom windows to keep in a bit of the heat. The loss of sunlight is unfortunate, but I already take vitamin-D supplements, and survival is the primary concern. I also purchased another electric blanket so that I may be encased, sandwich-style, while sleeping. As if in a scene from some hellish wonderland, icicles hang from the ceiling in my shower room. The walls of my hallway, once merely dripping with condensation, are now covered by thin layers of ice. The snow that I kick off my boots in the entryway accumulates and forms into drifts, never melting. The changes from pajamas to work clothes and vice versa are the most agonizing parts of the day, for during those few seconds, my skin must contend with the arctic air. The days grow longer but the temperature still drops. It is 25 degrees inside when I wake each morning, my visible breath an instant and cruel reminder that despite whatever coconut-filled, tropical-themed dream I was having, my reality is terrible and inescapable.

cold diagram
But hey- at least it’s rent free!

The pipes froze again this weekend. Now, in order to use any water, be it in the kitchen, toilet, bathroom sink, or shower, I must install the small electric space heater in the room of choice an hour in advance. The echo of the ice breaking up in the pipes signals me to move quickly, shuffling the heater to the next room whose water I anticipate wanting to use. My spirit endures, but my flesh grows weak. They say the worst will break by the end of March, but I don’t expect to last. Most likely, I will either pleasantly drift off to eternal slumber via the numbing cold or burst into flames after turning both electric blankets up to max power in desperation one frigid night. Naturally, I would that it were the latter – a final blazing act in defiance of this unforgiving force of nature.

Licensing

Context: I had to get a driver’s license in Japan. I wouldn’t own a smart phone for another two years, so I navigated by drawing maps on paper ahead of time.

Originally published on May 29th, 2012

Having an American driver’s license automatically qualifies one for an international driving permit (issued by AAA). The Japanese government apparently trusts in our own licensing procedures enough that holders of said permit are allowed to start driving from day one, even if they’ve never done so on the left side of the road before. A risky decision, if you ask me, judging from the preponderance of foreigner-caused accidents. But for whatever reason, that trust is limited to a single year. After that point, simply renewing the international permit is not good enough, which means that foreigners who would like to continue driving must apply for and obtain an official Japanese driver’s license. Easier said than done.

My own permit wasn’t set to expire until August, but the length of the process and rumors that during the summer the DMV is lousy with frustrated JETs struggling to succeed before the deadline made me decide to tackle the challenge early. The first step involves getting one’s foreign license “translated” at JAF (Japan Automobile Federation), which is essentially Japan’s AAA. The office is on the outskirts of Sendai, and I’m proud to say that I found my way there without a GPS of any sort and with only one of my patented hand-scribbled maps of the neighborhood. After correctly identifying the convenience store that I used as a landmark on the map, I parked, started walking, and realized that my map didn’t quite communicate the scale of the area, which meant that it was about a two mile walk. It would have been shorter if I had been able to cut straight through a strangely placed military base, but the camo-clad guard and barbed wire fence made me reconsider. So I took the long route along the perimeter of the base and received dirty looks from the soldiers running on the other side of the fence. I usually stare back angrily when stared at in this country, but not this time.

I reached JAF without causing an international incident. There, they basically charge $40 to look at your license and write down your birthday and address on a separate piece of paper. While there, I also bought the regrettably unnecessary English version of Japan’s “Rules of the Road.” It’s mostly full of common-sense stuff (“Roads are slippery when wet!”), but admittedly, it does explain a few of the more cryptic road signs, like the one that means “Road only open to three-wheeled vehicles weighing less than 500 kilograms with two or more passengers, one of whom is handicapped, on Sundays and the Emperor’s birthday, but never during a leap year.”

license road sign

The next step was one of several trips to the Miyagi DMV, also located in Sendai. I really shouldn’t complain about my own travel time, because some people have to come from hours away and stay the night, but I will anyway. For some reason, (I want to say…xenophobia, but it’s probably just a lack of demand) they only offer the 30-minute window between 1:00 and 1:30 Mon-Fri for foreigners looking to get licenses, so I took a half-day of vacation time and headed to Sendai around lunch. The large gray DMV building was just as imposingly dreary-looking as its average American counterpart, with the comically dreadful and familiar sight of unnerved people waiting on unreasonably long lines for far too few clerks. On the eastern side of the building, a throng of nervous 20-somethings sat around waiting for their practicals to begin.

