Saturday, December 11, 2010

Japanese Friends and a Foreign Weekend

Hi Friends. Just so's you know, I'm sick and crabby and I just sneezed all over my brand new MacBook, so this blog post might have five shades of bitterness that I don't usually add. I got woken up at 9am this morning (UNGODLY) by a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses (GODLY) - a group who represent the only pushy breed of Japanese people, and whom specifically target foreigners dumb enough to put their names in English rather than Japanese on their mailboxes - who SHOULD have taken one look at me and backed away slowly with their hands over their mouths (which would have resulted in their falling down eleven flights of stairs, but oh well at least they're going to heaven, right?) but instead opted to talk me, word for word, through a 5-page colour brochure luridly depicting the glory of Christ. Not until I gave them the same treatment as I did my MacBook did they allow me to close the door and crawl back under my 3 duvets.

The reason for my illness is, I think, this: a desire for change. I have been living in Japan for four months now, and there comes a moment when you are forced to realise that brevity of time in residence is no longer an excuse for having such a scarcity of Japanese friends. This realisation occurred, for me, on Thursday and Friday of last week, during which time I was occupied in attendance at the JET Mid-Year Conference. This involves the reunion of all JETs in your prefecture (in my case, the whole of Hokkaido) in one hotel, and opportunities to discuss lesson-plans, living situations and life in Japan. During the conference, I got the distinct impression that JETs fortunate enough to be situated in Sapporo existed on the outskirts of these conversations. You see, Hokkaido is large and cold and mountainous and snowy. Roads become impassable. One's closest neighbour might live in Russia. So many Hokkaido JETs face extreme loneliness and possible depression. In contrast, if a Sapporo JET should become homesick, he/she could immediately go buy some shoes at Top Shop, drink a Starbuck caramel macchiato, then visit the local English bookstore for the latest Phillipa Gregory offering. Tastes of home are easy to find, and this, it appears, strips us of any license to complain.

There were definite good sides to the conference. I enjoyed immersing myself, albeit briefly, in some Kiwiana - there is only one other Kiwi in Sapporo, but a fair few of them spread thinly across the fields of Hokkaido (I could feel my accent getting broader as the conversations progressed). It was nice to observe some European fashion doing the rounds. And I got to wake up at 9am rather than 6am. But so many gaijin in one room was, truly, overwhelming. We are so loud! So tall! I can't even imagine what it must be like for those far-flung JETs who've not seen blue eyes in four months.

It got me thinking - why don't I make more of an effort to ingratiate myself with Japanese people, when such a concentration of foreigners makes it abundantly clear to me how much I have come to enjoy Japanese company? (PS: Can you tell that I've been watching waaaay too much Sex and the City - "I couldn't help but wonder..."

With that in mind, this weekend just gone saw my most concerted effort to make Japanese friends. Was I successful? Hai.

Friday night, Fay, Pui Wing and I effectively crashed a Japanese Bon Enkaii, which is a party to celebrate the end of the year. When I say crashed I mean that we were invited, but we were invited last Saturday night at a gaijin bar (the one with the Dalmation and Stephen King, if you're a dedicated reader) by a Japanese girl under the influence of three too many tequila shots, whose recollection of the invitation must have been hazy at best. Despite this, we were welcomed warmly, and sat down at a table with some 30 other Japanese people. Their English was fantastic, and my Sex and the City reference was provoked by the women with whom I conversed most - 30-something single, gorgeous women with jobs and goals and truly fantastic legs. One in particular, whose bottom I had spent some time admiring as we climbed the stairs to the restaurant, whom I would have categorized as model/trophy wife/designer transpired to be in the ARMY, which makes me almost wish that Japan would go to war again, just to see how invading forces reacted when it was a Japanese Heidi Clume who raided and plundered (apparently in my mind, warfare involves pirates).

I consumed nabe and sashimi and lotus root...

...and basked in the company of fabulousness for nearly 7 hours. Much alcohol was imbibed and food eaten. I formed many friendships (we're now FaceBook friends, there is no greater recognition).

The men started to falter:

But the women soldiered (PUN) on:

(The one on the right is GI Jane).

This night was fabulous for many reasons, but the most important of them is this: I learnt that my impression of Japanese women is stereotypical and flawed. True, many of them are abject husband hunters. True, the moment I mentioned that I had a boyfriend of 4 years, all eyes flickered to my ring finger. But, these women were strong and sassy and educated and independent. They flirted with the myriad handsome men who were present, but didn't fall at their feet, nor desert their friends to court them. Despite all cultural memes to the contrary, they were Samantha, Carrie and Miranda - they weren't Charlotte.

This revelation was worth a Saturday spent, in pain, in bed.

Saturday night was a different experience - an attempt to break out of the JET mold by spending some time with non-JET foreigners, those who have been here some 7-30 years, those who look upon JET as the kindergarten of foreign experiences. I was invited to this party to an adorable Japanese girl called Emily (Emiri), all five feet of her (we had done some bonding last Saturday):

The party was at an apartment about two minutes walk from the centre of town. During this walk I was introduced to Colin, who I immediately identified as a Kiwi, and who, it transpired, hailed from the same tiny Auckland neighbour-hood as myself. Devonport must be diversifying. The apartment was 18 floors up, an apartment which made JET accommodation look like a bomb shelter. The view alone was worth extracting myself from my sick bed (this photo does not show it as well as it might):

Though hosted by a true-blue Ozzy, the party was filled with many Japanese women cut from the same cloth as those from the night before - young, bilingual and gorgeous. They brought blue cheese! They drank red wine! They were... me! I didn't last very long at this party (I swear I have the PLAGUE, ok), but I stayed long enough to taste true, multi-cultural Japanese life.

I know I sound wanky, but this weekend really was a revelation. I know I am the worst kind of foreigner - I can only make friends with locals who speak my language, I'm only brave enough to attempt it when vodka has been taken - but I feel like I made an effort, and that this effort was rewarded.

In other news?

You can buy strawberries at the supermarket now:


They're only $20 a punnet.

Odori Park is all gawdy and gorgeous for the White Illuminations:

(As you can see, the Japanese fetish for all thing kitsch has not been stymied by the use of the word 'White' in all posters advertising the event).

And... there's only one full week of work left before Christmas and New Years and Tokyo. Hurrah! Also, I'm traveling out to Niseko next weekend to indulge in a little sex... outside the city.

Ha! Bye!


  1. Jeez. Buck up. I lived in Hokkaido in the 70's as a high school exchange student. I lived in Monbetsu (6 hours by train from Sapporo). Back then we did not have the internet or cheap international phone calls. We had snail mail. Dive in and learn about Japan. you are there for what(?) -- one -maybe two years? Don't feel sorry for yourself or feel slighted because JET's closer to Sapporo have access to Starbucks. Enjoy where you are. Go skiing or ice skating. Dive in and learn and improve your Japanese.

  2. Hi Andrew! Sorry, I think you must have misread my blog... I AM in Sapporo, I was just commenting on my interactions with those JETs who live further away. I am very deeply, deeply in love with where I live, and am only briefly sorry for myself because of flu!

  3. Love references to Sex and the City at all times. Also, hey Scar, remember not to have ANY feelings at all, lest Andrew be offended by them! He probably had to walk to walk to school in the snow without any shoes on for miles and miles and miles.


  4. Hey Scarlett, you're to polite to super rude people. But you're still awesome.