Strong Swaying

Okay, I confess: I am not a very devout blogger. I haven’t touched this in 7 months, which means I have about 5 months of backlogged adventures that may or may not remain untold (some of the recent ones may still make it in, though, in one epic, hopefully upcoming blogging marathon to be held at a later date). Of all the adventures so far (for a short list: Osaka, Kobe twice, Nara Park any number of times, Tokyo, Nagoya [a solo adventure], Kyoto several times, bike shopping, a potentially broken toe)–as an aside, I navigate these purely with a six-month-old’s Japanese vocabulary (and no smart phone, iPhone, or other connection to Google Map unless accompanied by a carrier), I have for the most part gone looking for the adventure. Yes, even the broken toe part.

But sometimes, the adventure finds you when you least expect it.

There I was at 5:38 on a Saturday morning. I was minding my own business and placidly awaiting the beginning of my welcome Saturday chaos (I often teach 8 classes on Saturday, which is fun and rewarding but at the same time admittedly tiring) when suddenly–we all know where this is going, right?

When suddenly, it happened.

At the aforementioned time, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter Scale occurred in Hyogo Prefecture. I know because the internet told me so. Hyogo is separated from Nara prefecture by Osaka prefecture. The distance between Awaji Island (the site of the earthquake) and Nara city is about 82 miles by the shortest driving route. A distance calculator says that there are about 78 miles between the site of the earthquake and Nara City. Facts aside, I’m stunned that I could feel anything happening that far away.

For those of you who have experienced an earthquake before–perhaps you live on the San Andreas Fault in America–you are not a stranger to the feeling I am about to describe. For those of you who come from a place where tectonic activity and events seldom if EVER interfere with your daily life–in other words, if like me, you are from Michigan–then what I am about to describe will probably not make sense, but I will do my best to capture my feelings at the moment so those of you traveling in Japan will understand.

Like any normal human being, I was sleeping when it happened. I don’t have any sort of alert system on my phone, so I woke up to the single strangest sensation I have ever felt. The sound of the sliding closet doors rattling was what did it. Once I jolted into full consciousness, I became aware that my entire apartment is moving. It felt sort of like a boat rocking, only without that kind of sickly feeling you get in your stomach on a day with strong waves. The best phrase I can coin is “strong swaying” (which is a bit of an oxymoron because it felt a little jerky and “sway” possesses such a calm image).  Along with this strange new sensation came a lingering wave of panic. So… this is an earthquake? I thought. Will the building cave in around me? How strong is this on the Richter Scale? It has to be at least a four… It’s a bit odd, but I do have complex thoughts like this just after waking up, especially since I am anything but a morning person. I briefly contemplated my safety. Well… I could go stand in the doorway between my kitchen and bedroom… (as an aside, I never once considered the fact that I was on the second floor of my apartment building). I only consider this option for a moment before thinking, …but honestly, I can’t be bothered. I’m too tired. I’ll just lay here until it stops. It did stop after about a minute or two. Unlike the sudden onset (or perhaps I only think it’s a sudden onset because I woke up in the middle of it), it tapered off with nothing more than one last hiccup. After fifteen minutes, I feel back asleep and proceeded to have a chain of nonsensical dreams about people at work telling me it wasn’t real, about experiencing aftershocks more crushing than the original, about people dying and about it being an 8.2 on the Richter Scale… but when the alarm rang, although I was fatigued from having my REMs disrupted for the third Saturday in a row (last week, it was my own fault–I really do worry too much about my job sometimes, and for no reason at all), I got up and taught my eight classes and told everyone about the thoughts going through my head at the time. All of this makes the experience of Sologaijin’s first ever earthquake.

And here is the beauty of the experience.

It’s so ironic that I spend every moment of my day worrying about my teaching performance, my sanity, and my overall state of well-being, but in moments of pure chaos, I tend to react with a completely level head. I’ve been in situations like this before, only with tornadoes and waterspouts in the twos and threes, and I was totally calm until I cut my foot open in the bathroom. It’s so funny that I spend moments where nothing is wrong wondering and worrying about getting fired, about my future career path, and about getting ill or dying, but in the face of a potentially deadly situation, I shrug any risk of death off and throw the covers back over my head.  The everyday fazes me more than the extraordinary. And that sort of irony, that sort of complacency, is just the sort of damnably laughable thing about the inside of my head.

It’s also just the sort of thing I could only really come to learn and appreciate about myself by moving 7,000 miles from home and taking a job in a country where I don’t speak the language. So, for anyone planning to follow in my footsteps, for anyone looking for an adventure, be prepared to learn new things about yourself, about what you can endure and what you can’t, about you being your own worst enemy at times. Be prepared to appreciate–and even miss–what you left behind. Be prepared to take things for granted. But more than anything, expect the unexpected, and after the unexpected lulls to stillness once more, stand still with it. You can savor and enjoy after the world around you and the world inside you remembers to start moving again.

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The Consequences of my Lack of Sleep: Tales from a Japanese Clinic

Monday morning after my Kobe adventure, I was pretty much dead to the world. I slept 10 and a half hours and still felt groggy. Worse still, I had *that* taste in my mouth.

