Yokai Blues: Part II, Chapter 1

Nick looked up and down the road. He found himself in Kyoto, bathed in florescent-white street light. He remembered telling Tom he planned to go back for a visit. Though that would have taken a lot more money than he could get his hands on at the moment. Bullet trains are expensive. Regular trains were often out of his reach as well.

Yet, here he was.

Nick saw the fox with no eyes standing next to him.

“Didn’t I shoot you in the head?”

“Indeed you did,” the homeless creature said. His wounds continued to weep a thick, clear liquid. Whatever healing power the fox possessed did not apply to his eyes.

“You should be dead,” Nick reached for his pack of cigarettes.

“Such a relative term.”

“Relative to what?” The lighter in Nick’s hand clicked again and again. He was having trouble getting it to catch. The fox only smiled and offered Nick a book of matches. He turned it over in his hand but there was no logo to be found. Only blank white paper.

“Notice anything different?”

Grilled smoke poured out of a pipe set in the nearby alleyway. A greasy odor snaked its way on to the main street. The scent of charred chicken meat spilling over the street is the best free advertising. An effective use of what is just a waste product as well. For a restaurant in the crowded marketplace of an average drinking conclave, any advantage helps. Nick was certain that these restaurants got a kickback from local dry cleaning shops because of it. The odor of blackened poultry doesn’t fade from a suit jacket through wishful thinking. He had to admit, however, he was getting hungry.

“I see a rather basic Kyoto street.”

The fox pointed across the way to a side alley where two men were relieving themselves against the wall. Nick paused to light his cigarette. The two men against the wall began trying to splash each other’s shoes with their own piss. A spark of recognition flared in Nick’s head. One of the public urinators danced away from his friend almost crashing into another man trying to slip past.

“You Charles Dickens copying motherfucker.” Nick’s cigarette dangled from his lip threatening to fall.

A much younger and thinner Nick dodged out of the way of the stumbling piss bandit. He grumbled some words which were completely ignored by the two drunks and hustled past the pair before they could douse him too. The younger version of himself turned down the road and started heading away in the direction of a pink-light district. Nick started to trail after himself out of instinct. He stopped short and looked back at the fox, his question obvious.

“Don’t worry,” the fox said, staring back up at Nick with his mangled eyes. “No one can see you. Just like in Dickens.”

“So you’re the ghost of drunken weekends past?”

“You don’t remember which night this is yet, do you?”

Nick glanced back down the street, his other self had almost disappeared in the crowd. He jogged forward trying to catch up. At first he dodged the other pedestrians as usual, until he couldn’t avoid crashing into an old woman. She came to a full stop with little warning and he bowled right through her. Luckily she had all the resistance of a particularly detailed fog bank.

After that it became easy going.

Kyoto vibrated at a different frequency to Tokyo. The old capital lived as a regular city rather than a vast urban savannah like the new. Tokyo sprawls as a bloom of vomit on the sidewalk. Kyoto stays neat and contained in its valley. The trees are different too. Tokyo has trees, of course, but they’re lonely things, caged in concrete. Even the sprawling parks feel like an arboreal zoo, planted amongst the buildings as an obligation. City planners read how shade makes people happy and bless a few major streets with a block or two of sad trunks strung along in a row. Tokyo officials have little concept of or motivation for taking care of grass.

Kyoto has a different relationship with nature. At the least, they are still on speaking terms. Many temples and holy places are surrounded by forest. Kyoto is at least fifty percent historical artifact, including the residents. That’s not much of an exaggeration either as the population of Yokai in the city is slowly reaching majority. An Oni even ran for mayor in the previous election. He lost but had a good campaign.

The Yokai are drawn to the shrines and temples, which has given the humans living there not quite an open acceptance but a friendlier tolerance for certain. Also, since the shrines are most of Kyoto’s tourist economy there is a greater number of easy jobs for yokai willing to trade pride for a living wage. Nick especially liked Kyoto for the trees. The city’s relationship with the surrounding forest reminded him of home.

Also, when he first arrived, Kyoto was where people were willing to pay real money for his cross-cultural skills.

He followed his younger self down the street and began to wonder where it had all gone wrong. Staring into this mirror of the past he became starkly aware of the extra twenty kilos of paunch he put on over the years.

The way his double was as cool and suave on the outside as he had been in his head. Now with each cigarette he became a prisoner shackled to nothing, so well conditioned that he never thought to escape.

The capital city clearly has a way of getting in your blood like a virus. Nick’s younger self was a stark reminder of the effects of the Tokyo disease. After some twenty years only fools think anyone can escape the effects of age. Nick was certain now that the river of time flows rougher in Tokyo. With plenty of jagged rocks lurking beneath the surface. Unfortunately he had been exposed for too long to the concrete nightmare to ever want to leave. As dangerous for your health as Tokyo was, a metropolis is good at making a man feel alive.

Nick dropped his spent cigarette to the ground. The fox with no eyes coughed to show his disapproval.

“Terrible habit you’ve got there,” the fox said.

“I have worse,” Nick said, his attention still locked on the specter of his youth in front of him.

