Japan Stories
Last updated: Friday, April 05, 2002.

Table of Contents:

Short Stories:

Long Stories:

First Impressions
After a month of Japanese training, we Co-op Japan students came to Japan on June 3, 1997. Those of us headed for the Tokyo area hit Narita airport and worked our way through customs and immigration. Right away two aspects of Japan became apparent: the heat, and the prices ("300 yen for a glass of orange juice?! That's, like, four dollars!"). These days I don't hesitate to spend 300 yen on orange juice; that was just an initial reaction.

It didn't take long to realise that Tokyo was very different from any city I'd lived in. First of all, the population is bigger by far than all of Canada. The architecture is amazing too... you will see huge shiny new buildings crammed right up with old shanties made of sheet metal. There's no such thing as a lawn, or grass at all for that matter. Some of the streets are the width of a Canadian back alley, and yet they still have two-way traffic, bicycles, and people walking along the edges (there isn't always a sidewalk). We were amazed at the things done to save space. Take for instance, a gas station. There are no pumps. The hoses are suspended from the roof, where they may be called on by the attendants via remote control. There's no drive-through car wash, though sometimes you'll see a pared-down car wash that runs on tracks in a parking spot-sized area.

Sony put us up in a hotel for when we arrived, and on the first day of work we were told about our new accomodations. Previously we were told that we'd be in a dormitory, where the other co-op students were. But this was not the case, which was kind of too bad, because that's where we had sent our luggage. But what we heard was much better... we would be living instead in a "Weekly Mansion"! Apparently these places are usually for businessmen on long business trips. The floor plan looked pretty good -- a bed, desk, television, phone, bathroom, kitchen, balcony... and hey... it's a mansion!

When we arrived at our new abode, we were a little surprised. Evidently the floor plan we saw was purely schematic in nature, since this room could not conceivably be arranged as we had seen. Let me put it this way: I could easily reach out and touch both of the side walls simultaneously. The "mini-kitchen" consisted of a pot, a sink big enough to put the pot in, and a hot plate that could be wheeled out from under the sink. This was more like the Tokyo we were expecting originally.

After a while, though, our rooms seemed to get a bit bigger... quite bearable. Plus we were very close to work and the rail station. Best of all, we had western-style toilets (as opposed to Japanese, "hole-in-the-floor"-type toilets). So life was good.

Later, I found out that the word "mansion", in Japanese, means "a ferro-concrete apartment building".

The Italian Restaurant
My coworkers asked me what kind of food I liked... I said pasta. So when we had my kangeikai (welcome party), we went out for Italian food.

It was a real authentic Italian restaurant, replete with faux-stucco arches inside, hand-painted pottery, and a wine jug in the shape of a chicken. Well, OK, on closer inspection the pottery was hand-painted in Portugal and Spain, but that's pretty close to Italy, right? I mean, visually speaking, the was no way you wouldn't think you were in Italy, unless you looked out the window and saw the neon lights of Shibuya.

Anyways, the food was pretty interesting too... they brought out a zillion appetizers, then salad, then spaghetti, then sherbert. None of us (myself included) had any idea what they were, so every time something was brought out, I'd hear a little Japanese lesson like this:

Dialogue 1: In the Italian Restaurant

A platter covered in grapefuit slices and some whitish material thinly cut into oblong slices is placed on the table.
"Kore wa, nan deshou ka?"          - What do you suppose this is?
"Eh-to, wakarimasen."              - Hmmmm, no idea.
"Sou desu ne.  Nan deshou ka?"     - Yeah, what do you think it could be?
"Chiizu deshou ka?"                - Maybe it's cheese?
"U-n..."                           - I don't know...
"Ano, pasuta deshou ka?"           - Hey, maybe it's pasta?
"Pasuta?"                          - Pasta?
"Sou deshou ne..."                 - Yeah, that's probably it.
Finally, somebody works up the courage to try some. All watch with baited breath. He cocks his head and tries another piece.
"Ika desu!  Nama no ika desu ne."  - (see below)
(everybody) "Sou, sou, ika desu."  - Yes, yes, that's what it is.

Well, OK, I didn't know that raw squid was strictly Italian food, but hey, I've never been to Italy, right? Maybe it's all the rage there. Who knows? Other appetizers included: a thinly layered pie similar to quiche, garlic bread, some kind of shellfish cooked in oil and herbs, fish with baby carrots and cabbage, and so on.

Afterwards a few of us went out for that great Japanese traditional activity: karaoke. And I gained universal recognition for singing a Japanese song, although I use the term "sing" in its broadest possible sense.

