(Better Know a City)
This is not my most exciting "Better Know a City", but it was a "Better know a city" for summer.
This is an outing designed for baking in the hot humid dog days of a Kyushu summer, when it feels to hot even to move.
The weather forecast was for 35 degrees. Not exactly weather where you want to be out hiking around exploring a new city. More the kind of weather where you want to be sitting inside an air conditioned shopping mall browsing through some books.
Down here in the country side, there was only one city in Oita prefecture I could think of where I could spend a whole day exploring air conditioned buildings: Oita City.
Oita City is the capital city for Oita prefecture. With a small handful of exceptions, almost all the capital cities in Japan have the same name as their prefecture. In Fukuoka prefecture, it is Fukuoka city. In Gifu prefecture, it is Gifu city. And in Oita prefecture, the capital is Oita city.
(….More than once, this has caused a bit of confusion for me in conversations, where I kept having to double check to see if the speaker was talking about the prefecture or the city.)
Oita city is kind of like a poor man’s Fukuoka city. It’s not anywhere near as big or as impressive as Fukuoka city, but for those of us living in Oita prefecture it’s often a lot closer. And if you can’t drive all the way out to Fukuoka, Oita city can supply most of your big city needs. It’s got lots of stores, English books (something you never take for granted in the Japanese country side) a Starbucks, and it’s own nightlife scene.
When I was originally envisioning this “Better Know a City” project, I told myself when I did get around to Oita city, I would get away from the city center and the shopping malls and do some exploring. And, once you get out of the downtown area, there is actually a bit of hiking to be found even within the boarders of Oita city. (This being Oita prefecture, you’re never far away from the countryside even in the capital city).
But here I decided to compromise with reality. It was too hot to go hiking around. Last year I didn't to a single “Better know a city” during the summer months, and instead spent every free day I had swimming at the waterfalls. This year, I decided if I was going to go to Oita city in the summer, I wouldn't force myself outside. I’d spend the whole day in air conditioned buildings, looking at books in the library and reading books in coffee shops. It was a compromise with myself.
…And that’s more or less what I did. I’ll admit at the outset that this isn't one of my more exciting “Better Know a City”s. Almost the whole day is me inside reading books. But, for what it’s worth, this is my day in Oita:
Not taking the expressway, it’s about an hour and a half drive into Oita city from Nakatsu. I left my house shortly after 7, and arrived in Oita right about 9. My first stop was the Oita International Center. I had a whole carload of books I needed to get rid of.
Two days ago the Nakatsu Nova had shut down, and there were 9 years of English books that we needed to get ride of. (Books that former Nova teachers must have left behind when they left Japan, over 9 years accumulating into quite a small library).
I had a feeling the Nova staff, if left to there own, would just have thrown these books away, so I made a point of rescuing them on the last day. There must have been over 200 books. I filled up my whole trunk, and then my whole back seat.
The books were absolute junk by the way. There was a reason most of them had been left behind. My co-worker and I, Mr. K, had long ago picked through these books to see if there was anything we wanted for our own reading, and I couldn't find a single book I wanted. Each year Nova teachers must have gone over these books and picked out what they wanted, and just left the rest. These were the books nobody had wanted over 9 years. Lots of Robert Ludlum, fantasy books no one had heard of, old travelogues and cookbooks.
(Actually, that’s not completely true. When I first arrived at Nova, I did snag a couple books from this collection. “The Truth” by Terry Pratchett, for example, came out of this collection, and I always enjoy a good Pratchett book.
“Magician” by Raymond Feist was another book I got from the Nova library. I had never heard of it before, but I was trying to vary my reading habits a bit so I thought I’d give it a chance. It ended up being extremely mediocre. After that I didn't bother with any of the other various books I had never heard of in the stack).
My first thought was to donate these books to the Nakatsu library. I had donated all my old English books to the Nakatsu library before. They didn't really have an English section in their library, but I thought it would be kind of cool to build one up (something that English teachers and other foreigners will be able to use for years to come). And thus far, the Nakatsu library had always been glad to take my books, and had even been sending me thank you letters afterwards.
…But I thought maybe 200 books might overwhelm then a little bit, so I decided to take this stack to the Oita International Center.
The Oita International Center was located in a big grand building called “Oasis 21”. (Why “Oasis 21” I have no idea. One of the many strange names that pops up in Japan). I parked my car in their parking lot, and went to the International Center (which was hidden away in a little corner on the basement floor). The door was still locked, and a sign said they opened at 9:30. I glanced at my watch. It was 9:10. I had 20 minutes to kill. Time to explore the building.
Oasis 21 was one of those big impressive buildings that seemed to dominate the city center. And driving down the road, there were all sorts of signs pointing it out so that it was hard to miss.
And yet, like a lot of big impressive buildings, it was hard to figure out what exactly it was for. I had been in it several times before, and, aside from the International Center (hidden away in a little corner in the basement) I never figured out what the rest of the building did. Well, now seemed like a good time to find out.