More than half the time, he remembered to throw away his cigarettes in the proper place. Maybe it was less than half. The rate dropped when he was distracted and couldn’t be bothered to bring a pocket ashtray.

A bar vented its grill smoke outside to pour along the road. Young Nick paused to finish his own cigarette before heading in. His last puff of tobacco smoke mixed with the thin cloud of burned chicken roiling past the door. The apparition had the decency to use a portable ashtray rather than flinging the spent butt to the ground. Somewhere in the years to follow Nick had lost that level of dedication. Nick’s ghost disappeared into the bar leaving him behind with the fox.

“Aren’t you going inside?” the blind fox asked after Nick hesitated.

“I remember what night this is now.”

“Then you’d better get in there or you’re going to miss it.”

Inside the bar’s decor attempted to invoke “old-fashioned log cabin”. Rounded humps of wood covered the walls in soft tan. The facade was clearly bolted on to a standard concrete wall but the attempt had a pleasing enough effect. Long tables of rough hewn cedar filled the common area with a camping in the woods ambiance. Across every free surface customers had scratched, drawn, or otherwise marked messages commemorating their visit. The bar left a few cheap ball-point pens scattered about the room for exactly this reason. The signatures created jagged breaks in the the glow of the wood, each one marking someone’s existence. Nick stumbled across this shop shortly after he arrived in Kyoto. Each time he came back, he tried to catch up with the bar as he might with an old friend, if he had any. A friend who didn’t keep in touch too much otherwise.

For all Nick knew, the place could have closed years ago. The realization stabbed him right in the appendix. 

Nothing at all had changed.

Obviously.

After a quick scan of the room he spotted his younger self doing the same, searching for a place to sit. Old Nick wanted to see if his first scratchings in his favorite table still remained, a whole host of other memories tied up in those marks. A group of loud businessmen had already claimed that spot. Young Nick passed by the table without a second glance. Current Nick figured he hadn’t wanted to raise a fuss. Nick’s youthful mirage instead settled into a smaller booth away from the entrance.

Nick followed, unsure how to let this play out. Part of him screamed that he was intruding. Any moment his younger self would spot him and fall into an existential crisis. The fox removed that fear by sitting down directly across from the phantom Nick. His younger self ordered a bottle of beer with three glasses and several skewers of roast chicken and green onions. Salt only of course, nothing fancy. He lit another cigarette and settled in to wait, as nonchalant as someone born and raised in this town. Old Nick joined the fox and wrestled with the mental disconnect involved in looking into a time mirror.

“You want something to drink?” the fox turned his head in Nick’s direction. 

“How would that work exactly?” The fox only smiled and waited for the server to come with Young Nick’s first bottle. When she did the blind fox pulled the beer towards him leaving behind an exact duplicate. He did the same thing with two of the glasses and proceeded to pour a healthy dose into each. Nick picked up the foaming glass of beer. It seemed real enough. Tasted just as he remembered as well.

“Neat trick.”

The fox said nothing and simply sipped his own drink. Young Nick took zero notice and was already pouring his second glassful.

They had little choice but to continue drinking. A hand-written sign stretched over the main room which summed up the management’s position on customer behavior. The banner read:

Order one two more bottle(s) of beer or get the fuck out!

Nick didn’t begrudge the place. He found the upfront sincerity refreshing. The small group finished off two more beers and several plates of grilled chicken before Young Nick got up from the table. Nick slumped down into his seat, almost sliding down on to the floor. The moment had finally arrived. The fox poked him in the shoulder, the boney jab surprisingly painful for a dream.

“Get up,” the fox said. “This is why we’re here.” Nick shuffled out of the booth and turned to look back at himself. He had his arms wrapped around her now in a welcoming hug. Lin turned, her arm still wrapped around his waist, and introduced Young Nick to her mother. This was back when Lin still loved him. He couldn’t be certain of it at the time. It might never have been true anyway. Still, it pained Nick to rewind this particular moment of lost happiness.

“Do we have to stay?” Nick downed another swallow of the phantom beer. Unfortunately the intoxication effects were as ephemeral as the drink itself. He felt as sober as a church mouse.

“This is why we came,” the blind fox repeated. “I won’t let you leave just yet.”

“Nice to meet you Nick,” Lin’s mother said. Young Nick guided the pair to the booth. He poured Lin’s mother a glass of his beer. Lin sat next to her mother but something in her eyes said that she wanted to be next to Nick. He only noticed it now, years later as he stood over the scene looking in from the outside. He was too wrapped up in himself back then to figure it out. That would come later. As they went through the opening banter he couldn’t help but wonder if he could have salvaged things if he’d had those extra years.

“Is there a fast-forward on this thing?” Nick asked, “We were here quite awhile if I remember things right.” The blind fox said nothing but the air shifted around him. The figures at the table melted into subtle new positions and the number of empty beer bottles grew.

“So why are you in Kyoto, Nick?” Lin’s mother said as she held up her half empty beer glass. Young Nick filled it dutifully.

“I have some troubles back in Tokyo. Your daughter convinced me you could help. The older fox smiled briefly and then sipped her beer.

