Presents received – lunch
Presents given – pint of Carlsberg
Renting an apartment can be a difficult business if you are foreign, because many landlords are under the impression that you will neglect to pay the bills, neglect to pay the rent and then disappear back to your home country without warning. So unless your employer acts as guarantor, the only other option is to live in a gaijin house. Gaijin houses are rather like student halls of residence, in that they are relatively cheap, but you only have one room to yourself and amenities are shared with the other tenants. They are convenient for landlords because even if one or two gaijin do run away, said landlord will still be earning an income from the occupied rooms, and they are convenient for gaijin because not only will they be welcomed as a tenant, but their initial cash outlay tends to be smaller than for a self-contained apartment. Compared to some I had visited, Mr Cambridge’s gaijin house was spacious and clean, with fifteen or twenty rooms on three floors, and one of the more creative residents had been commissioned to decorate the walls with an extensive mural of flowers and climbing plants, giving the place a bohemian feel. On the downside, the basement had recently flooded and there was a live electrical cable dangling from the kitchen ceiling. Despite the morning rush of teachers preparing for work, however, I managed to find a vacant shower stall, and before we left in search of breakfast, to spend some time perusing the enormous array of shoes and slippers left at the front door, which even this close to the centre of Tokyo was never locked.
For lunch I met Mr Heaven Valley, who in his own way was just as energetic as Mr Cambridge. He had recently retired from his job as a computer engineer, and I got the feeling that he didn’t quite know what to do with himself now that he had so much spare time on his hands. He would often come up with business ideas or do volunteer work, and one such brainstorm had led him to teach Japanese, which is how we had first met. The lessons were free of charge and took place in a classroom packed with tables, chairs, teachers and students: students who included in their number everyone from Indian factory workers to Brazilian hostesses. While the curriculum was a little too reliant on classic, textbook-based formality, I became good friends with Mr Heaven Valley, and together we had been on countless day trips: to the foothills of Mount Fuji, to Tsukiji fish market at four in the morning, to a flower festival in Itako and to the Senso Temple in Asakusa. In his younger days Mr Heaven Valley toured Japan by motorcycle, and he had shown me photographs of himself posing before Mount Fuji, stoic in his leather jacket and comb-over, and sitting astride a vintage bike. Thus his interest in my trip arose from the fact that I was following in his footsteps, and although I thanked him for all of his advice over the course of the summer, I also reassured him that life on the road was far less perilous than he had feared it might be.
My former employers may have been ruthless, money-grabbing gaijin, but many of their Japanese receptionists and school managers were very nice people indeed, and after lunch I went back along the Chuo Line to catch up with my favourite. Mrs Street Generation ran the school at Musashi-Sakai, which was just down the road from Mr Cambridge’s gaijin house. Off its central reception area were two small classrooms, and over the course of a typical day, around forty or fifty students would pass through its doors, from children of four or five to retirees in their seventies or eighties. The thing I found most endearing about Mrs Street Generation was her penchant for hoarding food, and many was the time that I caught her discreetly munching away on a nigiri she had hidden in her desk drawer, or that I would be sent to the conbini during my tea break to replenish her supply of snacks. We would often sit and chat between lessons, or go for a drink after work with her sister, who was a student of mine, and today was an opportunity to catch up on the latest gossip: of said sister getting engaged, and of Mrs Street Generation’s co-manager having a baby. As we talked, a group of kids was taking part in a particularly rowdy activity in one of the classrooms, and halfway through, a young lad whose face I recognised popped his head around the door. Having realised who I was, he looked as if he had seen a ghost, bid me a nervous hello and immediately ducked back inside. I could not for the life of me remember his name – was it Masayuki? Masahiro? Hirotaka? Takayuki? – but teaching children like him had been the saving grace of my time in Tokyo.
The great thing about kindergarten and elementary school students is their lack of an agenda: they have no learning targets, no long-term ambitions and no English exams to work towards. All they want to do is have fun, play games and keep their parents happy by turning up every week – parents who after all are paying good money for private tuition outside regular school hours. As a result, our lessons together were full of in-jokes and catchphrases, and liable at any moment to take a turn for the surreal or descend into complete anarchy. Over the course of nine months, I had taught:
1) A boy who liked to run around with a wastepaper basket on his head.
