Friday, October 30, 2009

Birthday treats and melting meats

There was no paid conversation to kick off the birthday festivities this year or coiffed men lighting my cigarettes with gold Cartier lighters; instead I opted for something a little more low key in a forgotten corner of Kagurazaka. There were a few things to navigate before being able to relax with my champagne, namely an old student I ran into while trying to navigate the cobblestones in 4-inch heels and not a lot of shoe. Why is Tokyo so frustratingly tiny sometimes? I used to do private lessons with said student to pay the bills when I was in school here and had just screened his calls a month or so back, thinking he was going to ask me out drinking. So I did the only acceptable thing, which was to turn on a mega-watt smile and gush about how great it is so see you, how are things, did I change my number? no, that's strange, maybe it was disconnected when I switched phone companies, anyhow, technology these days, do keep in touch!! Then there was the bar we went to with the impertinent slash creepy slash condescending man who decided to ask if I had just oh my god spoken English to the bartender, and then proceeded to strain his little neck to listen in on my English and Japanese conversations. He was definitely one of those looking-for-free-English-"conversation"- lessons types. After these minor hiccups though, I was free to enjoy the rest of my evening of conversation and bubbly (thanks friend!).

Apologies in advance to you herbivores, but I have to talk about the sukiyaki I had for my birthday dinner. The beau took me to Daruma in Azabu-juban, it was the second time we had been there in three years. Part of it's the money, but it's mostly the fact that you just can't eat meat that good on a regular basis or it will spoil you for life. I may have said it before, but it's worth saying again: I used to think that chocolate was the only thing that should melt in one's mouth but that was before I discovered thinly cut wagyu. I don't even consider myself much of a carnivore, eating meat maybe once or twice a week but damn. was. this. sukiyaki. dreamy. It goes without saying that the veggies and tofu were also delish.

Daruma is a bit of a deceptive restaurant and there seem to be a lot of them in Tokyo. It's neither overly Japanese or Western looking, simple and clean, but at first glance you would definitely not think "expensive" or even "melty meat." Then you open the menu and see the sukiyaki courses starting at 8000 yen per person (which frankly isn't that bad when you factor in other restaurants and the meltiness) and ebi tempura for 1800 yen. Or you could not even read the menu and just turn your attention to all the white space. A sparse-looking menu with lots of empty space surrounding a few artfully painted Japanese characters also spells "pricey," just not with a P R I C E or Y. The waitresses in kimono might have tipped you off too, although I've been to some pretty cheap-and-nasty soba places with waitresses in kimono so it's not always a reliable clue. Alternatively, if you know something about expensive ceramics you would know to be very careful when navigating your ass around the large decorative plate perched on a low wooden shelf. I was even a bit mesmerized watching our waitress cook the sukiyaki for us at our table, nothing beats a woman skilled and graceful in the art of serving with chopsticks. The chef/owner also runs Anbai in the same neighbourhood, the himono (dried fish) restaurant I've mentioned before, and he popped by our table to say hello, in kimono no less, which he apparently wears every day. The beau, bless him, is no longer in his twenties but it reminded me of a line in an old Sex & the City episode: "Twenty-something guys always know the really important "B" people. Busboys, bouncers. Plus, they have cute butts." The beau does have a cute butt, and he does know all the important people - bartenders, chefs and designers. It certainly ensures good food and drink when we go out and is one of the (I would sometimes say few) perks of him working in the mizu shobai. But I digress as usual. "Understated elegance" I guess you could call it, and the service is truly seamless.

I suppose some would feel cheated out of their money dropping cash at a place like Daruma, where there is no feeling of glamour or views of Tokyo Tower, just quiet and understated good quality, but it was nice for a change to feel tucked away from it all. The razzle dazzle came a few hours later at the Maduro lounge bar at the Hyatt in Roppongi Hills. I believe the description on their website says it all: a luxuriously appointed bar, dramatically accessed over a bridge spanning a pond. Oooh, appointed. They have a live jazz band every night and a very charismatic singer on Sundays, I couldn't take my eyes off her! If you are looking for a dark and sexy rendezvous, one of the corners of this spacious lounge would be a good place to start. We considered going to the NY Bar in the Shinjuku Park Hyatt (aka bar from Lost in Translation), which is aaallll class and has a Tower view if I recall, but opted for somewhere we hadn't been yet.