“I hope it’s not financial,” she said. “Lin knows I live on a fixed income.” The old fox moved with the casual grace of a master of tea ceremony. The blind fox snorted at her last comment. Nick looked his way but his guide was not planning to explain his amusement.

“Of course not,” Young Nick said, “I’ve made something quite angry.” Lin’s mother drained her beer. She left her hand on her now empty glass, fingers wrapped around in a light embrace. The moment lingered until Young Nick got the hint and poured her some more. After finishing another half of her drink the older fox chose to speak.

“Indeed you have.”

Lin glanced between the pair of them before resting a paw on her mother’s arm. “Please mom? It’d mean a lot to me.” This was the point in Nick’s recollection where the two women began speaking in the Fox dialect.

“What are they saying?” Nick asked the blind fox.

“They’re talking about you,” he replied.

“I figured as much back then,” Nick said, “Anything more specific?”

“Nothing I’m willing to tell you. Some things are better left a mystery.”

“Blind asshole,” Nick lit a cigarette he stole from his younger self. Again, no one took any notice of the pair of watchers standing awkwardly by the side of the table.

Young Nick sat against the back of the booth, pretending to act casual. He held his glass of beer up to the light as though something more refined hid within. Lin and her mother finished up their conversation and Lin excused herself to the bathroom. Once her daughter was gone the matriarch leaned closer to Nick.

“So tell me Nick,” she lowered her voice, “What did you do to deserve this extra attention?”

Little came to Old Nick’s mind other than a series of painful episodes. In between he numbed the hurt with purified grain alcohol in some form or another. This cycle repeated itself quite often over the years and would continue right up to yesterday.

Today and tomorrow as well, he admitted to himself.

“I don’t know why I’m being hunted,” Nick said. The old fox raised one eyebrow but otherwise kept her expression flat.

“Are you certain?” Nick refilled both glasses. Avoiding her stare, he picked up a neglected skewer of chicken and tore off some of the now cold meat. He took the time to chew and swallow completely before speaking again. His mother had done that right at least in raising him.

“Nothing more than my usual brand of depravity,” Nick said. “I haven’t been able to figure out what I did specifically yet.” He placed the empty wooden skewer back on the plate. Lin’s mother continued to drink her beer but made no move towards the food. She looked him up and down and maintained her silence. Young Nick moved to fill her glass again but she covered the top with her paw.

“I’ll help you out, Nick” Lin’s mother said. “But if you’ll allow me to play the concerned parent for a moment.” Young Nick chuckled and tried to appear even more casually disinterested. Current Nick wanted to grab him by the collar and slap some sense into himself.

“If you don’t fix the root of your problem,” Lin’s mother continued, “It’ll keep coming back time and time again.”

“Is this a gardening metaphor?”

“Only common sense advice.”

“My mother had a garden when I was growing up.”

“How nice,” Lin’s mother let the conversation wither until Lin came back a few moments later.

“So, did you two have a nice talk while I was gone?” Lin smiled at Nick. He avoided saying anything with a drink of his beer. Lin’s mother smiled at her daughter and patted her on the shoulder.

“Yes it was quite pleasant, dear,” the older fox said. Lin’s mother reached into her overstuffed bag and rummaged around for several moments.

“A gift to help your journey,” she said finally. She leaned forward to place a small package on the table. She then shifted back into the seat, as stoic as when she first sat down. The world shimmered in place similar to waves of heat rising off blacktop in summer. He looked over at the blind fox for explanation.

“What’s going on here?” Old Nick squinted trying to get a better look.

“The magic here is strong. It interferes with your mind and thus your memory of that day.”

Nick thought back to the original day but the memories were hazy at best and completely missing at worst. The scene continued to crackle and warp like a TV with a weak signal. An orb wrapped in paper sat and hummed softly at the edge of Nick’s hearing. Young Nick reached out for the object, his hand pulled along by a subtle magnetism. The cool weight of metal obvious even through the paper shell. He paused, looking at Lin’s mother for permission. A swift nod was the only cue given.

“Is this what I think it is?” Nick said after he peeled back the paper. Inside the wrapper, a round blob of red painted metal. Sketched on the front, a face with hollow white eyes staring out over an angry grin full of fangs. He ran his thumb over the surface of the doll surprised at the smoothness. On closer examination he understood the reason for a lack of texture. The coloring and design were part of the metal itself. Red ink flowed and mixed with the white at a glacial pace beneath the surface. It was almost as if something had been captured in a transparent sphere rather than crafted. The sharp smell of iron made that seem unlikely, however. The longer he looked into the object the more a force tugged on a hook lodged deep in his chest.

“It’s forming a link with you,” Lin’s mother said. Young Nick jerked his head up from the charm in his hand. He had forgotten he wasn’t alone. The world resolved itself a little more clearly. 

“Is that a good thing?” Young Nick said. He smacked his lips, his throat had gone dry. He took up his beer with the other hand, not wanting to set the charm down. Nick watch took a sip from the glass. Something was off. The brew had a distinct metallic tang to it now, the same rustiness of blood. He put down his drink and pushed it away from him. Lin’s mother stood and placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.