2) A group that began every lesson by beating me up with inflatable toys.
3) A boy who locked me out of the classroom.
4) A girl who showed her appreciation for a homework assignment by spitting on my head.
5) A boy who thought he was a dog, and would spend much of his time walking around on all fours and barking.
6) A boy who when confronted with any question to which he did not know the answer, said, ‘I don’t remember’ in a French accent, while smoking an imaginary cigar and sipping an imaginary Martini.
7) A group of girls (the tongue-twisting Manami, Miharu and Haruka) who developed a fixation with the phrase ‘knickerbocker glory’, to the exclusion of almost anything else I tried to teach them.
8) A boy whose lessons took the form of an extended penalty shoot-out.
9) A boy who cried every single week for four months, eventually confessing to his mother that he thought I was the devil because of my blue eyes.
10) And a three year old who became so distracted during summer school that she pooped her pants (mercifully, a school manager was on hand to clean up, and to go shopping for a new pair).
I became more attached to those children than to any of my grown-up students, even to colleagues and friends, and saying goodbye to them had been genuinely heart wrenching, particularly as they showered me with hand-drawn cards and gifts of origami on my final days at the schools where I worked.
There was no such commotion in the other classroom at Musashi-Sakai, from which a teacher I had not met before emerged to search the store cupboard for flashcards and toys. She was smartly dressed and spoke with an English accent, and I asked how long she had been working here.
‘Only about two or three weeks,’ she said. ‘I’m still at the panicking stage, so I spend far too much time writing lesson plans and then run out of ideas halfway through.’
‘Have you managed to make any friends?’
‘It’s pretty difficult because hardly anyone else lives near me. I’ve been to a couple of organised things, but I haven’t had the time to do much else, to be honest. It’s funny, though, there are hardly any girls working here. Almost all the teachers are blokes.’
‘Why’s that then?’
‘Why do you think?’ I raised my eyebrows and gave her a knowing smile.
‘Ah, I see. I hadn’t realised. Was that why you came?’
‘Well, I had a girlfriend at the time, so not as such. But it’s kind of an unspoken thing that everybody secretly understands and nobody mentions. I’ve heard of guys who came to Japan with the express intention of finding a wife, or if not that, then just to play the field. What brought you here, anyway?’
‘I want to be a primary school teacher, and it seemed like a good way of getting some experience and doing a bit of travelling at the same time.’
‘I’ve been thinking about doing a PGCE myself, as it happens. I enjoy teaching kids, and it would be nice to have something organised for when I go back to England.’
‘It’s funny you should say that about the men who work here, though. Now I come to think of it some of them are pretty strange.’
‘Often they’re running away from something. You know, bad debts, break-ups, family. Either that or they’re just social misfits.’
‘Whereas you’re completely sane.’
‘Exactly – that’s why I resigned! It’s not really fair, though. The women who come to Japan are the sane ones, and they’ve got it pretty tough, whereas the men are the oddballs, and they end up having a whale of a time. Well, some of them, anyway.’
We talked about working for the conversation school, and I tried to recount as many things as I could that I wished I had known when I first arrived. What I really wanted to say, though, was, ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE, GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN! THIS LOT WILL WORK YOU INTO THE GROUND! THEY’LL DEPRIVE YOU OF ANY POSSIBILITY OF A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE IN JAPAN!’ But that wouldn’t have been a particularly diplomatic move with Mrs Street Generation listening in, so I just dropped a few subtle hints and hoped this fresh-faced and still enthusiastic young teacher got the message that once you are in the country and have a work visa, there are much more rewarding avenues to explore.
By now Mrs Street Generation was busy fielding phone calls and dealing with the post-work and post-school rush, so I made my excuses, telling her to say hello to my former students.
