“Play something. Make it Dolly Parton, just don’t tell me who it is,” Marcus said, “I need to come organically.” The three of us – Luke, Marcus, and I – were sitting in the latter’s room for about the fifteenth time over the past week since arriving at Maison Iwakuni. “Wait—no, that’s not what I meant,” Marcus objected. Luke and I paused, looking at each other, then broke out in laughter. It was a small life-raft in the sea of everything else since arriving.
ONE WEEK PRIOR
I was reminded, thinking about the name of our dorm Maison Iwakuni while I walked to the post office to be picked up and taken to said dorm, about Rumiko Takahashi’s manga Maison Ikkoku. I’d read it a couple of years ago, and the name had stuck in my head. Protagonist Godai is a layabout ronin (needs to retake his university entrance exams the following year) infatuated with the young female owner/caretaker of his housing complex, called Kyoko and Maison Ikkoku respectively. Maison Ikkoku is in constant disrepair, which is fine since it’s cheap enough for a poor student like Godai.
Back in reality I turned the corner, hauling the suitcase from hell behind me toward Marcus, who I hadn’t seen since the summer holidays began. He was waiting with his own properly-wheelèd suitcase. Maison Ikkoku slipped from my mind, replaced by Maison Iwakuni. I may have been, and am, a poor student, but I knew a private college like Doshisha would never let their exchange students stay in a cheap, dirty apartment complex like Godai’s.
“Oh my God, thank God you’re here. Someone I know. I was really afraid of— I don’t know, that you weren’t going to come? Anyway, you’re here, but the volunteer’s nooot….” Marcus dragged out the last syllable. I let the two counts of blasphemy slide.
“Yeah. Um, hi.” I said. “Hey, your luggage has proper wheels and a handle on it!”
“Yeah, you jealous, fam?”
“Mine’s awful. First thing I did walking down Hachijōdōri when I got off the limousine bus last night, literally I said stuff like 「地獄だ。絶対地獄だ。」Really cool lines, like that.”
“Sure you did.”
“Lucky my hotel was nearby, but still.”
--Did I thank you for booking the hotel yet, Mika? I think I did. But thanks again.--
“This volunteer guy or girl…” I continued, “are we getting picked up, like, in a van? A car?”
“I don’t know Simon, I don’t— I don’t knowww” Marcus made what can only be described as a Marcus sound, a nasal vocal fry with an edge of campy nerves. He’s German, alright? Lay off.
As it turned out, the pick-up service was a volunteer who walked us from Kyōto Station to our accommodation. By ‘walked us’, I mean we walked in between bouts of what was clearly my early-stage arthritis flaring up, hauling behind and in front in equal measure, my hell-luggage. I made us stop every twenty metres, is what I’m saying. We halted at a fair few traffic lights. My hand burned with the incandescence of a thousand angry suns. Our volunteer said close to nothing, but did offer to take my guitar case. All but the journey passed interminably. The road did not, would not, cease. Until it did. Suddenly, as the scales fell from my eyes, stood before we three silhouetted figures in august majesty the derelict grotty building that I was promptly informed would be our accommodation for the year please and thanking you never call us for repairs bye-bye.
Volunteer Mr Too Cool, or TC, as we dubbed him, watched me drag Satan’s personal Gucci-line suitcase up four floors, unlocked room 412, and silently motioned for me to go inside. Marcus was on the same floor, but was to be dealt with later. Taking the guitar from TC, I placed my belongings down in the centre of the room. It was a little dark, despite the midday lack of overcast. TC checked that I had a pot and pan, checked them literally off a paper list, handed me the keys, handed me a tan envelope, told me to pay the month’s rent at the post office somehow, made hand gestures that suggested the proper method of rent payment was a virgin sacrifice to the Aztec god Incatzcoatl, and left. Get draught-stop for the metal door, I made a mental note, it makes a loud clang when it closes.
TC was gone. Mote particles swirled, danced in the stratified half-darkness, illuminating as they passed through each fanned-out strip of light allowed by the curtains, and alighting on the tips of my fingers. I turned, around in increments, searching the bare room for something, anything, maybe anyone. Completing the revolution brought me face-to-face with the door again. There was no escaping one, unutterable fact. I was alone.
LA CASA DE SÍMON
In the end, grievances all tallied up by the various students who had arrived and whom we quickly got to know, Maison Iwakuni was on par with the fictional Maison Ikkoku. My carpet clearly hadn’t seen a vacuum in weeks, my hotplate wouldn’t get hot enough to boil a pot of water, Marcus’s bathroom had mould in it, his carpet was similarly a lint-based Armageddon, Rosanne (who you’ll meet) had no light into her room, the lift at Maison Iwakuni didn’t work, everyone’s air-conditioners had mould in them, and Luke’s room had… ah, wait.
Here is the thing: I didn’t even know Luke was in the same dorm complex as us. He hadn’t contacted me over the summer break, didn’t say what his choices of accommodation were, and then suddenly the day after Marcus and I arrived at Maison Iwakuni, I walked down to the first floor to join the morning orientation and lo and behold there he stands, in the usual entirely-black getup. So that was a surprise. Luke and I had been divorced for about a year, and all it took to make up was grinning across the hall at each other when we both realised we were here in Japan together.
Luke’s room had sodden mould across the walls. Since Whatsherface Mori-san, the exchange coordinator, was at the orientation, we brought up a few of these grievances. The wall mould was cleaned, and that was it. Smiles galore, courteous half-bowing, abundant apologies, then no action on anything else. The Japanese way.