It was really the birthday date of dates but I would be remiss in neglecting to mention that I tried out for the role of "Japanese princess" earlier that day while shopping in Ginza. Living close by I often walk around Ginza but rarely go inside the stores, I don't see much of a point in lusting after stuff I can't afford, but that day I found myself trying to wipe the smug look off my face when exiting the boutique of a European designer with a large white paper shopper swinging from my shoulder. So this is what it feels like, I thought, savour the moment because you likely won't have one like it for at least another year. I half-expected a mob to come down the street throwing stones and shouting Label Whore!! Consumerist Pig!! but it was just as peaceful on the street as it was when I walked in twenty minutes earlier, a luxury bag neophyte. I even resisted the urge to squeal and clap my hands together like a small child when the white-gloved shop assistance handed me the bag. Not bad, not bad at all.

Postcard from the Kaisha: Health Edition

To don or not to don, what is the general consensus people? I don't think I would be caught in public wearing a sick mask even if I had Ebola, but with my new desk mates at the Kaisha I admit I've been giving some thought to wearing a mask while at my desk. Obviously not all the time (I'm not so paranoid that I think they are deathly afraid of my foreign germs), only when I have a cold like today. Unfortunately I can't run away from my desk every time I cough and there is no such thing as "sick days" so I am left to cough and generally make a racket when I have a cold. I'm sure my desk mates are recoiling inside their heads (AGH! It's godzirra with swine flu!!!). These are women who hang up the phone receiver without making a noise, in fact, they hardly make any noise at all. I feel guilty for clearing my throat, how ridiculous is that? You can imagine how red my face gets when I accidentally bang my knee against the metal cabinet under my desk, which sends the noise of impact thundering through the office. It's so silly you just have to laugh sometimes. In what universe am I when I have to worry about the sound of my purse zipper or whether other women can hear me peeing when I am in the bathroom, the designated place for such activity. I mentioned the sound princess to my parents the other day on the phone and they were howling with laughter at the thought. You can imagine how free I felt in NYC last month, where I peed with reckless abandon.

In other news, I got totally passed over on an omiyage round yesterday. Someone came and gave out omiyage to the two secretaries who are (still) sitting within spitting distance from me and then magically disappeared around the filing cabinet without making a stop at my ghetto station. What manners, who raised these women?!

Just to round it all off, this morning I decided not to pump the "close" button on the elevator as it was early and there were only a couple others in the elevator with me and what do you know? Some uppity bitch standing behind me decides to usurp me as Button Bitch-apparent and reaches over my shoulder to press the button. If that wasn't enough (and by that I mean the mini daggers coming out of my eyes), when she got off with two others, she let them off first and then proceeded to press the "open" button for as long as possible (over my shoulder) while trying to snake out the door at the same time (my neck is in the middle there somewhere). The sheer physics of it are exhausting. I am trying really hard, I am, to think vanilla cupcake thoughts and be in a place where I am more enamored with Tokyo than not, but these people are making it really hard.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Great Expectations

I went by my old language school today to order some transcripts and found my eyes starting to sting with tears as we neared the station. If I had to put my finger on it I wouldn't call it nostalgia, it was much more like getting a whiff of a smell that you associate with unhappiness or anxiety. I immediately recalled the feelings of awkwardness I had going to school in the mornings and the unshakable feeling of loneliness that was so palpable I could roll it around on my tongue like my old piercing. Let me remind you that I was 22, not 6 at this time, and yet I still called my mom after school on that first day and cried to her. The school had turned out to be such an unforeseen disappoint for me on that first day and I was left wondering why I had just spent $7000 of hard-earned money on tuition for this school in Tokyo, where I had returned by myself to nothing and no one with an optimism fueled by fond memories of my exchange year at Waseda. I had gotten myself into a major year-long fuck up.

