July 25-29, 2016: Maid Cafes and Frog Izakayas

So another week, another set of students. It is taxing to cycle through students so quickly. Once you start to like them, you’re on to a new group. And unless you exchange Line IDs, you’ll probably never hear from them again. I don’t know if any students will ever match up to Jumpei and Yuka. But alas, this week Paige, Emma and I had three students: Tsugumi, Miki and Ryosuke. And they’re great too. Ryosuke has a pencil case with a fake piece of fish attached to the zipper because there is a whole fake food industry here. Miki is hilarious. She just gives me this blank stare like “what the hell language are you speaking?” She sometimes uses Japanese as a crutch, making comments and asking questions to Tsugumi. But Paige says she isn’t saying difficult things. She understands Japanese and she says Miki’s comments are really funny in Japanese too.

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So all of the interns go to the convenience store and buy the big 100 yen 2 liter bottle of water because it’s cheaper than buying 1 liter and there are no water fountains anywhere. So the water in my usual metal water bottle is never enough for the day. It is kind of a pain carrying a 2 liter bottle, but it’s worth it for water. But all the Japanese people laugh at us. At first, it didn’t occur to me why it was funny. But I guess if I was in the US and someone was drinking straight from a gallon of water (and carrying it around), that’d be kind of weird.

For lunch, I went to a cheap conveyer belt sushi place with Blaire and Bri. I actually had kaiten sushi 3 times this week cause it’s fast and relatively cheap and easy. You just grab the plate right from the conveyor belt. You don’t have to wait to order or anything. You can start eating right away. And the best part about this place is almost all of the plates are the same price. So I don’t have to worry about distinguishing between the colors and prices, because that’s usually the hardest part for me since I’m color blind. At one place, I had a chunk of rice wrapped in bacon or ham. And it was darn good.

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And I’m not quite done commenting on the toilets. So the seats are sometimes heated. But they’re not just lightly heated, they’re like burning hot. And maybe there’s a setting to change the temperature, but it’s not like I can read it. And when it is heated, it is always super uncomfortably hot. Not like a gross warm, more like a scorching hot.

After work, I met Miki (not my student) for okonomiyaki. It is kind of like a pancake with stuff in it, but the texture of a pancake isn’t really accurate. I think there’s a little bit of batter, but it’s mostly cabbage and other vegetables. Pancake really just describes the shape. Because you’re given all the ingredients in a bowl and then you mash it up and mix it and dump it on the skillet and cook it at your table. You shape it and flip it and dress it in sauce and fish flakes and mayonnaise. There’s another version that’s gooier and waterier. It doesn’t really retain its shape. It actually looks kind of gross, but I enjoyed this (primarily) vegetable dish more than I thought I would.

I walked around my neighborhood looking for Pokemon unsuccessfully. This game is way too addicting. I almost left my house to catch a Venasaur. But I realized I was lazier than I was good at Pokemon Go.

So after the first day of all my students bringing bento to school, they got more comfortable with us and we went out to lunch together. It certainly helps to have Japanese people at restaurants. We went to a ramen place and they really started to open up to us. It’s a good idea to eat with our students. Ryosuke didn’t come out Tuesday, but he joined us the rest of the week. And I was such a proud teacher when we went out on Friday, and the three of them were all chummy with each other. I was a little worried at first that the two girls were good friends and they were kind of leaving out Ryosuke, but they all got along. That’s all I want. I just want them to be friends. On Wednesday, Tsugumi brought us to 3rd Burger. It is apparently a fashionable burger chain. It’s like their Shake Shack (speaking of, I found a new Shake Shack in Ebisu!—I gotta try it). I spent a lot more than I was intending, but I chalk it off to the language barrier. The burger had wasabi in it, which was good but highly unexpected. I wasn’t ready for the spice. I also had a banana smoothie that reminded me of the kind of smoothies you get at Gray’s Papaya or something. Also the décor was very American modern with the wooden panels and dangling lights. On Thursday, we went back to my favorite spot in Tokyo—the unlimited naan restaurant. They do curry but the main part of the dish is the naan, which is divine. It is so soft and fluffy. It might just be the best naan I’ve ever had. And I brought my students there and I ate two pieces of naan myself. I think they bet that the Japanese clientele are too polite to ask for more, but we Americans are not embarrassed to eat. On Friday, we were looking for the make-your-own udon place but we couldn’t find it. Instead we let Miki lead us around in a circle to get some pork katsu.

I went to a big bookstore with Paige and Lucia. It was enormous. There were 10 floors in this bookstore and it was just full of books I couldn’t read. But it was cool to see nonetheless. They have entire floors devoted to manga. Manga is huge here, obviously. And they shrink wrap them too, ostensibly for freshness but probably to prevent you from reading them in the store. We went to a store in Akihabara too full of books and merchandise from manga. And I know that’s the souvenirs that people actually want but I’m not really familiar enough with the new manga to know what’s what and what’s good.