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait on any lines and went straight to a secluded back office, one broom closet of which is reserved for foreigners and their matters. Day One at the DMV only involved filling out applications. The man designated to assist foreigners in this process is named Mr. Masatsugu. A long string bean with a lazy eye and a penchant for repeating himself and blinking uncomfortably often, he’s known to pretty much every assistant language teacher in Miyagi prefecture, as he essentially serves as the first gatekeeper on the treacherous path towards obtaining a license. He ran through each question about five times in extremely slow and broken English despite my insistence that Japanese was fine. It took about an hour for him to establish my entire travel history since obtaining my American license, which was necessary in order to confirm that I had had it in America for at least a single, uninterrupted one-year period. Should I have failed to meet that requirement, I would have needed to slap a mortifying “new driver” sticker on my car here. Thankfully, Masatsugu was genial and quirky. With the application out of the way, I made an appointment for the following week to take the tests. Unfortunately, Americans are required to take both a written and a practical test (Canadians are exempt from the more troublesome practical; something to do with Canada’s overall willingness to accept Japan’s driving standards when Japanese try to get Canadian licenses, whereas, as expected, our 50 states, each with their own standards, have not done that. So no reciprocity).

Day Two started out well. I passed the eye test no problem, and the written test was a joke. Hopeful native drivers have to answer 100 extremely technical multiple choice questions, but foreigners have only ten true-false questions, complete with illustrations. A rare time when low expectations/standards of non-Japanese work in our favor, indeed. My questions included, “One should heed the instructions of traffic cops,” “One should slow down so as not to hit old and/or crippled people who are walking in the road,” and other such brain-teasers. While waiting for the practical (and it was a long wait, because naturally, native drivers get priority in the queue) I commiserated with the other foreigners who were there that day. I met a gregarious young woman from – I want to say Tennessee?- who came to Miyagi with her missionary group for some long-term 3/11 disaster relief effort. She and the others told me how many times they had each failed the practical and how strict the proctors are, so by the time it was my turn, I knew I had no hope of passing.

The test course consists of a few straightaways, turns, a traffic light, and an s-curve, but the most infamous challenge is known as “the crank.” Drivers must navigate through two extremely tight right-angle turns without bumping the poles around the edge or falling into the surrounding gutter. Backing-up up to three times is permitted, but each time costs valuable points (one starts with 100 points that are reduced with each mistake; 70 are needed to pass) and bumping the poles results in immediate failure. Interestingly enough I had no trouble with the crank. What did me in was a list of minor issues so long that the proctor said my final point total was “near zero.” I looked right and left when I only needed to look left. My right turn was a bit too tight. My hands slipped from 10 and 2 to 9 and 3 at one point. I was on the left side of the right lane instead of the right side of the right lane before making a turn. “But you handle a car very well!” he said. “Have you driven before?” “Yes, for the past 8 years.” I went home feeling frustrated at the prospect of having to return a week later and drop another $50 on application fees (requisite for each testing attempt).

But I did return, with a bit more swagger this time, now that I knew what to expect. I had drilled the five or so big mistakes from last time into my head over the past 24 hours, because while the disappointment I felt with myself for failing was pretty soul-crushing, it would be that much more shameful to fail again for the same reasons. I paid the money, took the eye test again (but not the written test? They think my vision might have degraded over the past week but that I haven’t forgotten how important it is not to run over crippled people in the road?), and challenged the course for the second time. The fact that I had a different proctor was a little distressing, because he wouldn’t notice how diligently I corrected my previous mistakes, but I was still feeling confident. When he started enumerating an entirely new list of screw-ups at the end of the test, I thought I was toast, but he passed me. It was probably just to fulfill the “pass-one-foreigner-per-day” quota that we all imagine they have.

