Monday, August 23, 2004

Tea House of the August Moon


any of my students are going to Japan to study or to work in the Jet program. I think that most of them are leaving this month. Many of them are excited, some even too excited that it's turning into stress. Well, chill out dudes. It'll work out. I was sorta stressed out when I first went, too. I mean, heck--new country, new culture, new language--who wouldn't be stressed. But the bottom line is that Japan is about the most accomodating country for non-native speakers. So don't sweat it.

Virtually, all signs in train stations are written in Japanese script and romanization. Virtually all signs, documents and brochures at government offices have English versions. Okay, so the English isn't always perfect, but it is a lot better than *ahem* some governments I know...

Anyway, thinking of my students made me think of the first time I went to Japan to study. I first went to Japan in 1974 to visit relatives and stayed there for about four months. I went again in 1979 for about a month when I won the singing contest. But I didn't really exprience Japan until I lived there by myself in 1984. I was a graduate student at UCLA working towards an MA in East Asian Cultures with a focus on Japan (duh).

I wanted to improve my Japanese and was fortunate to receive a Mombusho (Japan's Ministry of Education) grant to study at Waseda for a year. I also received ・140,000 yen a month stipend, plus a little more for non-campus/dorm housing. That doesn't sound like a lot nowadays, and indeed, even back then, it was not a whole lot. But it paid the rent and kept me fed... barely. I had taken about $1000 with me which was more than ・200,000 back then. But when I rented a small one room structure with a bathroom @ ・40,000 a month, I had to pay two months as a deposit, two months for key money (that scam that forces you to pay the landlord money in appreciation for them letting you rent the place), one month to the real estate company that listed the property, and first month rent. That's 6 months rent, which works out to ・200,000, and just about cleaned me out. I would receive my stipend from the Ministry once a month but the first installment would take a while as I would have to first set up a bank account and then report it to the school who then had to complete the necessary forms to be sent to the Mombusho. Japan's bureacracy can be such a headache. Anyway, during my first couple of weeks in Japan, I lived on the ・30,000 they gave me as "settling in" money, and the charity of my friends. I'm glad I had friends in Tokyo.

I remember the first few months in Japan on my own were a struggle. I bought food at Seiyu, the supermarket at my train stop, Nishi-Ogikubo, and walked 17 minutes home to my little shack in Zenpukuji. I had no washing machine, but fortunately, right when even I couldn't stand the smell of my unwashed clothes, I found a coin laundry about three blocks away on the other side of the Zenpukuji River. Well, it's not really a river. Zenpukuji River looked more like a drainage ditch, and it was. It was to ensure that the lake in Zenpukuji Park never flooded the surrounding areas during heavy rains.

Anyway, the place I stayed in was previously a six-mat tea room that the owner decided to add a bathroom and rent it out as a bungalow of sorts. It was a cool place to live, as every Japanese person who came to visit thought they had been transported back in time. The outside looked a bit shabby, an old wooden structure similar to one you'd see in any black and white film from the 50s. But it had a small veranda and a plum blossom tree in front--where I heard my first nightengale. It was also incredibly drafty, and the indoor temperature was always the same as it was outside. I found the place through an Ogikubo real estate agent. I had gone with a UCLA friend who lived int he area and was kind enough to do most of the talking for me: My Japanese skills were still in its formative years and I was unfamiliar with much of the terminalogy regarding rents and contracts. I remember the agent talking to the landlord over the phone and trying to reassure her that even though I was an American, I was in principal Japanese. I did not know then that there was a bias against non-Asians when renting. Indeed, according to some of my students, this bias continues to varying degrees.

Image of gas stove

The tea house was an unfurnished one-room, six-mat flat. The kitchen was really a small area on the side accupying a space that was probably the rooms alcove--toko no ma--in its previous life. It had a stainless steel sink and small counter and and eve smaller space to place a gas burner to cook. I scrounged around a Ogikubo, a suburb of Tokyo near the house, looking for deals, and found an old-model Mitsubishi TV for ・12,000 and a used refridgerator--the mini-size most people over here use as a kegerator--for ・5000. It wouldn't fit into the kitchen space so I had to postition it in the corner of the room on top of a tatami mat. I put a board underneath it to give it some stability and it worked fine.

I also bought a futon comforter, TV and a radio-cassette player. Everything else I borrowed from my friend's mother. She was so nice to me and supplied me with everything I needed, incuding extra bedding (sheets, pillows), towels, rice cooker, pots and pans, cooking and eating utensils, a gas stove, gas burner and the one essential item to complete any home, a kotatsu, the heated table. Without these necessities of life, I would not have survived the winters in Tokyo, particularly in a drafty house.

Cont'd tomorrow...

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