It’s day two in Japan for Devon, and he’s jumping right into the fire with his first training session at Chiron, Japan’s very own English teacher assembly line.
It’s not all robotic memorization of teaching methods and codes of conduct, though. It might as well be the first day of school. That means finding the right place to sit, the right notes to take, and of course, all the pressure of trying to hunt down your new best friend for the next year of your life.
Oh, and ramen. Don’t forget about the ramen.
Where and When to Listen to Forever Foreign, the Fictional Japan Podcast
Looking for episode 1? <- click here!
Want to start with Forever Foreign’s trailer? <- click here!
Looking for the third episode of this Japan adventure? <- Click here.
Episodes from season 1 of Forever Foreign drop every two weeks, and we would LOVE it if you’d subscribe and consider giving us feedback via a review or comment.
You can also find links to your favorite podcast feeds below:
Writing, producing – David Taylor
Sound design, original music – Brock Chrystian
Story Edits – Juan Olivares
Voice of Devon – David Taylor
Voice of Callum – Josh Leach
Concrete footsteps: https://freesound.org/people/GreenFireSound/sounds/480910/
Vending machine: https://freesound.org/people/cmusounddesign/sounds/84710/
Door opening: https://freesound.org/people/JakLocke/sounds/261090/
Chapter 2: How Not to Make a Friend (Transcript)
DEVON: POSTDATED Tuesday, August 6th, 2013
I’m sliding the opening to this entry in with August 6th, but it probably could’ve been at the end of the 5th just as easily. You see, after collapsing on my bed on that first evening, I woke up in the middle of the night, wide awake. At least, I think it was the middle of the night. I didn’t check the clock right away.
I knew the air conditioner was working because any exposed skin was ice cold when I opened my eyes. Peeling back the sheets, I slithered under the blankets, pulling my knees into my chest for warmth.
It was only my first night in Japan, so my head was still on Edmonton Time. I must’ve rolled around for, oh, a couple of hours before I accepted that fact. It was only then that I found the clock installed in a console at the head of the bed. It told me that it was… 12:30 AM, I think.
Knowing that all the dopamine rushing through my brain wasn’t going to allow any sleep, I decided I might as well take advantage of the wakeful state. So I kicked off the covers and got out of bed for my first shower in Japan.
Foreigner, I wonder if your bathroom experience was similar to mine. The hotels in this country really deserve some praise – at least this one did. There were six. different. settings. on the adjustable showerhead, from the weakest one that I dubbed ‘drizzling rain’ to the most powerful, or ‘fire hose.’
Whoever used it before me must’ve had the skin of an elephant, because when I cranked the faucet on it nearly tore mine off. I was like T-1000 taking a shotgun blast to the shoulder from Arnold, my whole left side recoiling from the force of the water. As you can imagine, there was some torque that my feet needed to compensate for, but by that time the tub was already slick with water. Well, I slipped. And the fall was spectacular. Between flailing limbs and head hitting the wall I was lucky to remain conscious. Miraculously, there was no blood, either.
In a daze from the surprise attack, I slouched beneath the jet of water before gathering my wits enough to reach a shaky hand up, changing the setting to something… slightly milder. Eventually I settled on what I would call ‘decontamination.’
Once I managed to wash and dry off I jumped into a fresh white t-shirt and shorts, leaving the hotel with a lump on my forehead.
The second floor promenade that was humming like a beehive a few hours earlier was a ghost town by comparison at that hour. The shops were all closed for the night. Folding metal sheets were pulled down. And the odd person I did see looked to be there only for the pedestrian bridge.
I remember walking up to the ticket gates for the trains, where a digital display suspended from the ceiling held the upcoming schedule. I couldn’t make sense of it at first, but once the red pixels changed from Japanese to English it was apparent that the next trains wouldn’t leave the station until about 6 AM.
Further down, a set of stairs led to the ground floor of the station’s east exit where the first thing I saw was a handful of five or six story buildings across the street with bright signs fixed to the top. On my side of the street was a wide… plaza I guess you would call it? Different colored bricks were arranged in an intricate pattern along the ground, and near the center was a fountain next to a bronze statue… so plaza is the word that comes to mind for me.