Anyhow, my experience was not nearly as bad as it could have been. I’ve heard anecdotes about people who don’t manage to pass until their fifth or sixth attempt and others who resort to dropping ~$1000 on a training course that doesn’t even assure victory. I drove away proudly that day, that much closer to personhood and with that same distinct RPG-character-building feel that I first experienced after leveling up from bicycle to car many months ago.

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Denki

Context: Three months after moving to Japan; SK was my American neighbor/buddy

Originally published on November 3, 2011

A few weeks ago, SK took me to his favorite public bathhouse (or “sento”) in the area. For 500 yen, one can enjoy a shower, a variety of baths, a sauna, a standing tanning bed (more of a tanning closet, I guess? You step inside a giant tube) and when you’re done, there’s a cooldown area out in the lobby with snacks, drinks, ice cream, a bunch of crane games, a vending machine with cold coffee in squat glass bottles, and bookshelves full of comics to read (consuming food/drink, standing in the cancer-machine, and playing crane games requires additional $$$). On top of all that, this place is in the same parking lot right behind my new favorite store, Mandai, which is a massive second-hand store divided into the four essentials for human life: clothing, video games, toys, and comics. Everything there is super (relatively) cheap, and they’re basically willing to buy anything that fits into any of those categories from you pawn shop style, although usually it’s just for pennies (yen-nies). But still. Pretty great. Essentially, if I’m ever fired, or if my apartment burns down or is destroyed by Mothra, I will take up residence in this bathhouse for 500 yen a day, spending my days browsing Mandai and my nights soaking in the baths.

Back to the baths. First, you sit down on a stool in front of a shower cubical and wash up, because nobody’s there to bathe in your grease and dead skin cells. After that, there’s the normal hot bath. Like a hot tub, except that you’re in there with mostly out-of-shape, naked old men (women if you’re a woman; they require you to make that determination). They’re not all out-of-shape though. Some are young and virile and rippling with muscles, but still naked. They’re the worst, because then I realize that everything is relative and that to them, am the out-of-shape, naked, old man. Then there’s the salty mineral bath, which leaves me yearning to return to the beaches of SoCal from whence I sprung forth 22 long years ago. Then the icy cold bath. With a water temperature set exactly at 33 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re not actually supposed to get into this bath. It’s just there for you to splash cold water on yourself after coming out of the 194 degree sauna (I’m lying about the 33 degrees, but the sauna has a thermometer inside to remind you how dumb you are for being in there).

I thought I was a cool cat strolling into the sauna like a man who definitely likes to sweat with other men, but after five seconds my sinuses started burning, which I’m assuming is the body’s way of telling the brain that the current atmospheric conditions are not conducive to human existence. But I couldn’t run out like a wimp. There were shriveled old men and gap-toothed children in there, casually watching the baseball game on the mounted TV. If I were to leave so quickly, they would no doubt turn to each other, burst out laughing, and start commenting about how pathetic foreigners are. So with my neurotic tendencies fully in charge of my decisions, I sat there for six whole minutes, enduring what I imagine the cartoony Christian version of hell must feel like. At the six-minute mark, though, I ran out faster than you can say “I think my senses of smell and taste have been literally burned away by this experience,” which is actually plenty of time to leave a room. Point is, you’re not supposed to dive into the icy cold bath, but I was badly tempted to break protocol.

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I guess it was kind of like the Buddhist hell too, which apparently involves a giant bowl of ramen.

Then there’s the outside bath (rotenburo). It contains the standard hot water, but the shape of the bath itself is different. Part of it is a three-foot deep pool whose perimeter is formed by real rocks, and the other part is a section with water is only two inches deep. I can’t be sure, but I think you’re supposed to lay down in that section- a hypothesis supported by the presence of rocks that were shaped and positioned like pillows. The nice thing about the outside bath is that you can feel the breeze, see the stars, and in the winter, you can apparently sit there while it snows, which will almost allow me to fulfill my dream of becoming a macaque.

denki macaque
 The shaggy fur locks in the heat – another strategy I plan to emulate this winter, by never shaving.