“Time to go, dear.”

“Wait,” Nick said. The old fox looked back at him. “What about the eyes?”

“When you know for certain your goal, press a thumb against the eye on the left. If your conviction is strong enough the circle will darken, activating the power.”

“And the other one?” Lin’s mother paused to brush out a crease in her clothes before answering.

“Fill that one in when you succeed.” With that, the older fox left the restaurant. Lin looked back over her shoulder and mouthed “Call me” at Young Nick. He put the doll down and stared into the flat, blank eyes.

He lit a cigarette.

The memory dissolved into white, leaving Nick and the blind fox alone in a vast empty expanse.

“So I should find that doll?”

“Yes, that is why I brought you here. To remind you.”

“Seems like an awful lot of trouble. You could have just given me a call and explained it that way.”

The blind fox grinned. “Don’t worry, you won’t remember any of this and when you wake up you’ll think it was all your idea.”

Catching up to life

The idea of leaving one life behind and living another is often something left to the movies or TV. A high-level snitch placed into witness protection. A middle-aged boring guy ditching that depressing office job for life as a surf instructor. A family of yokels finding out some distant relative had billions of dollars and left it all to them.

It’s nice to dream.

Most of those stories don’t talk about what happens if you return to your old life. If the story hinges on escape or change, it doesn’t make for a happy ending to end up back where you were before the main event. Losing billions of dollars or returning to a life of crime wouldn’t be that great in the grand scheme or even in the medium scheme.

Luckily for me, it wasn’t all that bad. At least I wasn’t giving up life as a beach bum.

Discovering that travel might not be the cure for what ails you is more common than those other fictional scenarios, I suspect. Beaches get boring and mega cities are hard places to find fulfillment. Easy to lose yourself, though. At least that was the case with me. I’ve already talked a lot about what it felt like to leave behind one life for another.

How does the return compare to the exodus itself? That’s a harder comparison to judge. A year into my time in Japan I had made new friends and was enjoying my life as a club hopper. What money I had went into beer, cigarettes and late night ramen. Work was just a means to an end. Coal for the insatiable furnace of debauchery.

But there’s a time and a place for everything and it’s called your twenties.

I’m more than a year back in the United States and things are progressing at a much slower pace. I arrived in Japan with a life set up for me. Pre-packaged and ready to go.

I left with little more than the jealousy that comes when a friend flashes cash and a desire to do the same. It’s fortunate that I don’t drink, smoke, or club anymore. Not that the city of Wilmington is known for its outrageous night life.

With more years come further refinement of tastes. My group of friends have gone from cheap beer swilling pool sharks to micro-brew chugging tool jockeys that are also local real estate experts. It’s hard not to get jealous of fancy things like hard wood floors, brushed steel appliances, and equity.

It’s also hard to shake how I treated myself ten years ago now that I’m back where I started.

I wasn’t super cool when I left. Hard to picture, isn’t it? Now, I am outrageously cool. Cooler than a crystalline Christmas cucumber. It took a long time for me to come to grips with this indisputable fact. Unfortunately, I can tell it isn’t second nature like it should be. I have to actively keep on top of my awesomeness when I’m around old friends. Or else I’ll fall into the same patterns as before.

That’s what I mean by catching up. While I was bathing in the concentrated amazing that is Tokyo, Japan, absorbing that power into my soul, everyone else was buying houses and shit.

Life is a series of trade-offs, I suppose.

Are you glad you came back?

Imagine you just made one of the biggest decisions of your life. You have no idea if it’s going to work out. You decided to go for it anyway. Once you’ve taken the leap, how do you know if it was a good choice? When I went bungee jumping for the first time the measure of success was pretty simple. I didn’t end up plunging head first into a raging river.

Not all decisions are going to come with such instant feedback, unfortunately.

When I left Japan, I imagined a life that would fall into place with relative ease. Perhaps that was naïve of me. I figured I would be able to find some sort of job that would let me live a modest lifestyle in or around Raleigh, where I went to college. That’s where the friends I have from before my time in Japan still live. I would then pursue a computer science certificate and perhaps after that a Masters. Not asking too much I think.

A job did not materialize immediately. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend my first summer focusing on my studies without any financial strain. Which was a good thing. If you’ve ever taken a college level course in Java or Discrete Math you already have some idea. Now, take all that academic pain and suffering, mix it together, and squeeze it out into half the time. I don’t think I’ll ever take two summer courses again if I can help it.

I did well though! Better than I ever did in school to be honest. It turns out if you actually study and do the work good grades aren’t as mythological as I once believed.

Then came the campaign. I tried for…like a week to do both the job as a field organizer and the next course in my program. Every one of my coworkers I mentioned my class to were shocked to hear I was attempting such a feat. The general consensus after I withdrew sometime later was “Yeah, that’s definitely a smart move.”

And it was. After a twelve-hour day, the last thing I wanted to do was bang my head against a wall of code salad. I lost about half the cost of the class when I withdrew so NCSU got a few hours of their new basketball coach’s salary on me. I’ll consider it money well spent if the team doesn’t completely suck next year. (I’d settle for beating UNC once.)