The statue was of a heroic looking boy with a youthful face, shading his eyes with one hand as he looked to the distance. At his feet on the right was a dog, on the left was a monkey, and on one shoulder was some kind of a bird. Turquoise oxidation spotted the statue, reminding me of the humidity. As if my clammy skin needed a reminder.
At the sound of laughter I started across the street, and my ears eventually took me to the entrance of a small alley. There was an open-air bar where a handful of people talked loudly as they sipped wine. Opposite was a restaurant called “Long Island Steak” with a similar scene, only with more food. By the way, is Long Island famous for its steak? I don’t think I’ve met anyone from there, so I can’t comment, but I’ve definitely never heard anyone tell me they were dying for “a nice, Long Island steak.” Anyway, every few steps down the street took me to a new establishment, most of them winding down for the evening.
I don’t condone excessive drinking, foreigner, but it seemed like a lovely night to be drunk. There wasn’t a chance of rain, and the quaint little street was so inviting. Jumping into a barstool somewhere crossed my mind, but I thought better of it. My head was foggy enough that speaking coherent English would’ve been a mighty struggle, let alone Japanese.
Actually, as I continued along that backstreet the atmosphere struck me not only as inviting, but also unsettling at first. Pinpointing a reason was a struggle. Of course there was the funny language being spoken by all of the natives – not to mention the presence of the natives in itself. But that wasn’t what was bothering me. It wasn’t until crossing paths with the tenth or so group of people that I figured it out.
I can recall the scene very clearly. There were three handsome young guys and two equally attractive girls, one of whom was being careful not to fall over in her heels. The other girl was suspiciously giggly, and the collective volume of the whole group pegged them as being pretty hammered.
One of the men looked at me, raising the hair on the back of my neck. By reflex, I looked down to avoid eye contact. The last thing I wanted was to show up to the first day of English teacher training all black and blue after getting my ass kicked by territorial men that knew judo. Although I guess I would’ve been bruised no matter what after the ass kicking that the hotel shower gave me.
Anyway, just before I made my submissive gesture the strangest thing happened: The guy turned away. Not to organize a group effort at heckling me. Not to pretend to be defenseless before throwing a sucker punch. None of that. He was totally unconcerned.
I did a double take, and saw that none of the people in the group were acting the least bit hostile. In fact, it seemed like hostility was the last thing on anyone’s minds. That was when I realized what was going on.
Even with all the people drinking in this back street I haven’t seen a single belligerent act, I remember thinking to myself.
There were plenty of people out who’d obviously had too much booze, but none of them were fighting, knocking things over, or hurling aggressive insults at bouncers. That was another thing – there were no bouncers. Can you believe that?
The whole situation was baffling. I was walking alone down an alley full of drunks and hadn’t even been called a dickhead. Pulling out my sheet of things I needed to clear up, I wrote down “No need to fear for safety at night?”
As the glowing hands of my Timex spun around, the drunks dispersed, and soon the people who’d been serving the drunks did, too. I walked until almost 5 in the morning, and by that point it was already light out. If I’d waited a little longer I would’ve seen the station come to life with people boarding the first trains of the day.
Instead, I jumped straight back into the shower. A few hours outside was enough to leave me even grimier than I’d been after making the journey from Canada.
Using cold water instead of hot, I set the shower head to ‘drizzling rain’ and sat down on the floor underneath. The shock of the water made me gasp at first, but it quickly became therapeutic as salt and dirt slid off my skin.
There wasn’t all that much to process from the evening I mean, it was an unremarkable outing by any measure but as the water trickled over my head I found myself viewing and re-viewing the scene from that alley.
I hadn’t met anyone. I hadn’t seen anything. And yet, I felt so… different. It felt like, I dunno… like I was in another country? Ugh, I don’t know why I’m so tongue-tied. It’s just hard to explain. Nothing really happened, but I still feel like it’s worth talking about! I guess, somehow, the simple fact of existing in a place can be thrilling. Who knew?
After cooling down, I dried myself off and slid into bed. Even at that hour I was only starting to get tired, and as I set the alarm I had a feeling I would be exhausted for work. It must’ve been close to 7 when I finally did fall asleep.