Let me explain. Since I was 13 or 14, I have been prone to sinus infections, particularly when the seasons change and the temperature drops (or rises) significantly. The odds of me getting sick increases exponentially when my body undergoes a surge of relief after a long period of stress. Having been in Nara for four or five weeks now, it was beginning to feel like home, and after last night’s misadventure, I was completely run down. Still, Caroline was coming to visit, so I did my best to look alive even if I didn’t feel it. But the way I can tell if I’m getting sick is actually not a stuffy nose or the itch in my throat. It’s this strangely stale taste in my mouth. Once that happens, I cue the big pot of soup and prepare myself for a disembodied state of mind.

“You look terrible,” she told me.

“I feel terrible.” We went to a crepe cafe, which I enjoyed because of the Earl Gray, did some shopping at Daiso, and worked a bit. She left early. I returned to my apartment… and proceeded to enter a state of zombiehood.

The next day was no better. At the beginning of the work week, I was so completely out of it that I didn’t even feel like I was living the life I was. I was coughing a lot, and I couldn’t breathe. My throat was also getting sore. My coworkers were worried, and so were my students. The assistant manager suggested I go to the hospital, but I didn’t think it was severe enough for that. Nonetheless, I told her I would consider it if I didn’t feel better in the morning.

Wednesday, I felt even worse, so I decided, for the sake of my students, to visit the hospital. Oddly enough, what the Japanese people call a hospital is sometimes not a hospital. Where I went was more of a walk-in clinic. The entire trip took 40 minutes, and the end result was this:

Japanese Pharmacy

How many drugs does it take to cure the common cold? In Japan, OVER 9,000!!!!!1

The doctor there diagnosed me with a common cold (the same one my coworker had) and prescribed me four pills,  none of which I know the names of. The one at the left and the one with the blue wrapper were to be taken twice a day with breakfast and dinner. The one at the right was once a day with breakfast. And the nasty looking packet of disgusting white dust was to be taken with liquid at every meal. I could deal with all of the pills since they were small, but that powder… it tastes like the vinyl things my dentist puts in my mouth to take my x-rays. In other words: absolutely disgusting. More than once, I asked my head teacher why, for the love of God and all things Holy, the Japanese could build robots and engineering feats like Sky Tree but couldn’t condense that white powder into an easy-to-swallow pill.

Four medications, seventeen gallons of tea, a plate of level 3 curry from Coco Ichiban, and one week later, I finally felt like a human being again, and there is nothing that feels quite so good as that.

Japanese Lesson 1: Take Everything with a Dab of Wasabi

There are some moments when you just have to look like a complete idiot.

Today, I moved into my apartment (I am writing this the day I moved in, even though it wasn’t posted until later). It’s a nice place… a regular little rabbit hole. The bedroom is spacious, but the kitchen is pretty small. Nonetheless, it’s the place I’m going to call home, so I’m making the best of it. Two minor panic attacks and three hours later, I have finally finished unpacking, so I sit down to plan my lessons and wait for someone to deliver my futon.

Three more hours later, I am still waiting. It’s 8:30 pm. The branch school closes at 9:00. What am I supposed to do?

I settle on venturing out. I need a good rest tonight so I can be at the top of my game tomorrow. I slip on a pair of shoes and begin trying to track down the nearest payphone, carrying nothing but my inert iPad, my wallet, a map of to the school with the school’s phone number, and a sheet of paper I got for the train ride with a very useful phrase on it:

公衆電話はどこですか。

Koushuu denwa wa doko desu ka?

(Where is a payphone?)

On my way out, I see my mailbox is glutted with coupons. I reach in to dig them out, then draw back. Wonderful. I have cut my finger deeply on a mailbox. I have no band-aids, and no antiseptic (I am not man enough to  try the cherry-blossom hand sanitizer on my table/desk). So, now I have to find a payphone and a band-aid. I walk around sucking the blood off of my finger, and I eventually find a Lawson by the train station. They have no payphone, but I still buy band-aids partly to show my gratitude, and partly because the girl helping me kept saying daijobu (are you okay). I bandage myself up and keep going. I’ve only got twenty minutes before the branch school closes.

A 7-Eleven by the train station proves equally useless. The clerk seemed a little rude when I asked her if she spoke English, but perhaps it was simply my frame of mind. Another failed attempt later, I am on to the Nara Information Center. The woman there was kind, and she pointed me to a payphone just outside.

By now, I am of course flustered beyond all reason and praying for someone who speaks English to answer the phone. A few seconds later, I am explaining my situation to one of the teachers there, who says, “Okay. Can you call back in five minutes?” I begrudge the loss of yen, but I really don’t have a choice. I need a futon to sleep on.

I try to call home. No luck. I can’t figure out how to exactly. I take a walk around the plaza in front of the office, contemplating dinner and lesson plans. Five minutes later, I call back and receive a rather bizarre request: “The company did not answer, but can you come to the branch school?”

This is a joke, right? Some sick, twisted little delusion I’ll wake up from in five minutes. It’s Nara at 9:00 pm, and I have the navigational skills of a blind, deaf, and dizzy cockroach. It’s dark. I can barely read the map. Am I lost? I’m lost. I’m so lost. It’s hopeless.

And then, there comes a little ray of light. No. I’m not lost. I’m walking the right way; I just don’t recognize anything. I can’t read names, but I can count traffic lights.

And thus, by an ingenious stroke, I wind up discovering that I am not entirely inept at navigating Japan, and I am now one futon closer to a good rest.

These are the kind of things you have to laugh about. One of my fellow trainees said her goal in Japan was to enjoy every moment. I confess I didn’t enjoy feeling lost. I enjoyed realizing that I wasn’t lost at all.

Just another day in Japan and another dab of wasabi.