Charles, The Friendly Giant

Ok, let’s be clear: I’m absurdly behind on this blog, having been a bit behind on the last entry, which was 3.5 weeks ago.  I have little defense.  Partly, it’s been because I was doing things, not writing about them. And when I wasn’t doing things, I wanted to relax from doing, into familiar pastimes like Twitter, Youtube, reading, anime, etc.  And, when you start off your mornings (the only time of day you’re in sync with American friends and fellow ESO players) kneeling/sitting at a low Japanese tables for a few hours, catching up on email and Twitter and playing ESO, the discomfort in your legs can really kill the enthusiasm to continue to sit there and write for hours more.  Assuming my internet worked, which it doesn’t always, where I’m staying now (yet another blog editing barrier).

So, I’m going to try to knuckle down here and try to get current, and to do that I’m going to resort to the twin evils of summary and omission. If I can flesh in details later, in subsequent posts — “Hey, remember when I said X? Here’s how X played out.” — I’ll do so.  Otherwise, infinitely entertaining details will simply be lost to the mists of time, like when you have to skip over hundreds of Twitter posts because you just don’t have time to read them.  Painful, yes, but sometimes there’s just no other way to catch up.

Staying at Kenta’s, a short distance away from downtown Sapporo, was really terrific.  I was there for 2 weeks, went with Kenta to the baseball game, to dinner a couple of times, and to a proper Japanese onsen (public bath) at a hot springs.  The bathing thing was a bit awkward, but not because I was bothered by nudity amongst strangers — when everyone is doing it, it’s not weird. But because Kenta — despite his many other virtues — is not a great explainer.  He didn’t mention that my forearm tattoo was a problem until we got there, but assured me that if I covered it until I got past the front desk I’d be fine, and I was. (I’d heard of this before, but forgotten it. Many onsen forbid people with tattoos, to keep out yakuza (gangsters).)  Then, once inside, he left me a couple of times, and the language barrier got in the way of me realizing that he was going on to the next step, so I’d end up hanging out in the prior step waaaay longer waiting for him to come back until I realized he wasn’t.  And details of the process, like what to do with your towel, or whether I should grab the little basket of toiletries Kenta had left behind when I moved to the next step, or what to do with it when I got there, made some parts of this super awkward and uncertain.  That I was the only Westerner in the bath made me exactly as aware of being a center of attention as I expected, but that didn’t bother me.  It was the awkwardness of those unclear steps that was painful.  That said, it was still a good time, and the next time I’ll know what to do, so yaay learning experiences.

This might be a good time to mention that, I’m finding I’m super comfortable being the only Westerner in places.  It would be nice to speak the language, of course, but that thing where you know everyone’s attention is on you because you’re different?  It’s kind of relaxing to be in a place where that’s absolute Truth, and not just what my mind is projecting at everyone around me.  As a narcissist with a streak of self-consciousness, I know that I’m the center of the universe and I assume that everyone I pass is noticing me (and not always with approval).  Here, I can just accept that as my just due, and bask in the glow of the common reality shared with those around me.  Mind you, the Japanese are very discrete about noticing you — at least, that’s been my experience.  I started to see more looks when I wore sunglasses and they couldn’t see me looking at them looking at me.  And when I moved out from Sapporo proper to the fishing community between it and Otaru (basically the Sapporo suburbs), I got more open looks; it’s hardly rural, but it’s more country than the central city and so folks are less reserved.  But I find myself smiling a lot about being noticed, in a kind of avuncular, empathetic, “Yeah, that’s right! I’m a gaijin (foreigner)! Glad I could enliven your day with my mere presence.”

And, of course, I can’t blame the Japanese for staring at us when I’m staring at us myself.  My attention rivets to the occasional passing Westerner, because we’re so unusual; and I exchange knowing nods with them whenever given the slightest opportunity.  And black people? Unusual squared!  I think I’ve seen 5 since I’ve been here, and I hesitated to stare because, gawds, how much of that must they get.  So, fair is fair.