Willing myself awake when the alarm rang at 8 was a Herculean task. I had to sit on the edge of the bed for several minutes as the lack of sleep left a potent buzz. Actually, that’s putting it lightly. My head felt like it was stuck in a paint mixer.
Slowly I went about putting on my black suit and white dress shirt, knowing exactly how hot I would be the moment I stepped out of the hotel. Just as I was about to leave I noticed the three neckties in my suitcase. The thought of going tie-less and therefore a little cooler occurred to me, but it was overridden by the voice of my Grandpa saying, “If you’re gonna do something, do it well.” So, I quickly tied the maroon one around my neck, grabbed a notebook and pen from my backpack, and shot out the door.
The map I’d printed off before leaving Edmonton gave me a good idea of where to go. It was a matter of walking out the west exit of the station, going down the main street, and turning into an alley where the building would be on the right.
After five minutes of walking on the busy sidewalk, passing about a hundred people as I went, I had a shine to my forehead. I was relieved and, honestly, a little surprised at how quickly I found the right building given how muddled my brain was. In the entrance hall, a whiteboard greeted me. It read, “Chiron training. 3rd floor.” Before I made my way up I stopped at a vending machine to buy a couple of cold coffees, guzzling one and taking the other with me to sip throughout the morning.
At the top of the stairs there were more white boards, this time with arrows pointing to wide open double doors. Inside the room there were already around two dozen suited trainees, most of whom sat on their own, stiff as an iron rod as they waited for things to get underway. To the left of the entrance was a makeshift reception table with a young Japanese woman standing behind it in a skirt suit of her own. The nametag on her shirt read, “Kaori Mikami.”
“Hello Miss Mikami,” I said. “My name’s Devon.”
She checked me off on a sheet and handed over a thick A4 sized envelope. Her eyes lingered on mine… but not in any kind of a romantic way. No, it seemed like she was trying to decide whether or not my swollen forehead and twitching eye were a figment of her imagination.
“I fell in the shower,” I said, trying to help her reach the right conclusion. “I’m also really tired,”
She seemed to come out of a trance, shaking her head before saying, “You can sit anywhere.”
Foreigner, it’s easy enough to say you can sit anywhere in a room full of strangers, but doing it is a little different. Luckily there were still a handful of empty two person tables, so I at least had a choice; go after a new friend or wait for that new friend to come to me. It was like the first day of school all over again. The longer I stood there the more nervous I got, so I said to heck with it and went straight to the front row.
On the far right side was a handsome young man in a tailored Persian blue suit. His light brown hair was the only thing that belied the rest of his clean-cut image. Not quite curly, it gave no impression of a deliberate perm. It was closer to a scraggly bird’s nest that stuck out at odd angles and had seen attempts to flatten it at others. I tried to focus on that as much as possible, knowing that while his face might be too godly to be seen next to mine, surely the stuff on his head brought him closer to earth.
He lifted his head as I put my notebook on the table. “Looking for a neighbor?” I asked.
“Yeah, have a seat,” he said. Whatever hair-related deductions were made to his overall aura, the accent made up for it and more. I’m the furthest thing from an expert, but I knew that suave cadence was from somewhere in the UK. I’m still working on perfecting his accent, so you’ll have to settle for regular old Canadian for now.
Sitting down, I said, “I’m Devon. What’s your name?”
“Callum,” he said, offering his hand. I can still feel that handshake even now, as strange as that sounds. It was firm enough to surprise, but paired with delicate skin, so soft that I have to admit it excited me as his fingertips pulled away across mine.
As I shook Callum’s hand I noticed his tie for the first time. It was solid black without any pattern to it, and the knot seemed unreasonably symmetrical. When he reached up to adjust the collar of his shirt the tie shifted to an angle that allowed me to see why it was so fishy; it was a clip-on.
I leaned in and said, “I love your tie.”
He looked at me with a raised eyebrow but didn’t say anything, so I added a wink before saying, “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Won’t tell anyone what?” Callum asked, both eyebrows then firmly set in a frown.
“You know,” I started, then said in a whisper, “That it’s a clip-on.”
To his credit, Callum only went a little red. But seeing his embarrassment brought out enough crimson in my own cheeks for both of us.
“I think it looks great,” I said quickly. “I’m considering making the switch myself!”