I wandered up to the 1st floor, and walked around. Not finding anything really I walked up to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors as well. NHK, or at least the Oita branch of it, was stationed in this building. (NHK is the publicly funded broadcast station in Japan, like PBS in America or BBC in Britain). Each floor had an door leading to the NHK offices, but most of the doors were shut, and the doors that were open looked like just a reception desk and a waiting area. I was half hoping to find some sort of public exhibit, or gift shop, or something like that, but I didn't see anything. Maybe I was just too early in the morning.
The other side of the building was called Iichiko Hall. The doors to this were all closed, but it appeared to be some sort of big auditorium. (Iichiko is a local company that specializes in making sake and other types of alcohol. It’s based out of Usa city, and is the parent company to the Ajimu Winery).
9:30 came around, I went back to the International Center. The doors were unlocked by now, so I let myself in and gently knocked on the door.
Mike, the local CIR (Coordinator for International Relations), was there. I had never met Mike in person before, but I had been around long enough to expect he would be there. The Oita CIR was always stationed in the International Center. And I knew Mike was the Oita CIR, because the Oita CIR is also the editor for the monthly Tombo Times. And since I had written several articles for the Tombo Times over the past year and a half, I had corresponded with Mike over e-mail.
“Mike, right?” I said extending a hand. “I’m Joel. We've corresponded over e-mail before.”
“Ah, right,” he said, perhaps a bit startled by my sudden entrance into the office, but shaking my hand in a warm and friendly manner. “What can I do for you?”
“I was wondering if you needed any new books for your library.”
“We’re always looking for books.”
I glanced at the small amount of bookshelf space the Oita International Center Library occupied. “Actually, I've got a whole car full of books. I don’t know if it’s more than you can handle or not.”
“No, actually, it’s okay. What we do with the extra books we get is….” (Here for some reason, my mind completely spaced out and I missed his whole explanation. I guess I must have been already thinking ahead in the conversation, and thinking about how I would explain to him why I happened to end up with a whole carload full of books. It must be admitted I do this with disturbing frequency--zone out in the middle of a conversation and miss important information. It used to drive Shoko crazy. It’s not something I’m proud of, but there it is).
Anyway, the point is they had a plan for extra books. I didn't need to understand what it was, just as long as they knew what they were doing.
Mike grabbed a rolling cart from the office so we could load everything up in one trip. We took the elevator down to the parking lot to get the books, and traded stories about what we had been doing in Japan.
“You were a JET in this area once before, was that right?” Mike asked me.
“Yeah, well I’m one of those guys who came to Japan and just never left,” I said. “I did my 3 years on the JET program out in Ajimu. It was a 3 year limit back then. I understand they've raised that up to 5 years now?”
“In most cases,” Mike said. “There’s a bit of tricky legal wording in the contract. Basically the school still has the right not to extend your contract past 3 years if you’re causing problems. But as long as you’re not a complete jerk, most people can extend up to 5 years.”
“Well, back in my day, way back in 2004, there was a 3 year limit. And so I did my 3 years on JET, and then did a couple more years up in Gifu prefecture as a private ALT. Then I went back to the States, but ended up coming back to Japan because of my fiancée. She was living out in the countryside in Usa Nakatsu area, so there weren't a lot of jobs to choose from. So I applied with Nova. Having lived in Japan, I had heard all of the complaints from Nova teachers, but I thought it was only a short term job, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“And I guess you had that question answered,” Mike replied.
“Yeah, and then I’m here for half a year, and then they go bankrupt on me last October.”
“Well, at least you found out what the worst that could happen was.”
“Yeah, I guess I did. And then they started up in January again, and now they’re shutting down again.”
“Well, just the Nakatsu branch. Still, we were the only branch that got re-opened in all of Oita prefecture. Now students are going to have to commute all the way out to Kokura just to take lessons.”
“Are they going to?”
“They have to. They never got a refund on their points.”
We started loading books onto the cart. Some of them I had bagged, but a lot of the books I had just carried out to the car in stacks, and now we had to arrange all of these on the cart so they wouldn't fall off. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have mentioned this when we were back up the office. We could have brought more bags or something.”
“We have lots of boxes up there we could have used.”
“Sorry, my bad,” I said.
The stacks of books teetered on the cart the whole way back up to the office, always giving the impression they were about to fall off. But they didn't. We made it back up to the office without any disasters.
“Hey, as long as I’m here, I think I might browse through your library and see if there’s anything I want to check out myself,” I said.
Mike explained the system to me. “You need to fill out this form, then we’ll get you a library card. You can check out up to 10 books for 2 weeks. There’s no penalty or anything for late books, you just can’t check out any new books until you've returned any overdue books.”
“Yeah, actually to be honest, since I live all the way out in Nakatsu, there’s probably a good chance I’d be returning the books a bit on the late side.”
“That’s fine. That’s perfectly fine. We have people from all over the prefecture checking out books, and we understand sometimes it’s difficult to make it back to Oita on time. We have no problem with late books. The problem is that some people were checking out books and just never returning them ever, and then continuing to check out more books. Late is okay, just as long as you don’t use us like a free book store.”
