The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Recent Events

So, I moved from Kashiwa, into a hotel for a few days, and finally into my new place in Yokohama. Actually, I'm out in the suburbs. Yokohama is, I believe, the 3rd largest city in Japan, but where I am feels like a very residential small town. It's quite pleasant...

Last week I was traveling all over the place, doing sample lessons. It was fun, I suppose ... I got to visit a lot of campuses in the Tokyo area, and meet a lot of students. Then last Wednesday, I took the bullet train up to Fukushima for the day, which was also fun.

I had my orientation for the new university on Thursday, and yesterday was the first day of school. It was kind of crazy; we didn't know where we were going, or anything, and I was almost late for my first class, but it ended up being okay. The students are extremely low level, but very enthusiastic and nice.

But just to backtrack a bit, I had a weird experience Thursday night. After the orientation, I went out with some co-workers as it was my last day in the office. After some food and some drinks, we came out of the bar and started heading for the subway. It was about 10 p.m. at this point, and they weren't very many people on the street. We rounded the corner, and I noticed an old man lying on his back in the sidewalk about 20 metres ahead of us. "Crazy old drunk!" I thought; it's rare but not unheard of to see people passed out in the street at night. But this was a very strange place to pass out. As we got closer, I realized from the position of his limbs and the way he was lying, that he wasn't drunk. "This isn't good," I remember saying. I ran up and yelled, "Are you all right?" He obviously wasn't. I felt for a pulse at his neck and at his wrist. There was nothing, and in fact, he was cold to the touch. "He's dead ... you'd better call the police..."

My Japanese co-worker went off to get the police from the local station, and I stayed with the body. The man's eyes were open slightly, and there was a trace of blood around his nose and mouth. He had been wearing a medical-type bracelet on his wrist, but it had fallen off. His clothes were strangely askew. At some point, I realized that he had jumped or fallen out of the high-rise apartment we were standing in front of. It was starting to rain, and I had this feeling that I couldn't just stand there and let him get rained on, so I held my umbrella over his body. A small crowd of people gradually started to accumulate. The sight of me holding my umbrella over a dead body must have made the whole scene doubly strange. Within a few minutes, a pair of young police officers rode up on their bicycles. They felt for a pulse, didn't find one, and then radioed it in. My Japanese co-worker had to stay and answer a few questions, but I was free to go so I left.

On the way home, the train was full, as usual, with all kinds of people: taciturn salary-men, boistrous couples, sleepy high school students, housewives. I couldn't stop looking at their faces. A few people must have wondered what I was staring at.

More Hanami Photos...

As promised, here are some of the photos from the blossom viewing party a few weeks back.

If you want to see more, they are online here.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Moving Day

You would think I'd be pretty used to moving by now. I've moved about 10 times or more in the past couple years, so I've had plenty of practice. I notice a few common things every time I move:

In the week leading up to the move, I look around and think, "I don't have that much stuff. It won't be too hard to pack up." As I'm in the process of packing, I think, "Where did I ever get so much crap? I'm going to have to throw half of it away." When I finally finish, and everything's boxed up, I think, "Is this it? This is the sum total of my belongings in Japan?? 1.5 cubic meters?"

I do the same thing with time. I leave the packing to the last minute, because I think it won't take too long. By the middle of my packing frenzy, I think I'll never get finished in time. But I almost always finish early, and then have to sit around for a couple hours for the courier guys to come get my stuff.

Maybe the worst part about packing up and moving out is that the apartment has to be absolutely empty; you can't even leave a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom or a coat hanger in the closet. So, you have to think "backwards" and pack those things which you might need at the last minute, last. So, working backwards, you want to be sure to throw away (this is backwards, remember...) the last toilet paper roll, the extra garbage bags, the paper towels, the cleaning products, that last can of pop/beer to get you through the afternoon, the cleaning supplies, the hand towel, .... I think you can appreciate how irritating it is when you've already thrown something into the garbage, and then suddenly you realize you need it. "Oh, I have to wash my hands... oops, already threw out the soap." Or, "Hey, I forgot there's a jar of jam and some bread ... oops, I already threw out my cutlery. Maybe I can put the jam on there with my fingers." Which is what I did today.

Anyway, I've moved out of my place, and I'm now in a hotel on the west side of Tokyo for a few days. It's funny; I've never been out here before, and it's so strange, I feel as though I could be on Mars. I don't know the trains, or how to read the station names, or anything, which is baffling. If you know where you're going, maps are so simple as to be trivial, but when you actually need to look at a map for information, they become pretty confusing. Most place names, for example, have some kind of non-standard reading. I was staring at a train map for a good 5 minutes today, and finally gave up and asked the guy where to catch my train. The reason I couldn't figure out which train to get on was because almost all the trains go to my destination (except one). Sure enough, I almost got on that one wrong train, but my nervous nature stopped me, and I finally figured it out.

I think most foreigners have a pretty low opinion of signs and maps in Japan. I don't know who designs them, or what kind of qualifications they have, but there seem to be a lot of really dumb mistakes. For example, those signs that say, "You are here" but the orientation of the sign is exactly opposite the way you're actually standing in relation to the real world, so you think you have to go straight ahead, but really you need to turn around first. Or signs that use 35 different colours to try to indicate 35 slightly different kinds of information, but the difference in colour is so subtle that you need to get paint chips to match up the map colours with the legend. Or, (like what happened to me today) the sign for the train says, "Bound for Karakida" and no matter how long you stare at the map, you just can't find Karakida, so you don't even know if that train is going in the right direction. God forbid they maybe put Karakida (and the other various final stops) in bold or something so you can find them easily.

Anyway, if Tokyo gets the Olympics (are they still in the running?) then maybe there will be a signage revolution. Until then, I make sure to carry my compass with me at all times - even in downtown Tokyo.