Miscellany

Repairs

Context: Written several weeks before my tenure in the JET Programme ended and I had to move out of my civil servant apartment

Originally published on June 17, 2013

A few weeks ago, the government employee apprenticing to inherit the job of “Supervisor of the Foreigners” from the current supervisor came to my apartment to go over leaving procedures. He put a red sticker on all the things I’m not allowed to take with me because they belong to the town (TV, fridge, washing machine, wooden flooring, etc.). He also explained that I would either have to do a deep-cleaning myself or hire a company to do it (or what? They’ll fire me?) and repair the shoji. “Wuzza shoji?” I asked.

It turns out that “shoji” is the word for the traditional sliding paper windows in the bedroom. I imagine they were designed when some ancient Japanese monarch posed a riddle to the royal interior designers, asking “What is the least practical material to make windows out of? The winning answer will henceforth be used until at least the 21st century, despite the tremendous advances in window technology that will no doubt be around by that point, and possibly for even longer than that.” The cleverest designer proposed paper, of course. Not normal, sturdy, A4 printer paper, but so-called rice paper, which rips if you graze it lightly with one finger. If you sneeze in its general direction. If you look at it funny. At least the stuff in my windows did. Maybe the choice of material is rooted in the “mono no aware” Japanese beauty aesthetic, which literally means “the impermanence of things.” This is why the country loves the cherry blossoms, which bloom for a week and are then gone.

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The cherry blossoms lasted extra long this year due to some freak snowstorms in April/May

I could sense the impending threat to my wallet, and considered trying to get out of it by claiming that the damage had already been done at the time of my arrival, but my own photographic evidence to the contrary convinced me to do the right thing. Over the past two years, a series of trips, falls, overly-aggressive window openings/shuttings, and flailings in bed were enough to put puncture wounds and gashes in about 25% of the mini panels within each shoji. All it takes is literally the slip of a finger. “So how do I repair them?” I asked. “You pay a company to do it.” Of course I do…

Government Employee left, and a few days later, my American friend mentioned that his cousins down in Tokyo repair their own shoji, so I made a mental note. Flash forward to yesterday, when I found myself with nothing to do and a hankering for some delicate manual labor. First I checked out the repair service, just in case it was actually price-competitive. They charge ~$30 per frame, and I had four to get done…so clearly I had no choice but to do it myself. I found the replacement paper, glue, and exacto-knife-ish tool easily enough at the DIY home goods store, and the bill came to ~$12.

home tools

And a few hours later, it was done. Figured it all out with trial-and-error. Well, no error, actually. Just one trial, because screwing up is for chumps.

So for anyone who anticipates having to do this someday, or anyone bored enough to read about something they will never have to do, here’s the procedure in 15 easy steps.

 

Materials: Old holey shoji, new shoji paper, special glue just for this job, box cutter, hair dryer, sticky tape, something to cover/protect the floor

1. Lay out some newspaper on the surface you’re going to work on, except where on earth do I get free newspaper? I just used some old musty sheets and towels left in the closet by multiple generations of former JET inhabitants.

2. Pop the shoji out of the window frames by lifting up, and pulling out from the bottom. You will probably puncture the paper in several places from breathing too heavily while doing this, but that’s okay because you have to fix it all anyway. It’s a good chance to practice though, because you’ll have to reinstall them without ripping anything in the end.

3. Place the shoji, pretty side down, on your newspaper/towels.

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4. Spray the entirety of the old paper with a spray bottle, thoroughly soaking the lines along which it connects to the frame.

5. Rip it all off. If you’re filled with rage about having to do this in the first place, you can stand up the window and punch through the paper a few times before removing it all. Have a garbage receptacle nearby for all the damp paper.

6. There’s inevitably going to be paper/glue residue along the edges and beams of the frame, so spray it some more and slough it off like skin from a rotting corpse by rubbing with your fingers. Or you can wimp out and use some sort of plastic scraping tool. Or you can disappoint me forever and spend 400 yen on Glue-Be-Gone!: Old Shoji Paper Removal Fluid. It’s okay to have small, thin patches of wood/glue/paper pulp remaining, because that mélange actually creates a nice adhering surface once it’s all dry (as long as it’s not raised). What you want to watch out for are place where little tufts of old paper hang over the edges of the frame, because they’d be visible after attaching the new paper. Turn the frame over and view it from all angles to make sure you haven’t missed any of those.