I told Mike I’d wait to fill out the form until I checked to see if there were any books I was actually interested in or not. (I always like to avoid filling out unnecessary forms, if at all possible).
I spent a while scanning the shelves, and in the end picked out “War and Peace,” a biography of Tsar Nicholas II, and a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton. (I remember Bear had told me about Sir Richard Francis Burton, apparently a great historical explorer and also a character in the “Riverworld” book series. He sounded pretty interesting).
No guarantee whether I’ll actually read these books or not you understand. If I do read them, then I guess you’ll see them appearing in my book reviews. Otherwise they’ll just be among the many, many books I check out or buy, and then never get around to reading. But it was free to check them out, and there were no English book stores in Nakatsu, so I felt I might as well load up on books while I was in Oita city.
Speaking of loading up on English books, the next stop was Oita prefectural library. I tried to take a short cut there, which is always a bad idea in Japan (because you can seldom rely on the roads continuing straight. You will start heading West, but pretty soon find yourself heading North or South, or maybe even back East before you know it) and so this lead to a bit of frustrated driving around, but eventually I got to the library.
For 10:30 on a Thursday morning, the prefectural library was surprisingly busy. The regular parking lot was already full, and I had to go park in the overflow parking. (There were about 5 cars lined up waiting to get into the regular parking lot. They were just sitting their by the gate idling their engines, and waiting for someone to leave so that one of them could enter. I thought this was a bit strange, especially since overflow parking was just right across the street. Maybe they didn't want to park their cars in the hot summer sun, and thought it worth the wait to get a space in the underground parking garage. I don’t know.)
When I entered the library, I saw a lot of Japanese business men doing work at the various desks, and then I remembered my students telling me they always went to the library to work or study because of the free air-conditioning. And this explained why the main parking lot was already full.
Oita prefectural library has a decent English section (3 whole rows of books) but it doesn't compare to a full library by any means. If you walk in hoping to browse for something interesting, you’ll probably find something. But if you go in with a specific book or purpose in mind, you might end up frustrated.
I was going in with a specific purpose. I had decided I was finished studying Japanese history, and instead wanted to study 19th Century European history. Unfortunately the history section was a bit thin.
There was a series of books called “World Leaders: Past and Present” which was a series of short sketches on famous world leaders. They were all only about 100 pages long, so none of them were very indepth, but I figured I know so little that I could probably learn some from them anyway. So I picked up the biographies on Robespierre, Queen Victoria, Danton, Thomas Paine, Napoleon, Clemenceau, and Lenin. Again I can’t guarantee I’ll actually read all of these, but since they were all quite short I’d say the odds are probably better than usual.
In the section on arts and music, I found a biography of Richard Wagner that looked interesting. And lastly from the fiction section I got “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.
And although I had just picked up a copy of "War and Peace" at the international center, I found a copy at the library with larger more readable print. So I picked up a second copy. (I figured large easy to read print is important if you're going to attempt a book like this.)
There were a few comic books as well. I didn't feel like going through the trouble of checking these out, but before I left the library I sat down at one of the desks and leafed through a couple. (Actually the desks were all taken up by Japanese business men enjoying the free air-conditioning, so I took the comic books to a round table instead. I read a “Far Side” collection cover to cover (I read so much “Far Side” as a kid that I had trouble finding any new cartoons, and the comic began to lose it’s appeal for me. But it’s been so long now that I've forgotten most of it, and I’m now able to read these comics as if they were new and fresh again.) I flipped through a Dilbert collection, but I wasn't not enough of a Dilbert fan to read it cover to cover.
I heard bells ringing, and glanced at my watch. It was 12:00 already. And I had done nothing my whole morning but look at books. Clearly this was shaping up to be one of my less exciting “Better Know a City” days.
The last time I had been to Oita Prefectural library was almost a year ago. Sometime in August 2007, I had gone into Oita City for the purpose of obtaining an application for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. (For some whoknowswhat stupid bureaucratic reason, these things aren't available through the mail. They’re only sold at designated book stores. Which means people who live out in the countryside, like me, have to drive an hour and a half into the city just for the privilege of paying 500 yen to buy an application packet).
Anyway, I had to get an application, and my co-worker Leanne agreed to keep me company on the drive, and in return I showed her the sights of Oita city. Since Leanne was a fellow bookworm, I took her to Oita prefectural library so she could stock up on English books. I helped her fill out the application form and get a library card. Then we were both in line to check out our books, and I opened my wallet to get out my library card, and I couldn't find it.
It’s easy for stuff to get lost in your wallet in Japan. Every store I patronize has their own point card, so my wallet is so thick with cards I can hardly close it. So at first I thought my library card must be hiding between two other cards, but I looked again and again and I couldn't find it.
Finally, Leanne offered to check out my books on her card. Which was very nice of her.
I never did find my prefectural library card. It was one of the many things I manage to lose all the time.
