Tag Archives: Japan

A Sunday

Telling a drunk story entails risk. For those who weren’t there, who weren’t involved, the recounting is never as enjoyable. Their appreciation – if it is to be found – derives not only from the merits of the story , but from how the story plays off their knowledge of the storyteller. Yet, even with the proper level of familiarity, finesse is required. Drunk stories, after all, are not intended to make the storyteller look good.

I’ve always said on these pages that I’m not much of a storyteller. With the right audience, however, in the right context, this is one of my stories. I’m not quite sure how it’ll translate to this format. But my buddy Jim is getting married next month. And in honor of that, a drunk story:

Kurosawa made this classic film called Rashomon. It centers on a crime that takes place, and the truth of that crime being reconstructed piecemeal through the recollections of three or four different characters. There are contradictions in each of their stories, embellishments, obvious lies. Each version though adds depth, each calls into question objective reality and whether it exists at all. This day was kind of like that for the three of us involved.

This drunk story takes place in Japan. Naturally. I don’t know how much longer my liver would have held out living in that country. It was the land of all-you-can-drinks, where getting fucked up under the cherry blossoms was not only socially acceptable but a national pastime. On weekends, public bathroom sinks were sporadically filled with vomit; pillars and walls in train stations adorned with slumped figures of the wasted, of both genders and all (adult) ages.

It was a Sunday.

Once, maybe twice a year, this sake brewery 90 minutes northwest of Tokyo would open its doors to the public. There’d be samples, sales, food: a grand old time. I hadn’t heard about it. It was the kind of festival that attracted primarily natives and presumably drunkards. Katsuya was a native, maybe a drunkard. I’d actually never met him before but he was a friend of Jim’s, which was good enough for me. He was the one who passed along the word.

The gates opened at 10 or 11, I forget. Either way, it seemed excessively early for a sake festival. It worked out nicely for me and Jim though, at least in theory. We had tickets that evening for a baseball game, and not just any regular baseball game. A Major League Baseball all-star team was in town visiting. American all-stars. We were American, so we wanted to be there. We’d check out the festival, stop home, then pop over to the game. Easy as pie. American apple pie.

We met at the train station near the brewery, the three of us – Katsuya, Jim, and I. We all had arrived about 20 minutes before opening, as per Katsuya’s instructions. Introductions were made, and we shared an easy laugh about the absurdity of preparing to get (reasonably) drunk before noon. Japan, right? We started walking towards the brewery, but stopped about halfway there. There was already a line about three blocks long – like it was Black Friday outside Best Buy, only with more alcoholics.

Once the gates opened at 10 or 11, the hordes streamed onto the brewery grounds. It was a bit chaotic, as you might expect from any alcohol festival, but not too much so, as you might expect from any alcohol festival in Japan. We got in line for a couple of sake samples here and there; generous portions were provided.* There might have been some informational displays around, but like everyone else, we didn’t pay much attention to them.

*I nearly got into a fight when this guy blatantly cut ahead of us in line. When I started to make a scene, his response was to repeatedly say “Chill, we’re all having fun here”; he then proclaimed that he would have expected a reaction from the Japanese, but not from another expat. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I wanted to stab him.

After downing several samples, we headed off to gauge the food situation on the grounds. The crowd was by now immense. It was at critical mass; the situation seemed less fun than overwhelming, as events in and around Tokyo can be sometimes. So, after each purchasing a wooden sake cup – filled with sake, of course – we huddled and considered our options. It was Katsuya, I think, who came up with an inspired plan: buy a bottle, get some food, and have an impromptu picnic at a nearby park.

In line, ostensibly to purchase a single bottle to share, was where it all started to fall apart. Katsuya deftly jumped ahead of me and Jim at the last second, then selected and paid for a bottle before either of us realized what was going on. It was a gesture to old friendships and new, he said. A genuinely touching sentiment. But in the heat of the moment, Jim and I responded in the only way that made any sense. We bought additional communal bottles. We ended up with six in all (roughly 750 ml apiece).

