I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

August 28, 2003 I should preface this entry with a quote from elsewhere. I live in a house with a few other foreigners in what I think is a very nice neighborhood. There is a large river nearby, and on the other side of the house, there is a small canal with rickety bridges. The streets are quiet and narrow, and most of the other houses are very old, built in a traditional Japanese style. I think it's all quite nice. One of my housemates is also an English teacher. The first time he told one of his students where we live, this was her reaction:

Foreigners, brothels and yakuza, oh my! That place has everything that scares us!

There are, to be fair, a number of brothels around here. But they're good neighbors. They keep the fucking down to a perfectly reasonable volume, and their buildings are always very clean out front, thanks to the old ladies who run them. They have hidden entrances for customers, and the employees all live in nearby, so you never see them clocking in or out. I can't see why anyone would complain about the brothels, at least in terms of neighborliness. (There may be labor issues, such as vacation time or retirement funds, but I am not here to address those.) And the yakuza? Holy shit. Anybody who gripes about those guys hasn't been to the rockin' End of Summer street festival they throw in August.

"Are you taking your camera?", asked my housemate, normally a fiend for photos.
"I don't know. Should I?"
"Mm...well, if you do, just try to stick to crowd shots, if you know what I mean."

There is a "sports club" down the block where the yakuza hang out, watch baseball and talk business. They have minivans with decals from their club that are parked around the neighborhood. (I did not necessarily expect that the yakuza would be so fond of minivans, but I suppose there are convenience issues to consider.) Across the street from the sports club is an apartment block for the young, swinging bachelor yakuza. The festival took place in the intersection and the parking lots for the two buildings, branching off into the four streets in each direction, with a side festival for kids on the other side of the apartment block. Unfortunately, I missed the guy who was just walking around handing out envelopes of cash (10,000 yen, about $90) to random people, but most of my housemates scored. I did get a ton of free food and beer tickets, though. (I failed to use most of them, since the guy at the iced tea booth kept grinning and giving me drinks for free, and cotton candy was the only meatless item on display elsewhere.) There was a tall bandstand in the midst of the festival area, and a few of the senior yakuza, all wearing traditional dress, took turns singing half-hour long narrative songs while throngs of people danced in a circle around the bandstand. The dance was two steps forward, one step back, clap twice, one step forward, single clap to the right, and repeat. It was a whole lot like country line-dancing. Anyone was welcome to join, but I was busy trying to keep an inconspicuous tally of how many in attendance still had their little fingers. There were more than a few missing, but for the most part, I'd say this was a competent bunch of yakuza. (So as not to show off, I kept my own hands in my pockets.) It was a lovely evening. Everyone was in such a good mood. The yakuza like gaijin (foreigners), because they were originally the outcasts of Japanese society. According to an interview with the local boss, they're more willing than most legitimate organizations to employ Koreans and other immigrants. (So there, Sony.) Again, there may well be a number of valid complaints about the yakuza, particularly regarding the killing of people, but there are absolutely no grounds on which to complain about them as neighbors. Declaring summer to be over was a particularly nice gesture. Our electricity bills have been absolutely brutal of late, and if the yakuza say summer's over, it's over, or some fool is taking a bullet to the head.

The next night, I saw the Dismemberment Plan at Taku Taku, an old sake warehouse. There is something perversely fun about seeing a band from home when you're abroad. The Sea and Cake in Camden Market was a highlight of my trip to London a few years ago, and this show was memorable, too. I expected a bit more representation from the English teachers of the area, but there were only two other gaijin in the sold-out crowd of more than 200. It was sold-out before I got there. I used the stupid-gaijin trick to get in: just stare blankly at the Japanese person as if you do not understand and keep repeating your request in a stilted tone. Eventually, they decide it's easier to just give you what you want. Out of politeness, I stood all the way at the back, because nobody there was taller than my shoulders. The Dismemberment Plan have taken about two more lessons of Japanese than I have, but they stumbled through the between-song banter quite gamely, and the crowd loved them for it. I was the only person in attendance who knew to wave his arms during "Back and Forth", and I could see Travis Morrison's eyes light up when he saw it. That was a nice moment. (One of the other gaijin and a Japanese kid picked up on it for the second chorus.) There were some mighty cathartic songs. There always are at their shows. It's a shame they're breaking up. I will really miss them. Unfortunately, they were the opening band at this show, so they only played for 35 minutes, and that meant no "Ice of Boston", which did leave me a bit sad. (But maybe it'd be strange hearing that song without my friends, because that was always a "look each other in the eyes and smile because we're together" moment.) The headliners were a Japanese indie rock group called Quruli who were really quite good and were a good fit, musically. They could have been from D.C., were they not singing in Japanese. It's kind of fashionable for Japanese bands to have one line of English in the chorus of their songs. Quruli had one that went "I go back to China". The rest were in Japanese, though. At the end of the show, they did the standard rock-star encore. Then, in an utterly charming turn of events, after the house lights came on, the audience applauded until the band came back out to be thanked again. The audience didn't want another song; they just wanted to say thanks. I thought about saying hello to the Dismemberment Plan outside, but they were being mobbed by teenage Japanese girls, and that's a personal moment in anybody's life, so I left them be.