Foreigner, there are some people who you just seem to know after looking at them once. It wasn’t like that with Callum. I took a chance and threw us into the fire that morning, and in that blazing heat we uh… well, we didn’t exactly forge the beginnings of a friendship. Let’s just say that.
Callum turned away to face the front of the room. I would’ve taken a stab at starting our friendship redemption arc, but the opening of training snatched any chance away. There’d been two gentlemen sitting behind a single table at the front from the start, chatting quietly to each other. The moment the clock struck 9 one of them was on his feet and the room fell silent.
He introduced himself as Kevin Shore, the Chiron West Japan branch manager, and he had a cheerful demeanor. After giving his name and title he said something like, “I like to have a beer or two every night. My favorite brand is Kirin, but that’s mostly for special occasions. It’s much better than Asahi, no matter what my father-in-law says.”
Next, Timothy Taylor gave a very brief introduction, saying, “You can call me Timothy.”
Last was Kaori who was still at the reception table in the back. Sweet Kaori. She had to be asked to speak up twice before anyone at the front of the room could hear a word she said. The expressions on some of the faces of the trainees screamed, “awwwwwh” as she spoke in her bashful manner.
“I’m from Hiroshima,” she said. “My favorite Disney character is… Mickey Mouse.”
She seemed to have trouble deciding… wwwhich I took to mean that Mickey was her favorite among many.
With the introductions over, Kevin stood back up, bringing his hands together. “Now that we’ve introduced ourselves let’s get to know you. Please give us your name, nationality, and your favorite item that can be found in the kitchen and why.”
I remember hearing an audible groan from someone on the other side of the room, but I’m not sure what it was for. I don’t know about you, foreigner, but I love a good ice-breaker. And I’d heard of much worse ones than that.
“Which corner wants to get things started?” Kevin asked enthusiastically.
I think the coffee was starting to kick in around then, because my hand shot up almost involuntarily. Kevin gestured to me as he sat back down, unbuttoning his suit jacket. On my left, you could almost hear Callum roll his eyes.
“Hi everyone,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you all. Kevin, Tim, Kaori, it’s nice to meet you.”
I thought I might’ve heard someone not far away mutter, “Ass kisser.” But I ignored that. What I couldn’t ignore was Tim putting up his hand for me to stop.
“It’s Timothy,” he said. Foreigner, if I sound a little like William Shatner that’s only because Timothy sounds a little like William Shatner.
“Sorry, I thought I said that,” I said.
“No, you used a nickname. No need to shorten things. It’s only three syllables.”
Then he turned to everyone else and said, “I’m only going to say this one more time. Call me Timothy.”
“Sorry, Timothy,” I said. He nodded graciously, allowing me to start the ice-breaker.
“I’m Devon and I’m from Canada. My favorite kitchen item is the wooden spoon. Not the big kind that’s used for stirring things in pots, but the small kind that you eat with. Preferably one that’s kind of crappy looking.”
“I like them because they remind me of a simpler time… A time when there was no mass production… and people lit their homes at night not with lightbulbs, but with candle sticks and only if they were lucky. A time when people carved their own utensils with a rusty knife.”
The other trainees clapped, probably out of politeness, as I sat back down and Callum rose for his turn.
“My name is Callum, and I’m from Australia,” he said, proving me a fool that knows nothing about accents.
“I guess I’ll take the dishwasher because I don’t much like washing dishes by hand.”
Did that even sound anything close to Australian?
More applause followed before we went further up the line of desks. There were inspired responses like garlic crushers and panini presses and area-specific answers like garbage disposals. There was even an emotional monologue from another young Australian man named Leon Rademacher.
Apparently Leon was the sixth of his name. A name that began with his great great… grrreat grandfather? who emigrated from Germany to the land down under in the 1800s. Each Leon inherited the same beer stein on his 18th birthday from the Leon who came before. But Leon the sixth put an end to that tradition when he brought it to a house party and lost it in a drunken fog.
As Leon told the story he broke into tears and had to be consoled by the girl on his left. The trainers at the front seemed to be trying to decide whether or not to continue with the exercise, ultimately deciding that it was the right thing to do. For Leon. The answers were more reserved after that, and the atmosphere in the room was a bit somber when the ice breaker activity had run its course.