So, now I had to (sigh) fill out another form to get a new library card. I dutifully completed the form, wrote my name, birthdate, address (in Kanji), et cetera, and brought it to the front desk.
“Actually I had a card before,” I said. “I just lost it.” In the back of my mind I was slightly worried that there would be some sort of walk of shame for people who had lost their library cards. She would angrily tell me that I couldn’t check out any new books if I had lost my first card, and I would have to walk back and reshelve the stack of books I was holding in my hands.
But of course there wasn’t. She just pulled my information up on the computer, checked to see if there were any changes to my information (in fact there were. My old Ajimu address from 4 years ago was still listed as current, so she changed that) and then gave me a piece of paper. “You can use this to check out books with for now,” she said. “And then come back anytime after August 14th and show us this paper, and then you can get a new card.”
I was a bit surprised by this . I thought I’d be given a new card then and there. When Leanne and everyone else registers for a card, they get a new card given to them right on the spot. Apparently the system is a bit different for people who have lost their cards.
I didn’t expect to be back to the library on August 14. It had been a year since I was here last, and it might well be a year until I go here again. I can return the books back at the Nakatsu library, so I probably won’t need to make the drive back out to Oita for while. At which point, I’ll probably have lost the piece of paper they gave me, and have to go through the whole process all over again.
But at least I was able to check out books for today.
Next, I drove my car right into the center of Oita City, and parked my car by the station.
As I was walking, I noticed a building top was still carrying an advertisement for my former employer, despite the fact that there hadn’t been a Nova open in Oita city since the original bankruptcy in October.
(The branch in Nakatsu had re-opened for half a year, but none of the 3 former branches in Oita city had been re-opened.) This caused me to wonder briefly if anyone had been paying for this sign the whole time. Or perhaps it said something about the speed of business down here in Kyushu. I’m sure in Tokyo that precious advertising space would have been snatched up within a week of Nova closing its doors.
Since this was supposed to be a day spent inside in air-condition, my first stop was the “Popeye’s Internet Café” next to the train station.
It occurred to me as I walked through the doors (and was immediately hit by a welcome cool blast of air conditioning) that I had never once been to an Internet Café back in my native country of America. In fact, to the best of my memory, I couldn’t remember even seeing an Internet Café in America. If I were back in America, and found myself without Internet access, I’m not sure what I would do.
My thoughts continued: Was this simply because I didn’t know the right places to go? Or was it because I was from Michigan? If I lived, for example, in Seattle, would there be Internet cafes on every street corner?
Or, could it be that there are almost no internet cafes in America?
In Japan, I’ve practically lived out of Internet cafes. The majority of the time I’ve been in Japan, I’ve been without Internet access in my home. Which means almost all of the work I’ve done on this blog over the years has been done from an Internet café. (Or more accurately, I type it up on my word processor, and then just go to the Internet café to post it).
In Japan, there are always internet cafes in any decent sized city. In the countryside like Ajimu it can be a bit inconvenienent of course. But in Oita city, in Beppu, in Gifu, even in Nakatsu there are always Internet cafes. If it weren’t for Internet cafes, I guess I would have had to give in and buy a decent computer a long time ago. (Actually, by now I probably would have had to go through a couple of them, since they need to be upgraded every few years.)
Internet cafes in Japan are very reasonably priced. Usually around $3 to $5 for an hour. And that always includes all the free drinks you want. I’ve never been to an internet café in Japan yet that didn’t serve free drinks. In the nice internet cafes, they’ve got quite a selection as well.
I grabbed a coffee, a grape soda, and an orange slushy. (They’re all free after all, so I figure why not load up on 3 different kinds of drinks at once? Give my taste buds some variety as I surf the net).
I checked my e-mail. Since I’m once again without e-mail access, it had been a week since I last checked my e-mail. There were several messages from friends that I should reply to, but I didn’t feel like it.
Despite my graphomania on display on this blog, I have a hard time keeping up with e-mail from an internet café. Maybe because I come into an Internet café to relax, and then it feels like homework to have to sit up and write off a bunch of responses. Plus the time frame of being in an Internet café adds a bit of pressure.
99.9% of the population prefers receiving mail rather than writing it, and I guess I can count myself among them.
Next stop, Forus Department store.
I always stop by Forus department store because they have a Bookstore which has a couple shelves of English books. Most of my visits into the big city revolve around looking at books. Which I guess is pretty pathetic, but when you live out in the Japanese countryside, you’d be surprised how desperate you get for a good English book selection.
The Junkudo bookstore is located on the 7th floor of the department store. The other 6 floors are made up of brand name clothing stores, and filled with fashionable young Japanese girls with Louis Vitton hand bags wandering around. It’s the kind of place I normally wouldn’t be caught dead in, and I always feel dreadfully out of place until I get up to the 7th floor. I am constantly worried one of the mall staff is going to come up to me and say something like, “Are you sure you’re in the right building? You don’t look very fashionable.”