I was already drunk when we left the grounds of the brewery for a park Jim had located on Google Maps. We each had had at least three servings of sake by then, between the samples and the overflowing wooden cups. At a convenience store, a konbini, we bought some onigiri (rice balls) and chips, plus a few beers for alcoholic variety; I grabbed a piece of fried chicken as well, devouring it en route. It was well before noon when we arrived at the park.

We drank nearly four entire bottles of sake there.

Katsuya left us at the park. He had mentioned earlier that he needed to meet his wife and child. They were nearby, or back in Tokyo, or something – it was a little mysterioso. But at some point in my drunken stupor, I noticed he wasn’t with us anymore. While the trek to the bathroom in the park was substantial, he had gone for what felt like ages. He did reappear momentarily, presumably from the bathroom. Then he left for good. Jim and I both thought he seemed remarkably sober.

Ironically, Katsuya would later mention he thought Jim and I seemed to be in surprisingly good shape when he left us. All three of us were wrong. Later that day, Katsuya drunkenly dropped his baby while on public transit. …Yeah. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, though Katsuya’s wife understandably was quite displeased with both him and us. To this day, and perhaps on a related note, I have not met her.

It was still early, maybe 1 or 2, but now windy bordering on uncomfortable. At some point, Jim and I realized we needed to make our way back to Tokyo. My head was pounding; I was blackout drunk. Jim still had the wherewithal to use his phone to figure out which way the train station was, so I followed blindly. I couldn’t walk straight. My head was slumped down; I was dragging myself along, hoping I wouldn’t slam into anyone or anything.

Of this journey, Jim does remembers being strangely overcome with a singular focus on reaching the station. He knew I was behind him, primarily because he heard this distinct clopping noise. That turned out to be me as I kept looping from sidewalk to street and back, in diagonals and circles. But we were both in dire straits. At the station, it took Jim about four tries to get his metro card properly scanned.

We must have been a sight at the station. Past the ticket gates, I made it up a set of stairs one at a time, slumped over the railing, hoisting myself along. I don’t know how I didn’t fall. Maybe I did and forgot about it. Thankfully, it was the terminus, so there was a train sitting, waiting to begin its journey back to Tokyo. Jim and I made our way aboard, collapsing quickly onto a bench. I closed my eyes a moment and lost consciousness.

I was sprawled on the train bench when I came to. I felt like garbage, even moreso now than before, as drunkenness gave way to the in-between before the hangover fully appears. It took a minute to process my reality, but I soon realized that:

  1. I was alone;
  2. The train was rested and emptying; and
  3. There was a Japanese woman yelling at me.

I dealt with the last and most immediately pressing bit first – the yelling and gesticulating stranger. Judging from her tone and volume, she was chiding me for being wasted on a train at 2 on a Sunday afternoon. But past her disgust, she seemed to be trying to convey something else. Eventually I followed her gestures, looking beneath my seat. And on the floor, I saw a cell phone: mine. I looked up to thank her but she was already gone. Eventually, I dragged myself off the train too.

I didn’t know where Jim was, but I was feeling worse and worse. I went straight to the bathroom in the train station, locked myself in a stall, and sat on the ground. It might have been a public bathroom in Japan, but it was not the kind of public bathroom in which anyone should be sitting on the ground; it was a squat toilet for starters. But I was in no position to be particular. I sent Jim a text, then rested my head on the floor and started moaning.

There, behind the locked doors of a squat train station toilet, I passed out again.

At some point, someone started banging on the walls, perhaps with an emergency of their own. I tried to respond by moaning my pain, but I couldn’t put words together. I was a drooling mess. Eventually they left me be. I ended up spending about an hour in the bathroom, lying down. Eventually, I used the squat toilet properly and without incident, a remarkable deed given my condition. When I felt slightly better, I checked my phone. There was a text: Jim was back in his Airbnb.

Halfway through the train ride towards Tokyo, Jim had apparently gotten it in his head that we needed to make a transfer. We did not. So, while I was passed out, he stepped off intending to check a map. The train took off, as a train does. Jim pounded on the window to try and get my attention, but to no avail. Then, left behind, he wandered that station for a bit. He vomited in public. Then he boarded another train back towards Tokyo.