Kevin slumped in his chair staring at the ground with a dead look in his eyes for several seconds before Timothy noticed and tapped him on the shoulder. The Japan West branch manager snapped to attention, massaging his face as he got to his feet, seemingly in an attempt to force a bit of joy onto his face.
“Right!” he said. “It’s really great to get to know you all. Really great answers. I’ve never heard anyone mention a beer stein before. Definitely a first!”
Leon visibly bit back fresh tears at that.
“But uuuhhhh, let’s move on with training! You all have packages in front of you. Please open them up.”
A large part of the first morning was dedicated to an education on Japan or maybe a ‘generalization of Japan’ might be more accurate. At any rate, there was a set of notes for it detailing the cultural differences that we were bound to encounter and rub up against.
I’d heard of some of these before, like omiyage, or souvenirs. In Japan, giving gifts is a very important part of the culture, to the point where people tend to buy little treats for all of their coworkers while on vacation. I dedicated a portion of my suitcase to it before leaving Canada.
There were other things that Kevin talked about that were a little less specific.
“Japanese people won’t always be honest with you,” he said at one point with a hint of cynicism. “I’m just gonna be frank. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, because on the one hand you won’t necessarily get yelled at for a teaching mistake. But on the other hand, you won’t get yelled at for a teaching mistake. Do you see what I mean?”
That was met with blank stares.
“What I mean is that with most teachers, you’ll never really get honest feedback if you’re doing something wrong. But that’s what we’re here for. Timothy and I are going to teach you how to do your job so well that you won’t have to wonder. Hopefully you won’t even have to think.”
Most of the, quote, “education on Japanese culture” seemed to boil down to a single message from the man with thinning hair: Be considerate and kind toward the people you work with and remember your training. It didn’t seem very complicated, but we still spent a couple of hours on it.
The morning was rounded out with a small lecture on some of the oddities of Japanese schools; we would have to eat lunch with the kids, clean the halls with them in the afternoons, etc. I was battling a case of the droopy eyelids by then, so I can barely remember.
When we broke for lunch at noon, some of the trainees talked about going to a restaurant around the corner. Knowing how important bonding in the early stages of a relationship is, I wanted nothing more than to join them, especially with how poorly things had gone with Callum so far. But it hardly seemed like I could stay awake through a meal, let alone the training session after. So with a free hour I ran straight to my hotel room.
I slept much the same way that I had the evening before; face down on my bed. Only this time I wore a suit that was slightly crinkled by the time the alarm jolted me awake.
Rubbing my face, I slid onto the floor. I couldn’t decide if napping had done me any good as I sat there staring at the wall, waiting for the fog to dissipate. When it did, I realized that I was hungry.
With how frantic the last day or so had been, I hardly had a moment to spare for the thought of food. And since I would need to run to the training building if I was going to make it on time, I wouldn’t be able to give it much then, either.
The best I could do for nutrition was the leftover Pocky sticks from the airport the day before. As I ran out the door, I stuffed them in my mouth, learning a lesson about humidity in the process. After sitting out for just one night, biting into the cookie rods produced less of a crunch than a sort of soft, wet chew. That and a couple more coffees from the vending machine at the training building was all I had to get me through the rest of the day.
The afternoon session was dedicated to the art of English teaching, or as Timothy repeatedly emphasized, the art of assisting in English teaching. Apparently we would all have an acronym from that day on; ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher.
As Okayama’s head teacher, and someone with a valid teaching license in the state of Washington, it was Timothy’s time to shine. He went over different stages of child psychology as well as fancy terms like ‘constructivism’, telling us how important these are for teaching. There was a distinct sparkle to his eyes as he dove into a subject that he’d spent years mastering. Once, he even slammed his fist on a table, impassioned by the input hypothesis for second language acquisition.
But after about an hour, the tone shifted. With a sigh, he took out some A4-sized flashcards with pictures and words, setting them on the table at the front. He said “Let’s move on. To. assistant teaching technique.” At the word ‘assistant’ he was just short of spitting on the floor.
“One thing I guarantee you’ll all be called on to do. almost daily. is vocab practice,” he said. “I’m going to start. by showing you how not. to perform vocab practice.”