And, of further course, I’m not just a white guy, I’m also tall, but it took me a while to realize it.  I’d heard that the Japanese were shorter, but I’m walking around and yeah there were many shorter people but there were many others who were my height or a little taller, and I was started to wonder if it was a bit of a myth, or if it was generational and improving nutrition was making younger people (since WWII) taller.  And I’d see giants amongst the Japanese, much taller than those around them and really standing out as a result.  But at a certain point I realized: the stand-out giants were basically my height, or, very occasionally, maybe 2 or 3 inches taller.  And in the US I’m average male height (a 1/2-inch over, if I haven’t shrunk with age, but that’s essentially average), so in the US there are lots of guys and a fair number of women taller than I am.  Here, I’m near the top of the curve.  It’s another case of a reaction gradually creeping up on you; “Yeah, there’s nothing unusual here, it’s just that the probability curve has changed.”

So, now I tromp about feeling like the friendly giant that everyone is staring at, and feeling pretty happy about it. 🙂

And, while we’re talking about physical proportions, the other day I was walking down the street and noticed the, erm, chest of a passing woman and for some reason I found myself staring (through my sunglasses).  It was odd, but something was attracting my attention about her bust, though it didn’t seem especially unusual.  Then I realized what it was: she had one.  That’s seems to put her in the top 5% around here.  The Japanese seem to exhibit less sexual dimorphism than Westerners, and while the women still tend to be smaller, the men and women are closer to having the same proportions.  You rarely see women with very wide hips or large breasts, and the men are rarely strapping and don’t sport much in the way of facial hair.  They all look more the same as each other than Europeans do.  I’d heard that this was true but, again, it took me a while to twig to it; no individual was unusual, but in aggregate they were very different than what you’re used to in America.  (This makes it even odder that so many Japanese geek statuettes have such exaggerated secondary sex characteristics. (View at your own risk.) They’re not modeling from anything like real life here. Or anywhere, really, but especially not here.)

Anyway, to get back to my Kenta stay, part of the pleasure of staying there wasn’t just Kenta, it was the other Airbnb guests.  The 4 French Kendo students left a few days after I arrived, which gave Kenta a chance to move back into his room, and the other room was soon taken by Viet Nguyen, an American (born in Vietnam, but in America since he was 16, most recently in Portland), who was a programmer for Redhat (a software company) traveling the world doing his work remotely.  (I mentioned him a couple of posts ago.)  And then he left to stay at a different place in Sapporo, and he was replaced by William, a Belgian who’d retired from programming a while ago and was working on a book about Japanese culture and some of its problems (which seemed a bit rude to me, given that he’s a visitor and that it’s not really in the spirit of embracing cultural differences, but it’s not like it’s an invalid subject).

William was there for a couple of weeks, and Viet and William crossed paths for some hours, as William arrived before Viet left, and we had some cool discussion time which continued a few days later.  Kenta had heard about an Airbnb-hosted Japanese Cultural Exchange thing, held in the TV Tower that I had already been to, and he’d suggested it to all of us, so we ended up meeting there.  It promised shamisen music and tea ceremony, and I didn’t expect anything much from it (it sounded like Japanese Culture 101, and I’m up to at least 306), but Kenta had gone to the trouble to suggest it and print out a page and I thought I ought to accept it and go.  I walked there with William, who mortified me by stopping in at a convenience store along the way and then eating while we walked.  “You don’t do that here!” my mind shrieked, as I futilely pretended not to know him.  “No, no, these two Westerners are simply strangers walking along the same bit of sidewalk, purely coincidental, don’t judge me by this uncouth lout!”  Later, William said that he’d gotten some dirty looks, and I said, “Sorry, that was me,”, to Viet’s amusement.

