So Matt and I arrive in Tokyo and head off to do our "hatsumode", our first shrine visit of the year. All Japanese people customarily go to a shrine - often just a local one - to offer a prayer in that first week of the year. We decide to hit Meiji Jingu, the largest shrine complex in Tokyo, built to honor and house the spirit of the Meiji Emperor, credited with the modernization of Japan in the late 1800's. There are so many people arriving here that they have had to divert some of the trains onto a separate platform; otherwise people would certainly get knocked off onto the tracks. We get off the train and, approaching the gate, are caught up in a throng of people making their first visit of the year. We shuffle our way to the inner shrine and find ourselves basically the only white people there. Japanese are clearly perplexed at our presence. The giant shrine and forest complex - usually entirely silent except for the distant echoes of trains - feels very much like the inside of a Tokyo subway car during rush hour. It takes about an hour to wade in and out of the river of people. We later learn that some 3 million visited the shrine that day.
Matt and I wander into stores in Tokyo and play with things indiscriminately. We are acting on Matt's in Japan M.O.: "We will do whatever we want and if anyone gets upset, we just say 'we didn't know we couldn't do that.'" Inside Toyland in Harajuku, we take turns wearing a Darth Vader mask with built in voice modulation. I do my favorite line ("All too easy" from when he thinks he's knocked Luke into the carbon freezing chamber) and Matt threatens to choke the life out of Admiral Piet ("You've failed me for the last time, Admiral!"). Matt buys some toys and stridently announces to the girl at the front, "NO these are NOT gifts!"
Matt goes off for a few days on his own after that since I have to go back to work. I will be eternally envious of Matt for the chance he had to be in the presence of this wise old monkey; surveying the land, looking down on what mankind has wrought, a single tear running down his pink simian face. I will not, however, be envious of all the monkey feces Matt had to plod through or dodge on the trek up to this epic sight.
Matt is supposed to come home late one night for dinner after 6. He shows up around 11, loudly singing the Strokes. Which means, he's drunk. Apparently he got off at the bus stop but then decided he would check out this small bar first right down the street. 4 hours and many beers later, he tells me about how he "just had the most fun he's had yet in Japan" drinking with a few local old guys and singing karaoke (In my head I cancel plans to take him anywhere expensive; why waste money trying to go to interesting places if he would rather hang around this tiny town and drink with old men?) However, as he tells his story - he comes in, orders a drink, the guy orders him another, the guy gives him some cigarettes, they sing together, drink a few more - and looks down at his receipt, it becomes clear that when the guys ordered him beers, they did only that, order them. Matt had been buying his - and possibly their - beer all night. So Matt got fleeced by a bunch of old Japanese guys out of $50.
During the week, I'd wake up at 6:30 to get ready for school, leaving at around 7:40. Matt would get up a little later and head out to visit some part of Japan. Hamamatsu is pretty convenient for that, being only a little over an hour away from Tokyo or Kyoto in either direction. After seeing the sights of say Kyoto, most nights Matt would just ride home on the bullet train in lieu of paying for a hotel, since he could ride on any train in the country for free with his rail pass. On those nights, we'd pick up something to cook for dinner at the local market, then stop off at the liquor store next door to pick up some beer. They sell beer at the market, but I've never seen anyone else go into the liquor store before. The guy working there is really friendly, so we decided to become his main patrons. We got to be such frequent customers that he now yells out greetings, runs over and opens the beer fridge for me, and often throws in extra cans as a bonus. After dinner, we'd relax, drink our beers and watch an episode of the Simpsons. Occasionally we would fire bottle rockets off my balcony.
One night that week, Matt and I took the kids from the English club - that is, the kids from the club that I like - out to dinner at a "Viking" restaurant, (So called because of the famed appetite of the vikings? Or their propensity to eat buffet-style? Or because of the generally skewed perception of Japanese people in relation to foreigners? I have gotten all three answers on asking) where Matt and I were able to have the first dinner in a while in which we could eat to satiation. We put on a little show for the kids - feats of eating, if you will - continuously going back for another helping over and over as their eyes grew in that peculiar mixture of admiration and horror that accompanies so much of what I do here.
I was very excited to introduce Matt to Kenji Kurimura, or Kurimura-kun, who is far and away my favorite student, if not my favorite person ever. Kurimura-kun - or "King of Kurimura", as he is sometimes called by me, or "Kuri-chan" as he is called by the girls in the club, or "KMK" as he would soon be knighted by Matt - is a returnee student from Spain. He practices archery and has an unusually dark tan over his unusually feminine features. He accentuates this with his constant hand motions, which resemble nothing so much as a conductor minus the wand. A rather unorthodox conductor, however, who in the course of keeping his own conversations on track resorts to various hand motions that are totally unrelated to what he is talking about as well as impenetrable to anyone else. I had been building the kid up to Matt all week, but he was not disappointed. KMK is the nicest kid in the world, and everyone is forced to bestow love on him with a fierce intensity; Matt too, found he could only oblige.