I chose this school on the basis that it would hook me up with a one-year visa (very few language schools will do this), it is rigorous and everything is taught in Japanese and most importantly perhaps, an African guy I was "involved" with and his friends had gone through this school and ended up in university and graduate school in Japan in Japanese. As an exchange student at Waseda I had yet to see any non-Asian foreigners that had mastered Japanese and seeing this group of cool guys from Senegal, Kenya and Malawi doing university courses as regular students impressed the hell out of me at the time. Actually, I recall thinking it was impressive that they could banter with the bronzed Japanese girls who hang out at First Kitchen on Center-gai in Shibuya after clubbing all night. If I had had a menu in front of me I would have said I'll have what they're having.

As with everything here in Japan, I had to send this school everything short of a vial of my blood for inspection and their application process made it extremely difficult to apply as a private individual (many students are sponsored or on government scholarships). Possibly as a result of the make-up of its student body, there is sparse information online and the school itself offers very little concrete information on timetables, rules, courses, etc. until you physically show up to the school to register before the year begins.

The first day I showed up for the placement test I was a little nonplussed by the third-world squatting toilets and sparse hallways. "We're not at Waseda anymore, Toto," I thought. I did however, hold back my final judgment, saving that for the first day of school when I later went crying to my mom. Maybe I just haven't seen the whole school yet. Maybe this isn't the whole student body. I repeated these assurances to myself as I walked to the train station after the test was over.

The first day of school confirmed my suspicions; I arrived to stares far past a length that could be deemed polite and giggled whispers. There were no North Americans, no Europeans. I was being gawked at by students from Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Laos and Turkey. It felt at that moment that every culture on the globe was represented at this school except for mine. Oh that's right, there was me. It wasn't just a cultural thing though, a lot of these students had never left home before, many had yet to enter university and I had arrived back in Japan to pick up where I left off at university. Clubbing in Shibuya, I believe it was. Possibly hard to believe, but I'll add "difference in maturity levels" into the mix.

Today I left the school to stares I've long since blocked out, and comments. The comments were a first. I don't speak Arabic but paraphrasing from the looks, nudges and tone with which they were said, I'd say the comments were along the lines of look at that hot mama.

I did become friends with some of my classmates but we never met up outside of class. Explaining concepts like gay marriage and affirmative action turned out to be a lesson in my own cultural history and arguing with people in my class that a woman dressed sexily doesn't mean she's asking for it wasn't something I had come to Japan to accomplish.

Lunch time was the worst. At the beginning I somehow found myself eating with a quiet girl from China whose Japanese I couldn't understand because she wouldn't open her mouth wide enough so I ended up preferring to be alone rather than force conversation. I had too much pride and would have been mortified going up to random people and asking to have lunch with them. I even lied to my friends in class when asked what I did for lunch. To avoid a piteous stare on these occasions I gave vague answers like "met up with a friend" or "had to do some errands." In retrospect how easy it would have been to swallow my pride and allow myself to enjoy connecting with another human, even if not on the level I would prefer, to balance out the cramp-inducing fear I had of being called on to read in class and not knowing how to pronounce the kanji. As I walked through the clustered residential streets on my way to the school today, I recognized the narrow lanes I would walk down at a geriatric pace, if only to make lunchtime feel shorter than it was. I would never allow myself to be seen eating alone so I would either hide in the library and scarf something down, inhale chocolate along said narrow lanes or sneak an onigiri between the warning bell signalling the end of lunch and that telling us class had started. How do you say social eating issues in Japanese?

I craved friendship that year. If asked by people how my year at the language school was, I am hard-pressed to come up with anything more descriptive than "scary." I had come back to Tokyo knowing that there was no one left from the previous year but confident I would start again at this new school, build a new group of similar-minded friends and go from there. When faced with the impossibility of this, I completely shut down, and became unable to create a Plan B. After three years of an extremely sporadic social life, at this point it seems laughably easy to have walked up to people at the School and ask them to have lunch. At that time I preferred to hide in the streets surrounding the School rather than risk looking like a loser. Now I tell people that I am a loser, but only because I don't know how else to explain my non-existent social network of people after three years here without seeming troubled. People laugh it off or think I'm being modest but I have had an extremely hard time building up any kind of network of people here and I trace the beginnings of it back the the School, followed by the Kaisha where I am the Lonely Whitie as you know, with nary a chance of meeting other foreign females.