The station I was at was about a 20 minute walk from the Airbnb, a mile away. In my condition, it might as well have been a million miles away. I threw myself into a taxi on the north side of Shinjuku Station – the busiest train station in the world. I thrust my phone at the driver, but he couldn’t make heads or tails out of the display. I couldn’t form coherent sentences yet, so eventually I grabbed the phone, dropped a pin near where the address was, or seemed to be, and handed it back.

The driver kept looking at my phone over the course of the drive – always a great sign. He ended up dropping me off at a hotel by the south exit of Shinjuku Station. My brain was fried though, and I figured it was not worth it to steer him to steer me in the right direction, so I paid and left.* Then I stumbled down the streets in search for Jim’s place. I got lost twice before I found the complex. I climbed up the stairs and banged on the door. …There was no response.

*To recap, I paid 1,000 yen (roughly $10) to take a cab from the north side of a train station to the south side of a train station.

The lights were out. It didn’t make any sense to my feeble and fragile brain. I still felt awful, so I lied down on the ground in front of his unit and curled up in a ball. I tried to catch a nap, but it was too cold, too windy by then. I checked the address again and again on my phone, shivering on the floor. Finally, after probably 10 or 15 minutes but what felt like 45, I banged on the door again. This time, there was some noise, some feet shuffling. Then the door opened.

Jim was holding the knob. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. We both turned into the living space, where two double beds decorated either side of the room. Jim fell into his bed, I fell onto the other one. I passed out immediately.

It was pitch black.

Groggily, I checked the time. More than an hour after first pitch.

I felt like garbage, of course. But I had a singular thought. We had spent about $35 apiece on our tickets, and we were going to this baseball game.

Jim would later tell me that his first memory of the late afternoon was waking up to my repeated cries of: “It’s gametime, man! Gametime!” After the transfer mishap, he had successfully made his way back to Tokyo and the Airbnb, but he had no recollection of my banging on the door the first or second times, let alone getting up and letting me in. I’m not sure why he didn’t protest when I insisted we go to the game 90 minutes late.

We made it to the Tokyo Dome that night around 9 pm. It was the seventh inning when we took our seats. But baseball being baseball, the game lasted another hour – enough time for the American team to score a few runs, enough time for us to get some curry rice. Mostly though, we sat still, moaning every once in a while, sipping our sodas. When the game finished, we joined the masses walking to the station. Jim rode to his Airbnb, and I went home.

I didn’t drink sake for about a month after that.

(Photo by Ralf Steinberger, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Left Unsaid

There are some things left unsaid. They have to be.

There’s a quote that high school seniors love to use in their yearbooks, that high school graduates have taken to using in their inspirational memes. “Dance like nobody’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one’s listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.” The idea is nice, to be sure. Romantic, empowering, life-affirming. But it’s also not viable. It’s not viable for the same reason why “live everyday like it’s your last” is an abstract (and absurd) philosophy rather than a realistic blueprint for daily living. After all, we don’t exist in a vacuum. “We’re living in a society. We’re supposed to act in a civilized way.”* We have societal duties, responsibilities.

*Wise words from a wise man.

I’ve discovered this past month that social mores are never more manifestly apparent than during a period of transition (say, a move to the other side of the world). Perhaps it’s the inherent contradiction. What seems a perfect opportunity to cut to the chase given the blank slate instead becomes a stark reminder of the game we have to play in existing as part of this world. I want desperately to ask my new colleagues outright about the assholes in the department. To ask my panel what they really thought of my interview months ago. But as honest and straightforward as I fashion myself, there are consequences to consider, and thus, boundaries to mind. Maybe I get my answers in due time. Maybe I never do.