7. Dry the frame. I used a combination of putting it out on the porch and blasting it with a hair dryer. The glue will obviously not adhere to wet surfaces very well, so this is important.home step 2

 

8. Get your roll of new paper, unroll it a bit, and tape a corner to the frame with scotch tape so that the paper is aligned with the central horizontal beam (covering it completely) and overlapping the vertical, side part of the frame by at least 1 centimeter. Roll it out to the bottom and tape that same side down there, too. The paper I got was too wide for my windows, so I used the box cutter to slice down the width. Then, tape the side you just cut at both the middle and bottom of the frame. Cut the paper to the appropriate length (again, at least 1 centimeter overhanging the bottom of the frame), freeing it from the larger roll. Place roll aside. *(I did each shoji panel with two pieces of paper, having them meet in the middle, because one long sheet would have gotten unruly)

home step 3

9. Remove the tape from the bottom of the frame, freeing the paper to roll back up, as it is wont to do, settling at the middle. Use the actually-very-cleverly-designed glue dispenser (it has a notch that guides you along the straight edge) to lay a small line of glue along the very bottom edge of the frame. Slowly unroll the paper until the bottom edge lands directly on the line of glue. Lightly press down on the paper, following the path of the glue. For extra security, tape down those bottom corners (even though they’re now glued). Use the hair dryer (on “cool” setting) to speed up the glue-drying process.

10. Now remove the tape from the middle of the frame, once again allowing the paper to roll back up, this time towards the glued bottom edge. Work your way up the frame one section at a time. Lay down the glue on the next section of frame sides and crossbeams, and then slowly push the rolled up paper upward with one finger, along the central, vertical beam. When that’s stuck, do the sides. Finally, lightly press down along the crossbeam itself. Tape down the paper on each side at the point where it meets the crossbeam.home step 5

11. Repeat step 10 until you run out of paper. Lay glue, press down paper, tape, blow-dry. If you followed the procedure exactly and aren’t a klutz, there shouldn’t be any wrinkles, but whether there are or not, you can make the paper even tauter by spraying it (lightly!) with water at the end, and then allowing it to dry. It will shrink ever so slightly in the drying process, tightening it up.home step 6

12. Assuming you also decided to do each panel in halves the way I did, do the other half the exact same way.

13. Once everything is good and dry, remove all scotch tape and ever-so-carefully reinstall into the window. Better yet, store that thing in a closet until you leave so there’s no chance of ripping it because goddammit I do not want to have to go through this again. Repurpose the newspapers/towels from step 1 and nail them over your windows if you don’t want a 5:00 am awakening-by-sunlight.

14. Repeat steps 1-13 for all shoji panels.

15. When the weasel of a government employee comes to make his final check, casually mention that you repaired those things yourself and ask if he’s ever done it himself. He will answer “no.”
Flawless victory.

home finished

Japan Trip 2017

I visited Japan in May, alone, and went on some adventures. While in Tokyo, manga veteran and former editor-in-chief of Shonen Jump, Sasaki, gave me a tour of the Jump offices at Shueisha headquarters in Jimbocho.

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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

 

San Diego Comic-Con 2018

I was invited by Viz to SDCC in 2018, because they were hosting Kohei Horikoshi, artist and writer of My Hero Academia. I was lucky enough to join him for dinner and panel prep, and when I had the gall to ask for an autograph, he gave me full-blown sketches of Deku and All Might. What a guy! (He preferred not to appear in any photos)

I also had the privilege of hanging out with friends/peers/colleagues/bosses face-to-face, eating meals on the company dime, seeing a ton of amazing MHA cosplayers, and generally getting a glimpse at this industry as it exists beyond my home office (rare!)

 

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Family Heirloom
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Replica Deku notebook I made
harvey's motel
My palace of a motel
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My Lyft
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My badge + lanyard + pins
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Viz Booth
booth madness
Angry mob
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Saturday Horikoshi panel
dragonball exhibit
Dragon Ball exhibit
vegeta butt
Vegebutt
hori dinner
Location of Friday dinner with Horikoshi
waifu
w/Kohaku from Dr. Stone
zack
w/translator Zack Davisson
me and stephen
w/translator Stephen Paul
udon
w/Udon Chief Erik Ko
selfie day 3
Final day outfit
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w/Mega Man
cosplay1
Todoroki and Kendo
cosplay2
Hatsume and Ida
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Ochaco Uraraka
cosplay3
Overhaul
cosplay6
Tokoyami(s)
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Inko and Izuku Midoriya
cosplay4
Hawks
cosplay9
Toga (post-Camie)
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Izuku Midoriya
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Mina Ashido
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Shinso and Aizawa
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Mt. Lady
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Asui and Jiro and Uraraka

cosplay7

 

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.

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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).

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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.