Life in Japan – Part 2

Written on September 14, 2010. Written by .

At the time of my last post I was just getting settled into my apartment. It’s been over a week since then and in that time I’ve had a chance to experience a real Tokyo lifestyle. It’s hard to summarize what I’ve been doing, but I’ve been sending a lot of time studying at the library, meeting up with people, and searching for jobs, clubs, conversation partners, and affordable food.

Sumida River
Taken from a bridge near my friend Emiri’s office.

Since learning Japanese is one of my biggest motivations for coming to Japan, I try to do some textbook study of Japanese at the library every day. The library I’ve been going to is really nice for a public library. Being on the 9th floor of the government office building, it has a surreal view of the concrete sprawl of Tokyo from the closest perspective. If you are too high, you just get a bird’s eye view and if you’re too low, you can only see the building across the street. From the ninth floor, you’re just above the surface of the concrete thicket, with skyscrapers jutting above here and there. It’s really convenient that it’s open until 10 pm, has free wifi, and is only a 10 minute walk from my apartment. But as my Japanese textbook warned me, there is no way to dry your hands in the bathroom.

Speaking of bathrooms, I don’t think I ever would have used a Japanese style toilet without a solid reason, but recently that reason arose. I was on a trip to a city called Kashiwa to meet a girl and I tried to use the regular toilet in the stall at the station. But when I opened the door, it looked like someone had intentionally smeared their feces all over the toilet seat. I was taken aback. So I decided to resort to the the squatting-style Japanese hole-in-the-ground toilet. During this experience I had time to speculate on what had happened in the other stall and I came up with a convincing theory. What probably happened is that an old man who never got used to western toilets was forced to use it and decided to pretend like it was a Japanese toilet!

Meiju Jingu
This photo was taken by my friend Rumi who just got back from LA and was nice enough to show me around Harajuku, Yoyogi Park, and Meiji Jingu.

In addition to textbook study, I’m trying to have a lot of conversations in Japanese, which is much more fun. I’ve been using the internet and classifieds to look for conversation partners. I didn’t get many replies to the ad I posted, but I have met up with a few people. It was interesting that when I was walking through Harajuku with a girl I met, everyone was staring at her. I asked her why and she said it was because people were curious about why she was walking down the street with a foreigner. They never need to look directly at me because they can tell out of the corner of then eye that I’m a foreigner, but they have to scrutinize her to figure out what it is about her that put her in that position.

I’ve also done some more experiments with initiating conversations on the street and in the subway station. What I’ve found is people in Tokyo will usually try to ignore strangers who start random conversations, though there are exceptions. One time while waiting for the subway, I made a comment to a lady next to me about how early the trains stop since it was the last train and the place was crowded. I could tell she heard me by the awkward look on her face, probably due to how bad my Japanese sounded at the time. So I asked if she disagreed and in response she got up and moved to a different seat. But once you get an introduction or some form of connection, they are really friendly. I got introduced to a girl by a guy who I met two minutes earlier. The guy just said I was his friend and the girl was super friendly.

Meiji Jingu
In the gardens of the temple grounds.

I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to find a reasonable job here. I’ve already been rejected by 8 companies and I ended up giving up on the 9th when I found out the job was to be a babysitter clown who sings and dances to English songs for children who don’t know any English i.e. you are the only adult present and you are responsible for a classroom full of children who you have no common language with. To make things worse, they send you to a different school every week so you have to do a lot of unpaid commuting time. The fact is, a lot of these companies don’t respect their teachers much. And the market is pretty bad for English teaching right now; there are fewer children due to the declining birthrate and enrollment has dropped further due to the poor economy. But I hear you might have better luck as a woman. Both of my apartment-mates are ladies who have jobs teaching English, even though they are from France. According to them, a lot of their clients are businessmen who prefer to stay out late in the evening to avoid their marital issues at home. Last week, I applied to 7 more companies with no replies yet, and I don’t expect any. It might sound sad to be rejected so much, but I’m not disappointed at all; I was never attached to the idea of getting a job. It just means I’ll have more time to study and experience Japan.

This week I also encountered a new cultural issue: how to walk. I never realized how subconsciously we avoid walking into each other. When I walk in Tokyo, I’m always coming dangerously close to colliding with people. I keep on unconsciously going to the right, but in Japan they steer to the left. It’s tough to change this habit.

In other news, the new record for most extreme food item price: 6000 Yen ($72) for a normal watermelon.

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