I went to Japanese class on Monday, and it was a little better than our two-person class last week because Lucia showed up this week. We stopped meeting in that community center since there was so few of us. We went to the Come on Up office, which was actually a small house converted into an office. It is in Ebisu, which is a trendy sector of Tokyo. The place was quite a walk from the station down a very steep hill. Actually, not all the way down, kind of awkwardly in the middle of the hill and then the entrance was not on the street. We had to walk down someone’s driveway to get to the entrance of this house. Class was very good again. But she was going to test us on Thursday and I didn’t go on Thursday. Partly because there was a test but really because I had made other plans. I realize now that I’m quickly running out of time to do everything that I wanted to do in Tokyo. So I really need to utilize my time after work.

After class, Sean and I went to dinner with Yoshimi sensei. We went to an izakaya in Ebisu. So since the restaurants are mostly not on the ground floor, they need people out on the street to get your attention and show you a menu and herd you to their establishments (not to be mistaken for the guys trying to get you to go to their brothels). What I didn’t know before was that you can negotiate with them (if you speak the language). Yoshimi sensei got us 15% off. Now we ordered some bizarre foods. Yoshimi sensei likes to eat chicken sashimi, which is literally what is sounds like: raw chicken. I don’t know how that is a dish, because I always thought you couldn’t eat raw chicken cause salmonella? But we got it and I ate it and it tasted exactly like raw chicken would. The texture was like raw chicken and it was raw chicken…She also ordered fried chicken bones. They’re soft bones and cartilage deep fried. And when you bite into it, you can actually feel your teeth biting through bone. It was really weird and I didn’t like feeling bones in my teeth. But it was great hanging out with Yoshimi sensei. It was a lot of fun and she shrieked really loud in a high pitch when she found out how young we were. She was so much older than we guessed. Japanese people all look so much younger than they actually are. Is it the humidity? Does that keep their skin nice and plump? Is there something in the water? She literally looks half her age.

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Wednesday morning, I was running a little late because, well, sometimes I’m late. On my way out, I ran into Haru, who lives on the first floor. We had one run-in before when he was coming home early in the morning but this was our first formal meeting. He spoke perfect English having studied sociology at UCLA. So we had a nice chat for a little bit. He was very nice to me. He is a sushi chef at a restaurant in Roppongi and he invited me to eat at his restaurant for free. He told me the name of the restaurant, and I have since forgotten the name, so it may never happen. I was also running late because there were delays on the train. Usually, my line is very good. There are certain lines that usually have delays but I usually have pretty good luck.

At work, we had a furious debate among the interns about how to best teach the students. And I just sat there silently because I don’t really care what other people do since I’m just going to do my own thing anyways. And I also, because my teaching method is obviously the best. But this lasted a solid unnecessary 45 minutes. Some people, the usual people, were more vocal than others.

And Wednesday was Darin’s 21st birthday! So we went for drinks after work, not that we really needed his birthday as an excuse to do that. We really just did what we normally do (part of the reason there’s still so many sights I haven’t gotten to yet). The drinking culture is such here that there is almost an expectation that you will go to drinks after work with your co-workers. I suppose that makes it less of an enjoyable activity and more like more work. But anyways, naturally we went to our usual British pub chain in Japan for happy hour and a big group of us hung out there for a few hours. And afterwards, I smelled like smoke because everyone smokes indoors here. In that way, it’s as bad here as in France.

Afterwards, I made a detour in Shibuya to take some pictures of the famous crossing, allegedly the busiest most crowded street in the world. Here they don’t just cross the street along the four sides of the street, but you can also cut diagonally across. So there is just a scramble of people shuffling across the street. I went up the Starbucks to try to get a good view. There weren’t that many people though on a Wednesday night. I also learned about Hachiko from Matt. Hachiko is a dog that has a statue in Shibuya. He is a common meeting point. Apparently, his master was a professor and the dog met him at the station every day to walk him home from work. But one day he died at work, and the dog kept returning to the station everyday afterwards until he died too. It’s a story about loyalty, which the Japanese greatly appreciate.

And I had to do laundry when I got home. Since my clothes never dried last time when I hung them outside, I improvised a way to hang them in my room over the rods in my closet and hanging over my closet doors. It was kind of ratchet, but I could leave them there all day and they eventually dried. Though they get all hard and I hate that.