After finishing the campaign, I didn’t want to jump back into class without knowing what my working life would be like. I got started with the job search and have continued at a steady pace right up until now. Still no job. Hopefully it’s not because when you Google me the first thing that pops up is someone with my name who stole $50,000 to go to Hooters.

I haven’t answered the question yet. Can you blame me? There can be some heavy stuff wrapped up in such a question. When people hear that you made a major life change they want to know if you’re doing well. Decent people at least. If that’s not the case for you, what are you doing talking to jerks in the first place?

As for me, it’s hard to give a solid answer. I’m 34 years old and I live with my mother. Couple that with a strong interest in Japanese culture and that’s a dangerous combination on paper. I should just buy a Trilby and a body pillow. Lean into the skid so to speak.

But, I’m technically still a Millennial so the mainstream tells me I have some lee-way about my living situation. So that’s lucky.

Am I happy though? Well that’s honestly something I can’t answer. I’m certainly happy at certain moments of the day. Other parts not so much. Is that any different than anyone else? Have I achieved what I wanted when I left Japan? Not really. Are those things indefinitely out of reach? Probably not. Hopefully not. Am I better off today than I was a year ago? Again, hard to say. I’m pretty much in the same place I was a year ago. Except now Drumpf is President.

Not looking too good on the old “better off” scale. Sorry. I didn’t vote for him.

Anyway, if you came by for unending positivity, I’m not sure you really “get” the vibe I’m trying to cultivate here.

5 Phrases are All You’ll Need to Make Friends in Japan

I spent about three years in college taking Japanese language classes. I was also fortunate enough to study abroad in northern Japan for a summer. It was specifically for language study so we covered about a year’s worth of lessons in 8 weeks. After all of that I was still terrible but could pretend with the best of them. When I had 30 minutes or more to craft a text I could even be eloquent.

Little did I know, that I would only need about six phrases for 80% of my conversations with Japanese speakers.

Ehhhhhhhh?

It’s hard to classify this one as a phrase. It’s more of a sound effect. Translated, it’s similar to saying “What?” when you hear some shocking news. Just like in English, you can extend the sound for as long as you want. Clearly, longer durations indicate greater surprise. It takes some finesse to know how to use this one but it can be quite versatile.

Example of appropriate use cases: Someone tells you some news or information. Can be anything from “I bought an ice cream” to “The President is a Russian spy.”

Sugoi!

Unlike the previous phrase, this one can’t be used to give yourself time to think of a real answer. Sugoi translates roughly to “great.” So, you have to be at least certain what the person just said to you is positive. If someone tells you they were just diagnosed with cancer, answering sugoi might be in bad taste whereas a long “ehhhh?” would be more appropriate.

Example of appropriate use cases: Someone tells you something positive or otherwise good news. Can be anything from “I bought you an ice cream” to “The President was impeached for being a Russian spy.”

Honto ni?

This one is a bit more flexible. It translates to “Really?” and has many uses similar to its English counterpart. It can be used in both positive and negative circumstances depending on your inflection. This is also highly useful for when you’re either not paying attention or your friend has said something that needs elaboration. It’s a good way to encourage further discussion.

Example of appropriate use cases: Someone tells you something that piques your interest. Can be anything from “I heard they’re making a new flavor of ice cream” to “The President said something stupid on Twitter today.”

Majide/Uso

I group these two together because they mean roughly the same thing and you’ll hear them used interchangeably. Uso is probably the more popular variation. Roughly translated to “lying” these phrases are used much how an interjection of “bullshit!” is used in English. The best use is to show a friendly incredulity when someone might be telling you a tall tale.

Example of appropriate use cases: Someone tells you something that seems quite unbelievable. Can be anything from “I ate ten ice creams just now” to “The President signed a bill helping the poor today.”

So desu ne.

Finally, the most important phrase of all. The rough translation is something akin to “so it seems.” English unfortunately doesn’t have the full elegant capacity needed to describe how useful this phrase is. It can be said after literally any statement and seem profound. If for any reason, you don’t understand what was just said to you, drop a “So desu ne” and it will work.

Example of appropriate use cases: Someone says literally anything; however, it is perhaps most appropriate to impart a sense of finality on the discussion. Can be anything from “I enjoy ice cream” to “The President is a terrible person and I’m chronically depressed because of it.”

P.S: If you don’t know how to pronounce these phrases, maybe look up Japanese phonetics? It’s not that complicated. I mean, it only took me a few years. Simple.

Why did you come back?

No one has said this to me in an accusatory tone…yet. It sounds similar to the other question, “Why did you leave Japan”. However, someone pointed out to me that it’s not the same at all. I could have gone anywhere in the world after Japan. I chose to go back to North Carolina. Why?

Before I came back I took a long trip across the country on the train. Partly because it was a little cheaper than a direct flight back and mostly because it seemed romantic. The truth is it was a little like riding in business class of an airplane for about 60 hours. It gave me time to decompress. I felt this would be a good idea since I had no idea what I would be doing with my life once I got back. Still don’t by the way.