Going up the escalator, I passed not one, but two Japanese girls with perfume so strong it made my eyes water.
“Harry Potter” was on display at Junkudo bookstore. The Japanese translation of the 7th book had just got released a couple months ago, and many of my students are in the middle of reading it right now. (I can no longer brag to them that I know the ending and they don't).
I headed to the back where the English books were kept. There was another foreigner couple already there. The girl was sitting on the ground reading, the guy was leaning against the bookshelf reading. In fact the guy was leaning right against the bookshelf I wanted to look at.
I tried not to be too rude about it. I looked at everything else first, and then gradually moved over to the bookshelf he was looking at, and tried to hint by my body language that I wanted to see what was behind him. He tried to ignore me for a bit, and then slowly moved away.
Having already been to 2 libraries that morning, I didn’t feel the need to waste a lot of money at the bookstore. Usually I can’t leave without buying something, but I was able to mostly resist. I did however buy an application packet for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this year. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to take the test this year or not, but for the 500 yen it costs, I certainly don’t want to have to drive all the way back to Oita city again if I change my mind.
Next, I went to the Starbucks at the bottom of Forus department store to read my books.
Whenever I get into a big city in Japan, I always visit a Starbucks. I’m not sure why, I just tend to gravitate there because it seems like a part of the big city experience. (Starbucks haven’t quite made their way out to the Japanese Countryside yet, but in a big city you can find them on practically every street corner.)
I’ve noticed other foreigners who live out in the countryside share the same pattern. When ever they go into a city, they always make it a point to drop into a Starbucks. Nobody knows quite why we do it, but we all end up there.
I got a large cup of coffee and went up to a table where I flipped through some of my books. The foreign couple who I had just seen in the bookstore ended up sitting at the table next to mine.
After I finished my coffee, I made my way across the street to Parco Department store. Parco is just like Forus. It’s 7 floors of clothing and fashion, but if you can hold your breath and make it up to the top floor, you can find the books.
On the top floor of Parco is a shop called “Village Vanguard: Interesting Bookstore.” And interesting bookstore it is. Issei, my friend/supervisor at the Board of Education in Ajimu first took me here way back in my first year in Japan, when the 2 of had to go into Oita city for some bureaucratic reason. (I forget why exactly. I probably needed some stamp on my passport, or some alien registration form).
The assortment of stuff in Village Vanguard is so random it’s difficult to classify. It’s kind of a pop culture shop, with everything from Disney to Che Guevara lining the shelves. Some of the stuff is very innocent and childish, other stuff is blatantly offensive. (In Gifu, when I argued with the store clerk about the big Nazi flag he had on display, that was in a “Village Vanguard” shop).
It’s not a particular English friendly shop: all of the books are in Japanese. And my Japanese is just good enough where I can read the cover of the book, but not much else. But actually I’ve always preferred browsing book covers than slogging through the whole book anyway, so I can spend a lot of time in Village Vanguard just looking at the covers and thinking about all the interesting books I would be able to read if only I studied Japanese more. Books on Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Che Guevara (whose been experiencing a bit of renewed popularity in Japan the last few years) and John Lennon (whose always been a favorite in Japan, probably because of his relationship with Yoko Ono).
There’s always a lot of interesting music in “Village Vanguard”. Although unfortunately its usually music I’ve never heard of, so it’s difficult to know what to buy. Occasionally in the past I’ve taken gambles just based on how cool the CD case looked. A dangerous (and expensive) gamble, but it did introduce me to a number of great Japanese artists and CDs. Kojima Mayumi, for example, is an artist I really enjoyed who I found through Village Vanguard. Also the soundtrack to “The Stray Cat Rock” movies turned out to be another good Village Vanguard gamble.
In the past, I’ve made a lot of impulse buys at Village Vanguard, hoping I guess, in my more desperate moments, that the cool atmosphere of the shop would rub off on me if I only made the right purchases. Today though, I walked away without buying anything.
There were a couple more shops in the area I knew that had English books, and I wandered around and poked my head in them. They were, like I knew they would be, the same books I had seen before at Junkudo bookstore. All bookstores in Japan must get all their English books from the same supplier, because it’s always the same from store to store. Probably the owners of these bookstores can’t even read English, and just subscribe to the same list of recommended English books from a common distributer. Who knows.
It was after 4 by this time, and I thought maybe it was getting late enough in the afternoon to try and venture out into the summer heat.
Not far from the department stores is a Japanese castle surrounded by a moat and small garden. Every time I come into Oita city with a Japanese friend I always ask about the history of the castle, and no one seems to know. There are no signs around the castle explaining it, nor guides around to question. It may well not even be very historical, but at least it's free. The gates are wide open, and there’s no one collecting ticket fees, so you can just walk right in and wander around.
I did a bit of video taping and I took a picture, so maybe you can get the idea.
It’s not the world’s most scenic area, but it is a nice little park in the otherwise sea of concrete that is central Oita. It perhaps demonstrates the Japanese ability to build little tranquil areas in the midst of a busy city.