Most of the dinner was Matt teasing the kids about their girlfriends and boyfriends - these 16 year olds flushing red the whole time - or me doing impressions of the old kendo coach who teaches English at school. Matt warned me about making fun of a teacher, but I explained that I am not making fun at all; though he is half-deaf and just strange as hellI think he's consistently one of the greatest people I've ever met. The point of the dinner was that the kids would get more of an opportunity to speak English, but I think Matt and I dominated the conversation while they mostly giggled like crazy. I don't think Yuka (on the right) really got much out through her giggles at all. Azusa had a bit more spark; as Matt remarked, "She's one of those girls that would just kind of make a guy start dating her by sheer strength of personality." Or maybe I said that? I suppose it's not really important, and we talk so similarly sometimes that it is hard to keep track.
On Friday that week, I invited Matt into school to visit. He was on his way back from Osaka that afternoon, planning to get in around 3. I told him to call me when he got back into Hamamatsu, and to come to school around 4. I get no call from him. Instead, another teacher suddenly rushes into the English teacher's room and spits out between gasps, "Your friend is waiting at the school entrance." I come down to get Matt and find him looking exhausted, unshaven, hungover and disheveled. The office secretaries are understandably uncomfortable, and a P.E. teacher eyes him suspiciously, ready to defend the school from attack. Matt tells me he was out the whole night before clubbing with that Japanese guy he met on the plane and only slept two hours or so in a capsule hotel. "Great," I think, "just the way I wanted to introduce you to the school, red-eyed with a cold sweat. Now, let's go meet the principal."
As a sign of respect to me more than anything else, the principal has asked to meet my friend when he arrives. I tell the vice-principal he's here, and she runs with us down to the principals office, where Matt and I sit across from them. I have to play interpreter for a while as they ask standard questions about whether he likes Japan, where he's from, what university he goes to and what he studies. It's unfortunate, really, as the principal is actually a really sharp guy who studied physics in college; him and Matt would likely have a lot to talk about. Unfortunately he speaks no English and Matt no Japanese, and there is no conceivable way I can translate that sort of conversation.
I decide Matt should be hidden until school lets out so he doesn't disturb any classes. So we go back to the English room and hang out for a while, listening to music. In walks the Beach Boys Sensei by chance. We had been trying all week to find a time to go over to the the guy's house for drinks and dinner but never could get it to work. I suspect that his wife wasn't too enthusiastic about us getting raucously drunk at her house with her elderly husband. Luckily, Matt and him still had a chance to meet at school that day, and we sat around and chatted for a while. Matt and I detail our plan in which Matt leaves me his Japan Rail pass to use even after he is gone, with me simply pretending to be him and getting free train tickets. Sensei listens intently to our plan, closes his eyes in concentration, nods his head as if arriving at some particular understanding, and remarks:
"Ah, so even Adams-Sensei steals."
This quickly became one of our favorite lines.
As the bell rings, I decide to give Matt a walking tour of the school. As if by fate, KMK himself happens to walk by just as we leave the room and we call him over as I insist he accompany us on this tour. He follows behind us sheepishly while we stroll down the hallways. Students who have just gotten used to seeing me on a daily basis are now shocked right back to six months ago to see two tall white guys in their hallways. I keep asking KMK for some commentary but he doesn't have much to say. I'm not sure whether this is good for him, making him look cool for being the kid we like the most and the only chosen to walk around with us, or terrible for him, a public display that further isolates him from his peers. Whatever. KMK will have to deal.
We end up at English club which is characteristically terrible since only half of the kids want to be there. I end it early so Matt can take a little time during his visit to give a demonstration of proper earthquake safety. Rest assured, Asami was later soundly disiciplined for her lackluster committment to such a serious endeavor. I had to convince Matt not to wear that helmet around school for the rest of the day, not because I didn't think it was funny, just that I didn't want the other teachers to think my friend was a lunatic.
After about 5 minutes of watching Matt interact with the students - while wearing the helmet of course - the Japanese teacher in charge of the English club turns to me, shaking her head, and says, "Yes, I can definitely tell that this is your friend." I am still unsure whether that was a compliment or insult.