I’m going to save a true description of my trip for another article, but it was a positive experience for sure. I got to experience four of my county’s most famous cities. L.A, New York, Washington DC, and Boston. I had only ever been to NYC before and that was back when I was a child. Well, Long Island doesn’t count, does it?

L.A was my favorite but that might be a little unfair since I spent the most time in that city. I don’t know if I would have the patience to settle down there. I wouldn’t get the hang of the “make a U-turn just where ever” driving culture. The weather was tops though. Chicago was nice if cold but the current President tells me it’s a war zone so I probably shouldn’t stay there. NYC is just the American Tokyo which was nice for nostalgic reasons. Boston has a nice small town feeling but I don’t like seafood enough to make the best of it.

Jokes aside, any one of those places I could have been comfortable, job permitting. That turns out to be easier said than done. A lot of people make this jump with an employment plan already lined up. That’s the sensible thing. Not me though. I was sure I’d find something so why worry?

It turned out to be harder than I expected.

Maybe I could have gone to Europe, blend in better. I might want to keep that option open depending on how things go over here.

But nope, North Carolina for me. Why though?

There’s something to the call of the familiar. I talked about feeling disconnected from the culture, in Japan. For all its faults, I like being from North Carolina. It makes up a big part of who I am. People who knew me over in Japan know well my fierce opinion that there is only one true kind of BBQ. Pulled pork with a vinegar based sauce. We can respectfully disagree over the style of meat, brisket and the like. If we’re talking pork though, there can be no compromise.

It’s those kind of baked in ideas, even if they’re over something as silly as a meat sandwich, that I missed. I preferred tonkotsu ramen as any right-thinking individual would. However, I could never feel for it on the level of someone from Fukuoka where it is a specialty.

The feeling goes beyond food of course. What it boils down to is a sense of place and reputation. We humans are quite good at wrapping up our self-worth in what other people might identify us by. I want people to like vinegar sauced pork BBQ because it is delicious. It also represents where I’m from and my own identity. I searched long and hard for a quality pork sandwich in Tokyo not only because I wanted to eat one. I wanted to show my friends something that speaks to who I am.

I’m sticking with the food metaphor because it is a clever way to frame the real reason I came home. I have been troubled with the way my state has been acting politically. Being part of the South means you could hardly call us “progressive” but we were once doing well compared to our neighbors. That changed in only the last few years. Now, however, one party is taking out their frustrations at having been in the minority for so long on the other.

I’ll let you guess who.

What gets me upset is that these folks are doing massive damage to our reputation without any real gain. They do it to spite people they hate for reasons that often seem to hinge on “you did it to us too.” The worst part the bending of the rules and rigging the system to stay in power. When these folks fall out of power they try to strip away what they can. It’s depressing that people can act this way in a place that’s supposed to be known for “hospitality”.

We’ve made some gains. It’s going to be a long hard fight from here on out. When I moved back I hadn’t planned on it being like this. But I’m glad I’m here if only to add my own weak voice to the swell of resistance. Finding a reason for being somewhere is never easy. At least here in my home I have roots to trace.

Do you miss Japan?

My first instinct is to hate you.

Again, this is one of those questions that seems like a good idea. It is easy to come up with and most folks think it’s simple to answer. Do you miss your dead cat? Or whatever might be the proper emotional equivalent, say playing football in high school or attending college in a trendy city. Why do we ask people all the time this sort of thing?

Oh, you really enjoyed something? Do you regret not having it anymore? Come on.

That’s my first instinct because I enjoy lashing out at strawmen of my own creation. The reality is this is a hard question to answer. People want to hear it I think, because it represents something all humans must experience.

Loss. Even if we’re not consciously thinking about it we want to know how other people handle this painful fact of life. I’m by no means an expert on the subject, I have had to cope with relatively little loss on the grand scale. Won’t stop me from trying.

Of course, I miss things about Japan. For example, not having to drive anywhere. At least once a month I’m caught behind a massive accident on the idiotically planned road that gets me from town to my home. People drive like idiots. I’m frankly shocked at just how blasé people can be about these multi-ton death machines they’ve been given control over.

Shocking little oversite as well. All I had to do to renew my license after years of being away was a road sign identification test. Google cars can’t come fast enough for me to be honest.

I could go on forever about how much I hate driving. It would be easier to just point out when I enjoy it. During a sunny day on an empty straight road with good music playing. That’s it. Trains are their own type of drag but at least you can take a quick nap on your way somewhere. Try that while driving and see how well it works out for you.

The other day I watched a video of a train leaving the station just for the memories. Nothing interesting or special about it. Only the most basic arrival and departure imaginable.

I miss it. I miss the friends I made. The friendships I had and the ones I missed out on because they entered my life too near to my departure. I made friends in literal classes on how to be funny. Some of my best I met while seated in parks underneath a rain of flower petals. I also made friends in bars who invited me to their weddings after a few (hundred) drinks. Then I got to know their kids as they grew from a thought experiment into actual tiny humans.

Those people are 5000 miles away from me now.