He then labored through an incredibly exaggerated display of someone who looked like they wanted to hang themselves in front of the class rather than pronounce the words on the cards. At the end, he asked what the problem was.
Hands shot up all around from people eager to have their voices heard, my own included. I was still so out of it that I didn’t even wait for Timothy to call on me to say, “You looked really sad.”
Timothy shot a cagey look my way. “Thank you, Devon…”
Someone else jumped in soon after, saying, “We could barely see the cards.”
“You were mumbling,” said another.
By the end of the exchange of opinions there was a list that Timothy had written on the whiteboard. It was titled ‘How to perform quality vocab practice’. I have it written right here. It’s got things like ‘hold the cards at shoulder level’, ‘speak to the people in the back’, and ‘smile’.
Timothy did another, improved, demonstration. By the end, anyone who didn’t know the basics of vocab practice just wasn’t listening. With that, we turned theory into muscle memory, taking turns with different sets of flashcards in partners.
The room erupted as every pair got started. With one eye on the lists on the whiteboard and the other twitching furiously from lack of sleep and four cans of coffee, I put on the performance of a lifetime in my little corner. I don’t mean to brag, but my flashcards were at the perfect height. My voice could’ve projected to the convenience store across the street. And my speed was neither too fast nor too slow. Kevin, Timothy, and Kaori made the rounds in different parts of the room, and I’m happy, and honestly a little surprised, to say that as they watched me I got thumbs up from all three.
When we switched, Callum was on edge. His voice was quieter than before and he wasn’t reading the fruits off the cards, which were hardly visible, by the way.
On my third or fourth caffeine wind of the day, I was more alert to these mistakes than ever, so I stopped him before any of the instructors could see. “Callum, try speaking a little louder. It’s hard to hear,” I said.
With a roll of his eyes, he resumed. His voice was a bit better, but there were still other glaring issues.
“Try reading at different speeds,” I offered.
“The words are upside-down.”
“Callum, you look like you wanna murder me with the apple card.”
At that, he snapped. “Oh, who cares? We only need to fake it,” he said, quiet enough that almost no one else could’ve heard.
I put my hands up in a calming gesture. “You’re right,” I said. “Let’s focus on one thing at a time. Your volume is much better, and reading at different speeds is doing wonders.”
Callum burst into laughter; the first time I’d seen that from him all day. “Come on,” he said. “This is all bloody bullshit, isn’t it?” I’m not just adding ‘bloody bullshit’ in there, foreigner. The phrase painted such a graphic image in my mind that I wrote it down in my notebook.
“You’re probably right,” I said. “Sorry, Callum. I’ve been so nervous all day about making a friend that… Well, sorry Callum.”
“I’m nervous too,” he admitted. “Feels a bit like the first day of school, doesn’t it?”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking!” I said.
He flashed another smile, but just as I opened my mouth to build on that the room got quiet and everyone was settling back down in their seats. When Timothy started talking again it quickly became apparent that all the vocab practice wasn’t just bloody bullshit. It wasn’t healthy bull shit or any other type of livestock excrement either.
“In the morning. on Friday. there’ll be a test,” he announced. “Really, it’s more of a demonstration to see if you’re fit to be an ALT. Vocab practice… will be a part of it. So. make sure you’re comfortable with it.”
Callum took the envelope from his desk and began fanning himself. Just like that, my first day of training had come to an end.
As much as I wanted to go straight back to bed, I knew I had to strike while the metaphorical iron between Callum and I was hot. There was also the fact that those Pocky sticks at lunch were no more than a Band-Aid on a shotgun wound. So I asked Callum if he wanted to get something to eat. He said he’d been eyeing a ramen shop, and that’s exactly (sliding door rattles open) where we… wennnnnt…
(muffled footsteps coming up the stairs outside Devon’s apartment door)
DEVON: Foreigner, I think that might be our favourite Aussie coming in now!
(footsteps, a slight pause as Devon looks out the peephole, door opening)
*Devon walks to look out his peephole and when he sees Callum he opens the door*
DEVON: Callum! We’re ready for you.
(bare footed footsteps leading into the room, door closing, more soft footsteps)
CALLUM: What do you mean ‘ready for me’?
DEVON: Sit here.
(footsteps end, they sit down)
CALLUM: And what do you mean ‘we’?
