For a month before I left to take on a small chunk of the Tokai Nature Trail, the 1700km collection of trail systems ranging from Tokyo’s Mt.Takao to Osaka, I couldn’t stop thinking of how badly I wanted to be out of this city. I was tired of the way I had to stop and wait for the train to pass before I could go home after work; I hated that everybody seemed to know who I was and where I worked; I couldn’t stand another trip to my local supermarket to stock up on a week’s worth of vittles. Nothing against Sabae, Japan’s eyeglass capital and my current home; I just needed to get away.
When my hiking partner, Travis, and I made it to Shizuoka City and had our tickets to return to our regularly scheduled programming in hand, I felt no real excitement. I wouldn’t have to pay 6,000 yen to sleep on an actual bed for a night, and not walking 25 kilometers a day also had its appeal, but excitement?
The night I got home I was sure I’d flip to where I’d left off in my most recent read-through of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and let the darkness take me at its leisure. Dropping my pack in my apartment with a loud thunk, I realized that I needed to be moving, needed to be out doing something. Continue reading →
I guess I grew up lucky. Charlie-boy, Chas — my nicknames were rarely more exciting. Well, of course, the intelligentsia of my high school sometimes got really clever, transforming my last name from Hayward to Gayward. Get it?
More often, I got what were apparently hilarious question and answer exchanges that always risked the asker cracking a rib, so effective were they at “busting a gut.”
“What’s up, Chuck? Get it? Upchuck!” Seinfelds, every one of you.
The most abused joke, though, has to do with a certain character from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts.
“Your name is Charlie? Charlie Brown?”
None of this was terribly egregious. Very few things I was called were homophobic or otherwise too hurtful. No, my nicknames were so dull and unimaginative, they could only be rendered offensive by frequency.
I haven’t heard any of these jokes or names in years. Charlie-boy is an exception; it’s a term of endearment used by my family and, occasionally, ex-girlfriends who think it’s an acceptable moniker. Imagine my bewilderment, then, when that wonderfully comical Charlie Brown joke made an appearance, here in Japan, a full 6500 miles from where I first heard it. Continue reading →
Summer in Japan: hot, humid days that turn the act of sandwich building into an Olympic event; cold noodles with equally chilled dipping sauces; and festivals offering grilled food, live music, and a chance to embarrass yourself on a public karaoke stage.
I have no trouble taking part in the latter two summer experiences alone. Heading to my local festival — or matsuri (お祭り) — alone, however, seemed more daunting. There is a sizable population of foreigners in this part of Fukui prefecture, but most tend to come from socially oppressed parts of Southeast or Central Asia. White faces tend to stick out like the proverbially painful non-finger appendage. Woe is the fate of the white man.
Despite my reservations, I went to the festival armed with a budget of 1200 yen (~10 USD) and the certainty that, at best, I’d be stared at uncertainly as I munched my way around the festival. My meager budget proved more than enough for a wonderful experience, and my assumption about my reception, well, that was more than just a little cynical. Continue reading →
After four months of trying to find my way to the top of the mountain, I was sure I’d finally found the trail. A cement torii framed aged cement steps that eased the sharp ascent through sun-spotted bamboo and humidity. A place that looked like the beginning of a level in Uncharted or a new iteration of Tomb Raider couldn’t possibly be anything other than the trailhead I’d looked for in snow, rain, and oppressive heat. And yet, it was just another dead-end.
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I remember getting the offer to teach English in Japan. I don’t remember reading anything more than “We’re pleased to offer you…” before writing a hasty reply, telling my new employers that I’d absolutely accept the position. It was the opportunity to check a goal off my list, one I’d ignored to personal and professional ruin before.
I wasn’t completely sold on going. Emotionally and in most other ways that meant anything, I knew I could go. If I didn’t like it, well, you can survive anything for a year. Still, the nagging thought that my ongoing student loan payments and the cost of living here would perpetually land me in the poor house made me doubt my decision. You could chalk it up to pre-move jitters, but the predictions of my low-income bracket quickly came true. It turns out it’s not such a bad thing.
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A doorway filled with the charcoal-infused smoke of roasting animal bits. A six-person strong chorus welcoming you, each cook, server, and dishwasher shouting as loud as their lungs will allow. Cheap beer that only comes in 1.3 pint bottles, all the offal you were always curious about but never had the gumption to try, a crowd of people of varying ages and backgrounds all looking for the same thing; this is the yakitori shop, and it’s the most dangerous place in Japan.
A line of chefs works in unison, with one end seasoning the skewered vittles and the other cooking them over charcoal-fed pyres to crispy perfection.
The word “yakitori” tells you just about everything you need to know about these extremely common establishments that pock the Japanese landscape from Kyushu to Hokkaido. “Yaki” means grilled, and “tori” means bird or chicken. You no doubt get the picture; yakitori shops are where you can get some really killer bits of chicken, everything from the intestines to the skin, skewered and grilled over charcoal. Continue reading →
I have a long history with snow. Growing up in Western New York, it was something of a tradition to expect to mourn summer and fall in one go, as winter would often grab hold at the beginning of October. More often than not, the icicle shaped tendrils of the coldest season wouldn’t let go until March.
When I went to college, I moved into an area where the snowfall was even worse. The State University of New York at Fredonia was only a few short miles away from Lake Erie. When lake effect season rolled around, you could bet on weather cancellations or outright campus closures reliably each year. All this to belabor the point that I know winter well; I know snow, and I know how to deal with it. Hell, most of the time I love it.
Sabae’s snowfall makes it feel like home.
When I got word that I was assigned to Sabae in Japan’s Fukui prefecture for my 18-month tenure as an English teacher, my employer tried to stress that this wasn’t like most of the country. Winter in the Hokuriku region, an area west of Tokyo that encompasses Fukui, Ishikawa, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures, isn’t the sort that simply brings cold temperatures and a token snowfall. What I’ve learned very recently, in fact, is that this region receives the highest volume of snowfall of any inhabited and arable part of the world. That is, it’s a lot like home. Continue reading →