I admit that I felt a tremendous urge to impart memorable words to those I left behind in Japan. I suppose it’s the theatrical side of me, growing up in Los Angeles. Regardless, I certainly considered offering unsolicited advice to those who have been a part of my life over the past two to three years and beyond. Perhaps in my more drunken moments, I even started to do so. I itched to tell my supervisor about the work environment he had fostered, I racked through my brain for the right words with which to relate counsel to colleagues, I began a letter – in my mind – for the research fellows who were to join the institute I was leaving.

But despite the temptation, I did not end up doing any of these things, for any number of reasons. It’s undeniably arrogant for starters. For me to impose my perspective on someone else’s experience, to presume that the would-be recipient was not already aware of their own traits, to overlook the possibility that they too might have thoughts about me, my persona, my very essence that they were holding back out of common courtesy. But more than arrogance, that I did not feel comfortable enough to share my thoughts up until that point with these individuals reveals much about the nature of our relationship as it had existed.

I had a conversation before I left with a friend about my mixed feelings toward giving advice to a mutual acquaintance. And he asked, “Why not? You’re leaving anyway.” It’s not that simple. Leaving a place, leaving people behind – it’s not an excuse to forgo social obligation and responsibility, to essentially live like there is no tomorrow. My departure might have been a necessary condition for an airing of laundry (clean and dirty, positive and negative), but it is not in itself not a sufficient one. Yes, in a few rare cases, I did have heart-to-hearts. But the foundation for those conversations, for those memorable words, had been meticulously laid out – on both sides – over the course of those relationships.

Still, I would be remiss to suggest that there were no words left unsaid even in those instances. The game is prevalent even in the most intimate of relationships. Because ultimately in life, there are some things that don’t need to be said, or shouldn’t be said, or haven’t gestated enough to be said properly. Restraint in these instances is not a matter of cowardice, but the reverse, and linked to having a measure of basic decency as a human being. There are boundaries to mind, a result of timing, or circumstance, or consequence. There always will be.

So some things are left unsaid. They have to be. At least for now, and perhaps even for ever. But that’s the burden of living with a tomorrow. That’s the burden of living when someone is watching, listening, responding.

To Be Continued

I’m always reminded of how small the world can be when I get on a plane. I ask myself why it is that I haven’t visited home in so long. Why it is that I don’t travel more often. It takes ten hours, maybe 12 or 13, and I can easily be on the other side of the world: my sister’s home, my mom’s apartment, in a city or in a country that I’ve never visited before. Less than a day – nothing in the grand scope of things. I suppose money is the primary deterrent. Still, as privileged as I am, it still seems like an excuse.

It’s incredible though how much life can change with a plane ride. With a moment, really. For about six months, I lived with an increasing degree of uncertainty, knowing only that my future would very likely not rest in Tokyo. Then, I received an email. For about three weeks after that, I lived with the certainty that I was moving to Geneva. The fear of an unknown future barreling down on me shifted to that of a concrete future barreling down on me, my world suddenly one in which I simultaneously faced the reality of leaving a life behind while preparing for one that had thrust itself on the horizon.

The finality of leaving Japan struck me time and again. Perhaps it’s a feeling that expats more experienced than I have become accustomed to. But the particular circumstances of my farewell certainly helped to prolong it, forcing me to confront the end of this chapter of my life at an almost comedic level. My supervisor went on an extended vacation about a month previous, prompting an official farewell lunch and after-work drinks then. My best friend went on a long-planned vacation two weeks after that; her departure preceded by an emotional and reflective week of gatherings and conversation.

A week after that was when I actually left my job – the first real workplace I’ve been a part of, and the source of essentially all my relationships the past two years. It was accompanied by more meals and drinks, naturally. On top of all that, an unexpected wait for a visa pushed me to abscond from my apartment and shack up with a buddy for a week – thus providing a literal manifestation of my now-transitory existence in Japan, my purgatory of sorts. Visits to the immigration bureau, the ward office, and the Swiss embassy underlined the gravity of the chain of events set in motion. It all felt so real, yet so surreal also.