I suppose this is a part of growing older. Life is fluid especially when it comes to human relationships. Even if you stay in one place for all of your life chances are a number of folks you grow close to will leave. Maybe they’ll be gone only a few years, maybe you’ll never see them again. Chances are good you’ll miss them.

Or maybe not. Maybe they were objectively terrible.

Plenty of people have written and will undoubtedly continue to write about all the things they miss about Japan. The food, how everything is designed to be cute, the earthquakes, trains. Just kidding, nobody likes that constant cuteness design aesthetic.

It’s easy to miss the things you can experience on a vacation. Like beer vending machines. The harder things are the ones that took years to build. Things you can’t see on a JR Rail Pass or experience thanks to a guidebook. And this isn’t just limited to Japan. However, the answer to your question is quite different depending on who you ask.

The vacationer can use it as an excuse to describe the wonders of their trip. For the lapsed expat, it just reminds them of everything they gave up for hope of a better life. The only consolation is it gets easier with time. You focus on your life and goals. Days, weeks, and years pass. You hold tight to the good memories. New people enter your orbit and the friendships can be just as strong.

Or maybe not. Such is life. Don’t worry about it.

Do you regret leaving?

Yes.

And no.

It’s complicated.

It’s too early to tell if I should regret leaving or not. Do I regret going to Japan in the first place? Not at all. I look back at all the good things in my life and they’re a result of my time in Japan. Even the things I gained here back at home are products of the person Japan molded me into.

This might come off as too simplistic but it’s impossible to know what my life would be like right now if I had stayed in Japan. The same goes for having stayed in North Carolina instead. What would my life be like if I had moved to California after college?

I think it’s important to ponder these questions. Dwelling too long on them is not likely to be healthy, however. In some ways, my time in Japan is more real than my life before leaving America. Is that strange to say? It’s hard to remember what I was like back then. I remember thinking I was too fat even though I weigh perhaps, thirty pounds more than when I was in college. I still think I’m too fat but at the same rate as before my time in Japan.

Drinking was a big part of college but it doesn’t come close to what I did in Japan. It’s been so long since I’ve had any alcohol it’s hard to remember what that was like. Not what it was like to be drunk mind you. I can still pull off a pretty decent imitation. Rather what it was like to be a drunk. Noun version instead of the adjective. I suppose the difference is just one of duration.

Often, I would look up at the skyline of Tokyo during sunset and pause. I would think “I’m in Japan” as if that was the greatest thing in the world and the culmination of all my ambitions. The problem was, that is exactly what it was. When I left, I had no other idea or plan except “Live in Japan” full stop. I think it’s similar for many foreigners who end up there. The expats who stay the longest can look up at that sky and think “I’m in Japan and…”

Finishing that thought is the hardest part of living there. I saw many of my friends pull it off. Many others couldn’t. Do I regret leaving? Still hard to say. I was missing that piece. I didn’t have anything solid I could point to as a life victory. Is failure simply the absence of success?

I hope not. I don’t like to think of myself as a failure. That played a big role in my hesitation. The idea of failing this great life experiment of mine called living in Japan. I confessed as much to my closest friend when I was first thinking about leaving.

He told me to flip the script. It’s not running from failure but towards opportunity. Just because it hasn’t shown itself doesn’t mean it isn’t just over the horizon. The best thing to do is to keep running. Trouble is metaphorical running is the hardest kind.

And I’m still so fat and out of shape.

Metaphorically speaking.

Shit…

Why Did You Leave?

People ask me this question and likely think they’re doing me a favor. Maybe I’m being too harsh. I suspect most people believe that the easiest question for them to come up with is also the easiest question for me to answer. The transitive power of inquiry or something like that.

The real question they’re asking is “Why did you decide to upend your life and start over from scratch?”

Much more difficult to answer.

To be fair, I’ve asked a similar question of the many people I’ve known who’ve also left Japan. “Why are you leaving?” It’s a common experience when you’re living abroad. People enter your life and the bond is strong due to the fact you’re both outsiders. Eventually, people leave. Not all, but many. I remember how impressed I was whenever I met someone who’d lived there for more than five years. The general consensus at the time was five years was the point of no return. A signpost signaling your last chance to escape. A lot of people heeded the warning and left before then. Many waited until much later or not at all.

For me it took nine years.

That’s not to say I gave myself any kind of ultimatum. Nine is just the number of years it took. When I left the US in 2007 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Still don’t. I had a degree in English that I had barely scraped together from the remnants of a failed Chemistry career. The Great Recession happened right after I left and Japan seemed like a good place to wait it out. Nine years later I woke up and realized nothing much had changed. It’s not a fun thought.

Tokyo is an amazing city. Safe, fantastic food, best public transit in the world, top notch art and nightlife. Living there is truly a joy. For a time. Nothing comes without drawbacks and living in Tokyo is expensive. I’ve recently discovered that many cities in the US are even more expensive, which comes as a shock. Still, if I had been better off financially I probably would have never left. Admitting that makes me sound so mercenary, going wherever the coin is best.

There’s a difference between greed and wanting stability.