‘Have a nice life,’ she said as I left, and while she had not intended it to be so blunt, the phrase somehow felt apt, and made me realise this may be the last time I saw her, or set foot in my former workplace. Meeting so many people again after eight months away had been enjoyable and strange by turns - sometimes as if I had never left, and sometimes as if too much time had passed - and in a sense, my stop off in Tokyo served as proof that I had left the place behind, along with many of my bad experiences there.
Back in Komaba-Todaimae, Mr Field Middle had just finished work, and was far less voluble than he had been on Saturday. Apparently, the Field Middles’ new upstairs neighbour was prone to snoring very loudly, and as Mr Field Middle was a light sleeper he had been lying awake for the majority of the night. While he went to bed early and Mrs Field Middle turned the volume down on the television, I headed to Shibuya for my final social engagement of the weekend.
Besides the Scramble Crossing, Shibuya’s other main attraction is its statue of Hachiko, a famously faithful dog in the style of Greyfriars Bobby, whose story has been turned into a syrupy Hollywood film starring the syrupy Richard Gere. If you are going to meet someone in Shibuya, Hachiko’s statue is the place to do it, and tonight I was waiting for Mr Yokohama. A university student with an interest in English that stemmed mainly from his weakness for foreign women, Mr Yokohama had had his photograph printed in the Nova conversation school magazine, when he was recognised as the fastest progressing student in his home city. His gaijin ex-girlfriends had done their best to enlighten him as to the more colloquial aspects of the language, thus earning him the nickname Mr ‘Fuckin’’ Yokohama.
‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I said as he emerged from the station.
‘Ah, I’m sorry man. I am so fuckin’ late. I had a meeting with my seminar group, and it went on for a fuckin’ long time.’
‘University’s still OK, though, isn’t it?’
‘It’s fuckin’ shit. I am so fuckin’ busy with writing essays and taking exams that I have no time to study English.’
‘You sound as fluent as ever from where I’m standing. Anyway, I’ve been speaking too much Japanese lately, so you can practice on me tonight.’
‘Actually, I have a question for you. Do you know the movie American Pie?’
‘Well, I was watching American Pie with my friends the other night, and I was confused. What is the difference between “I’m cool” and “It’s cool”? I thought they had the same meaning.’
Along with a few similar examples – ‘That’s cool’, ‘He / She’s cool’, ‘Stay cool’, ‘Be cool’, ‘Cool it’, ‘Not cool’, and so on – I gave as simple an explanation as I could manage, and Mr Yokohama wrote everything down in his little ring-bound English notebook, which was augmented during the course of the evening with such nuggets of wisdom as how to soften an insult using ‘a bit of a’, as in ‘He’s a bit of a pillock’ or ‘She’s a bit of a muppet.’
Once Mr Yokohama had eaten at Yoshinoya – the kind of fast-food noodle joint I normally chose to avoid – we made our way to the Hobgoblin, one of many English-style pubs to be found in the more touristy areas of Tokyo. Particularly if there are no windows, and therefore no visible neon signs advertising Japanese companies, frequenting such pubs can be uncannily similar to going for a drink with your mates back in the UK. While antipodean staff pull draught beers, pasty-faced foreigners sit on bar stools and watch big-screen Premiership football. The fixtures and fittings are wooden and olde worlde, the lampshades made from fake stained glass, and there are posters on the wall depicting chip-heavy food. The main difference is a palpable undercurrent of tension, as predatory males hover around, competing for the opportunity to chat up whichever local girls happen to have wandered in. The Hobgoblin, The Dubliners and The Hub are the first port of call for any lecherous gaijin looking to pull, and any curious Japanese girl with the same intention, but as is so often the case, the former tend to vastly outnumber the latter. Imported beer is also eye-wateringly expensive, and having offered to buy a round, I found myself with a bill for one thousand nine hundred and fifty yen (at the time nearly ten pounds) for a pint of Carlsberg and a pint of Guinness. Mr Yokohama knew his football as well as any British barfly, and we spent the rest of the evening discussing how ‘fuckin’ cool’ Didier Drogba was, and how the ‘fuckin’ shit’ Japanese team was unlikely to qualify for the next World Cup.