I don’t know that it hit me until I got on the plane, and perhaps not even then. Fact is, a week into my new life, I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet. I’m too busy being overwhelmed – by the big things, the first days at the new job, the in-progress apartment hunt, but also the little things, the denominations of coins and cash, the instructions at the Laundromat where I sit writing this – to have my feet fully underneath me, to be able to truly process everything that has happened in the span of the past month or two. I can’t help but be aware of the most painfully obvious elements of the move, of course. There’s the smallness of the city, its corresponding and welcomed manageability. The pace of life, the rhythm and space, the diversity and liveliness, all plain as day.

But the physical traits of my new surroundings matter less than how I choose to perceive them, how I choose to interact with and engage them. And that is yet to come. After all, my life changed with a plane ride, but not simply due to the physical act thereof. Rather, it changed and will change because the ride has put me in a place where I must define and redefine myself: my life and career, my path and future direction, my hobbies and interests, my friendships and relationships. Not all of that is entirely under my control – it never is. But the assessment, the reevaluation, even the confrontation: it’s not the worst thing in the world. Maybe it’ll get me to the place where I want to be, inside.

Japan: Year Three

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*drafted July 30, 2016

This seems appropriate. Three weeks before I’m to leave the country, I don’t know where my next destination is. In fact, there’s a decent chance that the answer to that question – and to that of the inextricably linked, “Did I get the job?” – actually reached my inbox sometime in the past few hours. But I have no idea. I’m in a mountain lodge, no wi-fi, no shower actually, putting this down with pen and paper. Because I got stuck on a hike that took longer than anticipated. Because the last bus took off at the unconscionably early time of 4:40 pm. But mostly, because I needed to get away from it all – the uncertainty, the stress, the crowds, and especially my own head space. Like I said, this seems appropriate.

The Japan experience has had its flaws. This is an understatement, and certainly more than enough space has been devoted on particular aspects of these flaws. But perhaps it is natural, at this late stage, to overlook those, and to consider the past three years of my life with rose-colored glasses. And that is indeed some of what I have been doing for what feels like months as endgame in Japan draws near. I suspect some of it resembles a senioritis of sorts. But I would vehemently disagree with the idea that nostalgia is all there is. Because ultimately, this has been an incredible, exhilarating experience. And it is now legitimately fucking hard to let go.

I’m leaving Japan because my fellowship is up. I’m not trying like hell to stay because the ceiling for both my personal and professional lives here are severely limited. Job opportunities tend to be few and far between. Dating has not exactly been a rousing success. My social circle remains generally confined to work colleagues, and as fantastic as one of those relationships has been, that too is not the healthiest of circumstance. I see my family much less than I would like, and my relationship with friends stateside deteriorates further with every year I spend here, more and more milestones passing by. So why then is it so difficult to leave? Why then am I not champing at the bit to move on?

The uncertainty doesn’t help, that’s for sure. That I am diving into the great unknown provides requisite pause. But familiarity explains only so much. No, what makes it so difficult to leave comes down simply to what I am leaving behind. The coolest city in the world, exuding life and vibrancy and excitement, filled at times with grandeur and decadence, at others marked by restraint and purity, and sometimes, yes, a fair bit of weirdness. A country full of wonders, with a seemingly endless supply of vast natural landscapes to get lost in and quaint towns and villages and spaces to absorb, with all my senses. And people who I connected with, in an almost visceral way, in a way that we only could here, because of the circumstance of Tokyo, Japan that envelops us all.

Who knows. Maybe some of this is bullshit. Maybe what is killing me is, as per usual, impending heartache. But whatever the reason, I’ve come – if not quite full circle – then most of a circle. Three years in Japan. Time of my life. Will you look at that.

I’m Kind of a Fucking Mess

It’s about a girl, of course. Maybe it’s about girls in general. Everyone always says that a girl doesn’t solve everything, that a relationship will never be a Band-Aid for all of life’s ills. They stress that you have to be right first, be in a position where you’re okay with yourself, okay with being alone, before you’re ready for anything else. There’s truth to that, I suppose. But I’ve never thought it was quite that simple; I always saw it as more a chicken-and-egg thing. Because when you are alone, you start wondering, thinking about whether the you that you’re okay with is actually fundamentally flawed. And after that, the notion that you’re okay with being alone becomes an illusion: it just kind of collapses upon itself.