I also had to buy shampoo because I ran out. And I bought a bottle that said shampoo and I couldn’t read anything else on the bottle. Little did I know, that there is menthol in this shampoo. It feels like putting that Chinese you in your hair. It burns and it doesn’t necessarily feel bad, but entirely unexpected. It was super weird. The website says it is a cooling effect, but it’s really more like a burn. I don’t know whose genius idea it was to put menthol in shampoo but washing it off my head, it runs over my body and then makes my body burn too. I try not to get it in my eyes, but it’s hard not to. Not a great purchase, but I can deal with it.

Now Thursday was probably the strangest day I’ve had yet. David, Paige, Lucia and I went to a maid café in Akihabara. It was recommended by Chika. Well, not exactly, recommended but she has been there before. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had. The whole concept is kind of creepy and uncomfortable. You’re basically waited on by cutesy girls in maid outfits and they call you master and they kneel at the table to serve you. And all the servitude is balanced out by cutesiness. They draw pictures on your latte and the foods all have faces drawn on them. You can pay to take a picture with a maid of your choice, or you can play a game (like rock ‘em sock ‘em robots) with them. But you have to pay extra for premium, or super premium maids. Or an extra 400 yen for the queen maid. None of them were there that day. I think you have to call in advance to request your favorite premium maid. You have to add cute power to your food when you get it by making a heart shape with your hands and yelling “mui mui kyuu.” I don’t know how anyone ever came up with this concept but they are numerous and popular. There were some couples in there and then it just looked like friends out to a café. Japan is this land of contradictions: it is a society that values conformity and strongly discourages rocking the boat and yet there exist these widely accepted, very niche cultures. I am now officially a certified master.

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And as if the night couldn’t get any weirder, Matt took us to his favorite spot: Kagaya in Shimbashi. He sent us to the wrong address twice on opposite ends of the neighborhood, much to our chagrin, but we eventually made it late. We were the last customers of the night. It is an izakaya where the waiter is also the chef and the entertainment. There is this old Japanese man that puts on a dirty puppet show where he dresses up like a frog and attacks everyone with his stuffed frog. The man has an insanely high pitched acting voice. Matt has been here several times, and there are 6-9 different bits that this guy does. They’re all hilarious apparently. Matt is a regular and he has seen them all by now. You pick a country when you order and he does a different bit based on what country you choose. Oh, and when you order you have to sing your order. So Paige, with her musical theater background belted out our order. The menu is hilariously written in crayon. The food was actually quite good, despite being vegetarian. But it’s really not about the food, it’s the experience being screamed at by an old Japanese man. This place once got a write-up by CNN, but it’s a really low key place in a basement.

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I also had to look for something to get my host family. I’ll be staying with a host family for one week in Osaka. Chika recommended Tokyo Banana, which is a typical famous Tokyo souvenir sponge cake filled with banana custard. They are located everywhere in the train stations, but it’s difficult to find where exactly they are because the train stations are huge. Shinjuku station is, in fact, the busiest in the world. I wandered around before work and found it eventually. But they weren’t open yet. They were also located next to a Paul, which was very unexpected. They’re everywhere in France, but I didn’t know they were in Japan too.

So my students gave their final presentations today about their life missions and I couldn’t be prouder. They gave the best presentations of the whole group, in my unbiased opinion. I was so impressed. Ryosuke volunteered to give his speech about his love of music. It was kind of poetic how he described the perfect combination of music and visuals. He told everyone that he loved the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. All the interns cheered him on for his good taste. Tsugumi gave a really complex speech about modern globalization in comparison to Matthew Perry’s opening up of Japan. She was so knowledgeable about Japanese history. And then Miki brought the house down with her funny speech about her love of astrophysics. She went up there and said “Hi, I’m Miki. I’m really nervous.” But they all slayed. To be quite honest, some of these other presentations were boring. There are so many of them and we listen to them all afternoon, but my students were fantastic.

For dinner, we went to Korea town. Because there is a Korea town everywhere. We had difficulty finding a place to fit us all but we eventually found one. And it was a fiasco. We ordered 7 portions of BBQ and they brought out three plates. Little did we know they brought out two portions per plate and three portions on the last plate. But they didn’t look very big so we passed them down and people ate two portions as if it was one and then some people didn’t eat at all. It was really confusing. So what ended up happening was we went out for a second dinner at a different restaurant. We had Korean fried chicken, which was so good. It was drenched in this sweet spicy sauce. Thankfully, Selah was with us. She used her Korean skills, which is more useful than having Japanese in a Korean restaurant.

Now as I write this, I’m sitting on the Shinkansen bullet train on my way to Osaka. I have lots of leg room. My seat reclines far back. And the train is extremely fast and quiet and smooth. This is traveling in style with the beautiful countryside rushing past us and the other bullet trains speeding in our direction right next to my head rested on the window.

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