DEVON: Alright, foreigner, I’d like you to officially meet Callum! Callum, foreigner. Foreigner, Callum.
CALLUM: Who are you talking to?
DEVON: This is my diary!
CALLUM: Oh… Hello diary. Devon’s a dingbat. That what you wanted?
DEVON: Dingbat! That’s great. Is that kinda like calling me a Dongo?
CALLUM: DRONGO. And yeah… They’re pretty much the same thing. Though maybe we can just cut out the middle man and start referring to idiots as Devon’s.
DEVON: Ooooohhh man what a zinger! This is perfect. We’re getting to see the real Callum here. Hey, you remember that ramen we ate in Okayama? I was just telling the foreigner about it.
CALLUM: Why do you keep saying foreigner?
DEVON: Focus, Callum. The ramen. Do you remember the ramen?
CALLUM: Of course I do. Best meal I’ve had so far in Japan!
DEVON: What would you give that ramen out of 10, 10 being the best shrimps on the barbie you’ve ever had.
CALLUM: Why do all North Americans go to that? It’s ridiculous.
DEVON: What should I say instead?
CALLUM: Almost anything else. I like schnitzel.
DEVON: Schnitzel, huh? Gotta admit I would’ve guessed you were going to say almost anything else. Okay, if the best schnitzel you’ve ever had was a 10, what would you give that ramen we had?
CALLUM: 11. You can’t compare the two! The chashu alone… I’ve never had a cut of meat that soft in my life. And the noodles? Fuck me, I didn’t know there was a carb outside of bread that could carry soup like that.
DEVON: There you have it, foreigner. A little teaser for what’s about to come. That’ll be all, Callum.
CALLUM: Excuse me?
DEVON: I’ll catch you later. Super Famicom at 8, right?
CALLUM: Yeah, but-
DEVON: Go on. You wanna leave them wanting more, don’t you?
(Standing up, footsteps)
(More footsteps as Devon shoes Callum away, opens and closes the door, comes back to sit down)
DEVON: Class act, hey foreigner? Where was I? Right, the ramen.
The place we went to was down the same narrow alley as the building that our training had been in. A navy blue curtain, split vertically down the middle and coming three feet short of the ground, hung from a small awning just above the automatic sliding doors. I studied the stylized Japanese writing on the curtain, but there was no making sense of it.
“Ramen,” Callum said.
I turned to him. “Sorry?”
“That’s what the writing says. Ramen.”
“Oh! I guess it makes sense for a ramen shop to have a sign saying ‘ramen.’”
Although there were no customers inside, the place was cramped. There were only two actual tables, the remainder of the seating consisting of stools at a counter that ran along the outline of the kitchen. Callum didn’t even consider the tables, dashing for a seat at the counter instead.
A lady who must’ve been in her fifties came out from an opening next to the cash register wearing a black apron on top of a red shirt. “Irasshaimase,” she called, as if to alert the bald cook behind the counter as much as the customers. It means welcome.
I did my best with the menu in front of me, but it was hopeless, so I turned to Callum for help. He’s quite good at Japanese, it turns out. Better than I am at least. Even if he wasn’t perfect, he knew enough to help me order a big meal; a set that included miso ramen, fried rice, and fried dumplings, or gyoza. On top of that, I ordered a second set of gyoza. Callum went with a single lonely bowl of ramen, some flavor called tonkotsu which I’ve yet to try.
Callum was about to send the server away when I stopped him. “Want a beer?” I asked. He didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“Bi-ru o futatsu kudasai,” I said. Two beers, please.
The woman said something back to us. Some options that I didn’t quite understand. Callum quickly replied and she was off.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Oh, she wanted to know if we wanted a bottle or draft. Usually when you order a beer at a restaurant you say ‘nama’ before beer if you want it from the tap. I just learned that lesson the other night.”
The beers arrived in mugs with the perfect amount of head floating on top. Perspiration had just started to drip down the sides of the glass which was chill to the touch.
“One day down,” I said before tapping Callum’s mug with my own. “I can’t believe I made it all the way through. I feel like I’m about to collapse.”
“Just get in last night?” Callum asked, and I nodded before bringing the beer to my lips. There was a hint of sweetness and almost no bitter as nearly half of the drink washed down my throat.
