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Monday, July 13, 2009


So… it’s late July 1990… just in case you wanted a reference date.
Let’s just assume I left my house in Toronto, made it to the airport and got on the plane.
You could also assume that I became great friends with a lot of people on the plane thanks to my winning personality and incredible snoring ability, and that those plane folks became an important part of my life in Japan. You’d be wrong about that last sentence, however.
Several hours into the plane ride - in a 747 filled with Assistant English Teachers (AETs) from Ontario heading to Japan on a one-year contract to teach junior or senior high school English on the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme – I realized that in whatever town I was moving to, that I’d never see them again.
Besides, why on Earth would I want to hang out with English-speakers here in Japan? I wanted to become internationalized. That thought would come back to bite me on the bum many a time over the next three years.
Arriving at Narita Airport in the outskirts of Tokyo in Chiba-ken (ken is the Japanese word for province), the first thing that hit me was the heat. It was about 4PM and it was 34º Celsius (93.2F). And here’s the weird thing – it was getting hotter as the day progressed.
Wanting to smell Japan, I inhaled. Forgetting that I was at an airport, all I smelled was jet fuel. Funny. It smells just like the Toronto airport.
All of us first-timers on the JET Programme were to spend the first three days in Japan at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo before traveling to our new homes – I believe it was a way of allowing us to get over our jet-lag (there’s a 15-hour+ time difference between Toronto and Tokyo) as well us allowing us all to get used to being in a foreign country. Apparently they thought that three days would be enough.
Let me just say this… that hotel was crawling with foreigners. Not Japanese people, but rather Americans, Canadians, English, Scots, Irish, Aussies and Kiwis – the fruit, bird and the people.
Exhausted and forced to share a room with a fellow Torontonian whose name I couldn’t remember after hearing it, I decided to sit in my room and watch Operation Desert Storm unfold. My nerdy roomy decided to see if he could find a nice Japanese girl to marry him for an hour or less – I hope he’s okay, as I never actually saw him again over my three-day stay at the hotel. Hmmm… I suppose I should have told someone.
After spending my first night in Japan watching CNN on television – quite the departure from how I would have spent an evening back in Toronto as I would never watch CNN - I spent the next day hovering around the hotel – not actually straying outside for fear of getting lost.
For those who don’t know me very well, I once got lost while portaging with a canoe on my head and wandered aimlessly about for five hours before finally lifting the craft up to actually look for a road sign. Turns out I was on a main highway I knew and therefore not actually lost.
I believe I slept through the next day, but I can’t be sure, as I was asleep.
On my second night at the hotel, I decided to venture down to the lobby to see if I could work up enough courage to walk a few feet outside the front door. As I walked through the lobby, a very pretty young lady stopped me and struck up a conversation.
Okay… what the hell is going on? This type of stuff NEVER happens in Toronto.
Dear Penthouse,
You won’t believe what happened to me while I was in Japan…
Kristine South, a Japanese-American from Washington DC, invited me to join her and some other people that she made friends with on her plane ride over (Hmmm, maybe I need to be friendlier) to go on a walk in the city. Horn dog that I was/am, I quickly got over my rational fear of getting lost and said yes.
Kristine had recently broken her right foot and was using crutches, but was more adept at hobbling than I was at walking.
Whether it was minutes later or hours, our group became awestruck by the flood of neon light and drunken Japanese businessmen in navy blue suits, a fact that contributed to us not actually knowing where we were walking/hobbling.
After yet another right turn, it became fairly evident that we were lost. How did we know? Simple. There was no more neon around us. Take it from me, folks – finding a part of Tokyo that is not lit up by neon signage is not an easy thing to accomplish.
Looking about for the mellow neon glow of the city, I thought I saw an English-language sign advertising something called a soapland across the street from us and decided to see if I could buy some scented soap. It turns out that a soapland is a massage parlor where the male customer is bathed during the activity – and no, I have never been in a soapland, but I do like scented soap.
I looked to the left and then to the right and seeing no cars, I stepped out into the street.
Why she did it, Kristine still doesn’t know, but noticing I was about to become a hood ornament for a white car, she pulled me back to reality.
Did you know that in Japan they drive on the opposite side of the road from us in North America? None of my pre-flight orientation mentioned that – or perhaps it did. I never actually read the orientation package. I think I still have it, though. I’ll look at it later.
Part of my soapland tunnel vision was also taken up by the very obvious okama (transvestite) standing in the doorway suggestively licking his/her lips and shaking his/her hips at my general direction. While not my cup of green tea, I wondered if the plethora of businessmen running in realized this soapland was a sausage factory. I didn't see anyone running out, though.
So… what is Tokyo like? It’s: noisy; constantly moving; neon bright; full of packed Japanese restaurants; hot and humid; got white cars and only white cars on the road, and; every street corner is crammed with vending machines that sell darn near everything a person could possibly ever want. Future BLOGs will examine most of these elements.
Hopelessly lost and hopelessly sweaty, Kristine and I – now the de facto leaders (IE the ones with the biggest mouth) – nominated one of our group to ask a person on the street if they knew where our hotel was.
A bigger problem arose as no one could remember on what line of this BLOG that I had actually mentioned the hotel’s name. Luckily I had a box of hotel matches with me, so it was easy for our erstwhile volunteer to point to the matchbox and shrug emphatically. Even if you don’t smoke, a box of matches is not only an excellent souvenir but can also be a road map to home sweet home.
Our first victim – a navy blue-suited Japanese businessman looked at the matchbox and said in perfect English: “I don’t speak Lark” and ran away from us into the soapland. Speak Lark? What the heck did that mean?
The next two men we asked also answered similarly in English and ran to enter the soapland. The fourth gent – although unable to speak English, bade us to follow him.
Forty-five minutes later we stood in front of our hotel. We thanked him profusely, he bowed, muttered something about a soapland and left.
No one knew what his name was. But, if the rest of Japan could match his sweaty kindness, my stay in Japan would be smooth one.