I wasn’t able to care about anything other than “am I going to have enough money to make it this month”. That’s draining. Had I stuck it out another year I might have been able to get to that point of financial comfort. Things seemed to be heading in a positive direction. Not quite fast enough but it didn’t seem impossible.

So why did I give up only a little bit from the finish line? That’s trickier to explain. The metaphor I’ve come up with for the foreigner experience Japan is this.

Imagine a snow globe.

Inside it’s quite pretty and interesting when you shake things up. If you’re inside the globe though, there’s an invisible wall surrounding you. There’s only so far that you can go in any direction. Some people build themselves a bigger globe or a prettier village on the inside but there will always be this hidden limitation on everything you do. If I’m being honest that was what wore on me the most. Another friend of mine who left years ahead of me said something along the lines of he was tired of “being treated like an unwelcome guest.”

The dark secret of living in Japan is, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “house guests are like fish, after three days they begin to smell.” It’s hard to shake a similar feeling from Japan in general if you are a foreigner. It’s just the Japanese are too polite to grab you off the street and kick your ass out the door.

Like we do now in America.

Don’t get me wrong, just like everywhere in the world, the Japanese on a person to person basis are fantastic. I made many lifelong friends while over there that would’ve done anything to help me out. I would do the same in return. It’s just the pervasive feeling of not belonging that wore me down. I thought I might have better opportunities back in America, a completely non-unique thought.

Little did I know that I might be worthless to just about any employer since I haven’t participated in the economy for nearly a decade. Yes, I swear those companies on my resume exist. Yes, that’s a real phone number. No, I don’t have two years of office experience, I was a teacher. How hard can it be though?

Leaving Home

It’s been over a year since I left Japan to return to my home state of North Carolina. I haven’t taken much time to write about it yet, however. Not in a significant way at least. I’ve been avoiding it for sure. How do you sum up nearly a decade of life experience? How do you describe what it’s like to cut off that period of time and start over? It’s not easy and I doubt I’ll be able to succeed.

One good thing is every new person I meet is at least a little interested in my journey. Japan is still a weirdly exotic place for Americans. Probably due to the fact it can cost thousands of dollars and dozens of hours just to get there. New Zealand is the same in that regard, but Japan has that “mystery of the Orient” factor. People’s interest usually wanes once you reveal the big secret that Japan is a pretty normal place.

This fascination wears off rather quick. Interest seems to have an inverse relationship to how much I talk about Japan. Therefore, I try to keep my stories short and mysterious.

Everyone asks if I miss it. I do, of course. The other day I watched video of the Yamanote line leaving the station just because I was feeling homesick. All of my friends are over there. What friends I had here when I left went from college drinking buddies to responsible adults with houses and kids. It’s similar to idea about faster than light travel. Relativity or something. For my old friends the transition was a gradual one with all the normal milestones. For me it seemed to happen in a blink.

Of course, I probably seem different to them in the same way but I’m the one hot dropping back into their lives not the other way around.

While I was gone, they met and became friends with a whole new group of people. Now they have known these strangers for years. It’s hard not to feel like some sort of alien beaming down in the middle of all of that.

I should have expected this of course, human relationships are fluid and highly influenced by proximity. What depresses me the most right here in the moment, is knowing the same thing will happen to the friends I left behind.

The problem with travel is knowing that someday you’ll have to leave.

It’s not all bad though, because making new friends is fantastic. As long as they’re cool people and open to welcoming you in. Another difference that is hard to adjust to.

In Japan, being a foreigner is an ultimate icebreaker. Everyone is at least willing to give you a chance just to see what you bring to the table. Not to say Americans are cold, but I think there certainly is less willingness to add people into their circle of friendship. The flip side is of course it is harder in Japan to feel like a “part” of society if you are foreign. Everyone who comes to America (despite recent unpleasantness) has the capability of becoming one of “us”.

I’m just lucky I got in on the ground floor.

I’ve had trouble finding work. I have applied to about 40 jobs in the last month alone and easily the same number again since the start of the year. I’ve gotten exactly one call back and they never got back to me after the first interview. I’m not even over reaching to be honest. I suspect a lot of it has to do with all my work experience existing 14 time zones away. What little I’ve been able to do here in America only adds up to a few months.

Or maybe it’s because I’m too old. 34 is on the long end of the millennial wave and it’s hard to compete with someone 10 years younger than you that can do the same job. Career history is another thing I had to throw away along with 75% of my possessions when I left.

I guess that’s why I’m trying to write more. Plenty of people on the internet will tell you writing all the time is the magic elixir. Perhaps. It’s worth a shot at least.

It’s certainly easy.

I didn’t even mention how expensive it was to leave in the first place. I suppose the question I should ask is, do I regret it? Unfortunately, I don’t think I can answer that right now. I wasn’t happy in Japan. Would that have worked itself out if I had stuck around another year? Again, perhaps. Perhaps not.

Is there more success in my future here in America? Who can say? This is a topic I’m sure I’ll return to a lot over the course of my journey. One thing I can say is I don’t regret spending those years in Japan. They shaped me more than I could possibly say in a few hundred words. I guess that’s what life is, you steer the ship the best way you know how and enjoy the view.