Volume 1
Naked Man




This is my first official installment of "Our Man in Japan." I'll be sending this to you once a month during my stay in the land of, cool gadgets, great food (although I can never seem to get enough of it on my plate), pachinko parlors, vending machines, wild TV programs and slip-on shoes.

Where am I?
Okayama City is midway between Hiroshima and Kobe in Western Japan, very close to the Inland Sea. There's about 500,000 people here and just as many bikes. I think they're called "mule bikes" -- the ones that come in black, grey and dark blue, have only one speed (although mine's a silver 3 speed!), and a big basket in the front. Okayama is supposed to have the largest concentration of these bikes in Japan and I believe it..

Before I came here I tried in vain to find out about the city's personality. Now I can say that the city itself is almost completely lacking in character -- somewhat similar to Salem (a reference for my Oregon friends). The city is a maze of tightly packed streets containing a variety of shops, businesses and restaurants.
"...it's not the most attractive river in the world..."
There are a lot of neon lights by night, which is typical in Japan although, not of most Western cities. The Asahi river runs through the city. It's not the most attractive river in the world, but it breaks up the urban monotony somewhat. Unfortunately, Okayama is not a visually appealing place, but it is very functional, comfortable and cheaper than Japan's larger cities.



So what is nice about Okayama? Location! I am very close to some of the best that Japan has to offer: Hiroshima (2hrs West), Himeji Castle (coolest castle in Japan! I saw it yesterday!! 1hr East), the Kansai region -- one of Japan's most interesting areas including Kyoto, Kobe, Nara and Osaka. In Kansai you can see the best of both ancient and modern Japan and it is only 2 hours East. These places are all easy to reach via the local trains and the costs are comparable to traveling equal distances in the US. If you want to get there twice as fast (and for at least twice the price) you can travel on the Bullet Train. Okayama prefecture also has some beautiful places of its own, including the Inland Sea, the mountains to the north and a lot of great "onsen" (Japanese hotsprings).




In Okayama City, there's a beautiful new symphony hall (although some would say that it looks like nothing more than an enormous tin can) which draws some top name performers from around the world. There are also two International Centers that cater to the "gaijin" community and have a lot of good cheap classes and activities. Also, I've managed to find the one Art movie house and several GREAT used and new CD stores. So basically I'm quite content here.

What have I been doing for the last month?

Not working but still getting paid! I'm here as part of the Japanese government's "JET" program which hires foreigners to live in Japan and teach English to school children. So many "JETs," as we're called, told me before I arrived that your first month can be very difficult. There's even a whole chapter dedicated to it in the JET survival manual. I think that my past living abroad experiences in Spain and Costa Rica, along with my time spent in New York, helped me to overcome what a lot of new JETs go through. The average JET is also straight out of school, so they've got that "Oh God, I'm out of college -- what am I going to do?!" shock to get over. I've been out of college since I finished my Masters Degree in 1992.

Since the roughly 2 weeks of orientations have finished, I've been keeping myself busy by studying Japanese, exploring my new environment on my new bike, and outfitting my apartment. When I first arrived it was in pretty sorry shape. The tatami mats (yes my apartment is very traditional Japanese style -- I sleep on the floor.) were infested with fleas and looking worse for wear. I had no futon, no gas range and no bike. Now I've got all the above and my mats are due to be replaced this Friday. I've also been looking for some decorative paper to cover the holes and tacky oriental designs on my sliding Japanese doors.

Here are highlights from the past 30 days:

I went to dinner tonight at a Korean restaurant with Mr. Furutani, my supervisor from the Okayama Board of Education, and his family, along with 12 other JETs who will be teaching English in Okayama Junior high schools just like me. Right away, Mr. Furutani started demonstrating his ability to drink large quantities of beer and turn red at the same time. His two children were running all around us, screaming and having a great time as we sat at the traditional low Japanese tables on the tatami floor. Mr. Furutani beamed and proudly explained that his 3 year old son's name is "Ko -- It means public!" Once he had little more to drink, Rashan (one of my fellow JETs) decided to play a joke on Mr. Furutani and asked him to tell us the word for "this morning" in Japanese:

"Kissa" Mr. Furutani smiled.
"Now what about every morning" asked Rashan?
"Now repeat them both together."
"Kissa myassa!"

"...chest hair sprouting out of his robe..."

Mr. Furutani wasn't sure why we were all laughing out loud at him, but he decided to laugh along with us. And when we finally explained the joke, he laughed even harder. He's a good sport. After dinner we went to see the summer fireworks display over the river. I don't believe I have ever seen a display that could compare. It lasted for 2 1/2 hours and was just one pyrotechnic onslaught after another. What made the evening even more attractive were all the Chinese lanterns in the street along the river's edge and the Japanese women and children wearing their traditional yukattas (summer kimonos) and waving fans. There were actually a few men in traditional robes as well, including Tim, a British guy in our group who came to be here with his Japanese fiancee. I have to say, he must truly be in love because he looked hilarious as he tried to walk down the street, chest hair sprouting out of his robe, almost falling on his face several times as he tripped in his wooden sandals.

This weekend I spent visiting my Japanese friend, Chie and her friends in Osaka. What a weekend. I haven't been that thoroughly pampered in a long time. How many were there? Chie, Kimiko, Keiko, Sumi, Emi, Yuko, Mariko! Like 7 modern-day geishas, they cared for me, fed me, entertained me, showed me the sights, even washed my clothes! It was quite a relief after spending the last 3 weeks here trying to fend for myself and feeling like an idiot as I fumbled around in Japanese. I tried to pitch in my part whenever possible, but ultimately I was forced to sit back, relax, and let them look after me. Life's tough sometimes.