The choice she thought she'd never have to make:

Between the one who taught her how to live...

And the one who taught her how to love.

My prediction: the movie ends with Godzilla wandering back into the sea, alone, tears streaming down his face, as "Just Once" blares on the soundtrack.

Unfortunately, there will be no more pictures for a while unless I decide to dig out some of the old ones I haven't used yet. I came home to find my mutant digital camera feasting upon the bloody entrails of yet another dead battery, its third victim. Just as it did after the first two, the camera pleaded with me, claiming that it could control itself, that this was an accident. It hasn't been right since I fell down a mountain with it in the Badlands a few months ago. I restored it to life with a hairdryer, but now it kills rechargeable batteries, which are expensive. It can't help itself. I may buy a new one with my next paycheck if the exchange rate is favorable and I have enough yen left over after the bills are paid.

Now, I realize it's unethical for me to try to sell the camera to somebody, but is it unethical for me to give the camera to a hobo for him to try to sell? I am a friend to hoboes.

August 14, 2003 My plans to bowl were thwarted by torrential rains. There is rarely any fierce weather in Kyoto, surrounded as it is by a ring of mountains, but today was an exception, with a furious downpour for several hours. It was all the more disappointing because I had been fasting for the last few days, since I am presently at the end of my fiscal month (paycheck on Friday) and was facing the choice between groceries and bowling on my weekend (W, Th). My umbrella held up just long enough for a trip to the corner store, where I spent the bowling money on some Country Ma'am cookies. They're kind of weird, but basically all right. All of the cookies in this country come in individual wrappers.

Summer holidays bring out some of the stranger students. Although they work blistering hours when they're on season, the school-kids have three two-month breaks each year, and the adults don't do too badly either. Some are inspired to sign up for a few classes by impending vacations to Guam or Hawaii, and others simply binge on English lessons until they have to go back to work. I am commonly accused by the other teachers at my school of favoring "the creeps and the weird ones" and directing scorn towards "the nice ones". It's probably true. I'm sure that the alcoholic salarymen, the pachinko fiends and gambling addicts, and the unclassifiable oddballs aren't that much fun to actually live with, but within the isolated context of an English classroom, they're just more interesting than the legions of old housewives, who never really want to talk about anything other than meeting their friends for lunch. The latest Takashi to sign up for classes - not to be mistaken for the Takashi who takes six classes in a row every Sunday and can't really speak by the end of them, or the Takashi who can't speak at all but must, according to the government agency that is paying for his classes, be recorded as 'pass' for every class and leveled-up to harder lessons at regular intervals regardless of his progress, with whom I spent an entire man-to-man class explaining the concept of "party", which he still did not understand by the end even though the Japanese word for "party" is the same as the English one, and in whose file, out of frustration, ever since then, I've been writing imaginary exchanges between us about philosophy, socialism and labor relations, where for the most part he comes off as a fiercely idealistic neo-Durkheim - this latest Takashi is a gregarious economics professor who bears a stunning resemblance to Jackie Chan and recently claimed the prestigious title of the all-time sleaziest:

TEACHER: Okay. Let's make a list of three things that are good when they are hot, but if they are not hot enough, they are not good.
TEACHER: Sure, that's true, tea is usually not as good when it is cold.
TAKASHI: My lover's heart.
TAKASHI: No, my wife's heart.
TEACHER: Okay...
TAKASHI: Mm, no, my lover's heart.
TEACHER: Takashi...
TAKASHI: Passion! Yes.