We met Viet in a conference room on the second floor of the tower, and were joined by an Australian (originally New Zealander) lady of about my age, a charming woman by the name of Barbara. We were also joined by a room full of Japanese people, because apparently this was not so much an informative cultural event as it was a presentation by a guy about how he performs Japanese cultural events around the world, mostly using PowerPoint, to Japanese people interested in learning about such a thing.  This might well have been fascinating to the Japanese people there, but was rather less so to the 4 of us.  About 1/2 an hour in, Barbara whispered to me, “Do you understand any of this?” and I whispered back, cheerfully, “Not a word.”  Then, to avoid a bunch of whispering, I typed her a note on my iPhone and passed it over to her: “The only thing more boring than someone reading from PowerPoint slides is someone reading from PowerPoint slides in a language you don’t understand.”  This must have hit it on the nose, because she cracked up and had to work to keep it silent.

The presentation lasted about an hour, the boredom (to us) only alleviated by the continual, gentle strumming of a shamisen by the presenter's partner.  It was nice, but I can't say that it helped us stay awake.

The presentation lasted about an hour, the boredom (to us) only alleviated by the continual, gentle strumming of a shamisen by the presenter’s partner. It was nice, but I can’t say that it helped us stay awake.

I had no trouble staying awake, but Barbara struggled a bit.  Viet did some work on his mobile and in a notebook (hey, he could have been taking notes on the presentation, how would they know?), and William took pictures with his large, loud camera (subtlety not really being his strong suit).

After an hour, it ended and we all applauded politely.  Then everyone stood and started milling about, and the 3 others asked, “What now?”  I asked one of the reception ladies — who turned out to be an Airbnb host and the friend of Kenta’s who’d told him about the Exchange — if there was anything else happening, and she said that there was a tea ceremony coming up shortly.  I reported this to our group, and we agreed that we didn’t need to stay for that.  (I’ve seen them, at times when the presenters spoke in English, so I didn’t need to stay for this one.)  We thanked Kenta’s friend, and departed.  Viet and William had decided to look into a camping trip and volcano visit that Viet was going to do and William might join him on, so they left to do that, and we promised to meet later for drinks.  Meanwhile, Barbara and I walked down Odori Park to the Hokkaido University’s botanical gardens, a fairly extensive park of carefully labeled trees, ponds, assorted pleasant vegetation, and butterflies in the trees.

Barbara was absolutely delightful; smart, amusing, laughed at my jokes, really everything I could want in a traveling companion (for the couple of hours that we traveled together).  She was some sort of urban noise analyst in Brisbane, visiting Japan for 3 weeks mostly to see her son, who was working in a “language cafe” in Sapporo.  We wandered about the Botanical Gardens, visited the tiny Ainu museum…. I think the Ainu themselves were large enough, but the room showing their artifacts to the public was just that: a single room with a nice set of display cases and dioramas, smelling of mothballs, enough to mention in a blog but not to write home about.  But it was a great time, partly because she was great company generally but also because it was the first time in ages that I’ve had really engaged, simpatico conversation in my own language!  Gods, it was such a relief!  To just let the language dance, with someone on the same wavelength; I’ve been missing that.

Sadly, Barbara had to leave by 4:30 to go meet her son — probably not so sad for her as it was for me, given that visiting the son was her reason for being here — so I walked her to a nearby subway station that I knew would take her where she wanted, and then hung out in Odori Park for a bit before going to meet Viet and William at a bar in the Shopping Arcade called TK6.  TK6 is a “gaijin bar”, owned by an Australian and frequented by foreigners (and Japanese also, of course).  The bartenders/waiters were an interesting mix.  There was a Japanese woman who might well have grown up in the US, given how minimal her accent was; an American woman who looked rather Japanese until you got a clear look at her, thanks to some deliberate artifice in her makeup; and a young American guy clearly of Japanese and Western descent.  Anyway, we had beer (they were out of Guinness but had a local stout beer called Yebisu that wasn’t bad) and food (the first proper hamburger I’d had in a while), and some good conversation and then Viet went one way and William and I the other, back to Kenta’s place.