During that weekend, Chie and her friends took me around Osaka (the aquarium was amazing!) and Kyoto. I saw Osaka's fireworks display that Saturday night, which was comparable to the Okayama night described above, albeit on a larger scale. Friday evening, Chie's friend Kimiko made a dinner for all of us a dinner that I will not soon forget. It consisted of hand-rolled sushi and a variety of other home style Japanese dishes. That night we all stayed at Chie's house, drank beer and laughed at each other. Chie's friend Sumi was the quintessential Japanese hostess (comparable to the Geishas of old) always keeping my drink full and always keeping the conversation full of coy, sexual innuendos.


I sweated off perhaps 10 pounds while wearing my suit all day. I met the governor of Okayama. Great LITTLE, bald guy who breathes heavy. Not much else to report.

Today was more of the same. I got off to a rotten start by getting completely turned around on the way to the International Center and ending up on my way to Himeji. I finally asked a gas station attendant, "Shokudo wa doko ni arimasuka?" (Where is the dining room?) God I'm pathetic. I was trying to find-out which way it was to the train station!

I never mentioned my last day of orientation. It was perhaps the best (which isn't saying too much). I attended 3 workshops: 1) the Japanese pop culture class conducted by the annoyingly anal Scotsman, who's name I forget. He looks like one of those "great white hunter" types that always gets stepped on by an elephant in Tarzan movies: pasty white, with his khaki pants pulled up way too high, and an extreme anglo saxon profile. He looks like he should be wearing one of those ridiculous African bush hats and and a conspicuously white scarf around his neck. He's been in Japan way too long, as you can tell by his speech. He is one of these more "Japanese than the Japanese" types. If you ask me, all these foreigners should be removed to one of the more remote Riukyu (Okinawan) islands where they can all speak Japanese, meditate and practice the shakuhachi (Japanese wood flute) together, and not annoy anyone.

"Poodles are pretty fast."

I should mention the fact that, despite his above mentioned appearance and demeanor, some of the material he showed us was pretty fascinating. He showed us one game show in which 4 year olds were sent out to buy groceries. Their mothers listed 5 items that their kiddies needed to purchase, and sent the tikes on their mission. It was pretty hilarious. Later that day I also saw program where a guy raced a poodle in the 100m dash and lost. Poodles are pretty fast.
On the way into the train station we [Rashan and I] passed a disoriented looking gaijin [foreigner] in a suit, waiting for someone to pick him up. At the time, I didn't take too much notice of him. About 10 minutes later a nice young Japanese woman in a uniform asked me if I was "Lee-san." I politely indicated to her that I was not Lee-san, and Rashan and I continued waiting for Julie. I noticed that the Japanese woman was pretty stressed and there was very little at that point keeping her from a nervous breakdown. But she clenched her teeth, smiled and kept looking for the elusive Lee-san. It finally dawned on me another 10 minutes later that Lee-san might be the gaijin outside waiting for someone to pick him up. We went back out of the station and asked him, "are you Lee-san?" He smiled, looking quite surprised and relieved and said, "YES!"

We told him to wait there and we'd be back with his faithful guide. It took us a while to find her. Rashan had to go up to the platform level, where he found her in tears trying to convince the guard to let her make one last attempt at finding Lee-san. Rashan put his hand on her shoulder and in comforting Japanese said, "Don't worry, we've got Lee-san." When they got to the bottom of the stairs, she was wiping her tears, bowing and repeating "gomen nasai" all at the same time. I wonder if we just saved her job for her? Anyway, she and Lee were quite happy to see one another and Rashan and I could pat ourselves on the back for our good deed of the day. The way she was acting you would think we saved her job. Maybe we did.


A night at Hunter's "American Bar:" Aiko -- now there's a fire cracker! Japanese girls like her scare me. Beautiful, playful lolita-types who know how to drag a guy a around a room all night by his tongue (this wasn't the appendage I originally wrote in my journal). I stayed clear of her and let Mike, the Neanderthal from Canada, be her fool. From time to time she would lift up his shirt, squeal and run her fingers through his chest hair. He would then loudly insist that she do the same below the belt -- Cultural exchange at work.

I hope that gives you at least a small picture of my new life in Japan.
I hate to admit it but I have been spending quite a bit of time at the above mentioned bar, which seems to be the place you are most-likely to encounter fellow gaijins. There seem to be 4 different types of ex-pats here: 1) The JETs, who tend to be the youngest of the group, but also have the best job and most prestigious status among the Japanese; 2) then there are the other English teachers who teach adults by night at big private language schools; 3) the grad students, a small group of foreign students from all over the world (mostly Brazilian Japanese) come to study at Okayama University. It's actually one of the better public universities in Japan. The grad students and other English teachers are usually in their late 20s/early 30s. As are the 4) manual laborers. These guys tend to be big Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders who are here building houses, doing carpentry or even shearing sheep! They are a rough crowd and make the JETs look like the Mickey Mouse club.



As for interacting with the locals, I am making a few friends through my language classes and by other means, but the going is slow. I expect I will meet more Japanese once school starts in September. Then I'll begin teaching, so I probably won't be out late at night so much. It'll be a switch to have to work on a regular basis for the first time 2 months! I also hope to join a choir and begin taking a course in Bizen pottery.




Naked Man's
adventures continue in
Volume 2...


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