I haven’t made things particularly easy for myself, admittedly. I wasn’t okay with myself – I mean legitimately okay – until I was 23, 24. It was only then that I even began to conceive of the thought of dating somebody, of being with somebody. I still didn’t do much about it until I was 28, when I started actively searching, dating, whatever. Then I moved to Japan at 30. So realistically, I’ve been doing this and failing for only about four or five years. And I’m still “only” 32 – the same age my sister was when she met my now brother-in-law (their wedding taking place last month). I’m able to remind myself of all this, on good days at least.

But again, I don’t make things particularly easy for myself. In the vast majority of cases, I wasn’t interested, or she wasn’t interested, or the timing wasn’t there (more on that later). But I would say in the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to be in relationships if I so chose – twice, probably. Not exactly an abundance of chance, but chance nonetheless. But they weren’t real possibilities, at least from my perspective. There were communication issues in one instance, passion in the other. See, I have to be all-in, I have to fall, and hard, because when I do fall, it is all the way. Maybe it’s because I know what I’m capable of feeling that I’m incapable of accepting less.

It’s about a girl, of course. I suppose we were best described as being on the verge of a relationship. I have no delusions about it: it was two months, after all, as many dates as the fingers on my hands, and nothing beyond the most innocent of affections – mostly because I didn’t want to rush; it felt a little bit like a fucking storybook. She ended up in the “timing wasn’t there” category: she wasn’t in a great place in her life, and basically broke it off before we were at the point of no return. I think we both recognized that. But she’s the killer, if only for the moment.

In my defense, I did get over her. I got over her in November, when I wrote a short farewell email the day after. In January, when I deleted all the messages and emails – 20+ pages – we had exchanged during the short courtship (I had hoped the holiday would allow her to get herself right). I got over her in April, when I finally deleted her contact information (after I texted her a final, simple “hi” and received no response). And throughout this past year, really, as I’ve put myself out there again, going out with a few other girls, if to no avail.

But coincidence is kind of cruel. I was reminded of her the day after she broke it off, when a link appeared in my newsfeed about the making of plastic food in Japan: a favorite craft of hers. In December, when I stumbled upon an article about my research topic that was written by her uncle, a thinktanker. In April, when my iPhone showed a long-deleted photo album after a sync gone weirdly awry. In June, when a museum exhibit ended that we meant to visit but never did, and in September, when an annual event returned – the site of our imperfect yet totally perfect first date.

The killer was in June, when I dreamt about her out of the blue, about being with her and being truly happy with her. I woke up to reality, to knowing the dream would never come to fruition, and it sent me straight back to the moment that she broke off something that never was. And the killer was yesterday, 11 months later. She showed up on the dating site we first met, for the first time since November. A part of me was genuinely happy for her, actually: it meant she was ready to date again, and in a better place in her life. But then, without clicking on her profile, I glanced at her updated city.

I knew she was moving to Boston this August for a masters program: it was one of the things we connected over, my coming from there, her going to there; and one of the things I admired her for, her ambition. But her updated city was Brighton. It’s the very suburb in Boston I lived in two years ago, and one I never mentioned to her. Like I said, coincidence is cruel. In movies about alternate realities, about lives that could have and should have been, everyone ends up with whom they’re supposed to. Except this is life. I’ve done everything I can to move on. And yet, here we are. Fucking Brighton, Massachusetts.

But maybe it has nothing to do with the girl – with what I think could have been, or even the fact that it’s the realest thing I’ve ever known, sad as that is. Maybe it’s about girls in general. Because I’m terrified that I won’t find someone better, won’t have an opportunity to experience something that is actually real and tangible. I don’t know if Japan is an obstacle or just an excuse, if I would just go through the same shit anywhere else because it’s about me rather than the context. Maybe I’m just not good enough to make her fall as hard as I seem to, regardless of whether the timing is right or not.

Either way, all I know is that right now, I’m kind of a fucking mess.