It's impossible not to like the guy, but keeping control of a class with him is like chess: you have to see a few moves ahead for the moment when he's going to bring up "erotic sites on the internet", because he always does, and you have to be ready for it, or the class will be off the rails for the next half-hour. I failed disastrously yesterday, when I was trying to teach the students the difference between "bored" / "boring" and "interested" / "interesting". Takashi was on fire, let me tell you. (Also, let me reiterate that he's an economics professor. In Japan. Think about it.)

I'm trying to get some ideas about advanced Engrish theory up and running. My provisional notion is that the moment when a student masters passive voice is the moment when their Engrish ability is finally, irrevocably lost. That's the final forbidden fruit, the last safe harbor of confused subject-verb relations. Once they master subject-verb relations, they cease being able to earnestly announce "I am very dangerous!" when they mean to say "It was very dangerous for me" (in a discussion about car accidents), for example. It helps that I am one of two teachers at my school who's capable of teaching the passive voice effectively, though, and am appropriately selective about when I do it. "Take care when renouncing your magicks," I tell them. "Take care."

August 7, 2003 I have been sulking for a while now over the death and mutant resurrection of my digital camera. It's a serious matter; a dozen tragedies bloom every time I step outside without it. You don't bring a knife to a gun-fight, and you don't go for a walk in Japan (or, as I have been thinking of it these days, Earth-J) with only your eyes as testimony. The camera was stone dead for a while, but when I swapped a borrowed battery into it, it came back to life. Evidently, it had killed both of the lithium-ion batteries I had been using for it. (They won't re-charge any more.) I bought a new battery (for 5000 yen, not chump change), and the camera works, but it drains the battery at a highly accelerated rate, so I have to keep popping the battery in and out while I'm in the field. That will do for now, but it will be a problem for more serious photographic research.


Before I came to Japan, I spent a week driving around South Dakota. One of my stops was in Deadwood, the hometown of Wild Bill Hickok. (There are several beautiful old buildings with modern slot machines inside, as gambling is legal there.) On a hill overlooking the town, there is an old cemetery with the first pioneers of the land, Civil War veterans, and Wild Bill himself. I decided to stop by - photographing old cemeteries is kind of a hobby of mine. The cemetery was fairly interesting, and I took a lot of photographs. There was another very steep hill above it, where the guidebook said just one man was buried, Seth Bullock, the big dog of old Deadwood. Feeling adventurous, I climbed up. I could tell I was the only person who'd been up there for days. The plot of land around Seth Bullock's grave was surrounded by a small black wrought-iron fence with a stone base. On the left wall of the base was a sealed white envelope under a rock. I picked it up to look at it, thought about opening it, and decided otherwise. I put it back, took a photograph, and left.

When I finally returned home to Chicago, I transferred the pictures to my computer, and was surprised to notice that some of them were at a lower resolution than others. Somehow, the camera resolution had been changed (which requires pushing at least six different buttons in sequence). I put the pictures in order of when they were taken and realized that all of the pictures I'd taken at and after Seth Bullock's grave were at the lower resolution.

Spooky! Sort of.

A crazy old codger saw me lining up the Deadwood photo and called out, in that way that only crazy old codgers can, "Make sure they smile for you, sonny!" I took the photo and replied, "Somehow, they're resisting my charms, sir." He cackled.

It feels like that was ten years ago, although I've only been here on Earth-J for two and a half months or so. The only reminders of the first 25 years of my life come through the internet (and grateful I am for it). Everything is strange and different, except for bowling, which is much the same, but louder. This place cheats you and allows you to pull scams on it in equal measure. I support economic sanctions against any country whose fast food joints double the prices of milkshakes once the hot season begins...but I bowled seven games yesterday for 700 yen (roughly $6.40), with several games of pop-a-shot and some skiing video game thrown in as well. It's bewildering. If grad school is a sequel to college, then teaching English in Japan is a three-decades-later remake, amped up with rapid jump-cuts and unnecessary special effects. Everyone's still fucking and drinking, but the townies get a more prominent role, because focus groups liked them in the original.

I get such mixed signals from this place. Some days they love you...

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.