Somewhere wondering where I could buy lilac-scented soap,
Andrew Joseph
Today's cross-dressing title is by The Kinks - SOHO


  1. Saved by the matches! I knew there was a reason for collecting those. I still have a box full of them here at the house.

  2. The matches were a strange collectible, ne (eh)? I had collected several hundred of the buggers as well - but faced with mounting shipping charges at the end of my stay, I gave them to Kanemaru-san. He probably used them all by the timne I flew home! :)

  3. So you were a virgin when you landed in Japan... ahh, that explains so much!

    1. Yeah... what sort of guy trying to reinvent himself actually admit that sort of thing to a woman he just met and wanted to get to know better for a couple of hours. Why am I only coming up with this line 7 years later? I think that's why Kristine said what she wrote seven years ago. Smart woman.

  4. This story is very entertaining. I wonder how much of it is true; it seems quite movie-like. Going to read more regardless.

    1. 100% true! Obviously some of the comedic stuff is "pushed", I mean at the end, no one actually said anything about a soapland... but that Speak Lark thing - that happened... it was a catchphrase for a famous cigarette brand in Japan. For the first 2+ years in Japan, I maintained a daily diary... anything with a rock and roll song headline (in the early years of this blog) was about ME. Later, anything that had Noboko or Andrew in it was about me. There's a slight on-purpose misspelling of Noboko's name throughout... but other than that, my life in Japan was pretty damn weird, funny and mostly entertaining (for me). Hopefully you'll find the same for yourself.
      I do think that in life, you get out what you put in. I was always smiling in Japan.... and at least back then, a smile, when used correctly, was like a magic word for me.
      The blog attempts to show that as however weird gaijin like myself think Japan is, we (the gaijin) are every bit as weird. The same, but different. Cheers,