Finally… the denki furo. Those of you with no knowledge of Japanese- go ahead. Take a stab. I’ll give you a hint. Furo is bath. So what does denki mean? Is it… “delightful relaxation bath”? “Lukewarm bath”? “Couples’ bath”? Nope. It’s “electric” bath. “Whoa. Hold the phone. You’re telling me this bath is heated by the power of electricity? How novel! What an interesting place Japan is!” No. Not even close. The denki furo is unique among the bathhouse attractions, because instead of trying to passively kill you with coldness or heat (as the ice bath and sauna do), it actively tries to get the job done by running electric currents through the water. I saw the sign. I even managed to read the first bit with my incredible third-grade literacy. “Electric Bath. Do not enter if you are afflicted by any one of the following 32 medical conditions: heart murmur, epilepsy, pregnancy…” I was unable to decipher the other 29, but I figured everything would probably work out in the end.

So I entered the deceptively innocuous-looking waters of the denki furo (it was unoccupied! I can’t imagine why the crowds weren’t lining up for this one) and immediately felt a painful, buzzing sensation around my left wrist and right middle finger. With electricity coursing through my body, it took a few seconds longer than it should have to realize that the pain was localized precisely where my steel Swiss Army watch and college class ring were. Moving as quickly as my partially-paralyzed limbs allowed me, I lifted my forearms out of the water and removed my conductive bling, placing them on the rim. But my left wrist still felt an inordinate amount of unpleasantude upon being placed in the water. Ah. Of course. How silly. It was the wristband that held the locker key inside it. I removed that as well and was finally able to enjoy this torture device as its creators intended.

The bath itself is a depressed rectangular prism (physically, although it might be emotionally depressed too considering its lot in life) with a safe zone running down the middle, lengthwise. The electric current is weakest in this safe zone, because the electricity emitters run up and down the long sides of the rectangle, mounted on the walls. If you stay in the safe zone, you only experience a mild tingling. It’s sort of like, “Hey, who’s tickling me all over my body? This isn’t my fetish!” Pressing your body up against one of the electric walls is asking for it. I accepted that challenge, but my heart started hurting when my chest was about four inches from the wall, so, having at least a few things to live for, I couldn’t find it in myself to proceed.

The most “fun” way to “enjoy” the denki furo, however, is to sit in the safe zone while sticking your limbs into the danger zones. Since extremities don’t contain vital organs, there’s little danger of death. If you move your feet towards the walls, it instantly feels the way it does when your foot has fallen asleep and you’re trying to wake it up by walking around. Like the pins-and-needles sensation, followed by pain. Except only the pain part. Hands experience a similar sensation. If you’re feeling really brave, you can stick the whole appendage into the danger zone. As you do, you’ll feel your muscles tighten up and convulse, until the arm/leg is completely locked in the flexed position. At that point, you can’t extend the elbow/wrist/knee/ankle. The only ways to regain control of the limb are either to pull it out of the current with another limb or to just stand up. If one found oneself with every limb was locked into the danger zones. I guess one would fall on one’s face and drown in two feet of water?

I’m sure if I could read the rest of the sign, the absurd health benefits of this thing would become clear, but until that point, I will continue to consider it a fun way to flirt with death.

denki bath

Japan 2017

This past May, I returned to Japan for the first time since 2013. The exclusive tour of the Shonen Jump office makes it count as a “business trip” for tax purposes, right?

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Shonen Jump HQ Office!

 

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Office Perspective #2

 

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In state of mild shock at actually being in SJ office

 

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Original inked draft of a My Hero Academia chapter!

 

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My Hero Academia “U.A.” pin from Shonen Jump Shop in Suidobashi

 

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You know a series has made it when it has gummies

 

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Writhing pile of quasi-tame deer in Nara

 

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Canal in Kinosaki Onsen

 

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Had a ryokan bath all to myself

 

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Urinal on a boat to Miyajima

 

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Itsukushima Shrine Torii

 

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Sign should know I never run

 

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Coolest Jizo around

 

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View from top of Miyajima

 

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Furry visitor at Fushimi Inari

 

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Tokashiku Island, Okinawa