The Fugu Restaurant
Before I left for Japan, a friend of mine gave me this advice: "Fugu tte iu tabemono ni chuui ne!" -- "Be careful of the food called `fugu'." Fugu, or blowfish, is a Japanese delicacy, which happens to contain a deadly neurotoxin. Apparently a few people every year die from improperly-prepared fugu, but it's still outrageously popular. My personal theory on this is that the Japanese are in such constant danger of earthquakes and tornadoes, you might as well gamble your life on dinner as well.

Anyways, one day I wrote him this email:

Well, I'm sorry to report that I didn't follow the advice 
you gave me before I left for Japan.  Nosiree.

Friday night was a Canadian friend's birthday... he's 
going back to Canada soon, but before he does he wants to 
try fugu.  So, we're in Shinjuku and he sees a fugu place.  
The plate in the window says 5500 yen (CAD$67).  "No problem," 
he says, "we can just share that plate between 4 or 5 people 
and it won't be too much."  So we go in.

Nice place.  Tatami mats and the whole bit.  We order 3 plates 
for 12 people.  Now, myself, being vegetarian and a non-drinker, 
I don't go for the beer or the sashimi which everyone else has.  
But when the fugu comes out I figure, well, it's something I 
should do once.  So I just take a couple of slices, maybe four, 
from the big plate (where a slice is smaller than my thumb and 1
millimeter thick).

After the "meal", my whole body went numb.  My head started to 

You see, they had brought out the bill.

We discovered in one heartstopping moment that the price so 
clearly listed in the window refered not to the plate which we 
had ordered, but to the plate we had ordered **per person**, 
where a plate is defined as being enough for three people.  So 
the bill which was causing so much discomfort amounted to well 
over CAD$500.  The best part was that in the panic, we split 
the bill evenly, even though I had only had a taste.  So I 
figure for *each* couple of gram-slice of fugu that I ate, I 
paid around CAD$11-12.  So now I know *exactly* what you meant 
when you told me to be careful about the fugu.

The only consolation was that on the way out I got a little 
box of free matches, maybe 12 or so.  Which was more than 
capacious enough to hold the amount of food I had consumed.  
So now I have a souvenir to remind me: nihon no resutoran ni 
chuui ne!  (Be careful of Japanese restaurants!)

 - Brett.
For the record, fugu, when dipped in soy sauce, tastes exactly like soy sauce.


They say when you come to a new country, you should try not to convert the new currency back to your old currency when thinking about prices. Instead, it's better to consider relative costs -- compared to a loaf of bread, or your daily salary. Well, I've started comparing prices to the cost of a plate of fugu, and I gotta say, Japan seems pretty cheap when regarded in this light. Following is a list of items that are cost-equivelant to one plate of fugu:

The Kabuki-za
Well, our plan to climb Mount Fuji got rained out, so we decided to meander around Tokyo in search of some good indoor activities. Kabuki sounded good, although some of us were concerned about some bad rap we'd heard about kabuki, specifically: (a) it costs an arm and a leg (or a fin, if you're a fugu), and (b) it's as boring as heck. Fortunately, we could go for a special ticket possibly designed for uncultured foreigners such as ourselves, where we only watch two acts and sit way up in the top row, for a low price. The main drawback was that the little broadcast headsets that even the Japanese wear to explain what's going on are not available in those seats, possibly because we're so far from the stage we go out of range of the transmitter.

Anyways, we went in and found some seats and watched the little figures moving around on the stage while some instrument-plucking emanated from the wings. And as it turned out, it was pretty interesting. Although we couldn't understand what was being said, it was fun to watch. My favourite parts were the fight scenes. Although I have to say, when it takes twenty minutes for a guy with a sword to polish off an unarmed old man, you can start to see why these plays have a running time of five hours. The second fight scene was even better, one guy on a rooftop takes on about twenty a la Jacky Chan, but at 1/20th of the speed.

The most amazing thing was the makeup and costumes. Our neighbour lent us her binoculars so we could take a look, and it was pretty cool.

A Bad Experience
Actually, this happened to me some months ago. Only now have I decided to tell the story. Before, it was too fresh in my mind, the humiliation was still too overpowering for me to reveal to the world what had happened. But now I feel that I have overcome the shame and horror of what transpired and can share the experience with others. Perhaps this sharing will help me continue the healing process that my ego has required since this rather Bad Experience.