I tried to walk around the castle. For some frustrating reason, it’s built like a maze. There is a long wall, and then several other fences, so to get inside you have to make a long detour around the fence, over a bridge, along the moat, and then across another bridge again. It’s a bit aggravating at the best of times, but in the summer heat it feels really unnecessary.
I did make it all the way around the castle, and I didn’t die of heat stroke. Although my clothing was thoroughly soaked through with sweat. I looked like I had just been caught out in a rain storm. And the humidity of the Japanese summer meant it would stay soaked through like that without drying off.
Nonetheless, since I was as hot as I was going to get, I thought about leaving the center of Oita, getting in my car again, and driving off maybe to the edge of the city to find a park, a beach, or even just another shopping center. I felt like I had done all there was to do in the city center.
Then I glanced at my watch, and saw it was just turning 5 O’clock now. If there was one thing I did not want to do, it was get stuck in my car during rush hour traffic in downtown Oita on a hot summer afternoon. Anything would be preferable to that.
So, I went back into Starbucks. Not the same Starbucks as before. I decided to go to the one across the street, and give my life a little variety. I ordered another cup of coffee, and got a sandwich and a cookie, and decided to continue reading my books.
After about a half hour or so, I heard someone call out “Sensei, sensei!” I looked up, and one of the Korean girls from Beppu University was waving at me.
She came over and started talking to me. “I’m surprised to see you here,” she said. “Don’t you live all the way out in Nakatsu, or something? I didn’t think I’d see you here. But I thought I saw someone who looked like you, so I walked around the shopping mall one more time just so I could get another look at you. And it really is you. What are you doing in Oita city?”
I explained I was visiting the libraries and the bookstores. I thought it made me sound somewhat pathetic even as I said it, but it was the truth. I invited her to have a seat and join me, but she declined. “I’m here with my friends,” she said. “They’re over there waiting for me. I just wanted to say hi.” She left, and I returned to my book.
By 7, it was getting dark already. Even in the summer, the Japanese sun sets very early. Mainly because there’s no daily savings time. The sun rises ridiculously early at 4:30 in the morning (or so I’ve been told) and then sets very early in the evening.
It drives us foreigners, who are used to long summer evenings, crazy. But the Japanese don’t seem to mind. Every year the newspapers bring up the issue of daylight savings time, and every year the Japanese public seems strongly against it. (I think the main reason given is because changing everyone’s sleeping patterns messes with biorhythms, or something like that).
I set out from Starbucks, and while waiting at a crosswalk for the light to change, ran into my Korean classmate again. She was with a male Korean friend, who I thought might have been her boyfriend. “Sensei,” she exclaimed.
“Hello again,” I said. “Fancy running into you twice in one day.”
She told me all of her Korean friends had gone back to Korea now. “I’m the only one left,” she said sadly. “But I wanted to learn more Japanese, so I decided to stay on for one semester.
“By the way, your speech was very good,” she said, referring to the speech contest on the last day of school (in which I had taken 3rd prize.) She turned to her friend. “Isn’t his Japanese very good for an American?” she asked.
“Are you a teacher at Beppu University,” he asked me.
“No, I’m just a student there. I teach out in Nakatsu,” I said.
(The Korean students insisted on calling me “sensei”, even though I told them at Beppu University I was off the clock and was just another ordinary student, so they could call me by name. For some reason this never got across, and I think it may have confused some of the other students, as it was now confusing her boyfriend.)
The light changed, and we went our separate ways.
It was now night time, and too late to go exploring another part of the city. Before I got in my car and went home though, I decided to visit Miyako Machi, the night district in Oita city.
I have a lot of memories about Miyako Machi and night life in Oita city. I’ve written about a few of them on this blog. (Although by far and away my best stories are the ones that never made it to the blog.)
And I have a lot of mixed feelings about the whole place. One on hand, I loved the idea of the night district. There’s a certain romance in the tackiness of having all the bars, ramen shops, karaoke parlors, and snack bars stacked on top of each other. Neon lights are flashing everywhere. The cool night air makes you feel alive, and the dark sky makes you feel mysterious.
And on a Friday or Saturday night, the whole area is packed with people. Taxi cabs move slowly through lanes that are swarming with pedestrians. Drunk Japanese business men stumble along the street. Pretty girls talk loudly and giggle together as they walk out of a bar. Guys stand on a street corner to try and look for pretty girls.
That’s what I love about Miyako Machi: the energy you can feel pulsating in the street. My favorite part of the night was not the dance club or the bar we went to, but just getting to the dance club or the bar that we were going to.
….Which brings me to my least favorite part of the night. Once we actually got to the bar or night club we were going to, I hated being stuck inside a small room all night. Space is at a premium in Japan, so even the dance clubs we went to (like “Cool Bananas” had a bit of a claustrophobic feeling.
I was never a big fan of the night club scene. I was too shy to pick up girls. I might work up the courage to talk to them at a bar, but I could never pick them up on the dance floor. And I hated having to yell over the music to try and talk to people.