After club, we walk around to check out what the other kids are doing; visiting the calligraphy club, the Go club, and the music clubs. We eventually find our way to the Shogi (Japanese Chess) club, and again come upon the Beach Boys Sensei. In Japanese chess, rather than standing pieces they use small tiles. All of the chess tiles are the same shape; they are differentiated by Chinese characters written on the top of each piece. Sensei asks me if I know how to play, and I confess to him that I can't read the characters so I don't really know what piece was what. He replies,
S: "Oh that...yeah I can't read them either."
L: "But you know how to play, right?"
S: "Ah, well, I don't know that anyone really knows how to play shogi...(wistfully) It's a mystery...you know."
L: "Haha, then why are you in charge of the club?"
S: "I was assigned...You see, I actually don't care for shogi, myself...(picture this slight, graying man in his late 50's suddenly assuming a low sumo stance) I would rather watch SUMO!"
We again rue not having a chance to drink with him.
The next day is the Saturday of Matt's last weekend here. We were going to head up to Nikko, the site of an amazing mausoleum complex for Tokugawa (the man who founded the dynasty that ruled Japan for almost 300 years) in the mountains north of Tokyo, but it was rainy and cold Saturday and forecast for Sunday as well. We head into Tokyo again, hoping that it might clear up by Sunday so we could make the trip to Nikko in the morning. Getting there, we find it so damn cold we just cancel those plans almost immediately. Maiko and I have dinner as Matt goes off to explore on his own. Later, walking Maiko back to the train station, she hears some maniac singing at the top of his lungs. I see a figure swigging a beer and sort of dancing across the street. I catch the atonal rendering of a Strokes song.
It's Matt, of course. He's been buying beers at convenience stores and sort of strolling around singing, frightening Japanese. I drop Maiko off and we decide on a plan of attack in which we buy a beer at a convenience store, start walking, and drink it before we reach the next convenience store. To put this in perspective, there are convenience stores here practically on every block; Starbucks does not even come close. It actually affords us some time to talk a bit though, which we haven't had as much with me at school and him jaunting around on his own.
The next day is our last. We hit the Japanese Sword Museum in the morning, which is pretty damn awesome, then head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building, a set of twin towers that, aside from housing the government, offers a free panoramic view of Tokyo from 46 floors up. Only when about to enter and have our bags checked does Matt remember that he is carrying not only a leatherman utility knife in his bag, but also A BAG OF FIREWORKS. I wonder if he might toss them somewhere outside, but we are already at this point standing directly under a surveillance camera. I figure it's okay though as long as they are in the bottom of the bag; the officers searching bags are so uncomfortable with the impoliteness of putting their hands through your things that they barely open it. So we enter the government headquarters with weapons and explosives.
We then meet up with Maiko for a delicious gyoza (pot sticker) lunch in Ginza, 8 gyoza and each like 6 inches long. We walk it off touring the Imperial Palace grounds and gardens. It becomes a really beautiful day, despite all forecasts, perfect weather. Matt, tired of walking, decides to just flop down in the middle of the garden there, lying face down in the dry grass. I take a series of pictures of him and the disgust evident on the faces of several salarymen passing by. Eventually we leave, but he insists on not brushing off the grass, and walks around with it all over his stomach and back for the rest of the day. Maiko laughs, but is petrified with embarassment. I cheer her up by throwing her over my shoulder and carrying her around for a while. After we leave, is still carrying his weapons and explosives, this time around the Imperial Palace grounds.
We head back that afternoon and have dinner with Joyce and Kevin - a couple other ALTs - and a few Japanese friends. Matt tries to show them his endless pictures from Tokyo and I think finally realizes how many are superflous, if not simply terrible. One of the Japanese guys does awesome magic accompanied by sparse yet hilarious commentary (Ex: for one card trick: "My arm...is a fax!) We get back after dinner and try to think of a fitting way to spend the last night.
Eventually, we remember the fireworks Matt has been carrying all this time and bust them out. This time, as it almost midnight, instead of firing them from my balcony, we head down the street and start lighting them between rice paddies. We work up our plan for what to happen if we get caught; blame it all on the Brazilians! (If the topic comes up at work I just say, "Jesus, did you hear what those Brazilian kids were doing last night Sensei? Ridiculous! No decency, those folk.") He's got a giant stash of bottle rockets and firecrackers, which we set into the soft earth between rows of rice to shoot off in all directions, interrupted only by our hysterical laughter. After nearly shooting each other several times, we spot a car after us and start jogging away, only to stop and light more off on our wake. In the midst of this I realize how much I will miss having Matt around the next day.