Japan: Year Two

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An hour before the fateful pass, when I watched a man slip off a ridge and slide 20-30 feet down before righting himself, I had come across a guy under the shelter of an emergency hut while taking a breather for lunch. It was snowing a bit, which made for a gorgeous if intimidating backdrop. The man didn’t speak English, of course, but we communicated a little nonetheless, as we are wont to do. He was a local who climbed the mountain once a month, every month, in fact was already on his way down. He was curious about me, why I came out, whether I was prepared. To the last, I assured him I was. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then I trekked on. He wished me luck.

I found out later the man posted on a Japanese hiking forum shortly after our encounter. He put up a description of me – we hadn’t exchanged names – mentioned I was tackling Kumotori from the north side. The message, ostensibly, was this: “Hey, make sure this kid is okay. Keep an eye out.” I learned about this later, from another man I met at my cabin near the summit that evening. This guy actually spoke a fair bit of English, which was why we got to talking, out in the lobby as a group of us sat around the heater while drinking and killing time before lights out. He translated bits of the surrounding conversation: the man who remembered a spare iPhone battery but not one of his snow gloves, the chef who spent more than half his year living in the cabin, the friend sitting next to him – still gasping and wheezing – who couldn’t remember his last real hike.

We made plans to meet up the next morning before sunrise, the three of us. We tackled the summit together, then began our descent on the south side. There wasn’t much chatting, just a sporadic question here, a word there. Eventually, we reached our separation point. The English speaker didn’t have his business card, but I had given him mine, and he told me he would email me shortly thereafter. We’ve gotten together for dinner a couple of times since. I learned he wasn’t a regular hiker until recently, November of last year, near the same as me, in fact. Actually, we both started for  the same reason – though his was a divorce, mine a mere budding romance that wasn’t to be. Anyway, I still see his hiking pictures on social media. Presumably, he sees mine.

So the two of them headed away, and I trudged eastward alone once more, rather uneasily. The path was clear at first, but it soon disappeared under the freshly packed snow. At some point, I drifted well above where the actual trail was. I only figured as much when a couple of middle-aged men passed well beneath me at that point, down where we were all supposed to be, if the snow hadn’t obscured the way. Quickly, I redoubled my steps and eventually caught up to them. Neither spoke English, of course, but they also weren’t speaking much in Japanese either. Just two friends, marching forth with purpose. I joined them, matched their pace.

They had trekking poles and snow boots, plus took surer steps, so they continued to lead the way. They knew I was there right with them though, and would pause if I was left too far behind, an unspoken agreement.* We chatted briefly during a pit stop for lunch, confirming we both had the same destination. Later, we would come to a consensus on skipping another summit on the trail, instead choosing to skirt the mountain along its side. We walked together for about five hours, eventually reaching the end of the trail. I thanked them profusely: without their maps, their footsteps, their company, it would have been dicey in the snow. There wasn’t much chit-chat after that: they went straight to an izakaya, I headed towards an onsen.

*They hadn’t seen the post on the forum: I was sure of that. I don’t think either looked at a phone the entire time.

I’ve hiked a lot this second year, and the experiences encapsulate a lot about my time, about life here. All the charms, frustrations, eccentricities and paradoxes of Japan are laid bare on the trails. Communication remains an exercise in futility, thanks largely to my inability to learn the language, but it doesn’t stop people from listening, from trying to help, whether it’s keeping an eye out or giving me a lift. Transportation appears often as an art form – trains, frequent and fast, to every part of the country – yet god help me if I’m relying on bus service in a village somewhere. Meanwhile, despite the camaraderie, loneliness persists, even in the solitude of nature: there’s something telling about the fact that all the guys I’ve described running into have been single males.

A couple of weeks ago, I was posed the question, “Do you love Tokyo?” by someone who clearly does, around a couple of friends who also very clearly do. It was a leading question. She didn’t want to elicit real discussion, but simply confirm her feelings as objective reality. People are annoying like that. I wanted to push back on her. I wanted to ask what it meant for her to love the city. I wanted to ask whether she ever felt frustrated or isolated, like an automaton in and around people with 60-hour work weeks, apartments the size of small pods, eating at bar-style, even standing-only restaurants. I wanted to ask whether she ever felt incomprehensibly lonely, and if she loved the city as much in those moments for her blanket proclamation to stand. Instead, I kept mum.