Marcus’s German grandmother, Oma Heidi as he would say, had travelled with him to Japan. The three of us went shopping for some of the basic essentials that Doshisha University obviously felt were not basically essential to a room: crockery, cutlery, an electric kettle, basic groceries, manga tools.
It was impossible to tell which shops, which areas of Shimogyo-ward, had what we needed. Whether the prices would be high, low, whether searching farther afield would give a better deal on an item. Aeon Mall is famous in Japan. There is one near Kyoto Station. It helped a little, but not much. Where do you go if you don’t know where to start? How do find out what you don’t know that you don’t know? We had been thrust into a world where a Clausewitzian fog of war held relevance. But this wasn’t war. This was survival. The only enemies were a lack of resources, and hunger, and ourselves. So okay, kind of like war. Japan nearly invaded New Zealand once, you know? It was sort of similar to that. Maybe fewer war crimes.
The frustrations began to eat away at me. Soon even the reality of a cash society, the lack of EFTPOS, was a capital grievance. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I couldn’t get it back – I couldn’t get back what I had been anticipating.
It didn’t seem to matter that the fragile glass edifice I had constructed within my mind of an interesting life in Japan, of delicious cheap food, and advanced technology, of an exotic culture, had shattered. I grabbed at the fragments desperately. Holding them up to reflect some light, any light, to illuminate the closing darkness. It didn’t matter. I succeeded only in cutting myself on the edges of a stupid lie I had led myself into.
Oma Heidi, Marcus, Luke and I took a trip to Kiyomizu Temple (清水寺). As we walked past Kyoto’s central river, bunting criss-crossed the streets, festooned with sakura-based advertising. Everyone was celebrating the Springtime, though it was bitterly cold outside.
The annoying thing about Kiyomizu-dera is that although it’s a heritage site, maintenance doesn’t seem to be funded by the Japanese Government. It’s still run by monks, meaning a ticket fee at the entrance. To get in to a heritage site, meant for the common good of all, I was essentially paying some monk’s salary and a tithe to Zen Buddhists. Anyway, we just walked around for a bit and it’s not interesting, so here are some photographs I took of possibly the most photographed temple in Japan:
On the way back down the slope, tired and cold, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Marcus pulled me to the side of the street, out of the throngs of people issuing from the temple. We were beside a vending machine. He gestured. “This one’s a lemon drink, it’s hot, and it’s amazing. Subarashii, Simon, now hurry up and buy it and tell me what you think.”
I fumbled briefly with the microcosm of Japan’s numismatic insanity inside my wallet. Slotted the coins. Clink, clink. There was a plastic click as I pushed the pulsating blue button for Suntory Lemon, and something metal fell with a thud into the lower tray. It was warm. Enough so that I took my gloves off to stop hand sweat. It was – it was subarashii. And I mean in that in the most un-ironically weaboo misuse of Japanese adjectives possible. Suntory lemon flowed as liquid honey down my throat, heat settling in my chest before vein-spidering outward to fill every extremity, head-to-toe, with a comforting warmth. The drink alone was turning my opinion of Japan back. I looked at Marcus and let him know of my revelatory experience in the way only a New Zealander can express the breadth of their emotional epiphanies.
“Yeah, not bad.”
We walked home. Contentment in Japan, maybe even happiness, seemed a little more within reach.
THE PRESENT TIME THEN (BUT NOT ANYMORE)
AKA ONE WEEK LATER
Intrusive reminders of home, however tenuously-connected, began to creep in. I briefly thought I heard my cat back home MacGyver, but it was just a truck siren outside. That was the rub: thinking of New Zealand as home. This apartment was a break, a separation from where I felt I was meant to be. If I looked up from the bed, awoke in the morning, it was an unfamiliar ceiling.
Somewhere around this time, Luke and I went out to find steak. More correctly, Luke wanted steak. I adjusted to a Japanish diet within a couple of days, since I didn’t exactly have a satisfactory or healthy diet back home that would be in any way hard to let go of. I didn’t care if we found steak or not. We forgot that Japan’s primary industry is not dairy and meat, meaning those things are way more expensive, and in the case of steak, near-impossible to find. A different day we found steak by accident – being served at the om-rice and parfait place which Luke and I realised too late was frequented almost solely by Japanese school-girls, making us look… well that’s another story for another time. Maybe I shouldn’t tell that one.
Marcus’s room, 405, became the de-facto base of operations for the core group of newbies at Maison Iwakuni. Later, the Californians would arrive; for now, it was us. From there we planned how to possibly pay for the multitude of bills and fees at myriad post offices and banks, each with different methods of payment. How to fill out the paperwork having been given no instructions, how to survive Japanese bureaucracy. We talked, made dinners together, eat, drank, and tried hard to be merry. The problem was that each time we all had to go our separate ways, back to our rooms, dark in the night, probably to wake up just as uncertain about anything in the morning.
After Marcus made the Jolene gaffe one night, and Luke and I had laughed a little too hard at juvenile innuendo, it was time to retire. Luke went to his room on the third floor, and I to mine on the same floor as Marcus’s. When I walked into 412, the metal door closed with a clang as usual. I had shut out the outside world. And really there was no escaping that one, unutterable fact: that I was alone. Thinking back over it all since arriving, I realised that the circumstances we’d been dropped into didn’t have to define the outcome. I was alone, but I could choose to do something about it. I put my coat down in the darkness, and turned on the light.