“Adelaide’s only 2 hours off, but even I couldn’t imagine arriving the night before training,” he said, taking a much smaller sip.
“I don’t think anyone would say planning is one of my strong suits,” I said.
Callum had stopped in Kyoto before Okayama. Seeing Japan’s traditional side was on his list of priorities for that jaunt, but above all else he wanted to see the Nintendo headquarters.
Taking out a big DSLR camera from his bag, he showed me a picture of a massive, gray block of concrete. I was shocked to hear that it was the place that spawned such imaginative creations as Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Actually, I still am shocked!
“I set up camp three straight mornings just as people were showing up for work,” Callum said. “You’ll never guess who I saw.”
I dropped the chopsticks that I’d been playing with. “You didn’t! You saw Mario?!”
“Donkey Kong?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t see any characters. How could I?”
“Well who did you see then?” My shoulders slumped a little.
“Shigeru. Miyamoto,” he said, showing me a selfie that he’d taken with some old Japanese man.
“Shigeru. Miyamoto,” he raised his voice, as if this were just an issue of volume.
Foreigner, when I told him that I didn’t know who that was, I thought that really might’ve ended our last chance at a friendship. Apparently the man was important, but I’d never heard of him.
“He’s my hero,” Callum explained. “And one day, I’ll be working in that same building. First I have to get through this stupid ALT test.”
“You’ll be fine,” I said. “All you have to do is read a bunch of flashcards.”
“If it were a paper test I’d be fine. Those are a breeze. But they’re asking us to perform.”
“Why don’t we see how tomorrow goes before you get too worried,” I said. “Worst case scenario, you do some rehearsing before knocking Kevin and Timothy’s socks off on Friday.”
He hesitated. Then, “Would you help me?”
Here I was thinking I’d come to Japan to teach English, not flashcard positioning. I was taken aback, but honored.
“It’s the least I can do after you taught me how to order a beer,” I said.
We finished those beers quickly and ordered two more that arrived with the food. Two beers that were quickly forgotten as trays and plates were laid out in front of me on the counter.
I didn’t even need to taste the broth in front of me to tell that it was delicious, foreigner. Just by looking I could see that if left for 5 minutes a beautiful greasy film would form across the surface. And the smell! The hot, savory vapors that filled my nose had me salivating.
Floating on one side of the bowl was a marinated egg, and on the other was 3 slices of slow-roasted pork belly the meat that Callum was just telling you about. They were so tender that just prodding one caused it to fall apart. In the center, barely visible beneath the caramel-colored liquid was a mound of thin noodles with a garnish of diced green onions and sea weed.
How to describe the flavor… Well, as I slurped noodles dripping with broth, one word repeatedly came to mind: lavish. The dish was seasoned delicately. It was oily, but not slick. Heavy, but with grace. Every element harmonized to create a gastronomic sanctuary.
I relished that meal, though I finished quite quickly. More people filed in as we sat there chatting, and after an hour or so the place was packed. I dare you to imagine a more idyllic scene for a first meal in Japan.
Full of good food, we paid our bills and stepped back onto the street. Callum asked if I wanted to grab more beers elsewhere, but I knew that the next place I sat down would be where I slept for the night, so I took a rain check.
“Meet you in the hotel lobby tomorrow at 8:30?” I asked.
“Yeah, that sounds great,” he said before heading off toward the east side of the station.
Pleasantly drunk, I walked outside for another hour or so, my only goal to stay awake as far into the evening as possible. I was so drowsy that I don’t even recall the route I took to get back to the hotel.
After showering, I crept into bed wearing only my briefs – it had to have been at least an hour later than the night before. There was crisp new linen stretched tight across and tucked between the mattresses. The chill of clean sheets hit my skin as I slipped in, careful not to untuck them.
Foreigner, have you ever had one of those days that feels more like a week? The kind of day where you work as hard as you can, and by the end you’re about ready to collapse? This was a day like that.
It took me just long enough to fall asleep that I was able to savor that state of complete exhaustion. My body ached and seemed heavy enough with the day’s experiences to make a hole in the bed. It had been a satisfying day, too. One full of firsts for me in Japan. My first day of training, my first beers, my first ramen. And most important of all, my first friend.