You see, I was in the bathroom. I won't say where this bathroom was until I am done working at Sony, in case my coworkers should stumble across this web page. In any case, this toilet was very high tech. A panel of controls was next to the seat, looking like a science fiction spaceshit, I mean, spaceship navigation system, covered in some alien language that was Japanese. However, I did not need to take this toilet to Arcturus-5 and stop the Zaphnoid invasion. I just wanted to flush it.

I peered at the controls. Next to a strip of LEDs I saw the Japanese characters for "high" and "low". It was set at "high". Presumably this was for achieving escape velocity from Earth's gravity, or perhaps a stun setting for the self-defense phaser mechanism. In any case it did not concern me. The remaining characters were indecipherable by me at the time, however the probable candidates for flushing seemed few, so I decided to try them out.

I pushed one of the buttons.

The toilet began to undergo a strange transformation. The seat came down and the whole thing folded up into a roughly conical shape. Lights began to blink and the base began to hum. Twin panels opened up in the ceiling and the toilet-become-rocket blasted off to join the mother ship.

At least, that's what I would like to be able to say happened. It would have been much easier to explain afterwards.

No, the real story is this: Something began to emerge from within the toilet. Suddenly the full implications of the "low" and "high" settings became all too apparent, as the slender tube reached its full extension and began blasting water at the far wall of the cubicle. All I can say is that I'm sure glad I was standing to the side of the toilet and not in front of it, as I would have been utterly soaked, if not pummeled to unconciousness by the jet of water that was shooting out. With desperation I could have used on some of my previous Japanese tests, I quickly picked out the character for "stop" and jabbed it. The flow of water stopped, leaving a medium-sized puddle at the end of the cubicle.

The flush, as it turns out, was cleverly concealed on the side wall next to the toilet paper.

Nintendo Spaceworld
Some friends of mine were real Nintendo fans, and so they wanted to go see "Nintendo Spaceworld", the big convention put on by Nintendo. It's open to the public, and they show all the latest games, and even some games that are still under development. Sounded kind of interesting to me, so I came along. The only problem was that my friends wanted to go quite early, in case it was really crowded. But I managed to drag myself out of bed early and get onto the train to Chiba.

We disembarked the train to the concrete jungle of Chiba convention halls and hotels. I was struck by how much the place looked like a Nintendo game -- one of those new 3D ones. To add to the non-realism of it all, there was a very dense fog, so that some buildings literally disappeared into whiteness, not at all unlike some of the mistier levels of Super Mario 64 or Turok, Dinosaur Hunter.

This was not my first life-imitates-Nintendo experience in Japan, either. A month earlier, while riding the train through the hills near Chiba, I was struck by the tremendous steepness of the hills, and the flatness of their tops. This brought back memories of the original Super Mario games, with their oddly rectangular hills. I had previously thought that they were very unrealistic, but now I knew better. I never did find out why those characters can jump so high, though.

Anyways, we found our convention center, which even at this early hour was starting to fill up with kids, sitting down in an enormous queue outside. As the time to the opening of Spaceworld decreased, thousands of other kids arrived and lined up, all brandishing Gameboys and patiently playing Pocket Monsters (Pokemon).

When the doors opened, we were given a sticker that said we could stay until 11:00, and let loose on a several-gymnasia-sized area filled with Nintendo 64s and Gameboys. We quickly lined up to try out development versions of Yoshi's World and the new Zelda game. They were pretty neat.

We kept to the N64 side of the convention hall, however. The reason for this was that the Gameboy side was utterly packed with Pocket Monster-obsessed hordelings. To make things worse, they had discovered a booth that was giving out free collectible Pocket Monster cards, and so they were running all over, brandishing their GameBoys in one hand, and Pokemon cards in the other. Nintendo certainly knows how to develop a following.

After taking our fill of demo games, we left the convention centre to find some food. On the way out, we noticed that the line to get into Spaceworld had overflowed the enormous waiting area, and a line trailed off as far as the eye could see of Pokemon-toting youngsters and their tolerant parents. Indeed, the line continued all the way back to the train station, a ten minute walk away, and was starting to spiral around an adjacent field. We scored some Subway sandwiches and tried to find a place free of hyper kids. We eventually found such a place, though there was a young couple nearby with their Gameboys linked. It's a Pokemon relationship, we concluded. Thus was born our brilliant new pick-up line, sure to be a big hit at the Roppongi bars: "Hey baby, wanna see my Pocket Monster?". Oddly, none of us ever tried that one.

For information about travelling in Japan, check out the Guide to Japan Homepage.

See also:
Brett Allen (brett@snazzorama.com)
This page is Copyright 1994-2006, Brett Allen.