I have eventually learned however, to not worry so much about what others think of me and to stop analyzing conversations and situations to try and figure out why someone hasn't pursued me as a friend. I can't stand "networking" so that's not really an option for me in Tokyo. On the occasion I meet someone who seems cool I will not feel weird asking for their contact info and seeing if they want to hang out, something that would have been hard for me when I was at the School. Often, however, people are busy with their own established lives and don't have time or motivation to go out of their way to include you in that, which sometimes is disappointing.

Last year at this time I was stomping around Kabukicho with the Cowgirl and Other Whitie, and I am truly grateful to have met them and had the chance to pass the time with them in this frenetic city. As the Japanese know, all good things do pass, and both of them are now off in pursuit of new things. So here I am, looking into the window of my 26th year and hoping that it's a little less lonely, with a little more laughter shared with friends. I have big plans for this year and am excited to get started. I hope those of you here in Japan do not feel alone, or if you do, that you feel a bit more encouraged to go out and find some people to share your time with. As for the School, I haven't finished discussing it, and you can look forward to the second installment of this which will include stories of my part-time job where I took my clothes off for money but not as a stripper. Till then gentle readers, have a drink this weekend for me!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Is that your elbow in my cheek or are you just...

Happy October gentle readers. I have outstanding emails and comments to attend to, I know, but I wanted to get this off and out before we hit November. I've a couple excuses for my laxness, starting with a trip to NYC to prop up the economy with shopping dollars. That and to be very bad and eat toasted salt bagels every morning. And to go to dark bars where they play honky-tonk music and you have to ring a doorbell to get in. I think I understand now why some people never leave the island. Manhattan that is, not Honshu. Tell me, where else will a complete stranger say "God bless you, beautiful" when you walk past them in the street? In Tokyo the best I can hope for is a guy from Nigeria on the main strip in Roppongi calling me "baby" and telling me I can get a free shot of tequila at his bar down the block. That or a host with spun candy-floss hair telling me that I can learn all about Japanese culture if I allow myself to be fixed drinks at his club.

I then had a case of jetlag and by case I mean I felt like I was carrying a suitcase full of sumo wrestlers through water. This was promptly followed by a stye, from which the only relief I got was when the Cowgirl suggested I rub my stink eye with my hand before handing each secretary on my floor her NYC omiyage chocolate. And speaking of omiyage who do you think has an almost full bag of mini chocolates on her desk right now? I always feel so pumped about omiyage-giving when I'm on holiday, daydreaming on the plane home about all the new friends I'll make after I just pass them out on my floor. Reality hits when I arrive back to work, my secretary refuses to acknowledge my existence and the whole omiyage goodwill flies back to the US where it came from. Yes, I am in omiyage hiding at the moment. Pretty soon it will be far too late to hand them out and they will end up in the trash. Or I will conduct a ritual burning of them.

But like I was saying, Happy October. There is plenty to love about my birth month: Halloween, miniature Hershey's chocolates, the smell of fall and the Tokyo International Film Festival. One thing I will not include in this list however, is the little devil's pitchfork the guy is using in this month's poster to shovel instant ramen into his mouth. Does the Lichtenstein-esque graphic nature of this poster prevent the depiction of chopsticks? Is it a coy nod to Halloween? I will give them this though: the raised eyebrow and hunched shoulder poise captures that of a Japanese man sucking back hot ramen or soba perfectly. I hear that some foreigners here are put off by the requisite sound of this; I on the other hand think it's a beautiful thing. I should qualify that by saying that some nasty old salarymen doing it is not so beautiful but the first time I saw the beau eating ramen was quite possibly the moment I fell in love. He is a champ at the ramen/soba slurp and makes it look so delicious! Plus watching him brought back memories of watching Tampopo when I was 5 with my parents. If only my 5-year old self had known that watching Tampopo would set off a mysterious chain of events that would one day lead me to my own ramen slurper.

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