I realize that I started this page saying that I was going to try to compress things down to catch up, and I really haven’t here, but this was one of several days that made me really appreciate Airbnb traveling. I’m meeting a great series of really interesting, fun people to hang out with, simply by virtue of us staying in the same Airbnb spaces.  It’s sooooo much better than staying in hotels by myself.  Where I stayed next, in a place on the outskirts of Sapporo near the beach, I got to hang out with Liu Nanfeng, a Chinese guy who’d been working as a chemical engineer in Japan for  years but was reluctantly going back to China in November (he was 31, and was finding his profession boring and had resigned to try to figure out what to do with his life) and we got along like gangbusters, taking trips into downtown Sapporo and into Otaru and having great conversation, I was sorry to see him go. (His English was great, in addition to his Japanese; a sharp guy.)  He and I met Viet at TK6 about a week or so after that first time at the bar, and Viet roped in an older Japanese guy that he knew who was also at the bar, and we had beer and food and then went to a large izakaya (basically, a Japanese pub) and had more food and sake and a great evening all around.  Liu left, sadly, after about 8 days, to go to a campsite elsewhere on Hokkaido, near fields famous for their lavender blossoms (which he was very focused on seeing), but then he came back for a day on his way to Tokyo, and we met the Airbnb host, Kazunari Suzuki, at the bar he works at in the evenings, for beer and burgers and more great conversation.  (I’ll meet Liu again when I’m in Tokyo next week.)  There were a couple of French-Canadian girls that I hardly spoke with but were nice, and there was a friendly Polish guy who worked in Sweden and had been in Sapporo all week for a science conference — though he was only at Kazunari’s place for a couple of days and seemed mostly interested in partying and getting laid, which seemed to work out for him.

And a couple of nights ago, Kazunari and his girlfriend were here and we had yakiniku — basically, they put an electric griddle on the coffee/dining table and you grab small pieces of meet, cook them, maybe dip them in something, and eat them.  I’d bought a nice sake, and it was all going well and then Spaniards arrived!  Three architects somewhere in their early 30s, taking an adhoc tour of Japan to look at buildings and staying at Kazunari’s other Airbnb place next door.  There was more meat, some terrible beer, even more sake, and then at some point Kazunari and his girlfriend bowed out, and I accompanied the Spaniards to the 7/11 to buy more beer (and other things, but don’t ask me what because my memory’s pretty hazy at this point).  Then we walked down to the beach, drank the terrible beer, I walked them home, and somehow made it back.  Whereupon I spent some indefinite amount of time bent over the toilet throwing up, then slept most of the next day (which was a blessing, because I was *not* in good shape).  It’s been a couple of years, at least, since I’ve drunk that much.  The Spaniards wanted me to go out with them that day, and in the evening for more beer, and I had to beg off; they left for Tokyo the next day, and I promised I’d send them my itinerary (and did), in case our path cross while we’re all still here.

I’m mostly a solitary creature, and I like that, but I do need people too, and when I had a job I had better balance.  People 4 days a week, and occasionally on the weekend, and my own time the rest of the time.  Now, it’s mostly just me; so the company of my fellow travelers is really what I need, when I can get it.  And it’s working out.  I’ve read others talking about the same phenomena, where you meet people on the road, have these really intense friendships (you already have some things in common, being travelers and maybe nomads), and then you’re gone, off to the next place and new people.  It’s like summer camp, but for adults.  (I was going to say for homeless people, but some of these folks have homes. But, still.)  So I’m unlikely to go back to hotels any time soon, except for the odd days here or there where it makes sense for other reasons (like being close to something useful, like an airport).

(That said, if I could stay here, with only robots for company, I’d totally do that. But Nagasaki isn’t on my itinerary… this time.)

All right, well, that should do for now.  I’ll try to get another post in this weekend, before I make my trip down to Tokyo, Taipei, Kyoto, and back to Sapporo.  That starts this Wednesday, the 22nd, and finishes in Sapporo (back at Kazunari’s place) on August 10th.  I’m leaving a bunch of my stuff here, and traveling light, so writing the blog on my iPad in those 3 weeks might be a bit painful.  We’ll see.

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