Out of the Frying Pan …
“Douzo”, uttered the customs officer as he swiftly guided me into the proper line, the first Japanese word ever directed at yours truly. A brisk spring morning had turned into warm afternoon at Narita Airport, I was bleak and bleary-eyed among the sea of new arrivals. With no working cellphone and armed only with a Japanese phrasebook I searched frantically up and down the terminal for my escort. I rushed to the information desk and motioned for the intercom, but the clerks just smiled widely and shook their heads. In a fit of desperation, exhaustion, and hunger I yelled her name at the top of my lungs. Strike one, my first major faux-pas, and I had been on Japanese soil for less than six hours. Nevertheless a small figure emerged from the crowd.
Mio, my escort-savior was a godsend in every sense of the word. She happily took one of my overstocked suitcases in tow and paid the train fares. The barrage of new smells, signage, colourful wall-to-wall advertisements with strange pictograms , it was strangely (and briefly) invigorating. I fumbled through the phrasebook in search of smalltalk, but as we neared the city center the trains grew crowded, forcing us to separate. Cheerful automated teleprompter aside, the train cart was eerily silent. The passengers made no attempt to converse, heads bowed in what seemed a solemn vigil. I was so accustomed to the controlled chaos of the Montreal and New York City subways, this new quiet was alarming and awkward. Before I could rest my eyes, Mio nudged me in the ribs and motioned to hop off at the next stop.
We arrived at Inokashirakoen Station under cover of darkness, the Oakhouse manager waiting patiently in the moving van (we were two hours late), he laughed. “You look tired.” -. I suppose the expression is universal I had left Montreal in a different darkness, and as I sat atop my luggage I assessed my current temporal juxtaposition. The flight had traveled west, yet time now slingshot in the other direction, settling on a total travel time somewhere between forty hours and three weeks. We stepped out into the night air of what could have been literally Anywhere, Tokyo. After explaining the general lay of the land, the manager mercifully guided me towards the nearest mattress. I kissed Mio on both cheeks (the shock!) and slipped into coma.
Finding your Footing on the Other Side of the World
“Where am I!?” Is not uncommon to say or think when waking in a strange bed, but it was now a genuine concern. The course of events over the last few months suddenly seemed so slapdash and haphazard. At the start of 2015 I had given myself the ultimatum to either enter medical school or ‘finally do that Japan thing’. As a young lad I voraciously consumed anything ninja or samurai-related, keeping the ideal that Japan is nothing but bucolic mountainside complete with tatami mat houses and . Shinto shrines, or light-years ahead with robotic servants and self-driving flying cars Back home, my design business was spinning in circles ;. I had settled into a very comfortable little rut Montreal has such a wonderful abandon, with its bars, cafes, huge parks and general ‘laissez-faire’ attitude all neatly packaged within walking distance. I had been offered a job in Japan with a reputable ESL company in 2013, but quickly found that were I to ever make the move, it would be for a position with more autonomy.
Tokyo University of Technology’s Hachioji campus.
Through no effort of my own, I was contacted by Tokyo University of Technology, and one long Skype interview later had signed my life over to them for the next year. I had six weeks to surgically dismantle my Montreal life, rid myself of all earthly possessions, and find a place to call home for the next year. This would be my first time in Japan, with any information anecdotal at best. The concept of a Tokyo apartment was daunting because I knew nothing of the city, its geographical layout, or cultural hotspots. By leasing out a shoebox (what I would be able to afford after key money), being potentially ‘locked in’ to an area I disliked or would make my commute a nightmare could ruin the Tokyo experience entirely.
Pick a Direction and Start Walking
Sharehouses work because many of your co-inhabitants have struggled with that exact thought process, and found solace in uniting the effort (or diffusing it) under one roof, a ‘We’re in this mess together’ attitude. The price of admission are the sacrifices (and benefits) of communal living. Even if you are fiercely independent and covet your personal space like I do, the potential for cross-cultural interchange and reconciliation is boundless. On a much more humble scale, Tokyo is a monolithic mass of fourteen million, the sheer volume of humanity at any given moment can leave you feeling small and invisible. It is reassuring to come home to a familiar face and hear a warm “okaeri” (“welcome back”, roughly).
While sharehouses may be waystations for travelers from all walks of life, the constant influx of fresh faces keeps the group dynamic from growing stagnant. In most cases, there are a core group of ‘veterans’ who are ready and willing to help complete lost causes like myself. Become a veteran, and you will soon have a second family.
The first weeks were largely lost in a hazy, jet-lagged daze, slowly acclimatizing as I settled into a proper work and travel schedule. One of the lasting moments from that tenuous first month I was walking with a housemate through Inokashira Park, a horseshoe slice of heaven Cloven in Two by the Kando River, on the Tip That the local Donkihote (an Indispensable one-stop Shop) Could solve my Amenities problem.
Hanami in Inokashira Park.
It was only after my substantial purchases that I realized a grave overestimation of my conversion skills, having left Canada with $ 200 instead of $ 2000. It would be two very lean months, quite literally. On the return trip a very Japanese “Bonjourno! “Rang out amidst the perpetual hum of the crowd. The cherry blossoms were in bloom and the park completely covered by picnic blankets. An older Japanese man with a sake bottle in the one hand flagged me down with the other. He introduced himself only as ‘Chris’, despite his wife Aota and brother Takeshi.
“There’s no sake in Italy”, he remarked as he refilled my cup and Aota offered more sushi. Chris had not the least concern for my financial woes, only with making sure he had introduced the full spectrum of Asian booze. We drank through two life stories, occasionally interrupted by children who wanted to take photos with ‘the bearded man’. Looking back some months later, the afternoon seems trivial. Yet in that brief moment of despair, Chris and his motley crew meant the world.
As someone who has lived in many countries across the globe, Tokyo is and will remain a difficult place to exist in. Our Western notions of Japan and the Japanese people are utterly antiquated or misdirected, and an open dialogue needs to be established and maintained. I invite you to stick it out with me and our Oakhouse family as I write about Japan, daily life in the sharehouse, arts and events, and anything in-between.
Cheers for now.