Maybe it’s different because she has a family here. Maybe it’s just different for everybody else, more black and white, in one direction or the other. So then, do I really love Tokyo? Do I love Japan? The honest answer is, yes and no. Ultimately, I suppose I do. But it’s a complicated love, and it’s certainly not an unequivocal love. Then again, maybe that’s most love.

[Previously: Japan: Year One.]

28 Days Later

People are really angry in New York. A woman curses out the wifi at Starbucks, accusing it of blocking her from accessing Gmail (it’s not). She complains to the employee, and then leaves in a huff. A man curses out the cashier at a Mexican place, claiming a false charge on the receipt (there’s none). He loudly mentions he put two dollars in the tip jar earlier, an aside but not really – and then leaves, in a huff, before he hears the offer to return the money. People in general are loud, abrasive, aggressive, angry. They show attitude, talk on the subway, strut without giving an inch. Welcome to New York.

The last time I returned to the United States, it was easy. That’s because I went home, to Los Angeles. Yes, as I chronicled, I began feeling like I was interrupting lives in progress, a burden even among my closest friends and family. Still, the process of it went smoothly, naturally. Not so much this time. Maybe it was because I had spent six more months in Japan since, felt even more settled than I had previous. Because this was essentially a work trip. Because this was for a full month, and to New York to boot. Whatever the reason, this visit was different, and it became immediately obvious.

“Why are the cars going in the wrong direction?”

This is my first thought getting off the train in Manhattan. I can barely make sense of it all. I keep looking at my watch when the trains run late, which is often. I hesitate at intersections – it takes days before I start jaywalking like everyone else. I stand in awe as I glance down supermarket aisles, searching futilely for a size of canned tomatoes not meant for a family of four. I find a lot of things abhorrent – the uncleanliness of the Starbucks, the Bolt Bus seatmate who stretches his legs about 70% into my space, the polarization of rich and poor (…not necessarily in order of importance).

America is awesome, of course. I eat at the halal cart. I eat hot dogs from a street stand. I eat Doritos and Tex-Mex and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and dim sum and banh mi. I enjoy other things besides food too. I walk around gentrified Brooklyn, bike through Manhattan from about 40th on, and not worry about throwing out trash or whether I have enough cash or if I’ll be able to communicate or anything . And the diversity. God that’s the best. Ton of attractive women too. Still though, things don’t come as easily as they did in Los Angeles. It hits me after about 10 days: I want to go home.

It’s everything, I think. People rushing by like they’re fucking bigshots or something. People having loud conversations – some crude – in public spaces, with no sense of irony or self-awareness. People homeless everywhere, and it sucks in every conceivable way: that people don’t or can’t do anything, that I can’t do anything but feel sorry and grossed out and guilty and ashamed. People honking every second at every turn. New York is amazing. But it’s overwhelming. And it’s not enjoyable when I’m crashing on a floor of an apartment that isn’t mine in a sleeping bag. When I’m not invested.

In Los Angeles, people are chill, relaxed. I’m where I grew up. I’m in a car driving, enjoying my space, spending time with friends and family. And I’m as comfortable as I could possibly be, for a short visit. In Tokyo, people are kind, respectful, orderly. Even if it’s a complete facade, it’s a pretty fucking good one. Besides, I can’t pick up stray conversations, don’t understand any of the surrounding hubbub: it’s a natural filtering mechanism. More than that, Tokyo is home. I’m in my bed, my apartment, my neighborhood, after all.

Six months ago, I visited Los Angeles, and slowly came to the recognition that I belonged in Tokyo, at least for the moment. I still don’t know how long that impulse is going to last. But visiting New York this time around: there was no doubt about it. Yes, I saw friends, family, and had a good time. But I was ready to leave long before the month was up.