The actual dancing itself was alright, if I let myself get into it. But the kind of music they play at these kind of clubs has never been my cup of tea.
Because I rarely drank, I was always the designated driver. Which meant I stayed sober as the people around me got more and more drunk, and the conversation got more and more inane.
I would often excuse myself from the bar, wander outside, take a walk around the town, and come back to the bar to see if my friends were ready to go home yet. Then I would come back in the bar and sit with them until I could stand the claustrophobic feeling no longer, and go outside and wander around again.
Clearly, I’m not much of a night club person. Somehow I always ended up with a group of friends who wanted to get drunk and stay out all night.
I remember spending many a bored night at a small bar or dance club, waiting for my friends to sober up or finally get sick of dancing . And I remember more than once driving home from a dance club with the sun already up.
Of course, staying out all night at tacky dance clubs and claustrophobic bars is just part of the ex-pat scene in Japan. And to a certain extent, maybe just part of being in your 20s. Now that I’m 30, I think I’ll leave that part of my life behind. I won’t guarantee I’ll never set foot in a dance club again, but I certainly don’t feel a sense of obligation anymore. Before I felt like I had to go out and party with everyone to prove that I wasn’t an anti-social hermit. Now, I’ve come to accept the beauty of a quiet Friday night.
I walked past the place where the old “Cool Bananas” used to be. That was the dance club we always used to go to back in the day. The building was empty now, and a for rent sign was on the wall.
…During the past few years, “Cool Bananas” had changed locations a number of times. There were all sorts of rumors about troubles and scandals that had befallen the place, and I wasn’t sure where it had ended up, or even if it was still open.
A few doors down, there had been another bar popular with the foreign crowd: El Gauchos. This too had apparently closed down, because there was now another bar there with a different name: “70s Music Bar” (or something like that.)
Although the bar had apparently changed ownership, it still appeared to be foreigner friendly. The outside window was covered with Western music album covers. Many of them from around the 70s. (Being a classic rock fan, I noticed that about half the albums featured were from the middle or late 60s, but you can’t be too picky about these things in Japan).
I had taken a moment or two to linger by the window, so the two Japanese men standing by the door called out to me. One, who I assume was the owner, began explaining the theme of the bar to me. “Everything is from the 70s. How old are you?”
“30,” I answered.
“Ah, I’m 45. You’re probably not old enough to remember all of these groups from the 70s.” He pointed to an album. “Like ‘The Allman Brothers’. Do you know ‘The Allman Brothers?’”
“Actually, yes. I saw them in concert back when I was in college. Twice.”
This didn’t appear to impress him very much, because he continued right on talking as if he hadn’t heard me. He asked me how long I had been in Japan, where I was from, what I was doing in Japan, et cetera. The standard questions.
I entertained the idea of going into the bar and trying to make friends with whoever was inside, but then ruled it out. More likely than not it would be just drunken Japanese old men, and the conversation would be very predictable and boring. “Wow, aren’t you tall? You speak Japanese very well. Can you use chopsticks? Can you eat sushi? What do you think about Japan?”
Instead, I thanked the proprietor, made a rather awkward good-bye, and just continued down the street to Jungle Park, at the center of Miyako Machi.
Jungle Park is a stroke of genius-I tip my hat to whatever urban planner thought of the idea. Right in the middle of all these neon lights, snack bars, and karaoke parlors, there is a small oasis of greenery. A large water fountain cascades over down several steps. Lots of trees line the middle of the park, and street lamps shine light onto the green leaves. In the middle of the night, the whole place almost does look a bit like a jungle.
I once wandered over to Jungle Park in the daytime, just to see what it would look like, and found that it looked completely different in the light. The trees, which at night had seemed to cover the park with green foliage, were actually thin and spread out from each other. They looked sick and scraggily in the sunshine. The ground was covered with all sorts of cigarette butts and trash I had never noticed at night.
I tried to take some video of Jungle Park and Miyako Machi. Unfortunately my video camera doesn’t work well at night, so I had a hard time getting Jungle Park to even show up on the camera. (Also keep in mind this was on a Thursday night. Things are a lot more lively down here on the weekend).
I was just about to call it a night when I remembered Sean, a friend of mine from my JET days, was working in a club around here. Sean had gone back to America, then returned again to Japan (everyone always goes and comes back here) and had gone into business for himself by buying P.E.I., one of the foreign bars in Oita. (It had previously been a Canadian themed bar, but I guess since Sean was an American, he might set about to changing that now).
Sean had sent a message announcing his return to the Oita JETs listserve a few months ago. It had been years since I’d seen him, so I thought I’d drop by PEI and see if he was working tonight.
It had been a few years since I had last been to PEI, so I had a bit of trouble finding it, but eventually I got the right door. And sure enough, Sean was standing behind the bar. So I walked over and gave him a punch in the arm.
Sean’s one of the friendliest guys in the world. I barely know him really, hardly have hung out with him, but he always acts overjoyed to see me. “Hey,” he says warmly. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought I’d remembered something about you working here now,” I said. “So I thought I’d drop by.”
