Things I Miss About Japan (In No Particular Order) #4

You can say what you will about smell being the sense that is most powerfully intertwined with memory. I cannot say that because I’ve never had a sense of smell. Regardless, I know that I’m not the only person with deep connections between music and memories. Even before I ever went to Japan I would get deliriously high off listening to J-pop and bouncing around my room thinking “this is what Japan would feel like” and lo, it became true. On my 14-hour flight I made a playlist on my ipod that was essentially what I expected to serve as my “theme music” for the trip. Now on days where I’m feeling particularly nostalgic (i.e.: everyday) that playlist still “sounds” like Japan to me.

Now imagine that while you are in Japan you are handed a microphone and get to sing all your favorite songs while you’re still high off having just been in Japan all day. Also your friends are with you. Also you’re really really drunk. THIS IS REAL LIFE. THIS IS KARAOKE IN JAPAN.

The way karaoke works in Japan is different than American karaoke bars. You get your own private room generally with a table and menus for ordering drinks and snacks. There’s a phone in the room for ordering food so there isn’t someone constantly walking in on your horrendous singing- and you get a phone call ten minutes before your time is up because you are actually too drunk to tell how much time has gone by. All you know is that there’s been a huge TV in front of you that has been playing all your favorite music videos, there’s a microphone in your hand, a fruity mixed drink in the other, and everything has been totally awesome.

The reason the experience is so much more personal in Japan than the embarrassing American counterpart of having to get on stage in front of strangers is because karaoke is a legitimate “thing”. Everyone does it. The Japanese youth, in general, feels little inclination to drink or smoke or do drugs or engage in “adult” behavior while still in junior high or high school. So on the weekends they go to karaoke for wholesome fun with friends. Adults go to karaoke to get hammered. Everyone wins!

I have around 2 hours worth of karaoke footage, all of which makes me cringe and grimace and laugh as a defense mechanism because it’s just that bad. I literally can’t sit through it in silence, and as much as it would be appropriate to throw in a video to make this a more complete entry, I want to maintain the facade that Japanese karaoke is a glamorous, thrilling, wonderful experience with zero consequences. Because when you’re belting out Peach by Otsuka Ai like it’s the last time you’ll ever hear the song in your entire life, that’s what it feels like, and you’ll pull out your video camera and want to immortalize it for your entire life. But don’t. Don’t do that to yourself.

The Japanese have found a way to make every man feel like a god for a few hours, and it is through karaoke.

Oh, Japan.

January 9, 2011
Things I Miss About Japan (In No Particular Order) #3

This entry is supposed to be more of a humorous story than a broad description of some Japanese cultural phenomenon, but quite frankly it’s very telling of, well, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

So we were kind of silly in our planning for the trip and decided to give my dad all of our cash in exchange for a credit card. This lead to a lot of money problems because Japan is very cash heavy and has very few ATMs that will accept American credit cards. On top of that, there was always a limit to how much we could take out at a time. On top of that, we maxed out my credit card within the first 4 days out of 2 weeks. On top of that, we found virtually zero convenience stores, restaurants, or grocery stores that would take credit cards. We had no reason to believe we would make it out of Japan alive, but we were in Japan so even starving was awesome. JUST KIDDING.

This led to a mildly panicked e-mail sent to my dad asking what we were supposed to do next. The next morning we received notice that my dad wired over $500 through Western Union so we hopped a train and made our way over to retrieve our money. All we had to do was fill out a form and we’d be able to eat forever- simple enough, right?

The form posed very little problems- except the code my dad had given us seemed to be 1 digit short. We were told it wasn’t a problem and to come back and fill out a new form once we got the right code. We called it a day and headed back, sending my dad an e-mail asking for the right code.

That was the sum of day 1.

Day 2 we went back to Western Union with our 10-digit code and passport at hand. The code was a success, except a passport does not, in fact, confirm your address. Except I don’t have any other form of government-issued identification. It’s literally impossible for me to prove I live at my house. We were told they didn’t have the power to do anything about it and that my dad could flag the transfer as only needing a passport for identification.

Day 3 our transfer has been successfully flagged and nothing can actually go wrong this time. Except that it can. Because this specific branch of Western Union in Japan opened literally a week ago and there are legal restrictions in place saying that they cannot hand over the money without proof that I live where the transfer is coming from even if it is flagged. They just can’t. THEY. JUST. CAN’T. After having to deal with us for three days in a row they finally suggest that we change the transfer to be in Dylan’s name since he has both his passport and license on him.

Day 4 we present Western Union with a flawlessly filled-out form and 2 forms of identification. We have so much confidence in nothing going wrong this time around that we can literally taste the pork ramen and gyoza just beyond the horizon. We’re making idle conversation about how awesome being able to eat food that doesn’t come out of a vending machine is going to be as the woman at the counter processes the form and makes photo copies of the passport and ID when we hear a very meek “Um…excuse me?” The woman had come back with a noticeably redder face and no inclination to make any form of eye contact.

“Yes?”

“Well, um, you see, um, the photo copier and the shredder? They’re right next to each other, and well, your ID fell…into the wrong one… before we could make a copy of it.”

Maybe it was our teenaged inability to take anything seriously or maybe it was a defense mechanism against the very real idea of DYING if we didn’t get our money today but we genuinely found this hilarious. She was very nearly on the brink of tears as she apologized over and over again for destroying his license and we did our best reassure her that accidents happen and it wasn’t her fault and that seppuku was never the answer, etc etc. Some phone calls were made and at the end of the day, what got us our money was a pool pass with Dylan’s address on it. Go figure.

Before we left we were asked to write down our hostel information so the head of the branch could come by the next day to personally apologize on behalf of the company.

The next day we get a visit from a man and a woman from Western Union. They apologize profusely and explain that they called the DMV in Virginia to find out how much it would cost to replace the license. They say they also did some research to estimate how much public transportation would cost to get to the DMV and decided to give us roughly $100 just to be safe. While the woman gave Dylan a more detailed speech about how sorry the entire company was, the man made small talk with me about how our trip had been.

“We’ve been to Akihabara every day for the past 3 days.”

“Oh, Akihabara is such a modern part of the city. It’s very interesting. Are you interested in animation?”

Fully aware of the cultural stigma on both anime and Akihabara I hesitated to answer.

“Yes, I do, even though as an adult it’s a little embarrassing.”

“Oh! What is your favorite?”

“Fullmetal Alchemist. Have you heard of it?”

“Of course I’ve heard of it! Edward and Alphonse and alchemy and automail- all very cool.”

This Japanese businessman with his expensive suit and corporate haircut didn’t just not hate me for mentioning anime but was literally talking to me about Fullmetal Alchemist. And he was like the CEO of the Western Union branch in Tokyo. My life couldn’t be better.

Except it could. Because on top of a shockingly well-written letter of apology in full English and $100 they also gave us a cake.

A CAKE.

Oh, Japan.

3 years ago