“Man, it’s been ages. I think it’s been a couple years since you even sent me an e-mail.”
“I know,” I said sheepishly. “I kept meaning to e-mail, but I never got around to it.”
Sean grabbed my hands and examined them closely. “What’s this? No wedding ring? I thought you’d be married by now!”
“Yeah, that’s a long story.”
“Weren’t you e-mailing me for advice on how to get an international marriage visa?”
“Yes, well, like I said it’s a long story.”
“Oh, well sorry if I brought up a sore subject.”
“No, not so much a sore subject so much as a long story.”
It’s difficult to have a long conversation with a barman when he’s on duty, and Sean’s attention was soon distracted by orders from customers down at the other end of the bar, and I didn’t really have time to go into my whole sob story about the break-up at the time.
There were a few other people at the bar I recognized. Like Joel, who had been a JET in Oita City and whose first name I’ve always admired. I played catch up with Joel now, and he told me he had finished out his JET days, and was now working as a private Assistant Language Teacher (ALT).
There were several other foreigners at the bar, who I couldn’t quite place names to, but who looked vaguely familiar. One of them thought the same about me, because he said, “We’ve met before somewhere, haven’t we?”
“I think so,” I said. “You look familiar.”
“I can’t remember where though.” He said.
I couldn’t either. We spent a few minutes trying to figure it out. He had come into Oita as a JET in the fall of 2004, which was just when I had been leaving Oita prefecture to head to Gifu. But of course since I had left a girlfriend behind in Oita prefecture, I had made several trips back to visit during Summer and Spring breaks, and had probably run into him one of those times.
“Did you hang out with Mike from South Africa?” he asked.
“Yes, I did,” I said.
“That must have been it then,” he said. “Did you stay over at Mike’s apartment in Oita city sometime?”
“I did once yeah.”
“That’s it then. I think I was there the same night.”
Having established a connection, we played expat bingo (just like Dutch Bingo) for a while longer to see how many people we could find in common. Which school did you work at? Oh, yes, so and so was your predecessor there, right? I heard she didn’t like it that much, did you have any problems?
There was a bit of humor during the night as one of the guys wanted desperately to use the toilet, but couldn’t get the door open. He assumed the toilet was occupied, and kept waiting for someone to emerge. He then asked Sean if maybe someone had passed out in the toilet, and there was some concern about what we should do if that had happened, and how we would get the locked door opened.
…And then it turned out the toilet was a push door, and he had been pulling on it the whole time. This created our humor for the evening, and was the basis for some other people to branch out and reminisce about other stupid things foreigners had said or done in Japan.
“That reminds me of Gareth,” someone said. “We picked him up from the airport his first day in Japan, and as we were driving him he said, ‘Wow, there’s so much bamboo everywhere’. And we said, well, yeah, it was Japan, and he said, ‘But then why aren’t there any pandas?’”.
This produced another round of guffaws.
Since it was the beginning of August, it was right about the time when the new JETs arrive, and the Old JETs go home. Someone at the bar was getting ready to go back home to England the next day, and there was a lot of talk about his future, especially since he was bringing his Japanese wife home with him.
“So this is the situation,” Sean told me. “He’s going back to England tomorrow. He’s got no job, no apartment, no place to live, and he’s bringing with him a Japanese wife he’s going to have to support somehow.”
The conversation then turned back to me, and I had to tell me tale of woe about how my Japanese fiancée had broken up with me. “Wow,” someone said. “That’s unusual for the Japanese girl to break it off. It’s almost always the foreign guy who calls it quits. I’ve never heard of the Japanese girl breaking it off.”
I couldn’t really think of a reply to this remark, so I just shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “Well, here we are.”
“You dodged a bullet man,” someone else said. “You’ll be thankful for this one day.”
“It does solve a lot of problems all at once,” I admitted. All the issues of international visas, paperwork, how to support Shoko in America or how to make a decent living in Japan, all of those problems just disappeared with one stroke. When I get over my heartbreak, maybe I will come to see the good side of this.
I talked to Sean about the bars around Oita, and he confirmed for me what I had already suspect. "Cool Banana" was officially no more. But he was looking to fill the void left with his own place.
"We have nomihodais on the last Saturday of every month," he said. "You ought to come down."
"I'll try," I said. "But its rough coming all the way from Nakatsu. Plus working in an Eikaiwa school, we tend to be the busiest on the weekends."
Joel ordered a PEI burger, and it looked so good I decided to order one myself. And it was very tasty.
"Don't forget to chew, man," Sean told me as he saw me wolfing down the burger.
"My father always used to tell me the same thing," I replied.
I said my good-byes eventually and headed back to my car (where I payed roughly $10 in parking for the day). On the way back, I saw some of the preperation for the Tanabata festival that weekend, so I video taped some of it.
Link of the Day
What's mine is yours at 'Really, Really Free Market' in Grand Rapids